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Mediation As A Spiritual Practice

Can mediation be considered a spiritual practice? And what is a spiritual practice anyway?

We think the answers to these questions might explain, at least in part, why we and many other mediators find mediation to be so fulfilling – turning an occupation into a labor of love.

Both of us were initially attracted to mediation for pragmatic reasons. Helping people avoid court, and reach fair, cost-effective solutions to their conflicts, seemed socially useful and intellectually challenging. But, with each passing year, we find ourselves looking beyond fairness and efficiency to the parties’ deeper objectives and our own.

If you have read this far, you have probably noticed that we are speaking here of “mediation” – not “meditation,” a traditional form of spiritual practice. Other spiritual practices include yoga, fasting, religious rituals, chanting, and prayer. Some Zen Buddhists consider flower gardening, calligraphy, painting, and poetry writing to be forms of spiritual practice. Some of the martial arts (e.g., Aikido and Tai Chi) are also considered spiritual practices. In parts of Asia, tea ceremonies have a spiritual dimension. Others find spirituality in love, music, mathematics, community service, long-distance running, or even golf. (Have you seen the book Zen Golf? )

Applying the term “spiritual” to these many and diverse activities does not trivialize the concept. Rather, it speaks to what these practices have in common when experienced with passion and authenticity. For us, “spirituality” means the human desire for connection to something larger than ourselves; a connection with our own souls and with one another; a connection to the deepest sources of meaning and value in our lives. In the words of Palmer Parker, a connection “with the invisible winds of the spirit and with the mystery of being alive.” For some, spirituality and sacredness are inextricably related to religion. For us, not so much. In fact, though we are both involved to some degree in religious observance (which, for us and many others, is a subset of spirituality), we have come to believe that serving as mediators is one of our primary forms of spiritual practice.

For example, several years ago, we – along with our colleague, Susan Miller – co-mediated a complex family business dispute, involving 21 people. It was an immensely satisfying experience, which we have described – with appropriate changes in identifying details – in a case study called “Restoring Trust to the Beneficiaries” . After two emotionally charged and rather harrowing days of mediation, long-estranged relatives hugged and reconnected. Hatchets were buried [not in each other!], and the parties crafted a sensible distribution of land and other assets from a family trust that was about to dissolve.

What was satisfying about the case, however, was more than simply helping a vexed family resolve their complex financial and psychological issues. For us – and, we suspect, for many mediators – the satisfaction of mediation did not depend entirely, or even primarily, on the result. What mattered was accessing a centered, peaceful, compassionate, and non-judgmental place inside ourselves, where we could withstand the fire of conflict and initiate the process of healing without being consumed.

The fire of the crucible is not merely a dramatic metaphor. Just sit with a couple whose long-term marriage is crumbling, and listen to their bill of particulars – a well-rehearsed mantra of grievances that each has clung to, and embellished, over the years. One can easily be singed by such conflict, as each party tries to recruit the mediator to his or her side. Or, sit with a mother and her adult son, who has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against her, alleging poor management of his inheritance, but whose underlying (unspoken) complaint is a history of neglect. The heat of their anger toward each other fills their minds, their hearts, and the room.

The paradox for mediators is that they can withstand the heat by removing their protective armor. Authenticity and being fully present with the parties are not only effective as dispute resolution strategies, they also create a model for the parties. By opening their hearts and souls to the parties, mediators may motivate similar openness in return.

Consider, if you will, an analogy from the field of psychotherapy. Psychologist Richard Schwartz, in an article entitled “Releasing the Soul: Psychotherapy as a Spiritual Practice,” describes his journey as a psychotherapist from a pragmatic, problem-solving focus to developing a form of treatment in which the clinician helps the patient access deeper resources that can promote transformational experience.

Schwartz is known for developing the Internal Family Systems (“IFS”) model of psychotherapy. IFS is not about families per se, but rather about individuals and, in particular, the family-like relationships that exist among our various psychic “parts.” Each of these parts can play a particular role; for example, we have managerial parts, playful parts, and parts that cause us to feel shame.

Underlying all of these parts, in the IFS model, is the Self – the core that remains when our various parts are stripped away or voluntarily take a few steps back. In Introduction to the Internal Family Systems Model (2001), Schwartz describes eight attributes of Self, all of them beginning with “c”: calmness, clarity, curiosity, compassion, confidence, courage, creativity, and connectedness. Schwartz has also described the Self as “a very active, internally nurturing form of mindfulness.” We are functioning at our best when our Self energy is in charge, leading the way with the assistance of our various parts.

Schwartz’s description of the “Self-led” person – someone who embodies the qualities describes above – brings to mind attributes that mediators aspire to:

“You feel immediately at ease in a Self-led person’s company, sensing it is safe to relax and release your own Self. Such a person often generates remarks like, “I like [her] because I don’t have to pretend – I can be myself with [her].” From the person’s eyes, voice, body language, and energy you can tell you are in the presence of someone who is authentic, solid, and unpretentious. You are attracted by the Self-led person’s lack of agenda or need for self-promotion, as well as by his or her passion for life and commitment to service. Such a person does not need to be forced by moral or legal rules to do the right thing. S/he is naturally compassionate and motivated to improve the human condition in some way because of the awareness that we are all connected.”

One might think that such a person has transcended the vicissitudes of life, but Schwartz explains otherwise: “a Self-led person is not detached from the world, with emotions always held in abeyance. Instead, such a person drinks deeply from the bittersweet fountain of life while simultaneously maintaining a center of equanimity.”

For mediators, therapists, and others, achieving a degree of Self-leadership can be enormously enriching, but even more enriching when we can also form a deep connection with the Self in others, regardless of whether they are family, friends, or the clients and patients with whom we work. When people experience this “Self-to-Self connection with another person,” Schwartz writes, “they reach, at least temporarily, across the walls separating them and touch, perhaps unconsciously, the awareness that all human beings are the same at some level – that we are all spirit.”

The view of Self that Schwartz describes is similar to those in a long tradition of attempts to describe and create authenticity in human relationships. Martin Buber, in his well-known I and Thou, articulates the quality of relationship that is mutually respectful of the shared humanity between people. It is distinct from the I-It relationship, a relationship rooted in instrumentality and utility. Similarly, Jean Paul Sartre was concerned with the human tendency to “objectify the other” and thus create inauthentic human relationships

Of course, not every mediation case (or psychotherapy session for that matter) provides transcendent moments of this kind. But virtually every mediation has the potential, however fleeting, for a spiritual connection between the mediator and the parties. And every mediation gives us the opportunity to practice a spiritual discipline of bringing peace into the room – and in order to do that as effectively as possible, we seek to have peace in our hearts.

We have heard from a number of mediators that they prepare for sessions with a brief period of focused meditation to clear their minds. Some recite the St. Francis Prayer (“Lord, let me be an instrument of thy peace . . .”). We seek, as we begin the mediation, a peaceful place in our hearts, but once we are in the mediation room, the challenges and provocations begin. Often they are carefully aimed not only at the other parties in the mediation but also at the mediator. Although our various “parts” stand ready to protect us, Schwartz recommends the following discipline:

“To maintain Self-leadership in the face of provocation, our parts must be able to trust our Selves enough to quickly step back and let our [authentic] Selves handle the situation. . . . When this works, I will feel upset inside but will not be overwhelmed by the upset parts and will remain the “I” in the storm – dealing calmly, confidently, and even compassionately with the situation, while sensing parts that are seething or cowering inside.”

This method for remaining centered in the face of the parties’ attacks and efforts to enlist us in their cause works as well in mediation as in psychotherapy.

The Self (or some might call it “spirit” or “soul”) that we bring to the table in mediation and in the other venues of our lives has no agenda other than being. Yet Self-leadership, when practiced with authenticity, can foster healing through encouraging the harmonious relationship between the disparate parts of ourselves. It is as if the orchestra that is ourselves and has been playing out of tune, yields to the influence of the baton of the conductor (Self).

We once thought of spiritual practice as an adjunct to life, not unlike going to the gym – except we engaged in meditation and other spiritual practices to tone our minds, not our bodies. In other words, spiritual practice had instrumental value in the attainment of greater fulfillment in our lives and in our work. (See, e.g., Lewis Richmond’s book, Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job. ) But we have come to experience spiritual practice as an end in itself, as a way of working and a way of life.

Experienced in this way, we find co-mediation to be particularly rewarding because of the opportunity to de-brief with each other and explore those aspects of the mediation that each of us found challenging. Often, we discover that we react differently to those challenges. For example, in the mother-son mediation, one of us found our emotions triggered by the son, and the other was triggered by the mother. Each of us, for separate reasons, found an area of personal reactivity in this case, and discussing our reactions opened the door to learning where our internal points of identification and conflict occur. Some stirred-up part of us was calling out for attention in those situations, and learning to understand and appreciate the power of that part was essential to accessing our Self- energy and engaging in Self-leadership. This process of reflection and re-centering takes place throughout a mediation, from minute-to-minute, and after the mediation is over.

Some psychotherapists say that nothing bad happens in a therapy session, even if a clinician makes a mistake, because it’s all “material” for the work of psychotherapy. (The technical term is “grist for the mill.”) We feel the same way about mediation. Even if we are challenged or provoked, the experience is one we can work with to become better mediators and, dare we say, better people. Who knew, when we made the decision to become mediators, that our vocation would provide such an inviting path toward personal growth and spiritual connection?


1. For a differing point of view about this topic, see “Spirituality in Mediation” in Geoff Sharpe’s excellent blog, Mediator blah…blah… ( (with comments from Colin Rule and Diane Levin questioning the role of spirituality in mediation).

2. One might think that the words “mediate” and “meditate” are so similar they must have something in common linguistically. Evidently not. The dictionary instructs that “mediate” comes from Latin, in which the original meaning was to be in the middle, to intercede. “Meditate,” on the other hand, comes from an Old English word, metan –”to measure,” meaning an “act of continuous calm thought upon some subject.”

3. Many distinguished scholars, mediators, and other conflict resolution professionals have written about the spiritual aspects of mediation and negotiation. The following list is just a sample of their work – some have written numerous articles and books on this and related subjects. We invite you to help us keep this list up to date by sending us links to material that we may have missed.

A Brief Reading List

Eileen Barker, “What the Bleep Does Spirituality Have to Do with Conflict Resolution” (


Daniel Bowling, “Mindfulness Meditation and Mediation: Where the Transcendent Meets the Familiar” in D. Bowling & D. Hoffman, eds., BRINGING PEACE TO THE ROOM: HOW THE PERSONAL QUALITIES OF THE MEDIATOR IMPACT THE PROCESS OF CONFLICT RESOLUTION (Jossey-Bass 2003).

Darshan Brach, “A Logic for the Magic of Mindful Negotiation,” 24 NEGOTIATION JOURNAL 25, 30 (2008) (



Erica Fox, “State-Shifting: Advancing the Art of Conflict Resolution” (

Lois Gold, “Influencing unconscious influences: The healing dimension of mediation, 11 CONFLICT RESOLUTION QUARTERLY 5 (1993) (


David Hoffman, “Mediation and the Meaning of Life,” ABA DISPUTE RESOLUTION MAGAZINE 3 (Summer 2005) (

Laurie Israel, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Mediation” (

Ran Kuttner, “From Adversity to Relationality: A Buddhist-oriented Relational View of Integrative Negotiation and Mediation,” 25 OHIO STATE JOURNAL ON DISPUTE RESOLUTION 931 (2010).

Linda Lazarus, “Mediation and Meditation: Why Mediators Should Meditate” (

John Paul Lederach, THE MORAL IMAGINATION: THE ART AND SOUL OF BUILDING PEACE (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Steven Mehta, “Mindfulness in Mediation Matters a Must” (

Tim Mordaunt, “The Spiritual Side of ADR” (

Jill Sarah Moscowitz, “The Compassionate Mind in Mediation” (

Barry Noble, “Mediation and Mediation” (

Doug Noll, “Mediation and the Brain: The Neuropsychology of Peace, Conflict, and Negotiation” (

Victoria Pynchon, “Why Conflict Is Our Zen Master” (

Leonard Riskin, “Mindfulness: Foundational Training for Dispute Resolution,” 54 JOURNAL OF LEGAL EDUCATION 79 (2004).

Donald Saposnek, “Aikido: A Systems Model for Maneuvering in Mediation,” MEDIATION QUARTERLY 119 (December 1986) (

Elisabeth Seaman, “Bringing a Spiritual Approach to my Mediation Work” (

Heidi Tauscher, “Spiritual Practices for Mediation Challenges: Pragmatic Mediation Applications from Five Major World Religious Traditions” (

J. Patrick Ware, “Spirituality and Conflict” (


Zena Zumeta, “Spirituality and Mediation,” 11 MEDIATION QUARTERLY 25 (1993) (

Additional Resources:

American Bar Association, Dispute Resolution Magazine, Special Issue on “The Spiritual Side of ADR” (Spring 2004)

Association for Conflict Resolution, ACResolution, Special Issue on “Preparing for Practice with Heart: The Spirituality Issue” (Spring 2010)

Association for Conflict Resolution, Spirituality Section (


David Hoffman

David A. Hoffman is a mediator, arbitrator, and Collaborative Law attorney at Boston Law Collaborative, LLC. He is past chair of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution. He is the John H. Watson, Jr. Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on Mediation, Collaborative Law, and… MORE >


Richard N. Wolman

Dr. Richard N. Wolman is a clinical psychologist, mediator, guardian ad litem, parenting coordinator, and consultant, with more than 30 years of clinical experience, and an Affiliate of Boston Law Collaborative.  He is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, where he teaches psychology and research methodology. MORE >

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