By Suzanne Harvey
It’s hard to know which was more surprising: that I would run for political office at all—and then win—or that I would become a Buddhist. Politics happened first… or maybe not.
A recent return visit to the New Hampshire State House served to remind me that I’ve put dharma teachings to work in my interactions with individuals whom I find difficult. Putting your practice to work in a political setting should be no different from doing it at any office, but a legislature of 400 members wins hands down as a place to find plenty of challenging personalities.
Where did it all start for me? Back in the early aughties I picked up various dharma books from my husband’s collection. I found them interesting but couldn’t make a personal connection. By early 2007, I’d begun meditating, and this coincided with the start of my second term as a member of the NH House of Representatives. The cushion became my main refuge.
For the next few years a local sangha provided a welcome constant in my life, but my sitting practice was an on- and off-again effort.
Between the sangha, the books, and a few retreats, I kept my toes in the dharma. But every time there was an opportunity to take the Refuge Vow and call myself a Buddhist, I declined. It didn’t resonate for me. I said I didn’t need or want the “label.”
Meanwhile I continued to steep myself in my legislative work, appreciating the opportunity to contribute. Over the decades I had volunteered in many campaigns, but it wasn’t until 2004 and living in New Hampshire that the idea of running for one of the 400 House seats took root. Once at the State House, any sense of equanimity was continuously challenged by the most cantankerous and self-righteous colleagues.
No issue important to me was without its detractors. But from the beginning of my freshman term in 2005 to my third and last two-year term, I made it a point to reach across the aisle in an effort to make collegiality one of the hallmarks of my service. Sitting down to lunch with someone from the other party, or even inviting myself to a lunchtime cafeteria table filled with “the opposition,” was part of my attempt to fight stereotyping. I wanted to get to know these folks whose philosophies were so different from mine and I wanted them to know me—in a way that would transcend politics.
Right, left, red, blue—did it really matter at lunchtime? Did it really matter when we bragged about our kids or grandkids together or shared stories about growing up in NH or elsewhere? And maybe the good cheer would spill over into committee work.
In my second term, when listening to floor speeches by certain colleagues, I touched in on what I’d learned from dharma teachings. I made deliberate efforts to consider that they, too, had families they loved and maybe elderly parents to care for, as I did. Some had children with special needs or spouses fighting illness. Each one, I had to remember, wanted happiness the same as I did. Each one had a Buddha nature, just as I did. The tough ones, though, the ones who seemed so self-righteous in their opinions (did I, too?) were my best teachers. I had to pay attention—and tamp down the “us” vs “them” dualistic thinking.
The weekly floor debates during our House sessions, however, became a test of my patience and equanimity.
“What would Buddha do?” or “How would Buddha vote?” were not exactly questions on my mind. I don’t waiver much when it comes to issues affecting inequities or the common good (at least my definition of it). The main issues I gave my time to—renewable energy and the electric grid, human trafficking, and substance abuse prevention and treatment—were of primary importance to me. Despite my opinions, it didn’t take long once I was actually in the thick of the political drama to realize that other voices and viewpoints must be heard.
I also learned that when mindfulness, compassion, and loving kindness intersect with politics, interesting things can happen—if not yielding a desired result, then creating a change in you. Rather than having kneejerk reactions to the opposition, I found myself consciously trying to understand their positions and just accept that we had different worldviews.
Several weeks ago I attended a hearing on a bill at the State House and was greeted enthusiastically by many former colleagues. Then I found myself sitting next to one of the legislators who always gave me pause. We might have spoken once in all the time we were colleagues. We could probably find maybe one or two issues on which we might agree. Even as our elbows touched on the chairs’ armrests, he was not acknowledging my presence.
Remembering his difficult family health issues and my meditation practice of taking in others’ suffering and sending out love, I took a breath, turned to him and asked, “How are you?” “Fine,” he answered, looking straight ahead. Simple, straightforward. He was not interested in engaging with me and that was okay. I’d reached out with an open heart.
And so, after never having given a moment’s thought to running for office, I did and served six years. Then, by the end of 2011 I’d finally met the teacher who would inspire my regular practice on and off the cushion and give me a deeper appreciation for the Buddhist path. When she offered the Refuge Vow recently, I thought, “Of course!”
Suzanne Harvey lives in southern New Hampshire with her husband. She is a student of Lama Willa Miller, the founder of Natural Dharma Fellowship and spiritual director of Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in Springfield, NH.
See also: Mindful Politics: A Shambhala Sun Spotlight page | “Taking Refuge: The Decision to Become a Buddhist,” by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche