Most of us go through life by viewing conflict as the fire we must control, extinguish or avoid. And, there are a number of books, experts and organizations which purportedly tell us exactly how to do that. Yet, our actions seem to be as impactful as using an eyedropper to contain a raging blaze. At times, it even appears as though our eyedropper is filled with oil – our efforts to win, manipulate or escape conflict only intensify the flame.
The alternative to viewing conflict as the fire, which we must put out, avoid, escape or win, is seeing conflict as the fire alarm. Its job is to merely be the messenger – to alert us to the blaze. And, that all-consuming blaze conflict is alerting us to rages within each and everyone of us.
Science teaches that to burn a fire requires three elements – oxygen, heat and fuel. The inner fire the fire alarm of conflict is alerting us to mirrors these three elements.
First, the fuel for the fire is our story, which we experience in the form of thoughts. Our thoughts that make up the story are shaped by the way we learned to react to particular stimuli from our parents or primary caretakers; the beliefs they held about themselves and the world and the cultural, religious and social environment we grew up in. This is our conditioning and as we go through life, we pick up thoughts and beliefs from our surroundings, believing them to be our own and using them to build a story about who we think we are.
Second, our attachment to our story is like oxygen, which makes fire possible. Without attachment, our story is just information, a collection of data, which has no bearing on our actions. Yet, our deep attachment to our story means that we actually see our story as us. Thus, anything, that however slightly challenges our story, is a challenge to us. And, when we are challenged, our reactions are to attack, avoid or control. This is what sparks the flame.
Finally, there is heat. The analogy with heat is actually quite literal – the physical and emotional discomfort we experience when in conflict often comes as a sensation of heat. It is this discomfort we are most afraid of – it can burn us (or, so we think). Yet, fully experiencing the discomfort of conflict (feeling the heat) helps us to identify where the fire is burning. Yes, not only do these fires burn within us, they burn at particular locales. For instance, anger at our partner who we feel ignored us might appear as intense heat in the stomach and tightness in the jaw. These are the locations where the fire is burning.
Directing unconditional attention to each of the three above elements without trying to change, fix, control, understand or sedate is like pouring water on the flame. It calms, if not fully extinguishes the blaze.
When in conflict, fundamentally we have two choices. We could perceive the fire to be outside of us, thus focusing all our energies and resources, on trying to put out this perceived blaze. Our efforts to control, win or avoid the outside factors might even lure us into believing that the fire is gone. That is until something or someone again triggers us, making it feel as though there is another blaze to deal with. In other words, we could live an exhausting life of constantly putting out fires.
Or, we can respond to conflict by knowing that whatever is happening on the outside is merely a fire alarm, alerting us to what is happening within. Trying to change or control the outside is akin to tempering with the fire alarm, while ignoring the blaze. And, since all the elements of the fire are within us, we are responsible for it. Only we can put it out, by turning our attention and intention inward where this fire burns. Once we do, we can turn burning heat into warmth and compassion for ourselves and others.