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Mindfulness in politics

S2
E26
10mins

In this week’s episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson addresses the heightened stress of political conversations, particularly on social media, during a presidential election year and the Israel-Hamas war. Drawing from the Torah portion of Korach, Rabbi Josh emphasizes mindful, non-reactive communication and how to engage in healthier political arguments.

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You may have noticed that we’re in a presidential election year here in the U.S. That’s stressful enough.

You may also have noticed that, for many of us in the Jewish community, trying to engage in conversation about American politics against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war takes that regular level of stress and jacks it up by a factor of approximately 17 million. 

Ballot box (Photo: Pexels/Sora Shimazaki)

I’ll speak personally: I am what they call a “high information voter.” I pay attention to the news. I follow politics. I vote.

And here’s a real flex: I work as an election judge on Election Day. I really believe in the idea of a democratic republic.

And that means that, generally, I like to talk about politics — not just because I’m interested in it, but because I think talking about issues, finding common ground, and making decisions that benefit the greatest number and while making sure that everyone is sacrificing equally — that’s the way we work things out peaceably in a democracy.

As Winston Churchill said, it’s the worst form of government — except for all the others human beings have tried.

But I’ve found that being a high-information voter has gotten harder and harder over the years —especially since social media has become our public square.

As a rule, political conversations on Facebook suck. TikTok reduces everything to memes. And Twitter —let’s just not even start.

On all of these platforms, I find people are so ragey, so angry, so loud. There is very little listening. It’s as if people are just there to shout at each other, not to listen. 

And that’s led me to gradually disengage politically — at least on social media. Sure, sometimes I’ll see something I find wrong or outrageous and I’ll feel this urge to reply.

I might even start typing something witty (ok, snarky). And then I think to myself, “This feels icky. I don’t really want to show up like this. And I don’t really want to spend the rest of the day in this faux conversation that is going to generate a lot of heat but very little light.” So I stop typing and move on with my day. Mindfulness practice for the win.

But often I feel bad about that choice. Because I feel like I’m just ceding the ground to the people who, let’s say, aren’t as mindful. I’m letting the conversation be governed by reactivity.

I’m contributing to the problem of extremism — because I’m not showing up in the public square and thus letting people with more extreme views to my left and right duke it out and alienate the rest of us. 

What’s a citizen to do? This is actually a topic I want to spend some time on as we get closer to the election, because I think it’s really important.

Today, though, I want to start with a lesson or two from the Torah portion of Korach. Because Korach is a story about how to have, or not have, disagreements. 

Quick refresher: Korach is Moses’s cousin. He allies himself with some other disgruntled folks and comes to Moses to publicly challenge him as leader of the people.

And I’ll even admit, he has some valid points, but he presents them in a pretty threatening way.

Things gradually build until the climactic scene in which Korach and his band of 270 followers are swallowed up by the earth. And ever since then, the name of Korach has gotten a bad rap. 

Centuries after the writing of the Torah, the Rabbis of the Talmud invoke Korach as the epitome of a bad argument partner. “Any argument that is for the sake of heaven is destined to endure,” they say.

“But any argument that isn’t for the sake of heaven will not endure.” Exhibit A of this latter type of bad-faith argument? You guessed it, Korach.

Here’s how a rabbi from the 15th century explains it: In a healthy argument, the aim is to arrive at the truth. Everyone is committed to that goal.

But in an unhealthy argument, the aim is to achieve power, to win, to own the other guys. Even three thousand years ago they had this figured out already: snarky comments on someone’s tweet are probably not gonna accomplish much. They’re bad arguments.

One of the major lessons I draw from this teaching is that so much of the quality of the arguments we have depends on the choices we make — how we show up, the words we say or write, the tone we project.

Like I described earlier, we don’t have to respond to every message we see. And when we do choose to post or respond, it’s on us to do that from a place of non-reactivity.

If we argue reactively, we’re not helping anyone. Low bar, perhaps. But in the phone-always-on social media world we live in today, this might be the most fundamental practice for us to do — for ourselves and for our democracy.

Before we can heal our social fabric, we first have to stop harming it. 

Like I said earlier, I’ve found that my own mindfulness practice has helped me with this. So here’s a short practice you can do to help keep this muscle strong. 

Begin by entering a meditation position, a posture that’s dignified and allows air to flow. 

If it’s comfortable for you, soften your gaze or close your eyes. 

Let your attention to center on your breath. Take a good, deep breath and hold it for a beat. And then, on the outbreath, try to make your exhalation a little longer than the inhale was. See if you can bring a little mindful, loving attention to your breath.

Continue doing that for a few cycles, and notice what’s happening in your body as you do. Hopefully you’re getting a little more relaxed, a little calmer. 

Now, allow yourself to notice what sensations arise when you think about a political conversation–online or, perhaps, in person. What happens to your body? Your breathing? What feelings are present? 

There might be some tension or anxiety there. There might be a feeling of urgency. Maybe you feel like you want to just avoid it all and shut down, check out. Allow yourself to notice these sensations. They’re natural (and totally understandable). 

Now, see if you can create a little space between you and those sensations. Imagine yourself in that argument or conversation. How do you want to show up? What options do you have?

There might be an impulse to score some points, to win for your side. Hold that thought and just examine it: Is that contributing to a healthier argument? Is it, as the rabbis said, an argument for the sake of heaven?

Maybe there’s another way to engage. Or maybe right now, this moment, isn’t the time to do it–and you can respond later from a calmer, wiser place. Imagine how that might feel.

Continue to breathe, in and out. 

Take three more cycles of breath. When you’re ready, if your eyes have been closed, open them up and look around. Notice how you feel. Hopefully just a little bit less reactive, a little bit wiser.

This episode is airing the week of July 4. I think there’s something significant in that. T

his practice, like so many of the practices we talk about here, is important not just for us as individuals, but for our communities and our society.

Like Moses, Korach, and the ancient Israelites, if we want peace for ourselves and for everyone we share our country and our planet with, then we have to live together.

And the only way we’re going to live together in peace is if we can talk and argue with each other non-reactively. That’s one of the lessons of Korach, and I believe it’s the foundation stone of democratic life.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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