Politics is Distracting

It’s 4am on election day, and though I can’t see it through the rain clouds, there’s a full lunar eclipse out there. It’s really tempting to make the image of an orange moon before dawn, cast into colored shadow by a quirk of orbital geometry, into an ill omen. Maybe it is. People have been interpreting eclipses as cosmic commentary on human affairs far longer than we’ve had the idea of the solar system as a set of nested spinning rocks. 

In the early Buddhist writings, cosmic objects like the moon (canda) are the homes of deities, and the eclipse is a powerful titan or demon named Rāhu. The moon god is a devotee of the Buddha, and begs for help when captured by Rāhu. The Buddha requests that Rāhu release the moon, and Rāhu complies. (SN 2.9) Eclipse as oppression and bondage, release as the gift of refuge. 

The Democrats will likely lose seats almost everywhere today, as usually happens in midterms to the party in power. The results matter for lots of issues, not least of them the stability of U.S. democracy itself. It’s hard to not obsess about the ups and downs of the races, and appropriate to take action to support those who share your values. Vote, of course! But when we’re immersed in the competition, either as participant or audience, it’s difficult to bring the heart to other topics. This is the nature of immersion. 

When we’re working on meditative immersion (samādhi), the same principles are at play. Immersion is attained when it takes effort to bring the heart away from the object of meditation, not when effort is successfully restraining the mind from distraction for a while. And needless to say, you can’t be immersed in two things at once. So if we’re trying to bring the mind to rest for any length of time, we have to set down the obsession with the political, the polis, the larger community, for a while. And everything else. Politics is distracting because it matters. But many things matter, and a heart that can’t choose between them moment to moment is a heart in bondage. 

The ability to choose your inner states, such as when you enter absorption (jhāna) and how long you stay there, is a result of mastery. Few of us have this. But every step along the way is marked by increasing agency—liberty, you might say—around our minds, which are inseparable from the mind of the polis, the communal consciousness. 

Improvement in meditation is always connected with improvement in our ability to remain undistracted, and to keep our states within conscious control. Even if our practice is open awareness, where we’re allowing everything to arise and pass without intervention, there’s still the necessity to maintain mindfulness and clear comprehension, which themselves become the stable object.

When the moon deity, named Candimā, siezed by Rāhu, calls out for the Buddha’s help, they recite this verse, which is now used as a protection spell:

“Homage to you, Buddha, hero!
You’re free in every way.
I’ve wandered into confinement:
be my refuge!”

You can chant this when your mind can’t settle down. It’s a way of going for refuge to that which can help you do that which you can’t yet do on your own.

Implied in our common way of thinking about distraction is an unskillful view of inner states like emotions and important narratives: that they’re out of our control, and the best we can do with them is dance with them skillfully. It seems like this for a long time in practice, but I think that’s because we’ve wandered so deeply into confinement that we’ve lost all sense of the possibility of freedom. We’re unable to say the first part of the spell, “Buddha, hero! You’re free in every way.” And so we can’t get to the second part. As an old teacher of mine 😉 once said, “O ye of little faith!” To get free we have to want to be free, but we have to also believe that freedom is possible. 

It is possible to not be confined by cosmic demons. It takes faith, and practice. Faith comes first, and is more powerful by far. After Rāhu releases Candimā, he runs back to the lord of demons, Vepacitti, quaking with fear. Vepacitti asks why he’s shaking, and Rāhu says,

“My head would have exploded in seven pieces,
I would have found no happiness in life,
if, when enchanted by the Buddha’s spell,
I had not released the Moon.”

May the demons who bind others hear the spell and release them from bondage, and may these demons find happiness in life. May our hearts deepen in refuge, may our public figures deepen in ethics and wisdom, and may all those seeking safety and liberation find it.

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