While talking to his mother, Dennis, the menace suddenly covered his ears. His mother yelled – Why have you closed your ears? Dennis said –If I continued to listen, I might have changed my mind.
We are more well mannered than Dennis. In a conversation that involves a different point of view we may not overtly shut our ears but we do pull the shutters down on our ears. The disagreement might be over whether people should be vaccinated for Covid or not, the political party to be voted into power or out of power, gentle love or tough love in bringing up children.
So, then what happens when we experience a disagreement?
As words are exchanged, the eyes widen, the breathing quickens, the heart races, there is an experience of discomfort.
One feels attacked and goes into fight mode.
One starts to plan the rebuttal. Selective listening happens. After mentally picking holes in the other person’s argument, the attack or rather the defense from one side begins. The back and forth goes on.
It is easy to predict what will happen next. One of you sulks the other might feel victorious. Both fight some more or walk away. Both feel that the distance between them has widened.
Both start to raise our voices although they are only 4 feet apart.
Invisible walls of separation and distance spring up just as quickly like the glass partitions in the first class seats of the flight.
If they have walked away from each other, both start to bring to their minds, other instances of being disagreed with and the distance between the other widens even further.
What was all the fuss about?
Perhaps one opinion was different from the other – to get vaccinated or not.
Perhaps one perspective was different from the other – Allopathy or Ayurveda
Perhaps one framework was different from the other – to give pocket money to children or not
But that is not how we experience it.
When someone expresses something different from me, especially something I feel strongly about, the opinion is not being challenged, I am being challenged,
the framework I hold is not being questioned, I am being questioned,
the perspective I have is not being confronted, I am being confronted.
I seem to be synonymous or rather identified with my opinion, framework and perspective.
And then Vedanta comes along and says,
You are not your mind or rather you are more than your mind.
If we unpack this, what Vedanta is saying,
You are not your opinion..
You are not your perspective..
You are not your frameworks
Ah…the discomfort in the stomach and chest is surfacing.
So what can we do about disagreement in the light of Dharma and Vedanta? I offer a few points for reflection and action
1. See that the person you are interacting with has a right to express their opinion as much as you have a right to your opinion. Here itself we get stuck. Why? Because we are right and the other person is wrong… No, the other person is different. Instead of focusing on being right, focus on what may be right about what the other person is saying.
Just because the other person is different from you does not mean that the person does not care for you. Difference in opinion is not an absence of care or respect for you. If your partner is used to living in a big house since childhood and hence wants to live in a big house even now, he has not stopped caring for you. He is shaped by his background as much as you are shaped by yours. And he will want to argue for what he wants just like you unless both of you sidestep your entrenched views and look at – What are our needs and what do we want the house to be for us?
3. Understanding is not equal to agreement.
I learnt this during my internship in the psychiatric prison ward of Thane mental hospital. Before assigning the case to me, the psychiatrist asked me – You can do some tests for case X. He has been convicted for rape. If you walk into the ward, we will have to close the doors of the ward. Are you ok with that? I said yes. Clutching onto my white coat to project an air of a medical professional, I walked into the ward that morning which had a strange smell of phenyl scrubbed floors and the sweat of the patients. And then X came and sat on the chair opposite me. We were doing Rorshach projective test. I asked him, what do you see? He said Vagina..stunned and not trying to show it, I showed him a few more cards and he kept repeating different body parts of a woman. First of all I was angry because this man was a rapist and on top of that ..it looked like he had no repentance and on top of it he was brazen to say all these things to me. The collective anger that I held belonging to the female gender for the injustices that have been done to women had been invoked. As the anger started to rise in me, I reminded myself that I was here as a professional. My job was to do the tests, understand his case history and present a diagnosis. What he did was adharma and could not be justified by any standard. Understanding him was not equal to condoning his behaviour or agreement. This was liberating for me. I have quoted an extreme situation to just illustrate how this this principle applies.
Often we don’t want to listen to the other person because we are afraid that we will be forced to agree with the other person. But you can choose to understand. Agreeing or disagreeing comes much later. Understanding is not equal to agreement.
4. To listen to another person involves the risk of being changed and for most of us change is threatening. You love to invest in equity and are a risk taker with money. Your partner is highly conservative and sticks with fixed deposits only. Rather than shame her for a difference in view, if you truly listen to her, you could see the value of a conservative approach as well coming to a more balanced view. Likewise your partner can be inspired by your openness to listen and change and could also see the value of risk taking in investments. They key to living with different opinions is focusing on common goals and a both approach rather than an either/or (adversarial) approach. The balance or the golden mean is that one is no longer dictated by the raga for ones’ opinion and dvesha, dislike for the other’s opinion.
5. Difference in opinion does not mean that you are superior or inferior to the other person. I like apples and you like oranges. Does it make me superior or inferior? But somehow I feel like I have the right to shame you or look down upon you just because you are different from me. This is not in keeping with dharma. Dharma teaches us that no one wants to be shamed and so although I may feel threatened, it is not right for me to diminish someone just because the person likes oranges or try to convert the other person to like apples only.
6. Understand the difference between your feelings and facts. We have to stop talking about our feelings as if they were facts. V said – I felt humiliated by your mother because she did not gift me anything on our wedding anniversary. Your mother does not care for me. M explained – we don’t have the practice of giving gifts in our family. V started crying – You are justifying your mother’s humiliation of me.
Basic objectivity requires us to differentiate the facts – mother in law did not gift as there is no practice within the family of gifting. V felt humiliated because she associated receiving gifts with care and respect. No gift meant no care and no respect. No wonder V felt humiliated. Any dialogue will turn into a debate if we only focus on feelings and not focus on facts of the matter. Conversely we can turn a debate into a dialogue by shifting attention to facts and separating facts from feelings.
As partners, friends or colleagues if we focus on our care and respect for each other then we can find ways to work with each other despite our differences. We have to look no further than at nature and in fact that small green patch you see when you go for your walk. The plants are there and so are the shrubs and the pipal tree and the ants crawling along with the flies and the butterflies. They are different from each other and yet they coexist. The plants don’t seem to encroaching on each other’s spaces. Recent research tells us that under the top soil there is an intricate deeply connected root system which the plants and trees use to exchange information about resources and share these. If plants with their so called rudimentary minds can do this, why can we not learn to live with difference?
The legacy of Sanatana Dharma is such that we accommodate all differences. Nowhere in the world will you see the range of sampradayas we have – the deities are different, the guru parampara is different, the ways of worship are different and yet we all can co exist with respect and freedom to the other. Further Jagadguru Shankaracharya in his commentary disagreed with his contemporaries but respectfully debated them. In one place he even says that he refutes them not to run them down but offer clarity to the ones who could be confused because of his commitment to upholding Advaita.
Finally as followers of Dharma and Vedanta it is our duty and an opportunity for growth to learn to co exist with difference and uphold the spirit of mutual respect.