The word conflict means “with friction.” It is defined as, “to strike together.” Like two stones rubbing against one another, we can either produce fire that gives us light to see, heat for warmth, and food for the body. However, if that fire produced from the friction of two surfaces striking together gets out of control, it can grow into a raging inferno that destroys whatever is in it path. This bonfire of destruction can range from the collective of countries to our own personal relationships.
Just as a tiny pebble caught in the turbulent friction of an oyster shell can produce a beautiful pearl, we can do the same by using conflict as a creative force for change. Instead of viewing conflict as something negative, we can shift our perception and embrace conflict as part of our own self-transformation.
The origin of conflict is as old as the beginning of time. Biblical scriptures say, “In the beginning darkness was upon the face of the deep and God said, ‘let there be light and the light was good.’” It should be noted here that according to the Bible, God never said the darkness was bad. Even though 90% of the Universe is comprised of dark matter, and darkness gives the background for light, darkness is usually associated with something we would rather ignore or avoid.
In Yoga, the light and darkness of sun and moon are known as Ha and Tha. Everything we practice in asana is based upon the balance and bilateral integration of these two polarities. In pranayama, we create balanced integration of our autonomic nervous system by balancing our breath in the two nostrils. In standing poses, we balance the two hemispheres of the brain by standing equally upon both feet.
If the subtle qualities of mind are balanced, the Yogin is able to hold two or more points of view simultaneously. This expands our consciousness to be more inclusive without attaching fundamentally to only one-way or one perspective, refusing to acknowledge or listen to another. If we can do this, we are on our way to healing conflicts within ourselves and with those in our lives. When we are secure in our own beliefs, we are able to listen to the perspectives of others.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras give a specific roadmap of the psychological origins of conflict that begin with the 2 nd Sutra, which is the most important of all, Yogas Chitta Vritti Niroddhah. Yoga is to still the fluctuations and turbulence that arise within the field of the mind.
Chitta refers to the mind that is divided into four parts, l) conscious 2) subconscious 3) over-mind, and 4) ego. Conscious mind receives information from the world around. It receives impressions through the sensory organs. This information is deposited into the varying layers of the pre- and subconscious mind. The stronger an impression, the deeper is its imprint in the psyche. Some of these impressions (samskaras) are already stored within us and new ones are being freshly created.
The overmind known as Buddhi (from Bodh meaning to know) is the more expansive part of Self that can hold two or more points of perspective without making one right and the other wrong. It is discriminating without being judgmental. It perceives differences without comparing those differences such as, “I like this and I don’t like that." It is what Ram Dass would call “choiceless awareness.”
Last but not least is the Ego mind. The Sanskrit word for ego is Ahamkara. Aham means "I Am,” and Kara is from the root verb Kri meaning “to do, or doing.” The mantra of this egoistic part of mind would be, “I am doing.” In contrast, the Buddhi or overmind, might say, “It is being done through me.”
The cute little Tasmanian dust devil of the ego fuels and is fueled by fires of separation that can lead to a variety of conflicts in the atmosphere of one’s life. The Buddhi or overmind only perceives differences, but it is the ego that compares the differences. This leads to polarizing belief systems that we are now witnessing in our country and our world, as well as in our own lives.
Just as there is an individual ego, there is also a collective ego of families, communities, states, and nations. There are actually three kinds of ego that I have related to the three gunas that are the constituents and qualities of the binding forces of creation.
The origin of conflicts can be found in the interplay of the five vrittis, or waves that arise in the field of the mind (Chitta). The Yoga Sutras reveal the origins of conflict through the interaction of these thought waves. Even though Patanjali refers to these vrittis as non-painful, when the ego steps in…they become painful. These five mind waves are: 1) Correct Perception 2) Incorrect Perception 3) Imagination 4) Sleep 5) Memory. What I have found in mediating conflicts both nationally and internationally is that “all conflict is about perception” and that “conflict is rarely if ever what it appears to be on the surface.” This is where it really becomes exciting.
Years ago, when staying with the former President of Costa Rica and his wife, my husband and I realized we shared a common interest and experiences in international conflict resolution. The president said that he found, in working with the El Salvadorian negotiations, that if the warring factions could travel back far enough to the roots of their conflict, it was no longer conflict resolution but conflict transformation. He said that if they could get people as close as possible to the origin of their conflict there was a true healing, not a surface pretense of resolution to put in their back pocket to use at a later time.
My husband and I were invited by officials in Moscow to mediate the conflict between the warring Republics of Armenia and Azerbiajan on the border of Iran. We asked the leaders to share their stories of how the conflict impacted them personally and their families. As they spoke, there was a major shift in the atmosphere of the room. Instead of the previous anger, rage and resentment, they were deeply listening to one another. When they heard each other’s stories, the tearful response of these two warring factions was, “you sound just like me.” Their tears fell, as the leaders of these republics rushed to hug and hold one another in the recognition of their similarities rather than differences. In one day, they moved from conflict to convergence and made verbal and written agreements to ensure peace for their countries, their children and future generations.
Afterwards, the Ukrainian president approached me asking the secret of these successful negotiations. He said, “three governments have tried but failed to bring these two factions together…tell me…was it,” he hesitated and then whispered, “Was it Yoga?”
I was startled at first and then thought yes! This IS Yoga. Yoga brings us from the illusion of separation to the convergence of Divine consciousness that transcends all polarities…all divisions. I understood that day, that the work in mediation and conflict resolution was Yoga. Our work was to help warring or opposing factions to lift the veil of illusion (Avidya) that keeps us from seeing another as ourself. I also discovered over the years of working in dialogue and conflict resolution that there are no spiritual boundaries separating nations, states, and people. It is only the ego nature of the mind that wants to build walls instead of bridges.
Years ago when I was with the Dali Lama in Israel on the border of Egypt, he silently looked out over the land where the boundaries of four countries of the Middle East met and said, “I don’t see any of nature’s borders or boundaries here…which makes me think… that the only borders are within the human mind."
I'm reminded of the inhumanity and suffering of both adults and children at the U.S. southern border. When I think of that suffering, I remember a quote from the Mahabharata, the great epic of India.
“When one prefers one’s own children to the children of others…war is near.”