Campaign Fever: How We’ve Turned Indignation into a National Pastime

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The First Flip toward a Better Country

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly… who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

These inspired words from Theodore Roosevelt more than 100 years ago, revitalized recently by the great work of Brene Brown (Daring Greatly and Rising Strong), remind us of the world of difference between the person in the arena versus the one running commentary from the sidelines. These words keep coming to mind as I watch this wild and crazy race for the White House. At this point, we have two people in the arena. One is a dusty and sweaty gladiator, a media marvel and manic misogynist who has already bested 14 opponents. The other is a dusty and bloodied politician who is actually qualified to be President. The two of them will continue to go at it until November, at which point one will know the triumph of high achievement, while the other will have dared greatly.

For better or worse, they’re in the arena. I’m wondering about the rest of us. It seems we have caught a kind of fever, where anger and indignation are becoming an art form, where one-sided views are called news, and where we can get stuck in a place of no progress. That place could be called coping, as opposed to transforming, and it precedes what I call the first flip of Zen Leadership. Before diving into Zen Leadership let me explain what I mean by coping. We’re in coping mode whenever we’re reacting to forces “out there” that we do not like. Coping is characterized by blaming or demeaning others, gossiping, hinting at conspiracies, ostracizing, lying, denying, and vilifying those we don’t agree with. Even though coping-talk can be articulate and persuasive, it is a place before true leadership begins. Why? Because in coping mode, we’re not in the arena. We’re not trying to create anything of value. We’re stuck to a self with a problem and, like crazy-glue, we’re trying to get more people stuck to the same problem.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t have news commentary or ever be indignant. Michelle Obama’s Enough is Enough speech was one of the bright, truth-telling moments of this past month (and she is most certainly in the arena). This is not to say that you and I shouldn’t have opinions — if you read that first paragraph, you probably caught one or two of my own. But there are a number of problems with the feverish extent to which we’re taking our indignant coping. First, while it’s natural to have opinions, when we are so attached to our opinions that we quit listening and discount everyone who doesn’t agree with us, we become more regressed versions of ourselves and dig deeper the divides in our country. Even if we’ve grown through the early stages of development, we recede toward might-is-right red or fundamentalist amber. We descend into rage and anger and fight/flight reactions — all of which we’ve seen aplenty this election year.

Second, the more that indignant commentary becomes the norm, the more we do it, and the easier it is to mistake commentary about the arena for actually being in the arena. This mistake is helped along by our nervous system, loaded with mirror neurons and other social circuitry that give us about 30% of the emotional charge of doing something by watching someone do it. So by watching and commenting on someone in the arena, we’re sort of 30% there ourselves, soaking up 30% of the glory. Add to that if our commentary can spot a fault, why we can feel one fault better than they are, which is nonsense, but we semi-unconsciously fall for it. So a national past time of indignant, fault-spotting, coping-mode commentary can close us off to opposing views, bring out our angry regressive self, take the edge off our hunger to truly make a difference, and fuel our feelings of superiority. Maybe that’s why we do it, but it’s hardly the best prescription for facing into this connected, whitewater world together.

There is a better way. An Integral, 4-quadrant view points us in the right direction, reminding us that the human being has both an individual and connected nature, and that inner work and outer conditions are mutually transforming. So, if we want to find an antidote to Campaign Fever in our society, we can start with inner shifts, and then extend those into our relationships and behaviors. Enter Zen Leadership. The tools of physical Zen training enable inner shifts, as well as a deeper knowing of who we are, both in our individuated gifts and boundless connectedness. Eventually Zen Leadership functions from a visceral experience of universal connectedness (i.e., Samadhi) and the wisdom it gives rise to. But that’s not where we start.

We start with the first flip of Zen Leadership: from coping to transforming, whereby we abandon the safety of the sidelines, center ourselves, enter the arena in which we’re committed to making a difference, and add our value as best we can. There’s no halfway about this gesture: we’re either out or we’re in; that’s why I call it a flip. And there’s no mistaking if we’ve made it. This is more easily shown than put into words and, thanks to the great folks at Integral Life, a video is coming soon (This flip is one of the Integral Life Practice modules launching in just a couple weeks). But you might get a feel for it now by first clenching your fists and tensing the front part of your body from gut to forehead. You don’t have to stay here long before you’ll feel the contraction and stuckness of it. Shake that out and now run a finger of your left hand along the underside of your right arm, all the way out through the ends of your fingertips. Do the same with your opposite hand, feeling a lengthening through your left arm. Let energy extend through both arms (an image we give kids in Aikido is to imagine their arms as firehoses or light sabers), and grow tall through the top of your head. Stand like an expanding mountain. Again, you don’t have to stay here long before you can tell that this is a far more empowered and empowering state than is the constriction of coping mode. In every thought, word and deed, we’re operating somewhere along this spectrum from the tension of coping to the extension of transforming.

Transforming mode creates a way forward, which is why it is true leadership and can inspire followership. Transforming mode is our co-creating self, centered and entered into the arena to add our value. It is where we flip from being stuck-to-self to a self-in-service, which is why we call it the first flip of Zen Leadership. You can learn practices for accessing and applying it in the first chapter of The Zen Leader. Or watch the ILP video (From Coping to Transforming, coming soon to Integral Life). Or do both. The point is, if we want to recover from the fever of campaign rhetoric and truly build a great country, we have to be our greater selves, not our lesser selves. If we want a better world, we better be transformers.

About the author: Dr. Ginny Whitelaw is a leadership expert and Zen master in the Chozen-ji line of Rinzai Zen. She is the founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership (, President of Focus Leadership, and the author of several leadership books, including The Zen Leader.

Ginny Whitelaw

About Ginny Whitelaw

Dr. Ginny Whitelaw is both a leadership expert and roshi (Zen master) in the Chozen-ji line of Rinzai Zen. She is the author of The Zen Leader, and founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership. She is also the President of Focus Leadership, and has taught and coached in global leadership programs for nearly 20 years. Formerly deputy manager for integrating NASA’s Space Station Program, she has a PhD in biophysics as well as a fifth degree black belt in Aikido.

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