University of California, Santa Cruz associate professor and political theorist Dean Mathiowetz has been researching the relation of modern Buddhism to democratic theory. Mathiowetz spoke to Cal Poly students and faculty Oct. 19 in the Warren J. Baker Center (building 180) on this paradoxical idea of bringing in the art of meditation to the practice of politics. Mathiowetz’s claim highlights the idea that mindful meditation can foster democratic political engagement.
According to ancient texts, Buddhism was founded during the 5th century B.C.E. under Siddhārtha Gautama, later known as the Buddha. The Buddha preferred a form of monarchy that ensured order, but allowed citizens to live in harmony. He believed the main point of politics was to distract individuals from what’s important — achieving enlightenment.
The Buddha taught that when people are suffering, there are three things they can do: keep suffering, change the world or change their mind. He stressed that the better path is changing one’s mind.
“I think our current political structure is violent. It’s more interested in shouting than listening, making our opponents be quiet than sharing a voice, interested in winning than figuring out the process,” political science professor Matthew Moore said. Moore is a political theorist who has two recent publications on the topic of Buddhism and politics.
Mathiowetz stressed the importance of adopting a Buddhist approach, not to policy but to individual lives and actions.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘How can I not contribute to that bad culture?’” Moore said
So how does meditation fall under the sphere of helping individuals become active citizens in the political sphere? In practice, meditation is the art of nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness of sensations and thoughts as they arise and subside.
“It can be really frustrating and uncomfortable – it’s the practice of learning to feel and tolerate discomfort as it comes up and up and up in your body and mind,”Mathiowetz said. “Scientific research has proven that mediation can improve stress reduction, yield better health, improve focus and improve perspective taking.
Mathiowetz noted the importance of different perspectives and looking through other people’s eyes, which meditation can help with.
“When you’re meditating, you’re discovering more about your own point of view,” Mathiowetz said. “While sitting with your own thoughts a little more and analyzing them, you begin to be able to hear others more. Perspective taking plays a huge role in politics.”
According to Mathiowetz, mindfulness meditation is the practice of sitting with and tolerating discomfort, complexity and ambiguity. He further explained that by engaging in the practice of meditation, people can enter into this state of discomfort and find peace in it.
“It exercises your capacities to tolerate that discomfort. In that way, it supports the activity of engaging in the work of democracy and social justice – which is another place where you’re going to confront complexity, discomfort, ambiguity and still have to try and take action,” Mathiowetz said. “Behind this claim that these two things are connected is an idea of something called habituation. If you exercise your capacities and habituate yourself to have this power in little ways everyday, it’ll be easier for you when you confront the big issues, such as disagreements in your own ideologies.”
Mathiowetz believes that if people engage with feelings of discomfort and allow themselves to come to peace with them, they begin to hear other perspectives of political issues and not act out in retaliation.
“As a psychology student, I’m always trying to figure out how the human mind works,” Cuesta College student Maya De Zubiria said. “I found Professor Mathiowetz’ talk to be very mind-opening because of the idea of two very opposing topics. Initially, I was skeptical, but I think [he] did an amazing job of closing his argument and validating his points.”
Moore believes Cal Poly has a commitment to fostering these kinds of ideologies.
“I would love to see Cal Poly be a leader, both in the community and more broadly, as a place that represents the best practices – that we can have controversial speakers come to campus and not flip out, that we can have disagreements and not come to blows and that we can kind of model the better way to do stuff – I think that’s the universities role,” Moore said.