I am not one for political rants. Growing up, my Mom was a bonafide, card-carrying liberal. My Dad was the son of a political journalist, so he’s always been about as politically vocal as Switzerland. I, naturally, landed somewhere in the middle—full of opinions, but reluctant to voice them until provoked. In the midst of constant election coverage via traditional and social media, I have heard many a rant in the past several months, and I have done my fair share of cringing. A while back, I heard a recorded Success Magazine interview with Maria Shriver. Asked why the country has become so divided politically and whether it was irreparable, she said, “I fear that we have lost the ability to listen to each other.” I fear that she is right.
For some reason, her comment has lingered at the back of my mind. It seems to me that, when I first became politically aware, Republicans simply believed in big business, small government, and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Democrats believed in big government and the funding of social services for those who didn’t even have boots to begin with. When I was 13, I actually remember proudly announcing to my mother that I was a Republican--no doubt to her abject horror. I have to give Mom credit for nodding and smiling, biting her acerbic little tongue, and patiently waiting for me to find my own way politically. My 13-year-old self chirped at Mom that, after all, Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves. Ronald Reagan was a Republican, and he seemed like the nicest, most grandfatherly man, didn’t he? And, best of all, Republicans always seemed to have a lot of money. I wanted a lot of money—mostly for clothes. Therefore, I was definitely a Republican. Until I wasn’t.
One day in 1984, my parents were watching the Democratic National Convention on TV. They were busying themselves in the kitchen after dinner, waiting for the big moment when nominee Michael Dukakis (remember him?) would speak. Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, was giving the nomination speech that night. I sat there by myself on the living room floor, Leave-it-to-Beaver-style, staring with an odd fascination at the TV screen. Mario Cuomo began to speak about education, about welfare, about healthcare, about women's rights, about the common man. His voice was thundering. Commanding. Resolute. He was articulate, persuasive, confident, fists pumping in the air. I don’t remember the details of his speech, but I remember that at its heart was a strong commitment to social responsibility and the notion that we must take care of one another—that we are all one. I was deeply moved, and for the first time, something political made sense to me. His speech said to me, “Just because you’ve made it in life doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be programs out there to help those that haven’t had the same luck and opportunity.” I found myself internally cheering him on, this superhero. Yes! Yes! I understand! Forget video games. This was the original Super Mario. I was hooked. And I knew it was a defining moment. Funny that I have always looked at my yoga teaching path as something random. I wonder if the seed was planted that evening, listening to my Super Mario.
Four years later, I was entering my senior year of high school while the country was entering another election year. At Glastonbury High School, all seniors were required to assemble each morning in the auditorium for a class called Current Issues, affectionately known as CI. The teachers of our social studies department gave lectures daily on rotation, and we were required each week to read—cover to cover—Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report. Sadly, I must admit that my time in that class was probably the most politically informed I have ever been. We had weekly debates on serious, relevant issues. I remember a kid named Chris debating on gays in the military, saying he’d “rather have a guy covering his ass than looking at it”. I also remember a shy, sweet Vietnamese girl named Tram tearfully scolding all 425 of her classmates during a debate on low budget housing. Many in the room had a snotty, not-in-my-town attitude, while she told us what it was like to be from an immigrant family struggling to make it. Tram couldn’t have stood more than 4’10” tall, but that day she was a giant, with more backbone and guts than any of the rest of us combined. To this day, I am so grateful for the gift of that CI class; it taught me how important it is to stay informed and to truly listen to both sides of an argument before mouthing off. It taught me that political and social issues are complex and emotional, and that it’s alright to disagree.
Inspired by my memories, with Maria Shriver’s comment still nagging at me, I decided several weeks ago to get informed--really informed-- for this election. I set an intention to listen. I watched both conventions. I watched a CNN special on Mitt Romney. I have read articles from both sides of the political spectrum. I have even (gulp), watched a few minutes of Fox News. A few minutes were all I could actually handle without a far stiffer cocktail than I had handy. But hey, I did try. Has anything changed my political views? No. Watching the other side has pushed every button I have. I have cringed, eye-rolled, and yelled. I will still vote for Obama. I am still afraid of Paul Ryan. What I am, however, is more tolerant of the other side. My frustration and disapproval have softened. I understand that likely many of my Republican friends have, at some point, had their own Super Mario moment, when a voice deep inside said, “this is what I believe to be right.” If anything, listening to both sides has—to quote every president in recent memory—“strengthened my resolve” to stay informed, to listen and absorb, and to make an effort to understand other points of view. I have realized that if I vote from an informed, tolerant, issue-based place, I have done my part in the best way that I can. Yoga is not about being Switzerland. Yoga is about action. It’s about standing up for your convictions and being respectful of others and theirs. It’s about discovering your own truths and not being afraid to speak them, in a mindful, non-harming way. Sometimes, my yoga practice is about finding my voice and using it as wisely as possible. This fall, however, my yoga practice is all about listening. What a peaceful vantage point it has turned out to be.