The Meme That Won the World
I recently moved to Portland Oregon, and I’m sitting in my office near the Hawthorne bridge leading into downtown. The traffic outside has come to a halt, again, as the city erupts in protests and riots, again. One of the most interesting things about the work I do in this psychology office is that I get a private peek at the inner lives of the public. And right now the public is scared. Very scared. The therapy sessions this week have transformed into what I can only call civic grief and trauma counseling. Around this city a heightened tension crackles in the air. This morning I saw several people on the bus staring hard into space with a look on their face that is hard to describe. It is the sort of expression I imagine they might have if a doctor just told them they are going to need chemo.
The reality is this: we elected an openly bigoted authoritarian as our president. He won by drilling into a deep reservoir of fear hidden beneath the small towns in this country. He stoked that fear into anger with thinly disguised hate rallies, and promised to cure it by singling out minority groups for punishment. He has a penchant for revenge and has promised to jail his political opponents and go after those who criticize him, which is restrained when compared to what his supporters are demanding. If he actually does nearly anything he has promised, over two centuries of steadily constructed peaceful civil society will be more than undermined, it will be gutted.
We are going to need the equivalent of society-level chemo.
I can’t pretend to understand how we got here. Historians will bicker over how it happened a century from now. But whatever the larger social forces are, there is one thing I am certain about: one of the reasons we find ourselves here is because millions of individuals have been steadily drinking from a firehose of paranoia, and have been cultivating minds filled with fear and anger. Over the past eight years fear and irrationality has reached the level of a global crisis. Through the vector of scare-journalism and social media fear has spread like a mass viral outbreak. In the past I’ve called fear a meme because it mindlessly tries to survive, replicate, and spread. Today it is the meme that won the world.
One of the most basic truths discovered by all meditators is that you have the mind you have cultivated. We don’t just have minds, we are farmers of our minds. Planting the crop now that we will harvest in the seasons ahead. If you want a peaceful mind, cultivate peace by reading about peace, speaking about peace, and engaging with peaceful people. If you want a busy mind, get busy. If you want an angry mind, you can do that easily. It takes time and some effort, but it really is a choice. If you make no choice at all, the weeds will take over. The world will not look out for your mental health. It’s on you.
This is meditation 101. A no-brainer for people who get their time on the cushion every day, and something we take for granted. But I am convinced that this is a crucial insight for our times. What is needed now is the equivalent of a national mental health education project. People who understand how minds develop need to speak up and talk about it. More people need to know that there is tremendous danger in allowing your mind to develop willy nilly, especially in the cultural petri dish of paranoia we now find ourselves in. This idea needs to be shared with people who have not heard it.
If you are a meditator (and if you are reading this you likely are) then you are put in a strange position right now. What do you do? The culture and tradition around meditation has its own memes: acceptance, letting go, letting be, and resting in what is. In other words, not letting things like fear take the controls of your mind. But while these might provide you some personal immunity from fear, they don’t address the larger outbreak. It is not the time for acceptance. It is time to act.
It is tempting to hide in ourselves at times like this. To withdraw from the turmoil of the world and hibernate in a warm cocoon of contemplative bliss. Please don’t. We need you. We need people with insight right now. People who have looked their own demons in the eye and been through the darkest parts of themselves. We need those who know how to be with fear without running away or freezing. Who know how to stay firmly with fear until it loses its hold. We desperately need people who can be beacons of reason in fearful times. So don’t retreat. Don’t hide. Share what you know.