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Dealing with Conflict: A Yogic Perspective

One of my favorite celebrities and actors, Jennifer Aniston won me over with a particularly powerful interview she gave Oprah Winfrey in 2005, a month after a very publicized separation, with tabloids filling up with irreverent stories on a matter that could not have been more personal. An epiphany that Aniston shared in the interview is particularly relevant, “We finished and we were sort of sitting there, stretching and I looked over at her (Aniston’s friend) and I said, ‘You know what? I have to say I’m feeling a feeling I don’t know if I’ve ever actually felt before. And that is that I don’t want to be anywhere other than where I am right now.’  I wasn’t sitting somewhere dwelling on the past, or I wasn’t fretting or obsessing about something in the future. It is a feeling of total peace.”

Conflict is the nature of the world.

We would all like to live and be in peace. Peace is the natural calling of every soul. But what prolongs a conflict in our mind is the non-acceptance of a simple fact that spiritual teacher Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar points to: “Conflict is the nature of the world. Comfort is the nature of the Self. Amidst the conflict, find comfort in the Self.” This is the real purpose of yoga.

Yoga is not just about physical postures, it is not just about Lulumon® pants or expensive high-grip yoga mats, or even breathing in and out of each nostril. Though performing yoga postures with total awareness is an important limb of yoga, yoga itself is a way of life, living one’s highest potential. In fact, even when sage Patanjali talks about asanas that we loosely translate to mean physical postures today, is really much more than just body contortions. It means ‘the seat’ where we are comfortable.

Remember when you first attempt an asana or a stretch—the discomfort and pain you may feel? You could think of it as an inner conflict when all your mind wants to do is get out of this posture and be comfortable again, or out of conflict again. Yoga is all about becoming comfortable in this asana, or seat, and reposing in it without conflict!

We cannot escape the conflict. If you really observe the five elements that constitute matter, they seem to be in perpetual conflict with each other. Water extinguishes fire, and yet without fire or heat, water is just ice. Yoga offers a way to live in the midst of conflict, without getting thrown off balance by it. Yoga allows us to rest in our true nature that is peace. How?

What initially begins as a set of postures, practices, norms, and codes of behavior codified in ancient classical texts on the science of yoga—like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras known to be one of the most authoritative works on yoga, or Hatha Yoga Pradipika—over a period of time becomes a part of our very existence as we start living the peace instead of seeking it through our practices. When this happens, conflicts begin to fall by the wayside, and we are able to observe their external nature, without getting drawn into their drama. This is when yoga is said to be achieved in its truest essence—the union of the body, mind, and spirit.

Yoga is a balanced state.

Interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita—one of the most popular treatises on the three types of yoga—was delivered by Lord Krishna in the midst of a battlefield with conflict raging in the mind of Arjuna, one of the chief warriors who was unwilling to fight his kith and kin in Mahabharata.

According to Krishna, a conflict arises when our mind is in a state of non-acceptance of the existing situation, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions of the other. Yoga is a balanced state of the body and mind—a state of balanced emotions. It is a balanced state of thoughts, intellect, and behavior. We often get overexcited when the situation outside of us is one of happiness and pleasure, and are down in the dumps when events are unpleasant or unfavorable. The equanimity of the mind in any situation is the ultimate objective of yoga.

Yoga as skillful action.

Lord Krishna also defines yoga as skillful action or perfect action. Perfect action is a positive action that supports our evolution and ideally leads to positive health on both physical and mental levels. We need some skillful action to deal with conflicts at the workplace or at home, without letting them affect our peace. Yoga as a body of knowledge—for example, the knowledge of the eight limbs of yoga (Ashtanga yoga)—offers tools to develop these skills in us.

Having an open mind requires one to deal with the modulations of the mind.

The second of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras mentions a crucial tool to deal with conflicts in general: stilling or quieting the fluctuations of the mind. This is done by pursuing the eight limbs of yoga with dogged determination and consistency over a period of time- asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breathing practices that provide energy and vitality), dhyana (meditation), dharana (concepts), pratyahara (turning within), samadhi (bliss) the five yamas (rules/codes of behavior in society) and niyamas (personal ethics/practice).

What happens on following these eight limbs? You are not just empowered to deal with conflicts, but when the modulations of the mind are settled, you get to live the ultimate union with the higher self—the state of pure bliss.

Not listening to what others have to say is one of the most common causes of conflict. But a mind that has calmed these modulations and insecurities through these eight steps or limbs of yoga, is bound to be open to listening to others’ ideas, and see the merit in them, is bound to choose coexistence as a way of life. This is transformational in that, it can melt individual differences, bring down walls, and open up channels of communication.

This is not just fictional idealism. The Art of Living teachers who have been engaged in conflict resolution in numerous countries and communities have witnessed this first hand that people with hardened political/ideological/historical stands have opened up to communication and dialogue after undergoing meditation and spiritual practices. Case in point being members of the FARC rebel group, who reported feeling peaceful and rested after learning meditation and breathing practices under the guidance of spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. This opened up their hearts to serve and they were willing to work for peace in Colombia.

Be indifferent to mistakes.

Sage Patanjali offers a unique and beautiful sutra to live by, in dealing with conflicts or people who create conflicts that never seem to go away. He advises indifference!

Patanjali’s thirty-third Yoga Sutra translates to ‘By practicing the habits of friendliness, compassion, happiness and by being indifferent to virtues and sins, misery and sinful vices, your mind is pleasant.’ This can also be taken to mean, being indifferent to others’ shortcomings. Being indifferent to other people’s virtues or vices/mistakes helps you save your mind at all costs. This is not to mean inaction, but it is simply about freeing up your mind space to take the right action.

Practice friendliness.

An inner moral conflict sometimes arises when we find others are doing a better job, or are more gifted than us, or seem to be winning. Their performance seems to threaten our identity or place in a group, while we have been told to not be insecure in our lives. This gives rise to inner turmoil. For this, Patanjali advises friendliness towards people who are doing meritorious work. Friendliness with people who are doing well brings a sense of belongingness that instantly calms you down. This also saves the mind from churning in insecurities. At the same time, Patanjali also recommends being compassionate to other’s sadness or misery.

In the presence of a non-violent one violence is dropped.

“When a person is established in non-violence, then violence is dropped in his or her presence.” —Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 35 translation

Non-violence—or Ahimsa—is one of the five yamas, part of Ashtanga Yoga. What happens when one practices non-violence with total awareness? Patanjali explains that when one is established in non-violence so totally, then violence is ceased among those present near such a person. It is said about St. Mahaveera, founder of Jainism (a religion whose cornerstone is practicing non-violence), that such was his ahimsa that fierce animals mellowed in his presence; and even the thorns would not prick-perhaps a symbolic explanation of the beauty of Ahimsa.

Ahimsa should be practiced in one’s thoughts as much as in one’s actions. Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar explains how to do this, “Violence draws violence. Suppose you are sitting and someone nags you. In your mind, you are angry and think, ‘Oh, God. I am going to hit this person, squeeze this person.’ These thoughts arise in you. You do not hit that person. You do not do it. But watch those thoughts which make you feel like hitting somebody. Why is that violence arising in you? What is the source of the violence? As you watch the source of violence you will see that violence disappears, dissolves, and peace dawns. Yoga brings that inner peace which in turn establishes non-violence.”

Ahimsa brings about the union of the mind, peace of mind and when you are peaceful or calm within, you naturally become non-violent.

To be with satya or truth.

Satya or truthfulness is yet another important yama that Patanjali recommends one to follow. This truth that he talks about is not subjective. This truth connotes the eternal or non-changing nature of it. “It is to be with what IS right now,” Gurudev explains. Conflict is when we are caught up in our limited realities and start seeing them as being true when actually these realities keep changing. But for one who is established in truth, there is no conflict, because he/she is able to see the one truth that everything is changing, and so will this situation that has given rise to a conflict.


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