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Five More Spiritual Practices for Election Season

Whatever happens in November, the world will need people of spiritual strength.

A few days ago, I responded to a timely question about the stress of election season. Here’s that question again:

Q: Help! It’s election season! I care about what’s happening in our country (and in the world), and I want to stay engaged. But all I’m really doing is watching a lot of news, scrolling my phone, and feeling more and more overwhelmed and bitter. I swing back and forth between anger and fear, and what bothers me most is the way my anger is turning to hatred. Could you offer some encouragement or advice to help me survive the next 70 days?

I’m a psychotherapist who writes and teaches about spirituality, and the gist of my suggestion was to meet the outer and inner turbulence of the next two months (and beyond) by drawing upon some time-tested spiritual practices.

Spiritual practices do two related but slightly different things. First, they help us cope with stress. There’s no denying that this is a highly stressful moment. There’s the noisy political campaign and the deep collective divisions it manifests, exaggerates, and preys upon. There’s also the stress of the coronavirus, plus our collective reckoning with the long legacy of racial injustice and inequity. Spiritual practices are the things we do, especially in times of stress, to connect with a sense of spiritual comfort or guidance. They can be explicitly spiritual things like meditation or worship, or implicitly spiritual things like walking in the woods or listening to music.

Source: Mediamodifier/Pixabay

But spiritual practices aren’t just about getting through. They’re also about growing through. They’re the things we do not just to cope with stress and suffering. They’re the things we do to allow stress and suffering to deepen us as spiritual beings. In this sense, spiritual practices involve not reaching too quickly for comfort, but staying with the discomfort, even deepening the discomfort, and allowing stress to reshape our egocentric orientation into something more other-centric or Spirit-centric. They’re ways to allow the experiences named in the question—overwhelm, bitterness, anger, fear, and hatred—to strengthen and deepen our spiritual capacity. And I will add: Whatever happens in November, the world will need people of extraordinary spiritual capacity.

The list of practices I developed was too lengthy for a single post, so I split it into a Part 1, “Five Spiritual Practices for Election Season,” and this Part 2, “Five More Spiritual Practices for Election Season.” The practices I offered in the prior post were more ways-to-increase-resilience-when-life-gets-to-be-too-much practices, as is the first one I mention here. But the remaining four are leaning-in-to-the-intense-stress-of-this-moment practices, with hope that our spiritual capacity might be deepened and strengthened. I hope you’ll find what follows useful.

1. Connect with your spiritual community. Spirituality is about what makes us feel alive and joyful, what helps us deal with suffering and adversity, and what gives us a sense of meaning and connection to something greater. And quite often, these spiritual “whats” are seeded, nourished, and harvested in spiritual communities. Some spiritual communities are explicitly religious, like synagogues, mosques, churches, or sanghas. But others are spiritual in a more implicit way, like book groups, running groups, yoga classes, and yes, political groups.

It’s been more challenging to connect with our spiritual communities during the COVID pandemic, but we need them now more than ever. Ask yourself: Where am I, what am I doing, and who am I with when I feel a little more solid, a little less agitated, a little more alive, a little more myself? And consider how you might connect with something, someone, or someplace like that.

2. Love your enemies, Part 1. All the great spiritual teachers seem to agree on this. Loving our friends, loving the people who make us happy, loving the people who look like us and think like us--that’s all well and good. But the deepest love, love that’s actually love of an other and not just a roundabout way of loving ourselves, is love for someone who makes us angry or breaks our heart. The real step in spiritual growth, the step from egocentric to other-centric or spirit-centric, involves loving those that we’re more inclined to hate. And it definitely takes practice.

You can practice loving your enemies in an active, visible way. Maybe you grab the neighbor’s trash can, the neighbor with the other guy’s sign in the yard, and roll it back from the curb. Or smile and wave at someone wearing the other guy’s hat or T-shirt. Or make a plate of brownies and take it by the opposition campaign office. (Without putting poison in it.) Not so much for them, though they may well appreciate it. But for you. To strengthen your spiritual muscles and stretch yourself in the direction of love.

You can also practice loving your enemies in more of an inward way. Pray for the other guy and those who support him (or her). Ask God to help you pray for the other guy. Practice lovingkindness meditation while holding the face of a political enemy in your heart: “May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you be at ease.”

Remember that loving our enemies doesn’t mean signing ourselves over to their agenda. It doesn’t mean dropping our boundaries, letting them hurt us, or giving them access to the sacred circle of our vulnerability. It means practicing compassion, with hands and heart, for others. Not because we feel like it. But because we want to get to the place where we feel like it. Not because we like them. But because they’re a human being. Not in an effort to win them over. But in an effort to let our own hearts be won over by love.

3. Breathe out hate. You used the word “hate” in your question, and I want to speak especially to that. There’s a lot of hating in politics, or variants of hating: meanness, contempt, and disgust. The people who represent ideas we don’t like, especially when they represent those ideas in an aggressive and acrimonious way—we can easily end up hating not just their cause, but their very selves. And while hatred and contempt have some positive intent to them—they’re energies that protect us or protect people and causes we love—they have a corrosive impact on our insides. It’s a good thing, then, when we can release the acid of hate that we carry within. A simple way to do that is just to breathe it out. Find it in yourself, wrap it up with your inhale, and breathe it out. A little at a time. As often as needed.

4. Follow your hate all the way to mirror. Almost always, whenever we muster up the energy to hate another person, it’s because that person reminds us of something we don’t like in ourselves. That person at the office who won’t stop talking about himself ... maybe he reminds me of my own desire for attention. That person at the office who won’t stop talking, period, who goes on and on and on about nothing and keeps me and everybody else from getting our work done ... maybe she reminds me of my own monkey mind. That politician who’s so absurdly dishonest and power-hungry ... maybe he reminds me of my own deceitfulness and ambition.

Psychology’s word for this is projection. We expel what’s undesirable in ourselves and project it onto someone else. The result of this sleight of hand, when we can pull it off, is that someone else carries the filth, while our own inner house stays clean.

Sort of. Because ultimately, we can’t pull it off. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the thing we hate and project remains in us. And when we’re hating the other we’re hating ourselves. It’s a step towards transformation and wholeness, then, and a powerful spiritual practice, to notice what we’re hating or judging in others, take a good long look in the mirror, and ask this question: this thing I hate in the other, where is it in me?

And you must admit: election season is an unmatchable opportunity for this practice.

5. Love your enemies, Part 2. The point of finding in ourselves the qualities we despise in others is not, however, so we can hate ourselves too. (As if there were some virtue in being an equal opportunity hater.) The point of finding the things we hate in ourselves is to practice loving our inner enemies and thereby learn the ways of love more deeply.

Let’s say, for example, that I follow hate to the mirror and, after a period of reflection, I find there’s a narcissist inside me, too. The next step is not to unleash the full force of my hatred against myself, in an effort to drive that narcissist out of office too. The next step in spiritual development is to practice loving that inner narcissist.

I know that’s easier said than done. This is why we practice.

And one thing that helps, in my experience, anyway, is curiosity. What happened to me that the ordinary need for attention became this extraordinary need for unceasing attention? What’s the story?

When we hear another person’s story, even an enemy’s, it humanizes them. Maybe it humanizes them only a little, but even that little represents a crack in their monsterdom. And it’s through that crack that compassion has a chance to radiate.

Ultimately, I think, what turns hate to love is love. Which is to say, what turns hate to love is a great mystery. I won’t pretend I understand it.

Thanks again for your wonderful question. I hope something in the list above or the previous one is helpful to you, and I pray that you will come through the next 70 days (or the next 70 days and four years) in better shape than you feel you are now.

Here is one last word of encouragement: Do not allow the intense collective energy of this moment to have its way with you. Gather yourself spiritually, and let the great mystery have its way with you.

This is a question-and-answer blog for therapists, therapy clients, and others interested in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality. If there's a question you'd like to see addressed, please contact me.