I try not to think about politics.
At almost 52, I can look back to times when I was radically outspoken about my beliefs; times when I believed The System could be changed from within and worked to do so; times when I was so disappointed in my country and its leaders, that I chose the role of ostrich rather than crusader.
That is not what I mean when I say now that I try not to think about politics.
Because, I try to think as little as possible. About anything. I try to experience. I try to feel.
As many of you know, insomnia is a usual part of my life. Like good skin it’s part of the genetic makeup of my family. One with which all of us are blessed or cursed at various times. I also strive to give up fighting insomnia — choosing to take a few deep breaths and welcome it like the irritating cousin who always shows up at Thanksgiving — with stolid equanimity and a seat as far away from me as possible. That’s where I found myself at 3:00 on the morning of this, the 148th anniversary of his assassination — Sitting with Cousin Insomnia, reading Uncle Abe.
As many of you also know, Abraham Lincoln is a particular hero of mine. An icon really. A man who has, in many ways, had a greater effect on me than Jesus Christ, greater, perhaps, than even the Buddha.
And many of you have heard me praise the book, Lincoln’s Melancholy, by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Some of you have even received a copy of it from me. I’ve recommended it to many of my grief counseling patients, and have lost count of how many times I have read it and/or listened to the audio version. In short, as this is not a book report, Mr. Shenk gives us a captivating — and fact-based — look at Abraham Lincoln “through the lense of his melancholy”.
Along with good skin and insomnia, my family also carry the genes for clinical depression. Not a one of us (except our precious angel, Debbie, who had so much more with which to contend) has escaped that gene. Consequently, the chance to read a Lincoln biography written from the view of his melancholy has been a wonderful, and often enlightening, experience for me; one to which I return time and time again.
This morning, I opened the book to the section on Lincoln’s House Divided speech, given on June 16, 1858 to the Illinois Republican Convention where he hoped to be nominated for State Senator.
We all know this speech, at least parts of it, fairly well, and I certainly have read it many, many times. But, in the heart of last night, I found myself reading the opening words as if for the first time:
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Convention.
If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.
We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.
Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.
In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
Have we no tendency to the latter condition?
Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination — piece of machinery so to speak — compounded of the Nebraska doctrine, and the Dred Scott decision. Let him consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted; but also, let him study the history of its construction, and trace, if he can, or rather fail, if he can, to trace the evidence of design and concert of action, among its chief architects, from the beginning.
How fitting these words are for where we again find ourselves as a nation today.
But the slavery of today is greed. Grasping and greed. We are split, as violently and forcefully by greed as we were then by slavery. Indeed, the great majority, “The other 98%” , of us are held in very real bondage by greedy corporations and the wealthiest 2% of the American population.
These organizations and people, as groups and as individuals, have turned the democracy of our nation — again — into a “piece of machinery” for their benefit, to the near destruction of what should be the greatest nation in the world. We have only to “consider not only what work the machinery is adapted to do, and how well adapted; but also, … study the history of its construction, and trace, if [we] can, or rather fail, if [we]can, to trace the evidence of design and concert of action, among its chief architects, from the beginning.”
I don’t pretend to be politically savvy enough to trace the path here. Honestly, I don’t care to. As I said, I try very hard not to think about politics, and tracing back through these years — now decades — of greed and grasping by the very people and institutions meant to protect the freedoms and liberties on which this nation was founded, would be enough to set the genes of my own melancholy into frenetic motion. However, even a cursory glance backward clearly shows just how well this “piece of machinery” has done its job.
In 1858, Lincoln not only failed to win a senate seat, he actually stepped out of running for the nomination because of strife and division within the Republican party. Lincoln was truly a man of vision, and that vision was a long one, a selfless one, and one of service to the nation he wound up saving.
We have no Lincoln. In 2008, I, and many like me, dared hope that we had, if not a Lincoln, at least a man of vision and principle and truth. We have been greatly disappointed. Time after time after time. That disappointment is one of the reasons for my determination to stay as uninformed about politics as possible. But every once in awhile, something slips through my filter. When OM Times Ezine recommends a book by a U.S. Congressman, it gets even my attention. (Even a year after the fact.)
A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. is a book written by Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) in which he tells the story of his personal experience with mindfulness meditation.
I have not checked Tim Ryan’s record. I do not know where he stands on “issues”. I did not even know he was a Democrat until I looked it up to write this piece. But, I do know this: any politician who dares, in this country, at this time, to even admit to mindfulness meditation, much less encourage it, is worth looking at.
He is quoted in a Huffington Post article: “I think it [mindfulness meditation]could be very, very powerful. We could prevent a lot of suffering. We could prevent a lot of war, suffering in the healthcare system, these kids who don’t even graduate from schools. Mental health, depression, addiction, burnout.”
Not exactly the usual politician talk.
Mindfulness meditation is a very simple practice. Although its origins are Buddhist, the practice itself crosses all boundaries of philosophical, religious, or spiritual beliefs. It is just as possible for an avowed Atheist to reap the benefits of mindfulness meditation as it is for a Zen monk to do so. The same holds true for any person of any faith — or lack thereof.
I believe that Abraham Lincoln practiced mindful meditation though he did not give it that name. Lincoln lore is full of first person reports from contemporaries who, more than once, came upon Lincoln, “lost in thought”, with what many described as a “deep, far away stare” and “not easily interrupted” — all very apt descriptions of “spontaneous meditation”. These episodes are recalled most often in times of great stress or before making difficult decisions, circumstances that were a daily part of most of Lincoln’s life.
We have all experienced spontaneous meditation without realizing it. It often happens while brushing our teeth, showering, exercising, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn or even those “auto-pilot” moments driving the car. Events after which we “wake up”, oftentimes refreshed, at least with a clearer mind for the respite of a few moments from our never ending thoughts.
The difference between such spontaneous moments and actual mindfulness meditation, is intention and purpose. Mindfulness meditation is a purposeful practice in which we intend to rest in complete awareness of the present moment — and only the present moment — for a certain amount of time. Of course, it is good to be aware always, at every moment, but such presence is difficult and almost impossible without training the mind in times of quiet stillness.
From the age of thirteen, I have explored various meditation philosophies, theories and practices. While I cannot claim to be either a proficient or religious practitioner, I can say, unequivocally, that there have been times when meditation has, quite literally, saved my sanity, if not my life. Having experienced its transformative powers, I have always been, as Mr. Ryan is now, a great proponent of meditation.
However, as he says in the same article listed above, “This [mindfulness meditation] isn’t something you necessarily jam down somebody’s throat, but it is something you can, gently and over time, begin to cultivate wherever you are.”
Wherever and whoever you are. We are.
Meditation is a powerful tool. I do not say “weapon” as I believe our vernacular is too full of war imagery as it is. But it is a very powerful tool. One that, I believe, can be used to help dismantle the machinery of greed that has enslaved our nation and its people. One that can, surely, help us to “know where we are, and whither we are tending,” so that we may “then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
And we, the 98%, need all the tools we can find.
Mr. Ryan ended his speech with, “We have the opportunity to do some great things.”
Not exactly the House Divided. Nor, as I read him, do I find myself thinking anything close to, “Yes We Can”. But he does make me smile.
And in our fractured, wounded country, that smile almost means hope.
©sd rogers 14 april 2013