We learn to deal with disagreements early in life using a combination of avoidance and assertiveness; internalizing this tension, we become unhappy and defensive. Rarely do we master the skills needed to confront the upset to work through to a peaceful solution; resolving conflicts takes time, attention, and know-how. Is it any wonder that we complain about, cheat on, feud with, divorce, abandon, or murder each other rather than face one another candidly? One California survey found the largest percentage of adult homicides resulted not from robberies, but from arguments.
Mediation is a process that helps disagreeing parties articulate their differences and work together toward a mutually satisfactory solution. It is taught in some schools and is offered in many communities as an alternative to violence or legal action. During one seminar on mediation, the instructor asked the participants to stand. Pointing to herself, she said, "I symbolize conflict, please go to a place in the room that closely resembles your usual position in relation to discord." Some went to the farthest reaches of the room and turned their backs; some stood practically eye to eye with her; the rest filled in the spaces, some standing defiantly, some half crouching. "If you are to help people in conflict," she explained, "you must be thoroughly conscious of your behavior, your fears and tendencies, or they will obscure your work. You need to put aside your own agenda and become totally attentive." When locked in disagreement, people lose the ability to perceive anything except that which supports their position; mediators can learn to embody a greater awareness, an impartial but sympathetic understanding large enough to include all points of view, respect all feelings, and accommodate all anxieties. Hostilities relax in the light of this larger vision.
These ideas are strikingly similar to those of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist priest who has dedicated his life to helping people all over the world — casualties of war and victims of life. Active in the peace movement, he too stresses the importance of neutrality in order to effect a reconciliation; peace means being one with, not taking sides with.
In a lecture, Peace Making: How to Be It, How To Do It (available as a 90-minute cassette from Sounds True Recordings, Boulder, CO, 1990), he explains the Buddhist concept of being as one of non-dualistic interdependence. When you look at a rose, he says, with a smile in his voice, what do you see? Do you see garbage? If you look deeply, you can see the sunshine, you can see the rain and the earth; the flower wouldn't exist without these. We could say it is made up of mostly non-flower parts. If we look at ourselves in the same way we can see that we must be nourished by sun, air, food, water, love, and ideas — all seemingly not-us parts. Since we depend on these things and can't live without them, they are part of us; we cannot see anything that is not a part of us.
If we look closer, we can see the garbage where the flower will go in a few days; we see that garbage too is made up of mostly not-garbage parts, and if we are good caretakers, flowers, in turn, will grow out of it. Everything is in cyclical flux and is interconnected. At times we may think of ourselves and those who share our ideals as roses, and those who disagree with us as being more like garbage, but "we both belong to the same reality . . . one cannot be without the other"; we must be skillful caretakers of both.
Anger may be looked at similarly; it too is made up mostly of non-anger parts — and sometimes one of those parts is us. At one time or another we have all felt self-righteously, indignantly, furiously angry and have forced the matter till we got our way. Inner peace never results from winning a fight, no matter how satisfying it may at first appear. Victory is made up of non-victory parts, one of which is defeat; and as we realize our connections to the whole, we can see that we participate in the losing whenever we participate in the winning.
Anger is a stifling dis-ease and benefits from penetrating, therapeutic attention. Nhat Hanh offers liberation through understanding. He tells us to fully accept our anger, then to sit quietly, noticing all the parts that make it up. He suggests we see it first as the fruit of the tree, then to try to discern its roots, its real causes. Perceiving its true essence and acknowledging all its components begins the transformation of anger.
The skills used in resolving inner or outer conflicts can be related to those described in the Buddhist paramitas: with a charitable heart one enters the field of battle — facing the supposed opponent or opposing idea, maintaining an inner harmony and sympathetic neutrality, patiently examining all sides of the situation, indifferent to personal victory, courageously exposing and confronting the issues so they can be seen for what they are, quietly meditating on the interdependence of each of the parts, and understanding that the presenting problem is not the root of the conflict.
Looking deeply along the guidelines of the paramitas is an effective inner-directed approach to understanding our interdependence and unlocking our compassion. Mediation is structured similarly, but is a less-private, more-extroverted method, one that helps disputing individuals talk their way to mutual understanding and recognition of the not-conflict parts of their conflict. A neutral third party, the mediator (from the Latin mediare, "to be in the middle" and, by extension of thought, "to heal"), intercedes between parties, opening up the way for them to heal their wounds, their hurts; seeking to unveil the seemingly invisible resolution through the application of consciousness to the conflict. The process is voluntary — each agrees or not as the spirit moves.
When quarreling individuals acknowledge their inability to resolve their disagreement, and if each is willing to meet face-to-face (quite a scary proposition for one or both of the parties), a meeting is arranged in neutral territory — often in the mediator's office. Disputants are usually nervous and the mediator must create an accepting environment, safe enough to allow each to eventually transform self-protectiveness into willing cooperation, a clenched fist to an open hand. The initial method is skillful, attentive, deferential listening.
One at a time, each describes the history of the situation with no corrections or interruptions from the other party. Each sincerely presents his story, believing it to be true and complete, not yet realizing that it is only part of the total picture, all of which must be discovered and respected. It is difficult to sit quietly while someone recounts what you perceive to be half-truths (if not total lies) and a tension builds which, if directed at the problem will be fruitful, if discharged at the other person will be counter-productive. Complete disclosure, acknowledging and respecting all issues, creates an outline of a whole that embraces both perspectives.
The mediator helps to make this outline visible by itemizing each point of disagreement: if they don't agree on the problem they will never agree on the solution. As the list grows, first with obvious concerns, then with more subtle feeling issues, the individuals begin to relax, assured that their interests will not be overlooked. Respecting the validity of both points of view, the mediator affirms the legitimacy of each emotional issue with no requests for "proof." Caring for both equally, non-judgmentally, the mediator creates a protective space where each can first acknowledge his own needs and then the needs of each other, in order to move towards true peacemaking. Rarely do people need advice on how to resolve their difficulties once they perceive the outer shape and inner dynamics of the problem, its roots, trunk, circulatory system — its non-problem parts.
But life doesn't always present us with the luxury of a neutral third party every time someone hotly disagrees with us, so by staying alert we can mediate our own reactions. Typically we feel as though we have to save face by out-thinking and out-talking our rival. We can ease our defensiveness by giving ourselves permission to acknowledge the validity of the other person's idea without having to agree with it. If we practice we can separate our emotional attachments from our abilities to listen and reason calmly. Getting out of our own way (and our own shadow), we begin to see shades and nuances that enlarge our perspective and free us to discover a multilateral solution that speaks to all the issues, rather than to compete for a unilateral answer — be it the most logical, the cheapest, etc.
Sometimes we believe that we fully enter into the spirit of cooperation when we offer to meet the other person halfway — many effective agreements result from just such a proposal. Good will is contagious; the willingness of one person to move even partway towards peace inspires the other individual likewise. Most people tiptoe towards agreement, and while we shouldn't look askance at any move towards peacemaking, we can appreciate and nurture a more wholehearted approach.
It is said that there was once a wise king whose son left to travel the world. When the king needed his son to return, he sent out a messenger. The son, struggling with his own concerns replied, "I can't." The king sent out a second messenger, "Then come as far as you can, Son, and I will come the rest of the way."
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Theosophical University Press)