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Buddhadharma : Fall 2005
fall 2005| 52 |buddhadharma teaches workshops on mindfulness to professional mediators at several dharma centers. “The biggest problem with interpersonal con- flicts is that, when in conflict, we close our heart, and so lose the opportunity to communicate from our most generous intention,” says Curtis. “If instead we come from the intention of wanting to experience our interconnectedness, then we create an opening for reconciliation. And, for Buddhists, the intention to reconcile is not only for personal reasons, or for the sake of the one-to-one relation- ship, but also for the sake of the community.” Unfortunately, Curtis worries, many Buddhists respond to conflict by withdrawing and looking inward, missing the opportunity to be authentic, share who they are, and so experience a deeper con- nection with others. In retreating from conflict, they may be guilty of “putting peace on a pedestal,” says Buddhist scholar José Ignacio Cabezón. Writing in Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace, Cabezón warns of the Buddhist tendency to idolize inner peace so that it becomes “a kind of self-absorp- tion whose main result is the reinforcement of narcis- sism.” He urges Buddhists to work at transforming their interpersonal relationships with the same energy and devotion they apply to meditation. Diana Lion has spent most of her life trying to perfect the art of relating. Lion is the founding direc- tor of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Prison Project, which brings volunteer meditation instructors into close contact with hardened criminals in jails and prisons across the United States. A dharma prac- titioner since 1974, Lion is also a certified trainer of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a process designed “to strengthen our ability to inspire com- passion from others and to respond compassion- ately to others and to ourselves,” according to its website. Created in the early 1960’s by a Detroit clinical psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg, today NVC has a presence in virtually every coun- try and annually trains 50,000 people. NVC also has a growing presence in Western dharma centers. Lion and other NVC trainers have led numerous workshops on the communication model at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, and at Spirit Rock, San Francisco Zen Center, various Shambhala centers, and dozens of smaller dharma centers across the country. Lion says sangha interest in NVC has ballooned in the last two years. She fields e-mails and phone calls each month from dharma practitioners who say their sanghas need help with nonviolent communication. Why? “The sangha life is not for sissies,” says Lion. “It’s hard practice getting along with everybody. The Buddha knew that, and that’s why the Vinaya has like nine million rules that all grew out of particular problems. But the question is, how do we get along in the West, where things are so different?” It’s easy to see why NVC is popular with Buddhists. The process blends modern commu- nication strategies with a philosophy that echoes key dharma principles and a technique that often resembles insight meditation. NVC emphasizes developing compassion as the motivation for action rather than fear, guilt, shame, blame, coercion, or threat. It trains people to make careful observations of their ow n mind-states, free of evaluation, and to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting them. And it emphasizes taking personal responsi- bility for one’s actions and the choices one makes in responding to others. At IMS, several staff members have received training in Nonviolent Communication and con- flict resolution techniques. Resident teacher Amy Schmidt says NVC gives practitioners an impor- tant set of tools for dealing with conflict when it arises. “It adds to the things that the Buddha men- tioned about metta and kindness and not attaching to views and opinions,” says Schmidt. “It adds a whole new piece – how specifically do you respond to someone who makes you angry?” Without skills like those developed by NVC, Schmidt worries that Buddhist practitioners often get stuck in a communications dilemma. When it comes to difficult conversations, inexperienced practitioners usually go down one of two equally mistaken paths – either the nonreactivity of empti- ness (“This is all conditioned, so I don’t need to respond.”) or the hyper-reactivity of form (“My feelings are real and I’m going to tell you about them!”). The first can lead to increased isolation and denial, while the second can create discord. “The beautiful thing about working with people here is they now have the ability to express them- selves using nonviolent communication skills, but they can also step aside and see everything as empty,” says Schmidt. “So they can flow with it and see [their difficulty] as a mind-state, and they can work with conflict on multiple levels.” But IMS doesn’t limit its work to resolving dis- putes that have already surfaced. In addition to NVC training, the community has experimented with sev- eral creative approaches to fostering a conflict-free environment. In weekly departmental meetings, Schmidt regularly asks everyone to describe how and why they appreciate one particular person in the group. For the target of these appreciation fests, Schmidt tries to pick “someone who’s feeling a little out of the circle, a little removed, as a way for them to feel included in the group.” Taking the practice further, each IMS department intermittently creates “metta circles” of appreciation for group members. Each week, a childhood photograph of a person on the work crew is installed on the department altar to remind the other crew members to “send metta to them.” The office crew recently began to load their metta-targets’ photos on their computer I hope the training will help the community to see conflict as a field of practice and to see that every conflict has within it the seeds of reconciliation. — Laura Burges phoTogrAphATinSighTMediTATionSocieTyByliBByVigeon