War and Mindfulness
The case against emoting
The other day someone on Twitter said this about me: “I feel shocked by Robert's dissociated quality of thought lately. It's almost like he's autistic.”
I asked for elaboration and got this in reply: “*Dissociated* meaning disconnected from emotion. From your work on meditation and empathy, I'd have expected a much more visceral sense from you of how Ukrainians feel right now.”
I don’t object to the indictment itself. It’s true that, in writing about the Russia-Ukraine war, I haven’t dwelt on the suffering of Ukrainians. It’s also true, more broadly, that I haven’t adopted the wartime tone that prevails on social media and in mainstream media. Though I’ve condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a clear violation of international law, and noted with obvious disapproval the increasing brutality of the attack, I haven’t done much emoting about these things.
So, though “disconnected from emotion” is an exaggeration, I’m willing to plead guilty to the basic charge of often exhibiting atypically low war-related affect.
But I do object to the framing of this indictment—specifically, to two assumptions embedded in it:
(1) that the way I’m processing the Ukraine war—almost as if “disconnected from emotion”—is a bad way to process a war, somehow less healthy than the passionate processing you see on CNN and MSNBC and much of Twitter.
(2) that, based on my “work on meditation and empathy,” you should expect a more emotional reaction from me. I think such an expectation reflects a misunderstanding both of mindfulness meditation (the variety of Buddhist meditation I’ve written about) and of the kind of empathy I’ve sermonized about.
So I’m going to now challenge these assumptions and, in the process, try to do a jiu-jitsu move, pivoting from defense to offense: I’m going to argue not only that a dispassionate state of mind in wartime has its virtues, but that it has more virtues than the prevailing state of mind.
And I’m going to argue that mindfulness—which is, in an important sense, a relatively dispassionate state of mind—is close to being the ideal state of mind for navigating the landscape of war and peace. I think that if Americans were less reflexively emotional, and more mindful, there would be fewer wars—and the current war would be less likely to metastasize into a regional war or, God forbid, go nuclear.
This prescription goes double for those Americans who populate the American foreign policy establishment—the thing known to its detractors (including me) as “the Blob.” I’m here to tell you that a more mindful Blob would be a better Blob.
Before I get started, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying I’m a paragon of mindfulness. In fact, the Blob is one thing I have trouble maintaining a mindful attitude toward. But there’s no point in elaborating on that until I’ve said a bit more about what mindfulness is.
So let’s start with that question: What is mindfulness? But let’s not answer it, at least not head on. Trying to provide a definitive answer could drag us into a welter of academic disagreement over such things as the full meaning of the ancient Pali term sati (the word translated as mindfulness) and the proper interpretation of the canonical Buddhist text on mindfulness meditation, the Satipatthana Sutta.
Instead, let’s approach the meaning of mindfulness indirectly, by talking about an interesting irony of mindfulness meditation: It can get you both closer to your feelings and further away from them.
If you’re meditating and you have some negative emotion like anxiety or sadness—the kind of feeling you’d ordinarily try to push away or subdue or distract yourself from—the mindful response is to just accept it and observe it closely, even intimately. But one consequence of observing feelings up close is that, after a while, you can get some critical distance from them.
This is empowering. Whereas feelings are something people normally obey more or less mindlessly, mindfulness practice can enhance your ability to ask, before following a feeling, whether it’s giving you good guidance. Then you can act accordingly.
I personally consider a war that involves a nuclear power—and that could any day now expand into a war between nuclear powers—an especially bad time to be mindlessly obeying your feelings. For example: I think a lot of the people who are advocating a no-fly zone over Ukraine—apparently without reflecting on the fact that this would basically guarantee direct conflict between American and Russian forces—are being uncritically responsive to their feelings.
The feelings themselves—such as outrage at Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine—may be morally valid. But that doesn’t mean they’re good moral guides right now. I wish advocates of a no-fly zone were closer to being “disconnected from emotion,” as my Twitter critic put it, than they are. Because then they might be better at coolly calculating the consequences of a no-fly zone.
The subordination of thought to emotion has gone beyond discourse about the merits of a no-fly zone. For example, I haven’t heard many people ask: Is it possible that, in all but exhausting our arsenal of sanctions, we’ve left Putin feeling he has nothing left to lose—so he might, say, shell Ukrainian cities with ever-more-reckless abandon? Or: Is it possible that such draconian sanctions will so threaten Putin politically that he urgently needs a dramatic win on the battlefield—and might take some risk that could lead to wider war?
I don’t have an answer to these questions, but they seem worth asking. Yet so far as I can tell they’ve gotten almost no airtime. And I think the main reason is that punishing Russia feels too good to question.
If I had to guess what the three most potent policy-propelling feelings are right now, I’d go with: 1) moral indignation over Russia’s transgressions; 2) the attendant retributive impulse; and 3) empathy for Ukrainians.
I want to focus on the last of these—not just because it’s the one my Twitter critic scolded me for not evincing but also because it’s a good vehicle for further exploration of the properties of mindfulness.
There are two kinds of empathy: