By Carol Russell
A Dharma talk given September 27, 2021
Yesterday morning I was on a hike and I ran into an old acquaintance, a local artist, someone I hadn’t seen in years. I was excited to see him, hear how his life has been, and connect. An interesting, although in retrospect maybe not uncommon, thing happened. He told me how well his life has been going, how the Pandemic hadn’t really changed anything for him; he was still making art. At some point I mentioned I hoped that the Pandemic was teaching us some things about working together to solve bigger problems that are causing suffering in the world. That set him off on a series of thoughts that made it clear that he and I had very different ideas about many things and he was eager to let me know his point of view. In the midst of it all I shared a few of my own contrasting views, which seemed to increased his opposition.
The conversation was friendly enough, but I walked away from the conversation without the experience of ‘connection’ that I had anticipated when I first saw this person on the trail.
What is this experience of connection that can happen between people? And not just people, but also the experience of connection that transcends the person-to-person relationship. Like what we sometimes sense when we are connecting with an animal, or walking in nature, or looking at the starry sky, or deep in meditation.
Buddhist literature abounds with contemporary writings about the illusion of separation that clouds our experience of our true nature of an open, connected, boundless heart. In Sharon Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness- The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, she writes:
Throughout our lives we long to love ourselves more deeply and to feel connected with others. Instead, we often contract, fear intimacy, and suffer a bewildering sense of separation. We crave love, and yet we are lonely. Our delusion of being separate from one another, of being apart from all that is around us, gives rise of all of this pain. What is the way out of this?
It’s no wonder we lean toward connection; in a sense it is a call to our true nature, the wholeness that exists beyond the constriction, division, judgment, envy, and conflict of our minds and the world we live in. Meditative insight reveals to us the suffering caused by separation and the joy of realizing our connectedness.
Our Buddhist practice slowly unravels the dependence we have on external conditions for our happiness. As Carol Cook taught two weeks ago, we begin to experience ‘self’ as a dynamic process rather than a solid permanent thing. As Thich Nhat Hanh describes: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. Everything touches everything. There is a freedom from having to defend this separate self as we abandon these separatist beliefs. We don’t do this, Sharon Salzberg tells us, by angrily shoving or pushing away our habits of separation. Rather, it comes as we learn to truly love ourselves and all beings, so that love provides the light by which we bear witness to those burdens, watching them simply fall away.
So perhaps the primary connection is with ourselves, fully integrating and accepting all aspects of our experience, loving the light and the dark, and cultivating kindness, compassion and generosity. This is part of our practice. And through our connection to ourselves, our connection to the world around us reveals itself.
And yet, we are living in a time of opposition, division, and conflict. There seems to be separation between people not just at the national level, or community level, but it is happening right down between family members, and between acquaintances, as I experienced on the trail yesterday.
Recently a friend gave me the book High Conflict by Amanda Ripley, just published this year. The author looks at the difference between healthy conflict and high conflict. Healthy conflict is a force that pushes us to be better people. It’s not the same as forgiveness nor is it surrender. In healthy conflict we remain open to the reality that none of us has all the answers to everything all the time, and that we are all connected together in life. Healthy conflict has humility, fluidity, complexity, and curiosity.
In contrast, high conflict has certainty, rigidity, righteousness, assumptions and zero-sum thinking. It is a force that causes people to lose their minds in ideological disputes; it sees things in terms of good vs evil, us vs them. Our brains behave differently in high conflict. We feel certain of our own superiority and mystified by the other side. We think things like, ‘How could they believe that?’ Some high conflicts explode into violence and can last for years, like gang violence in Chicago or the decades of deadly conflict in Colombia. Can you think of some issues in our country that have escalated into high conflict? It’s not too hard these days. Or in your own life? Probably none of us is spared the lure of high conflict at one time or another. It can become destructive and, weirdly, sometimes people mesmerized by high conflict somehow end up fighting against their own cause.
The book also looks at how people escape high conflict. Not by being defeated or by avoidance (like numbing out to what is going on) or by suddenly agreeing. Not by surrendering their beliefs. No: some people escape high conflict by doing something incredible: they become capable of understanding the other side. That changes everything. They become curious and humane. They become connected. In that connected state it’s not that the conflict ends, but rather conflict becomes healthy again.
Amanda Ripley writes that we are wired to see the world in an us-versus-them binary, but we are also wired to expand our sense of us to include them, given the right conditions. Have you noticed how impossible it is to change anyone’s mind these days? What if we let go of that goal? Being curious about someone else keeps the possibility open that two opposing sides can create a common sense of responsibility.
I have a T-shirt that reads: Radical Enough To Believe We Can End Homelessness that I got from the Coalition for Compassion and Justice. A couple of weeks ago I wore that T-shirt to the Farmers Market and a man came up to me to talk about it. He is a Vietnam veteran and he is going through a hard time because of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. He wanted to know what it meant to be ‘radical’ about homelessness. I said that means ending homelessness by actually getting people into homes.
He said: “I believe no veteran or woman should be without a home in this country. We spend trillions of dollars and you think we could make sure we have houses for people.”
Right there he and I had found agreement. Then he said if he wished he could have been in Washington DC for the national rally that weekend. When he mentioned the rally, that’s when I realized we had very different political viewpoints. But it didn’t matter; I felt a connection with this man. Why? Because we had connected on the level of a value that we shared. We both have a passion for ending homelessness. We had expanded the sense of us to include one another. We shared a sense of responsibility.
Amanda Ripley writes about what some groups have done when they have found themselves entrenched in high conflict. Usually, we think we have three options: Leaving, fighting or censoring ourselves. If we value our own beliefs, if we value healthy conflict and we are seeking to remain connected with one another, none of these options feels quite right. There is the fourth option, which she calls leaning in. This means both sides being willing to have really hard honest conversations and be tolerant of the discomfort of someone else’s opinion. Just like my experience with the veteran at the Farmers Market, sometimes the two sides will find they connect at the deeper levels, like the level of shared values and responsibility. But not always. Gandhi said: Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress. If we are willing to allow ourselves to cycle through waves of frustration and blame, curiosity and understanding, we are building conflict resilience. Likely we will still disagree, but we are still in the game, and we may even feel connected. Maybe that connection, which reflects the vulnerable open-heartedness of our true nature, can lead to change.
A really important skill is what Ripley calls looping. It is basic reflective listening. It is saying back to someone what you heard them say and asking if you got it right. If people feel they’ve been heard by you, then they stay in complexity and nuance, where they can see different sides. In turn, if you are heard, you can remain curious and fluid as well. When we feel heard we are more likely to be open. There is more connection and less polarization.
Listening doesn’t mean agreeing. We may never change anyone’s mind. Conflict is an unavoidable part of life and can help us be better people.
Our Buddhist practice encourages us to cultivate the good, to align ourselves with a vision of what is possible, to choose to embrace our own innate expansive capacity for love and happiness. And to let go, even as we apply ourselves to those heart qualities of generosity, non-harming, right action and right speech. Diana Winston, a Buddhist teacher, offers reasons not to hate those people who oppose our beliefs and values. I will read a few of those reasons:
HATRED HURTS. It’s suffering. The Buddha taught that hatred is a form of suffering. He said that holding hatred in the mind and heart is like tightly clutching a hot coal in your hand—guess who suffers? You can experience the burning quality of hatred by examining your own mind. What does your mind feel like when it is filled with love? Most likely you feel connection, spaciousness, openness. What does it feel like when your mind is full of hate? Probably you feel disconnection, pain, and separation, all accompanied by some good old self-righteousness. Dharma practice is about the development and cultivation of skillful mind states—no matter what the situation. This is not to say difficult mind states don’t arise unbidden, but which ones do you want to hang on to? What kind of mind do you want?
The acquaintance I met on the trail yesterday and I were not in high conflict; we weren’t dehumanizing one another. But I didn’t have the experience of feeling connected. Maybe we could have been better listeners. Connection between people takes time and patience. But it can be worth our time as a path to connecting with ourselves, to the kind and generous essence of our hearts, and allowing our being to radiate outward, even in the midst of our suffering in and for the world.
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission