Zen and the Art of Political Resistance

In the wake of 4th of July and the verdicts coming down from the Supreme Court, I have been reflecting on all that is happening in our world, especially the sense of doom and hopelessness felt by so many. There is a palpable sense that the world is heading downhill for good, that there’s nothing left to be done, and that we should get out while we can. With much of the world baking under record heat waves and the Supreme Court actively rolling back our government’s ability to protect us from the onslaught of climate change, not to mention the ongoing global pandemic and mass shootings on a more-than-daily basis, it’s easy to see why this doom and gloom is catching on.

In the days after the decision reversing Roe v. Wade was formally announced, I had friends and family messaging me about how it was finally time to move to another country. I even told my sister I was considering moving to France (a country I’ve always loved and secretly thought of moving to). The dream of escapism was calling my name, as it clearly was for others as well.

I was also continuing my every-few-days meditation practice. When I am going through hard times, I like to use the Tibetan practice of tonglen, a form of metta, or loving-kindness. Tonglen is a practice of breathwork where on the in-breath, you inhale the suffering and pain of others, and on the out-breath, you send them relief and a wish that they be free of suffering.

The practice typically begins by centering your focus on yourself, inhaling your own pain and suffering and sending yourself peace and relief on the out-breath. Then you shift your focus to someone close to you, someone you love dearly, someone easy to love. You move to someone you feel neutral about, then to someone you have difficulty with, and finally you expand your focus to all sentient beings. When I do this practice, I like to imagine my circle of empathy widening as I go to finally encompass the whole globe, every soul on every continent of this Earth.

Tonglen is a radical, revolutionary practice because we apply the wish to be free of suffering to all sentient beings, living or dead. The circle of “all sentient beings” includes loveable, kindhearted creatures like our dogs and cats, our friends and loved ones. It includes really terrible people who have committed horrific crimes, like Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, and my personal favorite, Donald Trump. It also includes terrible people who may happen to be much closer to you than abstracted figures like evil dictators: your ex-boyfriend who broke your heart, your boss who torments you on a daily basis, the neighbor who wakes you up by revving their engine at 5:30 every morning.

Tonglen is not an easy practice, especially when you are going through hard times. It is a special kind of difficulty to breathe in the suffering of your evil boss – to willfully take on their pain and anxiety – and to send them relief, kindness, and peace on the out-breath.

Tonglen is an amazing practice because it offers a resolution to our anger and hopelessness. It’s like being on a walk and coming face to face with a fence. Our habitual way of dealing with problems like fences is to barrel through them, or get tools and break the whole thing down, or to drive our car through them. (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.) Another way we habitually deal with fences is by walking away, checking out, avoiding the problem entirely. We might pick a different path. We might give up altogether and head home. When we are confronted with a problem, our usual way of dealing with it is either to force our way through or to give up.

But tonglen says, what if you climbed over the fence? The practice of tonglen offers a different perspective. It says, what if this were not an obstacle, but an opportunity? What if we didn’t have to destroy the fence to move past it? What if we don’t have to abandon our hike altogether, we just have to move our bodies in a certain way and then we’ll be past it? By doing nothing but breathing in the suffering of others and sending them peace and relief with our out-breath, we are empathizing with the totality of the human experience, while offering a gentle wish for freedom from suffering for all sentient beings.

When applied to our sticky political situation, one in which we feel hopeless, confused, and incapacitated by the vast things going on beyond our individual control, tonglen offers us a new perspective: empathy for ourselves, for others who are struggling just like we are, for those who believe differently than us, and finally for all beings who are experiencing hardship or suffering of any kind.

This, to me, becomes a joyful motivation. Suddenly, the temptation is no longer to escape. Strengthened by a radical empathy which includes all souls on this Earth, the temptation is to stay, to work, to fight, to change things for the better so that all souls on this Earth may have a little relief from their pain and suffering.

My actions are no longer rooted in fear. They’re rooted in hope. They’re rooted in movement. They’re rooted in compassion.

I recently finished reading When Things Fall Apart by the American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. Ani Pema, as she is affectionately known, studied with a famous Tibetan teacher named Chogyam Trungpa, who fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion when religion was targeted by the Chinese Communist Party. Chogyam Trungpa in turn had studied with a teacher named Khenpo Gangshar. Chödrön writes, “When we asked [Trungpa] Rinpoche once what had happened to Khenpo Gangshar when they escaped from Tibet, he said he wasn’t sure but had heard that when the rest of them were escaping to India, Khenpo Gangshar was walking toward China.”

In other words, when everyone else was walking out of danger, seeking safety, Khenpo went the other way and walked right back into it.

As I sit with all that has happened, I am breathing in the pain and suffering of those who need abortion access and now will not be able to get it, and exhaling a wish for safe access to medical treatment for them. I am also breathing in the fear and confusion of those who believe abortion should be illegal, and exhaling a wish for greater empathy and freedom from fear.

I am breathing in the paralysis and stuckness of all those who feel incapacitated by the vastness of fighting climate change, and I am sending them hope, love, and strength on the out-breath. I am also breathing in the misunderstanding, fear, and ego-mind of those who choose personal wealth over the future of our beautiful world, and sending them a wish for compassion and liberation from egoic thinking on the out-breath.

I am breathing in the terror and suffering of all those harmed, physically or emotionally, by the Highland Park massacre, and sending a wish for swift resolution, concrete action, and greater safety for all. I am also breathing in the terror and stuckness of those who cling to their weapons and the 2nd Amendment – because really, it’s the same emotion, isn’t it? We’re all afraid: of being hurt, of losing our loved ones, of being helpless while those around you are hurt or killed. And I am sending them a wish for greater compassion and understanding, for movement of this stuck energy, this egoic fearfulness, into a more free and open place where the safety of all is prioritized.

And finally, I am breathing in my own fear and powerlessness, my confusion and hopelessness, and I am transforming that into this blog post, into my own small form of political activism. I am sending myself relief and a wish for freedom from my fears, and in the process I am transmuting those fears into strength and compassion.

Chödrön writes, “Jean-Paul Sartre said that there are two ways to go to the gas chamber: free or not free.”

I choose to stay. I choose to work with the difficulty of this moment. No matter how small my offering, it’s worth something in this great fight for our planet.

Note on the featured image: When searching for a featured image to go with my post, I am always looking for something eye-catching that matches the tenor and vibe of my post. I found this particular image on Pinterest many years ago but there was no artist credit. I tried to trace the image via Reverse Google Image search and all I got were pages in Thai and Chinese, which I unfortunately cannot read. If anyone knows the artist, or can read in either language, I am happy to update with artist credit.