Three days before Diwali, the Festival of Light, I stepped out of the arrivals lounge into the unmistakable Delhi air. At 2230 on a Monday night, the atmosphere was swollen with energy and hazy with smog, radiating the hum of the city.
On the other side of the world, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake was getting ready to make impassioned resignation speech in the U.S Senate, denouncing President Donald Trump. There hardly needs to be an account of why. From support of white supremacists, to his open humiliation of women, to religious discrimination and flirtations with World War 3, to name but a few; the reign of Trump has crossed every boundary and broken every unwritten rule. A few hours later, standing on the podium, Flake looked out at his fellow Republicans and said; “It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.”
Flake’s rebellion, following Bob Corker and to an extent John McCain, points to the growing alarm among elites that Trump and his ideology are not just a bump in the road, but the ‘new normal’; a quickening of public affairs that will change our lives significantly in the times ahead.
A few days later, as Diwali – a celebration of the unstoppable triumph of love, blossomed across the Indian Subcontinent and beyond, Presidents Obama and Bush would break with presidential code and deliver barely vailed rebukes of Trump and his divisive politics. Bush gave an overview of international relations, highlighting the manifold areas of disruption; from the shaking foundations of the European Union, to the reconfiguring balance of power between China, Russia and the USA, to the widespread loss of faith in politics. Bush said “There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned.” He went on to say “at times it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger, than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity, disagreement escalates into dehumanisation. Too often we judge other groups by their worst example, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
President Obama called for people to wake up and get engaged. He said “the most important office in politics is not the president…it is the citizen. We all have a responsibility to make democracy work”. A former Whitehouse official said; “The two presidents speaking out so forcefully and eloquently is a warning that some basic principles of democracy…are in jeopardy.”
The United States drifting away from democracy is a big deal, but it seems drowned out in a sea of big problems. What is the effect of this bombardment of problems and lack of clear leadership on our everyday experience as people? Why has our ability to relate to each other degraded so rapidly? We now know that high levels of stress cause our brain cells to warp, and that pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala deepen over time, causing us to be in a constant state of flight, flight or freeze. If experienced during childhood, there is evidence that stress can change our genetic expression; making us physically less able to cope with stress in later life (anyone with lived experience of childhood trauma and adult mental illness knows this very well). A sort of vicious cycle begins; more stress = less effective at managing problems = mounting problems = more stress.
Meanwhile, back in India on Diwali, I had made my way to Rishikesh; a town and pilgrimage centre rested on the bank of the River Ganges, surrounded by the lushly forested foothills of the Himalaya. I watched the fireworks exploding across the valley from a rooftop, wrapped in a woollen shawl and sipping hot chai. Diwali is like Christmas in spirit; people are more open and less inhibited; old grudges are dropped, good deeds are performed and enjoyed for their own sake. On this day, Hindus take a moment to appreciate the ongoing and relentless drama of life, inside the human heart as well as in the world at large – the eternal struggle between light and dark forces. And light always wins eventually, says the spirit of Diwali.
India has a famous stress-management system: meditation. There are many different meditation techniques, but all aim toward the same goal; gaining the ability to relax one’s own mind at will, without using props such as substances or distraction techniques like T.V or shopping, and independent of any events occurring in the world. Inherent in any mind training is ability to recognise and control emotions, and to understand (in order to manage) the impact of certain environmental factors on our thoughts and feelings.
In pleasing contrast to the studies of the physical impacts of stress, a study by Harvard found that new grey matter was grown in just 8 weeks of meditation practice; “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing”
There is a growing body of evidence, built steadily over the past several decades of scientific research that meditation not only helps us manage stress but has the potential to transform our brains. Could mind training be the key to our inner adaptation in these testing and revolutionary times?
We will never return to the pre-Trump era again. Those days are gone, only new ones lie ahead. As events gain pace and play out, perhaps we can pick up the tools, like meditation, that are lying around, passed down from previous generations, available to us to help manage turbulence and behave in ways we can be proud of. In the words of Tony Benn, one of our home-grown political giants; “There is no final victory, and there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought again and again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”