By Dr. Christopher Willard & Vanessa Gobes
This year’s presidential election has devolved into something that feels disturbingly like a pro-wrestling match. In fact, Ellen DeGeneres ran a perfect spoof on EllenTube last week:
Clinton and Trump are locked together, trading insults and elbows, and the show they’re putting on – be it via debates, rallies, social media, or resurrected B-roll – is generating huge reactions from audiences. The more we watch, the more impact we feel in our own gut as our favored candidate absorbs another brutal punch. Each face-off, commercial, or round of polls may bring grief or elation, but always brings more anxiety.
Our physical, mental, and emotional reactions echo the low blows and shouts of righteous indignation we see onscreen: Sweaty palms, tight chests, and furrowed brows, gasps for air, primal screams into pillows, cries of disbelief and frantic internet searches for Canadian citizenship and more.
While we may feel powerless to affect the outcome of the election (beyond our vote), we can empower ourselves to affect our reaction to it, in turn helping those around us. Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” Mahatma Ghandi urged, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” These two men could hardly be more different, but consider the commonality – their belief that change starts here, with us. And while few of us will escape 2016’s presidential slugfest with total equanimity, here are seven mind-body trainings that offer us a fighting chance.
1. Don’t show up to every match you’re invited to
Don’t show up for events that proliferate anxiety. Instead, proliferate the positive. Take a break from the news and from your social media feed. Impossible? Limit your social media use to times when you feel emotionally composed. To further quell any political resentment, you may also choose to resign from live posting and real-time online debate.
Instead, consider appealing to the best in yourself and others. While this may sound easier said than done, consider the last question of Sunday night’s debate, “Can you name one positive thing you respect in one another?” Ask yourself this question, not just about the candidates, but also friends, family, and neighbors with whom you disagree. It’s a way to send them to a neutral corner in your mind.
2. Physical training
You are a mindful, compassionate, insightful human being, but during this election cycle, you may find yourself dizzy or even down for the count. In this case, physical awareness is your best defense. When you notice your physical reactions to political rumbles, purge that build up deliberately through exercise, emotional release (crying, laughing, screaming), or through your favorite mindful movement practice, like yoga or tai chi.
3. Take a dive and stay down for the count
The ten count is considered a victory in professional wrestling. But consider the ten count before getting back into the social media ring with that perfectly-composed, snarky Twitter retort. Count to ten, or even count ten breaths, ten sensations in your body, or ten sounds in the environment. Then, return focus to your post and read it aloud. Does it meet your own standards of mindfulness and compassion? Will those words bring out the best in everyone?
4. T.H.I.N.K. before you speak or post online
It’s an oldie but goodie. Ask yourself, is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary and is Now the time? And lastly, is it Kind? Imagine if the candidates followed these guidelines in their stump speeches
5. Use your hometown advantage
We mindful types know that half the challenge of mindfulness, is remembering to practice mindfulness. Try triggering your practice by employing your environment. Use simple decorating details to make your home a constant reminder to take a deep breath and clean up your thoughts. Before the next presidential bout begins, prop a bouquet of flowers next to your computer or television screen. Allow its beauty to remind you that nothing lasts forever, including your tight jaw, your clenched fists, and this disaster of a debate. No flowers in the house? Adhere a sticky note with the word BREATHE in capital letters next to your screen.
6. The Breathing Game
Rumor has it that college kids have made a drinking game of the debates, taking a drink each time one candidate interrupts the other. (This strikes us as an ambulance ride waiting to happen.) Why not take one full breath in and one full breath out each time one candidate interrupts the other, or interrupts the moderator? Think of how relaxed you’ll be by the end of the debate!
7. Work up to the heavy lifting
Going for the world heavyweight title in equanimity this election season? You can cultivate compassion for yourself and for others.
A friend jokes that the barometer of his spiritual condition is his level of compassion for the opposing political party. It’s a useful yardstick, and you might ask yourself how you are doing with it today? If you’re anything like us, you might not be quite as compassionately-advanced as you’d like to see yourself.
So how do you build that compassion muscle? Begin by directing well-wishes toward yourself during a seated meditation. Wish for yourself what you most need to survive the next three weeks of political counterpunch. For example, May I be happy… May I live without fear… May I approach Facebook with equanimity… Choose unique phrases that resonate with you. Internalize these wishes, then send those same words outward toward a friend, perhaps toward a buddy of your political affiliation.
Next, send these wishes toward a neutral person, maybe one of those mysterious “undecided voters.” From there, move to a difficult person, perhaps a high school nemesis crossing your candidate online. From there, if you can stomach it, send these wishes toward that challenging candidate, and then ultimately, toward all of us suffering together through this political title match.
Be warned: you may get jammed up by your challenging candidate. While attempting to send well-wishes toward Donald or Hillary, your mind may try to eject from the meditation. Instead of forfeiting, get playful. Use your imagination to neutralize his or her outsized ego by turning that heavyweight into a featherweight. Still too big? Imagine the candidate a tiny, helpless baby. Swaddle him or her in a soft blanket and play peek-a-boo, May you be happy. May you live without fear.
When all contenders are happy and feel safe, be them candidates, friends, or pundits, we all go home champs.
Click here to watch the Ellen video: http://ellentube.com/videos/0_bwagip8k.
Christopher Willard, PsyD, is a psychologist and educational consultant based in Boston, specializing in mindfulness with adolescents and young adults. Author of Child’s Mind, Growing Up Mindful, and three other books on mindfulness, compassion and mental health, Willard has been practicing meditation for more than 15 years and leads workshops internationally.
He currently teaches at Harvard Medical School and serves on the board of directors at the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and the Mindfulness in Education Network.
Vanessa Gobes is a meditation teacher and workshop facilitator, focusing her work in Greater Boston. She co-founded Chrysalis Meditation Center in 2015 in Winchester, Massachusetts, where she especially enjoys introducing mindfulness techniques to women and children. Vanessa continues to write about mindfulness, motherhood, and mayhem with humor and truth for a long list of online publications.