Everything Is Workable
A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution
Diane Musho Hamilton
Conflict is going to be a part of your life—as long as you have relationships, a job, or dry cleaning to be picked up.
Bracing yourself against it won’t make it go away, but if you approach it consciously, you can navigate it in way that not only honors everyone involved but makes it a source of deep insight as well.
Seasoned mediator Diane Hamilton provides the skill set you need to engage conflict with wisdom and compassion, and even—sometimes—to be grateful for it. She teaches us how to:
- Cultivate the mirror-like quality of attention as your base
- Identify three personal conflict styles and determine which ones you fall into
- Recognize the three fundamental perspectives in any conflict situation and learn to inhabit each of them
- Turn conflicts in families, at work, and in every kind of interpersonal situation into win-win situations
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Everything Is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution
Most of us don’t like conflict. Usually, the conflicts we experience in our lives seem unfortunate and unnecessary, a disturbance to our peace and a waste of our precious time and energy. There are times when they become painfully destructive. If you have ever been estranged from a lover or friend, lost a business partner over a financial disagreement, or been driven from your home by political turmoil, you know how wrenching these upheavals are.
The simple, self-evident truth is that, however difficult, conflict is intrinsic to our human experience—in other words, it isn’t going away. It is part of the rich, gritty, and indispensable stuff of our lives. Every great novel, film, or memorable story revolves around conflict. Shakespeare’s great tragedies could not have been written without the intrigue and treachery, nor would they instruct us in the deep truths of human life.
The Buddha is known for his insight, serenity, and nonattachment, but his own life journey, like that of Jesus, was highly engaged with others and the challenges of conflict. After his awakening, the Buddha became a great spiritual teacher and also a leader to a community of practitioners. He advised the political leaders of his time, mediating and negotiating treaties on their behalf. In other words, the Buddha engaged fully in the world with others, acting politically and dealing with the challenges that arose in his own community.
A little-known part of his story is that at the end of his life, a war broke out between his clan and the neighboring one across the river over water rights, and his entire village was destroyed. I wonder what that was like for someone with such great realization. He had taught his followers to deeply accept the conditions of life, not to resist or cling to ideas of how they wished the world would be. He practiced accepting reality on its terms and working with it directly, manifesting wisdom and compassion in ever-changing circumstances. But he must have also been very sad.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is another example of someone who exemplifies the equanimity of spiritual practice while working with intractable, long-term conflict. As a spiritual leader, he also maintains the difficult political task of leading Tibetans in exile and working to influence China and the rest of the world on their behalf. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are other role models of deep spiritual discipline and political skill, as are Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
While our own challenges may seem insignificant by comparison, they aren’t. When we have a conflict with those around us, we are given an opportunity to practice transforming that conflict into patience, mutual understanding, and creativity. When we use the opportunity, we contribute to the shared endeavor of learning how to live peacefully with each other. This is one of the greatest challenges of the global human community, and each one of our individual efforts makes a difference in our collective evolution.
From Crisis to Possibility
To learn to transform conflict, we must let go of the notion that something or someone is wrong or bad. This belief creates fundamental resistance, and it is the first obstacle to working with conflict. We can shift our point of view to see that conflicts, like dreams, may possess an elegant intelligence that expresses truths we may not want to see clearly. For example, an old pattern needs to be abandoned or a relationship needs to grow or change. We can, with practice, learn to see this intelligence at work and respond creatively and constructively. The conflict isn’t the problem; our response to it is.
When a conflict erupts in our lives, it has the potential to invigorate us, to disrupt our habitual patterns, and to compel us to learn something new. Conflicts interrupt life as usual, and we are catapulted into the unknown, into a space of open possibility filled with electric tension.
When I was in college, I fell in love. For six months it was bliss, and we were completely dedicated to pleasing each other. All of a sudden the bliss became irritation. The very intimacy we enjoyed turned against us. Irritability set in, then claustrophobia. In a naive attempt to catch our breath, we broke up.
When I look back, I see how much wisdom there was in our conflict. The conflict expressed the truth of our over-communion, and it summoned us to regain a balance that included others. We needed to grow out of our loving cocoon, but at that point, we didn’t know how. We simply moved apart.
The opportunity for change can be personal and collective. If you think back to 2001 after the attacks on the World Trade Center and before the invasion of Afghanistan, there was a period of time when the world was experiencing the trauma and sadness directly, without retaliation or counterattack from the United States.
In that open space, it seemed like something new might be possible. People were experiencing an awful truth—the way humans attack and kill others over differences in power and worldview. We were outraged, heartbroken, and stunned, but we were also asking questions: What motivated the attackers? How did U.S. foreign policy contribute? What was the best way for the nation to respond?
During that time, many of us were propelled into emotional disequilibrium as we shifted perspectives, looking for insight. We identified with a nation and city that had just been attacked, imagining the last moments of the victims who died and their phone calls to their families. We tried to glimpse what motivated the attackers who flew the planes into the buildings and the mind of the terrorist organizations that trained them. We considered the options of political leaders and military strategists, and we empathized with the innocent bystanders of the world—nations and individuals alike—who longed for either revenge or peaceful resolution.
This questioning opened the possibility of responding differently. Whether we, as people and a culture, responded from necessity, clarity, or habitual pattern is debatable, but there was an opening nonetheless. Similar opportunities arise in our personal lives, and the conflicts that generate those possibilities can serve as drivers to our development. We learn how to listen, consider other ways of seeing, reexamine our own assumptions and deeply held beliefs, and expand our worldviews.
I have a close friend—a spiritual companion, you might say—whom I have known for more than twenty years. We both have sons with Down syndrome. We’ve been through a lot together, navigating the grief, prejudice, and isolation of having a child with a disability. We’ve supported each other through thick and thin, the easy and difficult times.
As our sons approached adulthood, I began to notice a shortness between us and an edge of irritability in our conversations. It became more and more uncomfortable until there came a point when we just had to talk about it. I didn’t particularly want to; approaching these kinds of conversations isn’t fun. But we finally had our spontaneous come-to-Jesus meeting.
After navigating a flurry of hurt feelings and considerable tension, we realized that the tension between us was a result of our sons reaching adulthood and that our paths had to grow in different directions. We were both sad and fearful of facing the future without each other. But our conversation helped us bring awareness, understanding, and compassion to the changes, while we discovered other ways to support each other.
Learning how to negotiate conflict demands that we become more present, more fearless. Consequently, we may need to relinquish the hopeful image of ourselves as remaining serene under all circumstances, like sitting buddhas carved from wood or stone. We have to expect our composure to be compromised as we learn about the possibilities and creative solutions of working directly with the conflict in our relationships. Even, and maybe especially, when things don’t turn out as we want, our engagement with discord refines and teaches us, sometimes altering our life’s very course.
Whether the results are invigorating or devitalizing depends on how consciously we work with ourselves and our circumstances. Simply retreating, smoothing things over, or trying to win out won’t take us to anyplace new. Developing our skills creates a sense of freedom; a confidence in ourselves; and an ability to be real, intimate, and ultimately loving with others.
Remember, if we had no disagreements with the world, we would have little reason to grow and less opportunity to become more compassionate, wakeful human beings. Like the Buddha or the Dalai Lama, we can develop the skills to work with conflicts and reliable methods as a human community to transform them. Our ability to transform our conflicts on a personal level will eventually lead to a shared ability to create a more peaceful and harmonious world. It is our challenge, our privilege, and our destiny in an evolving world.