How Meditating Made Me a Better Socialist: Four Stories

If you want to find out more about avoiding burnout and being a long-haul socialist, join members of the DSA Buddhist Circle for a webinar featuring the co-authors and Nikhita Dodla that is open to all. Sign up for the event on September 13 at 8 p.m. Eastern time and tell your friends.

By Yuesen Komyo Yuen and Ty Kiatathikom

We, members of the DSA Buddhist Socialist Circle, encourage our comrades to meditate. Why? What is meditation, and how is it beneficial? Although there are many meditative traditions within Buddhism, it is primarily an individual practice, meaning it can be as unique as each practitioner. Here are  some personal experiences with meditation gathered from members of the Circle.

Reverend Bob Koshin Hanson has been a Lutheran pastor for fifty-five years, a Zen practitioner for thirty-one years, and a DSA member for five years. He has served as a reserve officer (Navy chaplain) and is a proud father and grandfather. He lived in Japan for thirteen years, discovered meditation via the Milwaukee Zen Center after his return, and has been practicing Zazen (Zen sitting meditation) with them ever since.

Although now “retired and having fun” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he finds time to volunteer for causes about which he is passionate. Bob answered the calling to activism after he graduated from college in the sixties and served for six years in an inner-city congregation. Those years, working with poverty-stricken communities and radical Black churches, were “life-changing.”

Bob said that practicing meditation “calms” him and counteracts the contentious part of organizing. His Buddhist prison ministry work, teaching meditation in prison, has brought enormous satisfaction, as he’s seen firsthand the ability of meditation to help incarcerated people manage anger, mitigate pain, and provide the necessary respite for peace and hope to grow. Over the years, he has seen how meditation transforms their lives, even behind bars.

Bob believes that meditation can benefit everyone, including veterans, a population he cares deeply about, who relive or “often revisit Vietnam.” Bob introduces meditation to them as a way to avoid drugs and suicide.                                         

Nikhita Dodla was raised Hindu and practiced Hindu prayer from an early age, which she found to be similar to meditation. She is a student at Howard University and joined YDSA in 2019: “I took up meditation in earnest around a year and a half ago. Between the work I was doing in DSA, school, and my personal life, I found myself increasingly angry and bitter. Meditation provided me with a place of solace. My meditation is mostly self-guided, taking advantage of Hindu and Buddhist prayer books and my prayer beads. Buddhism helps me to manage the despair that arises in my daily life, and meditation is the practice that makes that possible.”

Nikhita believes that meditation has helped sustain her socialist commitments, which are often  intensely draining. “Meditation has made me a better organizer in that it’s increased my longevity. I used to go in cycles where I would go super hard at organizing for three to four months, burn out, and take a long break before returning to organizing…. On a more basic level, meditation inspired me to implement lifestyle changes that have made me a happier person.” Like Bob, Nikhita also believes that meditation teaches us to better handle conflict. “Meditation is a radical act. We are raised in a capitalist society that profits off of people’s emotions. Meditation can help us control our emotions and break the cycle of negativity that life under capitalism forces upon us.”

Yuesen Komyo Yuen, co-author of this article, is a DSA member, mother, Soto Zen priest, educator, activist, and a PhD student doing research on the intersection of Buddhism and socialism. In her early twenties, while fighting for world peace and justice, she became keenly aware of a desperate need for inner peace. After trying different forms of meditation, she began sitting on the zafu—the cushion used for meditation in the Soto Zen tradition. She has continued to sit, off and on, over the past three decades. “By that relatively young age, I already had plenty of rage stuffed in me, from enduring extreme abuse in my childhood to later assaults and discrimination as a woman of color in the U.S.”

In her community organizing work, Yuesen has borne witness to and felt the impact of immeasurable violence manifested by human greed and bigotry. “Meditation is my refuge that helps me embrace all that life offers, the joy and hope as well as the pain and suffering. If I am not skillful at embracing what is, I am not able to help create change.”

The late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh—known to his followers as Thay—famously said, “If we know how to suffer, we suffer less.” This teaching inspires Yuesen and informs her approach to meditation. In her view, meditation can help organizers to refrain from becoming overly preoccupied or attached to “our emotions, ego, or self,” and focus instead on the desire for a greater good that brought us together in the first place.

Ty Kiatathikom—the other co-author of this piece—is a writer, law student, and a DSA member since 2018. He is a member of Columbus DSA, the Religion and Socialism Working Group, the Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus, and the International Committee, where he serves on the Asia-Oceania subcommittee. He was raised in Thai Buddhism and currently practices with the Plum Village Tradition. Buddhism informs his work as a socialist and abolitionist, and if asked to name his political affiliation, he describes himself as a Buddhist socialist.

Without Buddhism, Ty is confident that he would no longer be a part of the socialist movement. In fact, he is not even sure if he would still be alive. Faith has provided him a refuge from the corrosive social and political conditions of the past several years, renewing his hope in himself and his fellow human beings. Through Buddhist practices, meditation chief among them, he has succeeded in moving himself from a politics based in hate—which he views as unsustainable albeit enticing—and into a politics of love, which is less immediately satisfying but sustainable for the lifetime commitment that the movement demands. 

“I encourage my comrades to view this not only as a lifelong struggle,” he said, “but a multi-generational one. This perspective requires that organizers take care of their physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing to steel themselves for the challenges to come.” In Buddhist terms, this means we must get in touch with the suffering in ourselves so that we do not transfer it to the people around us, and so that we may be available to help others alleviate their own suffering. He believes that one of the foremost ways we can do this is by meditating.

If you want to find out more about avoiding burnout and being a long-haul socialist, join members of the DSA Buddhist Circle for a webinar featuring the co-authors and Nikhita Dodla that is open to all. Sign up for the event on September 13 at 8 p.m. Eastern time and tell your friends.