I confess that spirituality is not my strong suit. It’s up there with sports in terms of admirable things that don’t jibe with my addled attention span or intellectual bandwidth or skills. No disrespect to either thing. They’re just not my jam.
However, I’m ever so grateful for what various faiths have brought to the peacebuilding field. I was (unsuccessfully) raised Catholic, but I admit that the peace and forgiveness-themed Prayer of Saint Francis still gives me the shivers. Awhile back, we had a mini-summit of representatives of the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Muslim communities at New York Peace Institute, and it was wonderful to hear about the conflict resolution traditions embedded in their faiths.
I recently came across a statue of the Weeping Buddha, which I’d never seen before. I’ve seen the fat and happy Buddha, the lotus-postioned lean Buddha, a Buddha doing a handstand, and the Keanu Reeves Buddha with crazy abs in that Bertolucci film. (Come to think of it, the crucifix in my boyhood church also featured Twilight-star abs, but I’m getting off point.)
The Weeping Buddha is a bald ball of sinew, doubled over in grief, head in hands. I’ve read a bunch of different stories about the WB. The most mundane is that it’s simply an exercise for apprentice sculptors — a way to learn how to carve curves and musculature before going on to the tricky business of facial features. Another story is about an ongoing battle between two masked warriors. One killed the other. When the victor removed the vanquished warrior’s mask, he learned that he’d killed his own son. In this story, the figure portrays the anguished older warrior.
My favorite version is that the Buddha had witnessed protracted violence between two warlords, and was deeply saddened by the pain and suffering he saw. He curled up into a ball and wept — thereby absorbing the hostility and anger of the warlords, so they could move forward in peace. The Weeping Buddha cries so no one else has to. His mere presence wicked away the warlords’ anger…but at a price to the peacemaker.
Like the WB, mediators can be emotional sponges. We inculcate our mediators with the mantra it’s not about you. As mediators, our opinions and views truly don’t matter. We guide the process, and provide a safe space for parties to express their needs — and maybe they’ll come to an agreement, or at least understand each other a bit better. Or simply have a chance to be heard. We do our best to keep our egos on ice during the process, and not impose our values or ideas. We strive to not be triggered by the things we hear, no matter how they may affect us personally….all the while providing deep empathy and compassion. This is not easy. Being truly neutral is nearly impossible — but we try our best to at least behave impartially (or multipartially or omnipartially), in service to our clients’ self-determination.
We do get to bask in the glow of healed relationships, agreements reached, and violence prevented, bearing witness to the heroism and courage of our clients. How lucky we are to be a part of this. And…we are sometimes the receptacle, and event the target of, anger and sadness and emotional pain.
It’s essential that we do our best to avoid the pitfalls of vicarious trauma endemic to helping professions. It’s not uncommon for people who constantly hear others’ problems to internalize what they’ve been exposed to. Apathy, insomnia, shutting down, depression, feeling burned out, transferring the anger you absorb to your loved ones — the list of effects of dealing with others’ trauma goes on and on. A jade Buddha is lovely…but jaded mediators do neither the parties nor themselves any favors.
So, self-care is really important, and not so easy in our overscheduled and overstimulated world. Self-care can be as intimidating as new year’s resolutions — our ritual of coming up with unrealistic promises of wholesale physical, professional, financial, and emotional makeovers. But self-care can also mean doing some simple things to cleanse your palate. Cue up a ridiculous YouTube video, watch an episode of Arrested Development, dance Gangnam Style as if it were still 2012, breathe, take a walk, have some cake.
After hearing from many of our mediators that they wanted — even needed — a space to talk about their experiences, we listened, and instituted this little piece of self-care: At New York Peace Institute, we ask our mediators to debrief with a staff member after each case. We do this for a number of reasons…including quality assurance and helping us understand what skills and support we need to provide our mediators. More importantly, it’s a chance to process what just happened and give mediators an opportunity to share what may have been a truly intense experience. Mediators, at this moment it is about you. It’s our job to provide a space for mediators to decompress, vent, share, celebrate, or do an endzone dance (which I think is a sports thing).
Since it’s New Year’s Day, perhaps a good resolution is to take good care of ourselves — whatever that means to us individually — so we can take better care of others. For me, right now, it means getting back to my West Wing marathon. (Thank you, Netflix, for finally making this available.)
Wishing you all lots of peace and joy and fun in 2013.