The first Noble Truth of Buddha is that life is suffering.
The second Noble Truth is that the origin of suffering is attachment.
When we are in conflict, we are attached to something, whether it’s money, a picture of our own future, a relationship that makes us feel whole, or being seen as right or good or smarter than the other person. We are attached to an ideal future that we believe will bring us relief.
According to Buddha, these attachments break down into two basic internal reactions: cravings and aversions. We get into conflict when we’re craving money, respect, esteem from others, or a belief that something outside ourselves will make us happier than we currently are. And then there’s the conflict that comes from avoiding our fears of shame, poverty, invisibility, loneliness... the list goes on.
It’s all too easy to keep the conflict focus on The Other, since that person’s flaws are so much more obvious and pleasurable to point out than our own. If we resist that temptation, we can root out that nut of attachment that keeps us hooked in the struggle, look it squarely in they eye and decide whether it’s worth the pain it’s causing.
When I talk to people in conflict about their situation, I often hear about principles. As in, “It’s not the money, it’s the principle!” I take this to mean, “I know I can live without that money, but I’m stuck on being right.” In an attempt to go deeper, I ask why that principal is important or what would happen if that wasn’t achieved?
I was talking with a friend recently who founded and runs a non-profit facing challenges from someone outside the organization. She brought up the possibility of incorporating her entity into a larger umbrella organization. This would resolve all of the problems with apparently little down-side. When I asked her why she didn’t opt to transition the agency and make her life immeasurably easier she spoke about her values and the passion she has for the purpose of the non-profit (read: the principle).
I’m no one to argue against doing meaningful work, but I did suggest that she weigh those values against the toll that the conflict is taking not only on herself but on the larger community witnessing this standoff. We tend to forget that our conflicts leave messy slug trails that our family, friends, colleagues and neighbors become forced to step around.
This conversation caused me to ponder what can we let go of and what is important enough to hold on to. Surely it doesn’t make sense to let go of our safety or the safety of our loved ones. Yet it’s amazing how when we’re in a conflict, it all appears to be life or death. Even if we had been thinking about ending our relationship, we’re devastated when the other person beats us to it. Our control of the situation, personal agency, or belief about ourselves being right is often stronger than our desire to move on and lead a freer life.
The gift of conflict is that it helps us find these sticky spots inside ourselves. Without them, we might blithely assume that we are beyond that realm of desire or aversion. Then a conflict comes along and says Look at THIS! You are attached to something here because if you weren’t, you would let it go and get on with your little self.
We can ignore that wake up call, hunker down in our own story and stay stuck or decide what really matters and what we will prioritize moving forward.