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Mindfulness

How to Relieve Political Election Stress

A mindfulness lens may help.

Key points

  • If you feel strong emotions around the political election right now, you’re not alone.
  • Because mindfulness helps us see clearly and free ourselves from unhelpful biases, it can support us in taking wise actions.
  • A Buddhist teaching shares four opposing pairs of gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, and pleasure and pain.
  • We often want the gain, fame, praise, and pleasure, but life has them all. Can we enjoy life’s ride knowing that those winds will blow at times?

If you are feeling strong emotions around a political election right now, you’re not alone. Anger, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and confusion are all common at this moment. A lot rides on elections—jobs, immigration, the natural environment, and healthcare, just to name a few. So, how can we relieve the stress imposed by a political election? Mindfulness may help.

Because mindfulness helps us see clearly and free ourselves from unhelpful biases, it can be useful in supporting our relationship with the political environment. Mindfulness has been defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, “The awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” It is both an ancient and emergent tool used by millions of people in the United States.

The number of people meditating in the United States tripled between 2012 and 2017, and has dramatically increased in many other regions of the world as well. Another definition of mindfulness is that it brings our wisdom to the present moment. Mindfulness can help us take a step back from what the media, special interest groups, and lobbyists are asking us to consider. We can then look at the big picture. Doing so can allow us to include those who do not have the power or privilege to lobby the government, and discover how governance could best serve everyone. It can inform the actions we take, including whom we vote for and our own political actions. It can also help free us from dichotomous ways of thinking, even about which political party is “right” or “wrong” and, instead, be open to new perspectives filtered through the wisdom we hold.

For example, while I was interviewing dozens of people who had gone through mindfulness training, one named Paul shared that mindfulness training helped him express himself when the time is right. “I learned that I don’t need to take my beliefs so seriously. I can have halfway intelligent political conversations with people who feel strongly on either side. That illustrates how I feel about mindfulness in communication—not to get too attached to a particular viewpoint. I am more able to go into a conversation willing to listen and to ask myself, 'Where is this person coming from? What experiences have they had to lead them to say that thing they just said to me?'”

Our engagement with the political environment can bring up strong emotions and thoughts. Mindfulness training allows us not only to become more aware of those emotions and thoughts, but also to care for them in skillful ways, noticing what arises in ourselves and taking the skillful next steps. For example, we can offer kind thoughts towards political representatives that we have affection or aversion towards, which can then translate into action.

My mindfulness teacher, Joanne Friday, would frequently write what she called “love letters” to political representatives, thanking them for their service, sharing her perspectives on what was needed in governance, and asking them clear questions about how they plan to manage challenges arising in the population. In doing so, it was her practice to stay open and grounded while taking action through letter-writing, phone calls to government officials, and participating in political demonstrations.

There are other examples of actions that can be taken in political areas informed by mindfulness practices. For example, Jamie Bristow leads The Mindfulness Initiative, a policy institute and think tank in the United Kingdom. It supports an all-party parliamentary group that works at the interface between science and policy to introduce evidence-based mindfulness programs, such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, to the public. The politicians’ physical and mental well-being is also supported through mindfulness programs open to members of all political parties.

As we experience this most recent election, I invite you to notice what arises in your physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts. If the experiences are strong, you might like to care for them with kindness, knowing that many other people are feeling this way, too. In time, and if it feels comfortable to do so, explore what the root causes are of those strong sensations, emotions, or thoughts. See if your wisdom can help find ways through it.

A Buddhist teaching, known as the eight worldly winds, shares that there are four opposing pairs of gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, and pleasure and pain. We often want the gain, fame, praise, and pleasure, but not the others. However, life has them all. Can we enjoy life’s ride, knowing that all those winds will blow at times?

All eight will blow this week. The invitation is to use the energy that comes from election stress to be like the wind giving energy to move a sailboat, so that we can sail our ship where we want to, such as to the voting booth or towards caring for ourselves and the communities we serve.

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Based on an excerpt from the book The Mindful College Student: How to Succeed, Boost Well-Being, and Live the Life you Want at University and Beyond. New Harbinger Publications. 2022.

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