Teaching Capitol Hill to work with negative emotions

By Frank Rogers, Andrew Dreitcer, and Mark YaconelliClaremont School of Theology Contemplative activists from Claremont School of Theology report on … Continued

By Frank Rogers, Andrew Dreitcer, and Mark Yaconelli
Claremont School of Theology

Contemplative activists from Claremont School of Theology report on their effort to encourage civility in the political process.

Hoping to help heal bipartisan rancor, the Faith and Politics Institute invited Frank Rogers, Andrew Dreitcer, and Mark Yaconelli to speak to congressional leaders, staff members, and others who work on Capitol Hill, about a more constructive approach to working with the natural anger, rage, despair, and resentment that emerge in American politics.

Whether it takes place in families, in the workplace, or on cable networks, all too often, the discourse between liberals and conservatives becomes toxic. Democrats are labeled tax-and-spend socialists. Republicans are dismissed as wealthy militarists. Meanwhile a culture of fear and loathing overwhelms the political process.

Although “love your enemy” is a primary teaching within spiritual traditions, we receive little instruction on how to work with the negative emotions that our adversaries arouse in us. When fear, anger, and other reactive emotions are triggered, we often respond in one of three ways: we lash out, repress our feelings, or judge ourselves for having such feelings in the first place. In the political arena we demonize one another, returning insult for insult, while the issue at hand is lost. Consider, for instance, the name-calling and fear-mongering that overshadowed the core concerns within the health care debate.

The democratic process is vulnerable to emotional conflict by its insistence that all persons and perspectives be heard. Inevitably, people with differing passions and commitments can feel threatened and enraged by one another. Indulging in these feelings poisons us physically and spiritually, damages relationships, and destroys productive dialogue.

Spiritual traditions offer three invitations for working with difficult emotions.

First, they offer means of defusing the grip such emotions can have on us. Contemplative practices, such as mindfulness, nurture an awareness of such emotions within us. Spiritual Traditions give us practices for de-blending, stepping outside of our emotions so we can have an emotion, instead of an emotion having us.

Secondly, spiritual traditions suggest that extreme emotions are rooted in authentic human yearnings, wounds, and undeveloped potentials. This is counterintuitive.

Conventional wisdom says that reactive emotions should be controlled or eliminated. Yet, as Marshall Rosenberg suggests, “Extreme emotions are the tragic cries of unmet needs.” Emotions are, in fact, pitch-perfect barometers for when authentic needs feel threatened. Rather than managing or repressing our emotional reactions, contemplative practices nurture a compassionate connection with their hidden roots. This not only frees us from being possessed by our anger, fear, and despair, it harnesses the power of such emotions for healing and growth. Spiritual traditions trust that there are legitimate needs and authentic yearnings within the fear and anger of both liberals and conservatives.

The third invitation of spiritual traditions is to cultivate an interior centeredness. Meister Eckhart once wrote, “God is at home. We are the ones who go off wandering.” Politics can drive us far from home, until we feel estranged from the passions and values that inspired us to enter the political process in the first place. Spiritual traditions offer a way back. When we come home to our souls, we are free to claim our personal power while remaining open to the genuine needs of others. Weekly gatherings for prayer and meditation, such as the morning reflection groups facilitated by the Faith and Politics Institute, invite congressional leaders to set aside their political roles and return to our common humanity. Once ‘at home’ we discover a compassionate posture from which to engage in constructive dialogue that is non-reactive, creative, productive, and ultimately reconciling.

All spiritual traditions acknowledge that this takes practice. On Capitol Hill we led an exercise we have developed called the Compassion Practice. This prayer cultivates a deeper awareness of our emotional experience while fostering greater compassion in our interactions with ourselves and others.

What might it mean for us to turn to spiritual traditions and contemplative practices to help ground our political discourse? It could mean more listening and less shouting, more creative problem solving and less defensiveness; it could allow a greater realization of the work that is at the heart of all human life: serving the common good.

Frank Rogers, Andrew Dreitcer, and Mark Yaconelli are founders of Triptykos and co-directors of the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California.

  • gimpi

    We could all stand to work on this, not just Congress. Civility is free, lowers your blood-pressure, makes you appear more intelligent, and makes it much more likely you will actually accomplish something, rather than just venting or pontificating. What a deal!

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