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\title{5. On Conflict}
\author{Stephen Starkey}
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\begin{document}
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\twocolumn
In the cool grove they gathered. \\
The heat and pressure of irritation \\
Surrounded them, threatening to suffocate. \\
\hfill \break
The master sat in meditation, and, \\
Sensing their pain, asked, \\
What is this cloud of dissatisfaction \\
You bring into my midst? \\
\hfill \break
Finally one among them spoke, saying, \\
One of us is unwilling to go along with \\
A decision we have arrived at, and refuses \\
To provide a better answer. \\
\hfill \break
Scanning the crowd as they simmered \\
And stared at their feet, the master smiled. \\
She spoke: \\
\hfill \break
Gather round, friends, and be at peace. \\
Conflict is a tricky beast, appearing to \\
Have sharp teeth and a fierce roar. \\
\hfill \break
Its shows us what we cannot accept and \\
Reveals places we dare not go. \\
It taunts us to look over the edge of our \\
Discomfort and laughs when we are afraid. \\
\hfill \break
It knows full well that our fear creates the \\
Darkness that blocks our vision. \\
It knows that when we are no longer \\
Afraid, we can see through its illusion. \\
\hfill \break
Its sharp teeth fade and its roar dissolves, \\
Leaving the truth: It too is afraid. \\
For its death heralds the beginning \\
Of a new realization: that you were \\
Its creator, and in turn its destroyer. \\
\hfill \break
Therefore, friends, be not afraid of \\
Conflict, but realize it is your own \\
Fear of the dark unknown. Let the \\
Light of your open heart dissolve \\
It back whence it came: yourselves. \\
But, great master, how can we \\
Do this when we cannot know \\
The other side? queried that \\
One among them. \\
\hfill \break
Sensing the heat of their discomfort \\
Beginning to dissipate, she smiled \\
And responded: \\
\hfill \break
Relax into the open space of your \\
Self-existing confidence and be \\
Curious, asking, \\
What is your need? How can I help? \\
\hfill \break
And if the help that is needed is \\
Within your power, give it. \\
Then, with your offering, may \\
Conflict dissolve into mutual \\
Satisfaction. \\
\hfill \break
If you are unable to provide, \\
Seek out a mutually agreeable \\
Friend among you. Together, \\
Resting in the space of your \\
Self-existing confidence, \\
Be curious, and ask, \\
What is your need? How can we help? \\
\hfill \break
And if the help that is needed is \\
Within your power, give it. \\
Then, with your collective offering, may \\
Conflict dissolve into mutual \\
Satisfaction. \\
\hfill \break
If the two of you are unable to provide, \\
Seek out your closest comrades, and, \\
Resting in the space of your \\
Collectively self-existing confidence, \\
Be curious, asking, \\
What is your need? How can we help? \\
\hfill \break
And if the help that is needed is \\
Within your power, give it. \\
Then, with your collective offering, may \\
Conflict dissolve into mutual \\
Satisfaction. \\
\hfill \break
If all of you are unable to provide, \\
Seek me out, and I, resting in my \\
Self-existing confidence, will \\
Be curious, asking, \\
What is your need? How can I help? \\
\hfill \break
And if the help that is needed is \\
Within my power, I will give it. \\
Then, with my offering, may \\
Conflict dissolve into mutual \\
Satisfaction. \\
\hfill \break
If I am unable to provide, then, \\
With nothing but love in our hearts, \\
We shall accept that we are \\
Incapable of continuing to abide \\
Together, for the heat and pain of \\
Conflict will threaten to tear us apart. \\
\hfill \break
In order to accomplish our mutual \\
Purpose, we must make the ultimate sacrifice, \\
Growing from the wisdom gained by \\
Arriving at the other side with slow, patient care. \\
\hfill \break
With a great sigh of relief and a tinge of \\
Sadness, they sang together, \\
Thank you for your wisdom. \\
\hfill \break
And the master smiled, saying, \\
Your courage and sadness do you \\
Great credit. With this great open \\
Curiosity, you will accomplish \\
Great things. \\
\hfill \break
And together everyone \\
Joined in meditation, \\
Resting in cool comfort.
\onecolumn
\section{Commentary}
\begin{quote}
In the cool grove they gathered. \\
The heat and pressure of irritation \\
Surrounded them, threatening to suffocate.
\end{quote}
Conflict gone badly can feel suffocating, can’t it? Sometimes we just want the person’s emotions to go away, as if they don’t have a right to feel them. Of course, when it’s us having the feelings, that’s just fine. But since we don’t have the skill to hold our seat in the midst of another person’s suffering, we often react with our own emotional response, trying to “fix” their feelings instead of figuring out what they’re trying to communicate.
\begin{quote}
The master sat in meditation, and, \\
Sensing their pain, asked, \\
What is this cloud of dissatisfaction \\
You bring into my midst?
\end{quote}
In a way, though, we wear our feelings on our sleeves. We may not even know it, but it is extremely difficult to hold in our emotions -- our facial expressions take on a frozen look; our breathing is constrained; we have trouble expressing ourselves normally. Others can tell when we’re having strong emotions, even though we’re doing our best to hold it in.
\begin{quote}
Finally one among them spoke, saying, \\
One of us is unwilling to go along with \\
A decision we have arrived at, and refuses \\
To provide a better answer.
\end{quote}
This is an example of stonewalling, which is a typical response to a threatening situation when one is “flooded.” In a sense, when we are completely entrenched in our own point of view and feeling attacked, we have no ability to see our way out. Without the presence of mind to find a gap in the wall of feelings, we lock up, effectively frozen. If those around us don’t have the wisdom to simply let the emotions work themselves out, they may make things worse by trying to force us to engage when we’re incapable. We forget that the animal brain and the human brain don’t work well together. And so, we get locked in unhealthy conflict.
The unspoken part of this situation is that the group is embroiled in conflict and they have decided to go to their master to “fix it.” Implicit in this approach is the fact that they aren’t able to work things out themselves. This is a common human reaction, and it shows up over and over again in individuals who don’t have the skills to recognize they are expressing toxic behavior.
\newpage
\begin{quote}
Scanning the crowd as they simmered \\
And stared at their feet, the master smiled. \\
She spoke: \\
\hfill \break
Gather round, friends, and be at peace. \\
Conflict is a tricky beast, appearing to \\
Have sharp teeth and a fierce roar. \\
\end{quote}
The master in this case is modeling an appropriate response to emotions: patience. She begins to express what it is like to be in a “coach” role instead of a “rescuer” role. Instead of getting drawn into the conflict, she prepares to teach the group how to work with it themselves.
Her initial foray is a simple, but profound expression: that conflict, at least the way we see it, is mostly an illusion. It is, in fact, a beast, an expression of the animal brain that often takes over when we are unwilling or unable to talk about complicated issues. Due to our lack of capability, we use what we know: fight, flight, or freeze.
\begin{quote}
Its shows us what we cannot accept and \\
Reveals places we dare not go. \\
It taunts us to look over the edge of our \\
Discomfort and laughs when we are afraid.
\end{quote}
This imagery expresses what can happen when we find ourselves in intractable conflict. There is a sense of not knowing how things will turn out, which often translates into fear. When the fear takes over, it’s almost as if we’re being dared to deal with it, which, when we do poorly, we feel taunted even further. This causes everything to get even worse. The cycle of unskillful action and beating up on ourselves for acting unskillfully makes our emotional state much worse than is necessary for the situation.
\newpage
\begin{quote}
It knows full well that our fear creates the \\
Darkness that blocks our vision. \\
It knows that when we are no longer \\
Afraid, we can see through its illusion. \\
\hfill \break
Its sharp teeth fade and its roar dissolves, \\
Leaving the truth: It too is afraid. \\
For its death heralds the beginning \\
Of a new realization: that you were \\
Its creator, and in turn its destroyer. \\
\hfill \break
Therefore, friends, be not afraid of \\
Conflict, but realize it is your own \\
Fear of the dark unknown. Let the \\
Light of your open heart dissolve \\
It back whence it came: yourselves.
\end{quote}
This is what happens when we’re afraid: our limbic system kicks in and we lose access to our creative thinking faculties. All of the potential in the situation is locked out, and we are just trying to fight our way out of it. This “darkness” is in fact the nervous system’s defense mechanism, trying to protect us from harm. However, when we actually work with our emotions effectively, reducing our amygdala activation, we can see past the blockade and start using more of our brain to process the problem.
Then, this imaginary conflict starts to dissolve. It was, in fact, only in our minds. It’s important to realize, though, that even though we were the creator of this conflict, we weren’t necessarily conscious of it. When strong emotions arise, they are usually spawned by habitual patterns that were set very early on in our mental formation. They are simply waiting to be activated, ready to strike when a situation we can’t handle arises. So, just as the creation of conflict is unconscious, its destruction can be made to be unconscious as well with practice. This “open heart” comes about when we shift from feeling attacked to feeling curious.
\begin{quote}
But, great master, how can we \\
Do this when we cannot know \\
The other side? queried that \\
One among them.
\end{quote}
Here we see that the master has truly gotten to the root of the problem, as the student is curious about how one can actually work through conflict without knowing how things will end up. This is, in a sense, the kind of vulnerability that’s needed to learn anything new -- the acknowledgment that perhaps we aren’t so good at working with conflict as we thought we were. Once we can do that, we can be ready to hear what the master has to say.
\newpage
\begin{quote}
Sensing the heat of their discomfort \\
Beginning to dissipate, she smiled \\
And responded: \\
\hfill \break
Relax into the open space of your \\
Self-existing confidence and be \\
Curious, asking, \\
What is your need? How can I help? \\
\hfill \break
And if the help that is needed is \\
Within your power, give it. \\
Then, with your offering, may \\
Conflict dissolve into mutual \\
Satisfaction.
\end{quote}
There is a lot going on here -- why did the heat of their discomfort already start to dissipate? The reason: shifting focus away from the conflict to learning something new has already started to reduce limbic reaction. Having a curious mindset naturally reduces our emotional engagement. This moves our brains from an “away” state to a “toward” state.
We are conditioned to think that confidence is something you build. In ancient wisdom traditions, the opposite is believed to be true. We start out with a desire to engage with the world around us, and when things react to our curiosity in ways that seem threatening, we encode a new memory: “don’t do that.” In this way, we plant the seeds of fear and doubt naturally by interacting with the world.
In a sense, we can practice removing these seeds. Just as we practice a sport or our trade, we can practice resting in confidence. In Buddhist traditions, this is the practice of meditation. In the safe space of our own meditation cushion or chair, as we practice bringing ourselves back, we lay down new seeds of spaciousness. These cause those habitual reactions to be overridden, giving us an access path to the confidence we started with. Suzuki Roshi calls this “beginner’s mind.” Chögyam Trungpa calls it “basic goodness.” Whatever you call it, this is the space we are trying to operate from when we are in conflict.
The final transmission in this section, asking what is needed, is the most potent part of this process. The difference between emotional and rational conflict is subtle, but powerful. Notice who is being asked what is needed: it’s not the other person. It’s the conflict itself. What does the conflict need in order to dissolve? Much of this happens in your own mind, but can also be a collaboration with the other person or people involved in the conflict.
Instead of walking into a conversation making accusations about someone’s poor performance, we could instead share what we expected to happen and be curious about how reality suddenly didn’t meet our expectations. We could call out the fact that we are in conflict and work together to figure out how to get out of it. This might be a shift on our part, or someone else’s. It could be a combination of changes. Whatever it is, we aren’t saying, “I need your behavior to shift from X to Y. Will you do that?” Instead, we are dancing with the circumstances as we see them, without presuming that our approach will be the right one.
The last stanza is critical -- you must be willing to give what is needed. If you enter into a conflict resolution conversation with someone unwilling to admit that you may have to let go of an erroneous belief, it is highly unlikely resolution will occur. This is a powerful letting-go of clinging to being right, and is the key to allowing conflict to dissolve quickly and thoroughly.
When that happens, we are able to come to a mutually satisfactory outcome. This isn’t just something we’re willing to “put up with.” It’s much more than that -- it’s the result of everyone having let go of their preconceptions and being willing to accept the greater truth. This is what creates truly mutual satisfaction.
\begin{quote}
If the two of you are unable to provide, \\
Seek out your closest comrades, and, \\
Resting in the space of your \\
Collectively self-existing confidence, \\
Be curious, asking, \\
What is your need? How can we help? \\
\hfill \break
And if the help that is needed is \\
Within your power, give it. \\
Then, with your collective offering, may \\
Conflict dissolve into mutual \\
Satisfaction.
\end{quote}
This next section is what in traditional organizations would be called “escalation.” However, instead of escalating to someone with greater power and authority, we are including more people we trust. The same stance as before is important for everyone involved -- we are open and curious, asking the conflict what its need is. We are all willing to give what we need to give in order for the conflict to dissolve, with everyone involved fully satisfied with the outcome.
\begin{quote}
If all of you are unable to provide, \\
Seek me out, and I, resting in my \\
Self-existing confidence, will \\
Be curious, asking, \\
What is your need? How can I help? \\
\hfill \break
And if the help that is needed is \\
Within my power, I will give it. \\
Then, with my offering, may \\
Conflict dissolve into mutual \\
Satisfaction.
\end{quote}
This last section is an appeal to moral authority. If it isn’t clear before, it should be now: the master is someone who has been here before, who has the clarity of vision and mind to see what caused the conflict in the first place and the ability to clear any obstacles to the resolution of the conflict. This is a person who is most likely to be able to help. Since this is the last phase of conflict resolution, the choice of this person is critical.
It’s important to note here that the master doesn’t actually make any decisions for the people involved in the conflict -- they are simply offering whatever help they can offer. If what the conflict needs is for someone to know something, and the master knows that something, they can simply offer that knowledge. If what is needed is for someone elsewhere in the organization to be involved, they can offer to make an introduction. However, forcing a participant in the conflict to do something different is not likely to solve the conflict -- it would probably only cause it to last even longer, simmering under the surface.
Therefore the master in this case is never ordering someone in the conflict to behave differently -- that wouldn’t resolve anything. They are, however, offering whatever help they can so that the people in the conflict can get the clarity they need to release their hold on “winning.” A true master can see the conflict for what it is: an illusion, and know that what is needed is for the illusion to be removed so everyone can move forward with clarity.
\begin{quote}
If I am unable to provide, then, \\
With nothing but love in our hearts, \\
We shall accept that we are \\
Incapable of continuing to abide \\
Together, for the heat and pain of \\
Conflict will threaten to tear us apart. \\
\hfill \break
In order to accomplish our mutual \\
Purpose, we must make the ultimate sacrifice, \\
Growing from the wisdom gained by \\
Arriving at the other side with slow, patient care.
\end{quote}
At this point, the source of the conflict may be beyond anyone’s power to resolve. If the master can’t help, then nobody can, because they are the most likely source of help. We can consider the “master” as the ultimate power-holder, if that happens to be a person, or a more abstract notion such as a structure or permeating concept. For example, the master could be the purpose of an organization, and the conflict is telling someone that they can’t abide with that purpose. In this case, the purpose can’t change, which means it is unable to provide relief.
Whatever decision that is made as a result of seeking out the “master” is not a light one, and should never be made quickly. Everyone involved should be spacious, accommodating, and above all include the notion that everyone involved are independent human beings. The ultimate sacrifice expresses something much larger than someone’s job -- it’s a collective one. We aren’t just saying, for example, that a person who can’t abide should leave -- we’re saying we will help them find a place they are better suited to.
The true sacrifice in this case is what we started to become aware of when this whole process started, but we couldn’t fully see until we got to this final stage. It could be a change in hiring process. It could be a long revisiting of organizational vision or structure. It will definitely be a loss of one or more people’s contributions for as long as it takes to find others that fit better, not to mention all the time it takes to bring them up to speed in the organization’s culture, processes, and goals. This sacrifice can be much larger than initially expected.
Whatever the sacrifice is, we must recognize that we have always done the best we could, treating ourselves and each other with the kindness we all deserve. It may not have been what anybody expected, or feel like there was even a winner or loser, but in the end, the goal is to allow ourselves to abide together.
\newpage
\begin{quote}
With a great sigh of relief and a tinge of \\
Sadness, the team sang together, \\
Thank you for your wisdom. \\
\hfill \break
And the master smiled, saying, \\
Your courage and sadness do you \\
Great credit. With this great open \\
Curiosity, you will accomplish \\
Great things.
\end{quote}
These last stanzas express what happens when clarity is reached. When the source of conflict, which in this case was simply a lack of knowledge about how to work with it, is removed, then what is left is relief and sadness. Relief that the illusion everyone was under has dissolved, and sadness that human existence requires us to work continually with this kind of suffering.
The reason the master is so pleased that they are both courageous and sad is because both of those feelings come from letting go of preconceptions, of the delusion that they are actually in control. Then, ironically, they are free to act as they believe the situation needs them to act. This great open curiosity allows for real accomplishment.
\begin{quote}
And together everyone \\
Joined in meditation, \\
Resting in cool comfort.
\end{quote}
Once the heat of conflict has dissipated, everyone is comfortable and able to rest. This is the complete practice of conflict resolution: reducing the amount of heat we feel in our day-to-day interactions. First we work with our own minds to allow emotion to hand the reins over to rational thought, then we enter into a curious space, then we ask what the conflict needs, then we collectively attempt to offer what it needs. In each phase we are working to remove the source of the conflict: delusion. We aren’t trying to “win.” Only then can we rest in “cool comfort.”
\end{document}