Geshe-la said at a meeting with teachers at Manjushri once that we need people sharing on-line their positive experiences of using the Dharma to solve their daily problems. He said this will help counter some of the false narratives against us. I also think implicit in this is by sharing our experiences we can all learn from one another. It is in this light that I share the following. I hope my failures and struggles might in some way prove helpful to others who one day find themselves in similar situations. At the very least, writing this will help me clarify my own thoughts and hopefully bring a little inner peace.
I am in the middle of the biggest fight I have ever had with my father. It started over something trivial, namely making our plans for the summer, but it somehow tapped into deep-seated resentments that had been building up for years on both sides. My job now, it seems, is to work through my own delusions and to use the Dharma to lay the foundation for what can in the future be some sort of honest reconciliation and stable resolution. It seems to me all of us will one day encounter conflict with those closest to us.
In all conflict situations, there are two problems, an internal one of the delusions flaring up within our own mind and an external one of the actual conflict with the other person. Since there are two different problems, we need two different solutions – an internal one and an external one. While ideally, we should pursue our internal and external solutions in parallel, the reality is usually our external efforts will fail if internally we have not yet re-found peace within our mind. As Geshe-la says, without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.
Internally, we need to work through all the delusions within our own mind and replace them with wisdom about the situation and compassion towards all affected by it. Dharma practice is, for all practical purposes, a process of abandoning our habitual deluded reactions and replacing them with new and positive habits. It seems to me, there are five deluded habits we often fall into during conflict with others.
The first is we lose our refuge and instead rely upon our own instincts. It’s relatively easy to practice Dharma when the problems we face are not too bad, but when our problems become extreme we tend to forget our refuge and instead try solve our problems on our own. Gen Lhamo once said we are spiritual people, so our first reaction should be to pray. We need to pray for wisdom to know what to do and how to think about it. We need to pray for love and compassion to fill our hearts towards the other person. We need to pray that Dorje Shugden take control of the situation and arrange whatever is best for all concerned. Finally, we pray that our conflicts become a powerful cause of enlightenment for all involved.
Our second habitual reaction is usually we wish these problems weren’t happening. But actually, I think, we need to be grateful that there are these problems, because without big problems we quickly become lazy and fail to actually change our mind with the Dharma we have received. It is very easy for our Dharma studies to become abstract, academic or philosophical. For me at least, it is only when I am really smacked down by major problems in my life that I am actually forced to change the way I think. It is when we are confronted with the truth of the sufferings of samsara that the Dharma finds its greatest utility.
Our third habitual reaction is to blame the other person for our troubles. But actually we need to recognize all of this is the ripening of our own negative karma of having acted in harmful ways towards others in the past. We need to accept all of the difficulties as purification for our own past wrong actions, actively purify whatever negative karma remains and resolve to not repeat ourselves again in the future whatever mistakes we perceive. If we have a “problem” with something, it is our problem because we are relating to the situation in a deluded way. We need to do the internal work to replace whatever delusions we may have with wisdom, love, patience and compassion. If we don’t do this, even if the external situation changes, we will remain with our internal problem and it is just a question of time before it comes back to haunt us.
Our fourth habitual reaction is to retaliate in some way to the harm we have received. No matter how much the other person hurts us, we should try find a way to forgive them. We shouldn’t stop this internal work until we get to the point where we have no animosity or anger towards them at all. This will take time, depending on the hurt, sometimes even decades. It doesn’t matter how long it takes and it doesn’t matter whether the other person ever admits their own harmful acts. If we want inner peace ourselves, we can’t escape this work.
Our fifth habitual reaction is to jump from the extreme of anger to the other extreme of cooperating once again with the other person’s unhealthy behavior. This one requires some additional explanation. Many Dharma practitioners hear the teachings on the ripening of negative karma, how we are responsible for all of our problems and the need to fulfill others’ wishes and then misunderstand these instruction to mean we need to become a doormat and cooperate with the delusions of others. Again, Gen Lhamo shows the way by pointing out that we are not helping others by cooperating with their delusions. She says we need to recognize that it is our own attachment to outer peace and our own self-cherishing not wanting to lose what the other person might take away from us that causes us to allow others to abuse or mistreat us. It doesn’t help them to allow them to mistreat us and it is soul-sapping to ourselves to remain in an avoidable unhealthy dynamic. We should avoid the misguided view that we must suffer through unhealthy dynamics as atonement for our past sins. Geshe-la says in the teachings on patient acceptance if we have a headache, we should take an aspirin, but then accept the pain until the aspirin takes effect. In other words, we only accept the suffering we cannot avoid; we simply avoid the suffering we can avoid. In the context of conflict with our loved ones, if we can get out and/or change the dynamic, we should do so. We shouldn’t remain in an unhealthy dynamic if we can avoid or change it.
As with all situations which provoke delusions, as a dear Sangha friend recently reminded me, we need to remember none of it is real. There is no one there thinking anything about or doing anything against us. The person we are fighting with that we normally see does not exist at all, they are just a construction of our own deluded mind. There are, in the final analysis, just various karmic appearances and how we respond to them, like a karmic video game. None of it really matters because nothing is actually happening. Our job is to respond to whatever arises with wisdom and compassion. The more experience we have with remembering emptiness when conflict arises, the more powerful such wisdom will be at taking all of the sting out of such problems.
But we need to be careful. Part of what causes us to cooperate with other’s delusions is misunderstanding the teachings on ultimate truth to mean conventionally everything that happens is all our fault so only we need to change for things to conventionally get better. We need the wisdom to know the difference between what is conventionally “our” problem and what is conventionally “their” problem. Our problem is our delusions, their problem is their delusions. We need to do the internal work necessary to always stand ready to make peace (in other words work through whatever delusions we might have towards the other person), but we also need to accept that we can’t do others internal work for them. If they are not willing to do their internal work, we can continue to pray for them but sometimes we may need to disengage from them, or at a minimum circumscribe our relationship to those situations in which conflict is unlikely to flare.
Having established a degree of inner peace towards the situation, we can then begin to think about how to solve our external problem of the conflict with the other person. It seems there are four questions we need to answer: When should we act? How should we approach the other person? What should we say? And what are we aiming for?
When seeking to resolve a conflict with somebody else, the first thing we need to do is get our timing right. First, we need to get our own mind back to a space of wisdom, compassion and calm. If we are still agitated and under the influence of delusion, we will no doubt make things worse if we approach the other person. It is much better to wait until calm and clarity have returned to our mind. Second, we should be patient and not rush others to a resolution before they are internally ready to embrace it. We are fortunate to have the Dharma and so mentally we might be able to bounce back to a non-deluded space more quickly than the other person (or not!). But just because we are mentally ready to make peace does not mean others are. In the same way, those affected by our conflicts with our loved ones (such as our other family members or close friends) might also have a wide variety of different delusions troubling their minds. If we impose our internal solution on others before they are ready to embrace it, one of two things will happen: they will either reject it, thus we burn the opportunity for this solution to work; or they will feel like they have to repress their delusions before they have actually resolved them. Repression doesn’t work, it just sows the seeds for future problems while leaving others miserable in the interim. Instead, we need to give all those around us affected by the conflict the time they need to get to a mental space where they are ready to positively receive our overtures.
The second question we need to answer is how do we approach the other person to make peace? Sometimes people can get into a juvenile dynamic of “who will make the first move towards peace,” as if making such a move somehow concedes that the other person is right and they win. Everybody loses from conflict, everybody wins from peace. The longer we take to make peace, the more entrenched the other’s hateful views become, making it harder later. So, unless there is some overriding reason, we shouldn’t wait for the other person to make the first move, even if they are the one primarily at fault for the conflict. Rather it is best for us to make the first move. We should approach them with respect and appreciation for all that they do, and make clear to them that our intention is to come to an honest resolution of our differences. We then begin by apologizing for whatever mistakes we may have made and harm we may have caused. We then, without attacking the other person, explain to them how their actions have made us feel, but we have moved past those feelings by realizing XYZ. Then, we can ask the person whether they are ready to work towards a solution? It is entirely possible that the other person may reject our efforts, but it doesn’t matter if they do. We will have done the right thing by trying. We can tell them, “I see you are not yet ready to move beyond this. When you are ready, let me know. I am not going anywhere.” Then, the ball will be firmly in the other person’s court, and you practice patience until they are ready.
Once they are ready to work towards a solution, when it comes to the substance of the discussions, I recommend proceeding in two stages. First, agree on common principles for resolving the dispute that apply equally to both sides, then, once those principles are agreed to, get into the substance of applying those principles to the situation at hand. You shouldn’t discuss the application of the principles to the situation until the other person has agreed to a common framework for resolving the dispute (namely the principles). Make sure that whatever principles you propose apply more or less equally to both sides, otherwise the person will think you are trying to set them up. When you do get to the stage of discussing the application of the principles to the present conflict, you should apply them fairly explaining how both sides are guilty of violating the principle and how everything would be better if both sides adhered to the principle.
What follows are some principles which are generally useful in any conflict situation and only the most unreasonable of people would disagree with:
- We should each make an effort to understand the other’s perspective. We each feel justified in our view of the situation, so there must be some truth to each of our perspectives. It is only our pride, anger and attachment to our own view that blind us to our own faults and mistakes, but make us keenly aware of others’ faults and mistakes.
- Our differences are not so great as to make it worth it to throw away all the good in our relationship. It’s worth it to work towards a solution.
- Small things we should treat like “water off a duck’s back” (falls right off without leaving a trace). Big things have to be addressed. It’s not healthy to shove big things under the carpet and pretend they didn’t happen. If there is to be a reconciliation, it has to be an honest one that takes both our perspectives into account.
- Exaggeration makes everything worse. Both sides need to not exaggerate the supposed actions or negative thoughts of the other, relate to those exaggerations as if they were actually true, and then feel justified in being upset at the other person for something they did not in fact say or do.
- We should recall that hurtful things said out of anger are not what we really think, whereas constructive things said out of love are what we really think. So we should dismiss the hurtful things as just the other person’s anger talking and embrace the constructive things as their love talking.
- We each need to assume ownership and responsibility for our own problem. If we have a problem with something, it is our problem; if the other person has a problem with something, it is their problem. We both need to get over our own problem by changing our view and letting go.
- We need to avoid inappropriate attention. If we focus 99% of our attention on the 1% bad of the relationship, it will seem like 99% of the relationship is bad. Instead we should focus on the good and forgive the bad.
- We both need to accept the other as they are, not be upset at them for not living up to our expectations. In fact, it is best to have no expectations of the other person at all. We need to be grateful for what others do do, not resentful for what they don’t.
The final question is what are we aiming for as the final resolution of the conflict? Once again, the resolution has to be fair and balanced, applying more or less equally to both sides. It should take the legitimate views and interests of both sides fully into account. The foundation of any lasting solution is both sides need to genuinely appreciate what the other person does do, not get upset about what they don’t do. Each side should respect and be appreciative of the constraints the other is operating under, and not judge them for it. To avoid future problems, both sides should agree if they make a mistake, they should honestly admit it and change. If they harm the other person, they should apologize and make sincere amends. When apologies are offered, they should graciously be accepted and reciprocated in kind. If the other person does not apologize, they should be forgiven anyways. Likewise, both sides should agree if the other person is not asking for our advice or perspective, we shouldn’t give it; but if unsolicited advice is given it should be received graciously. In this light, both sides should agree to not be hyper-sensitive, where providing constructive feedback on how the other person can do better is blown completely out of proportion and is responded to with unhelpful defensiveness. Finally, when we are with the other person, we should be vigilant to not create problems ourselves and to be forgiving if the other person is falling short of our expectations (with the mutual understanding that it is best to have zero expectations so we never become upset). And when we are not with the other person, we should be mindful to not dwell on the supposed faults of the other person, instead we should try recollect their many qualities and develop appreciation for them. In short, both sides should avoid inappropriate attention on the bad and instead focus on the good. A solution grounded in these impossible to argue with principles is manifestly fair and can produce a lasting solution.
Conflict, even extreme conflict, between loved ones is inevitable, but it does not need to be a problem. With Dharma wisdom, we can transform such conflicts into opportunities to identify and overcome our delusions and to learn how to apply wisdom to our daily circumstances. Doing so will enable us to gain the realizations that the people of this world need. Kadam Bjorn said the only things we can effectively pass on to others are those things we have personal experience of. Life will give us challenges, our job is to apply the Dharma. When we do, we gain direct experience of their truth. Finally, we can share our experience with others in the hope that they might find something useful. In this way, the inner lineage of realization gets passed down from generation to generation until eventually we all are permanently free.