What Happened When I Tried Meditation to Get Trump Out of My Head
When keeping up with the latest, horrible news became overwhelming, I went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat to see what would happen when I was left alone with my own thoughts.
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At some point last year, I started to feel like I was losing my mind. It wasn't something I could pinpoint, exactly; no one event that had pushed me beyond my capacity to rationally think or feel. I just became gradually, incrementally aware that everything was more difficult; that sometimes, I felt as if I could barely function at all.
I knew I wasn't the only one to feel this way. For many Americans, 2016 represented the disintegration of the foundational narratives, ideologies, and institutions that had formed many of our ideas of who we (and the country) were. Each week brought news of police shootings, financial scandals, state surveillance breaches, and international terrorist attacks. Each month broke its previous temperature record, signaling the impacts of climate change as fracking and domestic fossil fuel production increased. And after sixteen surreal months of steadily escalating, mind-warping coverage of the presidential election, the ticket had been narrowed down to two rich white people, both of whom were embroiled in endless controversies, and both of whom had thoroughly demonstrated their dedication to money above human beings or the planet.
Reading the news made me feel awful, though I noticed that I had developed a compulsive addiction to checking content streams; I would find myself scrolling through social media feeds with little to no recollection of how long I had been there. And while it was clear that the internet was only feeding my feelings of fear and despair, there seemed to be a startling lack of other places to go. The subject of politics had swollen to encompass everything about the contemporary human experience and was absolutely inescapable across virtually all forms of media. As The Atlantic put it: "Donald Trump so permeates the collective consciousness of the country that it is hard to imagine now living in a world without him."
What was the world like before? I felt like I could barely remember. In this world, it seemed clear that emotional distress was a near-universal condition. How did we end up here? I felt there was something inside myself that was no longer accessible; a way of being, maybe, or the simple ability to sit calmly for a few minutes, feeling intuitively that the world would last.
On the night of November 8th, watching the election results come in—the electoral map reddening, the PBS news correspondents in a kind of psychedelic disbelief alongside me—my mind finally lost its footing. I signed up for a ten-day silent meditation course the next day, hoping that a severance from the world, however brief, would bring me a little clarity.
I arrived at the Dhamma Manda meditation center in Kelseyville, California two months later, with little idea of what to expect and only a vague idea of what meditation even was. While I intuitively felt it had something to do with clearing the mind, I had no understanding of the techniques involved and an enormous amount of skepticism that my mind could be cleared at all, or ever again. In the time since the election, the country's (my) panic and outrage had only intensified; if my mind felt frayed before, the 24-hour news cycle had since obliterated it.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is a traditional meditation technique from India offered entirely by donation at Dhamma centers throughout the world. As our course facilitators explained that evening, we would train ourselves to literally see things as they are, not as we wished they were, which would allow us to cultivate acceptance and compassion. (This sounded particularly handy, as many of my thoughts at that point seemed to rotate around the idea of how the world should be.) We were to commit to complete silence, abstinence, and sobriety for ten days, learning to focus our attention only on the subtle sensations of the body and allow our deeper thoughts and feelings to resurface naturally.
I glanced around at the other women seated around me, listening attentively from their folding chairs. We would not speak to each other, or even make eye contact, for a week and a half. We would not read, write, or use a phone or computer. By the time we reentered the world, we would have a new commander-in-chief. We were all there, ostensibly, to experience something that we could not otherwise experience without leaving our jobs, lives, and families for over a week. I scanned their faces, wondering if they felt as fucked up as I did.
The daily Vipassana schedule is rigorous, and we were to follow it as strictly as possible. The morning bell rang at 4 AM and meditation commenced shortly thereafter. Meals were served at the same time, twice a day, with little variation on the menu. For dinner: tea and fruit, only. There were a couple hours allotted to resting, and a little path up in the hills behind the bunk houses where we could take walks during breaks. The rest of the day, nearly ten hours of it, was reserved for sitting in silence.
The morning bell rang at 4 AM and meditation commenced shortly thereafter. Meals were served at the same time, twice a day, with little variation on the menu. For dinner: tea and fruit, only.
The course techniques are based on the teachings of S.N. Goenka, who passed away in 2013. We received instruction from video recordings of him each night. These discourses covered many topics, ranging from addiction and anger to relationships and non-attachment. It became clear that, above all, the main task set before us was to look squarely at the state of our reality without judgment or reaction. Observation without reaction, Goenka explained, was the real key to discovering lasting happiness and peace.
Almost immediately, however, I learned that reactions are the predominant feature of the contemporary mind. Each day, hundreds of times per day, we are presented with opportunities to have them. If we encounter something positive, we react with craving and desire; we want more of it. If we encounter something negative, we react with anger, hostility, or aversion. Either way, we develop an unhealthy relationship with something that we have no control over; if we do not receive more of the positive, or if we are forced to encounter the negative, we become miserable.
I also realized that the ways in which we interact and share information with each other only increases these opportunities for reaction. In fact, as we scroll through our content feeds, we are prompted to react: to like, share, ignore, report or reply. We register hundreds (thousands?) of emotional reactions each day, many of which go largely unprocessed. Imagine the range of micro-emotions you experience from a single social media session. In Vipassana meditation, they teach that these unprocessed reactions are stored in the subconscious mind and body, and as they accumulate it can become more and more difficult to understand how we really feel beneath it all.
During the first few days, I found I couldn't focus on my own breathing for more than a few seconds without encountering some of these unprocessed reactions. I relived my anxiety over the election, saw fragments of other people's racist or sexist Twitter arguments, and replayed troubling news segments in my head. I discovered that the name "Donald Trump" was seared into my brain. I saw it even when I closed my eyes, the way the outline of the sun will remain behind your lids even after you stop looking at it.
"Such a wild mind!" conceded the VHS likeness of Goenka one night, to my great relief. While this validated my experience, I felt my mind was too wild—that it had been electrocuted out of a positive thought-cycle by news headlines and streams of content that profited from my emotional exhaustion. Though I had initially sought out meditation to connect more deeply with myself, I felt like others were taking up the bulk of my mental space with their feelings, photos, opinions, and judgments. I feared that my own thoughts were buried forever beneath a sea of unprocessed digital content, one that would prevent me from ever achieving mental clarity again.
A week in, though, I began to get the hang of the technique. My mind became stronger and more able to focus, and I watched these stored images and traumas recede from my mind. Slowly and incrementally, I learned to clear away the debris and connect more deeply with my own thoughts and feelings. It was the most difficult work I've ever done; I encountered a lot of unprocessed emotion and faced some hard truths about who, where, and how I was. But as I went deeper, I felt much of my physical pain and anxiety disappear, I slept better, and for the first time in months I felt the stirrings of positivity: optimism, energy, creativity, hope. Most of all, I felt compassion for myself, and for everyone struggling to exist in this strange time, and beneath all that messaging.
Even before attending a Vipassana course, I'd been concerned about the effect that media was having on my ability to control my emotions and focus my thoughts. It's been shown that too much screen time leads to gray matter atrophy—the literal shrinking of areas of the brain that handle emotional control and cognitive processing—and at a time when many journalism outlets rely on sensational headlines to stay relevant, seeking out information on the internet can be an emotionally exhausting affair. I found that meditation can not only rebuild the parts of the brain that are deteriorated by screen addiction, it can also provide the necessary space to process many of the media images that would otherwise be stuck in our subconscious, blocking access to our own intuition and creativity.
While many Americans are deeply affected by troubling news reports, social media arguments, and clickbait journalism, the stress and anxiety of these messages continue to affect women, people of color, and the LGBT community disproportionately. Even if we're not directly impacted by the violence that takes place every day, reports of (and comments about) ICE raids, sexual assault, racially-motivated police shootings, and travel bans can all trigger past emotional traumas and cause members of these communities to fear for their safety.
Amy Keo, a first-generation Cambodian-American living in Portland, Oregon, started a bi-weekly meditation group called Radical Meditation for People of Color to provide a space for marginalized people to work through their feelings. She told me that at their first gathering over a year ago, she received a hugely positive response. Over thirty people from various communities, backgrounds, and orientations came together to meditate. "We all started crying at the immediate sight of one another," she recalled. "For many people, just the sight of there being thirty people of color in one room was so powerful."
Keo's aim is to reclaim the many conversations surrounding identity, trauma, and healing around communities of color. A different facilitator directs the meditation each week; sometimes the group talks, other times they sit in silence. Keo acknowledges that it can be difficult work. The process of re-engaging with stored trauma through meditation can trigger a lot of intense emotion. Still, she sees and feels the positive benefits working within the group. "A lot of folks of color are ready to start doing their healing work," she said. "It takes too much of a toll to live in a society that dehumanizes them and threatens their bodies."
Black Women for Wellness, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to providing healing resources for black women and girls, is also incorporating meditation into their community empowerment sessions. For many black women, Iyatunde Folayan, a representative from Black Women for Wellness, told me, even acknowledging the need for help can be a difficult cultural hurdle to overcome. "We see ourselves as very strong, and the system also sees us as having this ability to endure," she said. "Many times, we are not even recognizing that it is okay to ask for help, and that help is sometimes needed, as opposed to just trudging through." Folayan says that meditation has been a key component to their sessions, allowing participants the space and time to sit with their thoughts and see what comes up. Often, she says, just being part of a supportive community is enough.
'A lot of folks of color are ready to start doing their healing work,' she said. 'It takes too much of a toll to live in a society that dehumanizes them and threatens their bodies.'
The day before I spoke with Iyatunde, two clips were circulating around the internet. One was of Bill O'Reilly mocking Democratic Representative Maxine Waters' "James Brown wig." The other was of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's blatant dismissal of April Ryan, one of the few black female journalists in the press briefing room. "We are seeing played out on television what many black women experience in their daily life," Folayan said. "And this is at the highest level."
The meditation work that Black Women for Wellness does, in part, tries to undo much of the damage caused by these images of racism, sexism, and violence that regularly circulate through the media. Folayan describes how she has seen women come together to support each other, to receive help without judgment, and to learn how to stay healthy at a time when their identities are often under attack. "We have always had to fight and we will continue to do that," she said, "but it's vital that we learn how to renew and restore ourselves."
Before experiencing Vipassana for myself, I didn't really understand what meditation could do. I had no idea how much I needed help, and how impossible it might have been for me to receive it had I not attended.
I also got the opportunity to sit with and meet powerful women, to suffer in solidarity with them, and to come out on the other side of our own hard work laughing. That, to me, is resilience. After we had left the center and resumed our normal lives, one of my fellow meditators, Isabela, wrote to me about how grounded and energized she felt. After struggling with an eating disorder and body image issues for years, spending conscious time with herself had strengthened her sense of self-love. "Considering the current political climate," she wrote, "we have to treat each other and ourselves well."
Right now, it's especially easy to become overwhelmed, depressed, exhausted and cynical. There are infinite, valid reasons to feel this way. Meditation does not teach you to ignore the realities of our world; it teaches you to acknowledge and empathize with these realities, as a means of moving forward truthfully. Establishing positive patterns for consuming information, processing emotion, and healing your own body can be an act of resistance in itself.