Reflecting on a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., Jeremy Mohler relates it to how meditation helps us adjust to reality, and helps us act to change it too.
Reality during the early days of President Trump’s administration has mostly felt surreal, but there are moments where it feels like a cold shower. One of those moments was the morning after he banned immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. I awoke earlier than normal and lay in bed trying to imagine what I could do about it. With no one to talk to, I scrolled Facebook to see what friends had to say. Someone shared a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”
The idea of being “maladjusted,” and that what we are asked to adjust to – society — could be in conflict with being human, attracted me, so I looked for the quote’s source. It comes from a sermon King gave many times called “Transformed Nonconformist.” In one variation delivered in November 1954, when King was a mere 25 years old, he used a metaphor — borrowed from a socialist Methodist pastor — to describe the individual’s place in society:
I’m sure that many of you have had the experience of dealing with thermometers and thermostats. The thermometer merely records the temperature. If it is 70 or 80 degrees it registers that and that is all. On the other hand the thermostat changes the temperature. If it is too cool in the house you simply push the thermostat up a little and it makes it warmer. And so the Christian is called upon not to be like a thermometer conforming to the temperature of his society, but he must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of his society.
King went on to rail against “mass mind” and “rugged collectivism,” claiming that many had become afraid of not conforming. He says of this mindset, “Instead of making history we are made by history.” This was the 1950s, of course, in the Holocaust’s aftermath and at the high point of Stalin’s authoritarian brand of communism — many people feared manipulative leaders who claimed to speak for the majority. King’s point was that to oppose injustice we must shed the fear of standing alone. He argued we must make history rather than being made by it, echoing Karl Marx’s call at the end of Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
This idea of changing rather than merely interpreting could also be applied a little closer to home. King’s temperature metaphor also describes the human mind. The connection can be seen through meditation practice. On the cushion, we open to the moment and space around us. Our mind tends towards being a thermometer. It follows whatever comes up, whether thoughts or emotions, and we spin off into discursive thinking. We plan our day or reflect on yesterday.
Meditation has us practice being a thermostat. When a thought or emotion appears, we watch and note it and return to our anchor, the breath. The goal is to stay steady with whatever comes up, with the riptide of thoughts, with our aching back or numb legs. From this place of steadiness we can fully feel the moment. Like a thermostat transforming the temperature, we simply guide our mind’s attention back to the breath over and over again. We practice returning to feeling grounded, a comfortable room temperature of 72 degrees. Eventually we stay relaxed in the space around us — we align with the present moment and no longer fight against it by being elsewhere in our mind.
If we’ve practiced on the cushion, we’re more ready for life’s constant change.
Off the cushion, in everyday life, the metaphor still applies but gets a little fuzzy. So let’s add a new element to our “thermostat” metaphor: a teenager. Our teenager is happy to complain about the temperature, wishing it were different, but lacks the money to pay the electricity bill. Buddhism’s second noble truth says that suffering comes from grasping for things we like and pushing away things we don’t like; in essence, wanting to change that which we can’t. Like the temperature, life is always changing, and rarely in what we’d consider an agreeable form. And like the teenager, we tend to complain about that.
If we’ve practiced on the cushion, though, we’re more ready for life’s constant change. Many people, before trying meditation, have an image of a solitary monk sitting for years in a cave. This leads to the notion that the goal of meditation is to detach from everything, to not be moved by anything.
But the truth is quite different. Meditation helps us feel everything more fully. Our ability to notice our grasping or running away becomes sharper and quicker, allowing us to let go and get back to feeling the present moment. Meditation helps us feel, not detach.
From a deep sense of presence, we are then able to act mindfully, to, like a thermostat, adjust to what’s around us and — this is the key — to adjust what’s around to us. Meditation not only helps us quit fighting the present moment; it also helps us forget the lie that we are separate from the present moment to begin with. We become present along with everything else around us. It may sound like a Buddhist cliché, but we are becoming “one” with our surroundings.
Like a thermostat, we must feel the temperature of the moment, which includes our thoughts and emotions, and gently adjust it to our intentions, and meditation can help us do that. This is another way of being “creatively maladjusted,” or simply being human.
I still haven’t figured out what to do about the immigration ban, other than to stand in solidarity with immigrants, especially Muslims. But later that day, having meditated in the morning, I experienced the power of being “creatively maladjusted.” I was having tea with a good friend who had once been a lover. My heart trembled like the edges of a frying egg. I could feel my love for her, but I didn’t grasp. I instead appreciated her new role in my life. By staying present with my feelings instead of thinking about what could have been, I fell upon my real intention, to simply enjoy our time together.
Adjusting society may take other, collective practices – by the late 1960s, King would be calling for a “radical redistribution of economic power.” But meditation practice, by helping is adjust to both the present moment and our deepest intentions, is a powerful tool for building the very connections and community we so passionately want to heal.
A different version of this piece was originally published on Medium.