In recent weeks, the leader of our meditation group has been out of town a few times, and I ended up in charge for those evenings, just because that's the sort of thing that usually happens to me. Last night I not only facilitated the meditation, I gave my first dharma talk. A dharma talk is sort of a sermon, I guess you would say; some lesson or something insightful about the world and the Buddhist place in it. I think it went pretty well, considering I was nervous and going from notes and so on. (It's that whole public speaking thing. Even though there were all of three people there. Small crowd.) Anyway, here's what I said, more or less:
I've been thinking about politics a lot lately. Well, it's hard not to think about politics lately. Every time you turn on the TV or log into the Internet, there's another story about who said what to whom and how everyone reacted. I think we have something like 17 people running for President. They're all different, but they have one thing in common: They all think they're right. What's more, they think they're right and everybody else is wrong. People are lining up behind their candidate of choice, all thinking the same thing. This poses an interesting challenge to us as Buddhists because we have this little thing in our philosophy called non-attachment to views.
Non-attachment to views is pretty important. It's referred to in the Noble Eightfold Path under Right Speech. Thich Nhat Hanh also cites it pretty early on in his Five Mindfulness Trainings: "Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world."
What is non-attachment to views? Well, basically it's keeping in mind that you might be wrong. You may be absolutely positive about a thing, have reams of evidence on your side, but you never know when another fact might come up and change your whole interpretation of the situation. It doesn't mean you're not right, though. It just means being open to the possibility that there may still be more to learn.
I have a bad habit. I love to argue with people. I'm trying to break that habit and spend less time trying to prove to other people that I'm right, but I still do it. I especially like the kind of argument where I'm actually not sure that I have the right answer. Depending on who I'm talking to, I might actually learn something.
Unfortunately, presidential candidates and their supporters don't often have the kinds of arguments where they might learn something. To admit to having learned something means they were wrong before, and most candidates aren't going to admit they were ever wrong. (One in particular, when confronted with evidence that some of the things she said--oops, I said she--are obviously false, basically keeps talking like she doesn't care. Maybe she doesn't.) So what do we do, as Buddhists, when we come upon a situation where people think they are right and everyone else is wrong? How do we defuse the situation, or at least not create any more harm?
Well, one way is to leave, I guess. If you aren't there, you can't get into an argument. But that's not very satisfying and it doesn't really help the relationship. I got some insights about this in two relationships I've had before. One was with my uncle Al, who had Alzheimer's disease. I'd come to see him and he'd say, "Now, you're Jane, right? You work at the bank?" and I'd say, "Why, yes. I am." For the time of the visit, anyway, I wasn't married to being Jennifer, music student, or Jennifer, aspiring writer, or Jennifer, whatever else. I could be Jane. In fact, since he wouldn't remember if I was Jane or not, I didn't really have to be anybody at all, which was kind of nice, in a way.
The other is a friend of mine who was about as far right as I am far left. We used to fight like cats and dogs until a couple of years ago, when I got tired of it and started changing my approach. I guess I was convinced that someday I'd say the right thing or quote the right person and he'd believe me and I'd win. Well, nowadays when he goes off on one of his rants (and I know nothing of this ranting, myself; I am completely innocent of ranting), I try to respond with, "It sounds like you believe (blank.)" If I do this right, he says, "Yeah," and usually adds, "It's not just a belief. It's a fact." Then, if I'm not caught up in trying to prove I'm right, I can say something like, "How did you come to believe that?" and just listen to what he says. What he says is actually not relevant, though I might learn something. What's important is that he starts thinking about it. If you really want to change somebody's mind about something, you have to convince them to do it themselves. How that starts, is by getting them to actually think about it.
See, most of our beliefs about the world and our place in it aren't really ours. If you examine some of your beliefs and how you came by them, you might be pretty surprised to discover that you believe them because someone told you to. Very rarely do we actually look at the pros and cons of a thing, evaluate them and then decide, on the basis of the evidence, what to believe. Most of our beliefs are pretty knee-jerk. This is of course true of other people, as well. In a way, you can't blame them for believing what they believe, since they've never really examined those beliefs.
Now, that doesn't mean my friend thinks about where he got his ideas and suddenly says, "Why, you're right. It's all bullshit." (You can say bullshit in my meditation group.) But sometimes I can see the wheels start to turn in his head, and that's pretty cool. And our arguments--they're more like discussions now--have become a lot more interesting.
Besides, people like talking about themselves. If you're ever in an uncomfortable social circumstance where you feel like you're being interrogated--meeting the girlfriend's parents, for example--one way to ease the situation is to turn the questions around. "Oh, enough about me. How did you decide to go into investment banking?" Not only will you feel less on the spot, the other person's going to go away from the conversation thinking you're pretty cool. Why? Because you encouraged that person to talk about himself. And people like talking about themselves.
So that's the advice I have. Don't marry your opinions, and try to get other people to tell you where theirs came from. It might not solve anything, but it might defuse a few arguments and open up a little space for discussion. And the world needs some space for discussion. That's all I have for you today.