Doing Conflict Better
Myres Castle, near Auchtermuchty in Scotland was built in 1530 BCE upon even older foundations, and is now used as a luxury wedding venue. Because we know the owners, a group of us are here, at out-of-season cost price, for a week of writing. As well as reveling in a luxurious Victorian bathtub, strolling through the Venetian-style gardens, and getting deliciously lost in the maze, I sit in a romantic turret inside one of the towers, composing this article on conflict.
The name Myres is related to the swamp that surrounded the castle in medieval times, a natural defense that probably played a role in its location. The expression to “be mired” means to be “bogged down” in a difficult situation, so Myres Castle seems to be an apt place for writing about conflict.
As far as I know the castle has not played any significant military role, but one of its towers features a signature battlement—a defensive wall whose top is incised with square gaps. Ask anyone to draw a castle, or build a sandcastle, and they will come up with this regular, rectangular design, called crenellation. When under attack, defenders would hide behind the parapet, dart out into the crenel to shoot an arrow, and hastily duck back to safety. This basic structure must have been very useful because one finds it all over the world, going back to ancient Egyptian and Syrian settlements. “Shoot and duck” is the adrenalin-soaked principle behind trench warfare, and any cop-and-villain movie, the black-clad protagonist inching toward the edge of the wall with cocked gun in an extended hand. It makes me draw my head between my shoulders, like a tortoise, shielding my soft, vital organs.
Tortoises and crabs protect themselves with exoskeletons, grazing mammals with horns, cats with sharp teeth and claws, bees with stings, and jellyfish, those strange, translucent beings who will probably survive us all, with the aid of poisonous chemicals. For safety, coral fish withdraw into rock crevices, herrings into shoals, badgers into burrows, while we humans, having by and large given up on wearing metal suits of armour, cover the Earth with concrete walls and barbed wire fences and bolt ourselves and our property behind security locks. Just as in the animal kingdom, sometimes those defense structures are fake, as in pretend eyes on butterfly wings, battlements, or burglar alarms. They have become signifiers of power and at the same time indicate vulnerability.
Sometimes castle entrances were attacked with battering rams, a drama we are familiar with through many movies. But more often castles succumbed to sieges or “saps,” where attackers would dig a tunnel leading to the wall. Once the target was reached, the wooden support structure holding up the walls was burnt and the resulting collapse would bring down the rampart above. Eventually people stopped building true castles as the ever-expanding defense features made them too uncomfortable to live in. But we all live in residences with varying degrees of fortification, protecting and separating us from the elements and one another. Castle mentality is embedded in our way of life and language, when we talk about feeling “undermined” for example, or our confidence being “sapped,” receiving a “battering” or being “besieged” by unwelcome callers. Conversely, we “attack” a project or “conquer” cancer. These are all indications of experiencing ourselves essentially as either victims or attackers, trapped in polarisation.
Whether as a result of our evolved genetic predisposition, social and political power structures, or personal trauma, most of us operate in this dualistic framework and our go-to attitude in conflict is that of win/lose. We want to feel and be seen as superior to our opponent—a short-term gain that comes at the cost of continued tensions, which makes it really a lose/lose situation. No wonder many of us are afraid of conflict and avoid it if we can. In group settings we try to stay behind the parapet: safe, but incarcerated in ossified and destructive power structures; safe, but limited in our scope for true connections; safe, but frustrated in our collective, creative flourishing.
The most insidiously penetrating and powerful weapons developed by living beings are probably language and thought, much of which is aligned with older, reptilian survival apparatus in ways that renders them just as automatic and instinctive. When we are in a conflict situation with someone, the compulsion to hear blame directed toward us and tell ourselves stories of who is at fault is almost irresistible. Without a strong dose of self-awareness, the tactics of blame and the compulsion to be right tragically backfire and create misery for ourselves behind our heroically upheld barricades. On a personal level, we ruminate, lose sleep, become depressed, and on a global level we wage wars without winners. The costs of continuous quarrelling are denuded, barren, inner and outer landscapes and joyless relationships.
Over lunch in the Victorian kitchen, formerly used by the castle servants, under the shadow of the row of bells connected to the upstairs rooms, I discuss this theme with John, one of the writers on this retreat and a former family therapist. How can we loosen the entrenched (another warfare term) defensive patterns of positioning ourselves in close relationships? John’s work brought him to the insight that the most important way toward creating trust is letting go of expectations of what people are thinking and wanting, and accepting uncertainty. He describes an inner movement toward radical openness, doing our best to let go of the habit of telling ourselves stories of what the intentions of others are and relax into not knowing. Trusting that new solutions will emerge out of even little shifts in relational patterns.
The NVC (nonviolent communication) trainer and writer Miki Kashtan investigates what makes some of her relationships largely conflict-free. “So far, I’ve identified two main ingredients for this magic. One I call the assumption of innocence, which is about a fundamental, implicit trust of each other. In these unique relationships, when one of us does something the other doesn’t like, we nonetheless trust each other’s basic care; we assume the best about each other’s intentions. The second ingredient is that when conflicts do arise, we attend to them. The two aspects reinforce each other.”
NVC has developed some excellent tools for attending to conflicts. One of the principles its founder, Marshal Rosenberg has articulated is this: “Conflicts don’t exist on the level of needs, but on the level of strategies.” When we enquire with spaciousness, care, and courage into the needs and values behind our own and other people’s adversarial stance, we will always find common ground; a new playing field from which unforeseen solutions can emerge. Unfortunately, we are often too scared to take the time to empathise with others, fearing that we will lose out, that we will be taken advantage of. Mindfully and compassionately being aware of and managing the arousal of our threat system is an important part of creating peace.
Photo by Ratnadevi
The film War Horse (which is also a popular musical) offers a heart-rending example of literally touching the common ground between German and British soldiers in the Second World War. A horse had become entangled in barbed wire on the devasted no-man’s land between the two armies. Soldiers from both camps worked together to free it and guide it back to safety.
My husband and I recently bought an elevated ground floor tenement flat in Glasgow. The flat includes a strip of front garden, to the left of the entry stairs. It is almost barren at the moment and we are very much looking forward to developing it by planting a holly and hawthorn hedg, thereby creating a bird-friendly, shielded seating area for enjoying the late afternoon sun. We made sure that the garden is in our title deeds, but the wall and railings are held in communal ownership. We think it would make sense to take down the railings, in keeping with several other hedge-framed gardens in the street, including the one adjacent to our new garden. They are nothing special; standard replacements of the original, ornate 19th century iron fences that were melted down for war machinery.
So I wrote to the seven other flat owners to explain our plans and ask for permission. It turns out that people didn’t actually know that the railings were shared property and although at first the people we talked to agreed with our plans, in the end three people objected. There were two reasons given: one, symmetry. The right-hand garden has railings, with several large hydrangea and heather bushes growing through them, and no seating. The second reason is safety: people want to use the railings by the side of the stairs as hand rails.
Even as I write this, a part of me is instantly ready to argue that the railings are too far out from the door and too low to be useful for that purpose. That that there are other houses in the street that have asymmetrical front gardens. And that they can’t really stop us having a hedge anyway, so why are they being so unreasonable? What’s the point of having a railing slowly rusting away underneath it? It’s not as if we intend to shape it into a tall crenelated battlement, shooting arrows at passers-by … as I say, that’s one part of me speaking, the shoot-and-duck part.
Another part is interested in transcending this knee-jerk reactivity in the interest of achieving understanding, peace, and harmony. Using NVC tools, I first give myself a little empathy—acknowledging the feelings of frustration and annoyance and also the needs for privacy, autonomy, creative expression, and harmony. I invite those qualities to suffuse my organism, allowing them to calm the threat system. Then I remind myself to “assume innocence” and put myself into the shoes of my neighbors, guessing their feelings and needs. When they say “symmetry,” what need is met by that? Perhaps they are a little worried about the overall appearance of harmony and order? I can relate to that. Maybe they also feel a little envious and would like to be part of the garden creation in some way? Is it about creative expression and inclusion? And being heard and taken into consideration? My heart softens toward them a little more. And then safety. Sure, we are all getting older and a proper handrail seems a really good idea. I am also wondering whether there is something territorial going on; people may be a bit weary of us as the newcomers, needing some reassurance that we fit in with the whole close.
I wish I had sent the email after I had written this article, which has helped me to become a lot clearer and calmer about the issue, less in the grip of “othering,” more ready to surrender the internal enemy image. The email I sent is probably okay, but misses out on some of the finer points of empathetic understanding. I thanked people for expressing their views; said we’d keep the railings, referring to symmetry and safety, and didn’t mention the hedge. I imagine future, relaxed, neighborly conversations taking place over a beautifully maintained border, but who knows what else may emerge.
On the last day of our castle retreat, I climb up into the tower to have another look at the mock battlement. Time has softened the edges, and I take a picture of puddles of soft rainwater left in indentations—maybe birds come here to bathe. Looking out over the well-maintained fields and gardens, I reflect on some of the wonderful aspects of culture that have developed in the protection of the crenelated crowns and battlements of castles: protection of natural forests, research, libraries, and compositions of timeless music. And yes, a lot of the wealth accumulation of Scottish landowners, for example was dependant on the ruthless exploitation of human resources, in particular slavery.
For better or worse, conflicts are imbedded in the DNA of all organisms, shaping the way they look, take in their environment through the senses; how they feel, think, and try to control an environment of limited resources. The issues at stake are self-preservation, propagation of the species, and general flourishing.
Wisdom traditions suggest that softening the sense of a separate self helps people to be less dominated by those preoccupations and achieve true happiness and peace. True, but it is probably wise to expect conflicts nevertheless, and to aim to get better at them; perhaps even enjoying this dance between safety, pulling in, and softening again into an open-ended relational field where everyone’s needs are celebrated and where life feels a little less like a struggle.
Buddhistdoor Global Special Issue 2020