Editor's Note: Mary Ann gave this talk as part of a ritual held at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, a few weeks before the 2018 midterm elections. Afterwards, students and elders made their own Citizenship Vow and participated in a Voting Ritual.
An ancient King in India sentenced a man to death. The man begged that the sentence be rescinded, and added, "If the King will be merciful and spare my life, I shall teach his horse to fly in a year's time."
"Done," said the King. "But if at the end of this period the horse cannot fly, you will be executed."
When his anxious family later asked the man how he planned to achieve this, he said, "In the course of the year, the King may die. Or the horse may die. Or who knows, the horse may learn to fly!"
This is one of my favorite teaching stories from Anthony de Mello's The Heart of the Enlightened. I remember it whenever I hear someone say they don't see much point in voting, adding such comments as, What difference could my vote make? Or, the polls show that so-and-so is going to win anyway. Or, I live in a strong blue or red state, so they don't really need me to take the time to go vote.
The truth is we don't ever really know what is going to happen. We don't know what will happen in a particular election or as a result of it. That horse could learn to fly. But first somebody has to make the effort to train him.
What we can know is the value of the act of voting itself. Voting asks you to get in touch with your authentic self and identify what is important to you. Voting connects you with your neighbors as you consider the programs and policies that affect all of you. And voting encourages you to consider the larger whole of which you are a part. An American motto is E Pluribus Unum — out of many one.
Voting does what spiritual practices do: connect you with your true self, your community, and the One.
Buddhists say that whenever we meditate or do another kind of spiritual practice, such as prayer or yoga or chanting, we accumulate "merit." At the end of a session, practitioners dedicate that merit to a cause — for example, to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. This extends the impact of the practice beyond the individual to a larger community.
Let's look at voting as a spiritual practice in this way. How do we dedicate its merit? How do we make it more than an exercise of voting for candidates into a way to engage for – on behalf of -- others?
At Spirituality & Practice we work with 37 practices that are common in all the world's religions. Let's look at how you can bring practices such as compassion, hospitality, gratitude, kindness, listening, peace, reverence, justice, vision, and hope into the voting booth, dedicating the merit of your vote to a larger principle or cause.
Compassion is opening your heart, allowing yourself to feel the suffering of others and to seek ways to support them. You can do this with your vote. Think about the candidates and the programs they are promoting. Which require you to close your heart? Which encourage you to open it? Does your vote expand the circle of your compassion?
Hospitality needs our votes in these times. This spiritual practice involves welcoming guests, especially strangers, into our lives, crossing boundaries, and dismantling barriers. Look at the choices you are asked to make on ballot propositions. Do some support hospitality? Do some suppress it? Which candidates are advocating hospitality?
Gratitude also belongs at the polling place. What do you appreciate about your government and the work of your elected officials? How can you vote your thanks to school teachers, first responders, and military personnel?
Kindness is one of my favorite spiritual practices, and I like to vote for people I perceive to be kind and for projects that extend kindness to others, especially the poor. Many proposals put forward in legislative sessions, whether on the city, state, or national level, reflect government generosity and care. But plenty of proposals are designed to punish some groups or deny them needed services. Consciously remembering to prioritize kindness in my ballot choices is one way to counter such meanness.
You might not think you will have much chance to engage in the spiritual practice of Listening when you go to vote.
But before election day, you can pay attention to how well the politicians listen to the people – realizing that it is a prediction of how they will behave in office. A democracy requires that the people be heard.
Peace is an inner state of calm (something that would be good to have when you are at the polling place), and it is also an outer project of promoting nonviolence, conflict resolution, and cooperation in the world. Listen carefully to the candidates and read between the lines on ballot questions, and you will find ways to show your support for peacemaking.
Reverence is the way of radical respect, and it manifests in the choices we make around protection of the environment, wildlife, and other vulnerable beings. Put on a reverence lens when you are asked to vote on the people who make budget decisions.
All of these practices, by the way, are defined and illustrated here at Spirituality & Practice (follow the magenta links). Here's what we write about the practice of justice:
"Doing justice is a central imperative in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Buddhists are urged to be socially engaged. Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, and primal religions emphasize right relationships within communities as building blocks of justice.
"This practice applies to the whole range of human interactions, and today it is also being extended to animals and the environment. It means that we deal fairly with others, recognizing the equality and dignity of all. It requires that we work to insure that all people, especially the poor and the weak, have access to opportunities. It assumes that none of us is free until all of us are."
That sounds to me like a definition of democracy. Certainly, when we say we have a government by the people and for the people, we have to keep what is just in focus. Voting is one way to do that.
Another practice integral to democracy is vision. The country's founders had vision and some of the greatest initiatives, like the Peace Corps and the March for Our Lives, came from visionary leaders. Voting for vision encourages more vision.
Finally, hope belongs in the voting booth. This positive and potent spiritual practice has the power to pull us through difficult times. It fuels our courage, commitment, perseverance, and resilience. These are all good virtues to carry with you when you are voting. Hope will help you make choices that align with the concerns of your deepest self.
We are coming up on the midterm elections. People on all points along the political spectrum are saying that this election may set the terms for not only the next two years but decades to come. What we do now is important.
Which reminds me of another story. This one is from Derek Lin's The Tao of Daily Life.
"Once upon a time in ancient China, the people at a village received orders from the regional governor to build a shrine for the emperor. If they could meet the deadline, the governor would reward them handsomely.
"The chosen location for the shrine had a well, so they needed to fill it up before construction could take place. They brought in a donkey to transport piles of sand and mud for that purpose.
"An accident occurred. The donkey got too close to the exposed well, lost his footing, and fell into it. The villagers tried to lift him out but could not. After many failed attempts, they realized it would take too long to rescue him.
"Keeping the deadline in mind, the villagers decided to sacrifice the donkey. They proceeded to shovel sand and mud into the well, thinking they had no choice but to bury him alive.
"When the donkey realized what they were doing, he began to wail pitifully. The villagers heard him but ignored him. The value of the donkey wasn't much compared to the rewards they would get, so they continued to shovel.
"After a while, the wailing stopped. The villagers wondered about this. Was the donkey dead already? Or did he just give up? What was going on?
"Curious, they looked into the well. A surprising sight greeted them. The donkey was alive and well. When the mud and sand rained down on him, he shrugged them off, and then stamped around until they were tightly packed below him. This formed solid ground that lifted him a bit higher each time.
"Eventually, the donkey got high enough inside the well. With one powerful leap, he jumped out of it. Amazed, the villagers watched as he trotted off with his head held high."
I don't think I'm being overly dramatic or pessimistic when I say that America's democracy is in trouble. Lots of sand and mud is being thrown around, attempting to bury our compassion, hospitality, gratitude, kindness, listening, peace, reverence, justice, vision, and hope. When this happens, frankly, wailing is of little help. Like the donkey, we need to take action. We can use the trouble as an incentive, as the very material we need, to strengthen us so we find a way out.
So I encourage you in the next weeks to shrug off the sand and mud and any other discouraging developments, stomp the pavements, and get out the vote, including your own.