During the election I was at a week-long Insight Meditation retreat. When Don and I signed up for it last May, I didn’t realize the timing. Though I absolutely love Tara Brach, the other teachers, and the beautiful landscape at this retreat, I wasn’t all that pleased to be going at this particular time. Usually the retreat is in silence, without cell phones or other electronics. There are guided meditations, yoga, and dharma talks, and three times during the week when you get personal guidance to talk about your practice and get questions answered. Some of the talks have social justice themes, but if you follow the encouragement to do an electronics “fast,” which I usually do, the only kind of contact you have with the wider world are the planes going by overhead and the weather predictions the retreat managers post twice during the week.

Going in, I was pretty sure they’d post the election results, but not completely. When we arrived on Friday, in addition to the usual orientation information, they shared that they had devised a plan so that people who wanted to know the election results would be able to see them, while those who didn’t wouldn’t have to. They also invited us for the first time ever to ceremonially renounce our electronic devices for them to hold for us during the retreat. Though I’m usually good at not looking at my phone, I liked the symbolism of this, so I wrote my name on the envelope provided, turned my iPhone off, tucked it away, and joined the procession of people handing over their phones and tablets to Tara, with a bell sounded for each one.

The first few days of the retreat were lovely, with the usual ups and downs of attending inward, enjoying nature, and listening to deep wisdom delivered with humility and humor from the teachers. I did have some anxiety about the election results, and thought about whether to seek them right away Tuesday night, or wait until morning, or later in the week. I decided to wait until morning, since we were going to bed at 9:45 and getting up at 5:45 every morning. I knew if the results weren’t in yet at 9:30, I’d have trouble sleeping.

Walking down the long covered outdoor walkway from my room to the main lodge at 6 am on Wednesday, I felt a bit like Schroedinger’s cat. What world am I walking towards? I knew some of my worst fears about an election-day super-hack by extremists to bring the whole system down probably hadn’t happened or we’d likely have heard about it. Was I walking towards the world where life proceeds more or less as it has been, with some risk of mean-spirited violence/retribution for a liberal pragmatist victory? Or the one where the forces of fear and greed coalesce behind an unpredictable, narcissistic demagogue? It felt like it hadn’t been decided yet, until I found out the answer.

Though things had looked good in the polls a couple of weeks ago, and I’d been quite relieved, the FBI machinations had happened and I was appalled at how rapidly the polls were swinging back the other way as we left for the retreat. Plus, there was always the risk of a “Brexit”-like surprise. For the past couple of months I’d been having occasional nightmares like discovering neo-Nazi skinheads living down the block from me, and election night I had not had pleasant dreams. As I approached the building, and then the room where the results were ensconced, I attempted to read the faces of those around me. My heart started to pound as I saw their expressions. When I entered the room, I found La, our beloved transgender Phillipinx retreat manager and sometimes dharma teacher, in tears, sadly shaking their head.

Although in some ways the dharma talks for the past few nights had prepared us – there was one about the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, despair, acceptance), and one about being with polarities and paradox – in other ways the news found our leaders completely unprepared. La told me the teachers were so confident of a Clinton victory that they hadn’t put any serious thought into what they would do if Trump won. My facilitator mind went to work, and I wrote them a suggestion on the message board where you’re allowed to leave notes for the teachers.

The 6:45am sitting meditation went as usual, and I sobbed quietly through much of it. I realized that once again, I was getting a big, superpower-sized lesson in one of the key areas I need to grow; I need to face into brokenness and be with it, rather than my habitual pushing it away/denying that it’s there/trying to fix it immediately so I don’t have to feel it. I was dismayed, and angry, when the teachers left the sitting at the end without saying or doing anything unusual. Business-as-usual seemed so wrong, and not to be able to process together, OR with my friends and family at home, seemed unhealthy and nearly impossible to me.

Fortunately, by the 9:00 am sit, which is the only one everyone is expected to attend, the teachers had a plan (without, by the way, having read my note). They announced they were changing the schedule that morning due to the election results, and changing their minds about keeping the results hidden from those who chose not to look at them. Then they announced that Trump had won. Maybe a dozen of the 99 retreatants had chosen not to look at the results, and there were audible sounds of shock and dismay. The four teachers and La then each took a turn sharing mindfully what their own process had been like so far that morning, including some quite heart-wrenching revelations about the potential impact on them personally.

There was a break with a lot of hugging and crying, and then they led us in a process of small-group interactions, where first in groups of 3 we took turns sharing what we were aware of in our own bodies, hearts, and minds, and then in groups of 6 we took turns sharing what practices are helping us be present to and skillful with our reactions. A couple of the small groups were people who had spontaneously self-sorted into people of color and other affinity groups. There was more hugging and crying and some full-group sharing of prayers from our hearts. Mine was “May we attend to our brokenness with awareness and love.” Another one that particularly spoke to me was “May we create safety for those who are vulnerable.”

My “monkey mind” has been working a bit on whether there’s any way to turn our house into one where we could hide people if we needed to. I grew up on stories of “Righteous Gentiles” who hid Jewish children during the Nazi Holocaust, and coincidentally, on Saturday, Don and I visited the amazing Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the largest such establishment in the world I believe, and saw a very moving exhibit on Children who Made a Difference, including Anne Frank.

In college, some of the adult activists I admired most were involved in the Sanctuary Movement. As I think about it now, the word sanctuary, with its dual meanings of sacred space and political refuge, resonates with my lifelong commitment to Tikkun Olam, healing the world, through the re-integration of spirituality, psychological growth, and political activism. And this Open Letter from American Jews to those targeted by Trump and his supporters, and Bend the Arc’s statement on the election speak my mind very well on how I, as a Jew, feel called to respond to events.

I’ve also had Carrie Newcomer’s song Sanctuary going through my head for the past few days. She wrote it after a conversation with Parker Palmer, where she asked, “What can we do when we are personally or politically heartbroken?” He responded, “We take sanctuary. We gather with those we love…we remember, we share stories or we sit in silence until we can go on.”

Today and tomorrow I will be facilitating a team retreat for an organization that supports open source journalism. We planned the agenda before the elections, and I realized we would need to make some changes. I hope to be able to provide a container for some refuge and reflection. And I hope the rest of you are finding places of emotional sanctuary as well, as we prepare to be “havens in the storm” for each other and especially for those most vulnerable to the current wave of meanness in our nation and the world.



6 thoughts on “Sanctuary”

  1. Thank you, Becca for providing a space for refuge and reflection with your thoughtful writing and sharing. Awareness and compassion for self and other, especially the most vulnerable, are important to help to insure our wise actions, also important going forward. Sending hugs and gratitude, Roseanne

  2. thank you becca, this is helpful both for my own practice and taking care and in thinking about my offering to this world, and it resonates with some of the millions of thoughts i have had over the past week. as always, i am excited to talk more with you.

  3. Dear Becca,

    Thanks so very much for your kind observations. What a time for a silent retreat!

    In Madison, many in the Buddhist community shared a weekend retreat of teachings on the Seven Points of Mind Training. With guidance from our generous teacher, we found great support in those remarkable teachings, not the least of which invites equanimity, regardless of what arises. Although at the start of the retreat there was a palpable head of steam to discuss the election, we ended the retreat without much direct discussion of the election. The Seven Points tend to lead the student away from negativity that only produces more negativity. For example, we were invited to try out the famous slogan “Drive all Blames into One,” when thinking about the next president.

    I think our retreat ended with the conviction that careful listening and our own caring intention, speech and conduct regarding all our neighbors should be our urgent concern, especially in the face of agitated thought and emotion.

    Maybe this is just another way of saying that all politics is/are (really truly) local.

    I am curious about “open source” journalism. It would be good to hear a report about your efforts to support it, and how you believe it might help all of us in the years to come. Who gets to be an open source journalist?

  4. Bless you for providing wisdom and this forem for those of us who feel confused and very alone. I have had many tough adjustments in this life but never have the tears flowed so freely and my sense of fear, confusion and unknowing so great. I too have become aware of how important local is and the importance of connecting with friends. I wish the adage, ‘this too shall pass’ could apply and maybe that is why I am so devastated…because I find myself in a world I no longer trust or recognize. Corruption has become commonplace..has become legitimized…it is sickening and I feel my inner fire beginning to stir….thank you dear Becca…you are a beacon.

  5. “May we attend to our brokenness with awareness and love. May we create safety for those who are vulnerable.” Amen.

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