My deep curiosity about conflict resolution started with a motorcycle. Actually, it was a very deep desire to ride one. At the time I was a 32-year-old lawyer, working for a law firm in Philadelphia, specializing in personal injury litigation.
Being a lawyer was a capstone of a childhood dream. I saw myself as a lawyer since at least the age of fourteen, when as a new immigrant from Ukraine with limited English proficiency I joined my high school’s speech and debate team. In college I served as the President of the Pre-Law Society and worked as a paralegal at a small local law firm. The day when I graduated from law school was one of the proudest in my life.
Bored, heavy and unfocused was how I felt seven years into my legal career. My grand visions of making Clarence Darrow-like closing arguments collided with the reality of drafting motions in tedious discovery disputes. While I was helping real people and enjoyed serving them, I increasingly saw litigation as laborious, inefficient and driven by fragile egos of the lawyers and judges involved. Most of my colleagues seemed perpetually frustrated, anxious and drained by the practice of law. I was desperate for a change.
It was then that motorcycles entered my life. Riding represented passion, exhilaration and freedom I craved. My newly found interest arose seemingly out of the blue, following a conversation with a rider friend. It was a surprise to everyone, including me. This newfound passion felt more like an obsession. To the great dismay and frustration of my loved ones, especially my wife, Juliya, I spent nearly every waking moment reading about motorcycles; looking at available ones on EBay; and taking steps towards learning to ride one.
Motorcycles became my vehicle for shifting my focus from outside of myself to within.
A few years before I began riding motorcycles, I learned Transcendental Meditation. My daily meditation practice was a source of solace which kept me centered in my hectic and increasingly frustrating life. Yet, it was riding motorcycles that took my mindfulness practice to a whole new level. Whether because of the inherent danger of riding; the skill and concentration it demanded; or the multitude of sensations that it brought; or perhaps because it was a radical thing for me, a short, stocky, bookish, conformist lawyer to do. When riding motorcycles, for the first time I experienced space between all the complex stories that were running through my mind and me. Even my identity as a lawyer, which was so central to how I saw myself, seemed to recede into the background. As a result, I felt more relaxed, focused, and at ease.
Motorcycles were also responsible for a critical meeting which quite literally put me on a different path in life. It was a beautiful spring day in Philadelphia, one of those days when the sun is shining but not burning, there is nary a cloud in the sky, and a light spring breeze lightly kisses the face. It was a perfect day for a motorcycle ride and I had every intention of enjoying this day on two wheels. Except that I woke up with strange pain in my lower back. Assuming it to be a pulled muscle, I hoped to walk it off. Yet the pain increased, soon becoming almost unbearable. A trip to the ER confirmed that I had a kidney stone. There was nothing to do except to wait to let the stone pass. Stuck at home, I was playing on Amazon, trying to find something to divert my attention away from the pain.
The movie I came across is called The Highest Pass. Produced by visionary director Adam Schomer, it tells a story of a young, Indian mystic and a Yogi, Anand Mehrotra, who took a group of Westerners on a harrowing motorcycle journey across the Himalayas. Riders, many of whom had limited experience riding motorcycles before the journey, confront manic Indian roads; deal with altitude sickness; and face their worst fears, all while being pushed to their limits and beyond by Anand. The point of the film is that the highest pass all riders have to climb is not in the snow covered, remote area of Northern India, but within them.
I felt deeply moved by this film and was fascinated by Anand. Just a few months later Juliya and I ended up meeting him at the Sattva Yoga retreat in Virginia. In person, Anand was just as irreverent and magnetic as he was in the film. His kind and penetrating eyes, with an ever-present twinkle, locked on mine as we came to greet him during the retreat. “You should come to India,” he said, “and maybe you won’t be so serious.” He then burst into one of his frequent bouts of contagious laughter. That was the thing with Anand, with effortless ease he could switch from talking about the latest motorcycle model from BMW or Harley to explaining the nature of unconditional love, speaking with equal clarity, conviction, and captivation about both. One moment he was an innocent child, the next moment a sage. There was a dynamic stillness about him – bursting with energy, there was an undeniable fluidity and elegance about Anand apparent in his every action, from the way he walked and rode his motorcycle to the way he played harmonium while singing kirtan.
Not only were we fascinated with Anand, but the practice he taught, Sattva Yoga, which we were exposed to for the first time during the Virginia retreat, was also unlike any other yoga practice we had been exposed to before. Sattva, which translates from Sanskrit as ‘whole,’ combines elements of Kundalini, Kriya, Hatha, and Laya traditions of Yoga. We did not know any of this then. All we knew was that classes Anand taught combined meditation, breath, kriyas (yogic practices which combine breath with mantra and/or movement to move or awaken certain energies in the body), traditional yogic postures, and soft deliberate movement, similar to Tai Qi and Qi Gong. The effect on us was powerful. After the Virginia retreat, I felt clearer, more at ease, and more focused than I have ever felt in my life.
Because of the undeniable impact the retreat with Anand had on Juliya and I, we decided to accept Anand’s invitation and travel to India. Since then, we have traveled to India thirteen times. In fact, in 2018, Anand and I, along with twenty motorcycle riders and twelve passengers, crossed the Himalayas together, retracing the original Highest Pass journey. Over the next eight years, Anand became my teacher and a very dear friend. Aside from my wife, Juliya, he has been the most influential person in my life.
I will not recount here many powerful and simply indescribable experiences I’ve had during my many visits to India. To unpack these experiences could take another separate book and then some. However, while in India I connected with the ancient Yogic teachings which became the very core of my life’s work. Fundamentally, while some spiritual traditions look up at the sky, or down at the earth, Yoga taught me to look within. An ongoing, life-long process of looking inward for answers has had the most profound impact on my life.
Among the most profound impacts of Yoga on me has been the connection with my life’s work – empowering people to respond to conflict with strength, clarity, and ease, as opposed to reacting to it with fear, avoidance, or aggression. It is through Yoga that I realized that to truly transform our conflict interactions we must shift our focus inward and dis-solve our conflicts at their source – within each and every one of us.
In this sense, shifting our focus inward, rather than outside of us in conflict, is the seed. It is what ensures that we start showing up to conflict interactions with the increased capacity to respond, or to take the action appropriate for the situation from an undisturbed state. The capacity to act from an undisturbed state, irrespective of circumstance, dis-solves the most fundamental conflict there is – conflict between life and us. As Sadhguru often points out, at the source of this conflict are our perceptions of the three core problems: that we are not happening the way we think we should happen; that life is not happening that way we think it should happen; and that other people are not happening the way we think they should happen. Are there any other problems we have?
The first problem occurs as the result of our perception that our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, prejudices, and preferences are us. At the source of our problem with life is the idea that we are separate from life; that life is something happening to us; something we need to figure out; attach a meaning and a label to; be coached at; and to succeed in. Our problem with other people arises from the fact that while we don’t know ourselves, we think we know other people and thus the way they should be.
Dis-Solving Conflict from Within is about dispelling all of these illusions. By shifting our focus inward, we gradually start to gain some control over our thoughts, emotions, and energies and thus start happening the way we think we should happen. We also start accessing insights about the very nature of life and begin to experience ourselves as life and not something separate and distinct from it. As our sense of Self expands, we naturally become more inclusive. Further, we realize how little we know about other people and the idea that someone “should” be a particular way drops, giving way to natural compassion or connection with another person’s innate humanity combined with a deep knowledge that we could never truly be in their shoes. Gradually, we realize that we are not even separate from other people or for that matter from the world. Thus, we start seeing even their violence and violence happening in the world as an expression and reflection of what is happening within us.
By the way, the above insights are not just new age-ish beliefs we pick up. We believe something we have not experienced. Thus, we may believe that we could scale Mount Everest. However, once we do it, we no longer believe that, rather we know that we can. Likewise, we don’t believe in apples. Most of us have experienced apples and thus we know what they are, we don’t need to believe in them! Dis-solving conflict with life is like coming into a dark room fearing a snake there and then turning on the light and realizing that what we thought was a snake is actually a rope. Once we experience such a realization we cannot go back. With these realizations which become deep knowing, the way we experience conflict and other dimensions of life radically transforms. As Rhonda Magee, Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco and internationally acclaimed thought leader on mindfulness and social justice keenly observed in her powerful book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness:
Through personal mindfulness practices, we can begin to ground, heal, and ultimately transform our sense of self, no longer clinging too tightly to a narrow and isolated sense of “I,” “me,” “my wounds,” and the collective pain-stories of “my people.” We can begin to be able to infuse our experience of ourselves in culture, community, and context with a sense of the valid, often painful experiences of others. And as we take in more of the whole, we grow (1).
For the seed to germinate, take root, and to eventually deliver the fruit it needs the right combination of soil, sunshine, air, and water. The four principles of conflict transformation which I discuss in my book, Dis-Solving Conflict from Within: an Inner Path for Conflict Transformation, and which I learned from Yoga: tuning inward, observation without evaluation, expansion, and exploration along with the practices attached to each of these principles provide the necessary environment for the seed to develop and grow. These principles and practices cultivate the values of awareness, humility, curiosity, and growth. It is these values that form the strong roots of our tree. These principles, practices, and values create a culture of transformational conflict. Transformational conflict expands our understanding, enriches our interactions and shines a light on areas of our lives that require attention, deep reflection and change. Transformational conflict transforms challenging interactions from being the sources of pain, division, and stress into opportunities for reflection, growth, creativity, and connection. As Mediator Kenneth Cloke points out:
In facing our conflicts, opening our hearts, and locating the center of what is not working, we pass through to the other side, uncovering hidden choices and transformational opportunities that ask us to develop, grow, and learn more about our inner selves (2).
The fruit at the end is sweet indeed! That fruit is justice which as defined by Rhonda Magee (with echoes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) as “love in action for the alleviation of suffering…[which] begins with our awareness of the present moment, extends through caring for ourselves, and shows up in the love we bring to our interactions with others and our responses to the social challenges of our time.” Yes, it will take time and energy for the seed to grow into a resilient and strong tree which yields sweet fruit and generates a new generation of seeds. However, let us not forget the power of the seed. The root and the fruit are ultimately within! And, for me, if it was not for the motorcycle I would have never even heard about the seed.
Dis-Solving Conflict from Within: an Inner Path for Conflict Transformation, a critically acclaimed book by Henry Yampolsky, will be released by the Global Collective Publishers on May 16th, 2022. Pre-oreders for the book are available at exclusive 20% discount for SC members at Global Collective Publishers. Use discount code sattva108 at checkout to get your discount.
The Road to Dharma, Living a Life of Freedom, a 10-episode DocuSeries is now available on Sattva Connect. This is the second masterpiece created by Adam Schomer that takes us on an inner and outer joruney through the Himalayas on the back of a motorcycle.
1. Magee, Rhonda; The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness; Tarcher Perigee, New York 2019.
2. Cloke, Kenneth; Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution, Jossey-Bass Publishers (2001).