Cliff Dwellers


I promise, this blog is not about the fiscal cliff, slope or whatever it was. Not really. But I have to wonder, how it is we are all going to find reason in our relations with each other. By all accounts, the President made offers that should have enticed Republicans long before the deadline. “Why,” some wondered, couldn’t the holdouts in the House of Representatives just “listen to reason.”

In a book reviewed by the Times last spring, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an answer. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt asserts that human beings (politicians presumably among them) don’t make decisions based on reason. Our decisions come from how we feel. As humans we are intuitive and emotional. Logic and reasons come later as a way to support the value-based decisions we have already made. [Note to the blog: I only read the Times review, I didn't actually read the book. I will leave that to the scholars, those in the profession, and the rest of you who have no trouble understanding why a thesis that takes 300 pages can't be said in 10. If some of you find irony in this, you are my kind of reader!]

At any rate, the psychologist writes that Republicans (as a rule) feel deeply about faith, patriotism, valor, chastity and law and order. Democrats, on the other hand, are mainly moved by the challenge of defending those who can’t defend themselves. In both cases, the parties have very human aspirations for society. Haidt calls these moral values. The word moral has the weight of judgment, but the root is related to the simple idea of manners, or the appropriate behavior for citizens of a society.

Aside from the question of how we should behave with each other, how do we behave? If it depends upon how we feel, then in the realm of I and other, “the other” is an emotionally charged phenomenon. To paraphrase the Buddhist Teacher Chögyam Trungpa, when there is a knock on the door, we have either a bottle of cabernet or a semi-automatic ready and waiting. This insight is supported by neuroscience.  Before the ears have heard and the eyes have moved, rather than reacting, the brain has anticipated the next sense encounter.

If we don’t notice that our feelings are pre-programmed and that the decisions we’ve made have been “spun”, when does real communication happen? Without feeling a shared a humanity, we find ourselves alienated, hostage to principle. Entrenched in our own views, we and the politicians who represent us are freed from the burden of exchange that characterizes society (the root of the word means partner or comrade).

Of course to have a partner is to be two, not one. Who is a partner? Someone who  listens. Listening changes minds, if only a little. (According to Haidt, 2 minutes of contemplation around a considered argument is all it takes.) According the psychologist, it is in this exchange that true reason is born. Expounding well-rehearsed opinions may be satisfying, but a reasonable (you could say sane) society is built on something as simple as a conversation.

Of course conversations are everywhere. No one needs a psychologist to tell them that listening changes things. Experience tells us that merely acknowledging our partner’s or family member’s contrary opinion results in a changed atmosphere, if not a consensus. Only highlighting differences, however, “we” becomes “us and them.” Estrangement and separation follow.

Awareness, the kind cultivated on your meditation bench through mindfulness and contemplation, is helpful here. In the discipline of undistracted time alone, our humanity is harder to avoid. Confronted with feeling, the endless chatter of “reasons” is revealed as an overlay, a justification. We begin to sense subtleties. To paraphrase Trungpa again, in exposing our internal drama, good things appear as bad, and bad things appear as good. Making room for own tensions, is itself making room for others. In the politics of successful relationship, we are all statesmen and stateswomen.

Today, emphasizing how we don’t agree is politics. Listening to another’s opinion (without haranguing them) is to surrender identity and the safety of principled alienation. Whether seduced by the prospect of political gain or the drama of the angry hero, some of our leaders embrace “opting out” of the society they would lead. The myth of opting out is sacred to a culture built on individualism and choice. Sooner or later evidence of connection (say a bill from the IRS or an unplanned romance) will end this dream.

Society is a living thing, constantly evolving and changing. It is natural for schisms to arise and resolve themselves. Maintaining a split, however, requires separation. It’s been noted that most of our Representatives and their families don’t live in Washington DC anymore. Perhaps they don’t want to make the sacrifices made by their predecessors. Perhaps their constituents see a move out as a move up–and are ready to reject their leaders for any sign of “elitism.” In any event, if our politicians and their families don’t meet outside of formal functions, they don’t have to learn how to be together, not to speak of listening to each other. Tellingly, the Senate deal that pulled us back from the edge was between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, politicians on either side of the aisle who happen to be friends.

Continually enacting separateness is the ritual of those whose attention is one place and whose home is another. This may be the norm, but is it politics? The word comes from the Greek for citizen—of a polis—a city. Opinions that would lead us beyond city limits are a deception. Maybe it sounds naive, but could we, as well as our leaders, be better listeners? Able to hear the human feelings behind the arguments (our own and others) that continue to vex us? Perhaps then reason can arise, moving us past differences to a place we can share with friends in society, a place somewhere far from a cliff.

Editor’s Note: The teacher Sakyong Mipham has asked his students this question: how we can ask our leaders to do what we ourselves wouldn’t consider? When we opt out of the community meeting at our Meeting House or Meditation Center, aren’t we reenacting the politics of Washington? If sitting in meditation is opening to a conversation with ourselves, shouldn’t it lead to conversations with others who hold values different than our own?

 

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One Response to “Cliff Dwellers”

  1. Jonathan M. Says:

    Really like this article Mr. G! Keep em coming.

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