Mindful Political Engagement

It is a common misconception that to be mindful is to never feel outrage, or never have strong responses to what is going on around us; and if one does get upset or angry, that is evidence that they are not mindful. This notion fails to capture what being mindful actually means. Mindfulness is not synonymous with complacency, or disengagement from the world’s problems. Evidently, there are people who decide to pursue deep practice in isolation, for example on retreat, but for many people that may not be an option that they have or want. 

At a time when the world feels particularly politically polarized, it is more important than ever to be able to engage in meaningful discussions about politics and public health that are both useful and mindful. In fact, the ideal situation is to be engaged, to be an advocate, and to do all of that while still being mindful. Again, it needs to be stressed that being angry about something that is seen on the news, or in response to a colleague, does not mean that one is not being mindful. Mindfulness is not lack of emotion, it is simply recognizing the emotion or mind state that is present at any given time. And it is not even recognizing difficult emotions with the intention of switching them off. You can feel outrage, recognize it, and continue to feel outraged – all while being mindful. Mindfulness is simply watching what is going on in the mind, without judgement or expectation of what should be going on. This is an important distinction because encouraging people to engage with the practice of mindfulness should not be interpreted as inviting individuals to become unconcerned with real issues in the world. 

At a time when the world feels particularly politically polarized, it is more important than ever to be able to engage in meaningful discussions about politics and public health that are both useful and mindful.

So, how does one do this? How can we engage with the world and with the news in a manner that is both genuine and mindful?

Arguably, the first step to do this effectively is to continue engaging in some form of personal practice. In this way, you can flex the muscle that recognizes what is going on for you at any given time. Another way to do this is to purposefully create space to be mindful when you are engaging in difficult conversations or news. Take a 10 second pause in your Twitter feed scrolling to stop, take a breath and feel the body. Notice if you are feeling outraged or mad, and how that is manifesting physically for you. And then, proceed thoughtfully. This is making direct use of a practice called STOP, which stands for Stop, Take a breath, Observe (around you and within you) and Proceed thoughtfully. And finally, if you do find yourself ruminating about an issue in the news, ask yourself the question “Is this useful?”. Dan Harris, host of the podcast 10% happier and creator of the popular meditation app by the same name, often speaks about this idea. It is useful to think about things, and plan and formulate opinions, but generally when you are turning an idea over for the 100th time, it has a little less utility. So, if you find yourself going down a rabbit hole of repetitive angry thoughts about a particular political issue, this question can be useful. 

Next time you are engaging with a difficult topic, either through your own consumption of media or in conversation with others, these tools might be useful. While it may be easier said than done, we can continue to be engaged, continue to be advocates, and assume this role thoughtfully. As medical students and future health care practitioners, we have an important responsibility to act as advocates on behalf of our patients and the scientific community. Let’s start practicing how to do this in the most impactful and harm-free way now.

This article was written by Zoe O’Neill, a medical student at McGill University and member of the Mindful Medical Learner Team.

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