No matter how many times a day I meditate, I will never be as calm as President Obama appears to be.
How does he keep his cool? Does he meditate? Does he practice yoga? Has he tried any of the therapies I've experimented with over the last year, as I've tried calming my anxious brain? What kind of medicinal herbs is Michelle growing for him in that garden behind the White House?
Along with 92,000 other people packed into the University of Michigan's football stadium last weekend, I watched President Obama deliver a remarkable speech to the graduating class of 2010.
Volcanos are erupting, oil rigs are exploding, rivers are flooding, car bombs are smoldering and war is raging. The whole world seems to be trembling. But President Obama appears to be calm.
While people have been calling him a socialist, a Nazi, a foreign-born-birth-certificate-lacking-outlaw and other names that spike my blood pressure, he's been doing something that I need to do more of: he's been listening.
While I've been living in my own brain, pondering what therapies I should try next, Barack Obama seems to unplug from the high stakes pressures of his job by focusing on other people. Every night, he reads 10 letters from American citizens. "This is my modest effort to remind myself of why I ran in the first place," he told us. About a third of the correspondents call him an idiot, which is how he knows he's getting "a good representative sample."
One kindergartener's question really engaged him: "Are people being nice?"
"If you turn on the news, you can see why a kindergartner would ask this question," Obama said. Serious arguments about serious issues are bound to arouse passion on all sides. But we can't solve our problems if we just tear each other down. It's possible to disagree with people's positions without demonizing them. It's possible to question a person's views and judgment without questioning their motives or patriotism.
The rhetoric is coming from all sides. Throwing around words like "Soviet-style takeover" and "right wing nut" doesn't lead to effective compromise or learning, according to President Obama. We need, as a society, to cultivate civility. A simple lesson most of us learned from our parents can guide us in the right direction. "Treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect," President Obama suggested.
An angry bumper sticker I saw recently read: "If you don't have anything nice to say about Obama, sit next to me." I can imagine President Obama shaking his head and smiling if he ever caught a glimpse of that sticker.
I don't know what he does to unplug and recharge these days. I imagine he's shooting a lot of hoops. And following the advice he gave to the newly minted graduates of Michigan. "For four years you've been exposed to diverse thinkers and scholars," he said. "Don't narrow that broad intellectual exposure just because you're leaving here. Instead, seek to expand it. If you grew up in a big city, spend time with somebody who grew up in a rural town. If you find yourself hanging around with people of your own race or ethnicity or religion, include people in your circle who have different backgrounds and life experiences. You'll learn what it's like to walk in somebody's shoes. And in the process, you will help make this democracy work."
I don't know what President Obama reads to unwind, other than the letters he cited in his speech at Michigan. But I find these words of The Heart Sutra, part of Buddhist scripture, comforting. I carry them with me, and they help me unplug from my own suffering, so that I can recharge and rejoice in the health, safety and happiness of others:
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings.
Priscilla Warner is the co-author of The Faith Club. Her new book, about her journey from panic to peace, will be published by The Free Press in 2011. Follow her progress on her blog. And meet her mother at www.rivaleviten.com