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Deep Work: Navigating Conflict Mindfully

This is a transcript of a conversation I had with Bob Stahl in January of 2021 on how mindfulness can help us deal with conflict.

Identity and Conditioning

Conflict is often rooted in our own stories, our own beliefs, our own identification. That’s why I think the mindfulness teachings offer some potentiality in beginning to investigate more clearly who it is that we are. We are getting a chance to see these stories, these reactions and these activations. They didn’t come out of nowhere. They came out of our conditioned, habitual past that keeps replaying itself. 

My 7 month old grandson doesn’t have one ounce of shame or humiliation or bias or prejudice or sexism or political-ism. He doesn’t have any of those things. He will have opinions eventually, like us all. He will learn those things. From the Dharmic point of view, what can be learned can be unlearned because it’s all related to our conditioning and our identification. 

 I’m very interested in identification. We carry our histories, our stories, our narratives, and they go on and on until we actually become aware of the stories we tell ourselves.  From there, I can begin to investigate, and maybe begin to understand, more about why I don’t like this person or why this person has hurt my feelings. 

 I’m activated because it reinforces something I believe about myself. It’s actually a fallacy, but I believe it to be true. I’m a piece of shit and I won’t matter to anything or anyone. I keep on reinforcing that in my own stories and it gets reinforced by those who are my enemies or whatever and so it just goes on.

How do we begin to investigate more closely these places where we are identifying with the woundedness, the fears and the pain? As I get older, I really have an aspiration to make peace with myself, with any one that I have hurt, with anyone who has hurt me. 

I can hold myself accountable but I can’t hold others accountable. It would be nice, but we all believe what we believe. Someone may take their side and keep their side until they die. So, we may not be able to change anyone else but what we can change is ourselves. Reconciliation and forgiving are an inside job. To me that’s where the deep work is. 

Reconciliation: Beginning With Ourselves

How do I reconcile the times I’ve been hard on myself? How do I reconcile the beliefs that I’m unworthy, inadequate, deficient or not good enough? These are stories that I have brought along with me. I might remember, ‘Yeah, my parents used to say to me you won’t be able to make a good livelihood or you’re not confident or you’re not loveable or you’re ugly or you can’t dance or you can’t sing.” We’re still developing our sense of identity and personality in those early experiences of life and we carry these stories with us. 

So the first step is really deeply working on ourselves. Where are the places I go with these narratives that I have deeply identified with that continue to feed the sense of unworthiness? That I’m not an ok person? That’s a deep part of the work. Reconciling to the times I’ve been hard on myself born out of my own identifications,  narratives, and conditioning. We’ve been conditioned. We didn’t come in this way. We didn’t come in feeling inadequate or that we can’t sing. 

‘Matter of fact, going back to my little grandson. He can be in front of a whole crowd of people and if he’s gotta poop, he’ll just poop in front of everybody. He’s just himself. He doesn’t care what other people think. We came in this way. So, what happened in our upbringing, our conditioning, that made us begin to feel small? This is why Myla and Jon Kabbat-Zinn wrote, Everyday Blessings, bringing mindfulness to parenting. They write the 3 most important parts of parenting are to accept your children, to have empathy for them and honour their sovereign nature. 

Kids come fully sovereign. They don’t care. Of course, they’ll learn to care. We get shamed, we’re made to feel small and we lose that sense of sovereignty as we grow. So this is part of our practice. Getting in touch with our own Buddha nature that has been obscured. Making peace by understanding our own conditioning. Understanding that because of my woundedness and my fears, I’ve hurt others. I’ve offended, I’ve made my children feel small. That’s the second area of reconciliation. How do I begin to reconcile to the ways I have hurt others? 

There’s a very beautiful teaching in the mindfulness Dharma. When you recognise that  you have hurt someone, if you can, say you’re sorry. What’s more important is that you learn from this and you don’t repeat it again, as best you can. The time that I hurt my son’s feelings and I realised I don’t want to do this again. This is my practice. It’s called becoming, ‘a guardian of the world’*. You become a protector. How do I begin to reconcile to the way that I have hurt others? By trying to acknowledge it and trying to not repeat it.

It’s Hard To Forgive

It’s hard to forgive those who have hurt me. When I’m having a hard time forgiving someone, maybe I can begin to understand that the hurt they caused is coming from their woundedness. They’re the subject of their own causes and conditions. It doesn’t excuse the actions but perhaps it begins to bring a bit more understanding. There’s a little bit more space.  

Maybe the person with whom you feel conflict doesn’t have the ability or the interest to look inwards. Maybe for some people it’s way too much. They don’t have the skills or may not be able to go there. When someone is spitting daggers, we can recognise that it’s coming from their pain. Then we can ask the question; how can I have boundaries but keep my heart open to someone who is in so much pain?

Secondly, just like I’ve been a difficult person to someone else because of my own fear, my own woundedness, my own unawareness, so too someone can be like that to me. So, it may not excuse it but I’m understanding this more. 

There was a period of time when I didn’t like my father. This relationship was very painful for me. I wanted to tell him everything that I thought about him. A certain moment happened where I felt, this is it. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for and I went into my room to kind of regroup, to meditate for a minute. Then, as I sat there, I realised what I was going to say to him was going to be so crushing that it would burn the bridge. He did not have the skills and the ability to understand, to take ownership of his own ways. No matter what might I say to him, he might not have the ability to hear it. 

As I sat with it more I realised, he’s just gonna be who he is. He’s the subject of his own conditioning. He doesn’t have a deep interest in looking at that conditioning and making changes toward it. There was a moment when I just really understood that, all the way down to my bone marrow. I realised that what I was going to say to him was going to sever our relationship. I didn’t want that so I came back into the room and I said, “Hi Dad”. 

In conversation, there is always this sub-textual language. So I may say, Hi, Dad and underneath that Hi, Dad is like, Fuck you, I hate your guts. Hi, Son. Yeah, I hate you too. This time it was like, Hi, Dad and he said, Hi Bob and underneath the sub-textual language was like, Gosh, I haven’t heard you talk like that in a long time, it’s great to have you back. 

It was this very powerful moment of my recognition that he was not going to change, at least now. He didn’t have the ability or the skills to do that through his own conditioning. That was the beginning of the relationship softening and healing. I was very lucky that that happened because sometimes it doesn’t happen. Maybe what’s left is just compassion and boundaries. For you to know inside yourself, I am ok no matter what. You can’t hurt me anymore because I know who I am. Taking rest in our own heart. 

What I have is compassion because it might not be able to be worked out though conversation. Maybe it can be worked out in other ways. There can be reconciliation without talking it out, without having to process it. I would have been happy to process it with my father but I don’t think he had the ability to do that. The only work I had to do was my work. He felt from me that I was softer and less aggressive, less angry with him. He could pick that up from the sub-textual language. He responded differently when I responded with more heartfulness. 

Resentment: Sitting With The Discomfort 

From a practice point of view, transparent honesty within ourselves is noblest. We may or may not be transparently honest with others because it may not be helpful. There is a wisdom of knowing when to speak and not to speak. The wisdom of that comes from my own inner reactivity. That is what we can work with. Family, co-workers are going to do what they do, but it’s how I react or respond that makes all the difference in the world. 

I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is resentment. It’s a really important learning. We’re human. We have resentment. It goes a long way to, at least, acknowledge these feelings. Rather than ignoring them, stuffing them or trying to make excuses about them. Yes, this is here. It’s worthy of an investigation and a study. 

As I’ve lived with my own resentments, I’ve realised it’s so painful to continue to harbour them, to feed them. I want to look deeper at what is actually being activated that I feel this resentment. It often has more to do with me than with the other person. Wanting them to love me or wanting them to approve of me, to accept me and here I am again, once again, leaving myself and looking outside of myself for some type of approval or acceptance. 

Even if the reason is, this person is really an asshole. I resent them for who they are and what they believe in. So long as I continue to circle around, this person is fucked and I don’t like them and so on…who’s suffering here? The resentment is so toxic for our own well-being. It’s something really powerful for us to sit with. Wow, carrying around this resentment is not serving me at all.

Resolution: When Understanding Is Not There

Sometimes, there isn’t a resolution, this idea that we all go off into the sunset and understand each other. More often it might be, how do I begin to reconcile that understanding is not there? Can I being to make peace with that? It depends on the relationship you have with that person. How important it is to make some peace with them? 

It would be nice if difficult people in our lives would come around. We may feel they are very stuck in their vision and their way. Maybe that person would say that of me. I’ve said I’m here if you want to talk. I feel I’ve done everything that I can do. I don’t have remorse about whether I should have done more. I hope they find the gateway into their heart. We can wish well for all beings but if there are some that we would have a meal with and some that we wouldn’t, it’s alright. 

Sometimes we aren’t quite there yet, and react in the old pattering. Instead of being hard on ourselves, we can say, at least I know. If we know it we are gaining knowledge. If we don’t know it we are going around and around and around. Before, you just reacted without knowing it. So, with practice, we might begin to pause for a moment before we react. Then we might be able to pause two moments before we react, then three. If we know there can be some change, the seeds are there. 

Can I take responsibility for my reaction? What can I notice inside me? When we are feeling helpless we can ask, what’s underneath? I can’t fix anything. I’m sad. I’m sacred. I come back into my heart. 

Its complex. People have their own history and conditioning and I’m intermeshed with that. With my practice, how do I navigate this as wisely as possible? Sometimes we learn the hard way. We go down the road, take a left and realise maybe we should have taken a right. But we wouldn’t have known that unless we’d taken the left. So, may we learn from our twists and turns and may they inform us to grow wiser. 

It’s very hard to accept. Very hard to forgive. Very hard to let go. We can try to reconcile forgiveness by taking ownership of what is activated inside of us, related to our own conditioning and maybe we can learn to let be – if you knew how to let go you would have done it years ago.

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Bob Stahl, PhD, has founded seven MBSR programs in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently directs three MBSR programs at Dominican Hospital, El Camino Hospital Mt. View and Los Gatos. Bob serves as a Senior Teacher for Oasis, the institute for mindfulness-based professional education and innovation at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 

He is a co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Living With Your Heart Wide Open, Calming the Rush of Panic, and A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook for Anxiety. Bob formerly lived in a Theravada Buddhist forest monastery for 8.5 years and is now the Guiding teacher at Insight Santa Cruz and visiting teacher at Spirit Rock. You can find more information on Bob here, https://www.mindfulnessprograms.com

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