Two days ago I heard a long time senator on NPR describe the current presidential election as the wildest he has seen in his 50 years in politics. Obviously something outlandish is happening, but at 28, I don’t have all that much lived history to compare it to. So it was interesting, if unsurprising, to hear that even someone so accustomed to the political process is astounded.
It hasn’t been easy to make sense of. Old rules are breaking, outsiders are making a strong push, things that were once off the table are back on, and dignity and integrity are, at times, utterly absent.
But what gets my attention most is a prevailing sense that America is broken. Trump in his unprecedented bluntness states that “the country is going to hell, we have people who don’t know what they’re doing in Washington”. Hillary, in her latest riff, takes a softer approach, saying that this nation is still great but not “whole”.
It’s easy to agree with. Big issues that demand quick and comprehensive action seem to be sidelined, garnering only the attention they need to be effectively disregarded. It seems the reality of the situation we are facing is masked over by an elaborate scheme of power dynamics in which the truth is muddled by gradations of un-truth or else made completely irrelevant amidst the constant meddling of special interests. It seems the political sphere is dominated by ideas shared solely to provoke particular psychological responses.
It’s hard to find solid ground to stand on.
So it’s no wonder the sense that things are broken is relatable, and maybe that’s the reason the candidates bring it up—to create an instant connection with the audience. Trump and his advisors are media savvy professionals who have surveyed the political climate, and come back with “Make America Great Again” as their slogan. The assumption of course being that America is not great now. The results of his campaign clearly show that people are resonating.
I often reflect on how negativity is perhaps the easiest way to make a connection with someone. I notice myself slipping into gossip or complaining in new or uncomfortable social settings. It’s largely subconscious but I catch it from time to time. It’s the kind of tendency that can be exploited by skilled politicians.
Whether our presidential hopefuls are using negativity as a tactic to form connection or simply adhere to that worldview, at some point the motivating factor is inconsequential because either way they’re reaffirming the view amongst voters that America is essentially somewhere between fragmented and a complete mess.
During our recent staff retreat here at SMC we watched a talk by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche in which he makes the claim that society is fundamentally good. If you ask me, that’s a pretty radical assertion—one that starkly juxtaposes our habitual ways of thinking as well as the current political climate.
The goodness of society is the furthest extension of the teaching that, individually, we are all basically good, or fundamentally worthy. It can be a struggle to recognize your own inherent goodness, and even more difficult to recognize the inherent goodness in all beings, especially those that most upset your own sensibilities. But to call society basically good? That’s a whole other level.
In this day and age it would be quite difficult for a presidential candidate to unite their supporters around the goodness of society. They’d probably be dismissed as complacent or out of touch.
Let’s list off the go-to objections: the holocaust, the endless wars, slavery, mass starvation, environmental destruction, the psychological damage incurred by so many just by growing up in this culture. I’m sure you can add a few of your own because as neuroscientist and Buddhist scholar Rick Hanson pointed out in one of our recent online interviews, our brains are actually hardwired with a bias for remembering negative events and disregarding positive ones.
It’s hard to know how to relate to the notion of society’s fundamental goodness and even harder to imagine what a world based on that starting point would look like. What would happen if we regard all politicians as basically good? What would happen if we regard all citizens as basically good? What would happen if we started regarding American society, and all societies, ISIS included, as basically good?
It would be natural to consider that naïve. But, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche didn’t just make up basic goodness. Perhaps his father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, coined the English phrase, but it has a long history and lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s also a natural conclusion when you consider society from a vast historical scope. It was our human tendency toward complex and deep social interactions that lifted our species out of the animal realm and into civilization. And of course there is the basic goodness a mother shows to her child.
You can make arguments either way for the nature of society depending on what you focus on, but what really matters is that basic goodness is effective; it tends to generate particular types of speech and action.
Our basic worldview directs our mental states, our mental states direct our action, and the sum of our collective actions we call society. The root of this chain is captured in the first line of the Dhammapada, a popular collection of sayings of the Buddha, it states: “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.” An alternate translation says. “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts. It is made up of our thoughts.”
This insight of the Buddha arose from rigorous investigation into the nature of mind and experience. There is an actual truth here that is available to anyone who chooses to train his or her mind for introspection.
When you trust the foundation of your own being, and the foundation of all beings, and even the foundation of society, you begin to act in a significantly different way. In particular, the view of basic goodness has the effect of bringing forth the wisdom and compassion in a given situation.
For me, when I start investigating my own behavior, that of my friends, or anyone I know, the underlying motivation is consistently reducible to the desire to be happy and fulfilled. So in one way, what is basically good in all of us is that we just want to be happy and are acting with varying degrees of clarity and confusion to that end.
From this viewpoint, instead of dismissing someone as evil, wrong, or stupid, we are forced to confront their basic goodness, and that means looking beyond superficial appearances to their underlying motivations—what does this person really want? What do they really need? How are they trying to fulfill that desire? How else might they fulfill that desire? How can I help?
From the viewpoint of basic goodness everything is workable. Instead of ignoring the things we don’t like, there is curiosity and an open space in which we can begin to ask questions. Understanding someone’s motivations and needs, we can act from a place of wisdom rather than a place of reactivity, frustration or anger.
What is it driving the excesses of corporate America, the pillaging of our natural environment, even terrorism? I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but I know asking these questions from the ground of basic goodness opens up possibility where the view of basic brokenness creates only discord and enmity.
Last night in Colorado I got to vote. I had the opportunity to influence the future of our society in a direct way and being in a room of fellow caucus-goers was a wonderful and powerful experience for me… even if I found the caucus format somewhat strange.
While we might tend to think of politics and voting in one sphere, and contemplative traditions and practices in the other, they are not so separate. We have the opportunity to affect our society everyday by working with our minds. We can decide how we want to view the world, and how we view the world can change everything.
So what does society look like when all its constituents begin to sense basic goodness at the personal, interpersonal and societal levels? It’s a big question to be asking. I think it’s the kind of question that has to be answered millions of times, one person at a time.
Shambhala Mountain Center hosts the 2nd Annual Wisdom in Action, July 27-31 — click here to learn more!
About the Author
Ryan Stagg received an MA in Contemplative Religious Studies from Naropa University, and currently lives and works at Shambhala Mountain Center, where he explores the dharma as a personal, social, and professional path.