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?
A: Thanks for the question and for caring about what’s happening in the world. Most people, whatever their values and political leanings, believe that what happens in the next ten weeks is of great importance. You do, obviously, and I do too.
But you’re right. Caring about what’s happening and tuning in to the daily political drama can be extremely distressing. There are people who love it, of course—some for the opportunity to engage in a cause they believe in, others simply for the theater of it—but many more, I think, find it troubling and toxic. They feel out of control—of the world and of themselves—and that they’re turning into a version of themselves they don’t like.
I’m a psychotherapist with a strong spiritual bent. I believe the psychological, spiritual, physical, and social dimensions of human beings are always “on” and always interrelated, and I assume you’re writing me because you know that and are looking for a response that blends those perspectives.
What if, then, asks the spiritually oriented psychotherapist, you approach this entire situation—the political campaigning, the 24-hour coverage and commentary, the polarized arguing and propagandizing on social media, and the grip it has on you, your fear, your anger, and especially your feelings of hate—all of it, as a spiritual practice?
“Spiritual practice” is a term used in diverse spiritual traditions to describe any of the things we do to support our spiritual growth. They can help us get back to normal when the world is turbulent. And when normal is actually the problem, when we’re stuck in a pattern that’s making us miserable, they can open space for transformation and healing.
The term spiritual practice refers to particular things we do, at particular times, but also to an overall orientation that sees life as a spiritual journey and everything that happens as grist for that journey. Engaging our external or internal stress as a spiritual practice shifts the locus of control. This is very important. We’re no longer just victims of whatever’s happening. We’re now subjects, agents, choosers, who decide to make use of a stressor as an opportunity for our spiritual growth and to widen the energetic bandwidth of the planet.
Anything can be a spiritual practice. Explicitly spiritual things, like praying, meditating, or reading some sacred text. But things that aren’t explicitly spiritual can be spiritual practices, too, if we come to them with spiritual intention. Listening to music, drinking coffee, going for a walk, smiling. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about washing dishes as a spiritual practice.
So why not politics and election season?
I’ve gathered a list of ten spiritual practices you might find helpful. There are many more than ten, of course, but even ten is too many for a blog space. So I’ve divided the list: five in this post, five in a part two. Some of the practices are more active and outward-focused. Some are more contemplative and inward-focused. Some are a blend. In general, the five in this post are more for the purpose of helping us feel stable, grounded, and more ourselves again. Those in the next will be more about transformation and growth.
1. Move your body. There’s a saying in the 12-step community: Move a muscle, change a thought. Any time we find ourselves emotionally or spiritually stuck, it’s a good idea to do something different with our bodies than what we’re doing in the state of stuckness. If you’re sitting, stand. If there’s tightness in your neck, turn your head. If there’s worry in your torso, shake it out through your extremities. If there’s a phone in your hand, put it down. Almost all religions, by the way, have practices that involve the body: bowing, kneeling, dancing, singing, and more. Moving our body opens space for the movement of spirit.
2. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness means paying attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what’s happening right now in our minds and bodies. Particularly our bodies. Notice your left foot, for instance. Right now. Is it warm or cool? Tense or relaxed? Heavy or light? The particular answers aren’t what matters. What matters is the noticing. Noticing does two things. It shifts our attention–away from the content of a distressing thought, for example, and onto the tingle of my skin that’s happening as that thought arises. And it activates parts of our brain—like the medial prefrontal cortex–that help us feel calmer. What if, twice in the morning, twice in the afternoon, and twice after dinner, you took 60 seconds just to notice some sensation happening in your body?
3. Get involved in a campaign. This is an active practice, obviously, and it’s a spiritual practice only if you bring some spiritual motivation or intention to your involvement. That spiritual motivation might be compassion for those who will be affected by the outcome of the election: unborn children, children living in poverty, children of immigrants, children with chronic and costly medical conditions. The point is: let your spirituality move you to action. Whatever you believe in, whatever your political leaning, step forward for it.
4. Meditate or pray. This is not the space to say much about either of these practices. It’s just a reminder that they can be incredibly helpful. Could you set aside time to pray or meditate once or twice a day–two minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes, whatever works for you? You might use a guided meditation—some people find it’s helpful to have another person’s soothing voice supporting them. You might also try praying or meditating while you’re doing other things. I know people, for example, who pray while they watch or read the news. They offer space in their hearts to the people and situations in the news, surrounding them with the energy of love—their own love, God’s love. Or they use the Tibetan practice of tonglen: breathing in the pain and suffering of another, breathing out peace and happiness.
5. Lectio divina. This is a fancy phrase from the Christian contemplative tradition. It means “sacred reading,” and you don’t have to be a Christian to practice it. Basically, whatever you’re reading—the Bible, the Quran, the Tao Te Ching, a poem, a novel, even the news—you read slowly, waiting on a single word or a short phrase to catch your attention. Then you stop reading and meditate on that word or phrase. You can also carry that word or phrase with you through the day and use it as a touchstone. The word I’m carrying today is “acceptance.”
And that word, acceptance, is helping me let go of this response for now. I hope one or two of these practices might be helpful, and I’ll be back in a few days with part two.
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 through my website.