From Conflict to Compassion
About halfway down Mexico’s Pacific coast, the small fishing village of Chacala sits tucked away along a small cove. Overlooking the ocean to the south is Mar de Jade, a tranquil retreat enveloped with lush vegetation. Since 2007, this spiritual oasis has served as the backdrop for the Center for Understanding in Conflict’s (CUC) biennial Inside Out: Self Reflection for Conflict Professionals Intensive (SCPI) retreat.
While most mediator training revolves around external parties—what do you do when the people you are mediating behave a certain way—SCPI concentrates on the internal mechanisms of the mediator. The focus of the SCPI program is to teach conflict professionals to access their inner lives in ways that are constructive for professionals and productive for their clients. SCPI is facilitated by Gary Friedman, who literally wrote the book on this practice, and Zoketsu Norman Fsicher, a poet and Zen Buddhist priest from the Everyday Zen Foundation.
Woven into SCPI practice is meditation, including sessions guided by Fischer, whose Zen teachings are deeply respected around the world and woven into the overall SCPI and CUC ethos. “The structure of the course, and the incorporation of meditation and Zen concepts, promote an awareness of one’s own feelings, emotions, and responses, improving one’s ability to connect with others,” comments Jennifer Sullivan, a Senior Assistant Dean at the University of Colorado Boulder Law School.
Sullivan was one of the 18 individuals who participated in the SCPI program at Mar de Jade this past February. While the program has historically attracted law professionals, a diversity of professions were represented in this year’s cohort, including a gynecologist who deals with patients trying to navigate in a broken healthcare system and a doula who accompanies people at the end of life. “What we’re teaching goes far beyond law…it’s about humans trying to find a way to help other humans,” comments Friedman.
“I have a better sense of calm and awareness that helps me embrace others’ fears or anxieties, often expressed as anger or belligerence,” notes Lisa Lewis, a gynecologist. “Looking back, I wonder how doctors succeed without these skills? More importantly, how could any patient succeed without their doctor expressing understanding and compassion?”
She was introduced to SCPI by her husband, Randy Lewis, a court appointed receiver and mediator, who has participated in several CUC trainings over the past 30 years and was also part of the 2020 SCPI cohort. He notes, “The Conflict and Compassion program created a unique opportunity for me to better understand my role in the conflicts imbedded in my work. The week allowed me to carefully separate my role and the roles of those around me. I am better able to own, use and understand what belongs to me without compromising my values or the value of my life experiences while making similar allowances for others who are also involved.”
The presence of couples was another unique addition to the 2020 retreat. Prior to SCPI, most participants attended CUC workshops on the Understanding-based model, which resonated not only with their work, but that of their partners. Several realized that the retreat could not only be a benefit in their partner’s professional endeavors, but within their own interpersonal communication as a couple. Friedman notes that part of the appeal for including partners was wanting an intimacy “that came from having their spouses have a window into their professional life in a way that could give them the ability to talk about it differently”.
Concentrating on understanding their conflict and pain, participants learn to channel these emotions into compassion. “It’s about using yourself as an instrument to understand what’s happening in you,” Friedman explains. This intimate understanding opens pathways of empathetic understanding for the conflicted parties participants mediate. It also helps those working in conflict to more intimately understand why they are compelled to this line of work.
This concept brings Carl Jung’s wounded healer archetype to a modern context—we seek to help others through conflict because of our own experiences with conflict. According to Friedman, “the sores that we’re working out that come from our childhoods that are right there in the middle of our mediations, and if we can find a way to to help others, that actually starts to heal that pain that we experience [and] that we’ve been carrying around our whole lives. [This] actually turns out to fuel our desire to help other people.”
For Carolann Mazza, a conflict resolution professional who recognizes that “we all have stuff,” what she had learned from SCPI has allowed her to be more effective in her work. “When I can connect with people in conflict, I am able to be with them more fully than when my own unresolved/ignored feelings get in the way. Through real, raw connection with my own stuff and others’ stuff, I have a better appreciation of the way my clients show up during their conflicts,” Mazza explains.
The Buddy System
At the beginning of the retreat, participants are paired up with a person they do not know. Friedman explains that when “you’re on a plane, and you talk to somebody you don’t know, you put up your whole life story in a way it’s so different than you would if it was with your most intimate partner.”
This buddy system is what Friedman considers to be “the heart of the program.” Through regular and intimate conversation and activities that adhere to guidelines set forth by the facilitators, participants can support each other. To help facilitate understanding, participants use looping skills in their conversations.
The key caveat in the buddy system is that buddies cannot give each other advice, nor can they ask for it. This is deeply rooted in the Understanding-based model, which views mediation as a way to help people find the solution while never losing site that people know better what they ought to be doing with their own lives.
“One of my ‘buddies’ pointed out to me we need negative forces to balance positive forces, like a battery,” notes Lisa Lewis. “InsideOut taught me to convert negative energy into a more productive and positive place.”
In a sun drenched room overlooking the ocean, buddies joined with another pair and dedicated late afternoons to deeper dives into their cases and situations. According to Friedman, “These are very important moments for people because they feel the support of the whole group to do this and they also learn the skills of how to help other people.”
These groups of four stayed together through dinner, before breaking off with their buddies for the final activities. In one-on-one conversations with their buddies, participants concentrated on feeling what they have been learning and making the move from pain and conflict to compassion so that they can feel the love and understanding in their body.
The supportive buddy partnership does not end with the retreat. Buddies continue supporting each other through continued dialog after the retreat, be it meeting up in person or video calls.
While the work is intensive at an emotional and spiritual level, breaks from SCPI activities allowed participants to swim, hike, explore Chacala, and reflect in their own spaces. Participants walked away from SCPI with a deeper commitment to their work and an enriched set of skills to assist in connecting to people more deeply and authentically. They also developed a deeper understanding of why they do this work. “We think it’s an antidote to burnout, to be able to access your motivations and understand your motivations and work from them,” Friedman posits.
For Randy Lewis, “the week allowed me to carefully separate my role and the roles of those around me. I am better able to own, use and understand what belongs to me without compromising my values or the value of my life experiences while making similar allowances for others who are also involved.”
“This course is about mediation, but it’s also about how to be a better human,” Sullivan concludes.
What comes next?
While the next Mar de Jade retreat is not until 2022, the CUC is planning some one-day programs to be held throughout the year. Additionally, the CUC with the Everyday Zen Foundation will be holding an intensive in Talloires, France this fall.
Individuals interested in participating in a future SCPI program are highly encouraged to participate in one of the CUC’s introductory mediation and conflict resolution programs first. Friedman’s book, Inside Out: How Conflict Professional Can Use Self-Reflection to Help Their Clients also provides an intricate guide into this process.