In early February, before the whole world turned upside-down, I traveled to a tiny village on the Pacific coast of Mexico to attend an intensive, week-long training for conflict resolution professionals from around the world. Led by master trainer Gary Friedman of the Center for Understanding in Conflict and Zoketsu Norman Fischer of the Everyday Zen Center, the program was called Inside Out: Conflict and Compassion.
We were there to look deeply at our reactions to the conflicts we witness in our work. As you can imagine, divorce mediators have a window to some very dark moments in our clients’ relationships with each other. Dig beneath the affairs and the drinking, and dig farther down beneath the feelings of abandonment and betrayal, there are often revealed some very raw recollections of childhood strife and abuse. This can cause vicarious trauma. We were there to acknowledge the pain we see in our work, to feel the feelings that come up as a result, and to heal.
The setting could not have been more ideal. We were at Mar De Jade, a yoga and meditation retreat center right on the beach that serves the community by running a school and an organic farm nearby. Listening to the roar of the ocean, we gathered in a circle each day, working as a large group, or in teams of 2 and 4. Our schedule, which was spaced throughout the day, included an hour of seated and walking meditation before breakfast, followed by 7 or 8 hours of discussion, reflection and group work.
I hadn’t known any of my 18 classmates beforehand. They were experienced mediators from around the world: Brazil, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, California, Colorado and Florida. We bonded in silence during the morning meditations, each struggling to put aside our worries and our floating thoughts, remembering, every so often, to listen to our own breath. Later in the day, we practiced reflecting and listening to ourselves and to each other. We told our stories, expressed our emotions and got even better at mediating.
At first, it seemed as though we had so little in common — in age, in background, in life experience. But as the week went on, we saw each other less on the outside and more on the inside — our differences fell aside, and our similarities came more sharply into focus. For instance, we all wanted to help our clients but don’t always know how. We wanted to be fully present but were clouded by our own past experiences. We each had the inclination to want to fix things. It didn’t matter where on the globe we came from. It didn’t matter how old we were or what we had been through. Our thoughts and feelings were so very similar.
When I think back now, it seems that we were so innocent — we sat right next to each other. We took walks together on the beach. We looked for each other at meals. We hugged. We didn’t know what social distancing was, and if we did, it would not have been seen as a good thing.
It is hard to believe that this was only two months ago.
Now I work at home day after day, listening to the ambulances go by (less often, thankfully), and feel so grateful to have had that experience. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that the training was really about being in touch with our inner feelings.
But now, on reflection, I have a profoundly different response. The portal we each used to be in touch with our inner selves was listening to our breath. And so, the way I see it now, the whole week was about breathing.
I think about how lucky I am to be alive, and to be able to breathe. Something so simple, so fundamental, that we always took it for granted.
But I don’t think any of us will take our breath for granted anymore. I don’t think we ever will.
Joy S. Rosenthal, Esq.
Rosenthal Law & Mediation
225 Broadway, Suite 2605
New York, New York 10007