Conflict is everywhere, not only between human beings, but throughout nature, from quantum mechanical particles to dark energy and the soap bubble structure of galactic superclusters. Nonetheless, we each take our conflicts personally, and far from being happy or grateful to our enemies, we often allow ourselves to be thrown off balance and drawn into unpleasant ideas, negative emotions, and destructive behaviors.
So what is the solution? How do we return to balance and equanimity, and perhaps even to happiness and gratitude? We can start by reframing conflict through the lens of the “four noble truths,” as originally taught by the Buddha. For example, we can recognize that our lives are filled with conflict; that conflict is a form of suffering that is caused by attachment; that we can stop, settle, resolve, transform, and transcend our conflicts by reducing our attachment; and that the way of doing so is by following the middle path – in other words, not merely by meditation, but mediation as well.
However, as we quickly learn, while the middle path may seem simple, it conceals a number of profound truths, one of which is that there is simplicity both this and the other side of complexity. As the famous Zen saying puts it, “Before I started meditating, blue mountains were blue mountains and white clouds were white clouds. After meditating a while, blue mountains were no longer blue mountains and white clouds were no longer white clouds. But after meditating further, blue mountains are blue mountains and white clouds are white clouds”
In conflict, we often delude ourselves into thinking we are following the middle path, but are actually, in a simple way, only withdrawing from our opponents, remaining silent, and avoiding engagement or controversy. But if we want to become “Bodhisattvas of conflict,” we need to follow a different path, one that leads us through, and to the other side of complexity and conflict.
This “middle” path consists of engaging with the conflicted parts of ourselves and our opponents, and discovering through awareness and the experience of authentic relationship, a deeper source of compassion than the abstract, purely meditative one that is often devoid of genuine experience, and as a result, does not require us to grapple with or overcome our attachments at their source.
There are actually two different middle paths, leading to entirely different outcomes. The first consists of adding two things together and finding their average. We do this when we add two sums and divide by two, or when we combine something hot with something cold to produce something that is lukewarm.
The second middle way consists of combining entirely different things in a creative way, as when we combine water with flour and heat to create bread, which is not an average, but an outcome that is completely new and different. The same transformation takes place when we ask questions that reveal the underlying reasons for a dispute, which often have nothing in common with the issues people are vigorously fighting over.
This deeper, transformational middle way can be accessed through “skillful means,” which include not only meditation techniques that assist us in becoming more centered, compassionate, and aware of ourselves and others; but mediation techniques that enable us to engage in authentic and committed listening, openhearted communication, empathetic dialogue, creative problem solving, collaborative negotiation, genuine forgiveness, and reconciliation. These quintessential conflict resolution skills allow us to escape the ruts our conflicts draw us into, and reveal to us that it is the mind, and not just the flag or the wind that is waving. How do we reach this awareness?
Within Buddhism, there are not only mindfulness or awareness practices, but concentration and insight practices. These ultimately merge into a single practice that encompasses every part of us. As the great Rinzai teacher Hakuin wrote: “What is the true meditation? It is to make everything – coughing, swallowing, waving the arms, motion, stillness, words, action, the evil and the good, prosperity and shame, gain and loss, right and wrong – into one single koan. ”
A koan, of course, is a brief story, question, or dialogue that conceals a paradox, or to paraphrase, a conflict containing two truths, and does so in such a way as to illuminate their essential unity. The most commonly referenced koan, is “what is the sound of one hand clapping.” To rephrase this paradox in relation to conflict, we might ask: “what is the disagreement between one party?”
In doing so, we see that if we act in such a way that there are no longer two parties, but only one, the conflict between us must disappear, simply because there cannot be a conflict without two or more sides. Yet there is an even deeper truth about conflict. The brilliant physicist Neils Bohr, in describing the paradoxes of quantum theory, coined the useful expression “complimentarity,” which he defined as “a great truth whose opposite is also a great truth.”
When we apply this idea to conflict, we discover that a more profound outcome than the simple disappearance of conflict is the unification of what we formerly regarded as opposites. But if all the individuals and ideas that are locked in conflict, at a deeper level, simply represent partial expressions of a deeper underlying truth, what is the point or purpose of their conflict? Doesn’t it all seem a bit silly and pointless? Perhaps it was this realization that led Hakuin to also write:
“As for sitting in meditation, that is something which must include fits of ecstatic blissful laughter – brayings that will make you slump to the ground clutching your belly, and even after that passes and you struggle to your feet, will make you fall anew in further contortions of side-splitting mirth.”
What is the source of this laughter and mirth, as applied to conflict? I believe it is the profound recognition that all our fuss and bother amounts to precisely nothing; that it is all simply an opportunity for transformation and transcendence; that it is a chance to be grateful to our enemies and learn from them, and happy that they finally brought us back to sanity and equilibrium. Using this koan, , we can now understand that there is a deeper “middle” path than the one mentioned above, one that opens for each of us when we transform and transcend our conflicts by finding a middle path that includes both of our opposing truths, that integrates mediation and meditation into a single koan, , and that practices both as a single, undifferentiated whole. Zen writer Bernard Phillips suggests:
“In Zen, the effort and the result are not two different things, the means and the goal are not separated, the finding occurs in the very seeking itself. For ultimately, what is sought is the wholeness of the seeker, and this emerges only in the wholeheartedness of the seeking.”
In other words, the “simple” middle path that lies on the far side of complexity appears only when we “walk the talk,” and become not just the resolution, and the integrated expression of both sides legitimate concerns, but the conflict as well, as revealed in the way that we approach and engage in it. As the 12th century Chinese Zen monk Ta Hui (Dahui) wrote, "When a person is confused, he sees east as west. When he is enlightened, west itself is east." In practical terms, what does this realization mean for conflict resolution?
As mediators, we routinely enter the conflicts of others, but do not always understand that, as a consequence, their conflicts also enter us. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.” Meditation is a way of looking into the abyss of conflict and allowing it to enter us without overwhelming our equilibrium, but instead, pointing us in the direction we need to go -- not only to assist others in stopping, settling, resolving, and transforming their conflicts, but to finally and completely transcend them within themselves. How can meditation assist mediators in achieving these outcomes?
There is a natural affinity between mediation and meditation, inasmuch as both recognize the simultaneity of unity and opposition; both acknowledge the presence of diverse and multiple truths; both seek a middle way; and both encourage us to have a complete experience of our conflicts, allowing us to evolve and leave them behind.
While there are dozens of personal benefits that flow from meditation, experienced mediators may find, as I have, that Buddhist awareness, contemplation, and insight practices can enhance our professional skills as well. It is not uncommon, for example, for mediators who meditate regularly to experience the following benefits:
- Improved ability to remain calm and balanced in the presence of conflict and intense emotions
- Greater willingness to move beyond superficiality in conversation and move into the heart of whatever is not working effectively
- Expanded sensitivity to the subtle clues given off by the parties, indicating a shift in their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes
- Deeper insight into the nature of suffering and what might be done to release it
- Greater awareness of what apparent opponents have in common, though they emphatically disagree and even dislike each other
- Improved creative problem solving skills, and ability to invent or discover imaginative solutions
- Expanded capacity to calibrate and fine-tune insights and intuition
- Greater sensitivity to the natural timing of the conflict
- Increased willingness to engage in “dangerous” or risky conversations and raise sensitive issues without losing empathy
- Decreased investment in judgments, attachments, expectations, and outcomes
- Increased ability to be completely present, open, and focused
- Reduced stress and burnout
Of course, this does not mean that meditators always make superior mediators. Buddhists have not always been the best role models in conflict, and Buddhism has, in my experience, fallen short in developing the social practice of what I call “inter-mindfulness,” or what meditation teacher Shinzen Young calls “the monastery of relationships,” which is an essential part of many conflict resolution practices.
Nonetheless, it is clear that within Buddhism, as within mediation, lie a clear set of instructions on how each of us can improve our skills in handling conflict and untangling the knots they create inside us. What are these instructions, and how exactly do we develop these skills?
While meditation is traditionally oriented to internal sensations, awareness is a generic source of skillful techniques and insights – not only into ourselves, but into others and our relationship with them, and as a result, into the nature and sources of conflict. Buddhism and conflict resolution can therefore both be said to operate by improving awareness, which can easily be applied to a wide range of difficult conversations, interactions, and relationships.
Whereas Buddhist meditation focuses attention primarily internally, for example on the breath, noticing thoughts, emotions, and internal bodily sensations, then letting them go; mediation focuses attention primarily externally, for example on communications and interactions between conflicted parties, noticing and discussing what is not working in their relationship, then asking what might be done to improve or let go of it. By combining these approaches creatively, we are able to produce new combinations.
We can say, for example, that “mediative meditation” consists of using awareness to expose the false expectations, self-judgments, and suffering that lie hidden beneath the surface of our conflicts. These keep us attached to our opponents and issues, and create the sensation of a solid, separate “Self” that congeals quickly around unresolved antagonism. They encourage us not simply to imagine or verbalize loving-kindness, but to act and make it real.
“Meditative mediation,” on the other hand, can be said to consist of being keenly aware of what is taking place inside us in the midst of conflict, using empathy and compassion to increase our awareness of what is happening internally within ourselves and the parties, and helping to bridge the gap between them so they can discover a way out of their antagonism, attachment, and suffering. These combined practices enable us to move beyond merely settling, or even resolving disputes to discover insightful ways of transforming and transcending them.
We can do so, for example, using mediation techniques such as empathetic storytelling and private reflection; by creatively reframing differences to reflect underlying unities; by asking conflicted parties to empathetically imagine what it might have been like to have experienced what the other person experienced; by ask them to speak directly to each other from their hearts; and by drawing their awareness to what they are experiencing right now, or the way they are talking to each other, and asking each what the other could do that would help them listen or speak more openly, then doing that, and using feedback to reinforce awareness and on-going practice.
It is one thing, of course, to use these techniques in mediation with complete strangers, and quite another to avoid losing our balance when we are the ones in conflict. How do we use these skills in such a way as to remain authentically ourselves, and become unconditionally openhearted and aware in the presence of our opponents? Even a strong intention to practice compassion and loving-kindness may not suffice to achieve this goal, so it is useful to ask ourselves some difficult questions that will help us draw our attention to what really matters. Here are a few to start with:
- What do I really know about my opponent?
- What would make me decide to act or speak like that?
- What is true for him/her?
- What questions could I ask to find out?
- What am I doing that is helping to fuel the conflict?
- What am I not doing that is helping to fuel the conflict?
- What is the crossroads I am standing at right now in this conflict?
- What is the deeper “third path” or “middle way” in this conflict?
- How might changing my attitude, behavior, or response help me resolve, transform, or transcend it?
- What would it take for me to do so?
- What is preventing me from moving forward or letting go?
- Can I maintain awareness of my breath and what is happening in my body, mind and emotions while I am in the midst of conflict?
- What price have I paid for this conflict? What has it cost me?
- How much longer am I prepared to continue paying that price?
- What is the most difficult aspect of this conflict for me? What makes that difficult?
- What would it take for me to let it go completely and open my heart to the person I am fighting with?
- What is one thing the other person could do that would change my entire attitude toward the conflict? What is one thing I could do?
- Is there anything I would be willing to apologize for, or offer without any expectation of return?
- On a scale of 1 to ten, how sincere and deep was the apology I gave or the gesture I made?
- What would it take to make it a 10?
- What does my heart tell me to do?
The opportunities for integrating Buddhist awareness, insight, and contemplation practices into dispute resolution, both personally and professionally, are limitless. Yet the modern world makes it much more difficult to sustain these attitudes and practices. The highly respected Zen scholar and practitioner D. T. Suzuki, who was invited to speak in London in 1936, noticed the contrast between traditional contemplative practices and the demands of modern life:
“How can I construct my humble hut right here in the midst of Oxford Circus? How can I do that in the confusion of cars and buses? How can I listen to the singing of birds and also to the leaping of fish? How can one turn all the showings of the shop window displays into the freshness of green leaves swayed by the morning breeze? How am I to find the naturalness, artlessness, utter self-abandonment of nature in the utmost artificiality of human works? This is the great problem set before us these days.”
The problem today is even greater, as it includes an additional difficulty: How we do so not just in the midst of our own internal conflicts, or even the deeply upsetting interpersonal conflicts that transpire in our families, workplaces, and neighborhoods; but in response to wars, bombings, genocides, ethnic prejudices, religious intolerances, mistreatment of women and children, and seemingly endless international conflicts over environmental choices, economic policies, and political beliefs that affect us all deeply, no matter how far we may imagine we are from the turmoil and terror.
These larger conflicts reinforce the Zen saying that: “The believing mind believes in itself,” thereby turning belief in a circle so that it becomes a source of conflict. Sometimes, as May Sarton wrote, “One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” But sometimes one must also think like an ordinary human being, merely chopping wood and carrying water, in order to be heroic enough to find ways of transcending the conflicts that separate us.
In order to escape the downward gravitational tug of antagonisms on any level, and resolve, transform, or transcend them, we require a combination of inner and outer skills. If we do not transform ourselves, we will find it much more difficult to transform the world; and if we do not transform the world, we will find it far more arduous to transform ourselves. In meditation as in mediation, inner and outer increasingly merge and reveal themselves as one.
These are just a few of the important lessons we are able to learn by seeking the places where Buddhism and conflict resolution intersect. What is fascinating to me as a practitioner of both over the course of many years are the ways they call out to each other, invite each other in, and increasingly requirethe skillful practice of the other. Trying to meditate without addressing underlying conflicts makes our practice superficial, frustrating, and incomplete. Trying to mediate without cultivating awareness traps us at the surface of our conflicts and ignores what is taking place in their depths. When we combine these practices, we are led to the deeper middle way, and to profound insights, both for ourselves and others.
These are difficult tasks and a lifetime’s work, but perhaps there are lots of resources that can help you make a start. Many efforts are now being made to reveal the richness and relevance of Buddhism as an approach to understanding what lies beneath the surface of our conflicts, and guide us in discovering their sources deep within ourselves. Among these are soon-to be-published writings by Ross McLauran Madden and Ran Kuttner, both of which are filled with insightful stories and examples. I encourage you to watch for their publication and consider how you might use them as sources of techniques for resolving your own and other people’s conflicts.
I want to go further, however, and encourage those of you who decided to read this article because of its focus on meditation to learn more about mediation as a practice; and for those who chose to read it because of its orientation to mediation to start or continue a regular practice of sitting meditation, as an integral part of your work in dispute resolution. As the great Buddhist sage Dogen wrote, “Practice and enlightenment are not two.” Neither are mediation and meditation.