So, the American election happened last week. Trump will soon be president of the most powerful country on Earth.
No matter what your political persuasion, one thing has become clear – there’s a huge ideological divide in western societies at the moment, and my hope is that we can try to make sense of this and not close our hearts to those who think differently to us.
I’ve gone through a range of emotions throughout this election. From laughing when I heard Trump was running to horror after hearing he won – but of course I am a young(ish), middle-class, well-educated, liberal woman…hardly his demographic. And these days, with the way the internet and social media work, we tend to be ensconced within cyber-bubbles of our own interests, preferences, likes and like-minded people….I don’t really have anyone in my cyber-world (except maybe the odd relative – but we can’t choose them!) who shares a markedly different world-view than I…which can be misleading.
My facebook feed is full of yoga gatherings, meditation circles, positive quotes, and posts speaking out about environmental issues, racism, sexism and refugee rights. This is the nice little world I live in and sometimes I make the mistake of assuming this is representative of the world at large. So the most shocking realisation for me from this election, is just how out of touch I am with the mainstream world-view.
When we are in fear or anger, it can be really easy to make projections, react with ego and judge the “other” as wrong and us as “right”. I have certainly done this in the past, when Tony Abbot (another politician with racist, misogynist views) became Prime Minister in my own country, Australia, I remember feeling so angry with those who voted him in – unkindly labelling and dismissing them as racist, ignorant, uneducated, rednecks. (And of course whenever our ego labels another as wrong, we get that subtle little pleasurable boost of therefore knowing we are right, we are superior – which is one of the reasons why we do it!).
But as my mindfulness practice has deepened, I felt I didn’t want to react with ego this time, and most of all I didn’t want to close off my heart to people who think differently to me. Mindfulness teaches us to be open and compassionate and to seek to understand…and I found myself genuinely wanting to understand why people would vote for someone who I so strongly felt would not be a compassionate, effective leader. So I did a little research and watched Noam Chomsky‘s excellent discussions as well as Michael Moore’s interesting documentary Trumpland.
Life Ain’t Pretty in Trumpland
I was saddened to learn just how hard-hit so many families in mid-west America have been since the economic crisis. How forgotten they feel, as many corporations have outsourced overseas and economic growth has stagnated for 30 years for this segment of the population. There is a righteous anger by those who have been discarded by the system and are tired of career politicians whose promises make no difference.
Like I said earlier, when we are in fear we want someone to blame, someone to make wrong. So when there is fear that the little you do have could be taken away, it is automatic to look for an enemy (part of the reason many people project blame onto immigrants and fear that they will steal the already dwindling supply of jobs – it is much easier to notice the Mexican woman working on your local checkout than to see that the true culprit is unchecked corporate greed and a government that spends staggeringly more on warfare than public welfare).
When Trump comes in and says he is going to place a 35% tariff on Detroit car companies who outsource overseas, I can see how as Michael Moore says, this can be music to some people’s ears. When he says he is going to build a wall and stop Mexicans coming in and taking jobs, it can seem, on the surface, that it is a viable solution to job shortages. To quote Michael Moore again, the ballot box became an ‘anger management tool’ to vent frustrations by people who are suffering.
Of course, not all Trump voters are people struggling financially who have had job cuts. Many are very wealthy and are highly educated…but they are still suffering – from fear too and perhaps also from fear’s cousin: greed. And when we are in fear or greed, we have no room for compassion, in fact neuroscience has shown that it is actually impossible to be compassionate and to think about others when the fear-based parts of our mind are in control. This is because we have evolved three different brain systems as we transformed from reptiles to mammals over the eons, and we are still smack in the middle of a rather clunky process of evolution that has quite a few kinks in the system.
Is That Reptile Conspiracy True??? Partly!
We have a fear-based brain system called the threat/protection system, the part of our brain that kicks in when we feel unsafe or stressed and is also known as the reptilian brain. It is based on the 4 F’s: fighting, freezing, fleeing and f….reproduction! So protecting territory, seeking power and fighting “enemies” are the hallmarks of this system and it is run by stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Back in the day, it was a necessary form of survival for our species, now, it is perhaps the greatest threat to our survival. (I find it amusing that there is a conspiracy theory out there that the government is secretly run by cold-hearted reptilian aliens….well, it’s not completely wrong, most governments are run by people driven by the cold, reptilian part of the brain!)
The second brain system is known as the incentive/resource seeking system. This evolved a little later in our history and did help us to innovate and set goals. It is run by the neurotransmitter dopamine (the pleasure/reward pathway that can leave us open to addiction). This system gives us a buzz when we get what we want and reach goals…the real danger though is that we can and do get addicted to this buzz and greed can then get the better of us – and we railroad others on the journey to getting what we want. (And the important thing to recognise about greed is that it is also driven by fear and stress – fear of not enough, fear of failing etc).
The third and most recent evolution in the human brain is the contentment/soothing system. As we became mammals and had to care for our young for many years, and co-operate in families, groups and tribes we developed the ability to put others needs before our own, and to develop empathy, caring and understanding. This system is run by several hormones and neurotransmitters, but particularly oxytocin – the same hormone released in large quantities after a mother gives birth and is responsible for those incredible feelings of love and bonding. This system helps us to connect and relate to others with love and kindness and is responsible for profound feelings of relaxation and wellbeing. Interestingly, when this brain system is active, it literally switches off the threat/protection system and the incentive/resource system and dissolves our stress and fear, making it natural to think about and care for others.
The more chronically stressed we are, the more our mental habits will automatically fire up the fear-based parts of the brain, making it harder and harder to respond differently…this is why I was completely serious in this post that our daily meditation practices not only have the power to change our brains, but to change the world.
We’re All Just…..Human
Why am I talking about all this brain stuff and politics? Because I think it helps us understand what is going on on a wider scale from a more pragmatic, human and biological perspective. We are all still evolving humans at the mercy of brains that are sometimes reptilian, sometimes mammalian..sometimes our old fear/greed brains are driving us and sometimes we are able to tap into our more evolved brains of compassion and caring.
Those controlling our governments and we who cast votes are just humans driven by these brains too. Unfortunately, from a global point of view, it seems the threat/protection and the incentive/resource seeking system wins out nine times out of 10! But the hope lies in the fact that we all have the contentment/soothing parts of our brains there.
I am fearful about the consequences of someone like Trump having so much power, perhaps you are too – but if we let fear get the better of us and we shut down our compassion towards people who support him and turn them into an enemy, we are adding fuel to the fire. When we can respond with compassion and understanding, we can lessen the chasms of division so present in our society, and our message is more likely to be heard. This world needs more than ever strong, compassionate voices, so if you are fortunate enough to be driven by the contentment/soothing system of the brain more often than not, keep sharing your compassionate points of view – particularly with those outside of your own “cyber-bubble”, keep helping to reduce fear and suffering, and keep reminding others of what the human mind and heart is also capable of through your own example.
(And perhaps most importantly, keep getting involved with compassionate causes and voting for compassionate politicians!)
Lastly, take heart in the fact that, though it may not seem like it on the news and albeit very slowly, we humans are evolving into more humane, caring creatures…our survival now depends on it.