These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Mindfulness as a Conflict Resolution Resource – creating openness for hearing, and offering, conflicting opinions

Posted on July 8, 2020 by Rebecca Schisler

This article was written by Rebecca Schisler (Spiritual Retreat ’11, ’14, Year ’19-’20/Arts and Culture Fellow ’20).

“In the middle of it all, I asked him if we could just take a ten-minute break”. 

Over the last several months, I have had the privilege of working with PCJE on a new initiative to integrate mindfulness and Social/Emotional Learning into the Pardes Mahloket Matters curriculums for constructive conflict resolution.

I have learned a lot about the concept of “Mahloket L’shem Shamayim” – conflict ‘for the sake of heaven,’ an approach to engaging in a difficult discourse which has the potential to preserve and even deepen or strengthen relationships, rather than harm them.

The intersection of mindfulness and Mahloket L’shem Shamayim came alive for me the other night when I was on the phone with a loved one. We get along well, and he’s someone whose perspective and the outlook is more similar to mine than most. But we found ourselves in a tense, blameful and defensive conversation with the heat rising.

In the middle of it all, I asked him if we could just take a ten-minute break. We hung up and I laid on my bed and breathed. My mind wanted to come up with the next line of defense and make him feel remorse for saying something hurtful, but I know enough from my mindfulness practice that the best thing to do in a moment of heat is to pause and allow my nervous system to regulate. It worked. My emotions settled and my mind cleared a bit.

I called him back. Our conversation continued with more space and openness, ending with us joking, apologizing, and appreciating what had happened.

We just needed that moment of space.

So much of what reduces harm in a moment of conflict, and potentially even make it productive, has to do with our ability to self-regulate when we get triggered. It’s so crucial to learn this (and unfortunately, many of us never have). It’s also helpful to know the science: on a physiological level, when I am emotionally charged, I have compromised access to the part of my brain (pre-frontal cortex) that is able to empathize, reason, think critically, self-reflect.

That means that it is unwise to attempt to have a productive conversation about difficult issues – particularly with a loved one, or someone who poses no threat and whose relationship I value – when either one of us is in a heightened state of emotional reactivity.

When the heat is rising, it’s time to pause, take a break, and breathe. Not to plan the next line of attack or defense. Literally just breathe. I set a timer if I need to, and focus on my breath. Not my thoughts. The nervous system self-regulates. The mind is able to think more clearly. And I won’t say something harsh or hurtful that I’ll later regret, that probably won’t help get my point across anyway, and that will only further the divide between us.

Global tensions are high right now. We’re swirling in anger, blame, reactivity, violence, traumatic images and experiences. All of it has an impact on our mental and emotional stability, and interpersonal conflict is more likely to erupt.

My friend and I agreed that a frontier in leadership has to be cultivating skills for engaging in conversation with people of different opinions and values. There would be so much more peace, solidarity, and collaboration among us if we could learn how to effectively process our emotions and truly empathize. It can be incredibly difficult, especially when conversations trigger trauma. It gets personal. But it’s possible, and always worthwhile.

As someone with loved ones across the political and ideological divide, I’m not a stranger to triggering conversations. They are honestly never easy, but often where some of the most important change, epiphany, and healing in our lives and in our communities occurs. I’ve failed plenty of times, but I’ve learned a lot and have also succeeded.

If you’re struggling with how to have difficult conversations with loved ones during this time (or anytime), you can utilize some principles of mindfulness practice in a basic three-part process:

  1. Become aware that you’re in an emotionally reactive state. (Your heart is beating quickly, you’re holding your breath, the heat is rising, you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed, you can’t find the right words, etc.)
  2. Choose to pause.
  3. Take some space and focus on your breath. 5-10 minutes is ideal, but even 5 or 10 deep breaths can shift the nervous system enough to have a beneficial impact. 

I recommend learning some foundations of mindfulness practice. Or Ha Lev, a Jewish meditation center based here in Israel, offers virtual resources, weekly classes, and retreats. Apps like “Headspace” and “MyLife” are great resources for secular mindfulness. And the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution offers a host of online resources for Mahloket L’shem Shamayim. Pardes is pleased to offer three Mahloket Matters fellowships this upcoming year where students will have the opportunity to delve deeper into respectful and meaningful conflict resolution.

About the author:

Rebecca Schisler is a meditation teacher, artist, and ritualist. A devoted student of contemplative practice for a decade, Rebecca has sat numerous intensive Jewish and Buddhist retreats in the US, India, and Israel, and has taught on retreat with Or Ha Lev and Awakened Heart Project. She taught mindfulness to children, teachers, and parents in California schools with Mindful Life Project and has guided adolescents through Jewish nature-based rites of passage as a lead facilitator with Wilderness Torah. As a teaching artist, Rebecca creates large-scale community mural projects with youth internationally.