In order to understand conflict we need to understand ourselves. We need to understand who we are at the deepest core of our being and how conflict arises within us. We need to understand the whole mechanism behind it, beginning with the concept of the Self.
When we talk about the Self, what is it that we’re identifying with? Who am I? Am I this body? Am I these thoughts? Or am I the one observing all of it? We have so many identifications, whether they have to do with external realities or internal concepts. We identify with gender and race, nationality, religion, political party, social stature, career and so on. And all of these identifications create in us the idea of separation. Because if I’m an American then this means I’m not German or Chinese or Venezuelan. If I’m a Democrat then I am not a Republican. If I’m a Christian then I’m not a Hindu, and so on. These identifications indicate that we are distinctly different. They create divisions between us. But these divisions are very superficial. They exist only at the surface. In fact they really only exist in our minds. Beneath all of these identifications we are fundamentally the same. But as soon as I become attached one of these imagined distinctions there is conflict.
Now why is there the need to identify with these concepts? Why do I need to label myself as one thing or the other? Why is it so important to think of myself in terms of some belief or social construct?
I don’t know who I am. And perhaps this makes me very uneasy, so I had better cling to something, to find something bigger than myself to belong to in order to give me some sense of identity, some sense of importance. So I join a religion or a political organization. Now I’m connected to something. Now I’m a part of something bigger, and this gives me a sense of belonging. But why do we feel this need?
I wonder if perhaps we sense that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, and that we crave association with others because we know that deep down we are essentially connected to one another in some mysterious way. But instead of uncovering this unifying connection and realizing that we are deeply connected to the entire universe, we substitute that sense of that connection by joining a group. The only problem with this is that the group has created its own sense of identity upon some specific idea, some particular belief, which is not held by everyone, or which conflicts with the ideas of others. So while one may find some sense of connection in such a group, that group’s identity is based upon separation and division.
So I think it’s important to go beyond these distinctions, these identifications. We need to explore beneath them and see if there is some essential connection between all of us. If we can put aside these trivial differences for just a moment and simply look at human nature I think we will find that we have a great deal in common with one another.
If we simply observe ourselves and others without getting caught up in religious or political identity, or even racial or gender identity, we find that we all have the same basic psychological characteristics. We have the same essential fears and desires. We all want to be happy, and we all experience suffering. And when we find ourselves in similar circumstances, we all tend to react in very much the same way. There is clearly some fundamental commonalty between all of us. But we ignore this by getting too caught up in the petty details.
We find a great example of this is in religion. You have two groups of people who both seek to establish a relationship with God, but then they fight with one another over the different ways in which they seek that connection, or in the way they conceptualize God, and so on. And they get so engrossed in the conflict that they forget all about that relationship they were trying to establish. And so they become even more disconnected.
They’re so concerned with maintaining their specific identifications with some particular system that they overlook the fact that they are both seeking the very same thing. The greatest of these conflicts has been seen between Muslims, Christians and Jews, all of whom profess to worship the very same God. And yet within each of these religions there are further factions who fight among each other. They have entirely lost the essence of their religion over these minor trivial differences. If they were to put aside these differences, for even a moment, and just look at the commonalities they would see that they are essentially the same.
Now if we take any such division and look more deeply into it, we find the same thing. We find that those of any two opposing groups are ultimately driven by the very same motivation, to discover truth, to find meaning or purpose, to become liberated, to be happy. We find these as the motivating factors of any group because they are essential to human nature. So let’s examine these basic mechanisms which are intrinsic to all of us, and let’s see if we can further understand the causes of conflict.
Everyone in this world desires, above everything else, to be happy. If we take any desire that a person has and really examine it deeply we find that ultimately what that person is seeking is happiness. If you desire fame, fortune, family, friendship, love, power, security or anything else, it is because we believe that having these things will ultimately bring about happiness. But why aren’t we already happy? Why are we not content? It would seem that no matter what we do, no matter how much we acquire, there is always this underlying sense of discontent. We are searching for satisfaction. Satisfaction means we have enough, but we can never seem to get enough of anything. It would seem that our need to be satisfied only leaves us craving more.
There is within us a resistance to what is. That’s what discontentment means. It means that we are unwilling to accept things as they are. We desire for there to be something different. And so we embark on an endless quest to improve the situation. We go on improving and innovating, but we only make the problem more complex. We weren’t content with what nature provided so we created a system that we believed would work better. And we achieved what we initially sought out to achieve, but this new system also brought about so many unforeseen problems that we didn’t have before. So we tried to improve the process in order to correct these issues and wound up creating even more problems, never realizing that there was only one problem in the very beginning—we weren’t content.
So can we simply return to this? Can we bring our attention back to this initial discontent? Is there a way that we can find contentment without having to improve upon anything? Because as long as we’re trying to improve, our motivation is discontent.
So what would happen if we dropped the need to be content, to be satisfied? What if we dropped the desire to improve our situation, even now as we find ourselves in a world of conflict? What if we simply acknowledged everything about the world, without any resistance to it, but with full acceptance of what is? That means no desire to fix anything. If there were no resistance and no desire, just acceptance of what is, would we not then be content? And if we were fully content, would there be any conflict at all?
If one could be content, wouldn’t there be peace within? Wouldn’t the mind then be tranquil, without struggle, without conflict? And if every one of us had this kind of peace and contentment within, would that not be reflected by the external world? If I have no conflict within me, and you have no conflict within you, can there be any conflict between us?
So, how can this be achieved? Can we force ourselves to be content? Can we force contentment onto others? Can we impose that upon them? This is the way in which we have tried to solve all the conflict in the world. We make everyone else responsible, except ourselves. Whenever there is conflict we blame someone else, and we try to force them, often with violence, to conform to what we believe is the proper way to live. We have tried this method for thousands of years, and with no success. The problems only increase.
So can we try a different method? Instead of making others responsible, can we simply take responsibility for our own part? This doesn’t mean that others aren’t responsible as well, but we can do nothing about that. We can’t change anyone else. We can only change ourselves.
So let’s examine our own conflict, our own dissatisfaction. Are we willing to do this? Are we willing to assume this kind of personal responsibility? Or do we want to go on acting like spoiled children, throwing tantrums, fighting with one another, always feeling the victim? It’s time to grow up. It’s time to act our age. As a species we’re 200,000 years old. And yet we still behave so primitively.