On a physiological level, the human body is wired to respond immediately to conflict as if it was life threatening. Within moments, the body releases the “stress hormones”, adrenaline and cortisol, which allow for increased speed, hyper-vigilance, and the ability to react quickly to external events.
If you are actually in danger, this will save your life. When the body begins to chronically react to situations with this fight-or-flight response, however, these hormones can be erosive and damaging to the brain, physical and emotional health, and overall wellbeing of a person.
Just think about fighting with someone you are close to, for a moment; how with just an ill-timed comment, tone of voice, or look, that person can go from being your ally, confidant, and trusted partner to your enemy! Notice what happens in your body- often, we tense up, contract, and stop breathing, because the body is literally preparing for a physical fight, even when the external circumstance is no where near that level of discord or threat.
So what do we do, when a fundamental truth of being in relationship is that conflict will arise? How do we begin to engage skillfully with the various stressors that pepper our days, rather than habitually avoiding them (fleeing) or compulsively trying to annihilate the threat (fighting)?
For thousands of years, yogis and meditators have picked up the challenge of leaning into discomfort rather than the instinctual movement away from it. By systematically cultivating a tolerance for and familiarity with the full spectrum of experience (which includes intensity), we learn that:
- We are much stronger and more capable than we believe ourselves to be (feeling overwhelmed is a lot different than actually being overwhelmed, and even though the shame or anger or guilt is intense, it’s probably not killing you, so even though you don’t necessarily like it, there is actually no real threat).
- There are an infinite number of different ways to respond to challenges, whether they are external, or internally located. The more we slow down the arousal process when we are “triggered” (notice your physical sensations, your thoughts & emotions, breathe!) the more we are able to actually choose how we want to respond.
Practice this enough, and you will have graduated from simply reacting from the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), or the part of us that is creative, mindful, empathetic, and curious about our experience.
Here, the experience of conflict is transformed from something “bad” into something challenging, but also rewarding; intrinsically informative, and potentially deeply intimate.
Yes, intimate. Because on a fundamental level, conflict is simply us bumping up against something else- something that feels more separate and different than similar. And as with all encounters with diversity, we can either solidify and get rigid in our response, or we can relax into the situation, and get really curious about our reactions, and perhaps even soften our perspective to include what is still connecting us to the other. Or, what they have to teach us, consciously or unconsciously. Then, we open to being shepherded by experience into a deeper understanding of ourselves, of what makes the other person tick and tense up, and how human we both are.
Life then opens up, from the black and white framework of “good” and “bad” experiences, into this arena where all expressions are welcome, workable, and actually helpful. Things get a lot more interesting…