How Mindfulness Can Help Bridge Political Divides
According to Jacob Hess, talking across our political differences is the
hardest mindfulness practice of all.
I first explored mindfulness intellectually, as an alternative to the predominant make-it-go-away narrative of depression treatment I explored in my dissertation research. But the first time I attended a mindfulness-based health interventions conference at the University of Massachusetts, my life changed forever. I saw mindfulness across the room for the first time, and the people were strangely, beautifully calm. I fell head over heels with the practice.
By Jacob Z. Hess
Later, I had an opportunity to co-facilitate a liberal-conservative dialogue class at the University of Illinois, gathering 10 left-leaning and 10 conservative-leaning students to talk about difficult issues they picked, including foreign policy, race, gay marriage, and abortion. There was plenty of nervousness and awkwardness as the conversations started, but by the end of each semester, students would inevitably say things like, “I’ve never had a conversation like that…I didn’t know it was possible!”
Evaluative patterns across classes showed heartening attitudinal shifts in students across the political spectrum: more curiosity and affection, less reactivity and contempt.
It took me years of teaching both mindfulness and dialogue to realize that I was not only seeing the similar effects in students, but I was actually teaching the same thing—a shift away from knee-jerk reactivity, both in relation to our own internal experience and to the experience of others around us.
This has been an exhausting political season for so many in the U.S. But what if we turned the extraordinary provocations of these times into an expansion of our mindfulness practice? That means taking a deep breath and going deeper with those maddening contradictions, confusions, and contentions in the space between you and your (favorite) political opposite.
The mindfulness inherent in dialogue
Like everyone, I’ve lost loved ones, experienced crushing breakups, and faced my own dark nights of the soul. What I personally love most about mindfulness is sitting with messy, confusing things inside myself in a new, gentle way, with less urgency to “fix,” and with a lot more allowance and curiosity.
Those who have experienced high-quality, effective dialogue know what that feels like, because it’s the same thing that takes place in healthy conversations. However challenging we find that other perspective being voiced, this is about learning how to do something more than “trying to fix” the idea or give constant battle to the person—and, instead, “sit with the discomfort” in a way that allows us to inquire into what we’re really curious about, don’t understand, or find worrying.
Both dialogue and mindfulness practice have parallel outcomes. Over and over, I’ve watched individuals wracked with physical or emotional pain find surprising relief in learning to approach discomfort in a new way: clenching less against the back pain or resisting their emotional pain less, and instead turning toward whatever is happening in a fresh way.
The pain in our body politic is likewise little relieved by all the attempts to “make the nonsense stop” (on the other side). Could dialogue—or what we call “mindful listening”—prove a similar key to finding relief more collectively?
Cue the deep sigh: “Oh no, not one more person telling us that civility will fix this mess we’re in!” Don’t worry, I’m not saying that! And no serious dialogue practitioner would. Just as mindfulness cannot offer “salvation” to our many various personal ailments (but can indeed help create conditions for us to find greater relief and healing), so also can healthy dialogue help create conditions for us to find the collective solutions (and agreements about those solutions) we’re in urgent need of securing.
So, hear me out, please. Comparable to how we learn to gently work with the chaos inside ourselves, could we bring the same wisdom to our community connections, as we approach the aching mess around us in a very different way?
If so, how? Mindfulness education efforts try to help people learn how to watch and sit with the (often challenging and conflicting) interplay of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations inside. Similarly, there are ongoing educational efforts to help people learn how to watch and sit with the challenging, conflicting interplay of thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the space between us right now.
This educational effort includes lots of wonderful contributors, as represented in the 2,300+ individuals and organizations participating in the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). Depending on your circumstance, it’s likely you will find a group focused uniquely on what you might need (see 180 participatory practices and an engagement stream framework to help you navigate them).
For those interested in working with sociopolitical divides in your relationships, in particular, I would recommend checking out three organizations and their practices:
- Living Room Conversations: a bounded conversation focused on a particular topic;
- Jefferson Dinners: a dinner intentionally focused away from difficult topics; and
- Ben Franklin Circles: a gathering focused on the commonality of improving self and community.
Each of these organizations break down the logistics and practice into simple steps anyone can follow.
Setting the stage
Although dialogue (like meditation) cannot be reduced to mere technique, certain structural tips do help open us to experience.
In the case of meditation, by adjusting your posture, using various props, and working with your breath as an anchor, you can learn to steady yourself just enough to sit with the discomfort of contradictory impulses inside or pressures around them. Over time, as many have learned for themselves, this kind of mindful practice can help train the mind in a direction of more clarity, equanimity, and calm—even in the face of perhaps all the same pressures, triggers, and stressors in our normal lives.
When we sit down with other people for a potentially difficult conversation, details of setting, ambience, invitation approach, preparatory emails, and conversational guidelines can go a long way to helping “steady” individuals just enough to sit with the discomfort of contradictory ideas in the space between someone and their conversation partner(s). Over time, as many others have learned for themselves, such dialogical practice can similarly help train mind(s) in a direction of more collective clarity, equanimity, and calm, even in the face of continuing pressures, triggers, and provocations around us all.
And, oh wow, are there provocations these days! Several years back, I walked around our community and invited neighbors of mine to try out one conversation with a political opposite, offering my support all along the way. These are the people who knew me and would have had to buy Girl Scout cookies from me, so I was optimistic they’d be willing to give this a try.
Nope. They turned me down, all of them, with a variety of polite excuses.
I was so confused. Was this really so hard?
Yep. It is. As one of my dialogue mentors, Liz Joyner from the Village Square, explained to me at the time, this wasn’t as simple as it seemed: “Jacob, you’re asking people to mess with their deep tribal dynamics. And let’s be honest: We all get some kind of creepy comfort out of thinking Those Other People are the bad guys trying to destroy the country.”
That helped me see I wasn’t asking my neighbors to do anything simple at all. I was inviting them to intentionally spend two hours with (potentially) an “enemy,” opening themselves up to a whole array of complex, scary, challenging emotions. Compared with the lovely appeals to “understanding” and “listening more deeply,” then, I came to understand my invitations sounded more like this: “Would you like to dedicate an entire evening to hearing more deeply someone who holds dangerous ideas about all sorts of nonsense?”
How could my neighbors possibly be excited about that? Especially when bombarded with relentless examples of aggressive, insulting conversations on screens small and big, how could they imagine anything different?
It’s precisely these kinds of deep and visceral fears I’ve seen come up with cross-boundary conversations that make me interested in reimagining these conversations as a kind of mindfulness practice. Rather than only an interlinked set of “plays” in a challenging sport of bridging differences, I see the beautifully simple Bridging Differences Playbook from the GGSC as laying out the spectrum of ways we can sit with each other in new ways that shift our hearts, minds, and even our bodies in relation to each other.
The benefits of mindful dialogue
While appearing simple, this can help us appreciate the true complexity of these practices. After all, people don’t sign up for a mindfulness class because they’ve been persuaded: “Oh, this will be fun! And so entertaining…just wait.”
No. Despite the many established benefits of mindfulness practice for emotional and physical health, Jon Kabat-Zinn often tells people “this is the hardest work in the world.”
The same is true here: This is going to be hard—but you won’t regret it!
As a way to bolster people’s confidence, we’ve gathered both historic and current stories of the beautiful relationships that have emerged when people give this a try.
Even so, it’s time to stop pretending bridge-building and dialogue should be immediately attractive and appealing. No, these stories clearly attest, this isn’t like cotton candy. It’s more like a good salad. A good workout. (And a good mindfulness session).
Hard. But oh-so-good as well. And worth it! Why?
Because it will make all this political turbulence around us hurt less. There is real suffering in being constantly angry and agitated, and that angst doesn’t prepare any of us to be more effective advocates for what we believe the world needs. Getting out of our internal spiral of reactivity toward Those People is a first, preliminary step in not only figuring out how to live on the same planet together, but also appropriately advancing your own views for their consideration.
But as we tell our mindfulness students, “You don’t need to take our word for it. Experience it for yourself. The practice itself will teach you.”
If the animosity or fear or sorrow you carry around socially or politically is wearing you out, this invitation is for you. Take a deep breath, and consider this as potentially new ground for your mindfulness practice.
Off the cushion. Out of your head.
And into a space with Those People (at least one of them!).
Take it from me, a conservative guy who’s fallen head over heels for liberals—and whose life has changed forever for the better because of that. This doesn’t have to hurt so bad! And there’s so much sweetness to be found in another way.