Leaning In: Or, How Does a Zen Person Do Conflict

Leaning In: Or, How Does a Zen Person Do Conflict August 17, 2017

Blue Cliff Long Beach 2

Leaning In

Or, How does a Zen Person do conflict?

Chris Hoff

A Dharma talk delivered at the Blue Cliff Zen Sangha in Long Beach

15 August, 2017

I want to acknowledge Charlottesville, and the state of the nation in some way, but tonight won’t be speaking specifically about Charlottesville. For that I will direct you to Roshi James’ FB page for his recent sermon on the topic, or his recent writing on the subject that can be found online at Lion’s Roar.

In some ways, I have not settled on that topic and honestly it seems pretty big right now. So I thought I would go a little smaller tonight. So, the title of my talk tonight is Leaning In, Or How Does a Zen Person Do Conflict?

For those that don’t know I’m a psychotherapist by trade. I direct a non-profit community counseling clinic. Where we provide mental health services at a reduced cost to the community. My task, as the clinical director, is to supervise and support new therapists in training.

And today I was meeting with one of my therapists and we were having a conversation where she shared that she was struggling. She had a new case, a heterosexual couple, we do a lot of couples and family work. And in our conversation, it came out that she was struggling because there was a high level of conflict present in the work. She had shared with me her own aversion to conflict, which I thought was great because I really appreciate new therapists being vulnerable in that way. She continued that she felt like she was falling short in the work because of her own struggles. She was taking her lack of comfort, with the conflict this couple was experiencing, very hard.

Now there’s a certain metaphor I work with when I am training and supervising new therapists that is named the “window of tolerance.” Now this is not my metaphor. I have “borrowed” it from Dan Siegel a psychologist at UCLA who has written many books and is the also the creator of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA.

Siegel’s Window of Tolerance is a term used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. When people are within this zone, they are typically able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty.

Now I don’t quite use this metaphor as originally intended, but I have found it very helpful in using it as way to support therapists to think about how, because of the work they are going to do, they may begin to expand their window of tolerance. Because oftentimes, when we find ourselves in difficult relational situations, we experience ourselves being taken out of our window of tolerance, and when that happens our imperative is to bring people back into our windows of tolerance. To bring people back to where we are comfortable. I believe this view is important because in my clinic we deal with a wide range of problems including trauma, anxiety, depression and the like. The sorts of problems that can pull us out of our windows of tolerance. I believe we need to be able to expand our windows of tolerance. So that we can go wherever people need us to go with them.

The reason I point to this now is because we find ourselves in a world that I imagine is stretching everybody’s windows of tolerance. Right, Left, Center, whatever label we might use, I have not come across many people that are not effected by our current political climate.

So as my teacher Roshi James often says, what does this project, what we are doing here tonight, have to offer us in these seemingly perilous times?

Well contrary to popular imagery surrounding Zen, it’s not escape! Zazen, or meditation, unfortunately is not a practice of ostrich’ing, or putting our heads in the ground. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. Zazen, or meditation is a practice of embodied present moment awareness. It is a practice of leaning in! Leaning in to the whole of life and all its experiences, heartbreaks, joys, boredoms, monotonies, highs, lows, and of course it’s inevitable conflicts.

And I have in my time found this practice to be quite useful in my life, and my approach to conflict resolution. Which has, and I imagine will always, be a large part of my professional life.

What I have found valuable in this practice in dealing with conflict is that it allows me an ability to not get captured by the problem narrative, or the problem story. It allows me an opportunity to slow down and see what stories might be getting created by me or others in any given moment.

This practice allows me to not get captured by the myth of neutrality in conflict. I’ve come to learn I am always standing somewhere. I am always taking a position even if I think I’m not. This knowledge, this clarity this practice gives me. allows me to not create more harm by making assumptions that are not accurate. It provides a clarity of where we actually stand, or where we might hope to get too.

This practice also allows me, when I’m dealing with my work, my life, wherever I might be, to not take an expert position. There’s a long tradition in Zen pointing to the beginner’s mind, or don’t know mind. As a matter of fact before I came over here a facebook friend posted a quote by Pema Chodron that said, Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. I think many teachers have said this in many ways but it all comes down to leaving space for not knowing, for not taking the expert position. To not think I know best allows me to move closer to collaborative relationships, an open mind, an ability to take a moment, when a moment is really needed, rather than jumping to conclusions, etc.

So this brings me back to my windows of tolerance metaphor and in my humble opinion I believe what the world requires from us, here in this Zendo, is an expansion of our windows. An expansion of our ability to lean into what our world is currently experiencing now.

Like my talk with my new therapist around how, through the expansion of her window and her ability to lean into the conflict, she will have a much better chance of reducing the conflict, the blame, and the debate that is plaguing her couple. And it will allow her to be able to slow down the work in a way that would provide for other considerations or possibilities that sit outside of the seemingly entrenched problems.

In this process, my hope for her would be that she would experience herself, and the couple she is working with in new ways.

I hold a similar hope for myself, and that is what time and time again brings me back to this cushion. So that I may continue to lean into life, all that it brings, and always experience myself, and you in new ways.

Because, I believe, that is the way through…


for an audio version of this talk, click here.

(Chris Hoff, PhD, LMFT is a dharma teacher with Boundless Way Zen West. He is also the Executive Director of the California Family Institute in Costa Mesa.)


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