The Dharma of Conflict

I am currently working with what feels like a sea of disharmony in regards to my inter-personal relationships, and also in some larger contexts as well. And through this challenging time I am learning a lot about myself. I’m also learning a lot about conflict and how there are different types of conflict and different ways to approach it, work with it, and transform it depending on the situation and the person with who I am experiencing disharmony with.

As I’ve been intentionally working on dismantling what I call my mode of “over-caretaking” for the past 2-years, I feel as though the turbulent waters I am swimming in are very much related to this work as sort of a next-leg-of-the-journey sort of deal – a leveling up into advanced practice, if you will. In short, my brand of “over-caretaking” involves trying to meet people where they’re at to the detriment of my own truth, needs, and/or well-being. It involves me trying to go above and beyond what makes reasonable and good sense in order to alleviate or manage other people’s feelings of upset or discomfort. While I am very much interested in remaining sensitive and tuned in to people’s needs in order to be of skillful support, I am working on finding a balance to ensure that I am able to do so without compromising my own needs. It’s been a fruitful practice – and I am very much still in the learning process.

I’m coming to understand how very many different ways conflict can show up and manifest – which also means there are many different ways in which to work with it. There is no one right or particular way to be in relationship with conflict. Some conflicts will never be fully resolved or come to a place of complete closure. Some conflicts are terribly difficult to untangle because the other person involved is unable or unwilling to participate in engaging in open dialog. Some conflicts will fade over time while others can linger for years. Some conflicts point to a need for direct and honest communication and others point to a need to distance one self from certain individuals in an act of self-care. Some conflicts require silence and personal reflection before speaking and others require using our voice in the moment. Some conflicts can be tended to and resolved all on our own and others need to be worked through directly with the other person we’re in disharmony with.

What I’m learning is that the type of relationship I have with someone is largely what determines how much time, energy, and attention I want to invest in resolving the conflict and restoring connection. There is, after all, only so much time in the day. With people who I am not in a close friendship with, it’s relatively easy to sidestep matters of conflict if and when they arise. But with those I am in a close relationship with, I am committed to doing whatever I can to help restore harmony when conflict arises.

I’m in investigation mode here for sure; curiosity mode; learning mode. And I don’t mind telling you it’s uncomfortable as all get out. It’s awkward and stressful and unpleasant. Fortunately, I’ve been a practitioner long enough to know that these feelings are all really good signs that I am entering into new terrain, which is crucial for development and growth in my aspiration to be a skillful human in the world. I am a firm believer that if I’m not routinely uncomfortable in my own practice, I’m not learning and growing – if I’m not applying mindfulness during times that are difficult or unpleasant, my practice is woefully incomplete.

Here are some things I’m learning about myself through all of this:

1. Not everyone has to like me. Furthermore: not everyone WILL like me. And that’s okay.

2. Intention and impact are both equally important AND just because someone was impacted negatively by something I’ve done or said doesn’t necessarily mean I need to repent or change my ways. If I’ve truly worked to do my best and harm still results from my actions, it doesn’t automatically mean I have to take personal responsibility for how the other person feels (which is what my over-caretaker loves to do). So I’m learning to understand when to let other people take responsibility for their own thoughts and emotions.

3. I am not, and do not have to be, socially and personally compatible with people simply because we share a spiritual practice together. I used to think that everyone who showed up to my home sangha, Be Here Now, was someone I could – and should! – forge a close friendship with. Now I realize that sort of thinking is naive and ill-informed. I’m learning to be more selective and discerning with who I develop closer friendships with – not in a snobby/self-righteous sort of way but in a way that recognizes the importance of compatibility factors, which is something necessary and important for the health and stability of any kind of relationship.

4. The presence of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve done something bad or wrong or ill-advised. Conflict is part of being in relationship with people, it isn’t separate. Conflict can help build and strengthen our relationships or it can lead to a relationship’s undoing, depending on the action taken to address it. The presence of conflict means that there is something in need of tending to and caring for, whether it’s something within myself or something involving someone else. Usually, it’s both.

5. There’s a difference between niceness and kindness. My over-caretaker is interested in being nice, which tends to come at the expense of my own feelings. I’m starting to see niceness as more of a fake platitude – niceness is a habit defense whipped out when I want to avoid conflict or when I don’t want to rock the boat or I want to put on a show for someone in an effort to not step into the awkwardness of being real. Kindness is different. Kindness involves intentional and loving care, with compassion and understanding, for both myself and others. Kindness involves respecting myself and others enough to rumble with vulnerability, as Brene Brown would put it. Kindness doesn’t put on airs or come from a place of obligation or quid pro quo; it doesn’t judge or compare or suppress or run and hide. Kindness takes into account the full depth of what it means to be human and involves truly wanting to show up in the very best way we can for the betterment of all beings (which includes our own self). Through this process of ascertaining a difference between niceness and kindness, I am learning when and how to use my voice in times of turmoil, as I ere heavily on the side of quietude and then later regret that I didn’t speak up.

Yes it’s painful right now – this growing & learning process. Yes there are times when I want to cut and run. Yes all of this disharmony is stressful and sometimes wakes me up in the middle of the night. And yes, it’s also part of my path and part of my practice. It’s part of life, not separate.







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