Embracing Harmony: Mastering the Art and Practice of Non-Resistance in Interpersonal Conflict
A good friend of mine, Jacob Aremark, wrote an article a while back about what we can learn from the practice of Aikido to help us respond better to interpersonal conflict, and it had a profound effect on me ever since reading it.
He described how, in Aikido, when someone uses force against you, the last thing you do is to resist that force with force of your own. While resistance by tensing up and using our muscular strength is a common reaction, all that does is keep you entrapped in an energy-depleting conflict that can’t end well. Instead, you use and shift your body in a way that their force meets no resistance and that energy is instead given a route that bypasses you entirely. This requires little to no effort, and is in complete harmony with the natural energetic flow of their movements. I imagine that the greatest Aikido masters can sense and manipulate this flow of physical and mental energy to an almost superhuman degree.
Jacob points out that this same technique can be equally useful in interpersonal conflict. In the same way that an attacker uses physical force against us, we far more often find ourselves on the receiving end of some verbal/emotional force. A boss or co-worker who talks down to us, a partner who admonishes us for some perceived failure, the person in the street who barks at us for accidentally bumping into them, and a hundred more examples, small and big, that we might experience every week and month of the year. The natural, and almost unconscious response is to tense up, to bristle, and to build up psychic resistance in our minds – usually along the lines of how out of order the person is, how disrespectful they are being, and ‘who do they think they are talking to anyway?’.
But just like in the physical encounter, responding in this way is voluntarily enmeshing yourself in the conflict, in the struggle of two egos. That kind of dynamic usually only goes one way – downhill. We have all been there and done that, probably on a daily to weekly basis. Almost every argument between partners could be characterised by each party feeling that they can’t let that comment slide, they must defend themselves and uphold their dignity, thereby embedding themselves ever deeper into the argument.
But the wonderful lesson I took from Jacob’s article was that of responding to the energy of a comment aimed at my ego in the same way an Aikido master would respond to a punch aimed at their head. They would simply move their head, and perhaps gently ensure with their own palm that the punch missed it’s mark. So, I literally started imagining, when a potentially barbed or hurtful comment was aimed my way, that I was shifting myself slightly to one side so that the comment slid right past me without making contact. It’s remarkable how positive an effect that simple adjustment has had in my life, both for my own sense of peace and wellbeing, as I am far less likely to be triggered into having an unpleasant emotional response, but also for the de-escalation effect it has on the situation itself. It effectively lets all the pressure out of a potential conflict when you fail to respond in the usual, ego-defensive way. There is simply no oxygen for that fire to burn on, so it dies out before it’s even properly caught. This is also an exercise in recognising that no other person has the power to make you feel one way or another, as much as it often seems like they do, they can only do so with you as a willing participant. This is the classic stoic idea that events do not cause our experience of the world, only our own thinking about the events can do that.
But in recent years I have been taking this approach to a new level. There is a concept, sometimes called ‘Selflessness’, which describes the fact that the thing that we think of as ‘me’ or ‘I’, doesn’t really exist in the way we imagine it does – literally we are self-less. It’s actually an illusion that there is a stable being that is who we are, and have been since we were born. If you follow the path of self-enquiry to investigate this for yourself, the logical conclusion is that we are not what we think we are. In fact, our sense of identity is entirely transient from moment to moment – a made up bundle of thoughts, memories, emotions and sensations – and therefore a pure fiction.
All those comments, looks, judgements and shuns that stir something unpleasant or unwanted in us, only do so when they hit us in our ego. But now we know that the ego is a fiction.
So, armed with this understanding, I no longer imagine myself shifting my balance to let unwanted interpersonal strife pass me by. Now the image is of the mirage of the ego, and so there is simply nothing for that stuff to stick to. Essentially, all those judgements and comments are aimed at what the other persons believes is me – my ego – which I know is merely an illusion. It allows me to let go, again and again, the things that would have stung before, that would previously have led to me wanting to protect and defend myself in response.
The question you may be thinking now, that has arisen in me often while following this approach, is ‘are there not times when I don’t want to let something slide, and I do want to respond?’. And yes, there are still times like that, plenty of them. For example, if I feel someone has the wrong end of the stick about something I have said or done and I want to set the record straight. But this approach does not require that I never respond, only that my response comes without emotional weight of its own, and from a place of reconciliation, connection-seeking and progress, or at the very least peacekeeping. It’s incredible how disarming it is to respond to someone’s pointed comment or behaviour with total non-resistance. Often, without even countering their point directly, you will find that they come naturally round to a place of conciliation.
So, the next time you notice the beginnings of an emotional response to something someone has said or done to you, try imagining one of the two options I have presented here – either the Aikido master approach, or the mirage of the ego – and allow whatever it was to not find purchase in you. If you can manage that, you should be well placed to respond more wisely and compassionately. The next step is to choose your response from this place of balance and equanimity. See what effect it has on the other person and the dynamic between you when you do that, and I promise there will be some pleasant surprises in store for you.