How mindfulness could transform our political discourse, and maybe even the White House. Maybe.
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
It's not your fault if your perception of the world has been a little smudged or tinged with confusion lately. Between the false stories that circulate on social media, the president's habit of asserting things that are untrue, and the heated arguments that bleed out from the internet into real life, the Trump era is frequently disorienting, and sometimes even frightening. So why not try meditation?
Meditation leading to a clearer mind is one of the ideas undergirding Why Buddhism Is True, a new book from Robert Wright, a journalist and scholar whose previous books delved into evolutionary psychology and the history of religion, among other topics. Much has been written about the benefits of meditation, but Wright's is getting widespread attention because of his idea that ancient Buddhist practitioners understood the mind so deeply that it's only now, thousands of years later, that modern science is catching up. Wright's version of Buddhism is Western, largely skips the questions of afterlife and spirituality, and is focused on making you more aware of yourself and the world around you through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
"That clarity and vision not only makes you happier but makes you a better person," Wright told me over the phone. "That's the promise of Buddhism."
Wright also believes that mindfulness could help produce a less toxic political debate. This week, he launched Mindful Resistance, a project dedicated to the idea that "understanding and addressing the root causes of Trumpism is important—so important that we shouldn't let Trump's antics and outrages get in the way of this mission."
So should anti-Trump advocates meditate? What about Donald Trump himself? I called Wright up to talk about the book, and to ask if sending the president on a weeklong meditation retreat would solve all the country's problems. Here's how that conversation went:
VICE: You say meditation makes you a better person. What do you mean by a better person?
Robert Wright: Less of a jerk.
Like, a better person in relation to others?
Yeah, in relation to other people. So, less selfish. Less enslaved by unfair judgement of others, by hostile emotional reactions toward others. What attracted me to Buddhism is partly just how closely it accords with my understanding of human nature based on my past study of evolutionary psychology. Natural selection did build into it some nice things like a capacity for love and compassion and so on, but the fact is we're designed to be, in many ways, selfish and unfair. And we're designed to not really see how selfish and unfair we're being, and in fact we're designed to have specific illusions about ourselves and the world that facilitate the selfishness and the unfairness.
Buddhism got this a long time ago. Not only got the diagnosis right, but also offered a prescription, a way to clarify your vision in a way that makes you a less self-centered person—and perhaps ironically, makes you a happier person. That's the promise of Buddhism in its extreme form, is not only that you quit making other people suffer, but that you quit suffering yourself.
You talk about "mindfulness meditation" a great deal, but that's only one type of meditation, right?
There are many kinds of Buddhist meditation. Tibetan forms often involve the visualization of sometimes exotic images. Zen meditation may involve reflecting on koans. Mindfulness meditation involves just being more clearly aware of things inside your mind and out in the world. As simple as that sounds, that can lead you to great depths and it can change your relationship to troublesome feelings like anxiety and self-loathing and loathing and rage.
Is reducing those troublesome feelings what the Mindful Resistance project is about?
It started with two separate but related thoughts. One is that as a Trump opponent, I sometimes think that my fellow Trump opponents are reacting to Trump's almost daily outrages with a level of outrage that can be counterproductive.
Relatedly, there's the concern that we really need to understand the forces that led to his rise. Things like globalization, immigration, technological change, political polarization driven by social media—I think if we don't address the things that are empowering not just Trump but people like Trump in other countries, then long after he passes from the scene we will still have a serious problem on our hands. Although I want to emphasize that I do agree that vigilance is warranted, if we are too consumed by outrage, we will fail to attend to the challenge of understanding why he's here and making sure it doesn't happen again.
Where does mindfulness meditation come into the equation at all in this?
Well, first of all, I think even if you don't meditate, a mindful attitude can help you here. If you look at the traditional meaning of the word "mindful," it means alert, attentive, careful. That said, I do think meditation can help you cultivate a particularly robust version of that attitude. I think my morning meditation helps me deal with Trump a little less reactively and a little more reflectively. Not that I by any means have mastered myself or managed to not get enraged fairly often by him, but I do think meditation can be an important tool here.
In an ideal world, both Trump supporters and Trump opponents would meditate. If that happened, Trump would lose a few supporters, because he relies so much on inducing the kind of reflexive, emotional reactions that mindfulness meditation weakens.
So you think mindfulness meditation leads you to a kind of empathy that would make it unlikely for you to support Trump and his policies?
If you were a Trump supporter to begin with?
If you were a right-winger or a conservative.
Here we'll distinguish between empathy in a traditional sense of "feeling their pain" and so-called cognitive empathy, which consists of just understanding the person's perspective. Paul Bloom talks about this in his book Against Empathy. Mindfulness meditation, although it may give you the first kind of empathy, I think the most important and in a way more reliable result is to enhance your cognitive empathy. In other words, it allows you to assess the perspective of another person and at least just understand how they're processing information, and how the world looks to them.
I think we need real improvement on the anti-Trump side here. I think we need to be better at understanding why some kind of middle American, white member of the working class could have a sense of the world as tilted against him—and understand how things that we do and say may heighten that sense.
My all-purpose prescription for the world is cognitive empathy. It doesn't have to involve liking the person, feeling their pain, or anything else. You don't have to like Vladimir Putin, but at least try to understand what kinds of political incentives he responds to. I would just say the same thing for Trump supporters. Leave aside whether you ever come to like them—at least try to understand what's going on in their heads.
Do you think that the administration would change if, every morning before he tweeted, Donald Trump engaged in some meditation?
What a wild thought experiment: the idea of Trump crossing his legs and focusing on his breath.
I think for Trump it would take a whole, full-fledged weeklong silent meditation retreat to make progress. Which, by the way, is what it took for me, because I'm not a natural meditator either. The first sign of progress would just be that he would feel the urge to tweet and he would be aware of it welling up, and it wouldn't seem like so much a part of him. It would seem like something he could reflect upon and view more objectively and decide whether to follow up on. That would be the first sign that Trump was heading in what a Buddhist would consider the right direction.
What about someone more ideological, like White House adviser Steve Bannon? Do you think if he achieved some level of mindfulness he would change his mind about his nationalist, anti-immigration beliefs? Or do you think he would just become more effective in advocating for them?
Well, this is a concern you hear about meditation generally. Like, Won't it allow people to pursue their goals more dispassionately and effectively without making the goals themselves more laudable? And, the answer is that can happen, but it usually doesn't. The Buddhist premise is that seeing a little more clearly tends to make you happier and tends to make you a better person. I would say that that last outcome is not guaranteed, but it tends to be the case. You do have very skillful meditators who are bad people, and exploit people with the help of their meditative prowess.
Oddly, I'm not as sure it would help in Bannon's case as in Trump's, because I don't think Bannon is as emotionally reactive to begin with as Trump is. Bannon is definitely a more self-aware and more aware person than Trump. Then again, aren't we all?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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