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.
Just an observation
We are born innocent. Our reactions and thoughts are formed by how we are treated, even before we have begun to use our minds….that applies to everyone. Negativity has often become ingrained and is often passed on from parent to child who then becomes parent and passes it on to child. Societies (Parents thus formed continue this pattern. If they do not teach that a person’s life is a gift and worth preserving, then that person will not value his/her life or the life of others. Rather complicated to say the least. The spirit must be educated, re-educated. those of us who have chosen to accept the principles of Buddhism know that. Those of us who are willing to face the destructiveness of negative habitual patterns and the pain of breaking them know this. It takes courage. Those who have courage are blessed.
Others are cursed by their inaction.
Ryan, I’m delighted to have stumbled on your article. It’s wisdom in action! 🙂 Thank you for inviting us to work with this political season and our own minds. If nothing else the situation is calling for a reflection on our relationship to society and our reactivity to candidates. So many beliefs and “truths” to examine… from the unshakable gound of basic goodness. Keep sharing your wisdom Ryan, please!
Thank you Clifton! Let’s not forget the mud, slime and muck is where the Lotus comes from. No Lotus without it. First Noble Truth of Suffering. The Buddha taught a path to the way out. Prerequisite being an ability to discern suffering as suffering. Without it its just another dangerous, delusional path.
How can one think of ISIS as basically good? I don’t understand, so please explain. I thought the Buddha taught we ought to be discriminating when appropriate. It seems to be that entering ISIS into this commentary is akin to saying evil is basically good, and so were rhe Nazis and the Stalinist. You have to draw the line and discriminate at some point if basic goodness is to have credibility.
As I understand, “discriminating awareness” is one potential translation of what is more generally translated as wisdom. In the context of the Buddhist path we’re discriminating between that which is unskillful and leads to unhappiness in the long run and that which is skillful and leads to happiness in the long run.
So yes I agree, we should be discriminating when it comes to ISIS, particularly in terms of the mental states we are cultivating in response to it. I think when our mental state is derived from an assumption of absolute evil that the situation becomes unworkable and our courses of action become carpet bombing, as one politician has suggested, and war, which is precisely what ISIS is asking for. Their fundamentalism demands it. So to me, a mental state that beholds ISIS as absolutely evil is conducive to fear, anger and violence in the long run.
I think if we cultivate a mental state that at least holds open the possibility that members of ISIS have something in them that is inherently good we can actually begin to understand them. In some extremely twisted way these people are acting in a way that seems logical to them, that they believe will bring them some form of happiness. They are extraordinarily confused, I am in no way justifying any of their actions. What I am saying is that a mind state grounded in basic goodness is conducive to understanding and skillful action in the long run. It leads us to ask questions: What do they believe? Why do they believe it? What need are they trying to achieve through their radical violent actions? What are the underlying causes of their insurgence?
If we don’t know the answers to these questions we’re bound to add more ignorance and more fuel to the fire. That is very dangerous given the regional situation involving Syria and Russia. I am doubtful that war is the only answer and I think that if we as a nation aren’t seriously asking these questions that radical fundamentalism will continue to dominate the middle east.
I think a radical form of basic goodness and a radical form of compassion is the ultimate antidote to the radical fundamentalism that is spreading. That doesn’t mean we act like idiots, it means we open to the situation and understand the causality so we can act skillfully, which may even include some form of military action but because it is coming from a place of deep understanding it has a better chance of being the kind of military action that leads to cessation rather than proliferation of terrorism.
The idea of basic goodness is very evident in a new born Babe. What lacks basic goodness is most Governments, without freedom. When we are forced to do things against our nature, which happens in some religions, governments, etc then the world has many problems. That is why our form of Government as it was conceived made the way for basic goodness. That made our country great.If we could get government out of our lives we would once again have the Freedom to use our basic goodness.
I like the title as is because it implies recognition, but also implies action continuously needed to ever move us towards goodness.
Wonderful article I enjoyed reading very much your writing is thoughtful and articulate and I aapreciated the application of the abstract primordial notion of basic goodness to a real time, concrete issue like politics. It helps to deepen my understanding. Keep writing you are really good at it and I hope to hear more. hank you!
Thank you Jeff, that means a lot.
The Lamrim says that it is exceedingly difficult to be born into this precious human body. We all have positive potential and we need to keep that thought in our minds.
Hope that makes sense.
Thanks for the very thoughtful and timely post. It’s all good. I would only change the title a little to something like Recognizing that America is Basically Good — to reflect that it is already basically good, it doesn’t need to be made that way or made that way again — any more than we need to remake ourselves. What do you think?
Hi Barbara, thanks for your comment! Yes, re-cognizing is a really good word choice. The title was just meant to be a playful twist on Trumps slogan, though it could be misleading, I agree.
If you vote, you are accepting having your income stolen to murder people worldwide.
It matters not which sociopath you put at the head of the table.
If human beings are basically good, then they must be allowed to self organize without the threat of violence hanging over their heads.
Until organization is voluntary, there can be no enlightened society.
Voting for a 1/300 million say in who gets to rule over you is not going to help.
It is time we told those who would rule over us that we as a species are adults.
Google democide, and then have a good think about the history of control.