Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

Finding Unity in Conflict

by Eknath Easwaran

Years ago, I watched the Brazilian athlete Pelé play his last game of soccer. He was retiring at the peak of his career, one of the best soccer players the world has seen, and in this last game he was playing with the New York Cosmos against a team for which he had scored his most memorable goals: Santos of Brazil. For the first half of the game, Pelé played his best for the Cosmos. But the second half had a brilliant touch: he joined his opponents and played his best for them. This is what we should do in a disagreement: play half the time for the other side, half the time for our own. It is not a question of sacrificing principles; this is the only way to see the whole.

If we could see the game more clearly – and the results were not so tragic – the spectacle of a quarrel would make us laugh. When we played soccer in my village, one of my cousins used to get so excited that he would shoot the ball into his own goal. We used to say, “Never mind the other side; watch out for Mandan.” When two people quarrel, that’s just what they are doing – scoring against their own side. Whatever the disagreement, we are the home team, the Cosmos – all of us. Our problems, whether personal, national, or environmental, are the visitors. And the mystics say simply, “Support your team. There is the opponent, down at the other end of the field. Unite against the problem; don’t go scrapping among yourselves.”

Otherwise, there are no winners in this game. Once we divide against ourselves, whether at home or between races or nations, there can only be losers. On the other hand, there is no disagreement so serious that it cannot be set right if both sides can join hands and work hard for a common solution. It is not at all easy, and the results will not be immediate. But wherever there is hatred, complete love can be established; wherever there is conflict, complete unity can be established. The choice is up to us. 

Finding the Common Ground

For Gandhi, love and selfless action were one. "I don't want to be at home only with my friends," he said, "I want to be at home with my enemies too." It wasn't a matter of speaking; he lived it out through forty years of solid opposition.

The other day I saw some documentary footage of Gandhi with a prominent political figure who opposed him so relentlessly that people said he had a problem for every solution Gandhi offered. These scenes were shot in 1944, when the two leaders met for a series of talks in which literally millions of lives were hanging in the balance. It took my breath away to see Gandhi treating his opponent with the affection one shows an intimate friend. At the beginning of each day's discussions, the man's face would be a mask of hostility; at the end of the day, both men would come out smiling and joking. Then, by the next morning, the man would have frozen over again, and Gandhi would start all over with the same cheerful patience, trying to find some common ground.

That is how the mystic approaches conflict, and it pulls the rug out from under all the traditional theories. There is a lot being written these days about conflict resolution, which I am glad to see. But no matter what you read, they will always say in effect, "This is how you deal with your opponent." Gandhi, Saint Francis, Saint Teresa would all say, "No. The moment you start thinking about the other person as an opponent, you make it impossible to find a solution." There are no opponents in a disagreement; there are simply two people facing a common problem. In other words, they are not in opposite camps. They are in the same camp: the real opponent is the problem.

To apply this, you have to set aside the question of who is to blame. We have a saying in my mother tongue: "It takes two to get married and two to quarrel." No matter what the circumstances, neither person bears sole responsibility for a quarrel. It is an encouraging outlook, because if both are responsible, both together can find a solution – not merely a compromise, but a way to resolve the quarrel peacefully.

To do this, it is necessary to listen – and listen with respect. For how can you end a quarrel if you do not even hear what the quarrel is about? How can you solve a problem with two sides if you never hear what the other side is? More than that, if you can't listen to the other person with detachment, you will not have the detachment to understand your own position objectively, either. It's not just one side of the problem you can't see; it's both. So listen with respect: it may hurt you, it may irritate you, but it is a healing process.

Gradually, if you can bear with this, you will find that you are no longer thinking about "my point of view" and "your point of view." Instead you say, "There is a point of view that is common to you and me, which we can discover together." Once you can do this, the quarrel is over. You may not have reached a solution – usually, in fact, there is a lot of hard work left to do. But the quarrel itself is over, because now you know that there are two of you playing on the same side against the problem.


These two excerpts are from Eknath Easwaran's book Patience.