Quaker Universalist Conversations

Elections, emotions & open space

Skandha mara1 is how we react when the rug is pulled out from under us…. We don’t know what’s going to happen next or even where we are. Then we re-create ourselves. We return to the solid ground of our self-concepts as quickly as possible. Trungpa Rinpoche used to call this “nostalgia for samsara….”
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön http://www.shambhala.com/when-things-fall-apart-1641.html
[This] process does not have to be considered an obstacle or a problem…. We can allow ourselves to be inquisitive or open about what has just happened and what will happen next. Instead of struggling to regain our concept of who we are, we can touch in to that mind of simply not knowing, which is basic wisdom mind. (68-69)

—Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart:
Heart Advice for Difficult Times

In his article2 for the pre-election November issue of The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf recalls how Barack Obama critiqued the notion of red states and blue states in his 2004 convention speech:

I’ve got news for [you] … We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got gay friends in the red states … We are one people.

Friedersdorf follows this with a comment about the 2016 election:

I’m nostalgic for the days when the country appeared united, or at the very least united in halves. Today, people who recently seemed as though they were on the same team are at odds.

Many of us are in a panic about the loss of that seeming orderliness of two sides in a football game. We want desperately to get back into that game, because we don’t know the rules of the new one.
Vine Pema Chödrön writes:

When everything falls apart and we feel uncertainty…, what’s left is a mind that is clear, unbiased, and fresh. But we don’t see that. Instead, we feel the queasiness and uncertainty of being in no-man’s-land and enlarge the feeling and march it down the street with banners that proclaim how bad everything is….

When really strong emotion comes up, all the doctrines and beliefs that we’ve held on to seem kind of pitiful by comparison, because emotions are so much more powerful.

So what began as an enormous open space becomes a forest fire…. We use our emotions…. We use them to try to deny that in fact no one has ever known or will ever know what’s happening. We use them to try to make everything secure and predictable again, to fool ourselves about what’s really true. (69-70)

What in the world is she talking about?!

In another November Atlantic article3, Molly Ball quotes Avik Roy, a disaffected Republican advisor who had hoped to bring back his party’s traditional pro-trade, pro-immigration, pro-small-government ideology:

Trump showed me that white identity politics was the dominant force driving the Republican grass roots…, [that] the conservative grass roots viewed questions of national identity with far more priority than questions of economic policy.

It is a basic animal survival mechanism to label what we perceive in terms of “us” and “them.” No species would last if it could not discern who was kin to welcome and who as predator to fight or flee from.

Humankind carried this instinct over into its tribalism, and tribalism—aka “identity politics“—is what is destroying us today across the globe.

Many of us are horrified by the November election, others elated. We know how brutal tribalism can be. We know how righteous and empowered tribal victories can make us feel.

"Waves," by Mike Shell www.redbubble.com/people/crippledwolf/works/9145574-waves
So what is this open space, this clear, unbiased, fresh mind that Pema Chödrön is writing about, and what does it have to do with the present moment?

If I feel uncertain and threatened—even if I am momentarily prosperous and secure—and you and I both identify you as being of a different tribe, you look like danger to me. I don’t see your uncertainty and sense of peril, and you don’t see mine. What we both see is “the enemy.”

If I am on the blue team, I now imagine a “fascist takeover.” If you are on the red team, you now imagine that you have “taken back America.”

But this is no game. Tribes, ideologies, identities are all imagined boundaries which have nothing to do with the enormous open space of reality.

When things fall apart, there is just us, all huddled here together in the same boat, wondering whether to get to know and take care of each other, or to push each other overboard.

Notes & Image Source

1 “The Sanskrit word skandha literally means a group, a heap, or an aggregate. In Buddhist tradition, the five skandhas of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness are taken to constitute the entirety of what is generally known as ‘personality’.” —“Heart Sutra: Buddhism in the Light of Quantum Reality

2Making Up Is Hard to Do,” by Conor Friedersdorf, in The Atlantic (November 2016)

3Saving Conservatism from Trump’s GOP,” by Molly Ball, in The Atlantic (November 2016)

Waves,” by Mike Shell (South of Ashville, NC, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, 7/9/2012)


This gives us a real chance to see where the citizens of the United States really stand. After years of effort to reduce bullies in public schools, a man famous for financial bullying and racial bias is capable of using what he called a rigged election system to become president. Was calling it rigged his way reaching followers to rig it for him? Although an Evangelical resident of a retirement village believes he will be killed before being sworn in, it does bother me so many people believe in a dishonest white, who paid $25 million to settle a claim for defrauding $40 million from US citizens. He has done this to others many times for over 40 years. Yet, they want to believe he is going to work for them and refuse to comprehend the lies of a con-man he gave them. You cannot “drain the swamp” in Washington DC with a team of professional lobbyists and politicians. Many of these same individuals wish to be considered Christian. All the presidents since and including Eisenhower, in my life, have not scared me morally, economically, and religiously as this president elect. I pray for this nation and the world.
Thanks, Friend Chester. I share your distress and fear…yet the struggle I write of above is a different one. It’s not about Trump. It’s about the rest of us. ALL the rest of us, the ones who flocked to his flag as well as the ones who fear it. Here is what I wrote elsewhere this morning: Friends, I’ve been lying low and avoiding the news channels I usually follow, because they are full of navel-gazing, finger-pointing hyper-analysis of What Went Wrong. My personal version of WWW is this. In the near half century since the Chicago Riots my freshman year, I have clung to the hope that somehow progressive values would win out, despite being able to see very clearly the nation’s steady, incremental, bone-deep shift to the right. I woke up Wednesday the 9th, not in a different country, but in the country we’ve actually been living in all along. Not a country of EITHER liberal diversity OR of frightened white reaction, but a country of ALL of us. If I can’t learn how to listen face-to-face to those fears and angers, I am saying “My diversity includes everyone…except you.” Everyone gets to heaven, or nobody does. Blessings, Mike
We are all in the same boat. The comfort of two clearly divided, internally united parties is small for me. The worrisome issue for me is if we can conduct ourselves within the democratic framework in the face of these new challenges. We will see and focus on teaching our children and grandchildren that it takes hard work.
I too am moved and healed by the words of Pema Chodron, who brings me home to what I view as universal truths. I find her words to be palliative, like a warm compress applied to an aching muscle. But I must say that I am struggling with the idea that acknowledging that of God in everyone may keep us from standing up to the evil which can reside within as well. For me, it is not an issue of everyone getting to heaven or no one getting there. It is about protecting the heaven we have here on earth from destruction by misguided forces of denial, bigotry and ignorance. That is the challenge we all face…to honor that which is sacred while being willing to stand directly in front of that which is monstrous and say “No.” In my view, Trump and Hitler are way too similar for me to avoid the comparison. I do not want to be a “good German,” and stand idly by while a despot tramples the rights and freedoms of all. This is said with great sadness and fear…but also great resolve.
Add a Comment