“Come from a place of peace and you’ll be able to deal with anything.”
My deep curiosity about conflict resolution started with a motorcycle. Actually, it was a very deep desire to ride one. At the time I was a 31 year-old lawyer, working for a law firm in Philadelphia, specializing in personal injury litigation.
Being a lawyer was a capstone of a childhood dream. I saw myself as a lawyer since at least the age of fourteen, when as a new immigrant from Ukraine with limited English proficiency I joined my high school’s speech and debate team. In college I served as the President of the Pre Law Society and worked as a paralegal at a small local law firm. The day when I graduated from law school was one of the proudest in my life.
Bored, heavy and unfocused was how I felt six years into my legal career. My grand visions of making Clarence Darrow-like closing arguments collided with the reality of drafting motions in tedious discovery disputes. While I was helping real people and enjoyed serving them, I increasingly saw litigation as laborious, inefficient and driven by fragile egos of the lawyers and judges involved. Most of my colleagues seemed perpetually frustrated, anxious and drained by the practice of law. I was desperate for a change.
It was then that motorcycles entered my life. Riding represented passion, exhilaration and freedom I craved. The deep desire to ride motorcycles also drew me into one my life’s most challenging conflicts. My wife Juliya was ardently against motorcycles.
My desire to ride a motorcycle arose nearly eight years into our marriage. Prior to that I never had any interest in motorcycles. I was also eager to please and to conform to everyone else’s expectations of me. My newly found interest arouse seemingly out of the blue, following a conversation with a rider friend. It was a surprise to everyone, including me. This newly found passion felt more like an obsession. I spent nearly every wake moment reading about motorcycles; looking at available ones on E-Bay; and taking steps towards learning to ride one. Juliya was flabbergasted by my insistence on riding:
“Don’t you know how dangerous it is?”
“Does it matter to you that I am against you riding?”
“Do you care about anyone other than yourself?”
“Maybe, you should be with someone who is more fun, someone who is Ok with her husband riding?”
Each of these questions and their many variations were integral parts of our daily arguments. Privately, I agreed with Juliya: riding motorcycles was a non-sensical, selfish idea. But, when arguing with her, I seemingly entered into another dimension of time and space. I would become defensive and would accuse Juliya of being unwilling to understand and accept me. I would repeat the same arguments over and over again, completely unaware that the only change was my rising tone of voice. It seemed that her opposition to my riding encroached on something sacred. What was it I could not explain. In our escalating conflict, I felt more and more isolated, even turning to internet forums to seek validation and support. And, the identity of a lawyer was so deeply ingrained in me. I was not about to lose an argument, even if that meant loosing my wife. Besides, something beyond me; something I could not comprehend much less explain was pulling me towards riding.
Daily meditation practice, something I started doing two years prior, was my only solace from the frustration with my world. One meditation in particular stood out for me. I remember feeling really exhausted that day: exhausted from fighting with Juliya; exhausted from this crazy desire of mine; exhausted from the work that no longer satisfied me; exhausted from my life. As I tuned into my mantra, I felt like I no longer had a need to fight. I surrendered to the all-encompassing experience of exhaustion I was feeling. As I surrendered, expecting the exhaustion to overwhelm me, a profound sense of calm came over me. Suddenly, it did not matter if I would get a motorcycle. It mattered even less if I would be right or wrong. It did not even matter if Juliya and I would stay together, as I knew I would love her no matter what. But, while it did not matter, I was not indifferent. It is just that there was this sense of expansion and a realization that all is Ok right now and all will be Ok no matter what. I also had a sense that I’ve experienced some kind of a shift, even though I could not understand what it was.
That night I was able to engage with Juliya in a way I could not before. First, I was able to listen to her and hear the frustration, sadness and love behind her words. I was able to express to her the ambiguity of my feelings: how intellectually I completely agreed with her, but also how following my heart was so important to me. We embraced, cried and held each other. As we did, in my mind I surrendered my desire to the power greater than me. “Dear God, if there is a reason for this; if I need to do this, please show me the way. And, if it is not meant to be, let me learn from this what I need. I surrender this desire to You” – I prayed.
This was a turning point in our conflict. While we still had fundamental disagreements, we could communicate with each other with respect, clarity and ease. For both of us the need to be right dropped, allowing us to explore with curiosity all possibilities going forward. Rather than just waiting for a turn to speak, we could listen to each other and hear not only the words, but the deep feelings behind them.
It turned out that riding motorcycles was a pivotal experience for Juliya and I. My desire to ride a motorcycle started a chain of events which led us to a meeting with radical Indian Yogi, Anand Mehrotra. Anand become our teacher and dear friend and has had a transformational impact on both of our lives. As a result of meeting Anand, we have made multiple journeys to India and discovered Yoga as a deep ancient science of self-mastery, connection and evolution. Through motorcycles I also met Danish author, explorer and coach, Annette Birkmann. Annette and I co-created the four-step process at the core of this book.
Through all these transitions I remained fascinated with the shift I experienced in my conflict with Juliya following my meditation. The ongoing fascination with this shift along with profound inspiration from Anand’s teachings led me to abandon my career in law and to dedicate my full-time efforts to conflict resolution. My ongoing studies with Anand; my work as a mediator, peace educator and conflict coach; many conversations with Annette Birkmann; and my own spiritual practice led to an important realization – when we turn inward in conflict and unconditionally experience what is arising within us, we are able to respond to conflict with clarity and compassion instead of reacting to it with fear, avoidance or aggression.
Exploration of why and how to shift inward in conflict is what this book is about. Because, when we turn inward we are able to connect with the space of peace within us. Connecting with this space can transform conflict into an opportunity for growth, connection and dialogue. Truly by connecting with the space of peace within us we can deal with anything.
This is the first chapter from the upcoming book: Dis-Solving Conflict from Within: Transforming Conflict into an Opportunity for Growth, Connection and Dialogue.