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Mediation Past, Present, and Future….

“We must work for harmony wherever we

are, to bring together that which is sundered

by fear, hatred, injustice or any conditions

which divide us. I begin with a concept of

human nature based on the belief in a divine

element within each of us… We must

remember, this good exists in those we

oppose.” 1            

Adam Curle

Mediation has been part of the story of mankind. In all the religions of the world there exists leadership in promoting peace.  In all the cultures of the world there are systems, processes and traditional ways of making peace.  The word mediation may be part of the 20th century English vocabulary, but the meaning behind it has roots and seeds that have been developed as long as mankind has existed.

One of the hidden messages behind mediation training in the 20th century was the divine reality.  That somehow, somewhere, within each living being there is a spark of goodness, and when we are able to connect and access this spark, the darkness of conflict is contrasted with the light of hope. In the darkness of distress, being able to see a way forward introduces faith towards peace.

With the introduction of competencies, regulation and institutionalization of dispute resolution within every area of modern society, mediation has been secularized.  In order to practice as a mediator, earn a living as a mediator, the practice of mediation has moved into a set of standards that are regulated by a board and therefore confirm to ‘expertise’. The values behind expertise include confidence in knowing what is correct. Objective criteria that can prove the expert is correct, and thereby be seen as an authority in what the expert is doing.

In a secular world that values the material or physical reality, authority and expertise are recognized by skills and strategies that are observable.  What is denied in this worldview is the spiritual reality that lies beneath or beyond the surface of observation.  Within a world view that includes the spiritual dimension there is a level of humbleness that needs to be present in order to make room for the divine.

Spiritual here is defined as beyond the physicality of life. The spiritual context recognizes that the body has a spirit, a soul and that to ignore or discount the value of the spiritual creates a dissonance with the reality of life and those that are connected to this reality. Transcendent emotions are those that connect with the spiritual such as awe, beauty, forgiveness, compassion and love, they bring a person to experience a connectedness with spiritual awareness. They are distinct from assertive emotions.  John Haidt 2 refers to these feelings and emotions which take us beyond our physical reality as elevating emotions. Bringing awareness and providing attention towards this is one way of including spirituality into mediation.

If one of the hallmarks of the 20th century was ‘legitimized expertise’, then already as we enter the 21st century it appears that ‘uncharted territory’ gives claim to the level of terrorism and inability to control nature that is now part of the global society.

We can draw a metaphor from the Chinese symbol of yin and yang.  The essence of yin yang is that opposite forms or forces are in fact complimentary.  This is found in many of the spiritual traditions around the world. In Judaism the tree of life expressed in Kabbalah identifies branches that whilst recognizing opposite forces exist there is also an intermediate wise blend of these that creates a third force characterized as beauty, connectedness and harmony.

Expertise or competence is a force of objective strength on the one hand, and uncharted territory is the mystical dimension of life that is sensed on the other hand. The 20th century brought the world view of rationalization into focus as a goal for civilization. Politics, education and parenting practices all centralized around skill development in cost benefit analysis, where cost and benefit are observable realities.

In Sydney Australia, where I live, we had at the end of 2014, the shock of experiencing what is now called the Martin Place siege.  A popular upmarket café was used as a hostage zone.  In the heart of Sydney, where a giant Christmas tree stood at one end of the pedestrian mall and a giant Chanukah candelabra at the other end,  a ‘self-styled Muslim cleric and peace activist’ man took control of a busy Lindt café and turned it into a nightmare.  For days Sydneysiders were dealing with something that none of us could ever imagine would happen here.  Within 24 hours, 3 people died. Within 24 hours after that, Martin Place became a sea of flowers. These flowers transformed the disconnection of life to a reality of connectedness. The landscape of flowers carefully placed by thousands of people with sincere meaningful notes and cards attached expressing love and kindness created a transformation of energy.  Two weeks before Christmas and on the 1st night of Chanukah, Sydney could not escape the obvious link that religion, spiritual identity is part of our social landscape.

When I went to Martin Place to rest my home grown hydrangeas amidst the thousands of beautiful flowers, I was able to read the notes that were attached.  Almost every note talked about the spirit aspect of life, whether resting in heaven, or being reminded of the power of spiritual comfort, or candles placed with words of light, such as was written under the giant Chanukah candelabra.  “The Jewish community of Australia expresses our deepest sympathy for the families of the Martin Place tragedy. May the Lights of the festival of Chanukah bring comfort and warmth to our nation.”

Spiritual and cultural leaders from all over the world that live in Australia were united with one voice, with one view, the desire for peace and prayer to be part of living.

So what connection is there between the Martin Place siege and our mediation world? Something remarkable took place in Martin Place, in the business, legal and commercial centre of Sydney that somehow brought the yin and yang element into focus. If we go about our business, our mediation business with a eye for the regulations, the secular costs and benefits of business and keeping customers happy, we may still be missing out on a very significant factor of life that is really at the centre, at the essence of conflict.  Human beings are very capable of creating beauty just as we are capable of removing beauty.  Creativity is not born from regulations, from competent guidelines and expertise.  Creativity like a river, has a source and needs to flow within a space that welcomes it. 

Ten years ago Folger and Bush came up with a title of a book, The Promise of Mediation, and whether you agree with their practice of transformative mediation or not, their title raises a very good question.  What is the promise of mediation?  Is it to enable people to get back to their shopping, to make commerce easier, to create a more efficient legal system?  Or is there as the Yin and Yang symbol and the tree of life suggest, a magic in opposites,  a mystery that lies in the inbetween that seems to be hidden from the secular world view. 

The Martin Place siege was a significant experience for all those in Sydney. For the days of that week,( it started on the Monday and people were bringing flowers for at least a week), there was a shift in the communication between strangers.  I noticed in Bondi how strangers wanted to make eye contact and smile, wanted to talk, to ask “How are you?, isn’t this a terrible thing happening?”  There was a level of interaction that was akin to compassion.  A sensitivity to knowing that pain is present and wanting to do something to create relief. 

Now if we as mediators are wondering what the promise of mediation is, well I think it is to offer a way into the mystery of compassion.  We have some wonderful leaders in our field, who have been holistic practitioners in their life, not just their work, but their very existence of being.  They have brought the spiritual into their daily exercise of living and hence are practiced at having sensitive perception to the unobservable. 

I think the pendulum has swung a long way from the centre, out to the boundaries of economic rationalization, the present dominant world view that has no interest in the intangibles of existence.  Let us embark on a journey of return. Let us, before we leave as our lives are really numbered, let us leave our profession with a reminder of where it came from, what the intention of those who were mediators before standards and boards of review and complaint handling took charge, had as their guiding principles.  Let us return to the light of a profession that had at its core the dignity of every human being, of how the divine plays a role in all our lives. Let us be reminded of how as mediators the core of our profession is to remove the thorns and briars that limit the spark of light.  That often the way of removing is actually its opposite, it is by planting seeds of a different counter variety that attract different vibrations and therefore shift the development of one area to development in another.

Holistic practices include awareness of the unobservable, practices that include secular and traditional spiritual know how.  There is shift happening within our 21st century society, a sociological nudge that is happening in our midst.  I remember the 1960s and 1970’s, which may have been the preparation stages for this shift.  Perhaps the landing of the moon, in the middle of the ‘hippie’ movement was symbolic of the charting of new territory. Today we are in the eclipse of a new era, a post secular era. Let us be part of the leadership in guiding the professional world, in navigating and negotiating the way of swinging the pendulum towards the centre.  It will not be easy, it can’t be if it a true shift.  We would need elders from spiritual traditions to be part of the planning in this shift, we would need leadership from the secular science of compassion that is truly part of this wonderment.

In imagining our profession in 2040 it might be something like this: We are the leaders who are part of the bridge that in 20 years time, others will have to walk on. There was a time when mediation alongside law, medicine and teaching were not regulated by governing boards but rather self regulated by people ‘called to service’.  Cleary this included charlatans who were really ‘called to power’.   Is it not possible that in a regulated profession it is also possible that we have those who are called to service and those who are called to power and money. So regulation is not the key to authenticity.

In the bridge that I envision building towards the next 20 years, I would accept that diversity in practice is part of any community and I would not therefore be assuming that regulation would be the key factor for goodness, or holistic practice, on the contrary, the way to build a bridge is to recognize the current environment, be clear about what structure will provide a safe passage and then focus on the project of building something beautiful.  Regulation is only one way of expressing professionalism; it is not the answer to moving the pendulum to the centre. The way of movement has to be with intentional energy towards a clear goal.  It must include training, it must include support and guidance, and it must include creativity. It is not easy to like ones enemy, and that really is our core business.  Providing pathways and conversations that include the way to appreciate the divine element in every living creature – now that to me seems a valuable goal to pursue.

1 Adam Curle, True Justice, Quaker Home Service, London, 1981 in Compassionate Listening An Exploratory Sourcebook About Conflict Transformation by Gene Knudsen Hoffman Cynthia Monroe Leah Green

2  John Haidt Elevation and the Self Transcendent Emotions (this page will soon morph into


Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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