I was recently reading an article about a man with a condition that renders him numb to his own feelings while the feelings and emotions of others are experienced as his own. That is to say if he sees someone in pain he experiences their pain in his own body. Neurologists claim that the cause of this condition is an over developed prefrontal cortex. He also has more grey matter than the normal person. The connection that the article didn’t make is that meditators have been found to exhibit similarly developed areas of the brain.
There is a Buddhist practice of Exchanging Self with Other —to step into the shoes of the other, take their perspective, and ultimately not to differentiate between ones own pain vs the pain of the other. Why? So that we work to end the pain of others with as much vigor as we do our own.
This got me thinking about how different conflict would be if we could literally feel what the other person is experiencing. If we walked around life motivated to end the pain of others as naturally as we work to end our own. Now, to do that completely and all the time is difficult. But a simple perspective changing exercise can make the world of difference in diffusing a hostile situation once safety has been established.
As a mediator, if one can walk into the crossfire and hold compassion for both parties, perhaps we can hold the space for that conflict to transform and indeed be an agent for that change.
The practice of exchanging self and other often begins with looking at our level of equanimity. Doing so may just be the key to holding this balanced compassion and thus engaging in compassionate conflict. Conflict does not have to be a negative thing, it can be the stimulus for positive change.
So here are the three aspects that a mediator should explore to gain equanimity to engage in compassionate conflict:
1) Consider someone that you dislike. Is it the case that because you dislike them that you also wish them ill? Not typically, right? And even though you may not see eye to eye, is it not the case that they are just human and likely suffering just as much as you, if not more?
2) Next consider someone that you don’t know — maybe you catch sight of someone on the subway that you’ve never seen before. Think of all the people that you see but never look at. You rush along in your own little world and ignore the rest. Is it not so that they too are suffering? Shouldn’t you feel as much compassion for them as you do anyone else?
3) Finally consider someone that is very close to you. When they are suffering, does it feel as if it is your own? Isn’t there this wish in your heart to take that suffering away? And if so, what would it be like if you felt that way about everyone?
The goal is to see how differently you hold people and what the potential is. This isn’t something you do once and then forget about it. This is something you do daily. Bring to mind and use tangible examples of each. Then really think about what it would mean to feel compassion towards everyone. How would it change your world and the conflict at hand?