01.06.2015 Buddhism

Resolving Conflict with Mindfulness

Ilsa Sharp explores a key theme of the 9th Global Conference on Buddhism to be held in Perth in August

When we talk about "conflict" our minds automatically turn to what we perceive as the great conflicts of our times: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan...

It isn't as intuitive as it should be for us to recognise that the conflict we ought to be most concerned about is the conflict among individual human beings; and at the micro level lies the conflict we often experience deep within ourselves.

Conflict is of course endemic to the human condition. But, says Cecilia Mitra, President of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia (BSWA), "Ability to cope with conflict brings peace." Peace does not arise from the absence of conflict, an impossibility, but rather from how we choose to cope with conflict.

Statistics of suffering

One of the worst forms of human conflict that we in Australia can observe firsthand is found close to home. It sits right at the heart of society, inside families: this is domestic violence. Try just one of the countless statistics available: more than two women are murdered by an intimate partner every week.

Why is there so much anger in the air? Why is it so often directed at those supposedly nearest and dearest to us? And what can we do about this?

Practitioners of mindfulness meditation, including Buddhists, think they may have the answer. They point to our frequent failure to seek out the silence and solitude that can enable regular "inner inspection", a personal check-up on our own minds. We need to be kinder to ourselves. We need to vocalise less, and reflect more.

Try jail, or try meditation

It was interesting recently to see National Rugby League star Russell Packer, now on parole after a one year prison sentence for a violent assault in Sydney in 2014, tell of his "cathartic" jail experience and how imposed self reflection benefited him there. "It was a very humbling experience…because you have nothing. What I did learn, particularly in jail, because you're in such a confined space, is that unless you let go of your anger, you can't really move forward," he said.

The isolation in jail taught Packer to calm down. But you don't have to go to jail to experience this transformation - mindfulness meditation will do it for you.

It is this practice that is at the centre of the upcoming 9th Global Conference on Buddhism, Resolving Conflict With Mindfulness, that the BSWA will host in Perth, August 8–9, and which will bring together a dazzling array of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist minds. They include futuristic "techies" like cyborg and robotics engineers, as well as hypnotists, psychic phenomena experts, doctors and psychotherapists, even a movie star.

Beating ourselves up

Malaysian-born Bhikkuni Hasapanna, the female Abbot of Dhammasara Nuns' Monastery at Gidgegannup and Assistant Director of the BSWA, is one of the speakers at the upcoming conference. She says that when we encounter conflict or criticism, we ourselves add to the suffering already naturally inherent in life (death, disease and so on) by hanging on to the hurt and "over-thinking" it. The pain and anger comes from inside us and from our own ego, not from our critic or opponent.

As she says, "We need to look at our own shortcomings, and we need to forgive ourselves, accept ourselves, not beat ourselves up and not impose our expectations on others.

"The ball will stop rolling if you leave it alone; only if you keep on kicking it will it continue rolling. There are no short cuts though, it takes time to reach this place."

Get the big picture

Another speaker at the conference is Ajahn Brahm, the British-born Abbot of WA's Bodhinyana Monastery, Spiritual Director of the BSWA, Spiritual Adviser to the Buddhist Societies of Victoria and South Australia, and Spiritual Patron of the Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore, an internationally renowned Buddhist leader.

His take on conflict is: "Why do people always have to be right? It's all about a need to feel superior to others. It's ego… In a marriage, you should just make it clear from the beginning that you are going to be wrong often, and this is okay. Listen to the other. Neither is right. Just take the two different perspectives, join them together and come up with something different, a third option, the bigger picture.

"You remember that famous Buddhist story of the seven blind men and the elephant (make it a kangaroo if you like!), how each man could feel a part of the animal but only when the seven put together their different experiences of the creature could they see the whole picture? You just can't always be right."

Be still

An important Buddhist idea is that only in calm still waters can you see a clear reflection; only when your mind is still can you see a perfect reflection of the truth. If you have stillness, you won't argue so much. In many cases, instead of just clear thought processes, we need processes that are clear of thought. This is where the practice of mindfulness comes in, as a tool for the cultivation of wisdom.

Take your time

So what is mindfulness meditation and how can it help? Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword among the trendy these days, from celebrities to business tycoons. But it isn't a technique you can acquire overnight; it needs time to cultivate. Put simply, it involves "being in the present moment", avoiding past and future issues, and paying attention to that present moment in an accepting way, without reacting to it. It slows you down and clears your mind for wiser decisions and actions.

Turn on your windscreen wipers

As Ajahn Brahm puts it, "Not being mindful in life is basically like driving a car with a foggy windscreen."

Yet, as he has also said, diehard control freaks will make successful mindfulness meditation difficult to achieve at first. They will impose rules on their mind and body: "I must do it this way, listen to the breath, do this, do that, sit this way, must not fall asleep while I meditate", etc. etc.

To achieve truly alert awareness and mindfulness, you need first to draw on the energy of a rested mind and body, and second to let your mind go free, no matter where it may wander. Treat it like a wayward child or a friend that has returned, and welcome your mind home. If you need to sleep, then sleep. Don't fight it.

You need to prepare your mind for the process of mindfulness meditation. Here are a few tips:

Be physically well and rested, to maximise meditation energy.

Habit is the enemy of mindfulness. To keep alert, do things differently now and then - brush your teeth in a different direction, walk home a different way; don't operate on "auto-pilot".

Relax, don't be a control freak, make friends with your mind.

Be playful whenever you feel like it, to nurture happiness. You're never too old to be playful.

Cultivate the awareness of NOW.

The 9th Global Conference on Buddhism in Perth from August 8-9 is for everybody, not just for Buddhists. For more details, go to www.9gcb.org

ABC Radio National/Sunday Extra, 2 March 2015.

Ilsa Sharp is a communications coordinator for the Buddhist Society of WA.

Ilsa Sharp

Ilsa Sharp writes on Buddhism and spirituality