Dealing with family conflict

The reality is this:  until all living beings have fully realized the ultimate nature of reality, and thereby abandoned any sense of independent self, conflict within families is inevitable.  Even if we have attained full enlightenment, others who still have these delusions will enter into conflict with us (though, at that stage, it certainly won’t be a problem for us!).  So the question is how do we respond to this conflict in a wise and constructive way?

Generally, in dealing with family conflict, people fall into one of two extremes:  “repressing” or “crusading”.  Repressing works as follows:  somebody in the family does something we do not like, such as harming us in some way, taking advantage of us in some way, etc., and because we do not want to “make waves” we just swallow it and pretend that everything is OK.  Essentially we sacrifice inner peace on the alter of outer peace.  The other person is completetly oblivious to the fact that we have a problem with them, which internally just infuriates us more.  They continue with the behavior we do not like, we continue to repress, until eventually we can’t take it anymore.  We then lash out against them in some typically dramatic fashion.  The other person thinks we have gone insane and cannot understand why we are making such a big deal out of such a small thing (they only see the most immediate event, not the pattern over time).  They then get very defensive, harsh words are said to each other.  Then, because neither side knows how to deal with conflict, each side just stops talking to the other for a sufficiently long time that all of this recedes into the past.  Time, however, never completely heals the wound, it just helps us forget about it and see it in a different perspective.  We never really forgive the other person, so when we do start going back with the other person, the seeds are still there for future conflict.

“Crusading” works as follows:  again, somebody does something we do not like and we know the faults of repression.  But so convinced are we of our self-righteousness and so determined to right every wrong that we are constantly on the attack against everyone for every error.  So we charge in, force people to confront their errors, and we do not stop until everyone is in agreement that we are (and have always been) “right”.  We feel completely self-justified in our crusade because we ‘know’ we are right, they are wrong, and the injustice cannot stand.  In the end, we tell ourselves it is for the benefit of the other person that we battle with them because once they see how we are right, they will be brought to the “higher level of understanding” that we occupy.  We may even convince ourselves that our constant battling with those around us is part of our bodhisattva path to lead all beings to enlightenment – they just don’t understand that yet, but in the end, when they see the light, they will thank us.  Obviously, I have explained each of these extremes in their extreme form, and normally we fall into a more subtle version of one of these two extremes.

So what is the middle way?  It is “re-solving”.  Both parts of this word have meaning.  The “re” reminds us that there was a time where we genuinely got along with this other family member, loved them, appreciated their good qualities, and were not in conflict with them.  The goal is to get back to that state where our relationship is one of love, appreciation and respect.  “Solving” means we fully acknowledge there is a problem (not pretend there isn’t one like with repression), and we actually solve that problem so that it is no more.  Together they mean we are not trying to get back to some nostalgic state of how things were, rather we are trying to once again get back to the point where our mind is free from all delusion towards the other person (and hopefully vice versa) having worked through whatever difficulty there was.  In other words, we try use the conflict as a means of deepening and improving our love and relationship with the other person.

We will now explore the three stages of resolving our family conflict, which are:

  1. Correctly diagnosing what the “problem” is, namely delusions.
  2. Abandoning the “need” for the other person to change.
  3. If necessary, skillfully approaching the other person with the intent of making the relationship better.

No doctor can heal any patient if they have misdiagnosed what the problem is.  From a Dharma perspective, the cause of all problem is our delusions, such as anger, attachment, jealousy, selfishness and ignorance.  Normally, we blame external circumstances or other people, but if we check deeply none of these things have any power to harm us.  It is our own deluded mental reaction to these things that harms us.  If we responded to these same things with wisdom we could learn to grow from them, so far from harming us, they would be helping us.  As explained in Transform your Life and many other books, if our minds are peaceful, we are happy regardless of how difficult our external circumstance is; and if our minds are unpeaceful, we will be unhappy regardless of how perfect our external circumstance is.  So in the end, our happiness depends entirely upon our ability to keep our mind peaceful and positive in all circumstances.  Delusions are, by definition, those minds which disturb our inner peace.

One mistake we commonly make is we say, “yes, delusions are the cause of all problems.  His or Her delusions are the cause of all the problems.”  No, it doesn’t work that way.  Your delusions are the cause of all of your problems, and his or her delusions are the cause of all of his or her problems.  Nobody can cause you problems, rather your delusions create all of your own problems.  There is no solution to your own problems other than resolving your own delusions within your own mind.  So the first step in dealing with conflict with family memebers is to take the time to honestly identify what are the delusions functioning in your own mind and to apply effort to reduce and finally eliminate them.  For a complete explanation for how to identify and abandon your delusions, see Eight Steps to Happiness, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, and Understanding the Mind.

The second stage is to abandon any need for the other person to change.  This is crucial for any conflict resolution.  As long as you are convinced that your happiness depends on the other person changing, any effort you make at conflict resolution will correctly be interpreted by the other person as manipulation and they will resist you and conflict will ensue.  If, however, you have no need whatsoever for the other person to change, then they will not feel like they are being manipulated or controlled, and their minds will open to resolving the conflict.

So how do you abandon any need for the other person to change?  You realize that their faults are exactly what you need for progressing along the spiritual path.  It really comes down to one thing:  what do you want.  If what you want is a life of ease free from difficulty and problems, then changing all those difficult people in our life will always be a priority for us and we will always be in conflict with them.  If, however, what you want is to make progress along the spiritual path, then difficult people will no longer be a problem for you, they will be a blessing – an indispensible asset in your spiritual training.  Each difficult person, each difficult situation gives you an opportunity to further train your mind to abandon your own delusions at deeper and deeper levels, whether it be your miserliness, your anger, your jealousy, your selfishness or your lack of skilfull means.  Each difficult person in your life is like a magical mirror that reveals to you a different fault you have in your own mind, and your relationship with them is a spiritual training regimen for overcoming that fault.  When you have such an attitude, you no longer need other people to change – their faults and difficult behavior are experienced and welcomed by you as exactly what you need.

One very powerful way of developing this constructive attitude is to rely wholeheartedly on the Dharma Protector.  The Dharma Protector is like our personal spiritual trainer.  His job is to eliminate any obstacles to our practice and to arrange for us the outer and inner conditions which are perfect for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  So if we are confronted with a difficult family member or circumstance, we can make the request to the Dharma protector, “Please arrange whatever is best with respect to this other person’s behavior:  if it is an obstacle to my spiritual training, may it stop; if it is best for my spiritual training, may it increase!”  Then, whatever happens after you make this request, you accept that this is exactly what your personal spiritual trainer has organized for you, and you get to work on transforming your own mind.  For more on how to rely upon a Dharma Protector, see Heart Jewel.

The third and final stage is to skillfully approach the other person with the intent of making the relationship better.  Again, before doing this, you must first abandon any need for the other person to change otherwise your efforts at approaching the other person will backfire.  The doubt may arise, “if I don’t need the other person to change, what is the point of me even approaching them at all?”  There are two answers to this question:  first, you are asking for their patience while you work through your own delusions; and second, you are giving them a chance to change themselves if they so choose.

When you approach the other person, your (sincere) attitude should be “I really love you and I want this relationship to work, and it is because I want things to be harmonious between the two of us that I thought I needed to come to you about some of the things I am working on.  When you do X, it triggers Y deluded reaction in me.  I know my attitude is wrong, and I am working on it by trying to be more Z-like in my attitude, but I just throught I would let you know.  So if I act strange or I sometimes lash out at you in W way, I just wanted you to understand where I was coming from and why it was happening.  I am telling you this because I very much value our relationship and I want to make things better between us.  Out of respect for you, and a trust that you too want our relationship to improve, I thought it was better to come to you than to just let this linger under the surface.”  Most people will respond to this as, “gee, I had no idea my behavior could be perceived that way.  Thank you for letting me know.  I will try be more careful in the future.”  It is also possible that the other person will tell you, “well the reason I am like that is because you do Q which really bothers me.”  If they respond in this way, it is important to not get defensive.  You need to understand that they too have likely repressed a good deal of delusions towards you and will want to express themselves.  So your response to this should be, “gee, I had no idea my behavior could be perceived that way.  Thank you for letting me know.  I will try be more careful in the future.”  As the old adage goes, be the change you want to see in the world!

There may be times when the other person is either unwilling or incapable of maintaining a harmonious relationship with you, but in such circumstances you should always leave the door open to them changing their mind in the future by saying, “Look, I love you and I want this to work.  If ever you change your mind and want to try work things out, then my door is always open.”  This stance by you will place a marker in their mind where in the future everytime they think about you they know what needs to happen, and in their heart of hearts, they know you are being eminently reasonable.  They might never see this and might never come around, but at least from your side you are doing the right thing and giving them a chance to do so.

The point is this:  until we attain enlightenment, conflict is inevitable.  Either we allow this conflict to destroy our relationships or we use it to make our relationships even stronger by working through our differences.  Marriages that last 50 years do not do so because there is never any conflict, but rather because the two people in the marriage know how to use conflict to deepen and strengthen their relationship.  The same is true with any relationship with any family member, and even any relationship between any two people (or countries).

Your turn:  Describe some family conflict you have had and how you used the Dharma to resolve it.

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