The Gift of Conflict

“No man is an island” said John Donne in 1624, and while he may be guilty of sexism, he appears ahead of his time in other ways as he expresses a basic ecological and spiritual principle, going on to say, “…every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all of mankind.”

The great naturalist John Muir expressed a similar sentiment in this 1906 writing, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Indeed there is a seamless web to which we are all inextricably intertwined; a cosmic, universal web in which the pure essence of life flows through all creation. The electronic connections of the World Wide Web are just beginning to externalize in material form what has always existed in energetic form.

And yet, if we are all connected in this manner, this means that whether we like it or not, we are inevitably in relationship with all things and all peoples. What is the nature of this relationship? As discussed in Buddhist psychology, all relationships in the mind and in the world ultimately take on one of three forms: we’re either neutral; we like; or we dislike the other that we’re in relationship with.

It seems self-evident that we would want to collect as many in the “like” column as possible: we naturally move towards those people, experiences and places which resonate harmoniously within us. But this betrays an important truth: some of our best teachers and most profound lessons come from those experiences and people we dislike, from those who “push our buttons”, from those we cannot stand to be around. And why is that? It’s because these experiences and people force us to see life from a different perspective, to get out of our self-created, self-limiting cocoons and filters of reality and consider alternative possibilities. They force us to grow, to learn, and to expand our beliefs about ourselves and the nature of life. Conflict energizes any system and when approached with a positive, constructive attitude, leads to creative solutions and ideas. For conflict prods and encourages us to stretch further, dig deeper and learn to be better people. It’s easy to be compassionate and loving with those that treat us well, but the real growth comes when we can treat everyone we interact with in a loving manner, and in so doing honor that universal essence which flows through us all.

Well, you might say, that sounds good in theory, but how do I deal with my resistance to such people and experiences? Here are some helpful tips:

-seek out those that have a different belief system or world view than you do. Really try to understand how and why they think and believe the way they do. None other than Sigmund Freud once claimed that it was “intellectual suicide” to only talk to people who believe what you do (though he was also famous for surrounding himself with “true believers” and not speaking with others who dared to opposed his ideas!)

-if someone you meet elicits a very strong negative feeling in you, examine that feeling in detail. What is it about their ideas or personality that grates you so much? Do you, as Shakespeare said, “…doth protest too much?” That is, is there something in YOU that is similar to this person that makes you want to run the other way? In his wonderful book “A Path With Heart”, Jack Kornfield relates the tale of his returning to New York City after living in an ashram for years and leading the life of a renunciate. He felt completely at peace and that he had mastered the art of feeling serene in any situation. However, while waiting for a family member in the waiting room of a salon, several women looked critically at him and the way he was dressed, and suddenly he was flooded with enormous anger welling up inside of him. He realized that his spiritual training had not touched an entire other dimension of life, the interpersonal, and this experience led to his entering psychotherapy to understand why he reacted so strongly.

-learn to see each person you meet as your teacher. What does the person next to you right now have to teach? Your spouse? Your boss? Your neighbor? Everyone truly does have something to teach you about life if you are open to it. Remember Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, who, upon meeting up with the beautiful Kamala, remarked, “Such women will always have much to teach.” Yes, and so will people you perceive of as materialistic, selfish and greedy business owners; unpleasant and unhelpful service workers; and loud and arrogant personalities, to name just a few.

-look into your past and ask this question: who does this person remind me of? Have I been holding onto a grudge, a hurt or a resentment for many years that this person has come into my life now to remind me of? If so, explore ways of resolving your own issue that’s getting projected onto this person. This person may be a signpost of something in you that may need attention.

So don’t be afraid of conflict. Rather than avoid it, embrace and invite conflict into your life! Conflict is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to stretch and become a healthier, more creative and evolved person. Let each conflict help to transform you into the healthiest, most loving person you can become.

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