Together with Bev Jewell, a mental health professional with whom I have co-mediated cases at my mediation center in Palm Springs, we are driving south after completing a five-day retreat workshop at the Zen Center at Green Gulch, located in Marin, put on by The Center for Understanding in Conflict and taught by Gary J. Friedman and Catherine Conner.

This is Bev’s first direct training with the Center – it is my third, and my second go around with this very course. I learned of Gary and Catherine’s work a little over two years ago, when I began to explore collaborative practices following twenty-seven years of often acrimonious divorce litigation practice. Since then I have also attended their advanced workshop at Mar de Jade, Mexico. After investing 120 hours of my life at their feet (literally so, given that the casual atmosphere of these classes permits participants to lie or stretch on the floor at will), Gary and Catherine have become familiar friends – actually like old friends, I suspect, for all of the program attendees as I believe these would also attest.

Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein have developed a mediation paradigm that for me seems grounded in Buddhist principles of ahimsa and present-ness. Probably the most direct disclosure of the essential quality of the foundation’s Understanding model is a tantalizing reference in their study materials to Martin Buber’s philosophical works concerning the “I-Thou” or “I-You.” Buber asks us to investigate how we tend to contrast and develop our “stories” of ourselves, in light of others, who each also have their uniquely own. As we move through the world, we tend to bump into the self that every other human drags around with them too, and sometimes these collisions spark conflict. This seeming separation between us and them, however, actually shows us where we might devote our attention if we wish to transcend the mistaken belief that we are not, in truth, all One. Such is one strategy for solving conflict.

I am not sure that Gary would agree with my characterizations because he doesn’t directly talk much about spirituality in this course. Yet spiritual principles were implicit for me – you bring what you wish and you take what works for you, and this is all allowed.

Gary and Catherine suggest that to be effective as mediators, the only “skill” that is required is to really be curious and interested about the people whom we would aspire to help. Firstly, however, this exploration must begin with the relationship we have with our own selves. Each evening, once our sessions ended at 9:00 p.m., the program participants enjoyed impromptu gatherings in the cottage where we were housed, and shared (wine inspired) conversations about finding meaning within our own struggles, as they might be applied to helping others through our mediation practices. In listening to these stories it seemed clear to all that there is great value in applying our unique life experiences to mediating parties in conflict, and hence in transmuting our own difficulties into something that is alive and can be harnessed in service to others. Which also happens to serve us well as individuals in our own lives – always a nice thing.

The ‘Mediation Intensive Training Program’ is larger than other more academic mediation trainings that I have examined. It resonates for those who find themselves chafing against the bonds of more traditional frameworks. First generation dispute resolution sometimes assumes that the best people to make choices about how the lives of people in conflict should unfold are not necessarily the disputants themselves, but the mediators. Such an approach is natural enough, but it is possibly misguided. In my initial stage of becoming a mediator I too fastened upon an either-or  judgment about the “superior’ ethics of this craft as compared to traditional divorce warfare. What the heck, we may forgive the enthusiasm of ignorance waking up. (Self-judgments can be instructive, and then we kick them out the door, kill the Buddha so to speak, and so begin afresh).

I admit that my income today remains tied to litigation, although I don’t apologize for that in the slightest. Unlike some other mediation styles, the Understanding Model doesn’t judge litigators, courts, lawyers, or the default government sponsored system of dispute resolution. The model is the antithesis of making judgments while admitting that judgment, like shit, happens.

Indeed, it genuinely honors the conflict resolution structures that have developed to aid human beings to co-exist without killing each other, whether metaphorically or otherwise, over uncounted generations. It also recognizes the some people need protections that mediation cannot afford them, and it is quick to send them on to lawyer warriors as their circumstances require. It encourages the involvement of lawyers within the mediation process at every turn, in order to assure the best informed consent for the parties.

Having now studied aside almost eighty other like-minded individuals in my trainings with the Center, I’ve noticed that the Understanding Based Model resonates particularly for members of the mental health, education, and family science communities. It has an emotional intelligence that appeals to intuitive beings who care about human suffering on a practical level. It offers an inspiring approach to “the how” (style) and “the what” (substance) for family peacemaking (and all forms of conflict resolution), and for me it has been useful in developing a mediation practice that honors and respects the rights of all of us, including especially the parties to mediation, to ultimately make our own best (or possibly worse) choices.

Bev and I developed heartfelt relationships this past week with twenty other professionals who notably did not only consist of family lawyers looking to relocate their practice interests. The folks who attended this workshop included a retired government attorney, a non-profit public interest worker, at least two children advocates, an upper management representative who works for Google, a human resources executive/musician, a divorce wealth management specialist, and even a botanist (all of us ages 25 to 73 years). On a fuller level the Center for Understanding in Conflict is about the greater community of souls with whom we share this planet and these precious lives, in these times of increasingly limited resources.

Your experience of it will depend upon your professional locus and philosophical interests. Some people – and especially the “seasoned” litigators” among us – may find ourselves needing to be de-conditioned a bit, before we can accept that imposing our best intentions upon mediating parties, as a form of parental-like wisdom, can be coercive. The model holds that nothing that we might volunteer is certain to be preferable to what the parties themselves might devise with the support of us “neutrals”, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act as pointers. The conflict always belongs to them. Gary and Catherine offer many useful techniques to aid us in becoming a container of understanding. However, these tools require study and effort in order to gain any level of mastery over them.

So I took the course a second time, not just for the opportunity to mingle with a committed group of awakened and awakening personages, but also to refine the mediator’s tools that the Understanding Model introduced me to. In the two years since I first learned of the Center my mediation practice has taken root and sprouted limbs, and leafs and flowers too. Having now had the great good fortune to work with over forty pairs of divorcing spouses and domestic partners since last year, my insight and retention of how the model works feels to have been greatly advanced by revisiting the program.

Today, as Bev and I continue to wind our way south along Highway 101 in the dappling sunshine and rain clouds, I reflect that retaking the course had a relevancy that made sense to me on a level that I simply could not fully absorb the first time around, and especially before I had acquired some significant mediation experience.

I am grateful that I rejoined Gary and Catherine this week alongside the Green Gulch monks and their fabulous bread-making to reconvene with soft and deeper revelations. I am grateful for the new friends and connections that I made among the other open-hearted seekers. I eagerly plan for the six mediations that I learn have become scheduled over the ensuing two weeks, and vow to be as present to listen to the parties’ needs as I can. I will endeavor to hold and contain each of them, and them all.

Such is just what my experience is becoming. I do not presume to speak for you. But I am quite sure that the Center for Understanding in Conflict invites you to speak for you.

Thurman W. Arnold, III, CFLS