By Mitchell Thomashow
As breath is to meditation, listening and speaking are to politics. It is through ordinary discussion that our ideas, opinions, and interests are expressed. Throughout the day, we have countless opportunities for political discourse in which people speak and listen to us. These exchanges, seemingly mundane, have the potential to engender understanding or confusion, harmony or conflict. Listening and speaking are fundamental to political interactions. We speak to make ourselves understood; we listen in order to understand others. Yet the contextual and perceptual dynamics that inform our discourse make listening and speaking an extraordinary challenge. Like breathing, speaking and listening are often automatic, and we do not know where our words are coming from or going to, how they will lead to new words, and what kind of impact they will have. Clarity is best achieved when we think, speak, and listen reflectively, linking intention to language, awareness to thought, and mindfulness to communication.
When we attach mindfulness to breathing, we realize that each breath connects us to all living beings. The molecules that pass through our body are continuously recycled in the Earth's biogeophysical circulatory systems. We all breathe each other. Similarly, our thoughts and actions move widely through cultural spaces coalescing and dissolving in our own consciousness. This process occurs in wider and deeper social and political layers, and this is how we are linked to the streams of history. How can we bring this awareness to each interaction? And how might this awareness contribute to transformational politics?
Is it possible to use the meditative awareness of the breath to support mindful political awareness? If so, wouldn't it make sense to start with listening and speaking? As I breathe in, I listen. As I breathe out, I speak. I listen with an open, empty mind, unhindered by preconceptions, stereotypes, judgments, notions of right and wrong, separation, or boundaries. I speak with clarity, reflection, an understanding of my volition, intention, and motivation. It may be difficult to approach politics this way. We are caught in a complex network of power relationships, intentional manipulations, and ideological predispositions. How do we find the space to practice mindful speaking and listening? Everyday life can be a laboratory for mindful politics, an opportunity to cultivate self-awareness, build community, and become politically engaged.
I would like to describe an example of political conflict in a circumstantial community. My family and I were backpacking, and we decided to stay in an Appalachian Mountain Club campsite, which consisted of a shelter and six tent platforms. After a long climb, we were fortunate to get what we considered the best campsite—remote, spacious, and with a beautiful view. There was another campsite relatively close to ours, occupied by a quiet, friendly person. This was an exquisite situation, very peaceful and relaxing, a wonderful opportunity to practice quiet contemplation.
The next day, after a long day-hike, we returned to our campsite and faced a potentially aggravating situation. Two men and one woman, all in their late 20s, were at the neighboring campsite with a radio and speakers, and they were playing loud hard rock and speaking loudly using abusive language. One of the men was speaking harshly to the woman.
We tried to tolerate the situation. We did our best to ignore or enjoy the music. The abusive language was really not such a big deal. And we used the derogatory language as a chance to talk to our kids about gender, power, and related issues. But after about an hour, we became increasingly annoyed. We tried to be mindful of the politics of the situation, contemplating various strategies, but finally yielding to our emotional anger, we just became more belligerent. Finally I shouted, "Would you please turn the radio down?"
"I said, would you please turn the radio down?"
"All you have to do is ask."
"That's what we did."
The radio was lowered, but the war had begun. Our neighbors did not appreciate this infringement on their rights. They loudly discussed the situation, no doubt aware that we could hear everything they were saying. They projected all kinds of stereotypes unto us: "Folks who give their $100 to the Appalachian Mountian Club and assume they can buy their peace and quiet....some guy who has an uptight job and an uptight wife and is trying to get away from it all."
Later we went to the common area of the campsite to enjoy the view and the relative quiet. Other campers there were discussing how upset they felt about the loud radio. We found out that we had been on the frontline for the entire community of campers. I finally went over to their campsite, introduced myself, and said that I wasn't there to hassle them, but I had heard them talking about us, and there was no reason for any of us to remain upset when none of us knew each other and we were all in the mountains to enjoy ourselves anyhow. So we introduced each other. The most belligerent of the three said he lugged those speakers all the way up the mountain and he wanted to use them, but that they were tired and would be out of our way real soon. The other two engaged in several moments of superficial mountain chit-chat. I returned to our campsite, they lowered their radio, and the incident was over. They did go to sleep shortly after that and awoke and departed early the next day.
After they left, we spent a long time discussing what had happened. How did we behave? Could we have acted differently? How did we exercise power? Was the problem successfully resolved? What would we have done had the noise lasted into the evening? At the time, the incident seemed very important. We knew it had moral and symbolic significance. We watched ourselves become angry, develop stereotypes, become stereotyped, and take a strong position based on our values and expectations, which were attached to a moral position of right and wrong. We wanted our beliefs to be respected, that wilderness campsites should be places to experience peace and solitude. And we wanted to resolve the conflict based on a mutual understanding of each position.
This is precisely the process that leads to difficult political confrontations. Different parties have contrasting moral perspectives on issues of common concern. Public issues may involve many more people, and the lines of power may be more complex, but this small incident was important to us. We wanted to overcome our emotional impulse to exercise power for private interest. We also placed a high stake in achieving an outcome that was mutual and based on face-to-face discussion. We watched our tempers subvert this prospect. We watched our judgments fuel our tempers. This is a common loop in both private and public confrontations, a loop that often leads to suffering and violence.
But as we become more aware of how we behave in situations like this, we can help develop a community process for solving political problems, however they occur. When I shouted to our neighbors and asked them to turn down the radio, I acted spontaneously. It was as if a wave of energy suddenly overcame and compelled me to act. I acted out of habit and emotion. When I walked to their campsite to initiate a discussion I was acting from a moral center, from within my values, knowing that although I could not predict or control the outcome, but I was acting on the basis of my convictions.
I also knew that I had to defuse the situation by giving my neighbors a way to save face. I didn't know exactly how to do this, but I thought my best chance was to find something we had in common. After all, we both were in the mountains. They expressed their satisfaction at having walked a long distance, explaining that they would soon be tired. This was a satisfactory way to back down. I am convinced that they were disarmed by my conciliatory appearance.
It had become a broader political problem when the other campers supported our position. We turned out to be on the frontline because of our proximity to the noise. We also had the most at stake. Buttressed by the other campers who lent moral support to our cause, we gained power and confidence knowing we were acting on behalf of others. It would have been more difficult if we had been in the minority with little public support for our action. It is important to experience the minority and majority perspective, because tomorrow we may be in the minority. Tomorrow someone else may be on the frontlines. What does it feel like to be on the frontlines?
Our children observed our behavior very carefully. After all, we are their role models. They will remember how we acted and it will be their example for some future action. Thus we were obligated to discuss the experience with them. I told them that I was partly satisfied with my awareness in the situation. I described my anger, how my anger got fueled, how it prevented me from doing what I should have done in the first place, which was to go over to the campsite and make friendly contact. We wanted to convey, at the very least, that it is important to carefully observe our own behavior in situations like these and to act from a moral center. We wanted them to know that this incident was a microcosm of larger, more complex political questions.
I am not trying to convey a loose moral relativism, the attitude that everyone has a right to their own moral space. When difficult conflicts emerge, it is not acceptable to resolve the problem by resorting to a laissez-faire "I'm OK, you're OK" approach. It is important to get to the root source of the conflict, to explore that source, and to thoroughly understand what it is that we bring to the conflict.
This may not always work. There are intractable opponents who may not value this kind of approach to conflict resolution and may use various means of manipulation, including some that are downright sinister. Our neighbors could have been far less reasonable.
I try as best as I can to follow ethical codes of behavior. My ethical system is derived from ecology, Buddhism, Judaism, and participatory democracy. Every experience is a laboratory for those beliefs. They are not just texts; they are principles for living. We cannot predict when confrontations will emerge. We can fortify ourselves through mindful awareness and use our ethical codes to guide our actions. This is fundamental to transformational politics. As we transform ourselves, we transform society.
Meditation practice strengthens concentration, awareness, insight, and discipline. It can help us understand the roots of conflict by letting us see what we bring to the conflict, helping us to understand our own motivations. We can do this by attending carefully to what we hear and what we say. A clear mind helps us listen. A clear mind purifies speech. Let us practice a gatha of mindful politics: "As I breathe in, I listen. As I breathe out, I speak."
Mitchell Thomashow is the Co-Chair of the Environmental Studies Department at Antioch/New England Graduate School.