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Meditate, Mediate, Medicate: Is there a Difference?

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

~Leo Tolstoy

I have often wondered why we hold on to pain and grief and anger for so long. If we eat something that tastes really bad we find a way to spit it out. If I try on a piece of clothing that doesn’t fit or isn’t comfortable, I take it off. Why then do we not just keep our pain close but actually nurture it as well. I’ve learned that we often create what Wally Lamb calls “a museum of pain” where we curate our hurts and grievances. It occurs to me that we can spend a lot of time cataloguing and caretaking our memories of being sinned against. And, so I also wonder, how often we use that technique to justify our own not-so-good behaviour. Our own bad behaviour, of course, is never categorised to be quite as bad as the behaviour of others towards us.

I’ve also come to realise that none of us gets through life without experiencing some kind of breaking: we break other people sometimes and we are broken by other people as well. I set a lot of store by something that Bishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu say: If we are all broken and we all break others, we can all become more compassionate about what that is like and use our experiences to work towards forgiveness: the accepting, the letting go and the freeing ourselves from the weight of those experiences.

So, it still surprises me how often people in conflict express the view that the only problem is the other person. This focus on shifting the blame may not be part of their normal thinking process but it seems that when we are engaged in conflict, we have blind spots.

The other thing I notice is that even highly articulate people become much less articulate when describing their own emotional response to conflict.

How many words can you think of to describe anger? What is the difference between irritation and rage? In our balanced state, the one where we can think and feel in parallel, we can answer these questions quite easily. However, when we are in conflict we seem to lose at least some of that ability. My first question is, how is it that we miss the gap and stumble from irritation into rage?

I know when I am irritated. Some of the things that irritate me about other people are drivers who deliberately use the wrong lane and then cut in front of me at the last moment, thereby moving further up the queue; shop assistants who can’t work out the correct change (when I’m silly enough to try to use actual cash to pay for something); and bad food or weak, luke- warm coffee in cafes and restaurants.

There are of course things that irritate me about myself: my chronic lack of a sense of direction, my inability to master the use of chop sticks, my persistent lack of real expertise when I use technology. I know how irritation feels for me. Mostly, I notice it, talk to myself about it and let it go. It probably takes a few minutes and I probably (actually there is no probably according to my children and partner) scowl, raise my eye brows or swear under my breath before I catch myself. The gap, however, is reasonably small and mostly manageable.

When I reflect on my irritation with myself and with others I am aware that irritation is born of negative judgement. I am also aware that to develop greater awareness I need to let go of these judgements and make more space for awareness and trust so that I can focus on making more authentic choices and more responsibility.

Rage of course is different and thankfully much less frequent. When I think back on the times I’ve felt rage it has always been entwined with my feeling deep betrayal and suffering injustice, especially when I feel impotent to respond. Rage is born of challenges to my deepest values. When I feel rage, I find it hard to breathe, I want to lash out and cause someone the kind of hurt that they have just caused me. I have a Game of Thrones moment! I recall on one occasion going outside to make myself breathe properly and thinking, “This is why we have gun laws”. Rage for me is often followed by terrible weeping; an indication of the degree of hurt and loss I feel.

I’m aware that in between irritation and rage there are other uncomfortable feelings: frustration, annoyance, anger, spite, fury. I’m thankful for these other feelings because it means that I don’t stumble from irritation to rage. There are steps in between and each step allows me an opportunity to make a decision: shall I escalate or de-escalate? And so why is it that in the heat of conflict when I can be bereft of words even to accurately describe my emotional state that these are often the times when I am called upon to make a decision? And am I therefore less likely to make good decisions?

Self-reflection: this way of meditating on the task of being with yourself, is of course risky. It makes us vulnerable, even if only to ourselves. But in the meditation process, we can find better ways to “be in conflict” and it seems to me that self- honesty, authenticity and listening deeply to ourselves are all risk-taking but self-improving behaviours.

For me, Meditation is the process of letting go of conscious thought and then in the space that is created, allow ourselves to simply be. Miles Davis says that the space, the pause in the music is as important as the notes. Is it the same for thinking and is the lack of space why we sometimes overthink?

Some people would rather go sky diving or bungee jump off a bridge than self-reflect. Some people develop strategies to distract themselves from self- reflection: consuming alcohol or drugs or chocolate, spending money on a credit card, going for long runs… the list is endless. But I think that taking an emotional risk is similar to taking a physical risk; it means that we need to find our own evolving edge. Becoming familiar with our discomfort means we can become more comfortable, so that we can examine it and decide whether or not to change and evolve.

Central to this thesis is the idea that we want to find that balance between autonomy and belonging. The balance point, the sweet spot, is always changing. Experiencing our own Resistance, especially in the early times of using this exercise, can be normal.

Deborah Hill Cone, writing her weekly Opinion piece in the NZ Herald (May 26th, 2014) describes it as follows:

“…. Resistance is your inner bitch. It is the evil force that stops you doing the hard jobs, stops you creating the unlived life which frightens your soul; stops you starting that business; stops you getting that degree; stops you taking that act of moral courage. Whatever your higher self wants to be doing, the saboteur calls resistance will try to kneecap.”

Sometimes there is comfort to be had in the familiar story of indecision or internal conflict. Discomfort can be familiar. Conflict can also become familiar, so when we examine it, we can’t always ask ourselves the hard questions that we need answers to, in order to deal with our conflicts effectively.

If we consider, as Freud did, that fear (and fear of loss) underpins much of our conflict, many of us discover that what we fear most is a loss of control and so we hold onto things “as they are” to prevent us from experiencing that loss of definition. So, here are some questions to ask yourself:

Is this conflict about loss? How real is my loss? Is the loss and the subsequent suffering all that is left?

If I have to give up the suffering, might that leave a void? Is that void unfillable? “Where will I be, who will I be without the pain and anger and disappointment and suffering?”

Is this conflict about anger? What exactly is it that angers me? Can I use that anger as energy to make things different? What lies underneath the anger?

We can, of course be seduced by the destructive whisperings of our internal conflict imp. Think about the Lord of the Rings films, and the characters of either Wormtongue or Gollum. Wormtongue acts as a Conflict Whisperer to King Théoden of Rohan.

We’ve probably all had some kind of experience of this internal conflict. While destructive conflict is an insidious and unwelcome guest in too many organisations, schools, communities and families, it starts inside our own heads and hearts. Once it has crept in, it distorts our communication and perception. It is able to whisper in our ears, building conviction in our own position while planting the seeds of anger, mistrust and blame in the other person. We can become captured by the way that conflict seduces us into believing ever deeper that it is the other’s fault, that we are both innocent and wronged.”

You may recall that Gollum also has an internal conversation- acted as if between his two ‘selves’ Gollum and Sméagol- about Frodo and Sam and whether or not he will lead them or trap them.

So, what can we do to prevent or minimise that horrible sense of impotent rage?

Brene Brown says, “Hold the safe and potent space for the change to occur within. Encourage vulnerability and recognise it, as the root of all courage.”

Sometimes in our study/ workplace / family conflicts, we may feel confused, irritated, angry or helpless and there seems no constructive way ahead. The problem may be situational or interpersonal. Sometimes the problem is new and unexpected, at other times it is a repeating one and you hear yourself thinking, “This always happens to me” or “I never know how to deal with this”.

At the “never/always” moments, we may fail to consider to what degree we are nourishing and curating these feelings in our own personal museum of wrongs done to me. The destructive thoughts and feelings can smother other, more useful (and truthful) thoughts and ideas. If we want something to grow, we need to give it space and we need to tend to the new growth. At this point in my thinking, I ask myself, “am I being seduced by my own conflict whisperer”?

What might happen if we told that whisperer voice to shut up?

Because if we got rid of that whisperer, and if we really wanted to, we could instead become more aware of ourselves in conflict. And, in that process, we could create opportunities to learn about ourselves in our worst moments. The purpose of this learning is to allow us to decide what to change and what to keep about our conflict skills.

After I become more familiar with my own internal workings in relation to conflict, I can ask myself better questions.

· If I made a list of what I am angry or upset or frustrated or furious or sad about, what would be on the list?

(Because Neurology teaches us that list making is a soothing activity and helps us to restore the balance between thinking and feeling).

· “On a scale of 1-5, where 5 is the angriest I’ve ever been about anything, how would I grade my anger just now?”

(Because Comparative questions also help us to restore balance).

· Would I say that I’m feeling more frustrated or more furious at the moment?

· Would I say that my anger is hot or cold?

· What are my top three concerns?”

Narrative thinking invites us to interview the problem or the emotion to help get to get to know it better. Being able to describe something accurately means that I’ve separated myself from the emotion so that it can be something I sit alongside, rather than something that possesses me.

· What did I like best about how I dealt with things?

(Because if I ask this comparative question-what did I like best-, rather than “what did I like…” then I can’t answer “nothing”. Finding something good about an event is empowering).

· What techniques did I remember to use today? When have I used these techniques before? What helped me to remember them today?

· How might I remember them in future situations? Who/ what are the friends and allies of self- management? Who/what might be the enemies?

· Next time that I am really angry, what are the techniques that I can use to deal with that anger effectively?

These are narrative questions and answering them helps us to create memory and therefore a future resource to be accessed in time of need.

· Am I feeling defensive in some way? If so, is it likely that the defence I have been using as a reaction to this situation was once very successful and therefore it became important to me. I’m wondering if it is still so important. If I’m are intending to keep the defence, how might I use it more effectively in the future? If I am not intending to keep the defence, how might I store it safely away? What might I replace it with?

Questions like those above are meditative questions. We can learn to coach ourselves to manage our conflict better, and to pay ourselves attention and respect. (It can sometimes be hard to get that from other people).

Once you become familiar with the exploration process, you can use it effectively with your own internal conflicts.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests that we default unconsciously to our dominant stories (identified by our use of the words “always” and “never”) because those neural pathways are better formed and more familiar. He goes on to say that change and the formation of new habits is a conscious process and requires practice-10,000 hours of practice to become adept at something new.

So, don’t give up too soon, but if the task is too hard to do on your own, you can also choose to use a resolved Coach.

Dr David Drake, academic and creator of “Narrative Design Labs” recommends the use of conflict coaching. Drake says, “Conflict coaching often stems from a client’s current lack of ability to self- regulate and my role as a coach is to help the client to create a safe enough space to enable them to try new ways of being”.

Drake asks us to consider: “If I am not thriving, is it because I have lost my authentic voice?”

What do all of these ideas: meditation, tai chi, mindfulness and coaching have in common? Many other students and authors have commented on the connections and on the effective use of such techniques in terms of conflict resolution, whether it is practised by professionals or internally by individuals. Each practice trains us to go behind or beyond the thinking mind and our internal chatter and to seek a better understanding of our needs rather than our desires. During the meditation, we can think about the different parts of ourselves and which part we want to be in charge: which are the best parts to decide:

“We help to create a peaceful world when our own minds are peaceful

We help to create a generous world when our own impulses are generous

We help to create a happier world

When we recognise and act on our power to treat other people with kindness

We help to create a less conflicted world when we resolve our own conflicts”


And, knowing that when my own internal reflection process, my meditation on myself in conflict, is less successful than I would like it to be, I can take the next step and try Mediation.

“You can’t always get what you want,

You can’t always get what you want,

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometime,

You just might find,

You get what you need.”

Rolling Stones

Mediation is the practice of working with a Mediator, someone trustworthy and balanced and impartial who will support you and the other or others you have a conflict with, to find a way through the conflict and to reach an agreement to resolve it.

Mediators often use the triangle symbol to explain that in good mediation, we support people to consider “the substance, the what” of their conflict, “the process” by which it can best be resolved and “the relationships” to be sustained and protected.

We call it the CPR of conflict resolution.

In order to do that, we find out what needs to be clarified and discussed, whether there have been communication gaps or misunderstandings, what resources are available, what options are realistically available and how can we assist the parties to find the best parts of themselves so that they can make the best decisions.

Mediators also often say that in the process of talking together during a mediation, we sometimes become aware that something has changed. We become aware of a different and more peaceful energy. Sometimes, if we simply allow and accept what has happened, without attributing blame, that accepting process can in fact neutralise the power of the conflict motivators: the fear and the anger.

Change comes in layers. It’s a bit like blankets: sometimes we need more blankets and sometimes we need fewer.

Acceptance provides the space for the thoughts we have to be examined. This can seem counter-intuitive because the mind might assume that this is a sign of weakness rather than strength. We can become subservient again to our own inner-conflict-imp. Gollum can take over our mind.

The acceptance of conflict says, “I understand your anger/ hurt/ disappointment”. In Tai Chi terms, acceptance is the first step to letting go and the letting go is important because the more that we invest in the conflict or the loss, the more power it has to dominate. Since we know that we cannot “fight for peace”, we need to support our clients to find another way to achieve peace.

We can of course be tempted to describe this philosophy as witchcraft or say that it doesn’t belong “in the real world” but we might also need to ask whether or not our skepticism could be creating a block for peace and healing to occur. Good story telling is a deep expression of good health. We tell stories to understand the meaning of our lives. Our role as conflict resolvers is to allow space for the stories to be told and to be heard.

The power of being listened to and being heard (not agreement with but acceptance of the other) can encourage us to feel safe and from that place of safety we are more likely to make the shift into finding solutions. The concepts of resolving conflicts are both simple and profound and might be summed up in this quote:

“….We are greater than our fears and better than our limitations…..when we work together to resolve our conflicts we re-establish our humanness and can talk about our issues without dividing or pulling away from our mutual humanity…”

I’ve never been a fan of the term ADR in its original meaning: Alternative Dispute Resolution and in the same vein, I’m not a fan of thinking about “alternative medical treatment”. Alternative suggests that something is “normal” and the “alternative” is a lesser choice. I prefer concepts of complementary; complementary as in completing. The idea of connectedness, being ‘together with’ rather than choosing between is a theme of Mediation.

Mediation does these things:

· It helps each person to listen better, so that they understand more fully

· It helps each person to participate more effectively in a difficult conversation in a way that is safe and productive and constructive

· It clarifies the problems and the issues

· It encourages good faith and giving the benefit of the doubt

· It captures good ideas so that they can be used

· It helps people to work together so that they can make decisions that mean everyone’s most important needs

· It records any decisions so that they are clear and reliable

Medication is the outcome of a process when we give another person the power to make a decision on our behalf. In such a process, we are often encouraged to choose a champion to represent us (although these days we call them lawyers). The job of the lawyer/champion is to present our case to the decision maker in the best way possible so that the decision will go in our favour.

Often, we apply to be prescribed Medication because we believe that we have a Right that has been breached by another. Often the other believes that s/he also has a Right that has been breached. The task for the decision maker in such circumstances is to decide who has the stronger claim to Right.

The decision-making person goes through a process of analysis/ diagnosis (what seems to be the problem here? How did each person contribute to the problem? Is one right and another wrong or are they both somewhat right and somewhat wrong and how will I attribute responsibility/ blame? Does anyone need to be punished or compensated?)

The decision-making person makes their decision by analysing the evidence which has been presented and relying on legal precedents.

The decision-making person prescribes an answer or a solution to your problem.

You take your medicine. (Even if you don’t agree with the diagnosis or the analysis or the prescription, you take your medicine).

Sometimes, this is the best process. My suggestion is simple:

Try the steps first that allow you to maintain as much Agency and as much Autonomy as possible. These steps are Meditate and Mediate.

Wherever possible, choose the best person possible to diagnose and prescribe the Medication.

Take the medicine as prescribed.

Remember, Medication is, after all, likely to be the most expensive option. Or as I read once, “the cost of anything is measured by the amount of life you are prepared to pay for it”.


Barbara McCulloch

Barbara McCulloch has been a practising Mediator for more than 20 years and has worked in a number of different environments to provide Assisted Dispute Resolution processes. Her areas of expertise include resolving workplace conflict, family mediation, commercial and education disputes. Barbara trained initially in victim-offender mediation, was a Disputes… MORE >

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