Awkward Activism or Political Consent(?)

“What do you think?” a friend asked me on the phone the morning after the election in November.

“I’m appalled,” I answered, and I was. And I still am.

Yet my activism, which probably only minimally qualifies as such by the standards of many, has remained in a state of suspension as I reflect on the political environment during these past few months since the inauguration. I have not attended marches. Why? There’s a health reason that would explain both my absence and my resistance to the current administration.

The other reason is that I’m an awkward activist.

This post is a continuation from previous posts describing my transformation from fiction-reading to lit-theory to increasingly focused political thought. I’m not someone who is used to mobilizing politically, and political involvement to me has meant, until Newspaper_news_clipart_kid_4_-_ClipartixJanuary of this year, that I vote and that I know where I stand on most issues in mainstream discussion. After January I began occasionally calling my Congressional representatives, who happen to be Democrats and vote the way I would hope they would on most issues that I follow (that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pay more attention). I perceive I’m more effective with email and petitions than phone calls, though everyone says to call, and this sort of cognitive dissonance is probably why I’m the sort of person who has a tendency to escape into fiction instead of directly participating in political/government newspaper_clipart_-_Google_Searchmatters. If I’m not careful I’ll find myself reading Antonio Gramsci but forgetting to actually involve myself in current politics…or to read/listen to the news…because there’s probably something I don’t really want to deal with…or because I’ve been listening to so much political talk I don’t even know where to begin.

It makes sense for someone like me to turn to the writings and discussions of comparative literature/critical theory professor and political activist Judith Butler who, as of nearly three months ago, is also finding herself somewhat disoriented in the current political atmosphere. Her lecture “This is What Resistance Looks Like” at UCLA (March 2017) is available on YouTube.


She begins by saying, “We are taking in information all the time, and then it shifts, and we have to throw away whatever we were working on and try again, and it’s hard to think in the middle of this chaotic acceleration.” She goes on to discuss the “precarity” of solidarity and populism, stressing the importance of “keeping your mind” when confronted with the rhetoric of the Trump administration.

Immersion in crowded events doesn’t help me navigate my way through this process—whether it’s a show of solidarity or resistance. That statement should not be misread as a criticism of such activism, which I support and vicariously participate in through live streaming social media. But I think better when I’m removed from such an atmosphere. Someone once told me she couldn’t sleep because her “head was too loud” and that’s the aspect of this challenge that I’m speaking to.


Photo Source: Jose Luis Magana/AP


Photo Source: Jesse Costa/WBUR

Three or four years ago I would lay awake at night pondering the various reasons, which I won’t enumerate here, why I might or might not be a feminist. Recently, I decided that when Angela Merkle seems to find the concept of “feminist” something of a nuisance to her and Ivanka Trump raises her hand to claim it, I won’t lose anymore sleep weighing whether I am or I am not and instead attempt to arrive at an expression of resistance and how I am most effective as an activist (actually this re-wording is approaching a definition/”test” of feminism used by a former professor of mine, but I’ll save additional discussion of this concept for another time).

Another way of “keeping your mind” in these times of overthinking—with all the adrenaline, media reporting, and the emergence of “alt” groups to scrutinize also—is to attempt to calm some of the chaos through a spiritual or mind-quieting practice such as meditation. The variety described by Dr. Jay Michaelson in a recent article for Tricycle is not meant to keep you in an uninformed bubble but rather to assist your effectiveness. “Avoidance doesn’t work for liberation,” he says.

“We are more skillful and more sustainable in our activism when we’re not unconsciously playing out emotional dramas on a public stage, or unconsciously looking for fulfillment rather than acting skillfully for the benefit of others. We need to be smart, and to be smart we need to be aware of what’s happening inside and out.”

Awesome; however, his next recommendation was so counterintuitive (he says himself that it is counterintuitive) to me that I could not at first reconcile it with Butler’s “keep your mind” encouragement, nor Michaelson’s own preceding paragraph after he goes on to say:

“So sink into it. Bring the president into your meditation—or more likely, allow him to enter it. Let your loathing, fear, concern, rage, all arise. No need to stoke or prod or prompt; it will do so all on its own. Let yourself feel whatever you are feeling, noting all the way, give up all resistance; surrender to the darkness…Let President Trump take over your meditation, and maybe we can stop him from taking over the world.”

Whoa. First, let me reiterate: stop.

This article showed up on my Facebook newsfeed, and I should have taken the clue from the title of the article, “Why You Should Invite President Trump into Your Meditation Practice.” After reading the above quote, I had to pause the drafting of this post for a while and delete a few of my initial exaggerated reactions. Then I had to go back to Butler and her discussion of “withdrawing consent” politically before I could re-approach Michaelson (when Butler uses this term, she is speaking of the many systems of government and civil service that would have to consent to implement Trump’s policies—but could also refuse to do so).

My initial reaction to this urging was to think that Michaelson is advocating for exactly what he warned against in his previous paragraph. Wouldn’t allowing another consciousness to take over your meditation practice be the equivalent of allowing them to take over your world? Isn’t that exactly what we do not what to consent to? Another issue is that it is my personal belief that one must always be on guard against the subliminal. I have learned the hard way, over many years of experimenting with spiritual practices, that there are thought forms that I do not want to allow access to my consciousness, and I take great caution in an attempting to interact with the consciousness of another identity. Finally, isn’t this starting to smack of the sort of emotional drama he warns against in the paragraph above?

Let’s back up. It’s important to consider that I’m not a practicing Buddhist (though someone who has influenced my spiritual practice is)—and that’s probably partially why it’s difficult for me to relate. Michaelson’s meditation was inspired by the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s discussion of mindfulness, and he is highlighting “no judgement, no denial, no avoidance.”


Considering his wording, and considering the ethical issue of attempting to interact with anther consciousness on a subliminal level, Michaelson does use the language of consent—then he uses the language of “withdrawing consent.” He is not, if I read correctly, actually consenting to Trump “taking over the world,” rather, he says, “Let President Trump take over your meditation practice, and maybe we can stop him from taking over the world.” He is addressing an approach to “mental threats.” Okay, it’s just not clear to me how the one would lead to the other. “You can notice the pleasant and the unpleasant with equanimity, and thus coexist with both,” he says, “You don’t have to be pushed and pulled by the desires and aversions that have been with us since our paramecium ancestors wriggled out of the primordial ooze.” But it still seems to me that “pushing and pulling” by “desires and aversions” is exactly what is happening in the practice he describes, and it’s not a practice that would work for me personally. Also, I’m left with questions. It makes more sense to me to keep up my resistance to such a reality.

I had not planned a blog post about meditation before I read this article, but I assure you, my meditation practice is not the personal business of President Trump nor any other president past or future—I’m not any more focused on them than I am on sending good intentions to the planet, generally. I tend to think outwardly and broadly when I’m focused on political matters (leaders, countries, people); I’m not trying to draw any particular identity to me, only to envision a governance that conceptualizes and prioritizes the issues I value. I reserve all inward meditation for personal issues and contemplation (which rarely write about for the very reason that they are issues I do not want to put “out there”). One way to think about the concept of consent in meditative practice is to question what sort of energy you want to send out into the world and what sort of energetic quality you want to allow to access you. This is also why, for instance, I do not wear a safety pin; I cannot guarantee that I’m a “safe person” to anyone in any situation. As Michaelson says we’re all just trying to co-exist together.

It’s now my procedure to scan my mind before I even begin meditating to determine what needs to “be with me” in my current consciousness and why? Often, we instinctively know who would welcome thoughts and prayers from us and who might feel intruded upon or condescended to. In times of worry or grief or distress or anticipation or during unresolved disputes and communication difficulties these sorts of thoughts are enhanced. Does it really seem appropriate to continue to “hold” whatever you might be attempting to hold in your mind?

If it does seems like there is another consciousness (i.e. not “just me”) that wants to “share” my consciousness for a while—and it seems acceptable to me to allow it to “be there” for a while—first I attempt to determine whether it has an identity I recognize. If yes, I ask myself, “How would this person respond if I told them something to the effect that I was praying for/thinking of them?” That’s how I guide the question of consent in the subliminal. If I’m not able to identify this other consciousness, I assume that it is probably something in a state of transition and not necessarily what I think it might be. Then I move my attention to a consciousness that has been deemed “safe” for people to fix their attention on—much in the way that Catholics pray to saints or Buddhists and Hindus revere deities, which by no means solves the controversy. There are many techniques for un-intrusively sending thought or “energy” to other consciousnesses or blocking other consciousnesses from accessing you if that seems necessary. Earlier this year a clash between Christian and Pagans erupted when a group of Wiccan practitioners organized a “binding spell” against Trump and fundamentalist Christians organized to render them ineffective.

Michaelson is evidently suggesting that by allowing inward access to President Trump there is the possibility for a neutralization of potential damage. I’d like him to discuss a bit more whether it is really President Trump—or a burgeoning vision of what Michaelson himself can do to bring about a leader in our society that is more attuned to his values—who accompanies him in his meditations because here his wording seems to invite President Trump personally. He almost crosses into the discussion of pagan magic with his ritual. John Beckett, a druid priest, wrote a response to the mass binding spell, criticizing the insistence that participating in casting such a spell was not dangerous to the caster. “Real magic is not safe,” he says,”Witchcraft is not safe. Participating in a revolution is not safe. Those who pretend it is are dangerously naive.”

In my opinion, it’s already unsettlingly easy to inadvertently give the impression of consenting to something that you have not really consented to—or to misread someone else’s signals as a consent to something they did not intend—without bringing these energies with me into my meditation practice. But I will also take his point about the ineffectiveness of avoidance.

This is all part of what Judith Butler refers to as “The Struggle” of Resistance, and she reminds us through the preface to her own lecture that, “these are thoughts in progress that may not hold.”


Works Cited:

Beckett, John. “Why I’m not participating in the mass binding of Donald Trump and what I’m doing instead.” Patheos. 26 February, 2017. Web. Accessed 22 June, 2017.

Butler, Judith. “This is What Resistance Looks Like.” UCLA Luskin. 14 March, 2017. Web. Accessed 15 May, 2017.

Michaelson, Jay. “Why You Should Invite President Trump Into Your Meditation Practice.” Tricycle. 30 March, 2017. Web. Accessed 31 May, 2017.

©Melanie Sophia 2017