The Magic of Conflict

Written by: Sharon Doetsch-Kidder ~~

A student asked, “Why do I need to practice? I have a good life. I have a good job, a happy marriage, a wonderful wife and kids, a great car and nice house. I’m happy!” The teacher responded, “If you lose your job, your car gets totaled, your wife leaves you, your kids hate you, and you’re still happy, you don’t need to practice.”

A popular image we have of meditation is that it’s very relaxing and serene. I’m going to sit here and be calm. I come to this beautiful space, and I’m here with these lovely people, and we’re going to be nice to ourselves and each other and meditate. And maybe that lasts for a while. Maybe a few minutes. When we sit or when we practice at Shambhala, things come up.

Sometimes things that come up are relatively easy to deal with. Some things are more difficult. Sometimes we fall apart.

One of the things that I learned about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche that stuck with me, that sounded so interesting, is the idea of crazy wisdom – that he would deliberately try to push people’s buttons, so that people could investigate their own responses. Because if we’re comfortable, we don’t see our edges. We don’t see why we need to practice and that we still have work to do with our minds.

So we come to Shambhala, really, to get our buttons pushed. And we have lots of different exercises and practices that can push people’s buttons. And just working with others here – so many different personalities, so many different understandings of what we are doing and how to do things.

For me, so far, most of these practices have not pushed my buttons much. Many things raise questions, things I am unsure about, but they don’t push me to the edge. I can have a sense of humor about most situations. I can hang out and investigate and feel okay. Fortunately, for me, I have children. And my son, who is almost 9, can drive me nuts.

When we feel that discomfort, when we feel our edge, our buttons pushed, the instruction is to sit, to stay, to investigate. To find compassion through curiosity if we don’t find it another way. For many of us, the habitual response is to run away, to seek comfort. We can always leave Shambhala if we don’t like it, if it’s too much. And people do. And I could leave my family – people do that, too, sometimes physically leaving, sometimes checking out by using alcohol, drugs, violence, television, media, activities – being busy.

Sometimes when my son pushes my buttons, I can stay. I see how uncomfortable I am with his emotional displays. One minute, he acts like a teenager, too cool for everything, full of attitude. The next minute, he’s all over me, wanting to snuggle and be held like a baby. Then again, he will blow up, hitting, kicking, and yelling because I asked him to take a bath.

When I pause and investigate with compassion – try to see things from his point of view, I can see he is having a hard time. If I ask him, he doesn’t know why he does the things he does. These days, he will admit he often knows he is overreacting when he blows up, but he doesn’t know how to stop.

When I respond with a sense of humor, the situation transforms itself. My son goes from anger to laughing and playfulness – and usually cooperation, or at least better communication.

When we have these kinds of experiences, we can begin to take responsibility for our role in conflict. We always have the option of responding to aggression or other emotional displays with curiosity and compassion. When we don’t, we can pause and investigate. Why are my buttons pushed? What is keeping me from understanding the other person? We can shift our internal dialogue from “What is wrong with them?” to “What is going on with me?”

That doesn’t mean we accept abuse or aggression. We don’t need to be passive. It is not compassionate to allow people to abuse others – they are harming themselves and our human society. But when we feel that others need punishment or shame or we just want to show them what a mistake they made or we think they need to leave the community or when we celebrate their downfall – that is our aggression.  We can find other ways. We can say, “No!” We can hold them with compassion and firmness, protecting them and those they threaten.

When my son is having a tantrum, my first reaction is usually anger. I just want him to stop yelling, stop hitting, stop destroying things – I want him to comply with my wishes. I may want to hit him or grab him and shake him. I often raise my voice. These things will not help him or build the relationship I want to have with him. How can I expect him to stop yelling if I yell at him? He follows our example.

When I pause, I can be more creative. I can hold him until he calms down, breathing deeply to help his body slow down. I can show empathy or use humor. If I don’t know what else to do, I can just wait. Tantrums don’t last forever if I don’t contribute to the conflict.

That is what our practice enables us to see. How our aggression is like any other aggression we see, even when it takes different forms. That it doesn’t matter who started it. If you are involved in a conflict, you are responsible. When we accept this, when we pause, we can have compassion for ourselves and others. We can be creative in our responses. We can transform conflicts. This is creating enlightened society.