This election has been, for many of us, a wake-up call. Not the joyful wake-up call of birds on your windows, entreating you to open your eyes to the sunrise over mountaintops, not the wake up of roosters clucking, reminding us of the interconnectedness of all life, not the smell of fresh brewed coffee. No. It has been the sort of wake up one gets when the overnight train in which one is traveling crashes off the rails in the middle of the night tossing one—sometimes from the top bunk—onto the floor. After the crash heaves us out of slumber, we look around in the darkness, and realize that our bones and organs seem to still be in place. Our breath, while quicker and shallower, is unimpeded by impact or injury. We have survived and we will survive. Our attention then turns, in this abrupt, unexpected, harrowing wake-up, to the cries of those around us, those not as lucky as we are, those who have been injured, perhaps irreparably. Our eyes are now wide open but many of us long to rewind the clock and return to the dream state where the train was carrying us safely and reliably to the destination we expected.
It is the place and time now, not to re-debate the election, but to truly see and hear our sister and brother Americans so that we may heal together...
In India, where we are ten-and-a-half hours ahead of New York, I awoke Wednesday to the very beginning of the results. By the time I was in my office, Trump had started to lead but we knew it was just temporary. Scary, but temporary. By the time the results were in, mid-day in India, I could do nothing but stare catatonically at my computer screen. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross talks about five phases of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, depression and finally acceptance... I went through the first four in an afternoon wave of despair that glued me to my chair and later to the couch in my office. I know that my own experience was a reflection of that of so many across the world as we grieved, separately yet together, not just for the Presidency but for the America we thought we knew.
As we move into the acceptance phase it's important to remember that acceptance is not synonymous with condonance. Accepting something doesn't mean we have to think it's okay. Acceptance simply means "we cannot rewind life." This, now, is where we are. This is now the place from which we have to move forward. This, today, is the fertile ground in which we must plant the seeds of tomorrow. In this context, acceptance is the opposite of delusion, not the opposite of objection.
What has crystallized for me, through the churning, boiling and ultimately distillation of these five phases, is a real wake-up, the undeniable fact that the world—or at least the world of voters in America—is not what many of us had thought. Now that our eyes are open it is important to truly see, "What is that world?" For this is the world in which we live. It is the America in which Americans live and the America with which the rest of the world must live.
Today my spiritual practice has been to dry my eyes , not just of tears, not just of the comforting clouds of numbness and dissociation, but of the illusion I had of who my fellow Americans are and what is important to them. This is not the place or the time to debate Hillary Clinton's faults. We knew she was not perfect. Yet Trump's bigotry, discrimination, chauvinism and callousness were so apparent and so un-American as to seemingly outweigh any personality or policy weaknesses of Hillary's.
It is the place and time now, not to re-debate the election, but to truly see and hear our sister and brother Americans so that we may heal together as a country and as a world, and so that we, together, may ensure that our country, founded upon the most fundamental premise and promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all, does not become one in which that "all" applies only to those of certain colours, races, genders, religions or sexual orientations.
Fear and grasping
What I have realized today is that many Americans, many more than I had realized, are fearful and angry. They are fearful of not having enough money left after taxes, not having enough job opportunities, not having safe streets in which their children can ride bicycles after school. They are angry at those who represent the "Establishment", the government, the "them" in the oft quoted blame game of "It's all because of them."
When we fear for our jobs it is easy to convince us that the threat is those who come across borders and seas... we become pawns in the hands of those who have pockets full of villains...
Today as I dry my eyes and try to look upon America as an open-eyed meditation—without judgment, without pushing or pulling— what I see is fear and anger. Fear leads us to grab and grasp. In fear of losing any of our money we don't want to pay taxes for public schools, universal health coverage, protection of national forests or other infrastructure. In fear, we hold tenaciously onto what is ours without realizing it is our own schools and hospitals that will be impacted.
In fear we name-call. "This is socialism," we cry at the idea that everyone's education, everyone's healthcare, everyone's right to oxygen and water is actually everyone's responsibility. In fear we grasp every last penny because we feel our lives depend on it. The fear leads us to contract within. In fear, sharp lines are drawn between "us" and "them," the latter being dangerous enemies, the former being safe friends. When we fear for our jobs it is easy to convince us that the threat is those who come across borders and seas, undermining the stability of our livelihoods. When we live in fear we become pawns in the hands of those who have pockets full of villains against whom we must protect ourselves.
When we are fearful, we grasp at hope for safety like drowning people grab at a life raft. Donald Trump came in as the proverbial life raft, promising he would carry Americans back to a time and place of safety and security, the "good old days." Many grabbed on.
Trump was able to tap directly into our universal human fear of losing anything we have, intensify it through widespread media exposure, dilute the facts of how much more economically secure Americans' jobs are than when Obama took office, and paint Hillary as the threat who must be stopped. How did so many believe it? We wonder. When we contract in fear, our vision narrows. When we contract in fear we lose much of our ability to calmly analyze and understand. In fear we react, unable to grab that crucial space between a thought and an action.
A target for anger
And the anger? Why are so many Americans so angry that Trump was able to turn an entire government system into the target? Anger is, as many psychologists explain, fear turned outward. Anger is the stuff that, coupled with that brilliant collection of hormones we call adrenaline, allows 100-pound mothers to fight pit bulls off their toddlers. Fear paralyzes. Anger energizes. The root of the anger and angst that so many Americans feel, that finds us self-medicating with alcohol, chocolate, shopping, gambling or any one of dozens of other options for our numbing-drug-of-choice, is a topic for another article. For here it is enough to mention that we are, in the words of Dr. Brene Brown, "the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history."
When we feel that we are drowning, knowing the brand name or colour of our life raft is irrelevant. What matters is that we have something to grab onto...
When we are angry, we grab nearly any target for our anger. To sit with anger as a raw emotion, and simply experience the wave of that emotion rise over us without attaching blame is a practice few attempt and even fewer master. It is the stuff that meditation and mindfulness retreats are made of. For most people, a target of our anger is always welcome and frequently the nearest cause in reach will do.
General angst and anger usually well up from deep within us, from the unexamined parts of ourselves much more than from those upon whom we project it. Yet it feels so much better to have an external reason for my unhappiness than to have to search within myself. It feels much better to have someone specific to blame for my problems than the decisions I've made or than the "nature of the universe."
Trump provided that target: the "Establishment." He has convinced much of middle America that the reason they are not as wealthy as they'd like, the reason they are not as successful or happy as they would like is the establishment. Of course, the current "Establishment" is made up just as much by a right-wing Congress that thwarted and diluted much of the good that Obama tried to implement as it is by the party or gender or last name of the President. But Trump did not have to be specific. When we feel that we are drowning, knowing the brand name or colour of our life raft is irrelevant. What matters is that we have something to grab onto which promises salvation.
Hillary would be, as so many disdainfully said, "more of the same." She represents the status quo. If that status quo for me is one in which I experience fear and anger without looking inward for the cause and salve, then naturally I will grab onto the shiny, loud, bright, new lifeboat that promises me something better, regardless of the manufacturer's abysmal safety record and absence of any quality control measures.
Inner work for outer transformation
So, what I have realized in the wake-up call of this election is something that spiritual teachers of nearly every tradition have been saying for thousands of years: focus on the inner work. Yes, the outer work is important. It is important to have schools, medical clinics, environmental protection programs, welfare programs and policies to protect them. But when, due to contraction from fear and anger, voters make a decision that could undo not only individual schools, clinics and national parks but the very system upon which they are founded, we must realize how crucial the inner work is.
I was thinking last night about how in my sphere of connection, the people with whom I'm in contact, the people I'm connected to in real life or via social media, I don't think I know one person who supported Trump. "What is the cohort with which I'm so connected?" I wondered, as it's made up of people of almost every race, religion, culture and socio-economic-status. How is it that my circle is almost entirely in favour of Hillary, despite her obvious imperfections, while so many Americans are not? My circle is, I realized, a cohort of people who tend to look inward for the source of their anger and the antidote to their fear. It is community of people who attempt—in a wide variety of ways—to expand their awareness and consciousness. Yes, it is a community that expresses fear and anger. Of course. But I have grown accustomed to people looking inward for answers to their fear and anger rather than outward. Additionally, of course, it's a group that is focused on breaking borders and boundaries rather than building them, on opening our arms and expanding our families rather than contracting them.
When, due to... fear and anger, voters make a decision that could undo not only individual schools, clinics and national parks but the very system upon which they are founded, we must realize how crucial the inner work is.
So, today, when so many wonder: What now? What can we do? It seems to me that this wake-up call is one that reminds us of the importance of the inner work, our own and those with whom we share this country and planet. Let us use whatever way, whatever ability, avenue or influence we may have to help invite and encourage others to release the death grip on their own hearts, to breathe into their fear, to experience the possibility of an expanded and expanding consciousness, to recognize that fear itself is the greatest enemy. Let us, in our own lives, our own words and actions, be beacons of love and openness. Of course, in order to do that we must let our own hearts relax, allow the breath to flow back into our lungs and into every cell of our body, and allow our own eyes to escape the tunnel-vision of horror and despair that so many of us have been in the last few days.
The other thing we can do, and really must do, is be prepared to step up to the plate and serve the needs of our brothers and sisters and planet. The details of exactly what services will be scaled back, what Acts will be rescinded, what environmental regulations will be lifted, and what rights will be obliterated will become clear only in coming months. But even before the details of what a Trump presidency will look like are in hand, let us commit to living and acting from a place of faith not fear, a place of expansion not contraction, a place of not I but we.