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Deidre Combs: Conflict as a Call to Sing Our Proudest Souls' Anthems
Deidre Combs: Conflict as a Call to Sing Our Proudest Souls’ Anthems
Nicole Huguenin (Host): Our guest is Deidre Combs. She's going to be talking about "conflict," and our theme is "Conflict as a Call to Singing Our Proudest Souls’ Anthems." I couldn't think of a more serendipitous timing for such a call --- even waking up this morning, and looking at two minutes of the news stream. I'm really excited for this. So, thank you for joining us. I would like to introduce our moderator, Aryae, who is holding space for these types of conversation to happen all over the world, as well as an author and so many things.
Aryae Coopersmith (Moderator): Deidre, it's great to be here with you. She is the author of three books examining conflict. She's held teaching positions at Montana State University, where she's been a professor for over a decade. She's been at Columbia University Teachers' College, and at La Universidad del Sagrado Corazon in Puerto Rico, El Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico, and the International School in India. She works as a contractor for the U.S. State Department in three programs involved in bringing leaders over from other parts of the world to learn about each other and leadership in working together. So many things you're doing, Deidre. In the interests of self-disclosure, I've known Deidre for a while. I first met her at a book launch party in Silicon Valley for her book, "The Way of Conflict." The person who introduced me was her mother, Deborah Barber. Deborah and I have been friends and business colleagues for a long time. Deborah is an executive in Silicon Valley in human resources. She is recognized as one of Silicon Valley's leaders in bringing together three things in the business community: people strategy, technology strategy, and business strategy. Given that, it's not totally surprising to me, Deidre, that you've wound up in some of the places you have, like IBM and so on. I want to begin with reading a passage from the forward to "Way of Conflict." This was written by Matthew Fox, someone who is well-known in the ServiceSpace community:
This book, entitled The Way of Conflict, might just as well have been called “The Tao of Conflict,” or “The Zen of Conflict.” For in it, the author does a bold and special thing: instead of seeing conflict as a problem to be solved, she sees it as an opportunity to be seized, an occasion to be taken advantage of, even a chance for a mystical experience, one of awe and wonder and possibility. Clearly Deidre Combs is on special terrain when she makes these daring assertions, terrain that challenges all of us, to move beyond self-pity and reptilian action-reaction to something much deeper, to our authentic interaction as true human beings. Combs challenges us to take the occasion of conflict, the blessing of conflict, one might say, to its deepest spiritual conclusion: that conflict can be a spiritual path, a yoga, an opportunity for growth and deepening, indeed, an occasion for creativity and compassion to rise like never before.
That frames a lot of my understanding of what your life is and has been about.
Deidre Combs (guest): Thank you, Aryae. That means so much to me. That is the hope with this work. That's the deep desire.
Aryae: I would like to start by asking you to share with us a little bit about what this work is for you today. Give us an overview of some of the things you're doing. Then I want to explore a few things from your life that led you in this direction. I'd like to wind up by talking in a little more detail about some of the work you're currently doing for the U.S. State Department. You have different things you're doing all in the area of resolving conflict. Can you give us a little bit of a picture of that? How you spend your day.
Deidre: I feel very lucky with the work I get to do. Over the past 8 or 9 years I've been working with folks from all over the world who are teachers, activists, and university students. They come to the United States on State Department fellowships. We get to spend time with them anywhere from a couple weeks up to four or five months. I've been teaching conflict resolution and leadership to this amazing group of what they call "fellows."
This summer, for example, we'll have 120 students from all over the Middle East and Northern Africa who will participate in a program called MEPI or the Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative. I will work in depth with 20 of them who will come out to Montana and get to experience "The Big Sky" and will do intensive leadership and conflict resolution with them. Many times they have not only not been to the United States, but these are bright, amazing university students who have never met someone from their fellow country of Syria or Jordan or Yemen. It's a vast intercultural experience.
In the fall, an extraordinary group of activists from all over the world come to the United States and spend four, almost five, months with us. I work with them online because they are all across the United States. I meet them in August, and then we'll do leadership and conflict resolution through the fall online, gathering everybody together, and then I'll see them again in December.
Aryae: I'm imagining these 20 students from MEPI going to meet you under "The Big Sky." Why are you bringing them there, to Montana?
Deidre: The wonderful thing is that there are six host universities for that particular State Department program. Montana State University is one of those. Georgetown is another, as well as Delaware, Roger Williams, Portland State, and Benedictine University. We have them all together here at the end of June and early July, and they get sent out to these host universities. We bring them all together someplace in the Middle East or nearby. We were in Morocco in March. We'll bring that cohort together. They get one more small conference before we send them out into the world and charge them to do good work in their communities. So many of them are doing just that. It's been a joy to watch these students find what they're passionate about and trying to bring greater peace and economic and social development to their countries.
Aryae: Can you give me a concrete example? When they get together, in Montana or one of the other universities, can you give me a picture of what they might be doing in a typical day?
Deidre: We work with them on civic engagement. Different classes will do workshops on conflict resolution. They'll do volunteer activities working at the food banks or building a wheelchair at an organization called ROC Wheels in Bozeman as an example. One of the highlights, at least for me, someone passionate about conflict resolution, is that they have weekly public dialogue sessions, where we bring people from all over the community. They gather and choose the topics that we're going to dialogue on for each week. They might talk about the role of the hijab, the head scarf, in their country. Or what does democracy mean, and do we need it? Last year, for the first time, they wanted to talk about gay and lesbian rights in the Middle East, or the lack thereof, and hear more about the journey that we've gone through within the United States.
On a typical day, they're very busy. They'll be here during Ramadan this year again, which is an amazing cultural exchange for everyone involved. As one of my students was saying to me earlier this week, "You know that it's tough for us to come during Ramadan, because it's like your Christmas." So it's a beautiful sharing of cultures, as we will go through Ramadan with them, and it will end here before they go home.
Aryae: When they do these dialogues, did you say public dialogues? Does that mean that outside people are invited as well?
Deidre: Yes. We usually have 80 to 100 people sitting in circles of 8 to 10. I train these students to be able to moderate and do dialogues, and we can talk more about that, the incredible, really spiritual practice of holding that neutral position in the dialogue circle. They facilitate these conversations. We bring them all back together again, at the end of an hour and a half of dialogue. Then they share a meal together with the people who have come from the community, and with other international students who are on campus in summer. So we have had Brazilian students and African students, who have come to the university just to study. It's an amazing international event each week.
Aryae: You and I haven't talked about this before, but I'm curious to what extent you stay in touch or track the students after they've been through the program, and whether you've got a story or two about what happened when they got back home.
Deidre: I have quite a habit of "falling in love with" the students and the activists. We also, in the fall, have international teachers who come and spend two months with them. So they become friends. In the case of these students, they become kids that I worry about as they head back home. They're doing extraordinary things. I'm deeply proud of so many of them. Some of them go back and want to start a food bank, as an example, in their community. Or they want to start creating leadership activities on their own campus.
Sometimes it's acts of amazing individual bravery. One of our students who went back to Bahrain three or four years ago had posted on Facebook that she wanted peace in her country. Unfortunately, during that time, it meant that, at 2:30 in the morning she was taken from her home and questioned. She wrote me not long after. She said, "Deidre, I just kept thinking of what you had told me. Just to say 'I can learn something. This is my teacher. This is my teacher.' I kept repeating that to myself again and again and that helped me calm as I went through the interrogation."
So I'm humbled by how many of these students and activists are using this work in very difficult situations. She was safe. She finished her education in Malaysia, and has just gone on and done extraordinary things. She's back in Bahrain and doing great work there around conflict resolution and peace. She is one of my teachers.
Aryae: I want to go back to looking at you in your early life. Can you share with us some of the influences from your early life that led you in this direction, and specifically that led to the values you hold now?
Deidre: As you know, I am the eldest of four sisters. We fought like dogs (laughter). I always laugh when I hear this; I've always had a great comfort with conflict, because we had a lot of conflict. We're so dear to one another as adults. But I guess there was an underlying comfort if people were in discord. When I was 17, I lived for a year in Mexico. I received a Rotary Club scholarship. I absolutely fell in love with that experience, and living in a different culture. I think of that as something that has been a core experience that helped me. When you get into a mediation and it's “Oh! We've got two cultures here. How do we translate between these two cultures, these two different beliefs, these different stories?”
So I know that that has been a formative experience that I'm always drawing upon. I loved that you brought up my mother, Deborah. I remember when I was young, when I would come to her, frustrated about a sister or friend, and she would always return me to, "Well, let's think about where that person's coming from." That became a core belief. I feel my parents were wonderful in reminding me that it's just not a bad person. Let's go underneath that, and see where they're suffering. So I would say those are the core things that I draw upon all the time.
Aryae: I love it that you're taking the conflict you've experienced with your sisters and you're doing what you talk about now. Rather than thinking about that as a problem, you're thinking of that as a blessing.
Deidre: Absolutely. I don't know how much of a blessing it felt like to my parents when we were screaming down the halls (laughter). It started early, when I was working with IBM. That was the start of my career. I was a project manager, and they had this meeting, as I wrote about. It was a pivotal moment. I realized, "Oh, conflict isn't just something you do and have to get through but that it always holds extraordinary opportunity. There is no change without some degree of conflict. And without change we don't get better. It's realizing over the years that, with my sisters, we were playing with fire, and as we know, fire has this amazing ability to cook our food and warm our homes. I think of that very common cross-cultural analogy of conflict as fire.
Aryae: You were working for IBM. You were a project manager. One of your clients was a federal health systems organization. You saw your job as translating between two worlds --- between the worlds of the technical people in IBM and the world of the health care people in the federal government. Can you flesh out that story and what happened?
Deidre: We've all had those experiences where we think, "Oh, I have absolutely no idea what to do here." So I was tasked as project manager to run our user-group meeting. This was in the early, early days of electronic medical record systems. IBM was really on the bleeding edge, as were these clients. We were really one of the first products on the market. IBM was struggling to figure out if they could create a business case for this to keep the product going.
Well, as they announced that at the user-group meeting, and I'm facilitating this meeting, we had clients walking out. We had other clients really angry. Almost worse were the clients whom I'd watched all the color just went out of their faces. Some of them had bet their careers on this electronic medical records system, and IBM was saying "I don't know if we can continue this product. We've got to find another solution." And I thought, "Well, I know how to tell everyone where the bathrooms are at the beginning of the meeting, and follow the agenda," but I really didn't know what to do when people started yelling and walking out. I thought, "Oh, dear. I'm going to lose my job. I should be able to do something here." I had not been trained in conflict resolution skills.
For the lack of anything better, I sat down next to one of my clients that I'd really adored. I'd worked for her for years. I started asking the questions that she would want to ask, because I knew her so well, but that she wasn't asking. And I asked in language that IBM would understand --- I asked in IBM language. The IBM executives who had the terrible job of providing this bad news explained their side, and I found that what I was doing was translating back into hospital language. The meeting significantly changed. People started to exchange back and forth. I was just facilitating. These were not skills I had been trained in. The meeting went really well. When we came out of the meeting, people said "That's the best meeting that we've ever had, and we're talking about partnership for the first time."
I just wanted people to think I was that wonderful all the time. I really wanted to figure out what in the heck I'd done. I now know, looking back, that I was using really core mediation skills and facilitation skills. I was re-framing the conversation into language people could understand. I was asking open-ended and, in some cases, transformative questions. As I became trained as a mediator, I started to recognize what the magic was behind what changed that meeting. I got hooked. Twenty years later I have not looked back. I so adore this work.
Aryae: Another former techie (laughter).
Deidre: I started out programming. Yes, I did.
Aryae: You told me about the work you did with a Lutheran church, when they were dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage. Can you share that story a little bit?
Deidre: Since that time, after I got trained as a mediator, I kept going. I've been mediating and facilitating for almost 20 years. One of the mediation experiences I had was that I was asked by a Lutheran church after the ELCA ruling had come to the churches saying, "Let's try to be more open about having same-sex couples as pastors and within our community. It just tore this church apart. They were really struggling. I was asked to come in and create dialogue. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
On Sundays we would pick a particular Bible verse or a particular component of their church principles. We would sit in groups of six to ten and dialogue about where they were as a community. There were about 125 people in their large gym/meeting room, and they would come together at the end, and share their learning. This would go for five or six weeks. It was an extraordinary process, getting to watch all of it and to help the facilitators. I had trained the facilitators to be able to facilitate these dialogues. I don't think anyone's neutral on that particular topic. For the mediators, the practice is to be neutral, and how you hold everyone in the circle and their beliefs as equal and valid is an incredible practice. So some of my work was not only to be facilitating the whole meeting, but to jump, every once in a while, into a small group and support the facilitator to re-center.
It was an extraordinary work, and I would hear things that would break my heart into a thousand pieces. Sometimes I would get into the car after and just cry and do a little screaming, especially when I would hear the bile that sometimes fear brings out in people. It was an extraordinary process. I'm always teaching people to say, "Tell me more." If anyone on this call happens to be one of my students, they're probably laughing right now, because I'm always saying, "This is the practice, when you're sitting in dialogue, or you're talking to someone you don't agree with, is to re-center, breathe, and say, 'Tell me more about why... (etc.).'" To be working with people and who were facilitating as well, who really hate those whom I love, was the hardest of all. How do you then, at those moments, say "Tell me more."? I think, in those moments, I'm the most proud of myself. I can turn and bring in what I don't want to hear.
Aryae: That sounds really core. Could you say more about your practices as a mediator? When I hear you say your practices, I'm thinking that there are a couple of levels on this. There's the level that you do what works, and what's effective with communication. But it's also an inner practice. It's a spiritual practice. Can you tell us a little bit more about what your practices actually are?
Deidre: M. C. Richards, who was an amazing potter and an artist, and teacher, wrote a book called "Centering." Now it's almost 30 or 35 years old. She describes one of the core practices of fully engaging your life --- which is also engaging in the challenges of life --- is bringing in rather than in leaving out, this ability to be sitting in a circle and have people diametrically opposed. I may be diametrically opposed if I'm participating. It's recognizing that those who are the most opposed to me are the ones I want to listen to most intently, because they are seeing something that I am absolutely not seeing. A core practice for me is to say, "Am I bringing in, am I centering, am I taking one more opinion, one more perspective, and bringing it in to expand my position? Not my position, but my perspective?" And to recognize when I have positions, and that they're always incomplete.
I know when I get close, when I hit paradox, that's the place of poetry, when I've brought it in enough that I'm starting to see the larger picture. I'm starting to understand what impatient patience looks like. I'm understanding what cruel compassion is. I'm understanding what selfish selflessness is.
I'm starting to hold what is described in the Western tradition as the mandorla. In the Eastern tradition we have the Yin/Yang symbol, that symbolizes the light in the dark and the dark in the light, the feminine in the masculine, the great Fish symbol. In the Western tradition, it looks like a Venn diagram. You have two intersecting circles. Our work in this life is to stand and be in that intersection of the two circles. It's almond shaped; mandorla means almond in Italian. If you go to medieval churches like Chartres in France, you'll see that they will put Mary or Jesus in that place to symbolize the dancing of Heaven and Earth. It isn't a compromise. It's the dancing of the opposites all beings held as a whole.
So that mandorla is a doorway into expanded solutions, into enlightenment of sorts. Conflict gives us the ability through that doorway. It's like an entrance to a cave. My watching is that if I think I've got it all figured out, I know I don't. I giggle as I tell you these stories about my childhood and I'm thinking, "I know there's so much I'm not sharing." It can stop me at times, because our stories are always incomplete. "Tell me more" is a life philosophy.
Often I don't want to hear. A friend of mine just came back from Namibia. He was sharing with me about conservation efforts. And sharing with me about the fact that we've already lost a dozen rhinos just this year in that country to poaching. I think it's 40 over the last two years. This is not a country that has a lot of rhinos to begin with. I could feel it --- "I don't want to hear this. I don't want to hear about the loss of habitat." He was describing all the painful things that he had seen. I thought, "Well, if nothing else, from this work I've learned that I have to keep thinking, 'Tell me more.''' I need to hear even this too, because it's going to support my perspective, and hopefully the work that I want to bring forward to the world.
Aryae: I'm imagining you bringing these young people together from places in the Middle East and Africa and maybe they're in their 20's or late 20's. How do you teach them this stuff?
Deidre: The best I can. The only thing I have to share is my own story. So I always hope to be able share my own experiences. How darned hard it is to hear things we don't want to hear. I try to enter from there. We get to practice with dialogue. Inevitably the group will have conflict. They're from 16, 18, sometimes 20 different countries, and they're living together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
You were asking earlier about some of the most difficult dialogues I've been in. A few of them have been in an evening with these wonderful students, and struggling around a conflict that they have had. Watching how the belief systems around the wearing of the hijab or prayers at a certain time of day, or how those prayers should be shared, can bring forward great conflict. Then we get to practice. (There are) these beautiful breakthrough moments, when someone said "I've never considered before that your belief might be different, because we come from a common framework of the Islamist tradition. Yet it has different cultural interpretations by region and by country."
I think that application, to answer your question in a long way, in my own life and in their lives, is when we seem to break through.
Aryae: When you say "application," it sounds to me like you mean "sharing stories."
Deidre: Yes, sharing my own story and being willing to listen to yours. And actually to have a conflict or something we're working on, and modeling for each other, that we can use as an opportunity. I love to ask in class, "Can you think of a time in your life where your life has gotten better without some conflict?" That may be an internal conflict, like a message, "That's just not the right job for me." Or relationship for me. Or it may be with a person. Or it may be with an institution. Or it may be with God, as in "Really, you're taking this person away from me now?" We have to have some kind of discord to change. If everything is the same, we don't change. So we need it; it's really one of the best things we've got going for us.
Another favorite question I love to ask is, "What do you know that I might not know that you have gathered from a difficult experience?" I've asked this of 18-year-olds to 80-year-olds. The wisdom that comes out of each and every mouth when you ask that question makes it a favorite question.
Aryae: Do you do any explicit work around forgiveness?
Deidre: Forgiveness is tough for all of us, because we have to get rid of our story. We love our stories. I've started looking at forgiveness as an ever-unpeeling onion, and that's been helpful. It's got layers. For someone to say, "I'm going to completely forgive that person and check that off my lists," which feels very linear, hasn't been something that has been helpful for me. If I see it as something that I'm practicing, that I'm living more into, using this universal symbol of a spiral, coming back around again and again, and doing it in deeper ways, that's been a helpful way. Something working with folks, with clients individually, or teaching, or when we're doing these mediations, it's not to feel like "Okay, we've got to get this as something to check off." But if we can go around the spiral one time and come to a new place of stability or forgiveness, or peel off another layer of that story that may be incomplete...
In my own personal story there're times I want to yell at the mystery and say, "Really? We have to do it this way?" I've found that instead of coming to this place of total surrender and forgiveness, it's "Okay, I've lifted the veil and I can see just a bit better, the more of the perfection and the pieces that I might have missed." As a friend of mine, Jerry White, said after his leg was blown off by a landmine in Israel when he was a graduate student. He said, "I used to think of God as a cosmic gumball machine. This experience is an example for me that I've moved beyond that a bit." That's where I play with it. How do I expand my story a bit more? In that expansion, I find greater compassion and more forgiveness.
Aryae: I love what you're saying about forgiveness. There are a couple of points. One is that forgiveness involves expanding my story. The other is that it's not a straight line; it's an iterative process that somehow happens over time. When we were talking earlier this week, I'd shared a story with you and you asked me to share it on this (program).
This story involves a teaching from one of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi --- who passed away last year ---which was on an email list in the Jewish Renewal movement. In Judaism there is a forgiveness prayer that everyone is supposed to say before we go to bed. Reb Zalman had translated it in his own way. It starts off, "You, my eternal friend, witness that I forgive every person who upset me or who damaged me, or who damaged my body, who damaged my spirit, who damaged my property, who damaged people that I love." It goes on to peel off many layers. He had posted that prayer on the email list. Someone shot back --- we call this "Playing the Hitler card" --- someone shot back and said, "Does that mean I'm supposed to forgive Hitler?" The list was silent for about a day. No one spoke after that. Then Reb Zalman answered on the list, publicly. He said, "You personally are not yet on the level of forgiving Hitler. Why don't you start off with the person who cut in front of you in the grocery line yesterday?" To me it was a very powerful message. I start off by forgiving according to my capacity and gradually build up that capacity.
Deidre: Yes, this connection between empathy and forgiveness doesn't mean that we then condone behavior. Somehow that seems to get connected along the way. That isn't part of the process. We were talking about empathy. I've been thinking a lot about empathy this week, and, as we're talking about it, how deeply connected for me those are. How do I expand my story? As I think Thomas à Kempis said, "If you knew all, you'd forgive all." I think about, "How can I gather more, how can I be able to say 'Tell me more.'" You and I were remembering together the Thich Nhat Hanh poem, "Please Call Me by My True Names." I brought this today. If fits with the idea, "How do we connect empathy and forgiveness, and how do we keep bringing in?"
Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow – even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as Bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.
Aryae: We're looking at a world where there is so much conflict. That poem beautifully paints a picture: In all corners of the world, it's coming at us from the news, from everywhere. Certainly for me, when I look at that, it feels overwhelming. From your perspective --- you've dealt with so many people in so many kinds of conflict around the globe --- what would you say for us, for ordinary people who care, who want to do something? What would you advise us to do, to start? To contribute to resolving the conflict that afflicts this world?
Deidre: It's these two pieces of us that we want to create a mandorla with. We want to find the intersection. We want to be smart in conflict. We want to learn the skills of refraining and understanding our opponent and watching for the moves. You can think of yourself as an everyday warrior. In the warrior traditions around the world, you're taught to be very smart, so you stick around. You're recognizing that someone could be coming up behind you with a sword. At the exact same time, we want a heart so open that, as they say in the Tibetan Bon warrior tradition, you can feel a mosquito land on it.
So how do we hold learning skills like refraining and dialogue and understanding our opponent and being practical and coming at it with an incredible heart full of love? I was listening to John Lewis, who did a recent interview with Krista Tippett, "On Being." John Lewis is the last living member of the "big six" of the civil rights leaders. He kept talking again and again and again about love. He talked about how he cries a lot. He talked about how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would say, "Just love 'em up. Just love 'em up." Holding that very open heart. This is a man that really understood the importance of strategy and making sure the media was aware of what was going on in the civil rights struggle.
So, how do we see ourselves each day as everyday warriors, walking onto the martial arts mat, bowing in gratitude for whoever has brought us conflict, and then playing well? How do we fight well? There are so many things I would recommend in terms of skills. At the same time, it's how do we continue to polish our hearts and make sure they're wide open? Not just being in our hearts, because we won't last very long, and not just being in our heads, because we can horrid things that we can regret for the rest of our lives.
Nicole: I was reading some of the things you wrote, in preparation for this call, Deidre, and one of the things was walking the Camino de Santiago, and I think it connects. How does walking help you exercise the muscles that you're talking about? Or does it?
Deidre: It does. It really does. One of the things I learned after walking the Camino --- and this was almost the first night after the first day that I ever walked on that pilgrimage route across northern Spain --- I met this man who was Swiss, and he was telling me, "To do the Camino right, you walk right out your door and you don't walk anything less than 40 kilometers a day." I thought, "I'm from America (laughter) I can't walk out my door and walk onto the Camino, and I would be exhausted after two days of walking 40 kilometers."
Then you have hours each day to reflect. And you have so many ways to walk the Camino. There are so many ways to walk this journey of life. Who's to say what is the right way? People will say, "You never get in a car. You have to start someplace and end someplace and you never get in a motorized vehicle." Other people say, "When I get tired, I get in a cab."
So that's one piece of wisdom that comes to me --- trusting the unfolding of all of this. The physicist David Bohm years ago talked about "the implicate order" of this Universe ---That in the chaos, there's implicate order. Slowing down enough while I'm walking, I'm amazed again and again by the perfection that comes if I can slow down enough and look for that implicate order. So how do I do that in a mediation, or when someone's really angry with me, and recognize that there's a perfection and an implicate order in this chaos? And in the implicate order there is chaos and holding that paradox and that mandorla. Those are just a few. Plus, it's just delicious to be outside all day. And to think and reflect. I do much better in conflicts when I can have that space. How can we give ourselves that space each day?
Michelle (San Jose, California): I've been exploring what I call transformational global leadership for a number of years now, and so have been all over the world. So I have the background in cross-cultural communication. I'm very interested now in upcoming sustainable development goals and what humanity's doing to take on looking at some of the challenges to humanity at the global level. I'm wondering if you can share your thoughts about how your work might apply to this process of coming together as humanity to deal with some of our global challenges.
Deidre: Go, Michelle, go! We're cheering for you! What you are reminding me of is the power of vision and how that creates a field for us to live in. I love a quote by James Carse, who says "The Jewish people didn't create the Torah. The Torah created the Jewish people." The power of vision, like the amazing goals that the UN has set forward, I think is calling us. That intention is calling us together, and I know I hear this from the activists I'm working with, the teachers, the students. How do we continue to re-center around these visions? Bono holding that there is no reason that we have poverty --- that there should be no poverty in the future, that we can hold these visions, brings them into being.
I want to bring in one more star of our sky, Myles Horton, who ran the Highlander Folk School and taught leadership to Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. He would say, essentially, "If your vision can be accomplished in your lifetime, it's too small." It should be for at least a hundred years, or maybe more. I'm loving that you're holding us at that large level and that that's key. And the beautiful paradox in all of it is --- it seems to keep coming down for me, and I'd love to hear if you've found this --- it comes down to, "Now I know someone from Libya," or "I know someone from a particular country," and that one-to-one connection is what seems to be moving people forward on a global scale.
Michelle: My experience in growing up in Zambia and being taken around the world by my parents and having adopted kids, that process of expanding my perspective to include yours, to include yours, to include yours.
Deidre: Yes, you're holding the world inside you.
Caller (not identified): Thank you, Deidre, for your sharing. It's quite interesting that it gets us to reflect. As you said, most people are, even though most people probably are not as layered as they'd like to be. They don't have a full understanding of what is truly happening. The conversation you're having has this kind of embodiment. It has a certain level of innocence, especially for people in the United States who don't see the world but they see the United States as the world. And from people all over the world who are experiencing hardship that are forced to see things at a much more complex level, because they are affected by it in a very deep sense. I don't live the life of innocence, so I do understand the role that the United States plays around the world. It's not the role of good. I think any time you get diplomats or people that are put in these positions, to do good and to sort of bring people together... I don't know how much that element of a proxy in terms of the dichotomy that exists between what's happening and what really is happening, or what's going on.
Last night I was at a radio station online, where I had to do an analysis on the UN's performance in Haiti, in which the UN did its own study, where raping and using sex favors with kids that are nine and above. When people talk about UN goals, one has to look that these institutions that are profoundly corrupt or profoundly unethical. UN will set these goals and will set another set of goals. It is communities. In what people are doing, and even the lady who has just spoken, and I applaud her for that, it is communities that have to do these things, because it is they who truly have the power to really bring in a moral, ethical value, which is pretty much lost by most governments. What we're seeing within the context we're living in, as you said, there should be no poverty tomorrow --- there should be no poverty today, there should be no poverty yesterday. It's all artificial. It's all an artificial construction to maximize profit, to keep people aside. It's pretty harsh, in terms of what's going on.
Deidre: What I'm hearing from you is beautiful, because what you're bringing in is that if we spend too much time in the heart, like I might have done with the previous caller, the head starts to speak and say, "Oh, by the way, let me just tell you about the rape and the poaching of rhinoceroses, or what's happening with the Arctic ice shelf." You know, the harsh reality is absolutely as important. What I'm appreciating is that you're reminding us again and again, and we want to do this, of the paradox, and how do we stay in the "both/and"? People can be both corrupt and do extraordinary things. I've worked with an amazing woman, Zainab Salbi, who started an organization called Women for Women. She said "In war, I have seen some of the most horrible things that humans can do to each other, and at the exact same time, I have seen the most wonderful gifts that human beings can give to each other. So thank you for calling us back to holding that paradox, and then saying, "And now what? And what do we want to do? And how do we want to make this place just a little bit better?" Holding both of those at the same time. So, thank you.
Nicole: We have a lot of comments coming in from online. I'm going to ask the first question, Deidre. Someone from Georgia says "According to you, we must accept conflict as a blessing. Does it mean you disagree with those who suggest avoiding conflict, especially in different religions?"
Deidre: For me, this is another wonderful paradox. Conflict is risky, scary, messy, and dangerous, and it's the best thing we've got going for us, all at the exact same time. I will tell you even after all these years of study, when someone's mad at me, I really hate it, on a very simplistic, daily level. And yet, I know it is the source of growth and creativity. So how do we see it as something that we can be grateful for? And just in doing that, we can take a more creative stance to move forward to it. Our brains are wired so that if I am terrified of something, adrenaline courses through my brain, I go into fight/flight, and I usually react instead of respond. My reptilian brain at the base of my skull is engaged.
What the warrior traditions have figured out for thousands of years and brain science now tells us is that if I can go to a place of gratitude around conflict, see it as a blessing, I have to process that experience that in my neocortex, which is on the top of my skull, and has a much better time thinking in past, present, and future. I have a little more of a fighting chance to respond instead of react. It's interesting because for some of us we might hear, "Oh, conflict. She wants me to start yelling at people, or fight." No, it's more to say, "Oh, there's this discord again. Let me bow to that discord. Cool. I've got discord." Just by me saying "Cool, I have some discord," I set myself up better to respond than to react.
That's why you can see dialogue is so fantastic because we get to hear, "Oh, when you say conflict --- I love to ask people in class, "What do you think of when you hear the word conflict?" And some people will say disruption, other people will say war, others will say violence, yelling. So what does that word mean to us? It's going to be different. And again, I'm always asking to add to the list, "opportunity."
Nicole: You've touched on this from this next question from Half Moon Bay, California. It connects to what you were just saying. It says, "In times of community conflict, how do we deal with the fierceness of people's values and identities and the high emotions? How do you deal with the high emotions and bring people together?"
Deidre: I wish we had a week. There are so many ideas around that.
Nicole: I was trying to formulate a way through her question, because I know that when I feel discord, the emotion that comes up for me is anger, or if I see inequity I get angry, and if I'm in a situation where time is of essence, like in a conversation where we have to end in an hour, I personally tend to just not speak, because I can't come from love, I'm coming from anger. It's hard for me to find that place. It's not until I've taken a walk that I can get to that peaceful place. But then usually it's outside of that time. I would love for you to jump in there and talk about that within a time/space. I think that's what a lot of people are talking about.
Deidre: Three different things:
One, when we're in a place of high emotions and we feel that our beliefs are threatened, that's one of the places we'll go into. We are in fight/flight. That's usually where we get stuck in conflict. Conflict has four phases. There's so much there, I won't go there, but I'll refer people to "The Way of Conflict," which talks about these four phases in more detail. In each phase we have the danger of getting stuck. It's usually when we're going into fight/flight, a place where we'll either disengage from conflict or --- we'll go into flight or fight. There are strategies to help get us back into our neocortex.
One is gratitude. A strategy is to start each meeting, in a community of conflict, with what's working, what progress we've made, and make that a practice. If we get stuck, and focus on what's not working, it spirals us into our reptilian brain. But if we have to practice at least five things that are working, I have to do that in my neocortex. That's one brain trick.
Another is to get people to laughter and humor, and self-depreciating humor is a strategy that helps people to detach a bit. There's a whole lot more. What I'm always watching when I'm facilitating with a group is, "Are we spiraling into what's not working, and into fight/flight, and how to move people back up.
Vision is another. Holding an empowering vision. Like a previous caller said, it creates a place of innocence and hope. That's a helpful place to take people when they're starting to spiral down.
The third thing I wanted to add is that we don't need to do conflict in one round. I was raised on "The Brady Bunch" and "The Partridge Family," and there are people on this call who know absolutely nothing of what I'm talking about --- half-hour television shows on Friday evening, where every conflict is resolved in 23 minutes with commercial breaks. That's not life. Life is that conflict is messy. It's birthing us into this next place of being. It takes time. So, really allowing ourselves to see that a conflict can be multiple rounds, that we follow that spiral through the four phases multiple times, for me it has given myself a little more self-compassion. To know that I can come back around and go, "You know what we talked about two days ago? I just realized this, this, and this. And I wish I hadn't said that. And I was really angry and scared about this." So to be a bit kinder to myself has been helpful.
Nicole: That leads into the next question from Barbara, from California. I 'm going to combine her two questions. She's really asking that you had mentioned the centering process and the Tibetan Bon philosophy and was wondering if you have spiritual practices, or practices, and would like to hear how it plays out in your own personal world. How you move through conflict, and how that shows up in your life.
Deidre: When I finished writing "The Way of Conflict," which is well over ten years ago, I realized that when I started in this work 21 years ago, I wanted to look really good in conflict. I realized when I got to the end of the book that it wasn't about looking good, it was about, as one of my teachers would say, it's about learning good. Conflict is a lot like the birthing process. It's messy and it's never what I expected it to be. It has emotions, liquids, usually tears in my case. So that has been helpful, to remember the messiness of it.
A practice that really helped me is that when I'm getting ready to mediate and when I'm asked to be in that role of the neutral third party who has no interest in the outcome, I will go and say a prayer, and meditation is really helpful to detach.
One of my practices is different mantras. I'm saying to myself, "Tell me more" or if I'm looking at someone who, as I was saying earlier, deeply hates something or someone that I love, I will say in mind, "This is just another window of this larger reality." I hold deeply the belief described in the Hindu tradition that this Universe is a great being and that I may be sitting on the end of a hair and you may be sitting on the end of a fingernail, and the only way I'm going to understand this great being a bit better is to hear what you're hearing, what you're seeing at the end of the fingernail. It's a perspective practice that shows up as an internal mantra. You will hear me say, "Tell me more about that" to the point that those in my family will laugh.... "Oh, she doesn't agree with me; she wants to hear what I want."
And as you can hear, self-depreciating humor is a practice that I come back to. But prayer and meditation are the spiritual practices that save me.
Nicole: Our next question comes from Kelly in Oakland. I know someone who is struggling with the feeling that the world has done him wrong. I've tried my best to help him see things from another perspective, but it's becoming toxic to our relationship. Can you speak a little to the interplay between feeling like a victim and forgiveness? Are these mutually exclusive? When you forgive, is there an automatic renunciation of victimhood?
Deidre: I've been thinking a lot lately about how our brain software works. I realize that we're always running all this data through our stories and our beliefs. It's striking to me. Because I'll say "It's a beautiful day, and let me tell you about these activists that I get to meet from all over the world who are doing extraordinary things." That's my brain software. Others can be, for lots of reasons, "story" or struggling with depression, running it through and it just comes out gray or black. The "dark night of the soul" black is what I'm describing. Where I can't see any sunlight.
One thing that's been helpful for me is to understand these four phases, and I alluded to them. The first phase of conflict is disruption; that's when we know we're in trouble but we might not want to deal with it.
The second phase is chaos. It's this place where we as a system are in chaos. We can't see our forward. We know we can't go back. And we're dealing with a lot of loss. Understanding that phase has been helpful for me to understand where others might be sitting. Sometimes we can get stuck there. And sometimes we're just supposed to spend quality time there, understanding what Meister Eckhart called the via negativa, or the negative path as the path where we spend time in suffering in the dark night of the soul. That we're called from all the different spiritual traditions around the world, that this is a place where we're called to rest and recover and just to be, to float in the water instead of trying to madly swim out of it. Knowing so little about the situation that this caller is working with, it might be more to understand the edges of where that person is and what might be influencing. It may be that there is a time where there's space, and that everybody is resting and recovering before we move forward. To get out of chaos, cross-culturally we're told that it's a place of flexibility and calling from letting go. From the Zen koan of "Hold tightly with an open hand," is the practice of that phase.... not exactly the easiest thing to do. "Hold tightly with an open hand." What does that look like? And what might that look like in this relationship?
Michelle (San Jose, California): "...calling again. I was just wondering where you see your next place of growth. Where do you see yourself engaging for your own personal expansion? For your own growth and commitment to the world?
Deidre: Here's what's calling me right now. It's good; you're going to witness me working on this. I've always said that I was going to write four books. The fourth book needs to get written. What I want to write it on is how to help all of these good people --- you're one of these good people --- to do good work over the long haul. What are the practices and strategies to lead well and to engage in these conflicts with organizations and institutions and world belief systems? How do we do that well? Where am I exploring to work on this book is both in the area of system theory and also looking at what it is that makes organizational systems... we sometimes call it soul. And when I say the word "soul," I think of all the study I've done around the spiritual traditions. What have we been told for thousands of years about the soul? The soul of a community, or the Holy Spirit, or the Self, and how we are to better listen to it and to communicate with it. That's where I'm feeling called right now --- to try to bring systems and spirit together in a new way.
Michelle: Have you ever applied that to looking at humanity as a community?
Deidre: Exactly. And then how do we listen into that? I am fascinated by how Gandhi, in 1915, before he did any type of political action in India, traveled around India on third-class trains and on foot, asking India what it wanted. He made a commitment to one of his mentors that he would take no political action for a year, and would just go and listen. So he took India inside of him. He talked to untouchables, he talked to Brahmans, and he talked to people from all of the different spiritual traditions within India. He traveled all over. He had India inside of him. He could hear that system in a way that allowed him to come up with creative solutions like walking to the sea for salt, or calling people back to the spinning-wheel. There are clues there. What you're saying is how can we take humanity within us and come up with our own version of walking to the sea for salt.
Michelle: I would love to offer whatever support I can for you to write that book.
Nicole: That plays beautifully into the final question, which is "How can we, in the larger ServiceSpace community, support your work?"
Deidre: I love that. I rented a car a couple of weeks ago. They kept asking me, "How can I help you? How can I help you? Is there any other way I can help you?" And I'm just loving that question. How can we all hold that question, "How can we help you"? Just that helps.
For me it's, how do we practice with the person we want to turn away from? How can we all keep practicing this way, "Tell me more"? How can we stay in just a tiny bit longer? That would make me feel good --- that I have loved all of us well enough that we're opening it up just a tiny bit more. That would be wonderful. How can we hold just a little more compassion? So if everyone practices being a little more compassionate, me included, that would be a wonderful way to help.
Nicole: I want to bring Aryae in and say thank you for starting us off with some beautiful questions and diving deep into some wonderful stories with us. Sharing your heart and your knowledge and your work with us. I personally am going to practice asking "Tell me more" today.
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