Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Conflict
by Eileen Barker


The spiritual dimension of conflict is multifaceted. It involves stepping back from a situation and gaining a larger perspective. It has to do with taking responsibility for one’s contribution to a conflict situation, rather than blaming another. It has to do with learning to understand and even appreciate the role of conflict in one’s life and the role of a particular conflict: “Every conflict reflects what each person most needs to learn in that moment”[1] . At yet another level, the spiritual dimension of conflict is concerned with realizing the interconnectedness of those involved.

Einstein once said “The greatest tragedy of human existence is the illusion of separateness.” Among other things, the belief that we are separate and disconnected beings results in either/or, win/lose logic: “It’s me or you. If you win, I lose; therefore I must fight to win.” This results in competition and attack. It leads us to focus on prevailing over the other, winning at all costs, and achieving domination. It leads us in the direction of dividing the world into neat categories of “right” and “wrong” and labeling our self and others as “good” or “evil.”

This either/or, win/lose mentality has been applied across the board -- in families, institutions and nations. Yet, the current condition of our world tells us that this mentality is a dead end. We are all losing. We are all subjected to the impact of greed, corruption, injustice, violence, and terrorism. We are all left living in a conflict-ridden world dominated by fear.

Humanity is under great pressure to evolve because it is our only chance of survival as a race . . . Never before have relationships been as problematic and conflict ridden as they are now. . . . [2]


Those of us in the conflict resolution profession have a unique opportunity to introduce a different level of awareness, one which embraces “the essential oneness of all people, and the interconnection of all living things.” [3] From our vantage point as neutral third parties, we can help parties see the bigger picture, use their hearts as well as their heads, and work collaboratively for the greater good, rather than simply pitting one person’s needs against another’s.

How can we access this possibility? How can we help parties experience oneness as a living reality? How can we learn to resolve conflicts at a deep and lasting level?

The Ego, The Mind and Fear

“Conflict is a product of the ego and the mind, not the heart.” [4]

One of the keys to accessing the spiritual dimension of conflict is to understand the root of conflict: Conflict does not arise from external events, but rather from our reaction and response to those events. Moreover, at the root of nearly every conflict lies fear, and parties who perceive themselves to be separate and disconnected from each other. Conversely, true resolution of the conflict occurs when we return to a place of connection, trust, and ultimately, love.

Most human relationship consists mainly of minds interacting with each other, not of human beings communicating, being in communion. No relationship can thrive in that way, and that is why there is so much conflict in relationship. When the mind is running your life, conflict, strife and problems are inevitable. [5]

It is the evolution of conscious awareness away from narrowly focused ego-driven states that holds the key to changing our approach to conflict. For example, it is the mind and ego that say:

“I know what occurred.”
“I know who is right.”
“I know who is to blame.”
“I know what should happen.”

These beliefs are the characteristic underpinnings of almost every conflict. The ego is quick to point the finger and place blame on someone else. Yet, each of these thoughts stems from a defensive stance adopted by a fearful ego [6]

A deeper truth would be this:

“I don’t know for sure what occurred.”
“I don’t know who is right.”
“I don’t know who is to blame.”
“I’m not sure what should happen.”

These sorts of admissions are antithetical to our culture which places a high value on knowing, being right, and having accurate facts, verifiable results and expert opinions. Yet, any one of these latter statements would instantly transform most conflict situations.

“The spiritual journey of conflict resolution starts when the parties disarm their immediate responses to conflict, and choose to watch, listen and learn from their opponents. There is no room on this journey for illusions, for seeing themselves as victims and others as enemies, for fears that conflict will harm them.” [7]

We can choose to end the blame story and take responsibility for our own contribution to the situation. We can choose to place less weight on the illusion of “knowing everything,” and more on discovering what we can learn. Perhaps the cost that peace extracts from us is admitting that we don’t know, or at least, that we’re not sure. However, paying this price enables us to realign with a greater truth, which includes the enormity and mystery of life that can never fully be understood or defined by our minds.

Acknowledgment
In writing this article, I gratefully acknowledge the inspiration of Peter Rengel, author of Living Life in Love, and the generous support and editorial assistance of Cate Griffith.

Endnotes

[1] Kenneth Cloke.

[2] Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, (New World Library 1999) p. 132.

[3] Kenneth Cloke, Mediating Dangerously (Jossey Bass 2001 ), p. 111.

[4] Johanina Wikoff.

[5] Tolle, The Power of Now, p. 105-06.

[6] Adyashanti.

[7] Cloke, Mediating Dangerously, p. 117.

Eileen Barker © 2004, all rights reserved.

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