Recently, I have been thinking about the relationship between conflict, peace, and resistance. Resistance describes some force that opposes movement in a given direction. Sometimes, we view resistance as good and sometimes as bad.
In conflict, people may experience resistance as stubbornness or inflexibility by the other person. Frustration mounts as the resistance in the conflict increases. Often, resistance and frustration act together to escalate the conflict to a higher stage. I have wondered whether this negative effect of resistance might be transmuted to a means of achieving peace.
In tai chi and Akido, resistance by an opponent results in the opponent’s surprise at flying across the mat. Softness and yielding by the practitioner are signs of mastery of these martial arts. Could not the same idea be applicable to achieve peace.
What are the possibilities? First, one could move completely away from the resistance of the dispute. We call this behavior “avoiding.” Many people avoid conflict because it provokes anxiety. When the resistance is avoided, the underlying problem is not addressed, but the anxiety caused the problem is reduced. Some people would rather reduce anxiety by giving up on themselves than confront the resistance of the conflict. . To lessen the anxiety, they move away from the situation causing the conflict. Of course, the conflict remains unresolved and often escalates.
One could also confront the resistance with equal or greater resistance. We call this behavior “contending” or “competing.” The conflict is transformed into a battle or game to be won or lost. The winner is the person with the most power, skill, or luck. Again, the underlying problem is not addressed, but the conflict is abated. I think of the resistance and strength of will of a two year old and the energy a caregiver must exert to overcome that will. The child will capitulate in the face of greater power, but not gracefully. So meeting resistance with resistance may not be optimal. Between adults, no person likes to be told what to do. When unwanted orders are given, the orders may be met with passive aggressive disobedience, insubordination, and hostility. These are all forms of counter-resistance.
A third possibility is to connect with the resistance and become joined to it. In tai chi, it is called “sticking.” The practitioner literally adheres to the opponent and moves with the opponent’s center of mass and balance. The opponent, having nothing to push against, finds his or her strength rendered useless. In conflict, this could be achieved by simply not reacting to the resistance of the other party. The “sticking” technique might be accomplished by focusing on the other person’s real needs or perceived injustices. This takes practice and skill, and like tai chi, is effective at neutralizing power.
Another possibility is to look at the resistance of the conflict as a form of mental/emotional weight training. We go to the gym and lift weights to condition and strengthen our bodies. Weight lifting, whether with free weights or machines, is called resistance training. As most know, putting muscles under moderate strain by moving weights causes the muscles to grow. Our peacemaking skills might be developed the same way.
When faced with conflict, using the resistance training metaphor, we can exercise attitudes and skills otherwise neglected. The emotional heat of conflict could be the ideal training for compassionate, focused listening. Our untrained, weak “peace muscle” might cramp or spasm, causing us to become caught in anger, anxiety, and hatred. Our conditioned, toned “peace” muscle, buffed with practice, gracefully and gently engages in the conflict. Instead of cramps and spasms, the “muscle” flows with the conflict by staying present, focused, and emotionally aware.
Take moment now and reflect on your most recent conflict. What was the type of resistance you experienced? How did you react to it? Now, imagine that instead of avoiding or counter-resisting, you simply allowed the conflict to flow around you effortlessly. What does that feel like? Practice this a few times in your mind.. Then, when you find yourself in conflict, see if you can engage your “peace” muscle by letting go of the resistance. You will find, with practice, that your conflicts will become much less stressful.
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