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Outer Politics, Inner Politics, and Insight Meditation

by Matthew Daniell

(Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper on March 2, 2019)

We look at the politics in the news these days and see division. This divide exists within the organizations where we work and even in our family lives. There can be a sticky attachment to our own opinions and an unexamined rejection of the views of others.  Due to this we may have feelings of detachment, mixed with anger, separation and hopelessness. This is stressful and causes mental, emotional and even physical suffering. In this ever changing technological world the problem seems to be getting worse not better. The cost to the quality of life is great and often unquestioned. The Buddha described this as unwise clinging and a source of unnecessary suffering.

So why do we hold so tightly to our views and opinions when they cause us suffering?  This is because we often feel security when we identify exclusively with a political camp; there’s a feeling of connection and a sense of belonging. In situations where others hold a different view, we may push them away or become detached. This may make us feel more comfortable and self-righteous but it causes conflict; it results in ineffective problem solving in our private lives and in the world.

The Buddha described, with the practice of Insight Meditation, a path to reliable sources of belonging without rejecting the views of others.  Simple mindfulness skills may help us work with outer politics, our inner politics, and the natural link between the two. How does this work? 

In Insight Meditation we steady our attention by cultivating present moment awareness. Often we start by simply observing the natural breath in sitting meditation and by taking mindful pauses and tuning into our senses in the midst of our daily lives. Once this capacity grows we can find a healthy sense of non-attachment and space in relation to our own inner conflicts and agendas (inner politics).  This becomes the foundation for applying the same skills in outer relationships where there are competing agendas (outer politics).  We learn to observe patterns of reactivity without clinging. There is a natural kindness and respect in this present moment awareness. This can also bring a sense of natural closeness with those we had previously felt guarded against.  Why?  Because we no longer feel a need to hide behind a wall of our own views and opinions.

Here is a personal example:  Sometimes in my life there are a lot of competing agendas; at home, at work and in other areas of life.  I may struggle emotionally when I find out that others are not 'in my camp’ on a particular issue. I tend to disconnect from, or become a bit pushy with, those involved.  In these situations I have learned it can be very helpful to pause and to take a few mindful breaths, or to just relax and be aware.  It is much easier then to see the layers of my own personal agendas and reactivity at work inside of me. I become a bit more open and clear.

This helps me to skillfully affect change when I can and be more patient and accepting when I cannot. It also allows me to connect as a human being to those holding a different opinion.  I become more open hearted and sincere. I begin to relate to them as normal people going through their lives with struggles and joys; natural empathy may arise. Sometimes, I find myself actually liking them and forming authentic connection. Part of me may go back to the idea that I cannot connect with them because they are ‘wrong’. Then the inner openness and security arises and I realize that I have my views and they have theirs. I still think I am right but that is an opinion. I still act from my values; I do not become weak. I just see that they are people and this is my life in this moment; they need to be respected and the situation needs to be dealt with in realistic terms.

When we are no longer at war with the circumstances of our life, we can give space to ourselves to be as we are.  We can connect with life and others in a much more balanced and satisfying way.  Insight Meditation is just one of many marvelous ways of discovering inner calm. Its open wisdom aspect creates the conditions for a very different world inside and out. Working skillfully with our inner politics can lead to a different relationship with our outer politics.  At times, when clear present moment awareness is strong, there are no politics at all. There is just life, to be lived fully in the here and now.

If you would like to explore this possibility for yourself please come and join us at the Insight Meditation Center of Newburyport.