The Spirit of Dialogue
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The Spirit of Dialogue

Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict

Aaron T. Wolf

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The Spirit of Dialogue

Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict

Aaron T. Wolf

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About This Book

We tend to approach conflict from the perspective of competing interests. A farmer's interest lies in preserving water for crops, while an environmentalist's interest is in using that same water for instream habitats. It's hard to see how these interests intersect. But what if there was a different way to understand each party's needs?Aaron T. Wolf has spent his career mediating such conflicts, both in the U.S. and around the world. He quickly learned that in negotiations, people are not automatons, programed to defend their positions, but are driven by a complicated set of dynamics—from how comfortable (or uncomfortable) the meeting room is to their deepest senses of self. What approach or system of understanding could possibly untangle all these complexities?Wolf's answer may be surprising to Westerners who are accustomed to separating religion from science, rationality from spirituality.Wolf draws lessons from a diversity of faith traditions to transform conflict. True listening, as practiced by Buddhist monks, as opposed to the "active listening" advocated by many mediators, can be the key to calming a colleague's anger.Alignment with an energy beyond oneself, what Christians would call grace, can change self-righteousness into community concern. Shifting the discussion from one about interests to one about common values—both farmers and environmentalists share the value of love of place—can be the starting point for real dialogue.As a scientist, Wolf engages religion not for the purpose of dogma but for the practical process of transformation. Whether atheist or fundamentalist, Muslim or Jewish, Quaker or Hindu, any reader involved in difficult dialogue will find concrete steps towards a meeting of souls.

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The Boundaries of Science?

A Tale of Two Vaticans

There are two Vatican Cities, one public and one private. The former many know and have experienced, perhaps swept in a crowd through the Vatican Museums, hushed gently by the guards while trying to take in the power and nuance of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—or through the pope’s weekly homilies, offered to the thousands who gather in St. Peter’s Basilica and Square most Sundays and Wednesdays.
The entrance to the other, private Vatican has been famously shielded for the past 500 years by the Papal Swiss Guards, instantly recognizable in their tri-color Renaissance uniforms and 7-foot halberds. Attempt to pass and you will be politely but firmly rebuffed.
Unless you can prove you belong.
For example, if you are a guest of St. Martha’s Hostel, you flash your brass key ring adorned with the papal crest, and the guard comes to attention, salutes, and allows you to pass. Instantly, the hum of the crowds melts away as you enter through a narrow passageway into an entirely different Vatican City.
St. Martha’s is an unimposing modern building just south of St. Peter’s Basilica, constructed in 1996 by Pope John Paul II primarily to house the College of Cardinals when they congregate to elect a new pope. John Paul II had participated in two conclaves himself, and he commissioned the construction to make the process more comfortable and less strenuous on the mostly elderly cardinals.
Figure 1.1. Pope Francis enters Domus Sanctae Marthae (by Pufui Pc Pifpef I [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons from Wikimedia Commons).
In intervening years, however, the hostel is used to house those with formal business with the church (and has been retrofitted to include the residence of the retired Pope Benedict). One will not find large-screen TVs or broadband Wi-Fi in the rooms, and the only decoration is a small wooden cross above the bed. But the service, mostly by nuns, is impeccable; the international cuisine (including kosher and halal) is spectacular, and the sheets are the softest you will ever experience. Seriously, you won’t want to get out of bed.
I got access to this Vatican City because of water conflicts.
In 2004, the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation at Oregon State University, which I direct, was supported by the Carnegie Corporation to co-sponsor a series of meetings with Peter Gleick’s Pacific Institute on cutting-edge issues related to water resources that are shared, often contentiously, across international boundaries. Peter, one of the world’s foremost thinkers in the water policy arena, and I decided that a series of dialogues between professions that don’t necessarily interact but who might learn from each other could be useful. One meeting, for example, was held at Sandia National Laboratories between people who managed water internationally and those in the security world responsible for monitoring arms control agreements. Both work in worlds where suspicion is rife and data are scarce, and both have access to different technologies and institutions they try to use to overcome both the suspicion and the lack of data.
I had the idea, for reasons I’ll go into in a bit, to similarly bring together the worlds of international water resources and spiritual transformation. Peter had the idea to bring in one of the few institutions in the world whose mandate could be construed to include both water science and spirit: the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Let’s stipulate at this point that the Catholic Church has had some, well, issues with science over the years. Galileo comes to mind.
Many will therefore be surprised to learn that the current position of the Catholic Church is that if church doctrine and scientific knowledge are in conflict, it is church doctrine that must change. And it is the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that monitors the potential tensions between the two.
Better yet, and with more immediacy for the story at hand, participants and organizers of meetings co-hosted by the Pontifical Academy are housed in St. Martha’s Hostel, beyond the saluting Swiss Guard, on the quiet side of Vatican City.
The actual 3-day meeting was … challenging. We had twenty-six participants from all over the world, a mix of water professionals who had negotiated international agreements at a very high level and leaders from a variety of faith traditions who had thought, taught, or written about the process of spiritual transformation. Finding a common language, or even a common framework, in our short time proved difficult. On one hand, a former water minister from Nepal described the importance of dialogue in monitoring biochemical oxygen demand, while the Sufi mystic next to him said little but smiled so brightly and practically glowed with positive energy that you just wanted to sit next to him in hope that some might rub off on you. A water professional from the Middle East stormed out because someone used the term “battle of civilizations” in a way he found offensive (the meeting was held during the second year of the second Gulf War), while a bishop, a representative of the Pontifical Academy, shook his head in his hands and muttered, “This isn’t science.”
So although the group came up with few answers for whether there is overlap between the worlds of water negotiations and spiritual transformation,1 a couple of key questions did emerge, questions that became the focus of my research life for the next 12 years, questions that have implications for conflict transformation far beyond the world of water, questions that are at the heart of this book:
  • How are anger and conflict explained within the world of spiritual transformation, and how can that understanding be applied to conflict management?
  • What tools and techniques are invoked to enhance personal or group transformation within these settings and might be reflected in other situations?
I’ve spent 12 years traveling the world when I could, reading and discussing these questions in intervening periods, both with practitioners from a variety of the world’s faith traditions and with those who have negotiated conflicts in a breadth of settings. I’ve studied Kabbalah in Jerusalem, sat with a Buddhist monk who mediates forestry disputes from his temple in northern Thailand, and worked from an ashram in India with a rural development organization started by a Hindu swami. I’ve had the good fortune to meet with facilitators who work from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim perspectives, to learn that mediation processes are explicitly described in the central texts of both the Quaker and Bahá’í faiths, and to have read and explored the energy work around anger and conflict of native cultures in the Americas and elsewhere.
This book describes what I found and how to use it.
But first, some background.

How a Water Scientist Hit the Limits of His Worldview—Twice

The meeting in Vatican City, and for that matter this book, came about because of a seminal conversation I had had a year earlier with a friend now serving in the Secretariat of the World Governing Body of the Bahá’í Faith in Haifa, Israel. In his earlier incarnation, he had been the senior water advisor at the World Bank. (Incarnation in this instance is meant figuratively. I know I need to specify in a book like this; I was once at a New Age-y dialogue training and was asked to turn to the person next to me and describe one of the most difficult conflicts I’d ever been involved with. I started with, “Well, in another life I was a soldier….” At which point my young partner interrupted with, “That’s so cool! In another life, I was a princess!”)
In 2003, the year before the Vatican meeting, I was a member of a panel addressing problems particular to international waters at the World Bank’s Water Week in Washington, D.C. At that time, I was 6 years into practicing as a facilitator and mediator of problems created by conflicting interests over water resources that cross the boundaries of countries or economic sectors, while a professor in the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University.
Basically, water management is conflict management. There is always too little clean, reliable water for everyone’s needs, resulting in seemingly perpetual disputes between, at one level, farmers, indigenous groups, environmentalists, urban users, and industrialists and, at another, between nations that share waterways. As someone trained in the sciences, I had approached the problems scientifically, collecting data about shared waterways, including developing the largest collection of water treaties in the world and compiling other factors related to both conflict and cooperation. Our Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation became a one-stop shop for disputed waters, where one could map out the likely trends and triggers of conflicts while designing processes for monitoring and resolving them or, better, preventing them from breaking out at all.
In fact, I had begun my career focusing solely on the scientific aspect of water, concentrating on groundwater and modeling its flow. Having grown up in northern California, punctuated with several years in Israel, I understood that water resources underlie some of the more intractable political issues of our times, and I had set out on a path to learn to help resolve these issues, using water as the language.
But the only water language I knew was technical. Surely if people had the right data, they would come together in harmony. Or so I thought.
My first jolt out of complacency with the science as the answer to politics came ironically as I began my career as a scientist years earlier, in the late 1980s. With a master’s degree focusing on groundwater, I was working for the U.S. Geological Survey in Wisconsin as a water scientist in my first attempts to solve real-world problems.
Pretty Lake, Wisconsin is, in fact, quite a pretty lake in the rural southern part of the state, about an hour west of Milwaukee. But its level was dropping, and the people who lived along its banks were concerned about their views and their docks. Our mathematical models suggested that the drop in lake level was probably caused by a nearby farmer’s increased pumping of his well for irrigation; the well tapped the groundwater that fed the lake.
Triumphant in our science, we held a meeting with the property owners to share our findings. The first problem we encountered was that most landowners simply weren’t buying it. One suggested that he was sure recent dredging had “broken the plug” in the bottom of the lake, not a theory grounded in hydrology. Others asked whether we were 100 percent certain of our findings. Like responsible scientists, of course we weren’t. The final problem came when someone asked what the solution was. At the time in Wisconsin, there was no legal connection between groundwater and lake water, despite a clear hydrologic connection, and the farmer could not be legally obligated to do anything at all for the property owners. The only solution was for them to talk through their differences and see whether they could find a mutually agreeable way forward.
Figure 1.2. Near Pretty Lake, Wisconsin (© 1978 Terrence E. Davis. Used with permission).
As scientists, our job was done. And profoundly unsatisfying.
This was the beginning of my gentle dawning that simply having the “right” answers was not enough to bring people together; people had their ideas of how the world works, and no amount of data was necessarily going to change their minds. Moreover, it was clear that people are at the heart of all of these issues—they cause the problems and must likewise craft the solutions—and I had no training in people whatsoever.
It was around then, as I was grappling with these gaps in my education, that an officemate back from an internship in Washington, D.C. first mentioned the term environmental conflict resolution, a concept I’d never heard of but one that instantly resonated. Surely people are just systems like any other, but perhaps with greater uncertainties. And I was fine with uncertainties. (Groundwater science is rife with uncertainty. In another task, I had spent 3 months calculating that a plume of pesticides flowing underground toward a nearby municipal well would reach the well at some point between 5 and 50,000 years from then. Again, the results were deeply unsatisfying to the constituents who needed to figure out what to do about the problem.) Learn about the human system, combine it with understanding of the natural system, and the solutions would be unassailable.
That jolt—that people are actually at the center of both conflicts and resolution—sent me back to school for a Ph.D. focusing on policy analysis and conflict resolution.
Like most training in the United States at the time in what has become known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR), mine was based primarily on the work coming out of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation. The seminal text that had essentially launched the field in the modern United States was Fisher and Ury’s ...

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