People say that darndest things, don’t they? I think that adage is actually about kids, but these days, it seems to apply as much to adults as preschoolers. There are a lot of big, important issues front and center in the world, and tensions are running high. Conversations easily turn into debates, and in the blink of an eye, blur into full-on arguments.
Most of us don’t like arguing, so before things go south, we back away, or avoid the conversation all together. We prefer to keep things light and avoid divisive topics, especially when we are with people we believe may disagree with us. We don’t go there in the interest of keeping things civil because we don’t know how to make “there” civil, too. We think it isn’t possible to be passionate and peaceful at the same time. But if you’ve ever had an adolescent growth spurt, or worked out with a tough trainer, or studied for a seemingly impossible standardized exam (that shall remain nameless…), you know that comfort doesn’t breed progress. Progress can be painful at times, but that doesn’t keep us from working towards it.
One of the reasons I believe in the power of mindfulness, and put so much effort into encouraging people to try it, is that it equips us with the skills to manage discomfort. This can translate onto our own internal landscape, whether it’s about managing anxiety, fear, grief, or even excited distraction and over-anticipation, but as I’ve said before, it can also help us manage difficult conversations and interactions with people who challenge us. The simple act of taking time to be still and breathe, even for just a few minutes, teaches us that discomfort isn’t terminal. It is a temporary state, and if we can tolerate it even briefly, the other side of it offers great rewards, including compassion, patience, tolerance, intentionality, focus, and clarity…and growth. We tap into unknown strength, and realize that our emotions are an experience and not our whole identity, and we are better able to understand their source as well. We are more likely to see the hurt behind hatred, and the fear behind vitriol. We are more likely to listen, and to speak with substance. We are more likely to find common ground and take steps forward together, rather than retreating to our respective corners to refuel on anger and indignation. We are more likely to create positive and lasting change.
It’s tempting to think of negative emotions as motivating. It’s true that sometimes, they are the kickstart that makes us realize how much we care about a certain issue. But once you make the choice to engage and try to bring about change, clinging to them will only inhibit your progress. You’ll end up more focused on what you have to say than what is actually happening or being said around you. You stop being present, and you get stuck treading in water with no hope for a current.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t speak out on topics that matter to you. In fact, you must. But your voice should be part of a conversation. We have to develop the ability to talk to each other about difficult topics or we will never be able to move forward. Whether in the classroom, the boardroom, on the debate stage or the courthouse steps, insults never produce results. They create and sustain negative emotions that do nothing but reiterate themselves into stagnation. Try mindfully focusing on the positive aspects of the change you hope to bring about, and let them fuel your actions. What does the world you hope to create look like? As you envision and embody it, you will also be creating it, one breath at a time.
“There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.” – Gandhi
Photo credit: Torsten Dettlaff