Tonglen is a Tibetan meditation practice of giving and receiving, where a person can sit mindfully and imagine absorbing the fear and anger of another person, while sending that person their own love and compassion in return. While tonglen may not change the actions or behavior of the other party, its purpose is to bring peace of mind to the person practicing it. Tonglen ties into the idea that when we hurt others, we’re really hurting ourselves, so when regarding someone who’s committed any type of transgression, including crimes, we can and should find compassion for the self-injury they’ve caused.
Last Friday night, I was reading about tonglen just before I learned about the leaked Trump tapes from his 2005 appearance on Access Hollywood. I was curled up with The Book of Joy, which chronicles a week-long dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on cultivating a joyous mindset.
During a brief Facebook break, I saw the Washington Post headline: “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.”
After I listened to the tape, in which he admits to sexual assault, my first reaction was fury. Every expletive I know raced through my head. Moments later, I felt sick to my stomach. Just as swiftly as my nausea came on, I felt an old, familiar loneliness creeping up. Twenty years ago, this feeling had followed me for months after one awful night, when I told my friend that we couldn’t have sex because there were no condoms and his response was to flip me over on my stomach and assault me.
“They let you do it,” Trump said.
No, we don’t. That is what you tell yourself. But it’s not true.
I wished I could return to being angry. Anger is preferable to the abyss of emptiness, helplessness, and worthlessness that violence—and words that condone it—inspire. But, perusing the inevitable “locker room talk” defense in online comments, I was too bereft to be mad.
“Grab them by the pussy.”
I looked out the window and thought, I don’t want to live in a society where people think violence is “normal.”
And then, I don’t want to live.
That last thought signaled to me that I was triggered. That I was responding to the news not as the healthy 40-year-old woman I am today, but as the traumatized twenty-year-old who for months could barely manage to eat. So, in the interest of my mental health, I returned to The Book of Joy.
A few hours later, in the bathroom to wash my face, I saw a flash visual: a hand grabbing my vagina. That happened to me once, in 1997 in Bologna, as I was surrounded by a swarm of young men. Their hands grabbed other parts of my body, too, until another man swept in and pulled me out of the crowd.
Now, years later, I was not remembering that specific incident. Rather, I interpret the image to be one of “symbolic sight,” what author Carolyn Myss refers to as flash visions that carry a spiritual meaning. The image seemed a direct result of Trump’s language, which we’ve been listening to for over a year, and the palpable dismissal by some of his words as “nothing.” But this language is not nothing.
Then, as I was standing in front of my bathroom mirror, something really strange happened. I found myself suddenly in Donald Trump’s shoes, as if I were having an out of body experience, inhabiting his consciousness. This was not a rational process, where I tried to intellectualize what it would be like to be him. Rather, this identification happened swiftly, borne of intuition and instinct, to the point where it almost felt mystical. (And, I have to say in retrospect, sort of hilarious. I mean, I’m looking in the mirror and seeing Donald Trump? Funny, no one’s ever mentioned that likeness before. Thanks, God.)
But there I was, in my bathroom in New York City, experiencing the overwhelming sensation of what it would be like to be him, as he reached out (how many times?) to grab a woman’s body against her will. In this moment, I identified with him, as aggressor, rendering someone else’s sovereignty—as an equal person—irrelevant, invisible. It felt horrible and sickening to identify with that kind of mindset. I wanted to wretch all over again.
I was instantly disgusted with myself, as a fellow member of the human race, but I was also, undeniably humbled, devastated that someone within our tribe could cause himself—and others—such harm. Of course, Trump is not the first public figure (or human being for that matter) to cause others harm. That list is long. And, yes, people have done far worse. But in no other instance had I ever felt so intensely what it might be like to be the aggressor.
At once, I felt small. To be human is to be weak, vulnerable, imperfect. The humility I felt did not mean passively forgiving or condoning his abhorrent behavior; on the contrary, the humility, in that moment, led me to deep regret, regret that felt personal to me, that any person could behave without regard for the equality of others—as in, “Holy Mother, this is an example of humanity and what we are capable of.” This wasn’t news, but this time, awareness had settled into my own cells, the humbling despair for a perpetrator landing in my own body. I couldn’t ignore it.
In aching for him—and the import of those words—I was aching for humanity, with the divine thread that connects us more relevant and visible than ever.
As I washed my face, I thought about humility, a virtue of many religions, for it is how we connect our earthly experience to the divine. The Quran states, “Call on your Lord with humility and in private.” In The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis speaks at length about humility as an opportunity to strengthen one’s connection to God. He says, “[God] loves faults, since they give him an opportunity to show his mercy and us an opportunity to remain humble and sympathize with our neighbors’ faults.”
The visceral identification I’d just experienced felt like one such opportunity. I would never do what he did, but this brief moment had me feeling his transgressions as if they were my own.
Pope Francis’ thoughts on humility helped me to put this moment into a larger context. Was I responsible for Trump’s behavior? No. Could I go seek psychiatric help for him? No. But, moments like this reveal just how life-affirming it is to find the beauty in human frailty and connection—to find, well, God.
I didn’t rationally plan to have this spiritual experience—I thought I was just going to wash my face—so I don’t know that there’s a how-to guide for humility, beyond setting an intention to react to everything and everyone in a way that reflects the essential nature of our connectedness.
I do know that humility, when we’re steeped in it, never feels bad. Quite the opposite: in my experience, it is liberating and true, momentary discomfort notwithstanding.
My humility was a salve because, for the first time in this election season, I felt the undeniable truth that, on the larger existential level, we are all in this situation together—even when it’s become a totally base shit-show.
If Trump doesn’t consciously hurt because he has demonstrated such blatant disregard and disrespect (again), that is not our problem. He is hurting unconsciously, at least according to the Buddhist perspective. In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama says, “You must not hate those who do harmful things. The compassionate thing is to do what you can to stop them—for they are harming themselves as well as those who suffer from their actions.”
Upon reflection, I think I was able to feel the pain that he is causing himself and others by first responding to the tape by feeling my own anguish as an assault survivor. That experience caused me great suffering, and it had taken years for me to find a larger meaning in it. I had to. Seconds after the assault happened, I’d witnessed the humanity of my perpetrator. He was instantly, visibly shaken. He knew he’d hurt me. His distress, in that moment, was unbearable to me, to the point where I tried to suppress my awareness of it. Healing came years later, when I could accept my humanity and his in equal measure—and simultaneously understand that acknowledging this didn’t make what he had done OK.
When I climbed into bed Friday night, I remembered the story of Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, a psychologist who had applied the ancient Hawaiian tradition of Ho’ponopono to heal criminally psychotic patients at Hawaii State Hospital. Ho’ponopono, as I understand it, means “to make things right.” Dr. Hew Len had treated these patients by sitting alone in his office, looking at their files. To “make things right” in this context meant he used the simplicity of the Ho’ponopono prayer (“I love you, please forgive me, I’m sorry, thank you”) to work on himself, clearing any pain, judgment or distress within himself. This practice acknowledges that whatever comes into our consciousness is ours to heal. Why? Because we are connected, transcendent beings walking around behind the mask of our earthly personalities, and, as such, have an existential level of responsibility to create more peace in the world, beginning with our own experience.
We should speak out, with compassion, instead of getting hung up on why we don’t see compassion being returned. What if we could think—and feel—more deeply about the Trump situation, about all situations, including the brutality that was Sunday night’s debate? Sure (no, please) don’t elect Trump into office, but also don’t let the conversation end at outrage and condemnation, however well-deserved. The anger is merely a bridge to compassion. Not compassion in our heads, where we grasp rationally that no one is superior to anyone else—but in our hearts, where we readily understand that we, all of us, are equally divine in nature.
If Trump’s day of reckoning is our day of reckoning, this call for humility is equal opportunity. No question that there are people who feel equally passionate in their dislike of Hillary Clinton, based on their perceptions of what she has said and done. If that is the case, then, please find some humility for her, too. There are vital issues at stake, no question, and so it’s easy to see that the underlying root of this polarized environment, on both sides, is abject fear.
Fear isn’t going to heal this rift.
On November 8, we will hopefully vote our conscience and morals. But humility, as it matters to every single one of us, is all about what happens on November 9 and beyond—how we will find common ground and respect for others who do not agree with our perspectives, how we will each do our individual part to create a more just and loving society, starting with ourselves. I can’t say what humility looks or feels like for anyone else, but for me it means trying to stay open to that humble and transcendent place of human connectedness. And, when I fail, trying again.