Meditation and Political Involvement

The following article by Wayne Coger was published in the Summer 2005 Newsletter.

Someone recently suggested that I write something about meditation and political involvement — or as people sometimes say, “meditation and the world.” Questions around this topic have come up before and since we have recently had a heated political controversy in the town where the Center is located, it seemed that this might be worth exploring. Exploring in the sense of seeing what comes up, what is revealed, not necessarily looking to find any definitive conclusions.

It might be helpful to begin by looking a bit at what is meant, to this person, by meditation. There are myriad meditation disciplines and techniques, many of which focus on refining or stilling the mind. There are often practices, some quite repetitive, and there is a concomitant emphasis on avoiding distractions. One is encouraged to focus one’s attention and to avoid anything that might disturb the practice.

In speaking of meditation — or of meditative work — here there is more a sense that this is an open inquiry — being openly with whatever comes up. This unfocused openness is not the result of any technique or special practice. Looking, questioning in this way — is there any watcher? Or is there simply the open, quiet listening itself? The world, then, is not something separated from or outside of the meditative listening.

The political controversy that suggested this inquiry grew out of a proposal by an energy corporation to build very tall wind towers to generate electricity on the hillside directly across from the Center. There was an immediate (negative) response to this project from many townspeople, especially those living near to or in sight of the proposed towers. There was also an immediate response for this person. I remember walking the path to the north woods, through the open fields that face the hill where the towers would be built. In the mind’s eye there was a picture of these giant towers — it felt as though it would be a desecration, ruining such a beautiful landscape. All kinds of thoughts came up: “Are we being sold out to big business?” “Is this just the beginning?” and “Will people come to the Center any more?”

In the swirl of these thoughts, with their accompanying emotional charge, there was very little of the meditative looking described above. At times, though, there would be openings — it would be clear that there was a lot of personal investment in these thoughts and feelings. It was not just the view; it was my view, my house and my Center that would be impacted. The central question was “What will happen to me?” Perhaps not voiced in this way, but nevertheless this was the underlying concern.

One Saturday, driving in the car, I was listening to a public radio show on the environment and a special segment on wind towers came on. Immediately the thought came up “Great! We’ll hear more about how bad these towers are!” Instead the program was very balanced — the pros and cons of wind energy were discussed in a factual way. It was amazing to listen and to hear not only the facts being presented, but to find something changing in the listener. There was a softening, an ability to hear or see more broadly. When one is looking for confirmation there is a constriction — the listening cannot be open. When this is seen and dropped there is so much more space to consider what others say.

For whatever reason there was a shift — not to a different point of view, but to a more inclusive attention. It no longer felt that anyone was the enemy, that there were good guys and bad guys. This was not, after all, a clear-cut case of right and wrong. There would be visual and perhaps other impact from the wind towers, but there would also be benefits — to the environment and to the economic well being of the town. All of this could be taken in and seen without the charge mentioned above. Even the “me” stuff — how this would effect us at our house, at the Center — could be seen in a more relaxed and spacious way.

Going to one of the town meetings it was wonderful to listen to people with different points of view, to get a sense of their concerns and interests. It was possible to really drink all of this in without judgment. There was a growing sense that the outcome wasn’t as important as it had originally felt and that the listening was what was — is — vitally important.

Is it possible that whatever actions or words are needed can, at least at times, flow out of this open listening? When we attack someone, the “other,” the one who is attacked will usually become more defensive, more convinced of the rightness of his or her cause. But listening carries with it an invitation to dialogue, to hearing each other out — and perhaps to finding out that we are not that different from each other.

The world of separation is painfully lonely and it is from this loneliness that we attack and fight one another. The ground of open and affectionate listening is seeing how we really are, that in the deepest sense we are not divided. It is admittedly rare to hear political discourse that isn’t charged with bias and partisanship — with “me”-ness. But where do we begin? Is it possible, in the quieting of the emotional storm, to listen freshly? Is there the interest and openness to try something new, something that is not growing out of our usual habitual reactive-ness? Then there might, might, be a coming together that is friendly and unexpected and new.