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Disagreeing Well

We do not outgrow disagreement, but we can learn to disagree as a part of “we”

It might come as a surprise to you that even the best relationships involve disagreement. That’s right. Disagreement is not something we outgrow. Instead, we learn to stay focused, even in the heat of the moment, on disagreeing while loving and respecting each other.

My husband and I have loved each other since we were seniors in college. You might be wondering, “How long is that?” Suffice it to say that we have been disagreeing with each other for a very long time. Sometimes we do it well. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes it’s a mixed bag.

During a recent disagreement, something that felt a little like magic happened. In the most heated of moments, I actually witnessed my practices of yoga and meditation kick in.

A sudden moment of clarity in the midst of frustration

Suddenly, instead of being consumed by the frustration I was feeling (and I was super frustrated), I understood that we were caught in a relationship pattern that is as old as our relationship. Yes, the issue at hand was unique and important. We needed to work this out and neither of us had any idea how to do so.

But the way we were navigating this disagreement was a well-worn path that never gets us anywhere useful. I stopped, almost mid-word, and shared this epiphany. I said, in essence, “I feel frustrated and alone. You feel frustrated and alone. This mess that we’re making right now has nothing to do with our current problem. It is just what we do when we’re both feeling frustrated and alone.”

Upon saying this, I immediately felt compassion for him and for us. It’s important to note that my frustration wasn’t gone – not by a long shot. Neither was his. But our situation had been reframed so that we could see each other beyond this disagreement and remember that our best chance of working this out was together. Neither of us felt alone anymore and that is an important step in disagreeing well.

What does this have to do with yoga and meditation? Two things: creating space from big feelings and seeing clearly.

Detachment helps a lot in disagreements

Yoga and meditation teachers use a word that is commonly misunderstood – detachment. In fact, if you Google “detached” the definition is separate or disconnected, which sounds like two detached things are completely “other” than one another.

In contemplative practices, detachment, especially with regards to emotions, does not mean that our feelings are somehow not our own or not valuable. On the contrary, we learn in our practices that our feelings are quite real, quite valid, and quite worthy of our respect. We also learn not to give our feelings the power to determine our actions. That is a job for something far deeper and more lasting than feelings, that pass through us like clouds across the sky.

Detachment, then, is creating space – sometimes a whole lot of space – for our feelings. In a disagreement, this can mean saying something along the lines of, “I’m having big feelings right now and could use some space to settle down. Is it OK if we come back to this in a little while?” If that is not realistic, you can also choose to name your feeling out loud and ask for the spaciousness of understanding.

In my case, I chose to name both of our feelings – “I’m feeling very frustrated right now, and I know you are, too.” Then I asked if we could both remember that, though I get loud and he gets silent when frustrated, we both want the same thing – to find a solution.

Clear-seeing is a reminder that disagreement does not mean disconnection

It was as I uttered that second part, that I recognized my practices at work. Despite my pounding heart, tear-filled eyes, and chest so tight with frustration that I couldn’t get a deep breath, somehow, I was able to see our situation for what it was. This is clear-seeing, and it is, yoga and meditation both promise, a powerful gift of practice.

Clear-seeing, in our instance (and I suspect in all disagreements between people who love each other), resulted in a glimpse of samadhi. Samadhi is the Sanskrit word for the final limb of yoga, an understanding of oneness or union. And what is love but the tie that makes two people one?

It was that glimpse, through the haze and murk of our disagreement, of the love I have felt for this man for a very long time that shifted something deep and big and powerful. Our disagreement didn’t end in that moment. At least two more conversations over the course of the next two days lay ahead of us before we managed to get ourselves onto the same page.

What yoga calls oneness or union makes two people into “we”

What disappeared instantly was the feeling of isolation and aloneness in our problem. The reminder that I am part of a “we” held together with love added a big dollop of hope to my frustration – which felt positively magical. And for that I am profoundly grateful for my practices.

If you’d like to know more about samadhi and other aspects of yoga philosophy, you might enjoy the replays of my course Demystifying the Yoga Sutras, where I connect topics that can seem esoteric to everyday life.