Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 5 of 6) ~ Current Challenges Continued: The Wisdom of Moving-through-ness

Ultimately, our lives end for us all with an unavoidable stage right exit—Death: The end of our physical existence as we know it… An ocean crossing scales with the wind…

We are carbon-sparked stories pulsing in the cosmic filament strung through space and time. When we are gone—awakened, perhaps, in some other side of consciousness—someone may take care to memorialize our lives with an obituary. If our lives are especially profound, perhaps they may receive the special honor of a statue or biography. Ultimately, who’s to say how to evaluate the worth of a human life. 

This need not be grim. Don’t reach for the gothic wardrobe yet. The pharmacy-fueled emotions wired to our survival instinct are not required prescriptions for our illuminated being. On the stage of life, we don’t need to understand how or why we shine to make a lasting, meaningful appearance. There is no dress rehearsal. Forget the curtain call. 

Whatever neighborhood, nation, or galaxy we come from, our personal growth should be motivated not because we’re aspiring to collect an achievement or surpass someone else, but because any movement forward might as well be driven into greater heights (or depths) of our awareness. 

If this all sounds a little mystifying, it may help to contemplate our journey with applied realism. Understanding that it’s easy to distort our evaluation of ourselves and rationalize our progress, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl warns us about putting our ends before our means, “… self-actualization can only fall into your lap automatically once you have fulfilled a concrete meaning, done the best of a situation. Then you actualize yourself as a byproduct.” Fortunately, we don’t need to survive a death camp in order to experience transformative meaning within our lives.

Throughout the history of humanity, the world’s diverse religions and spiritual practices have offered profound wisdom with which to guide our lives. Beyond the sacred texts, the spark of the divine exists everywhere. Even the field of military philosophy can instruct us about how to live a better life. The Book of Five Rings, written by the legendary Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, discusses martial arts strategy in a way that is equally relevant for everyday civilians. Cutting to the existential quick, he sums up the warrior’s philosophy without pretense, “Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” Likewise, it seems to me, the Way of the wise man involves resolute acceptance of one’s mortality, the inevitable departure, while pursuing the greater potential of our shared humanity—and divinity.

Musashi’s reflection about the philosophy of the warrior continues, “The Way of battles is the same for man to man fights and for ten thousand a side battles. You must appreciate that spirit can become big or small. What is big is easy to perceive; what is small is difficult to perceive.” The battlefields of the warrior and wise man may differ in terrain and tactics, but they share a common characteristic: The method we use to measure the movements of our spirit influences how we conduct ourselves on the battlefield. 

Some appreciable differences do exist, however, between the lives of soldiers and civilians. While the goal of the warrior is victory, the defeat of an opposing power through attrition or cunning, the wise man aspires to peace through harmony, a goal that can only be realized by surrendering to a purpose greater than one’s survival instincts. 

The types of conflict that we confront are more or less universal. Even though societies have changed throughout time—consider middle-class life in 21st-century U.S.A. versus aristocratic life in 2nd-century Rome—human nature largely remains the same. Ancient Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, commanded an empire by day while reflecting by night on human nature. In his bedside journals (which were later published posthumously as a book, Meditations), Aurelius wrote insightfully about how the governance of others can function as a natural extension of ourselves: “To grow together like fellow branches in matter of good correspondence and affection; but not in matter of opinions. They that shall oppose thee in thy right courses, as it is not in their power to divert thee from thy good action, so neither let it be to divert thee from thy good affection towards them.” The ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism promotes self-governance as a central virtue within their system of ethics. As responsible citizens, we have a duty to conduct ourselves in conscious attunement with the world. Stoics believe that choices, not passions, should lead our lives. Pleasure and happiness are byproducts of willed virtues; they are not passive experiences to be pursued in isolation. When we abide by the disciplines of logic and self-control, we can prevent needless suffering—physical, mental, and emotional—that we cause ourselves and others.

Elsewhere in his journals, Aurelius introduces an ethical concept he calls meekness. Meekness is a virtue at odds with the Western concept of power as control over other people. Instead, meekness implies a transcendent control over ourselves, “… meekness is a thing unconquerable, if it be true and natural, and not affected or hypocritical. For how shall even the most fierce and malicious that thou shalt conceive, be able to hold on against thee, if thou shalt still continue meek and loving unto him; and that even at that time, when he is about to do thee wrong, thou shalt be well disposed, and in good temper, with all meekness to teach him, and to instruct him better?” It’s not easy to respond with love to the world’s ill intentions. We understand this implicitly. What we don’t grasp with equal conviction is that we each have a bountiful kingdom within us that can be led, and misled, only by ourselves. While world-appointed authority employs power as a means of leveraging control over other people, genuine power is unassailable by the world’s authority, resting securely in the birthright of its sovereignty. With an iron-clad claim to the throne, we are tasked with overseeing peace and order within the kingdom of our soul. 

Whether we abide by the meekness of Stoicism (also referred to as temperance), the equanimity of Buddhism, or the divine grace of Christianity, each school of thought grants a person freedom through practices of self-awareness and self-control. When we experience resistance between ourselves and the world, we are wise in not yielding compulsively to our triggers or passions. Instead, conflicts can encourage us to liberate ourselves from ourselves—even, or especially, in our lowest moments.

Although our lives are all inseparably connected, our growth is always our solitary right and responsibility. We cannot change other people. It’s hard enough to change ourselves. Nevertheless, we can influence change in the world through the nature of our interactions with it. 

In contrast to the conflict-free life that we may prefer, every battlefield upon which we stand offers us an opportunity to grow alongside other people. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy novel which has been adapted into a contemporary movie, a large cast of characters are pressed to the limits of their faith and courage, repeatedly forced to discover themselves anew in order to succeed in their journey. The lead character, Bilbo, is an unlikely hero among a group of adventurers who all set out to save the world from an expanding empire of monsters. In a moment of vulnerability early in his adventure, Bilbo confesses to the wizard Gandolf his hesitation about going into battle, “I have never used a sword in my life,” Bilbo says. Gandolf, wise as his beard is gray, responds first with compassion, “And I hope you never have to,” before adding a crucial qualification, “But if you do, remember this: True courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one.” 

Wandering further into the realm of fantasy-land analogies, some video games involve battles that can’t be avoided. It’s a common incentive within some games for players to collect rewards throughout their virtual adventures. Typically players level up (or improve) their characters by defeating opponents, gaining experience points and treasure by doing so. The algorithm for payoffs is consistent: The greater the challenge, the greater the reward; adventures that culminate in battles with boss characters, opponents that are noteworthy for their special powers, are especially rewarding. That’s all good and simple in videogame fantasylands, however, conflicts in real life are not quite so clearly marked.

In the battlefield of real life, we don’t always win or lose as gracefully or graciously as we believe every hero should. Sometimes other people may perceive us to be the opposing boss confronting them in their journey. Sometimes, when confronting an overwhelming challenge, we may be wise to cast the treasure we possess to the pool of our shared humanity. Alluding to the theme of conflict resolution in everyday life, an insightful tweet by the video game developer Xbox rings as a moral call to action, inviting us to accept the times when it’s beneficial to override our ego for the greater good: “Be the kind of person who would drop epic loot after a boss fight.” 

One particularly meaningful form of treasure casting involves surrendering something precious that we idolize. Our attachment to idols can be tangible, including people, places, or belongings; or they can be intangible, including ideas, beliefs, or feelings. We can also form attachments to problematic behaviors and habits. Sometimes our idols can get in the way of our growth. Sometimes, although it seems counterintuitive, we can turn the subjects of our pain and suffering into idols, guarding them jealously.

Whatever it is that we encounter as we move through our journey of self-actualization, as author and Soto Zen roshi Gerry Shishin Wick advises us in The Book of Equanimity: Illuminating Classic Zen Koan, “We can’t heal wounds by “trying to put them behind us” or by “just moving on” or “letting go”—we have to go right into them.” 

Unfortunately, we often struggle to evaluate our wounds with equal clarity and compassion. As research professor Brené Brown puts it on The Happiness Lab podcast, “People will do just about anything to avoid pain, including cause pain.” If left ignored, unresolved pains tend to multiply, emerging all the toothier elsewhere in our lives where they are even less welcomed. 

Acknowledging the pains we cause ourselves and other people is a responsibility best braved without condemnation. A healthier approach to owning our accountability is to replace self-judgment with a more sustainable motivation: self-compassion. As self-help author Kristin Neff discusses on The Psychology Podcast, people who develop more self-compassion tend to take more responsibility about their past transgressions; not less. This may seem contradictory to some people who associate responsibility with austerity: the proud burden of power in the absence of affection. She explains, “If you shame yourself and criticize yourself, it’s not safe to take responsibility and you’ll want to blame it on other people, because it’s too painful. So what self-compassion does is it actually increases your ability to take responsibility, it increases your motivation to improve; but it does it for a different reason.” Rather than improving ourselves because we believe that we are inadequate, we can do so because we care about the wellbeing of ourselves and other people. Compassionate responsibility, therefore, involves acting in everyone’s best interest.

Furthermore, Neff discerns different types of compassion and different ways to apply them. While fierce self-compassion can help motivate us to make difficult, and necessary, changes in our lives, tender self-compassion accepts us, unconditionally, as we already are. The dance between this yin and yang dynamic recalls Carl Rogers’s insight about the psychological paradox that the more we accept ourselves the more we are able to change ourselves. Anticipating pushback from critics, Neff clarifies what’s at stake here: It is not letting ourselves off the hook, “Quite the opposite. You need to be brave and strong to say, that hurt so badly.”

Avoiding the cycle of pain also requires us to disarm various traps of self-deception that we employ for our egoic benefit. These traps often involve lowly strategies like short-cuts, dismissals, or wishful thinking. We use such traps when we try to skip the journey for the treasure. However, before we can realize moving-on-ness, the gleaming treasure we desire, we must first resolve our moving-through-ness, the uncertain journey from here to there. This isn’t a truth we can engage with the magic of intellectual abstraction. We must undergo this truth experientially, attend to its infinite upwelling beneath our finite understanding.

As spiritual teacher Michael Singer explains in his workshop, Living From a Place of Surrender—which is based upon his best-selling book, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself—there’s invaluable wisdom in accepting our experiences as a gift. Our personal experiences are unique, unrepeatable occurrences taking over 13.8 billion years of galactic evolution to arrive at. Considering the magnitude of this scale, why would we fight against that which gave us life? When gazing at a starry sky above, how can we not feel inspired to live with greater purpose, or, at least, a little more awe?

Please take a moment to appreciate the unfolding of our existence within the history of the cosmos. How amazing! Never mind your mind; feel this miracle between your gut and heart.

As I close this sprawling monologue, I should clarify that I’m speaking to myself here, dear visitor. I have been from the start. 

While I developed this text tenaciously over the last two years, I took care to field-test the guiding principles that I’ve written about until I could embody them with some iota of conviction off the page. More than a casual blog entry, I pursued this project with zealous devotion—eventually doing several 40-day dietary cleanses and a couple of silent retreats to motivate a conclusion. 

I’d like to think that I found a little more peace and acceptance in the process. Of course, my struggling continues. However, I know that I struggle in good company. As I continue to wrestle with this blog’s themes off the page, hopefully whoever encounters this imperfect testament of my lived journey will find some value in its offering. Meanwhile: I can speak only of what I now know and believe. So, follow if you dare!

This is not a disclaimer. There’s surely a danger in appearing as an authority on a subject then failing to follow the standards that one represents. And this responsibility is even greater when the subject is life itself, or, rather, how to live life well.

Those who know me in real life should bear no surprise in my disclosure that I’m human, and, therefore, imperfect. So, where my words don’t always match my behaviors, I ask you not to hold me blameless, but to refrain from collectively dismissing the wisdom I’ve tried to express. Besides constillating thoughts and feelings into shapes we call words, it’s a slippery task separating one’s idealized message from the pains, limitations, and biases of one’s lived experiences. This is an admittance; not an excuse. We are responsible for the life we steward.

Sometimes pursuing the noble why of life—that is, the drive for meaning behind why we do what we do—requires making life-sized sacrifices. In the Bible, Jesus talks to his disciples about the sacrifices involved in following him. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus commands his disciples with a message that would constitute a career-ending speech by even the most audacious dictator. Instead of offering consolation for what ails us, and promising a brighter future with less suffering, Jesus challenges his disciples to renounce their lives in order to follow his thorn-crowned example. The life Jesus offers does not come with the taglines of extra conveniences, safety, or national pride. The cost is great. Jesus speaks boldly, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” What Jesus promotes is not an obliviousness towards one’s self, rather an awareness that the pursuit of righteousness lies in contrast to one’s self-serving preferences. 

My self-serving preferences are numerous. I don’t need a legal team to protect me from this statement. Short of achieving sainthood or enlightenment—and perhaps even then—a human life contains inevitable discrepancies and contradictions. Still, this is no reason against trying to live one’s best life. Nor is this reason against sharing our humble wisdom with each other as we find it, however thorny it may be.

But we should take care. When we communicate about a subject beyond our mortal reach, like the elusive ideals with which we pursue, our wisdom can be lost in our efforts. A classic Zen image of a person standing on Earth pointing at the moon above them can remind us not to mistake our striving for the end itself. The purpose that we reference, whether in words or actions, hangs always overhead like a beacon guiding our way towards a better way of living. As Patrick Buggy puts it, “It’s never about the finger. It’s about seeing for yourself what the finger is pointing at.” In order to discern the difference, we must learn “to intuit the Real in itself.” Language is a slippery construct that both leads and misleads us. Still, there’s something irreducible within our messages, like our beliefs, that permits them a life of their own. With or without case capitalization, what constitutes the Real or True for you? How will you recognize it when you see it? And are you willing to follow it even if the cost is great? 

Wherever I have stumbled in my practice of living, wherever I have fumbled in the delivery of my messages, I request your grace. Please don’t give up on me. And please don’t disregard the moon towards which I’m aiming; salvage any speck of wisdom you can from its hazy image. I see no way out from this bind—negotiating roles as man-who-proclaims-to-know and man-who-struggles-to-follow—than building bridges in fellowship towards our continuous unfolding. 

We each choose our path onward. We each choose how to measure our growth. It matters little if we actualize, realize, develop, explore, transform, transcend, deny, or accept our inner being. It matters little if we define the core of the self as a boundless field of consciousness, an indivisible, tailor-made soul, or an evolutionary program of finite biology. What matters is how we carry on in good faith, cultivating, each in our own way, greater courage, humility, and kindness in our lives. 

So, dear visitor, here’s to many more years of open-hearted path walking. And here’s to recognizing value in our conflicts as they come, including good, clean fights when needed and, hopefully, just as many reconciliations. 

Whoever you are, whatever your struggles may be, know that you are human. You are no mere aftermath of unlikely statistics. You are something far more profound. Whether you exist as a voice of divine love or an eruption of stardust sentience, you are an unique expression of consciousness that precedes and exceeds human understanding. 

While navigating the heights (and depths) of your consciousness, tend to the soil of ancestral wisdom within you. Don’t pick the fruit of your spirit out of season; you will reap the harvest of your labors when the time arrives. Be kind to yourself and others. If your conscience is clean, round up: Accept that you’re a good person, despite a few weaknesses, and, with equal conviction, offer the same benefit to other people. 

Occasionally, the conflicts of life may entangle you. That’s okay. Unravel your attachments to attachments, especially the sticky ones, like resentment and bitterness, that hinder your flourishing. Press into the pain of loss with curiosity and compassion: You will discover grounds for healing if you persist. 

It may be tempting to idolize the aches of adversity. Instead, face them directly, embracing the changes with an open ease of being. Remember, you can move on with peace only after you move through what confronts you. The landscape for growth spans your mind and heart, yet continues far beyond. As often as possible, in troubled times and otherwise, give gratitude the wings of generosity: Appreciate the gifts you’ve been given; and befriend what should have been—we aren’t built to carry conclusions like tombstones. 

When you feel stuck, take one step forward. Again. And again. 

Careful—your soul is not an assembly line. Spend a day without chasing your goals. If they are worthy, they will still be there when you return. 

Now sit. And close your eyes.

Breathe in. Humor yourself when you are alone. 

Pause. Yes, your unfortunate haircut will soon fade. 

Breathe out. No, you can’t get your money back. 

Attention! Are you waiting for a miracle? Remember, you are a miracle: your very existence and the way you live it. 

Now go. Nobody grows by dwelling in departures.

However you find yourself strung in space and time—with or without grand design—honor your wild glowing on this earthen stage. Accept that all that you cherish will change form eventually, leaving you without your permission. Count each season as a lesson in arrivals, a blessing from an unseen host, a whispered hello among the rustled leaves above: 

You are awake… You are complete… As you have always been…  

(The featured image is used by courtesy of Tara Winstead on Pexels.)

Winter 2023 Blog Update (Part 3 of 6) ~ Lessons Learned: Conflict Management

If we live long enough, it happens to us all: The world, full of cold indifference to our golden-calf agendas, infiltrates our beating heart with its ragged claws—and pulls. With a single gesture, the ego is uprooted, leaving our bare awareness of self throbbing in monolog: “Feel! CONNECT!! Change! GROW!!”

Eventually, we all stumble into conflicts that trigger us, challenging our self-awareness and self-control. It’s inevitable. For the sake of clarification, my use of the term conflict encompasses a spectrum of adversity ranging from simple stress to complex trauma, including any degree of pain, discord, or loss of peace in our lives. Regardless of the context that inspires conflict, the essence of conflict management involves addressing the friction or tension between ourselves and our environment arising from an unmet need, desire, or expectation that we possess. 

There is no end to the ways we can be challenged at work or home, personally or professionally, through words or actions, rightfully or wrongly, intentionally or otherwise. Conflicts are not exclusive to high-stakes scenarios: being mugged in a street; contesting legal custody of one’s kids; struggling with a terminal health condition. There are no conflicts too ordinary to challenge us: slow service at a restaurant; a flat tire on the way to work; an unreciprocated gift we’ve given someone. Ultimately, any event—or non-event—can be experienced as conflict. 

Encounters with our fellow human beings can be uniquely problematic. There are many situational factors to consider when evaluating interpersonal conflicts: people’s motives, communication styles, temperaments, backgrounds, etc. It’s complicated. Although far from comprehensive, I’ve explored a handful of conflict resolution methods below that we more commonly encounter in daily life. Relevant to my recent adventure abroad, the examples used to model each method are inspired by experiences I had with roommates and neighbors while living in Spain. 

As much as the people I encountered in southern Spain excelled at appreciating the immediate carnal pleasures of life, they sometimes fell short of appreciating the potential consequences of their actions. I found this to be true in my engagements with larger bureaucratic systems as well as my engagements with individuals in my daily life.

Pushing into my zone of vulnerability, the examples of conflict encounters that I’ve listed below typify a recurring challenge that I had in Spain while living with people who did not share my same level of conscientiousness. Because certain regions of Spain still observe the siesta tradition—in which people enjoy napping in hot, humid afternoons—they tend to stay up much later. It was common, therefore, for me to struggle with neighbors who were quite restless (read: disruptive) throughout the night. 

After reflecting upon my experiences, I should acknowledge a proverbial truism that applies here: If we can’t change our environment—which is even less likely when living as an outsider in a foreign country—then we must change how we respond to it. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore our environment or dispense with having preferences for how we’d like to shape it; rather that we should be mindful about how we manage our interactions with it.

Within that relational framework, I offer up my life as an illustrative model meant to inform as much as entertain. As trivial as the following examples of my domestic life in Spain may be, hopefully they serve their purpose, demonstrating the underlying conflict resolution principles in question.

  1. DEFEND / ATTACK. In this mode, when we perceive that we are under attack, and a reaction is warranted, we take direct actions to defend ourselves, which is, by definition, another form of attack. The difference between an attack and defense can be ambiguous, often hinging upon the subjective experience of our motive for engagement and method of delivery. Either way, this mode involves rising to a level of formal engagement with someone over an issue that we experience that is compelling us to respond. Considering the cutting nature of the defend-and-attack method, its ethicality and efficacy is highly dependent upon the integrity of the people engaged in the conflict. 

My third apartment was conveniently located within walking distance of the high school where I worked. However, it was inconveniently located between an underground parking garage and a restless upstairs neighbor. Because the apartment floors were marble, the sound of footfall was amplified dramatically at night. I eventually wrote a letter to the neighbors above me, perhaps unreasonably, complaining about the hard-heeled shoes that one of the tenants seemingly used exclusively when inside their apartment. The letter resulted in an awkward confrontation with my two neighbors at our doorstep: a middle-aged man and woman indignantly defended the accusation of their disturbing the neighborly peace. After heated negotiation led by my roommate, who assisted me with my faulty Spanish, the neighbors maintained that nobody in their house owns any formal footwear or stays up late at night. They then marched away proudly, the female neighbor’s hard-heeled shoes clicking with every step. My problem never improved.

  1. IGNORE. In this mode, we pretend like the catalyst for conflict never happened. Ignoring is like the ground force militia of conflict styles. This method benefits from being easy, or at least simple because it requires little energy investment. For a while, it can give us the illusion that the issue doesn’t even exist. It can also be a statement that the issue is your problem, not mine. Ignoring can be an ideal response in some cases requiring self-awareness and self-control to disengage from an encounter that may be more consequential if we confront it. 

My fourth apartment was right in the heart of a lively downtown neighborhood. The centralized location was an exciting change of pace. Everything I wanted was within easy reach: grocery stores, bakeries, a bustling row of restaurants, even a trolly. Although I adapted fairly well to living in a bedroom beside my doctor roommate who worked night shifts, I struggled (again) with my upstairs neighbors. I eventually delivered a noise letter plea to my upstairs neighbors about their late-night routine involving TV binges and group socializing activities. I understood that they had a right to their fun and festivities, but need it be so uproarious and so frequent? I never heard back from them. My problem never improved.

  1. EVADE. Evasions are tricky, elusive modes of conflict resolution. They can involve sleight of hand deceptions that seem pulled out of a magician’s top hat—watch your wallet, guard your back, and stay vigilant. Sometimes we can leave an encounter with someone feeling like we’ve won, or at least feeling like we’ve been heard and our position considered, but later discover that we’ve been misled into turning our heads away from our issue and settling for some slick non-resolution. When our attention is redirected, we can become subjects of someone’s performance. At its best, an evasion can be used as a preventative measure, anticipating a conflict that might arise in a way that motivates a thoughtful response through an action or non-action. Like the conflict resolution mode of ignoring, the legitimacy of the evasion mode is dependent upon context and intention. 

For my fifth living arrangement, desperate for a simpler living arrangement, I found a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of an apartment complex. As usual, there were surprises. My landlord didn’t inform me that the building had an attic floor above my own with two apartment units on the rooftop. During my first weekend, I discovered that my roof-dwelling neighbors were twenty-year-old boys who, not surprisingly, loved to party. Over the first few weeks, I approached the upstairs neighbors twice with noise complaints. When I spoke with one of the young men about my issue, he invited me, both times, to sit down and join in their festivities. He was always friendly; he was also quick to evade the discussion about his party-loving nights, redirecting me to their food and fun. Although he eventually promised to be more mindful of my quiet time request, ultimately, my problem never improved.

  1. DEFLECT / PROJECT. In this conflict resolution mode, we turn one issue into fuel for another issue. This mode pairing is particularly devoted to re-directing criticism from ourselves to someone else. Although I’m pairing together the methods of deflection and projection, they are subtly different. As Berkley Well-Being Institute explains via the insight of psychologist Sigmund Freud, “Deflection is similar to projection, in that it involves putting a negative focus on somebody other than ourselves. But when a person deflects, they are consciously aware of the negative characteristic in themselves, whereas in projection, this awareness is not present.” To the extent that these defense mechanisms both fail to accept accountability for legitimate criticism, they tend to be underhanded.

For my sixth and final living arrangement, I found an artists’ community on the outskirts of the city. Our backyard bordered a lemon field, and a nearby bike trail ran for miles alongside a meandering creek. All of the roommates generally got along together well; however, one roommate didn’t quite fit in our harmonious community. The misfit roommate was mostly unemployed, isolating herself in her bedroom where she talked for hours on the phone every day, often late at night. More problematically for me, she defied the house rules regarding indoor smoking. When I confronted her, informing her that her second hand smoke was traveling through the ceiling and into my room, she immediately denied the accusations. Then, perceiving herself as a victim of environmental circumstances, she countered with the argument that I’m not a perfect roommate myself. Despite her critiques, her deflections sidestepped my issue and my problem never improved. She was eventually kicked out of the apartment by my landlord due to a variety of reasons besides my own issues.

  1. ACCEPT. By far the rarest method of conflict resolution, acceptance isn’t for the meek or faint-hearted. Acceptance isn’t a matter of merely nodding one’s head in agreement; it can’t be evidenced by verbal approval or lack of resistance. It is demonstrated directly by someone’s changed behavior. Acceptance requires a fundamental humbling of one’s being: the surrendering of one’s ego, with a degree of grace. This method involves equal parts strength and flexibility, adapting oneself to a world that challenges and prompts us to change. Acceptance, as noble as it appears, requires one caveat of caution: sometimes people can accept something too easily, quickly, and submissively without fighting to represent the truth that they believe in. Considering that human nature is more complicated than textbook generalizations can encapsulate, even acceptance requires moderation based upon context.

I had only one confrontation with a neighbor in Spain that ended positively—or, at least, that was received sympathetically. In my fifth living arrangement, in the one-bedroom apartment, my next-door neighbor coughed compulsively in his apartment, on the other side of my bedroom wall, without end. At night, it was easier for me to sleep on my living room sofa. Desperate for relief, I wrote a letter to my neighbor explaining my predicament. A couple of days later, my neighbor surprised me by knocking on my door to introduce himself. He was also an English teacher: a British expat who had been living in Spain for many years. He was sincerely apologetic about the disturbance, explaining that the hacking was due to an autoimmune disorder; he apparently couldn’t afford the proper medicine required to treat his condition. He promised to be more mindful of the coughing. Additionally, he loaned me a floor heater to use for the upcoming cold snap in southern Spain. Although I continued to hear him at night, I could tell that he was doing his best to keep it quieter. And his best was an improvement which I greatly appreciated.

The above list of conflict resolution methods is hardly comprehensive. For those who prefer a little more substance, Healthline offers a list of the top 10 defense mechanisms along with a helpful overview of how they work. As Kentucky Counseling Center puts it, “Defense mechanisms are a normal part of our psychological development. Whether they are used to avoid unwanted thoughts or deal with anxiety, defense mechanisms will always be a part of our everyday life.” Some of the ways we regulate our emotional balance in moments of conflict may involve subtle acts of manipulation of one’s self and other people. Then there are other ways we rarely think of as defensive; humor, for instance, can be a very dynamic defense mechanism.

As trifling as my case examples with my neighbors may seem—trust me, I still cringe when I review them—it’s vital to accept our truths with genuine compassion. In the West, displays of vulnerability, even in cases where displayed in a way that is respectful and respectable, tend to be associated with weakness. While we appreciate the complexity of flawed characters in literature and cinema, we don’t tend to have the same interest or tolerance for character complexity in real life. 

I get it. It can feel risky to share our gems of vulnerability with people. We know so because we’ve been hurt by doing so before. It’s also revealing. Vulnerability requires letting one’s guard down in order to be present, as we are, owning our authenticity, with a world that cannot ensure our safety or security. When we toss our gems to the world, we never know how they’ll be used. Sometimes we find them later on in unlikely places. Sometimes they appear in the mouths of serpents we confront, wielded with the intent to harm us. Who among us hasn’t been caught with a belly full of gems that don’t belong to us? We have all been that serpent before. 

Regardless of the issues we cough up—or choke down—we often associate conflicts as problematic times in our lives. This association seems logical when our experiences with conflicts often involve the triggering of primal emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, or sadness. However, our emotions cannot be simply labeled as either good or bad and then categorically dismissed. As Mark Bracket puts it on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, emotions are “signals to approach or avoid” something in the world. As such, every signal has a message to send us.

Anger is a particularly urgent, energy-intensive response commonly evoked when we feel the need to react to a challenging, or possibly threatening, situation. The emotional drive that underlies anger may be embodied with some degree of displeasure or annoyance. Though often misunderstood in strictly hostile terms, every shade of anger points the same way: towards action. 

Hungarian physician Gabor Maté has spent much of his career studying how the brain’s biological programming occurs in a lifelong interaction with the environment. Drawing from the research detailed in his book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, Dr. Maté explains the nature of this interaction on a variety of popular podcasts: The Joe Rogan Experience, The Tim Ferris Show, Impact Theory, and Rich Roll—choose your favored host, or listen to them all; we neglect this subject at our peril. Dr. Maté explains that our immune and nervous systems are entwined with our emotional command system: the integrated network negotiates responses to our environment for the sake of our safety and wellbeing. The process involves an endless balancing of boundaries between our individual selves and the world. In each case, the role of boundaries remains the same: “to let in what is nurturing and healthy and to keep out what is dangerous and toxic.”

Although we have an individual responsibility for our wellbeing, Dr. Maté rebukes our social environments for interfering with the healthy development of our minds and bodies. Unfortunately, life is full of conflicts that not everyone is currently prepared or willing to face. The trouble is that unreconciled wounds fester into trauma. And the traumas we inherit during our upbringing—from our families, communities, and nations—influence our health and wellbeing later in our lives. Unless the underlying traumas are addressed and integrated into our psyches, then they will persist, disconnecting us from our authentic selves. Warning: This is not woo-woo psychobabble that we can afford to dismiss with cynicism. The chronic suppression of our emotions will, eventually, manifest as bodily pain, distress, and disease. To raise the stakes, since traumas are contagious, they can be transmitted to other people. In conclusion, Dr. Mate advocates that we cannot, and should not, separate our emotional life from our physiological life.  

Within humanity’s evolutionary history, our emotions have been programmed into our physiological systems for a purpose. Although our primal emotions sometimes get branded as immoral scapegoats, they have historically assisted us in adapting to unpredictable environments. 

Even in the 21st century, we have good reasons to consult our emotions for guidance. Our emotions, along with our intellect and instincts, are a fundamental part of who we are as human beings; they can either aid or hinder us in our development. Likewise, the conflicts we engage in reveal to us the nature of our psyches—including how we relate to what we hold dear in our life—exposing us to forces of resistance that can help us better understand ourselves and each other. 

As informative as our emotions can be, they should not be followed blindly. We are wise to pause during moments of conflict before giving our emotions free rein; however, sometimes we experience lucidity only after a conflict has ended. Apart from the guidance of various self-reflection methods—such as meditation, prayer, and journaling—it can be helpful to seek additional support by consulting with an objective third party. In the court of law of human nature, we are not inclined to act fairly and effectively as a simultaneous judge and jury, lawyer and witness. 

When we turn to the counsel of other people, we should be honest about what we truly desire. Are we seeking validation of our feelings or objective feedback? Although validations and feedback are not mutually exclusive, they have different natures. It may be difficult, therefore, to find counsel that is equipped to satisfy these two desires in an effective way simultaneously. 

Regardless of our contribution to a conflict, the validation of our emotions nurtures a basic need for human connections. In times of need, it can feel like no small miracle to be simply seen and heard as we are. In contrast, invalidating words and actions dismiss our emotions as inherently wrong or neglect to acknowledge them at all. Unfortunately, chronic invalidations of our emotions may be linked to mental health issues. At its foundation, relating to our emotions in a healthy way requires mindful awareness of how we conduct our interactions with ourselves and other people. 

Besides seeking a compassionate witness for our emotional wellbeing, receiving objective feedback from other people can help us untangle the wider context of a conflict from our individual role in it. Good feedback considers all sides of an issue and prioritizes the situational truth from an impartial position with dispassion. The focus should be on revealing to us what we can’t see or appreciate on our own because it’s obscured by our individual bias. As a consequence, while feedback can expose us to valuable new insights that may be beneficial for our growth, some feedback may be contrary to our own will or understanding, making it difficult, therefore, for us to accept. 

To complicate matters, not all feedback is equally true and beneficial. The type of counsel we seek influences the type of feedback we receive. As John Lencioni cautions in Emotional Intelligence 2.0: Learn to Master and Improve your Social Skills and Emotional Agility, for a Better Life, Success at Work and Happier Relationships, “Choose your third party wisely. The people you invite to help you shouldn’t have a vested interest in the situation.” We often turn to friends and family in times of need, relying on them to comfort us. However, our dearest familiars may be biased by their affection for us, preferring to spare us the potential pain caused from sharing their hard-to-hear truths. 

Additionally, it’s natural for us to seek confirmation from people who share our background, value system, or worldview. By doing so, we can sway the response we receive in accordance with our subconscious bias. Keen to the corruptive power of human motive, Lencioni continues his cautionary appeal, “You should also avoid someone you know will simply agree with you. While their support feels good, it keeps you from seeing the entire picture. Sitting down with a potential devil’s advocate may irk you in the moment, but you’ll fare far better having seen things from a unique perspective.” It’s good to have some variance in the feedback we receive. If the majority of people agree with us, or with each other, then it may be a sign that we’re either trafficking in mathematical proofs or front-loading our inquiry for our self-serving benefit. 

Besides the type of people we seek feedback from, the way we narrate our side of an issue also influences the type of response we receive. In How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, former professional poker player Anne Duke explores the tools and techniques of better decision making. Poker is a game that is all about risk, where decision making carries immediate consequences. Good feedback, Duke concludes, begins with good questions, “You want to be careful about the way you frame the question, because the frame you choose can signal whether you have a positive or negative view about what you’re trying to get feedback on. Try to stay in a neutral frame as much as possible.” 

Regardless of who we’ve sought counsel from and the way we’ve framed the question for consideration, we must still turn inward within ourselves to reflect upon our contributions to the issue in question. Finding a healthy perspective involves balancing responsibility for our role in a conflict (nothing more nor less) with compassion for ourselves and others. 

Human nature is complicated. Sometimes we judge what we hold most dear to us the harshest. One moment we’re turning to our beloved family and friends for comfort. The next moment we’re tearing them apart. If we’re not careful, when our conflicts escalate, it can feel like we’re leading a battle between nations that are defying the U.N.’s protocols for ethical warfare. Our engagements on these domestic battlefields can be especially conniving and ferocious. 

Occasionally we’re lured by dirty tactics to get our way. We’ve all been there before. Sometimes angry outbursts result in childish name-calling. Other times resentments drag up sideline issues from the past. It’s never dignifying or productive. We deceive ourselves if we justify such tactics as acts of “tough love.” The problem is, when we retaliate with psychological nerve gas, we allow our headless emotions and heartless logic to take us hostage. In the process, we compromise our moral integrity. 

If we care to contribute to the positive growth of someone or something, instead of plotting for our egoic benefit, we must first confirm that we love our subject whole-heartedly. Our love, like our truth, need not be unsoiled or uncomplicated to reach for higher peaks (or deeper valleys) of our inner being. Our love does benefit, however, from being hospitable. When navigating conflicts, I’ve coined a term to describe a conceptual model for relating to each other in a way that merges clarity with solidarity: rounding up

In rounding up, we respond to an issue by building bridges to other lives that differ from our own, spanning the gap between individual selves. Rounding up takes a bird’s-eye view of a subject that cultivates harmony through highlighting our shared connections. As a type of mindfulness practice, this large-scale perspective requires discipline to implement without blind idealism; if taken to an extreme, it can gloss over valuable differences in our identities that contribute to our collective diversity. However, at its heart, bridge building is the basis of redemptive human abilities such as empathy, compassion, and altruism. 

Neel Burton clarifies the emotional basis of this noble triad in Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, “Compassion, or ‘suffering alongside’ someone, is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions, with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivations of altruism.”

In contrast, rounding down burrows away from our universal grounding and into the diverging particularities of our individual selves. Rounding down takes a worm’s-eye view of an issue that highlights differences of our identity including demographic criteria such as education, nationality, religion, gender, etc. This inward-scoping perspective is especially helpful in alarming us to righteous indignation about glaring inequalities in the use and abuse of collective resources and opportunities. However, if taken to an extreme, rounding down can accentuate the divide between ourselves in a way that generates alienation and ill-will.

To be clear, both our similarities and differences are worthy of consideration, providing equal sources of concern and celebration. Balancing bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views is an ambiguous judgment call. The human psyche relies upon both perspectives in order to stay well-grounded and well-rounded. Neither view is right or wrong; the connection between them is deeply complex, perhaps even contradictory. The challenge is discerning where to place our weight when we are traversing uneven grounds. 

With that said, during times when the world is experiencing intense polarization, surges in cultural extremism signify that we may be off balance collectively. As malaise and outrage have become chronic symptoms of global disharmony, it’s tempting to ignore or fester in our differences and wounds. Instead of reacting compulsively, invalidating people with whom we don’t agree, or seeking comfort in siloed groups, we can adopt a less visible—or, at least, less visibly appealing—sensibility: the middle path. The middle path skirts prevailing moral extremes, inviting us to confront an issue with clear-eyed candor while still celebrating faith in open-hearted renewal.

We are all magnetized by a past and future on a path that is unique to each one of us. So, in moments when we find ourselves disconnected from other people, or from ourselves, it can be helpful to reflect upon what we all still have in common: Our shared humanity. 

Obviously, life isn’t always easy and conflicts are never one-sided. We may have valid reasons for feeling hurt or wronged within our circumstances. Sometimes the time and energy we’ve invested into our relationships can create the illusion that we’re entitled to compensation. We’re not entitled. We never are. That doesn’t mean that we should settle for anything less than basic respect in our relations with the world. We should not condone acts of deceit, betrayal, and aggression.

When considering the reciprocity of our relationships, our hearts attune to frequency and intention. It’s unnatural to keep count with a spreadsheet. Outside of legal courts of law, expecting a return in a particular way or timeframe will lead only to frustration and disappointment. 

Boundaries are foundations for our health and wellbeing. But healthy boundaries require healthy narratives. And our narratives can be easily misled by a web of self-defense mechanisms known as cognitive biases. These biases are systematic errors in thinking that occur when we are processing information in the world. These errors can be influenced by a variety of factors: limits on the mind’s attention, individual motivations, mental shortcuts (called “heuristics”), social pressure, and emotions. SimplyPscyhology explains the role of these ingrained error systems, “Cognitive biases have direct implications on our safety, our interactions with others, and the way we make judgments and decisions in our daily lives.” (Consulting a visual list of our biases can help us appreciate just how impressionable, if not error-prone, our default nature can be.) While we may be alert to some of our biases, many more linger beyond our awareness.

Cognitive biases can interfere in harmful ways with our relationships, undermining our agency. Biases become even more subversive when we rationalize them, building a narrative framework around self-limiting beliefs. For example, when we interpret our role in interpersonal conflicts, our ego tends to reinforce default narratives that label ourselves as victims or heroes, and other people as saviors or villains. Discerning our true role involves discerning our true intention, a slippery task requiring vigilant attention. Even after we uncover our errors, we’ll need humility to accept the truth as we encounter it.

As usual, when it comes to implementing our life principles, it’s often easier to indulge in extreme beliefs and behaviors than to maintain balance in the middle. To reason through an answer abstractly on the sidelines of life can be done at our comfort and convenience; it’s much harder to disengage from reigning passions or mindsets when we’re tangled in their grip.

Engaging with life deeply will inevitably expose us to challenges, especially in the realm of human relationships. Fortunately, many of the challenges we encounter can be effectively addressed by managing our individual expectations and boundaries. Executive and organizational coach Anne-Marie Marron defines the terms of boundary management and delineates between internal and external boundaries. Elizabeth Earnshaw, licensed marriage and family therapist, examines examples of boundary needs and offers guidelines for accessing our inner voice to create the changes we want. And Tom Karl, founder and CEO of the evidence-based self-help site R1 Learning—an organization inspired by personal Tom’s background with addiction—addresses our underlying belief about our self-worth and the role of boundaries in our relationships. Regardless of the authors’ differing backgrounds, the varied resource agree in union that boundaries begin with self-awareness and are the rightful expression of self-care.

But boundaries aren’t one-off, one-size-fits-all. They need intelligent application and on-going upkeep. At its most basic level, a boundary represents an either-or dichotomy: an entrance or an exit: embrace or release.

While it’s possible for us to be overly permissive with our boundaries, saying yes so often that we fall into a sacrificial well of martyrdom, we can also be overly rigid with our boundaries, saying no so often that we erect a calloused wall of disenthrallment. Idling into either extreme can be equally toxic. Unlike the realm of mathematics, where equations can be resolved with certainty, cultivating balance in one’s life is an ever evolving process—it’s not a condition that we can attain conclusively. 

Indian spiritual leader Sadhguru reminds us that moving on from life’s challenges is not about forgetting the bad things that happen to us in order to appease moral principle. With that said, we must discern the differences between living in our memory versus living in the present experience. Why do we choose to suffer what no longer exists? After we have been hurt, we are confronted by a decision between carrying on wise or wounded. Is it not wiser to use our intellect for us rather than against us? 

In self-help circles, there’s a buzz phrase about merely “letting go” of the parts of our life that are no longer serving us. In light of such platitudes, Sadhguru cautions against letting go of our intelligence for the illusion of enlightenment. To surrender the very instrument that empowers us would be not only foolish but self-destructive. If we are seeking solutions rather than solace, then whatever issue we are addressing must be managed from within ourselves with conscious awareness.

At the end of the day, as indifferent—and sometimes even hostile—as the world may appear, the responses we receive are rarely personal. We are wise to appreciate the programming behind our ignorance and pain. After we have cleared space in our minds and hearts to bring our presence to the present, then we can press on with awareness and grace. If discernment is the compass, integrity is the map. Each step of our journey falls always on our side.

(The featured image is used by courtesy of Tetyana Kovyrina on Pexels.)