Maisha Kalam and Emily Jo Wharry | February 1, 2024
How can we foster compassion in the hostile world of politics?
In “Kindness in Los Angeles City Hall: How Elected Officials Approach Mindfulness, Leadership, Emotions, and Conflicts,” longtime immigrant rights and labor activist and scholar Victor Narro and California State Assembly legislative aide and UCLA Master of Public Policy graduate Laura Edwards interviewed current and former Los Angeles elected officials, examining how public servants can practice sustainability and well-being in the face of political stressors.
Victor Narro sat down with the IRLE to discuss the reflections and insights they gathered.
What inspired you to start this project?
A focus of my work at the UCLA Labor Center is researching and writing about kindness. The recent challenging and toxic times in L.A. City Hall and the campaigns for L.A. City Council or city offices caused me to reflect on the topic of kindness and politics. I have come to know and care about some candidates running for local office, as well as elected officials once they begin their public service at L.A. City Hall. I have witnessed the challenges that they face as they struggle to live within their principles and values of kindness and compassion when they begin their campaigns or their work in City Hall.
What is a common misconception about mindfulness?
A common misconception about mindfulness is that we need to get rid of thoughts in order to reap its benefits. If you’ve ever actually tried to “clear your mind of all thoughts,” you will find out immediately that this is virtually impossible. Emptying the mind is never the goal. You will get frustrated and want to quit if you attempt to do so. The term mindfulness is used in many ways. Mindfulness is creating a focus and deep awareness of your emotions and feelings in the present moment. This process creates a pause for you to become a witness to your emotions and develop in the words of The Dalai Lama, “a wider perspective.” This focused engagement in the present moment enables us to address a situation with compassion and understanding. Doing so helps to bring kindness to ourselves while bringing kindness to others, especially in moments of anger and frustration. Finding your grounding in mindfulness is rooted in the teachings of the late Zen Buddhist teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh (“Thay”). For Thay, to be mindful is to be fully alive and present with the people around you. He teaches us that mindfulness should be practiced during all of your activities throughout the day, whether you’re working, driving, walking, eating, or interacting with others. This teaching becomes especially important when experiencing negative emotions or dealing with a difficult situation.
What makes mindfulness particularly important for public servants?
On any day in office or even during electoral campaigns, elected leaders or candidates running for office can engage in meditation or contemplative processes with their daily activities and routines, especially during formal meetings or communicating and engaging with constituents or community organizations. Public servants need awareness of love and compassion at all times, especially during moments of chaos and crisis. We can easily forget that we are interconnected and we often lose our compass. We fail to see beyond the idiosyncrasies. The way of peacemaking is expressing love and compassion in action in our daily work. This is especially the case for public servants. Every present moment can be a pathway to deepen your five senses to be fully present in love, understanding, and compassion. Love, understanding, and compassion can be fluid in the work of a public servant. Giving love and compassion to others must also include yourself. Loving and being kind to yourself for the sake of loving and being kind to others must never be compromised.
What surprised you most about your interviews with City Hall council members?
We greatly appreciated their openness to be vulnerable and engage in deep conversations when provided with a safe space. They often don’t have spaces to embrace their emotions and vulnerabilities, and tap into their powerful inner wisdom or heart knowledge. We all need these spaces and moments regularly in our daily living.
What do you recommend for people who want to practice active listening and empathy in political spaces, but are feeling disillusioned?
The journey is much more important than the outcome. We never become fully “centered.” What really matters is the journey of daily practice to find our joy and grounding in the present moment. Of course, this is a lifelong practice that is never-ending. Being in the present moment with a deep awareness of our emotions and the situation we find ourselves in creates a space for us to tap into love, compassion and understanding. What is most important is to stay engaged in the practice, in the striving towards this awareness. With daily practice, we begin to engage in our daily routine – from waking up, engaging in political activities, meeting with community members, attending council meetings, drafting policy, etc. —in a contemplative process where we are fully present. Create your own recipe for what works for you. Explore and learn from spiritual leaders and their teachings or begin to tap into your own practice or life story to create a practice from which you can find joy, comfort and meaning.
Embracing our emotions in difficult situations becomes instrumental in the work of political activism. I am often reminded of the quote by holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and peace activist Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Being fully present in mindfulness and contemplation enables us to respond with love, understanding and compassion. This is our true nature. Mindfulness is showing up fully present and making time to stop and reflect. It is an approach that helps you avoid getting caught up in the storm, and instead see your way through it with compassion and understanding. It is a pathway to self-kindness and kindness to others.
If there is one thing that people take away from this project, what would you want that to be?
In the work for justice, you become “whole” as an activist if you are able to find the “aliveness” in the present moment and tap fully into love and compassion for others and yourself. Caring for yourself, you could care for others in need; caring for others in need, you could care for yourself. The late spiritual leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us: “You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.”
Finally, what comes to me at this moment is the final verse of Mary Oliver’s beautiful poem, “Wild Geese”:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.