Most of us believe that external events and the behavior of others can upset us and thus are the cause of our discomfort in conflict. But what if this wasn’t true? What if our discomfort in conflict arises from the way we’ve been conditioned to react to external events and not from the events themselves? What if we were responsible (as in “able to respond”) for what we feel in conflict?
Usually, the first thing that happens when we’re triggered in conflict is that our mind becomes very active. It tries to interpret, make sense of and find a way to get rid of or escape the triggering event that seems to be the cause of our discomfort. Thus, we zoom in on every detail of the triggering event (i.e. the tone of her voice, the way she looked at me) and compare it with previous, similar events. The result of our mind’s focus on the trigger is that we feel certain that the trigger is indeed to blame for the way we feel.
Alas, there is no end to the concerns and the amount of details the mind can bring to our attention. It is a bottomless pit and once we believe what our mind is telling us, we usually can’t avoid taking the next step: to react to the perceived cause of our discomfort by attacking or trying to escape it. This approach never works for very long. If we manage to pacify or escape one trigger, another will soon after reactivate the same discomfort.
The way of reacting to conflict by focusing on the trigger is so common that we seldom question it. An alternative is to be willing to set aside the trigger, even if for a moment, to inquire into our actual experience of conflict. What thoughts are arising for us? What emotions and physical sensations are we experiencing?
Setting aside the trigger doesn’t require any special skills, nor is it a lengthy process, which involves a lot of “doing”. It only takes the willingness to stop indulging in the mind’s activity (our thoughts) and focus our attention on our present-moment experience, be it on our breathing or on what we can directly perceive in the moment (a tree, a bench, our hand etc.). It is not important what we focus on as long as it’s something we can directly observe in the present moment without involving the chatter of our mind.
Once we take our attention away from the trigger, we have taken the first step towards responding to conflict instead of reacting to it. It may take some time and awareness of the enormous pull of the mind, but as long as we stay committed to focusing on the present moment, clarity on how to respond will arise. And, with this clarity comes knowledge: that we are response-able for what we feel in conflict.