I used this document as the framework for a mediation I conducted for a Buddhist sangha that was experiencing severe conflict.
Thank you for accepting my offer to support you.
I think that I may be able to hold the container for you in a way that could bring some healing, provided that we all approach our work together as dharma practice. Specifically, please consider the following guidelines for our meeting together. The first is procedural. Most of the others ask you to apply familiar aspects of our practice, the Noble Eightfold Path, to the situation. And one uses a helpful contribution to liberation that comes more from the West.
Everything that follows here may help us to balance safety and candor. We need to feel safe in this conversation, and we also need to share our feelings and needs openly. We can all feel safe if we listen to each other and speak to each other with simple respect. We can also be candid about our experience without blaming or shaming each other.
1. All of us will need to be present. I believe that the process can only work if we are all there, so please commit to being there.
2. We will try to practice Right Intention. Please take time before we meet to investigate, to clarify, and to deepen your intention before our meeting. Do you intend to seek healing and reconciliation? If you do intend that, are you prepared to do what is necessary to reach that end? I will ask you about your intention at the beginning of our meeting.
If you intend to come to the meeting in order to prove yourself right and to have your position vindicated, please let me know, and you will spare me hours of driving. Healing and reconciliation cannot happen with that intention. Your position, whatever it may be, is your story. We will need eventually to go beyond your story to something deeper and more fruitful.
If you are not a central disputant, you may intend to be there mostly as a support for others without engaging the issues deeply yourself. I feel that often individuals carry the shadow for the group. We surely want to help individuals to work through their personal pain in this situation. But finally, I think, everyone in your group is responsible for your collective shadow. In order to heal that, I hope that all of you will participate equally in our work together.
3. We will carefully practice Right Mindfulness of our attachment to views and opinions. The Buddha described four kinds of attachment that cause and perpetuate our suffering. One of the four, attachment to views and opinions, seems to contribute a lot to the particular suffering of conflict between or among people. We cannot avoid having views and opinions; it seems to be humanly necessary. Can you try to have them without being rigidly fixed in them? If you try, you will be doing our practice, and you will contribute to resolving conflict. Views and opinions are another aspect of our story. We need to know that story, but I hope that we can go beyond it.
4. We will try to practice Right Speech. If your group should collectively commit to the practice of Right Speech, and if you should reaffirm that commitment at the beginning of every meeting, and if you should give each other permission to remind each other at any time about Right Speech, then you could almost certainly enjoy more harmony and less conflict. Can you communicate skillfully even in difficult interactions? If you feel that you cannot, please practice before we meet. Some training in Nonviolent Communication, or a refresher if you’ve already had it, might help. Can you use “I” statements, rather than “you” statements? Please review the Buddha’s specific guidelines for the practice of Right Speech and resolve to honor them. I will ask us to commit to this practice at the beginning of our meeting, and I will gently remind you about Right Speech if I perceive that unskillful communication is happening.
Deep listening is a key aspect of Right Speech. Can you listen to others, even those with whom you disagree, with full presence and attention – listening not only to their words but also to the subtext of their speech, including their emotions and their body language? Can you listen without an agenda, without formulating a response as they speak? The Buddha said, “To understand everything is to forgive everything.” We use the tool of deep listening in order to understand as deeply as possible. Then forgiveness flows in by itself.
5. We will try to practice Right Mindfulness about what has happened. Mindfulness sees reality clearly, objectively, without judgment or reactivity. I will ask one of you to describe as clearly and objectively as possible the events that have caused your present impasse – without blame or judgment or even evaluation, just the facts. Then I will ask the rest of you to amplify or correct that description.
6. We will try to practice Right Mindfulness of our mind states in response to what has happened. Mindfulness of mind states is one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Can you drop your story and simply feel your feelings/mind states without the story? Can you be honest with yourself and with the rest of us about your emotions? That’s our practice, and that’s what I’ll ask you to do. I will ask you to share your feelings without your story. I want to hear about the wholesome mind states you’ve experienced in this painful situation. But I want at least as much to hear about the afflictive mind states you’ve experienced in response to what has happened, and also what you are feeling in response to what is happening in the midst of our meeting. In Mindful Mediation: A Handbook for Buddhist Peacemakers, John A. McConnell writes that we will always find the Three Poisons – the mind states of greed, aversion, and ignorance – at the root of all conflict. And we will always find their opposites – the mind states of generosity, love, and wisdom – at the root of all reconciliation and harmony.
What is a true feeling? To say, “I’m feeling betrayed by you,” is actually a judgment disguised as a feeling instead of a true feeling. You might review the lists of wholesome and unwholesome mind states that appear in the Abhidhamma, and also the list of feelings Marshall Rosenberg offers in Nonviolent Communication. Those lists should give us a clear sense of the real and the disguised.
7. We will try to practice Right Understanding by remembering that none of this is happening to anyone. “Suffering exists,” the Buddha said, “but there is no one suffering.” Conflict solidifies the delusive sense of self like nothing else – both your so-called self and your fellow disputant’s so-called self. Is it possible to step out of all that solidification and separation, and to see that these are only conditions unfolding? When the solid sense of self and other falls away, conflict has to fall away with it. Then forgiveness and harmony come easily. This expression wisdom is one aspect the deep heart of our practice. I wonder if we can get there together.
8. We will try to remember that lovingkindness and forgiveness are the other major aspect of the living heart of our spiritual practice. Do you feel that this last sentence is true? If you do, are you prepared to renounce resentment, anger, hatred, and fear and to cultivate instead lovingkindness, compassion, and forgiveness toward yourself and toward others? By the word “renounce” I do not mean suppressing or trying to get rid of our afflictive emotions. We can acknowledge – even welcome – them when they come. But we don’t have to believe them and their story. To renounce them is to know them, to love them, to disbelieve them, and to let them go. Anger and hatred perpetuate suffering and bondage. Love and forgiveness promote happiness and freedom. Which will you choose?
9. We will talk about power. Finally, I ask you to reflect deeply upon, and to talk together about, how power has worked in your group. This perspective comes more from Marx than from the Buddha, but I think that it is congruent with our path. Power affects every group, every organization. When we acknowledge, investigate, and negotiate power in our relationships, it needn’t be much of a problem. When we do not acknowledge and negotiate it, when we act out power unconsciously, it can cause grievous problems. Your group works by consensus, which explicitly grants equal power to everyone in the group. Nonetheless, there are bound to be imbalances of power among you, based on factors like age, gender, class, experience, and personality. Who among the five of you exercises more power than others? Why? Has the group explicitly granted more power to this person or these people? Or have you granted/taken that power implicitly or unconsciously? Who among you exercises less power? Why? Does this relative disempowerment work well for you? How has the unacknowledged use of power among you contributed to your difficulty? How can you unpack the difficulty by becoming much clearer about power among you and how you want it used?
I would be grateful to you if you would give deep attention to these nine things before we meet. Thank you. If I have missed something important among these guidelines, please let me know before or during our meeting. Thank you. May our work together contribute to the liberation of all beings from their suffering.