Wrote this during the last election cycle — still seems quite relevant.
Two things have happened this week that have reinforced my conclusion that although we have to do practical stuff to help others (eg, I took Zia the foster kitten to the vet yesterday, which might have saved her life), lasting, far-reaching change has to come from within. Like I was saying in my last article.
An adventure in canvassing
Those of you in the US may have noticed that we are in election season. Now, I want to say before I go any further that generally I’m with Nagarjuna when he prayed never to reborn as a politician. However, I do think there is a choice in this election that might make a difference to large sections of the population. I voted yesterday for the person I think will muck things up less and I actually do hope he wins. I became an American citizen in July, and I’ve long thought that exercising my right to vote is a karmic way to make sure I keep my freedom to vote in the future (and gives me the excuse to complain when politicians annoy me.) But that’s me. I have friends who entirely disagree with my version of who should win this election, or who think that voting for any politician is an exercise in futility, and these are perfectly fine and kind people; which just goes to show how everything depends on our own mind.
The only time I’ve ever been politically active was, aged 13 in Britain, when I saw a party political broadcast by Jeremy Thorpe of the Liberal Party and decided on the spot to join the Young Liberals. This basically meant wearing a nerdy badge and going to a few discos. I don’t believe I made the slightest jot of difference to anything, but I did meet some boys.
Still, the other day I was chilling on my sofa when the phone rang and someone asked me: “Are you voting for so and so?” “Yes.” “Would you like to volunteer to help the campaign?”
I have never hitherto had the slightest interest in volunteering to help the campaign, and I am not one of those people who tries everything once, but for some reason the word “Yes” came out of my mouth again. Before I could swallow it, I found myself committed to a time and place.
Last Sunday at 1pm, therefore, I found myself driving to a rather nice house on the water and meeting a bunch of rather nice people, who are passionate about this thing. I had read that the well-organized campaign knew everything about registered voters and tried to match canvassers up with their own type of demographic, so as I drove off alone in my car with my clipboard and all my leaflets I called my mum to tell her that with my English accent I’d soon be knocking on some posh doors in that neighborhood. Instead, I found my directions taking me east of the railway tracks.
Equipped with only my sticker, I knocked on 41 doors that afternoon – half the people were out (thankfully) and the other half were African American. Florida gets called the zebra state for good (bad) reason – the strip of land by the water is white, and the strip of land behind it is black, and don’t get me started on how weird that is. In any event, I had an interesting afternoon and a total of 15 conversations, being invited in a couple of times, and persuading perhaps a total of four whole people to go early to the voting booth, but more likely I was preaching to the choir and those four would have gone anyway.
That took four concerted hours!! And really, if I’m to be honest, it accomplished very little, if anything. (I did have fun though.) I am not criticizing Get Out the Vote, in fact it may be necessary and I admired the motivation of the organizers I met (who now of course want me to come back as apparently 15 conversations is some sort of first-time record, tho’ no doubt they say that to everyone.) But what struck me was how labor-intensive and in fact potentially frustrating it is to try and talk people into things they are not interested in. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It just shows me how slow change will be if that is all we do to change things.
Atisha says that we cannot tame the minds of others until we have tamed our own mind. And I think that if everyone put four concerted hours into developing compassion and wisdom each day, we’d very quickly tame our own minds, and could help and encourage others in quite exceptional ways.
I actually heard these words coming out of my mouth while out canvassing, “Let’s win this thing!” I was surprised at myself, until I realized that I wasn’t really talking about the election.
(Hey, I just had some scary trick or treaters come to my door and had to bribe them to go away with Reeses Peanut Butter Cups… it sort of reminded me of Sunday, only no one gave me any chocolate… Happy Halloween Everyone!)
Sandy. An innocuous name for a killer storm. The inescapable violence of the out-of-control wind and rain in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Haiti and so on reminds me that all too often we have little to no control over the external world. NYC, a major world city with extraordinary modern infrastructure, was still powerless in many ways when the four elements became unbalanced. Many people had the karma in this storm to stay cosy and warm inside, power on, stocked up, just hearing the howling wind without being adversely affected by it on this occasion. Quite a lot of others, however, did not. I think of that policeman who took his family to safety in the attic and returned to the basement, only to drown. He did not expect that when he woke up in the morning. Nor did that woman expect to tread on a live wire and be electrocuted to death. We never know when it is our turn – we always think tragedy is something that happens to others, until it happens to us. Just one or two days, but so much damage. We need to gain more control over our lives, and quickly.
I pray that all those who died so unexpectedly in the storm go straight to Tara’s heart, and that their loved ones find peace. I pray that those 20 premature babies who had to be evacuated with tubes dangling all survive intact and healthy and that their parents aren’t too terrified. I pray the damage is not too devastating to people’s livelihoods and property, that those who lost their homes can recover as soon as possible, and that those without power quickly get it back. I pray anyone reading this, and your friends, family, and neighbors, are all okay, now and always.
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I know democracy is flawed. The six billion dollars that will be spent this election season, feeding sound bites to a voting public that is actually persuaded by sound bites, is evidence enough. But it’s the best system anyone has come up with to date. And in terms of an either politics or Buddhism discussion, I’m not sure I can even go there. I feel that Buddhism accords with my sense of social responsibility that is expressed through my political activity. Politics was my first outlet for what I later learned Buddhism also teaches.
And democracy is no small thing. I consider voting to be a moral responsibility. But maybe more relevant to this conversation, I think democracy as the best example of Westerners acknowledging our collective connectivity, our interdependence. Through it we say, “We all count, equally. The destiny of each individual is linked to the destiny of all others, and because we know to be true this we decide our collective fate together.” What could be more Buddhist than that?
Very good points.
From one Buddhist to another, I love what you’re saying Madeleine. But democracy, as defined as ‘the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community’ is illusory both in the UK and US. I truly wish we could change that.
Jas, what you say here is true, of course. Democracy doesn’t yet live up to its lofty principles. But in practice all belief systems fall short of their own ideals. When big ideas are placed in the hands of ordinary people, an awful lot gets lost in translation. Sometimes there’s even willful misuse to advance agendas that stand in direct opposition to the original intention. But if it’s a good idea, maybe even a great idea, these failings don’t render it worthless. Even if it fails in execution because of all manner of ridiculousness, a good idea orientates us correctly and gives us something worthy to aspire to. Democracy is a great idea. It will only improve if we don’t get discouraged and instead each do our part to help it achieve its potential. I’d say Luna’s canvassing activity is a good and handy example of doing just that.
True words, Madeleine. And even if we don’t appear to be making much impact right now, I guess we’re creating the karma for increased and improved democracy in the future?
We’ve got our first election for town mayor coming up in Bristol, UK soon. Of course I’m voting for the left wing and green candidates; but I fear the capitalist in the red trousers will win, simply because he’s promising financial growth.
Still, we must support (and therefore promote) moral values. Thanks for reminding me of that.
Madeleine! I’ve rescinded my stance on democracy somewhat. I do vote, but must admit to becoming somewhat disillusioned with it all. But you’re right, we have to stand for what we thinks best. I just hate that they all lie – so transparently as well! Anyway, here’s my latest offering which shows the change of heart. Let me know if you approve!
Electile Dysfunction: Voting? Either use our vote or lose it.
Excellent! Thanks for sharing, Jas. I’ve just read it and will comment directly on your blog.
Is voting an ‘exercise in futility’? I fear it may be. You guys (you’re an American now?! Congrats) seem to have candidates who only really differ in color, tho that is only my view from England. The UK is no better, with the previous New Labour government being no better than the right wing capitalists we have now.
All told, it does seem to be the best thing we can do is continue to follow Buddha’s advice – cherish others, cease to do evil, and follow the liberating path.
Hi Jas, your comment has inspired me to write another article, on its way this weekend, thanks… And BTW, I love Blighty, and still have my British passport too 🙂
‘Course you do! How could you not love our relentless drizzle and aristocracy ;~)
Good news that I’ve inspired you tho! I look forward to reading the next instalment….
Your very brave to go out and canvas a political party to others, I bet it was with the purist intention to help others. 🙂 it is nice to know of your ordinary side as i have only seen the pure side, your so right if we all work on compassion and love we would have a better world. Great story. Thanks for sharing.
Really enjoyed the image of you out canvassing! Great to see you out there mixing it up in the world whilst working all the time from the inside. Love it!
Well, your blog is coming on very nicely indeed, if I may say so.
“Trying to ignore the world is like closing your eyes and crossing a busy road, hoping that by not seeing the cars, they won’t hit you.” From: http://heartofcompassionblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/keeping-it-real/
Well worth a read.
An interesting defence of quietism Lu. But even though you don’t think your 4 hours of canvassing achieved much in terms of getting the vote out or affecting the result, I think there is some social benefit to your positive engagement with marginalised people. You present developing compassion vs active engagement as an either / or choice, but can’t it be both / and?
Thank you for posting this here, Matthew xx
As I replied on Facebook, “Yes Matthew Bain it definitely can. I could have spent that same four hours out canvassing developing compassion and wisdom if I had the mindfulness to do it, and I sort of do. Please put your comment on the blog itself as I didn’t want to give the impression it was an either/or and you could give me the chance to clarify.”
Oh boy! This is such a hot topic with me. I have turned around so many times on this topic I may have homogenized my brain. As an amateur historian, I wondered how Dharma being absorbed into the West would affect the political process. Luna, your experience is so right on what it means to be an American. They made fun of Martha Washington in the newspapers, they called Abraham Lincoln a baboon, Alexander Hamilton and Arron Burr were such political foes they eventually fought a duel over some petty insult. They impeached Andrew Johnson on some lame charge having to do with oppressing the newly freed slaves and recently they impeached Bill Clinton because he ruined the excuse many men were using to be deceptively honest with their significant other that oral sex was not sex.
The political process here is very often compared to making sausage. Of course, vegetarians are thoroughly disgusted by that process as they would not eat it in any case. If the system were not fixed it actually does work. However, when we combine voter apathy, oligarchy, enhanced technology in communication owed by the few, expertise in propaganda and a systemized effort towards diminutiveness of the middle class; you have what it is known as a “stacked deck”
In a participatory democracy, we get the government we deserve. I too agree with Nagarjuna and then Geshe Kelsang Gyatso who asked us in New York in 2007 to refrain from being involved politics. I keep myself informed, work on liberating my mind and speak up for the things I think will help the most people in the most skillful way. When someone asks me if am I a democrat or republican I say, “I am to the left of Edward Kennedy on social issues and to the right of Orin Hatch on fiscal matters – I am a closet liberal locked up in a financial vault to keep government small. Too bad the hearts of many Americans are not big enough to have small government and also provide for the least among us. I inform myself on many points of view and vote as my contribution to the political process.
Thanks Ike. “Closet liberal locked up in a financial vault” sounds a bit uncomfortable though! And thank you for reminding me of what Geshe Kelsang said in 2007, though if i remember correctly he was mainly referring to Tibetan politics at the time.
Maybe you’re right but I still think I’ll keep out of politics directly as it seems to disturb my mind less. I just went to vote 3 1/2 hours. Are you sure we are in the 21st century?
Yes, Im with Nagarjuna,too,Luna.. and being from the UK and of similar age,I remember Jeremy Thorpe very well..I ll say no more!
If I summarise your premise it’s that the inner ‘revolution’ in our controlling and transforming our minds will have much more meaning and better results than engaging in political actions which want to change outer conditions to improve things. This is summarised beautifully of course in the Preface of Modern Buddhism in faultless logical and valid reasoning.
However, we all know that we are members of society and that political action can be beneficial but depends on a lot of factors and like everything is impermanent.No politician has to actual power to bestow happiness and from using Buddha’s wisdom we know the truth of changing suffering. Obviously I’m not saying politics is intrinsically bad of course but only that the level of personal happiness and freedom is entirely created by mind and only a Buddha truly understands everything.
One thing in your article that ‘woke me up’ was your reasoning for using the vote:the long term karmic consequences of not doing so and what type of outer conditions we may meet in the future if we fail to do so. Very thought provoking!
You’ve nicely spelled out what i was trying to illustrate with the story, thank you 🙂
Thank you Luna for explaining about your thoughts on politics. I was surprised by a comment you made in another article on the subject and I was going to ask you about it. It makes sense. I also find it very inspiring that you have such a light attitude to your daily life and a genuine concern for others. I do hope some of it rubs off!
Now of course i want to know what comment that was! But p’raps i’ll let sleeping dogs lie… 😉