(Uplift | Cynthia Connop) I used to avoid disagreements but now I use them as a tool of growth and self-inquiry. And I realised there is potentially a lot of passion in fighting.
A mature society understands that at the heart of democracy is argument.
— Salman Rushdie
Making space for healthy rivalry
When I am in conflict, I notice what is going on in my body. Perhaps I am actually ‘digging in my heels’, getting ‘hot under the collar’ and am ‘red-faced’. My body stiffens and my thinking becomes more rigid. My voice gets louder, and all in all, it’s intense!
We heat up when we fight and the stress hormone Cortisol floods the body. This eventually suppresses our immune system, which is a real no-no for our pandemic era. And I just discovered fighting increases our mortality rate. I have spent years learning how to widen back my awareness, loosen up my opinions, stay calm, and generally look at my part in things. I struggled until I could say sorry and mean it. And that was fabulous training.
It’s the arena of conscious disagreement, conflict resolution, mediation, and therapy. Eye contact, slowing down, deep breathing and listening without judgement is essential. Staying connected to your own feelings and reactions. I learnt how to breathe deeply when triggered into arguments, watch my automatic responses and listen to the other person with curiosity, even if I hated what they were saying. Finding the middle ground was the aim, or allowing differences to just be there.
These practices short circuit the adrenal response and lower the cortisol level. A few more years of life gained there, hopefully. And I am sure this inner work made me an easier person to be around.
Meeting in the middle
In this way, we can enter and appreciate the other person’s reality, without having to agree with it. The other person feels heard and they relax too and you find a way through, potentially meeting diverse needs. A win-win scenario emerges. Many conflicts in our world have been avoided by skillful negotiators intervening. At this moment there will be people doing this in war or conflict zones, with business and government, working hard to bring people together.
Listening without judgement helps us appreciate the other person’s reality, even if we don’t agree with it. Image: Jopwell
Be calm in arguing for fierceness makes error a fault and truth discourtesy.
— George Herbert
Over time we learn that our sense of self is not dependent on being right, on winning an argument. Allowing the other their space does not mean we are less. And you can get quick at it too, choosing to just let go rather than have to be right. When this approach works, we feel more spacious and our hearts are more open. Neither running away nor getting aggressive pays off. New levels of understanding, trust and connection open up. Creativity emerges.
In an intimate relationship, it means we can feel safe, that we won’t get dumped on by our partner, or attacked out of nowhere. The energy is smoother and more friendly.
And yet it can also become dull and lacking in passion. Couples who disagree skilfully, last longer and report being happier. How could that be if fighting and conflict are bad? Because they aren’t bad if we are open and connected, if we don’t unfairly attack but just express the energy and own it. It can be liberating and even fun.
Where the relationship is basically a loving one, with safety and trust, I sometimes suggest an ‘anger dance’ to couples who are stuck in conflict and niggling at each other, or scared of what they might unleash. I have done this myself and it works.
The ‘anger dance’
Each person takes the floor for a period of time and dances or moves their anger and makes sounds, to music or to drumming. The other watches on and supports them in unleashing their energy. In this dance they are embodying and taking ownership of the feelings. It is not a blame dance, it is a solo expression of the anger, frustration or pain they feel. When both people do it, they reveal themselves to each other, and there is a freedom and vulnerability that touches the heart.
When we are open, a fight clears the air and creates passion, but only if you are keeping the thread of connection. Only if each person can feel love. Only if it creates more love.
It is exhilarating to be able to stamp our feet, toss our hair, huff and puff, and feel love in the midst of it. To know that it does not diminish the love but enhances it. That humour can be found in the disagreements, and the intensity and ill-feeling can be dropped quickly. It is purely energy after all.
Argument need not be heated; it can be punctuated with courteous smiles, or sympathetic tears.
— J. Sidlow Baxter
It is the work of our spiritual practices that allow us to embrace a dispute, to treat conflict as healthy. It is an expression of ourselves and in showing this to each other, without dumping or blaming, then we can feel more authentic, more alive and more vibrant. It takes being sensitive to the other person, and also it takes trust.
There can be no progress without head-on confrontation.
— Christopher Hitchens
I am not recommending hurting or attacking people, as that is destructive and ends friendships and relationships, but occasionally being able to swear and get ‘dirty’ is enjoyable and creates fire and passion. Not all of our interactions have to be like calm water. Let’s light a flame with our differences and we can dance together around that fire!
When we read the biographies of saints and teachers, our gurus and heros, we find they didn’t shy away from conflict. When it was the right thing for the right outcome, they engaged. Not from righteousness, but from a place of right action. For the sake of Love: always for the sake of Love.
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