Steve Jobs was able to make Apple into a creative, technological and commercial juggernaut because of his capacity to create a ‘reality distortion field’ around him. All leaders do this to some degree—they present a vision of how things could be and inspire their followers to join in to bring this vision into being.
But with our President-elect, we have a different and darker kind of ‘reality distortion field.’ As Ned Resnikoff writes in his brilliant essay “Trump’s lies have a purpose. They are an assault on democracy,”* Trump’s intention is a reality disruption field. Resnikoff describes Trump’s technique like this:
“He says or tweets things on the record and then denies having ever said them. He contradicts documented fact and then disregards anyone who points out the inaccuracies. He even lies when he has no discernible reason to do so — and then turns around and tells another lie that flies in the face of the previous one.”
The cumulative effect is that we become disoriented. Like a slight-of-hand magician who picks your pocket by directing your attention elsewhere, Trumps outbursts on Twitter divert our attention from what he does not want us to see. His tweets about the Hamilton cast overshadowed the real newsworthy action of his settling of the class action suit against the troubled and duplicitous Trump University.
Resnikoff says that whether Trump is doing this consciously or not, his campaign certainly knows what it’s doing. He offers a chilling quote from Steve Bannon, now our Chief White House Strategist: “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power,” he said.“It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
In the end, whether Trump’s strategy is merely the confluence of unbridled narcissism and overwhelming libido or the product of a brilliant and dark mind, we need to take him very seriously. As Resnikoff points out, the threat is not just in the realm of policies and actions, but the very process of democratic governance itself.
Many of us have been experiencing a lot of anxiety and uncertainty over these past few weeks. Sometimes the issues are personal stemming from our intimate relationships or work situations. Sometimes they seem more global as we navigate the stormy seas of a new and unpredictable political administration.
These times make clear to me the thinness of the line between personal and political, because when we are in the terrain of disturbance, the landscape is similar regardless of the cause is. We are living in a field of intense uncertainty. Problems that appear to be personal are, in some way, a product of the emotional atmosphere of fear and strong emotion present our country now. It can be helpful to remember that what we are feeling is not just personal, but an expression of something larger that we are in the middle of.
One of the tools I have found helpful in working with states of fear and agitation is a teaching of David Reynolds, the founder of the short-lived branch of new age psychology known as ‘Constructive Living.’ He offered a three-step teaching for living in disturbing times: 1) Feel your feelings. 2) Remember your purpose. 3) Take the next step.
- Feel your feelings. Reynolds begins one of his books with a wonderful rant about the mystery of feelings. In spite of what psychology sometimes claims, he says that no one knows where feelings come from, what they really are, or how to ‘fix’ them. Feelings come and go. You may have noticed this yourself. One morning you feel panicky and uncertain, the next you feel settled and grounded. Feelings come and go. They are the weather of our lives. Sometimes the sun shines, sometimes the snow comes. Sometimes the shift is gradual, sometimes sudden.
To feel your feelings, means to be present to the weather of the moment. They’re already here anyway. Instead of fighting them, trying to change them or getting lost in figuring out who is responsible for them, you can just feel them. We can simply be present to what is already here.
- Remember your purpose. This instruction invites us to turn our attention to something deeper. Rather than trying to fix our feelings, we let our feelings be whatever they are and turn toward some sense of what it is we want to move toward. This purpose appears at many levels. Purpose may mean what we want to accomplish in the next interaction: ‘I want to communicate my position clearly and without blame.’ Or it might be more global ‘I want to be an instrument of peace in the world.’ Purpose is what is calls you to something more than the immediacy of the moment. What direction are you headed in? A purpose might be prosaic – to find a job that pays me enough money to live on. Or it might be transcendent – to wake up to the truth of life—to move closer to God.
Whatever purpose you find when you turn toward your heart is fine. The point is to touch something more than the weather of the moment – to remember what you’re really here to do.
- Take the next step. This is the step that moves us from navel gazing into engaging with the world. We take some action in the direction of our purpose. It doesn’t have to be the best step or even a big step. The point is to DO something. When we do something, we learn something. Even the wrong direction is fine because we learn what not to do. Every action we take leads us into the world that generously gives us feedback. This world teaches us how to be ourselves – teaches us what works and what doesn’t work. The only thing necessary is to step in the direction our what we truly want, then notice what happens. You don’t have to be right or wise or good.
So, a big thank you to David Reynolds, whom I have never met, as I pass this framework on to you. If you’re intrigued, give it a try and see what happens.
Driving in to Boston last night to give a talk at the Boundless Way Zen group that meets in Newton, I was deeply upset by a news story on NPR. And it wasn’t about our new president. Or only tangentially. What really disturbed me came after a rather routinely depressing report about the morality of our government and Trump’s behavior and changing positions.
The first story reported the decreasing likelihood of ever declassifying a senate report that roundly condemns torture both as inhumane and as ineffective*. As part of this, we heard a clip of Trump from a pre-election rally in Ohio. He asked himself: ‘Would I approve waterboarding?’ Then answered himself (to the wild delight of the crowd): ‘You bet your ass I’d approve it. You bet your ass – in a heartbeat.’
Following this, we heard John McCain (who I didn’t like or trust when he ran for President, but now looks like a figure of moderation and integrity) saying ‘I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not waterboard.’ And even Trump was reported saying he was ‘considering his position’ after being told by a general that a soda and a hamburger are a more effective interrogation technique than torture.
But it was the story ten or fifteen minutes later that somehow managed to pierce my protective shell of denial and deeply disturb me**. The story was investigating the ‘rash of small earthquakes in Oklahoma and Texas in recent years.’ These earthquakes have been directly linked to standard industry practice of disposing toxic oil wastewater by injecting it into the earth. In September, Oklahoma experienced its largest earthquake ever – one that reached a magnitude of 5.8.
Oklahoma has now taken steps to outlaw injecting wastewater, but Texas is still debating what to do. Where the injections have stopped, the earthquakes have stopped. They then briefly touched on the now-common practice of fracking that involves a similar procedure. Fracking uses injected liquid to intentionally destabilize the geology of an area so we can extract more oil. Trump has promised to take away all barriers to energy production so fracking will be fine under his administration.
Hearing these stories in proximity, I couldn’t help connecting the two and feeling that injecting these huge amounts of toxic waste water and other liquids into the earth is a form of torture. And that the many large and small earthquakes are the shuddering of the earth in response to the brutality of these injections.
Now, I know the earth is in trouble – ice caps are melting, water sources are being permanently polluted and air quality in some places is nearly toxic – but I usually manage to keep this knowledge at a safe distance. But last night, on my drive, the image of the earth as a beautiful body of life that is being tortured by the forces that allow me to drive my car with impunity, was almost more than I could bear.
I rely on the New York Times for keeping me up to date on what is happening in the world (and in sports). I take my daily laptop dose with a strong cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal. I’m not a systematic reader, but a skimmer and toe-dipper. The headlines are often enough, and sometimes almost more than I can take. I have also come to value the Times’ editorial and op-ed writers who offer well-informed and insightful views on world affairs and even life.
But what is the difference between ‘well-informed and insightful’ and ‘basically agrees with my position’? Researchers report that we human beings have a natural tendency to seek out information that confirms our preconceived position. This pattern of perceiving the world is called the ‘confirmation bias.’ We filter and remember information in ways that support what we already know. Both consciously and unconsciously, we scan the overwhelming amount of data that comes to our senses for bits that reinforce our pre-existing map of the world. When there is dissonance, our inclination is to ignore or dismiss the offending information and go about our merry way. We’re also good at interpreting whatever data we do receive, in a manner that supports our pre-existing condition.
This tendency to see the world from a particular point of view and to seek information that bolsters our position is not something that can be fixed. Paying closer attention or simply being aware of the problem is not enough to change this mechanism of perception. Confirmation bias is simply part of the way our minds construct reality. We can’t change it, but we can be aware of it and put ourselves in positions to consciously let in that which feels foreign and uncomfortable.
The election results were a shock to my assumptions about our country and about acceptable behavior in the public space. (Here, in an act of self-management, I will avoid arousing and rehashing my rage at our President-elect’s disrespect of the common decencies of civil interaction—but just barely.) Hearing from people who share my world-view and also suggest new perspectives is helpful as I begin to reconstruct my mental maps in a way that reflects this new reality.
Over the years, I have read many studies about the effect of meditation on the brain. There seems to be general agreement that the overall impact is positive, but lots of different theories about exactly what that positive change is. One study showed that long-time meditators still reacted strongly to external stimuli but that the length of time of the reaction was significantly shortened. They were equally disturbed by the sound of a loud bell, but the meditators returned to a baseline calm after the sound much more quickly than did the non-meditators.
I’m thinking this may be a useful skill for many of us as the Trump presidency moves forward. Now, several weeks after the shock and despair of the election results, I’m on more of an even keel. I’m not happy about the situation, but I’m mostly back to being concerned with the ongoing life here at the Temple, my coaching business and window treatment options for our new house.
But yesterday I got angry and depressed all over again reading the New York Times. Charles Blow’s op-ed piece ‘No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along*’ was what sent me over the edge. Blow reports on the recent meeting Trump had with the Times editorial staff where, after months of viciously attacking the integrity of the Times, Trump turned flattering and genial. As if nothing had happened.
Blow goes on to address Trump directly saying: “You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions. I don’t believe you care much at all about this country or your party or the American people. I believe that the only thing you care about is self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment. Your strongest allegiance is to your own cupidity.”
This is inflammatory language that does nothing to build bridges or affirm our common humanity. And yet, as I read it, I felt a deep agreement. Blow articulates the deep anger I have that someone who would play so fast and loose with the truth is going to be our next president. (And I know that many people who voted for Trump would say this same thing about Hillary.)
Even a day later, I am disturbed by this perspective of our incoming president. I do believe it is an accurate assessment of how Trump has behaved up until now and I see no reason to assume that he will change.
For many of us, this new era will be one of regular disturbance offering the opportunity for repeated recovery. Our meditation, our inner work, will not change Trump, but it may help the rest of us live fully and responsibly in difficult times. The point is not that we should not be upset, but rather that we come back to center again and again—both to appreciate the blessing of everyday life in the midst of it all, as well as to organize and take action where we can.