Study the Self to Forget the Self

Training in Empathy and Compassion awakens our willingness to be with our own suffering and the suffering of others. Most of us believe suffering is negative, difficult, and to be avoided at all costs. Suffering breaks our spirit and ruins our life. So rather than face the suffering we blame others or the world for the unfortunate things that have happened to us. Or we blame ourselves, imagining that we are essentially incapable of happiness and right action. All of this amounts to a strategy of distraction. Blame is a way of avoiding the actual suffering we feel. And if we are unwilling to face our own suffering, how much more are we unwilling to take in the suffering of others, let alone the whole mass of suffering of this troubled world. There is no way we could even entertain such a thought.

But the training proposes that we do exactly that. That we take in our own suffering, the suffering of our friends, our communities, and of the world, because nothing is more effective than this to change our habitual point of view. We develop this capacity with the practice of Sending and Receiving, which begins with our willingness to receive and heal our own pain. Of course our efforts to do this will encounter powerful resistances within us.

Suffering constellates resistance and loves it, loves our fear, gobbles it up, becomes bigger and stronger. The more we try to push away the suffering the more difficult it is to bear. But through the practice of Sending and Receiving, repeated patiently over time, we discover that when we stop resisting we can bear the suffering with much more equanimity than we previously thought possible. The monster you run away from in the dark becomes more and more frightening the faster and further you flee. The monster you face in your own house becomes a pussy cat, which sometimes scratches, and sometimes makes a mess on the floor but you love her anyway. We discover we don’t have to be afraid of suffering, that we can transform it into healing and love. And this is not as hard to do as we might have thought. Whatever our state, whatever our capacity, we can do it. We need only start from where we are and go as far as we can.

Doing this, we discover that our practice (and our life) isn’t about, and has never been about, ourselves. As long as spiritual practice (and life) remains only about you it is painful. Of course your practice does begin with you. It begins with self-concern. You take up practice out of some need or some desire or pain. But the very self-concern pushes you beyond self-concern. Zen Master Dogen writes, “To study Buddhism is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.” When you study yourself thoroughly, this is what happens: you forget yourself, because the closer you get to yourself, the closer you get to life, and to the unspeakable depth that is life, the more a feeling of love and concern for others naturally arises in you. To be self-obsessed is painful. To love others is happy. Loving others inspires us to take much better care of ourselves, as if we were our own mother. We take care of ourselves so that we can benefit others.

Training in Compassion, pp.65-66.

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Compassion In Suffering

When you are willing to really take in your own suffering, you find, within that very suffering, the suffering of others; and the reverse is also true: when you are able to truly take in the suffering of another, you find within it your own human pain.  Being willing to receive pain, we come to understand, is the only way to open our hearts to love. Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion, Page 34

Conflict can readily put any and all of us face to face with suffering.   As mediators, we are often faced with the parties’ suffering and also with our own. It is normal to seek to avoid pain — both our own and that of others.  Yet, sensing and acknowledging our and others’ suffering can be a way to help us to engage, live and work with it in a healing and constructive manner.

In Training in Compassion, Norman addresses the suffering that can envelope us when faced with conflict, our own and that of others.  We can all readily experience suffering as a heavy, draining, and burdensome aspect of conflict.  Norman addresses this suffering in a manner that can also allow an appreciation of, and the possibility for, at least a somewhat less painful and disabling experience of the suffering we all fear and often feel when faced with conflict, and how through accepting it we can open to our connection with others.

As mediators, we face parties’ pain.  We also confront what it touches in us – which is often our own pain as well as our compassion.   And we have the opportunity to bring that place of suffering and compassion within us to our work as mediators.  And through doing so, we have the possibility to address and to touch, in a sensitive and healing way, the parties’ pain as well as our own.

Acknowledging suffering need not be an overwhelming experience — neither theirs nor ours.  Norman helps put suffering in a manageable context by saying we can feel it and let go of it through our breath — “breathing in suffering, breathing out ease.”

It is surprising how hard it can be to acknowledge (at least outwardly) that suffering is going on within others and within ourselves.  We fear acknowledging it because we fear we will be stuck with it, trapped in it.  Yet, ironically, it is the failure to acknowledge it that can keep us in it.

Suffering does not have to be so overwhelmingly painful and frightening. Ironically, we can make use of it to deepen and strengthen our lives. For us as mediators, that is true of the parties’ suffering as well as our own.

Sadness, too, can be meaningful. As can pain.  Not just the parties’ but also our own. Pain and sadness can be an opening, a deepening, depending on how we hold them. Ironically, by not recognizing and acknowledging the parties’ sadness and pain, and our own, we can be trapped by them, and in them.  Norman says that the willingness to take in suffering is key to our lives.  It can certainly be key for our work as mediators.  Ironically, we may suffer more by failing to acknowledge our suffering.

The parties can do the same by failing to acknowledge their deeper experience underling their conflict. Acknowledging does not mean becoming mired in pain as we might fear.  It is accepting that it is part of our experience, our humanity.  Acknowledging suffering can help us live with it and move through it. Indeed, with this awareness, we may be able to bring some lightness, and some light, to the human experience of suffering. And to our work in mediation.

And, of course, it also it is not all sadness and pain in the conflicts that come to mediation.  There is also the possibility for, and not infrequently, the realization of joy and wonder. For many, acknowledgement of  their suffering can open them to their positive feelings, including joy and wonder. We are looking for authentic engagement, with others, between others and ourselves, with ourselves.

We believe that to be most helpful professionals need to be close to the problem. Understanding ourselves, using our own emotions and our emotional understanding can help develop that intimacy, that closeness. And an essential part of that is acknowledging others’ suffering and our own.

It is helpful to realize how judgmental we can be about the parties’ and our own.  And how judgmental the parties can be. We need to notice, to see, to realize that we all have judgments.  To be in relation to them.  If we do not realize this, that we have them, they can readily take over.  By accepting we have them, we can begin to let go of their grasp.

Instead of turning away from judgments, we can turn toward them.  Instead of turning away from suffering, we can recognize it, open to it, accept it.  Accept ourselves.  Help the parties’ in conflict to do so. Accept themselves. Mediation holds the possibility of authentic engagement. We are looking for authentic engagement — with others, between others, with ourselves.  Opening to the possibility.  Finding possibility in the face of seeming impossibility. Realizing hope in the face of despair.

At the deepest level, people know what is right for them, not the professional.  As professionals, we can be helpful in helping them realize that. In doing so, we need to be present, to strive to bring presence to every moment.  And, to be with ourselves to be with others, to support them in being with themselves with each other.

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Getting Down to Business

Getting Down to Business by Catherine Conner, CUC Instructor, Collaborative Practice Attorney and Mediator.  

People who come to conflict professionals (mediators, lawyers, collaborative professionals) are often exhausted by their conflict.  It may have been going on for weeks, months, or sometimes for years.  They have an abundance of feelings – frustration, sadness, anger, disappointment, hope, dread, mistrustful, betrayed, anxious, and more.  Yet often, both the conflict professionals and the parties have the fantasy that once the walk through the professional’s door, they will tamp down the emotions and “get down to business.”  If it’s a legal dispute, then we should look at the law and the law doesn’t care about emotions.  It is simply a question of becoming clear on the facts and applying the law to the facts.  Or it could be an economic issue and we just need to get practical about what is the most rational way to solve the problem.  If we can find the magic pill to stick to the facts and make the emotional side of conflict go away, we can just ignore feelings, “get down to business”, and find a solution.

This fantasy can leave conflict professionals feeling like they aren’t doing things right when they aren’t able to push aside their own or other’s feelings.  If they were more skilled, less judgmental, more “professional”, they would be able to refocus everyone on the business at hand.  But we know that brain research shows that the decision making is strongly influenced by the emotional side of the brain, and maybe informed by rationality, but certainly not created in rationality.

We can’t make feelings go away – no one can. Conflict is emotional – for the parties and for the professionals.  When we pretend that we don’t need to deal with emotions, we can end up absorbing all of the upset in the conflicts we deal with.  After years of working with divorcing families, I realized that I had suppressed a lot of sadness and it was leaking out.  I eventually hit a crisis point when I decided I had to find a different way of working.  People who come to our programs sometimes have reached the same point.  One attorney who was a litigator told us she felt she was being eaten alive by her work.

The good news is we can use emotions to help work through conflict and find a way through what’s going on rather than pretending they don’t exist when we all know (hush-hush) that they do.  When we acknowledge, accept and allow our emotions to exist in our professional life, we don’t have to hide part of ourselves when we are working.  When conflict professionals start to get this, that’s when they get excited: “You mean I can use this? It’s okay to feel the way I feel? It doesn’t make me a bad person?” There’s a place to go with the emotion, something to do with it. They can say, “This is who I am – a feeling person who wants to get beyond black and white models in which one person is always good, the other bad, or there is only one right or wrong. What I’ve been trying to do my whole professional life is to find a way to be more myself when I’m working, so I don’t have to hide myself.”

And when we acknowledge and pay attention to our own emotions, we respond differently to the emotions of the other people in the room – the parties and other professionals.  The emotion we notice in ourselves may be a sign that someone else is feeling similarly or it may be an indication that we are reacting to someone else in a way that we should pay attention to.  By being curious and examining why a particular emotion is arising, we can choose how to respond.  I may be moved to comment on the sadness that seems to be underneath someone’s anger as I feel that sadness as I listen to them.  Or I may notice that I am pulling back from someone as I react to their hostility.  My curiosity about what is provoking both of us may help me to understand the situation differently and move towards rather than away from them.

Initially when I started paying attention to my emotions, it was quite challenging.  At a self-reflection retreat, Norman Fischer led us in a meditation in which as we breathed in, we let in difficult emotions and as we breathed out, we imagined transforming them and sending out healing.  By the end of the meditation, I was in tears from the tsunami of emotions I had previously absorbed and ignored, and was now unleashing.  Norman suggested that I could use a ratio other than one to one, perhaps one breath of taking in the emotions to four or five breaths of releasing them.  I practiced this for some months and as I found more balance inside of me, I was able to respond differently to emotions in the room when working as a conflict professional.  As I was able to consciously pay attention to and acknowledge mine and other people’s emotions in the midst of conflict, the understanding in the room increased and the death grip of ignored emotions decreased.  The attitude of “of course, difficult emotions are here and welcome” paradoxically results in a more relaxed atmosphere in which we are able to work through all aspects of a conflict.

There will always be more.  New challenges and new opportunities.  In facing the challenges, we so often discover the opportunities.  In pursuing the opportunities, we find ourselves facing new challenges.  New challenges are new opportunities if we recognize and allow them.


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Book Review: What Is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind by Norman Fischer and Susan Moon

Hot off the presses is “What is Zen? Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind”, a new book by Norman Fischer, who is one of our teachers in our Self Reflection for Conflict Professionals intensive (SCPI) series, and Susan Moon. In our SCPI classes, we incorporate meditation and other forms of self-reflection to increase our capacity for recognizing the relationship in our work between what is happening inside of us and outside of us when working with people in conflict.  For anyone interested in broadening their understanding of how to explore what is happening inside, this book is a great introduction to the concepts and practices of Zen, one of the many paths for self-reflection, a skill we strongly believe is essential for any conflict professional.  The question and answer format is highly readable and enjoyable.

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Beyond Entanglement to Gratitude

The mind and heart react according to their well-worn habits. Whatever habit of mind you have now comes from your actions and thoughts of the past (however unexamined or unintentional they may have been).

Whatever habits of mind you will have in future depend on what you do or don’t do from now on. The way you spontaneously react in times of trouble is not fixed. Your mind, your heart, can be trained. Once you have a single experience of reacting differently, you will be encouraged. Next time it is more likely that you will take yourself in hand. Each time becomes easier than the last. And little by little you establish a new habit.

When something difficult happens you will train yourself to stop saying, “Damn! Why did this have to happen!” and begin saying, “Yes of course, this is how it is, let me turn toward it, let me practice with it, let me go beyond entanglement to gratitude.”

Because you will have realized that because you are alive and not dead, because you have a human body and not some other kind of a body, because the world is a physical world and not an ethereal world, and because all of us together as people are the way we are, bad things are going to happen. It’s the most natural, the most normal, the most inevitable, thing in the world. It is not a mistake and it isn’t anyone’s fault. And we can make use of it to drive our gratitude and our compassion deeper.
~ Norman Fischer – CUC Instructor and Author

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Resting in the openness of mind

Sometimes it’s called not knowing. Why would we have to know everything all the time? Why do we have to be so knowledgeable, so smart, so in control? We don’t! There’s no need to figure everything out. We can just be alive. We can breathe in and breathe out and let go and just trust our life, trust our body. Our body and our life know what to do. The problem is to let them do it, to relax and let them guide us. Of course life is complicated and we have many things to work out in our material and psychological lives. But also we can find a place of refuge sometimes — in our own life, in our own breath, in our own presence. Maybe the easiest way to do this is also the simplest way: just stop and take a breath.

One breath, maybe two or three. You could do this now. Take a breath and return to the openness of mind. Breathing in, breathing out, and in the feeling of the breath, noticing whatever is there and letting go of it, easily, gently. Even if you are bored with yourself, even if you have some disturbing things going on in your life that produce disturbing thoughts and feelings in you, it is still possible in this precise moment (even now, as you are reading) to notice breathing, notice the body, notice the feeling of being present in this moment of time. This will relax you. This is what it feels like to rest in the openness of mind.

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Tools in the Toolbox or Intuition?

Conflict professionals who attend our programs are often looking for “tools” to add to their “toolbox.”  When I attend conferences, I often end up with a list from one of the workshops such as “Top Ten Interventions for Difficult Clients”.   I wrote a book for Collaborative professionals that is a compilation of forms and checklists to use in Collaborative cases.  For many of us, it is comforting to have a framework for how to manage a case so things don’t fall through the cracks and to have that “tool” to bring out when things get messy.  Our anxiety decreases when we have these support systems in place.

But there is a risk that the tool, form or checklist may become a barrier to being fully present and connecting to people in all of their unique, quirky selves.  When I am too attached to my checklists and tools, I may filter what is happening in front of me to fit it into something that will respond to my “tool”.  Or I may ask questions to complete my checklist (actual or mental) rather than following the path a party is taking.  When we do this, the process becomes more about us than the parties.

So how do we integrate the helpful use of tools and being fully present and connected?

First, practice and become familiar with the use of your tools and checklists. When we first use a screwdriver, we feel graceless, but when we are experienced, we have a better sense of the right time and way to use it. One of our core tools is looping – demonstrating to a speaker that the listener/looper has understood what the speaker is communicating.  In order to be able to loop successfully in the most tension filled moments, you have to practice a lot in easier moments.  Loop your family, friends, a clerk in a store, colleagues, anyone that you are having a communication glitch with.  As you practice, you become more adept, it feels less awkward, and you are more likely to use it in a high tension meeting.  Learn when it is a helpful time to use a checklist and gather appropriate information in an organized way and when it is time to set aside paper, pen, stop taking notes and just listen.

Second, prepare in advance, both for your use of tools and to be present and connect.  For example, if you are relatively new to mediation, it may help to review what you have learned about the process right before a meeting, reviewing materials or notes from a training.  Or you may want to consider tools you may be using. However, once you have done this more cognitive preparation, take the time to be present.  Take three breaths.  Let go of the other cases or pressures in your life that chatter in your head.  Imagine the parties sitting with you and open your heart for them.

Third, during the meeting, pay attention to your body and gut.  Learn the signs your body sends to you.  What does it mean when shoulders start to rise towards your ears?  Does your posture change in certain types of interactions?  What happens to your breathing?  As you become more familiar with your individual signs, you have more information to understand the situation and decide how to respond.

Finally, use your intuition.  If you have practiced and are familiar with your tools and you are fully present and connected, your intuition will guide you.  And your intuition may even be to throw out the tools, checklists and toolbox and say “I’m not sure what to do next?  Any ideas?”  Sometimes, the best tool is to open up the opportunity for everyone’s input and to work together to figure it out.

~ Article by CUC Instructor Catherine Conner, Mediator/Collaborative Practice Attorney

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