Trump as Mindfulness Bell

In my Zen Buddhist tradition, we talk a lot about the need to wake up to the true nature of reality and to what is actually happening on a moment-to-moment basis. This kind of wakefulness is surprisingly difficult to achieve, and so we have different tools to remind us to wake up. One tool is a mindfulness bell.

A mindfulness bell, in its most gentle form, is an actual bell. We listen to the sound of the bell and view it as an invitation to collect our mind and bring it back to the present moment. Typically, we are in a safe place for this practice, like a meditation hall, and there is no real harm in our mind wandering. Instead of focusing on our breath we were thinking about lunch — oh well, no big deal. If we are lucky, we find peace and relaxation from the experience of unifying our body and mind.

A mindfulness bell can also be an experience that wakes us up from the dream-like existence occasioned by an incessantly wandering mind and the belief that we are separate from the world around us. I often find these experiential bells to be quite jarring, and they can lead to at least a momentary realization that I need to make a change. When I backed my car into the garage a few weeks ago, for example, I realized that I was distracted by thinking about work rather than focused on driving. I really should slow down, I think, and pay more attention. What if I had run into a neighbor’s child rather than the garage?

This presidential election has turned into a mindfulness bell for me. One that started sounding early in the primaries, but softly enough that I could fall back to sleep. It is now ringing quite loudly, and I find it jolting me awake from a recurring dream.

The dream, fundamentally, is that I can benefit from all of the privileges of our current economic and political systems, yet not be responsible for its failures.

In this dream, I can live a life of happiness and fulfillment as long as I take care of myself and my family and am more or less a decent guy. The fact that so many in our country our suffering is lamentable but not my responsibility. After all, I have voted for all of the right political candidates, I pay my taxes and I bring a lot of good intention to the work I do as a corporate finance lawyer for responsible businesses and investors.

But still, the overwhelming majority of my time is spent in pursuit of more comfort for myself and my family. Let’s face it, it takes a lot of time to maintain a lifestyle of material abundance. There is so much to do to perpetuate our privileged life that it’s a struggle to keep up. How could I possibly have time, for example, to get in involved in a political campaign or movement?

Awake, at least temporarily, I realize that this kind of neglect is what makes a candidate like Trump possible. To me, Trump represents the worst of what our culture produces: a pompous self-aggrandizing bigot, with no apparent sense of humility or perspective with respect to his own wealth and power or the wealth and power of the United States. But to much of the country, he is viewed as a champion of traditional American values and aspirations, who will use his wealth and power to defend the disenfranchised and disempowered.

I realize I am as responsible as anyone for the dramatic divergence in educational and economic opportunities over the last several decades that I believe has fueled his candidacy. To some extent, Trump is exactly what I deserve based on my actions over the past 20 years as a voter and working adult. Sure, I have voted, but I have done nothing to change the political system or even champion the candidates I believe in. More importantly, I have reaped the rewards of my position in society without really doing anything to try to change the situation for those who I know are disadvantaged and oppressed by the same system.

In that way, am I so different from Trump, who declared in the debate that he was justified — in fact it was his duty — to maximize his economic advantage under the law to benefit his family and his company?

I see also that the problem is not Trump or his supporters, but the fear, hate and ignorance that have grown from the fertile ground of extreme economic inequality. These are weeds that have flourished from my own inaction and lack of care. My resolve in waking up to this reality is to accept personal responsibility for the state of our country and the world, and to put more energy and time into developing a new economic garden that produces a more balanced and life-sustaining harvest. In the immediate term, this means working less (and therefore making less) during these next critical 30 days so I have time to contribute to Hillary’s campaign. It is time, so to speak, to put my money where my mouth is.