Progressive Leaders: How to Reverse the 'Spiritual Blackout' That Trump Has Ushered into America

A retreat for progressive leaders focused on the union of contemplative wisdom and political activism.

Amy Goodman
Photo Credit: Screen Capture / Omega, "Being Fearless"

Not many people can say they have done yoga with Amy Goodman. But then again, not many people have been to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Founded in 1977, the institute has been a spiritual haven and progressive force in a world cut through with hate, anger and ignorance. Last week, the institute held a multi-day retreat focused on the union of contemplative wisdom and political activism. In between yoga poses, performative art, meditation sessions, and communal dining, leaders of the progressive left gave talks on how to proceed in difficult times. Here is what they had to say.

“America was a business before it was a country.” Clad in his trademark black suit, white shirt and silk tie, Cornel West helped to kick off Friday evening with a fiery sermon that condemned neoliberalism and the rising tide of neofascism in America. His words were soaked in metaphors, alliteration and the hip-hop style that Harvard president Larry Summers once called "an embarrassment." In between his rebuke of Wall Street and its political puppets, West made the important point that what America is experiencing is not just economic and political tyranny, but an “eclipse of integrity, honesty, decency, and generosity. It is the escalation of gangster-like sensibilities.”

For West and the other speakers who joined him at Omega, America is in the long, dark night of a spiritual blackout. If people are to light a candle in these dark times, the first step is to be self-critical.

Self-criticism is something that CNN’s Van Jones knows well. On election night 2016, Jones was catapulted into the national spotlight after he stated on live television that Donald Trump’s victory was in part a result of "whitelash." Since then, Jones has traveled the country to connect with Trump voters. In his talk at Omega, he admitted that these experiences have made him rethink his initial post-election remarks and the way he fights for a progressive agenda.

As he explained, “I met straight, white, cisgendered, heterosexual Trump voters who are some of the best people in this country. I’ve done that, I’ve seen it, and I can’t unsee it.” The message Jones sent to those listening is that they need to stop the bashing and the name-calling, and instead, step outside their assumptions about other people. If we are to effectively connect with the people we disagree with, then empathy and the ability to listen deeply will be our greatest allies. This approach to political struggle, as West prophetically stated, requires us to practice self-awareness and self-critique, and to see how much of our politics is governed by anger and self-righteousness, rather than compassion and the will to understand other people’s perspectives.

For Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is a valuable tool activists can use to better understand how “conditioned” and “robotic” their minds are. As he led a guided meditation, Kabat-Zinn implored his audience to be aware of their thoughts and the world around them. Mindfulness, he explained, is not about escaping reality. It is about seeing reality as it is without the filter of bias and emotion. In this space, we are freer to choose how to respond to the situations that we confront. Whether we work to end racism or to save the planet, a mindful approach to politics can help us respond with understanding, rather than react with anger and condemnation. As West, Jones and Kabat-Zinn repeatedly pointed out, “othering” cuts through our ability to build the solidarities we need. Any political project must work to overcome this; until then, we will have the same pain, but no shared purpose.

No doubt Kabat-Zinn’s message has had resonance in progressive activist circles. He has spoken alongside Angela Davis, another mindfulness practitioner, on issues of spirituality and radical politics. He has also influenced Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. As Tometi explained in her talk at Omega, her work has never been about self-righteousness or vindication; she says BLM is an affirmation of the humanity of all people on this planet. As a daily meditator, Tometi cited mindfulness as a formative constituent in her radical politics of love. She noted she had been reading Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are at the time she co-founded BLM, and that his ideas have shaped the way she thinks about organizing and social change.

Like Tometi, law professor and meditation teacher Rhonda Magee made the point that this kind of altruistic politics of the heart does not mean we use phrases such as “we are one” or “we’re all in this together” to excuse or bypass the ways in which we are situated, different and vulnerable. Expressions like “Black Lives Matter” exist to highlight specific issues that demand attention. Thus, any progressive position must attend to difference in a meaningful way, at the same time it works to cultivate the understanding and empathy that is needed to build the broad movements capable of achieving real social change.

As Kabat-Zinn elaborated, a mindful politics is not just about presence and compassion; it’s also about how we make sense of a society created from the “triumphalist perspective of white land owners.” Only by mindfully acknowledging this history, and as Cornel West put it, bearing witness, can we begin to create the kind of moral soulcraft that will stop the spiritually, economically and environmentally detrimental wave of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. According to West—who admitted that he still has the seeds of racism, sexism and classism inside of him—we need to use mindfulness not only to work on the world, but to work on and to better understand ourselves. As he put it more than once, drawing on Aristotle and Martin Luther King Jr., “the first aim is to always be self-critical.” The second aim is to act.

While much of the discussion at Omega focused on the politics of the self, many speakers offered their thoughts on more materialist strategies to achieve social change. Amy Goodman, after screening footage from protests over the Dakota access pipeline, advocated the need to be involved in the numerous grassroots struggles taking place across the country. Like every speaker at this retreat, she made the point that change is not going to come from the Democratic Party.

West, in response to the question, "What should we do?" similarly made the point that decision-making and action are always contextual. If there’s a cause in your city or on your campus, that’s where you need to be. Even Jones, who works with Bernie Sanders as part of Our Revolution, a campaign to build a mass progressive political movement, said we should not rely on any one politician—including Sanders—to realize the political agenda we want.

He went on state that there was a fan club, not a political project, built around Barack Obama, and we can’t let the same thing happen again. He encouraged groups like the NAACP and the National Organization of Women to get involved in causes that they typically avoid; for example, show up in mass numbers when a manufacturing plant is set to close in the Midwest or a bill is proposed that will hurt white farmers in the South. This kind of grassroots activism is how broad political movements are built. The left’s serious lack of a commitment to this type of intersectional movement building is why the right successfully seized the Senate, the House, and the majority of state governorships and legislatures while Obama was president. It is also why Donald Trump was able to offer a message that was welcomed by a white working class in red states that felt abandoned by the identitarian and multicultural currents of liberal and progressive groups.

Ultimately, all the speakers concurred that the current historical moment is representative of a broader moral and spiritual crisis in America. They also made the point that Trump has enormous power as president to further degrade the moral and spiritual climate in our country. It is up to the people to ensure that greed, hate, anger, sexism, patriarchy, transphobia, xenophobia, and the whole potpourri of what West describes as "neoliberal soulcraft" does not continue to spread across America and the rest of the world. To stop this, we will not only need mass movements; we will need an understanding of where our shortcomings are, the ability to listen to those we disagree with, and a whole lot of empathy and love. 

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Adam Szetela is an assistant professor in the liberal arts department at Berklee College of Music.