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The Buddhist Insight That Explains Our Broken Politics
Our politics and political culture feel pretty broken.
I don’t think many of us can take in the ways we engage each other on political matters and think it’s healthy. In fact, writing a week before the presidential election, political culture looks like nothing but suffering. We don’t like the government, we don’t like each other, and we especially don’t like the people who join opposing teams, or aren’t sufficiently supportive of our side. We vent on social media, shame mob outcasts and undesirables—and are quick to affix those labels to anyone with whom we have even the most mild disagreement. We “cancel” everyday people, destroying their livelihoods and sometimes lives, over clumsy jokes or insensitive comments—or just ignorance about the rapidly shifting fads of language and elevated terminology. Sometimes we even drive cars through peaceful protestors who just happen to be protesting in ways, and for causes, that make us uncomfortable or cause us to feel like our status is threatened.
There isn’t a single cause for this unfortunate turn, of course. Partisanship has grown. Social media puts us constantly in each other’s pockets and thoughts like never before. We’ve politicized more and more of our lives, and centralized control in the federal government, making federal politics more rancorous, ever‐present, and higher stakes. But all of this is exacerbated, and we suffer more, because we too often ignore an important Buddhist insight about suffering and how our reactions to it make it worse.
Taking this insight—the value of non-reactivity—more seriously, and putting into practice in our own lives, won’t fix everything that’s broken, but it would be a major step. Nor do we need to fix politics entirely to radically improve our relationship to it, and so make ourselves that much more free from suffering.
The Two Arrows of Suffering
The core of Buddhism is contained in the Four Noble Truths. The first is the existence of dukkha, usually translated as “suffering.” You can get a better sense of the term, though, if you think of it as “stressfulness,” “unsatisfactoriness,” or “dis‐ease.”
The Buddha’s discovery was not that dukkha exists, because that’s obvious to anyone. Rather, he unearthed its causes, and from them derived a cure. The Buddha recognized that some sources of suffering are outside of our control, such as the pain of disease or a broken limb or the loss of a loved one, and so offered techniques to help us better relate to and manage such suffering, so it doesn’t gain as much of a purchase on us. But he also recognized that quite a lot of our suffering, stress, and dis‐ease comes from within, the result of the unhealthy and unskillful ways we perceive and react to the world. By more skillfully handling these inevitable kinds of suffering, and abandoning our unskillful ways, we’ll avoid making bad experiences worse and live with less stress and more satisfaction and ease.
One unskillful response to pain features in the Sallatha Sutta. (Suttas are early records of the Buddha’s conversations, which were memorized by those who heard them, and then passed down from monk to monk until eventually recorded long after his death. The Buddha, like Socrates, didn’t write down any of his ideas.)
In this sutta, the Buddha points out that there’s nothing superhuman about advanced practitioners of Buddhist ethics compared to everyone else.
Monks, an uninstructed run‐of‐the‐mill person feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither‐pleasure‐nor‐pain. A well‐instructed disciple of the noble ones also feels feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, feelings of neither‐pleasure‐nor‐pain. So what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there between the well‐instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run‐of‐the‐mill person?
No matter how thorough and skilled our practice, we still feel pain. But there must be some difference that the practice brings, or else what value is it?
The Buddha says the answer is in how we react to pain. Most of us, who haven’t learned Buddhist philosophy and so are what the Buddha calls “uninstructed,” respond unskillfully, making things worse.
The Blessed One said, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run‐of‐the‐mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows, in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run‐of‐the‐mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.”
The more skillful response of the well‐instructed person is quite different.
Now, the well‐instructed disciple of the noble ones, when touched with a feeling of pain, does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. So he feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow, in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the well‐instructed disciple of the noble ones does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, does not beat his breast or become distraught. He feels one pain: physical, but not mental.
Overreaction to suffering is a further kind of suffering, and an unnecessary one. If we get shot by an arrow, pain is unavoidable. But the skillful person doesn’t make it worse by shooting himself again—by wallowing in the pain, raging about it, or relentlessly feeling sorry for himself because it happened. Those reactions accomplish nothing and prolong our suffering and stress.
Arrows to Blot Out the Sun
Our political culture has become nothing but a relentless firing of arrows. We’re all too willing to turn every slight, insult, dismissal, or disagreement into grieving, lamentation, beating of breasts, and distress. We feel wronged and do exactly what the Buddha advises us not to. The skillful person, “Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it disjoined from it. … He is disjoined, I tell you, from suffering & stress.” But we instead take after the unskillful person, who, “Sensing a feeling of pain, he senses it as though joined with it. This is called an uninstructed run‐of‐the‐mill person joined … with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is joined, I tell you, with suffering & stress.”
This describes so much of the way we perform politically in the public sphere and in private conversation. It’s not enough to just experience the feeling of anger or insult or disappointment, examine its source, recognize the feeling as nothing more than another presence in our consciousness, and let it slip away. Instead, we cling to the feeling, prolonging the pain of that first arrow, and then we suffer the second arrow when we encourage the feeling to manifest as grieving, lamentation, and so on.
You can watch this play out all the time on social media. Someone tweets a questionable statement, someone else tweets that they feel insulted by it, and then the insulted party goes on and on (and on) about just how insulted they feel, about how they’ve been wounded, violence has been done to them, that they are now a victim, and so on. More often than not, the precipitating insult was relatively minor or not even meant as an insult at all. This isn’t a behavior unique to the left or the right, but rather the all too typically modus operandi of both. We don’t just feel the stress politics and political debate brings. We publicly perform that stress for the world, and let the world encourage us to continue it and to ramp it up. Detachment rarely brings praise, but is instead condemned as lack of caring. Histrionics, on the other hand, goes viral.
From the standpoint of ending suffering, this is all quite terrible. Performing “sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs” means keeping them going, internalizing them, and, to use the Buddha’s term, “joining” with them. We make these outrages core to our very sense of self, where they cause us continuing stress. They also cause us stress if they begin to slip away, because we feel like we’re losing part of our very identity. “I am the kind of person who is outraged by X,” we tell ourselves, “and so if I allow myself to let go of the outrage, I must no longer be the kind of person who cares enough about X to be outraged by it.”
Making matters worse, while firing these arrows into ourselves, we fire them at others, too. We hurl insults back, call people out, get them fired, humiliate them, and never grant them the benefit of the doubt or the grace of forgiveness. We will our suffering to become their suffering, contributing to a general environment of suffering, which in turn makes everyone ever more stressed and dis‐eased. The only way out is to “feel disjoined from it.”
This doesn’t mean overlooking injustices. It doesn’t mean becoming so detached that we stop caring about the world and the people in it. Rather, it means cultivating skillful methods and outlooks, so that when we find real injustices, we respond to them skillfully—and effectively. “This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing factor between the well‐instructed disciple of the noble ones and the uninstructed run‐of‐the‐mill person,” the Buddha said, and if we can keep that in mind, even in the heat of political and ideological conflict, we’ll be happier and better able to bring positive change.