Buddhist philosophy encourages us to look behind the veil of appearances to uncover a higher truth. When placed in the context of political narratives, this philosophy asks that we continuously examine our own political bias, consciousness, and assumptions. By doing so, we can develop more control over how our mind processes new information, incorporates it into our existing narratives, and ultimately provokes us to act on our beliefs. I want to share with you some of the aspects of Buddhist philosophy that led me to join the Narratives Project a few months ago, and how it has pushed me to strive for something like political mindfulness.
Buddhists understand the world to be impermanent, emphasizing that reality is not static but a process. The processes that compose our world—such as growth, death, movement, and time—are all caused by previous, interconnected processes. Put simply, reality is a cyclical chain of cause and effect.
An easy way to think about this conception of the world is through the metaphor of seed theory, which is primarily used in Madhyamaka and Yogacara Buddhism:
Each individual is dealt a certain hand at birth. This set of karmic circumstances—such as location, family, etc.—is entirely out of the person’s control. From the moment of birth, the brain, like fertile soil, is implanted with seeds of information that, under the right circumstances, will later come to fruition as action.
Human action—or, perhaps more fittingly, reaction—occurs as a result of the seeds that already exist in a person’s subconscious. A person’s initial seeds are those of their karmic circumstances, and subsequent seeds are created from the flowering of prior ones. The process of seed production is continually regenerative; when a reaction occurs, new causal potential is planted in the mind which can reaffirm or develop new associations in the subconscious mind—when a seed flowers, new seeds are produced, dispersed, and planted. And so the cycle continues.
This implies that there is limited agency involved in our decisions, as even volition is directed by the way we have been subconsciously socialized to perceive the world—in this way, humans are not naturally actors, but reactors.
It’s hard to discern how free will could exist in such a world. But the Buddhist path suggests that agency can be established through the cautious and continuous examination of one’s subconscious reactive processes. In other words, you can develop agency by reflecting on the reasons behind your reflexes and reactions.
Overcoming determinism through self-reflection
There is an important distinction in the seed diagram above: the division between the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. We are naturally unaware of what seeds exist in our minds, and are therefore purely reacting when they come to fruition in our action. However, by reflecting on our reactions to different things, we can begin to dig up the seeds that lie dormant in our subconscious mind and consider whether our subconscious reactions are the reactions we actually want to be having.
For this reason, the Buddhist project of seeking enlightenment is to uncover the “seeds” in our mind that produce unconscious reactions, and in doing so be able to control these processes and mitigate undesirable reactions in the future.
So despite the determinist implications of seed theory, Buddhists largely believe that we can find agency through the examination of the causal processes that govern our lives. Only after we identify these processes and recognize how they might be shaping our choices and perspectives can we begin to claim agency over our own thinking.
Notably, the sort of deep self-examination that it would require to truly act out of free will rather than within causal processes—an achievement more commonly known to Buddhists as enlightenment—is essentially unachievable within the limits of a human lifetime. Nevertheless, each step towards this ideal helps to alleviate our suffering and improves the way we think and act in the world.
Acknowledging our subconscious political motivations
There are an infinite number of reasons why we embrace and utter certain political narratives—our background and experiences, for instance, make certain facts stick out to us and feel more or less true. This influences how we incorporate new information into our existing understanding of the world.
But we often come to critical points in time where our model of the world is at odds with new, credible information. We are then faced with a terrifying realization: I might be wrong.
How do you possibly proceed after such a realization? Often we pridefully insist that our existing framework is superior. But in reality, most of us are very wrong about almost everything. The world is complicated and we are imperfect beings.
Personally, I find that the process of properly incorporating new information into my political psyche takes a lot of time and effort. As the daughter of a successful, hardworking business owner born in rural Pennsylvania, I feel myself having a negative emotional reaction when people say the American dream is a farce. Denying the American dream can feel like a personal affront.
But upon further reflection, I recognize that this reaction is the flower of a seed planted in my childhood. And I now know consciously that access to opportunity in the United States is far from equal—in fact, this reality was my core motivation for pursuing research in education policy.
By recognizing that this topic is something I tend to react emotionally about, I’ve gotten better at catching myself before uttering an opinion I don’t actually hold. Many more of my incorrect political opinions (of which I’m sure there are many) are more subtle than my idealism surrounding the American dream. Most are based on assumptions I take for granted about how the world works, assumptions that I might not even know I’m making in the first place.
Doing the work to try and truly understand each side of an issue and taking the time to consider the fact that—heaven forbid—one’s gut reaction to a deeply complex issue might be wrong, serves as a sort of political mindfulness exercise. By reflecting on and identifying the causal processes that have formed your way of thinking, you can overcome the limitations of circumstance and experience and begin to make choices and form opinions based on your best perception of reality, as opposed to how you have evolved or been socialized to understand it.
Quitting the blame game and embracing intellectual humility
We’re all forming beliefs on incomplete, imperfect information. Not only do we owe it to ourselves to be more mindful of inaccuracies in our political framework, we owe it to others to be more empathetic about the fact that the vast majority of other people are just doing the best they can with the information they have. We have an instinct to blame people for things, and this instinct frequently turns into treating other groups as “intention-monoliths”: socialists are all power-seeking grifters while capitalists are champions of freedom and equality of opportunity, or vice versa.
As always, reality is more complicated than that. We have all done bad things believing we are making the best possible decision. And while there certainly are people who do and believe truly evil things, to ascribe evil intent to an action or belief is almost certainly to act on incomplete information.
The way each of us reacts to political events is entirely shaped by our background and knowledge—many components of which we are not even aware of. This weakness—if it can be called that—is natural. Coming to terms with what this means about our political views (for example, that they could possibly, maybe be imperfect) is uncomfortable, but it’s important to lean into it. The first steps are taking the time to get to know our subconscious political mind, actively asking ourselves why we have such visceral reactions to certain political trigger words or topics, and considering whether that reaction is clouding our perspective of the bigger picture.
Anna Tyger (@annatyger) is the editor of the Narratives Project.