The Real Election

This week was the first presidential debate, and in just a few weeks is the election. This election cycle is like none other in our collective memory.  Regardless of the outcome, what has been revealed during the process will remain: dissatisfaction, distrust, fear, bigotry, anger, and judgment. The election will not resolve these maladies. Which has me thinking that while November 8 is an election, beneath it is another election.

Yes, this election is about who will be president. It's about the balance of power in Congress and in state and local jurisdictions across the land. It's about ballot measures. All are crucial. All require sober thinking, reflection, and the exercise of our sacred right to vote.

Yet, in, with, and under the November election, is a different election, a choice, about what we hold to be real.

Beyond Hillary or Donald, beyond our political affiliations, beyond American citizenship, is a deeper reality. This reality, infinite and beyond form, encompasses everything else we hold to be real. It is within the first inhale of a newborn and the last exhale of a loved one. This reality, beyond mind and emotion, is the Sacred Essence from which we are made, in which we live, and to which we return beyond this life.

This reality is a palpable Love that dissolves our fears and disempowering stories. It is a clarity of soul  that breaks through the twin traps of comfort and discomfort to live more boldly, truly, and graciously. It is a vision that sees both the need for justice and the humanity of those who perpetrate injustice. It is the interweaving of compassion, self-compassion, forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. It is the Ocean rising and falling with each individual wave, yet existing beyond every crest and crash.

And so, we are faced with an election, a choice. Will we root our actions in a centered knowing of our own Being-ness, a Being-ness that also includes opponents?

Will we trust in a Reality so vast and so gracious that we surrender our drive to control everything and everyone? Will we let the Universe move through us and incarnate greater awareness, fairness, understanding, honesty, clarity, and generosity?

As we head toward this fall's vote, will we take responsibility for our state of consciousness, and act in alignment with it, no matter who wins in November?

That is the choice we face. That is THE election.

What It Means To Be An American

Both major political parties have now held their national conventions in advance of the fall election. During those conventions, two divergent views emerged of what it means to be an American. Of course, within each party you'll find those who disagree with the prevailing viewpoint. Nonetheless these are the two visions of America that I observed:

One view: We are a declining, threatened tribe losing our way of life and in danger of actually losing our lives. To become great and safe again, we must expel and eliminate any perceived threat.

The other view: We are an increasingly diverse community, made stronger by our differences. By working together in a spirit of hospitality and generosity, we become safer, healthier, more prosperous, and a more perfect union.

One view defines patriotism by who is excluded.

The other view defines patriotism by the breadth of inclusion.

The former defines oppression as anything that threatens their privileged status. The latter views oppression as the fruit of systemic injustice in which we are all complicit.

The first ideology looks for scapegoats to demonize as the cause of our woes and seeks a savior to deliver us from the evil ones.

The latter perspective looks in the mirror and seeks to take responsibility for selfishness, fear, and bigotry in the hope of awakening millions of saviors, each doing daily acts of justice, courage, and generosity.

An example of the difference is seen in Khizr Khan's speech to the Democratic National Convention and the reaction to it. Khan spoke of his Muslim-immigrant son, a U.S. Army Captain, who was killed when he sacrificed his life to save fellow soldiers from a bulldozing taxi carrying 200 pounds of explosives. He said his son and the sacrifice he made represent the best of what it means to be an American. His take on Mr. Trump was that his view of what it means to be an American is skewed because he has sacrificed nothing and no one.

Monday on CNN's "New Day", Mr. Khan continued his line of thought, "Communities coming together is the solution. We are as concerned as Mr. Trump is about the safety of this country. We need a leader that will unite us, not disrespect, not by derogatory remarks...That's all I wish to convey to him. That a good leader has one trait...empathy."

In response to Mr. Kahn, Mr. Trump enumerated his sacrifices: built structures, created thousands of jobs, and made money.

I have no illusion that either party will fully live up to the best of its values. Both political parties are prone to hypocrisy and pandering. But a core question has emerged from the conventions. Is being American about:

  • Exclusion. Self-obsession. Fear. Looking for scapegoats?


  • Inclusion. Self-sacrifice. Empathy. Looking to collaborate?

Which view of what it means to be an American more closely aligns with your own?

What Donald Trump and I Have in Common

“Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you'll be a mile away and have his shoes.” Steve Martin

This year's presidential nomination process is like a reality TV show populated with messy, overly-dramatic, self-entitled caricatures. The spectacle, while revolting, is also mesmerizing.

Yet I feel an inner tug pulling me away from the spectacle. In particular, I'm weary of investing energy in the Donald Trump melodrama.

I loathe his attacks on immigrants, women, Muslims. He is a vile, egotistical demagogue. Thank God I'm not like that!

Then this morning during my meditation I had a realization: I am like Donald Trump!

The truth is, I too:

  • Hate losing and don't handle failure well
  • Tend to be self-absorbed and self-entitled
  • Have racist thoughts lurking in my heart
  • Often feel I'm right, superior, and have all the answers
  • Try to preserve my perfect image and become defensive when my faults are mirrored back to me
  • Can be smug, patronizing, arrogant, and condescending
  • Vilify those whose political positions are the polar opposite of mine
  • Overstate, understate, or sometimes flat out lie if it will make me look better

Everything I despise in Donald Trump, I can find somewhere in myself, either as something I do, have done, or have the potential to do.

I may be more aware of and put more effort into mitigating my flaws than Donald Trump, and my imperfections probably won't have the same global impact as Donald Trump's, but I cannot self-righteously claim that we have nothing in common.

Empathy is to put on someone else's shoes. It is to imagine that, given certain circumstances, we could also behave as they do. Donald Trump and I are walking in different directions, but the same shoes fit us both.

Empathy does not acquiesce to abominable behavior. It firmly opposes it, while affirming the humanity, however deeply flawed, of the offender. It sees, in fact, it looks for a spark of divine Essence within those we oppose. That Sacred Essence within, which is the core of who we really are, expands our capacity to face and hold faults without demonizing, repressing, or fleeing.

When we face our shortcomings that others mirror back to us, we have a choice: self-judgment or self-compassion. If we choose judgment, we will project our inner demons on to others and find villains everywhere. We create more of what we loathe.

Or we can choose to have compassion for our flaws. Grounded in that Sacred Essence, we see our demons clearly and can choose to change the direction we are headed. We might even start to have an energetic shift toward compassion for our enemies.

Empathy and compassion are scarce in our public discourse. Without them, however, it is impossible to find common ground or birth innovative, unexpected solutions. Polarization and gridlock worsen, and there is no way forward.

Empathy is the way forward. It is not the entire solution. Indeed it's only a first step. But it's headed in the right direction.

Gaza: How Email Etiquette Might Help

An email I received yesterday triggered me. My first reaction was to write an email that thoroughly explained why I was right and why the sender was wrong. My response, though not mean-spirited, was self-righteousness, and it left no room for the other person's point of view. I moved my mouse to press "Send"...I paused..."Is this really how I want to handle this conflict? I sound like a petty child." I decided to wait a day before responding.

This morning that email sits in my Drafts folder. As I ponder what edits to make before sending it, I am also pondering how my situation is a microcosm of what is happening in Gaza.

"You hurt me. Now I'm going to hurt you back."

"I'm right, and I will prove that you are wrong."

"You make me feel threatened. So, I'm going to attack."

Whether it's a tense email exchange, an international crisis, or a fight on a kindergarten playground, the rationale for a violent response sounds the same. Our knee-jerk response is usually primal, ego-driven, and fear-based. 

Pausing for a day helped me regain some perspective. I don't feel as threatened today. I realize that this person who emailed me likes to take strong stands. I admire that...it's just easier to admire when we are on the same side of the argument! While I still hold to my opinion, with a little space I now can admit that I might not be right. There is another valid viewpoint. Remembering all this, I dedicated my morning meditation to the wellbeing of the one who emailed me.

I started wondering about how I handle conflict:

  • Can I discipline myself to pause before responding harshly?
  • Am I open to the possibility that I am not totally right and that the other side is not totally wrong?
  • Can I see through the aggressive action to view in the other person what I also am feeling: scared, angry, defensive, self-righteous or frustrated?
  • Will I choose to see the whole person, not just the part I fear or dislike?
  • Can I find something in the other side that I admire or relate to and build on that?
  • Am I willing to pray for/send positive energy to those with whom I am in conflict?

This self-reflective approach to conflict is a lot less fun that sending a clever, nasty email followed by three snarky snaps in the air. It's less macho than firing another missile. But eventually, how we handle an issue becomes the issue. How we handle conflict becomes more important than what the initial conflict was about.

How we handle conflict creates an atmosphere that either generates more potential solutions or narrows our options down to fear and violence. It determines whether we grow our capacity for peace and cooperation or whether we as a species are doomed to self-destruction.

The choice is ours, and the choice to do the work of peace comes anew each day. Even how we respond to an email matters.


It's election season. Commercials. Mailers. Competing signs, facts and statistics. While all politics are supposedly local, the basic political landscape is fairly universal. Here in Marin County, California one of the main issues in next week's primary race for County Supervisor is a project called Marinwood Village. In essence, the project would transform a blighted shopping center into a mixed-use development of retail space and residential units, with almost all of the residential units being set aside for affordable housing.

While the history of the project is long and complicated, I think opposition to it can be summed up with an acronym: N.I.M.B.Y. "Not in my backyard." I live in a liberal-leaning county where progressive politics is the norm...until taking a progressive stand costs us something.

"Yes, let's have affordable housing, but not near my house."

"Yes, let's make it easier for middle to lower income workers to get to their jobs, but don't inconvenience me with any more traffic." (61% of those working in my county don't live here, in large part because housing is so pricey.)

"Yes, I believe our community should be integrated with people of color, of different ethnicities and religions, of various socioeconomic backgrounds all living amongst each other, just do it on the other side of the highway."

"Yes, let's ensure that every child has equal access to quality public education, just make sure my child's education is more equal than others."

Community, equality, justice, fairness, and compassion are all cherished values until those values might ask something of us:

  • 30 seconds added to our commute on Mondays and Tuesdays
  • Sacrificing that new state of the art auditorium for our school so that a less-privileged child can master Algebra and know the difference between a simile and a metaphor
  • Facing our unconscious racism and classism

The plan's opponent say it will overcrowd schools, create traffic snarls, and result in any number of other dreaded outcomes. I assumed the plan was for over 1,000 residential units with 500 new children attending public schools and 700 new cars clogging our roads.  No, the plan is to build 82 units, 72 of which would be designated as affordable housing. That's it. All this hubbub is about 82 units.

To be fair, we all have our version of N.I.M.B.Y., ways in which we sacrifice our principles when they are not convenient or comfortable. For instance, I refuse to patronize Walmart and other corporations whose business practices I believe to be detrimental to our society and environment. Yet, my retirement account is invested in various mutual funds, which, in turn invest in several corporations whose values clash with mine. It seems virtually impossible to build a retirement fund and avoid entanglements with corporate malfeasance. How do I live my values in such a situation?

What's your version of this conflict? Where in your life do you find it hard to live your values? The work of the soul is to get clearer and clearer about our true values and find the courage to live them.

Any value worth holding will cost us something. If there is no cost or struggle, then these are not personal values but rather worshipped abstractions, meaningless babble, self-serving affectations. Will we pay the price to do something, no matter how small, that is in alignment with the values we extoll? (Perhaps divest in just one mutual fund whose values conflict with our own.)

Only when we look into the backyard of our own hearts can we get honest about the gap between our expressed values and our actions. And when we look there, what we are likely to find is fear. Fear that we won't get our "fair share". Fear of losing control. Fear of pain. Fear of rejection. Much of this fear spirals outward from a center of self-entitlement weaving tales of doom that are not grounded in reality.

If we lean into our fear-based darker impulses, we can find beneath those layers of protection a greater compassion, a spacious consciousness, a liberating connection with All That Is...Something greater than ourselves which enables us to be the people we want to be. Change, whether in a person or in a society, always begins in our own backyard. If not now, when? If not in my own backyard, then whose?

Your Holiday Movie Previews! (With a Few Twists)

As we approach the end of the year, Hollywood is poised to release several blockbusters featuring household names in starring roles. While you may be familiar with the movie titles, you might not be familiar with the plots. So, below is a brief synopsis of three prominent upcoming films: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Katniss Everdeen, an obscure woman representing her district (brilliantly performed by newcomer Wendy Davis) rises to become a household name almost overnight. She ignites a firestorm when she dares to defy the Capitol's heavy-handed cabal (portrayed by the lusciously malevolent David Dewhurst and the Texas Legislature), who ruthlessly suppress any opposition as their authoritarian power structure begins to crumble.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Bilbo Baggins, a diminutive Hobbit (portrayed by the small in stature but large in spirit Robert Reich) attempts to cajole and inspire a bumbling gang of infighting dwarves (the Democratic Party), in a quest to reclaim their lost homeland. Bilbo is in possession of a dangerous yet powerful ring (a.k.a. Truth-Telling) and leads an effort to save Middle Earth (the Middle Class) from its impending demise by facing down Orcs (the Republican Party) and, in this sequel, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Ted Cruz), which Tolkein described as "a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm."

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues - A narcissistic, misogynistic anchorman stuck in the 1970's (played flawlessly by Bill O'Reilly) gains a vast national audience on a cable news network, where with the help of his cohorts (played by Sean Hannity, Chris Wallace, Karl Rove and a host of over-the-top character actors), he makes a mockery of journalism and distracts the public from honest debate with news that is anything but fair and balanced.

Trickle-Up Economics

As we await the winter rains here in Northern California, I've been paying attention to the early morning chorus of sprinkler systems in our neighborhood. Like a carefully choreographed game of "whack-a-mole", sprinkler heads peak above ground, disperse water and then return to their subterranean lair. Unfortunately, this type of system sends water up toward the ether where much of it evaporates rather sending water directly into the soil to soak the roots of flora with life-giving liquid. This inefficient top-down watering system is an apt metaphor for "Trickle-Down Economics", which has been the prevailing economic theory for the past thirty years. [Warning: This is not an economic treatise and thus should not be used in lieu of your normal sleep medication.]  The essence of Trickle-Down Economics is the belief that when the richest Americans have the lowest possible effect tax rates, much lower than that of the rest of the population, they, in turn, will create jobs that raise the economic status of everyone else.

It sounds reasonable. Unfortunately, it hasn't work as advertised.  Here are a few sobering statistics:

  • If wages had kept up with increased productivity since the 1970's, then someone making $40,000 today would be making over $62,000. 
  • Only Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon have worse income inequality than the U.S., and the likelihood of upward economic mobility in this country is about the same as in Pakistan (slightly worse than Singapore and slightly better than China).
  • The wealthiest 400 Americans have as much wealth as 80 million families combined (62% of the population).
  • Since 1980 American GDP has about doubled. While wages are stagnant (or even declining) when adjusted for inflation, the stock market has increased its value by over ten times with 93% of that wealth residing in the hands of the richest 20% of Americans.
  • For more information and supporting data, check out www.inequality.is or Robert Reich's new documentary "Inequality for All".

Essentially what we have in this country is "Trickle-Up Economics". The rich get richer, and everyone else treads water or sinks. Over the past few decades, the wealthy few have become exorbitantly wealthy, while the rest of the country has seen wages stagnate or decline (when adjusted for inflation). The result is that millions of ordinary folks have less available income to buy stuff, and that demand for goods and services is what drives the economy and creates jobs. No matter how much he loves to be warm and cuddly, there are only so many Snuggies that Bill Gates is going to buy.

What's bizarre is that the rich would likely fare better in a more equitable economic system by having a smaller share of an ever-growing pie as opposed to a larger share of a stagnant or shrinking pie. As the middle class thrived, they would purchase goods and services from companies owned by the rich, thus not only increasing profits for the wealthy but also providing more capital to hire more workers for decent jobs rather than the McJobs typically created in this wimpy recovery. I'm not advocating communism but rather a somewhat higher tax rate on the rich so that the budget is not balanced on the backs of the squeezed/shrinking middle class and the poor so that they (we), in turn, can heat up the economy.

What's perhaps most startling about Trickle-Down Economics is its unholy alliance with organized Christianity. Despite the clear solidarity of Jesus with the poor (Luke 4:16-19, Luke 6:20-21, Matthew 25:34-36, Luke 14:12-14, Luke 12:16-21, Matthew 19:24, etc.), not to mention passages in the Hebrew scriptures lambasting the wealthy establishment for its treatment of the poor (Psalm 109:16, Proverbs 14:31, Proverbs 28:3 and innumerable examples among the prophets such as Ezekiel 22:26-29), in many Christian circles, God has morphed into a monocle-with-top-hat capitalist who advocates for a totally unregulated free market, no matter how that impacts the most vulnerable.

Former President Jimmy Carter recently weighed in on this unseemly mangling of sacred scripture to support a trickle-up economic system, when he said, "If you don't want your tax dollars to help the poor - then stop saying that you want a country based on Christian values, because you don't." Amen, Mr. President. Amen.

A New Birth of Freedom

Politics makes strange frenemies. Two friends. Co-workers. Revolutionaries. Visionaries. They knew each other for over half a century. Their friendship turned to animosity when they battled for the same job, but over the years they reconciled and forged the deepest of bonds in spite of their political differences. They died on the same day, five hours apart, on July 4, 1826. These two friends, then enemies, then friends again, were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who both died fifty years to the day after the publication of the Declaration of Independence.  It was Adams who convinced the committee charged with writing the Declaration of Independence to let Jefferson write the original draft. Their lives were woven together as no other political figures in American history. Adams, our second president, was a hot-tempered, New England Federalist, who believed that the aims of liberty and justice were best served by a strong, centralized government. He said,  "No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it." Jefferson, his successor, was a reserved Southerner and favored achieving the same ends through strong state governments. Oddly, Jefferson's party, which evolved into today's Democratic Party, now holds the opposite position from their founder.

What endures midst ever-shifting political tides is an ideal stated so eloquently by Jefferson, that

"...all men [and women!] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."

While our founding principles are a beacon to the world, our behavior has frequently fallen short: slavery, misogyny, racism, corporatocracy, nearly incessant wars, hegemony, lack of access to healthcare and jobs that earn a living wage, a shrinking middle class, the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and the list goes on.

To suggest that American is anything but the greatest nation on earth is blasphemous in most quarters. But how can we be great if we are unwilling to see the gap between our ideals and our behavior? Why is it unpatriotic to love our founding principles so much that we challenge the deleterious policies we have enacted as a nation? If America is to be great, that claim must be based not on our economic prowess, nor our omnipresent cultural influence, nor our military industrial complex. Rather our greatness is determined by our willingness to rise above prejudice, narrow self-interest, and fear in order to fulfill the bold, egalitarian vision of our founders.

This week also also marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a horrific carnage that took place from July 1-3, 1863. Months later President Lincoln went to that battlefield and challenged his generation, even more politically polarized than our own, to renew their commitment to these ideals.

What would it look like to renew our commitment? Can we celebrate our heritage in a way that moves beyond jingoistic shouts of "We're Number One!"?

Rather than place our deceased founders on pedestals and currency, a more useful response would be to take up their unfinished work and embody justice, equality and liberty here and now. Rather than gloat about how great we are in comparison to other nations, it is time for us to own up to our shortcomings and get our own house in order. Rather than down another cocktail as we apathetically watch reports of unchecked injustice on our big screen TVs, it is time to make the necessary sacrifices so that our founders' unfulfilled dream inches closer to reality.

Lincoln's words at Gettysburg, channeling the spirit of Adams and Jefferson, are just as applicable and inspiring now as when first spoken:

"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Happy Independence Day!

We the People

Did you cheer or jeer this week's Supreme Court rulings? Whether you experienced elation or disgust in large part depends on your understanding of a short phrase. The constitution begins with the words, "We the People". Who is included in the term "people"? White, male property owners? Heterosexuals? This week the Supreme Court handed down a mixed bag of progressive and regressive decisions in the attempt to further define what it means to be fully included as "the people". What I find interesting is the stance of those who oppose extending to others the legal protections they already enjoy. They sound like children throwing a temper tantrum because they now have to share their toys. Take for instance Justice Scalia's dissent to the majority opinion that struck down a key provision in the Defense of Marriage Act. He complained:

"It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race...In the majority's telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one's political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today's Court can handle."

Actually sir, the truth is uncomplicated. Your politics are monstrous.  Your viewpoint is an enemy of the human race. You fear you might be judged and ostracized just for being who you are? How ironic!

You defend laws that on the surface may seem fair and impartial, but the undeniable effect of which is to discriminate, impoverish, and marginalize. And it is the effect of such laws, not just the veneer of good intent, which must be examined.

With the possible exception of wealthy, white, heterosexual males, who really benefits from the policies espoused by Mr. Scalia and his ilk? Their tired, disingenuous arguments sound reasonable but upon closer inspection are revealed to be clever misdirections obscuring bigotry. For instance: "We are defending the historic understanding of marriage, which is between a man and a woman." Historically, arranged marriages have been the norm in which one family sells their property (the bride) to another. Until very recently, people of different races or religions were not allowed to intermarry. Is this the historical definition of marriage which you hold dear?

Or look at the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act this week. The court essentially said that the Voting Rights Act worked so well that it's now unconstitutional. Really? A close inspection of voting-related issues throughout racially polarized areas reveals Jim Crow is alive and well; he's just wearing more sophisticated clothing. (See Justice Ginsberg's dissent.)

Whether they oppose a level playing field for people of color, the poor, women, immigrants, or the LGBT community, the privileged perceive others' equality as their loss. As special rights are pried from their grasp, they whine: "We are the victims here!"

It's hard to see how Justice Scalia is in any way a victim. But let's play along. Perhaps he and his cabal feel like they are being marginalized. A few years spent in the role of the marginalized may be exactly what they need. Maybe if they experience life as a despised minority, an enemy of the people, a monster...all familiar roles for homosexuals, immigrants, people of color and women in this country...maybe then they will develop some empathy.

"We the People" is an unfulfilled promise. It is the latent, ever-unfolding genius of our constitution. It is the hope that one day "people" will include everyone, a "we" of fully equal human beings before the law, in theory and in practice. It is a vision in which all of us work together for the common good because individual liberty is selfish vanity if not spent for the benefit of all the people. Anything less is not only "unconstitutional" but also monstrous and an enemy of the human race. Mr. Scalia, it's time to share the toys!