“Do it live! I’ll write it and we’ll do it live!”
- Bill O’Reilly, Inside Edition
I meditate on the regular. Is it because I wanted psychic powers? Maybe. Yes. No. Sort of. I refuse to answer this question. But look at how many bad things haven’t happened on my watch, and I guess you have your answer.
In reality, I meditate for two reasons.
I meditate because meditation improves life. Full stop. Not just the experience of life, but the way you live. Your stress decreases, the emotional richness of life deepens, your judgment improves. Meditation in life is like dinosaurs in storytelling: there is no situation it cannot improve. If you meditate, whatever’s ailing will ail you less. Meditation will vastly improve whatever you’re already pretty good at. It’s not a panacea, but it’s close.
But there’s another reason to meditate. A reason that’s relevant to Paste politics.
Politics is about the world, and our emotional reaction to the world. And when you talk about the world—especially about our emotional reaction to the world—there’s no neutral place to stand. We cannot get outside of ourselves. We can only grasp the world through our own filters. You have one lens through which to see, and that’s your mind.
In 1994, the Republicans had just taken Congress. I was at my grandparents’ house. There was a picture of Newt Gingrich on the cover of TIME magazine. I remember looking at that photo and thinking, Okay, when do I stop being emotionally involved in politics? As it turned out, the answer was “never.” It’s a bit like always being at sea: there are calmer moments, but never dry land.
In over three decades of political awareness, here is what I have learned. If you feel exactly what the news tells you to feel, then politics will burn you out. Staying in the game requires emotional awareness.
If your goal is to act and understand—and to do both well—then you need calm ground to stand on, and a clear mind to see with. The Era of Trump will provide you with neither. Meditation will.
I’ve been obsessed with politics since childhood. But I only started meditating four years ago. It’s made a world of difference.
In 2015, I was sprawled in bed, as one usually is in these kind of stories. I was taking stock of my emotional warehouse. Several fun facts became clear. I’d just moved back to Texas from New York City, and, to quote from the Book of Clueless, I was totally buggin’. When I investigated closer, I found a perpetual, low-level vigilance in the back of my head. It was a bit like walking into the kid’s nursery and finding a cheap baby monitor broadcasting 24/7, hissing hushed static. It’s enough to make you say, “Wow, was this always on?”
So I started to meditate. My first regular attempts were incredibly perplexing. I sat still and felt exasperated. In my opinion, the Presidency of George W. Bush was no longer the single dumbest thing anyone had ever done. This was.
Here’s all meditation amounts to: You sit down for a pre-set time. In the beginning, 1-5 minutes is best. You close your eyes. You focus on a meditation-object: typically, the breath. You watch yourself breathe in, and breathe out. You do your best to keep focus on the object. Because you are human, your mind will drift. You will eventually notice your mind has drifted. When this happens, you must gently return your focus back to the breath. Let me emphasize the adverb gently. You can’t be hard at yourself at this point. Why? Because:
Losing your focus is literally the point of meditation.
As TV journalist Dan Harris wrote in Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics:
The [noticing] step is the key. As soon as you try to do this, your mind is almost certainly going to mutiny. You’ll start having all sorts of random thoughts, such as: What’s for lunch? Do I need a haircut? What was Casper the Friendly Ghost before he died? Who was the Susan after whom they named the lazy Susan, and how did she feel about it? No big deal. This is totally normal. The whole game is simply to notice when you are distracted, and begin again. And again. And again. Every time you catch yourself wandering and escort your attention back to the breath, it is like a biceps curl for the brain. It is also a radical act: you’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and you are actually focusing on what’s happening right now.
In 2015, I had not discovered Dan Harris. I wasn’t reading anything on meditation. What I was doing was sitting cross-legged on the brown bedroom carpet, enduring obsessive-compulsive thoughts, waiting for my iPhone alarm to liberate me from mind-hell. Meditation was the worst torture invented by mankind, and this is the species that innovated PowerPoints about synergy. Having to endure this everyday seemed beyond pointless, as the shaving man told his reflection.
But I kept at it. The early part of meditation is a bit like the first season of a TV show everyone raves about. You’re watching awkward episodes and thinking, “When does this get good?” If you stick with it, it will pay dividends.
Two weeks of half-assed practice later, and the practice stopped being a chore. Fourteen sessions is all it took. Four years later, it has become part of my daily routine.
Forget everything you’ve heard about it. Meditation is plain-jane stuff. You don’t have to feel cosmic vibrations or burn incense to practice it. As Harris points out, meditation has been the victim of terrible press:
I have heard from countless people who assume that they could never meditate because they can’t stop thinking. I cannot say this frequently enough: the goal is not to clear your mind but to focus your mind—for a few nanoseconds at a time—and whenever you become distracted, just start again. Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding. I think this pernicious clear-the-mind misconception stems in part from the fact that meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever. The traditional art depicting meditation, while often beautiful, can be badly misleading. It usually shows practitioners with beatific looks on their faces. ... Meditation can be difficult, especially at the beginning. It’s like going to the gym. If you work out and you’re not panting or sweating, you’re probably cheating.
America in 2019 is a time and place designed to create interior havoc. You can draft your own list of psychological tremors: climate change, political turmoil, the declining standards of Netflix, and so on. The point is that we are all mad online now, and nine times out of ten, we can’t even.
It’s odd, though. For most of human history, people were much poorer, and much closer to starvation, disaster, and war than today. But in the past, the rates of depression and anxiety were significantly lower. Why? A century of the social sciences suggests people are happier in egalitarian democratic communities, with a strong, diverse social life.
As it turns out, the modern world is extremely good at unbalancing you. Technology and prosperity remove the immediate necessity of knowing your neighbors. Late-state capitalism makes the individual the only source of meaning, and destroys the commons. You can see why the teens are loving the Snapchats and the TikToks and the Drake and the rappin’ music these days. No wonder so many people feel dizzy.
This feeling is magnified in politics. Most of the people who get involved in public life are planners. That makes sense. Politics is a game for grown-ups, and grown-up games have certain rules. You get the right resume, you design the right schedule, you say the right words at the right time, and you get the right result.
But the modern world, and modern politics, makes perfect planning hard. We live in a world where we have to do it live, as the unspeakable O’Reilly once reminded us. And in a world where we have to do it live, plans alone will not save you. Obsessive thinking will not save you. Constant anxiety will not save you. Beating up on yourself will not save you.
And worst of all, comparing yourself to others will not save you. That’s because there is no secure place of perfect poise and faultless adulthood. You’re imagining people who do not exist.
We all have plans. What defines you is what happens when those plans go awry.
The question is, who do you want to be when your plans misfire? Your best self, right? And your best self is not a perfect being, since perfect beings do not exist. Your best self is simply this: an individual who can understand their own emotions, who can see clearly, and can act wisely.
Here is what is not necessary, in politics or in life: the right conditions. The right degree. The right past. The right resume. The right set of circumstances. Here is what is necessary: the right understanding, and the right frame of mind to deal with the world as it is.
Meditation is a necessary skill in the world where you have to do it live.
Meditation will help you get there. Meditation shows us that we don’t need a constant source of external comfort. We just need awareness of who we are, of our emotions, and the true facts of what surrounds us. This is a world of change, and it will never stop. Meditation will give you the calmness to understand the tempest, and the insight to know who you are, where you are, and what you can do. Step up; sit down.