Politics and Dharma

Michael McAlister Blog Leave a Comment

I’m frequently asked how we can integrate the Dharma into something as “sticky” as the news, in general, and politics, specifically. On the one hand, non-attachment to what’s going on in the world is not so easy since the preferences that the news and politics tweeks tend be deep. They are all about the mind’s convictions, beliefs, and preferences. They are often subtle, especially for those of us trying to be spiritual in the midst of the inherent messiness of today’s issues. On the other hand, to assume that one can’t be political and be an embodiment of the most sacred aspects of the Dharma is naive. Politics is as much of a Dharma opportunity as anything else. It’s just that our clinging to politics, or our avoidance of it, inflates the self past the point of comfortably walking through any Dharma door.

For example, by almost any measure, Barak Obama has had a rough time in this second year of his presidency. His party’s recent congressional losses have seemed to force him to either negotiate with, or cave in to (depending on your conviction) the demands of his political rivals. Did he wimp out on the issue of tax cuts? Has he shown appropriate leadership in relation to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Has his “Yes-We-Can” become a “Well-We-Could-Have”? Whatever your thoughts on this, it’s fascinating to explore this moment openly.

On the left, Andy Borowitz argues that Obama has agreed “to extend the Republican’s custody of his balls.”

Moments after the two-year transfer of Mr. Obama’s family jewels was announced, Vice President Joe Biden defended the President against critics from his own party: “I know he’s going to catch a lot of heat for this, but what he did took cojones.”

Biden’s eloquence notwithstanding, there is more here than meets the eyes if we open them widely enough. While Borowitz and Biden offer up interesting visuals, others argue that Obama is dealing with the issues in much more complex and nuanced ways than this.

Consider David Brooks’ piece in today’s New York Times. In it he covers the shifts the president has made from his appeal as his campaign began to gain momentum, to his first year legislative pushes, to the post-Midterm loss of the House that has forced him to revisit a different style of leadership; one that, might we dare say, looks like a more integral approach.

Brooks considers the differences within the parties themselves, looking at “Cluster” approaches and “Network” approaches to political deal-making:

Over the past week we’ve seen the big differences between cluster liberals and network liberals. Cluster liberals (like cluster conservatives) view politics as a battle between implacable opponents. As a result, they believe victory is achieved through maximum unity. Psychologically, they tend to value loyalty and solidarity. They tend to angle toward situations in which philosophical lines are clearly drawn and partisan might can be bluntly applied.

(…)

Network liberals share the same goals and emerge from the same movement. But they tend to believe — the nation being as diverse as it is and the Constitution saying what it does — that politics is a complex jockeying of ideas and interests. They believe progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions. Psychologically, network liberals are comfortable with weak ties; they are comfortable building relationships with people they disagree with.

So as Obama’s network nature begins to resurface, echoing what first catapulted him into the political limelight, we get to watch what appears to be an approach that, in spiritual terms, integrates several levels of the developmental spiral. But are we ready for it as a culture? Will this reorientation fail us, leaving us bound by even deeper divisions, or is a certain evolutionary burst about to punctuate our existence.

Who knows? Whatever the case, this form of theater can be seen as a practice offering for any of us on the path. Each day the news shows us attachments, broken precepts, and often tells us what we should attach to next. With this in mind, we can also look at what is offered to us, to others, including our president and his opponents, and let it show us where we’re clinging. If we can see it, we can release it. If we can release it, we become Buddha. If we can become Buddha, we can engage in this amazing dance of, as Shunryu Suzuki says, “things as it is” consciously. This is the very point of awakening.

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