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Mediation Perspectives: Meditation for Mediation?

Walking Meditation in Plum Village, Photo © 2015 Sybille Berchtold

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.

Did you know that the US Army trains its soldiers in meditation techniques in order to make them more resilient  to provocation when they go into battle? While this fact may not be relevant to most mediators, it highlights how meditation can be used in unexpected ways. The inspiration for me to explore the relationship between meditation and mediation a little further came when I read Dan Harris’ bestseller “10% Happier”, where he does indeed mention the use of meditation techniques by the US Army. Besides being an entertaining read, Harris’ book also does a great job of exploring the use of meditation techniques in modern-day ways. In the following blog, I hope to build on Harris’ example and 1) briefly distinguish between meditation and mediation as disciplines, and 2) then highlight five meditation principles that can make mediators more effective. The principles center on active listening, dealing with emotions, distinguishing between process and results, practicing self-care, and embracing the right “mediation attitude”.

What is meditation?

Anyone  attending a mediation workshop will have come across  hotel staff members that happily mix up mediation with meditation. Perhaps because of these frequent terminological mix ups, people in the mediation community often shy away from the yoga mats, burning candles and other “soft” props that support meditation, but which have nothing to do with mediation. The latter refers to a process whereby an acceptable third party supports actors that are embroiled in a conflict to reach a mutually acceptable agreement, be it at the interpersonal, intercommunity, intra-state or interstate level. Meditation, in contrast, is a practice that aims to tame the chattering voices in our head and focus on the present moment. Harris mentions three simple guidelines for practicing meditation: The first is to sit comfortably in a quiet spot, free of external distractions. The second is to focus on one’s breathing and other sensations of the moment rather than on thoughts that focus on the past and future. The third guideline is not to worry if one’s thoughts do wander, but also to return one’s attention to one’s breathing and the here-and-now. Harris recommends that beginners start practicing meditation each day for five minutes. For those who don’t like regular practice, consciously focusing on the present moment for a few seconds at random times throughout the day is also a good way to start. (Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Peace is Every Step” is an inspiring guide on how to do this.) In either case, the idea is that moments of meditation will have a “focusing effect” on our everyday thinking and feelings that will go beyond the practice sessions themselves.

Links to Mediation

The above observations may be interesting in and for themselves, but in what ways can meditation make mediators more effective in what they do? In my view, there are five beneficial effects that are worth highlighting.

  • Active listening: The essence of mediation is for the mediator to 1) listen to and understand the perceptions, motives, concerns, needs and values of the conflicting parties, and 2) then help foster mutual understanding between the actors who are trying to negotiate a solution to their problem. To accomplish these ends, the mediator needs to learn how to listen. However, active listening is difficult to do well. The requirement is to focus on the other person, and to try and understand him or her without judgment. The danger is that when we listen,  we also trigger thoughts, feelings and other “stories” in our head which then lead us to stop listening or start reacting to the person in defensive, emotional or judgmental ways. Meditation can help mediators become better listeners. It calms the chattering in their head and enables them to focus more fully on the person they are listening to. Additionally, the mediation practice of being nonjudgmental towards our own thoughts and emotions can also help us be more nonjudgmental towards people we listen to as mediators.
  • Emotions: Conflicts come hand-in-hand with open or suppressed emotions, including fear, hate, sadness and anger. In order to facilitate effective communication between actors caught up in such emotional situations, mediators need to remain open to emotions but not get dominated by them. Meditation can help the mediator deal more effectively with her or his own emotions, particularly when they arise in a mediation setting (e.g. when the parties get angry with the mediator). Indeed, the greater self-mastery enables the mediator to be “more present,” and thereby to deal with the emotions of the parties in the room in impartial, constructive ways.
  • Process-results: A key idea of mediation is that the mediator shapes and structures the process of getting to an agreement, while the quarreling parties focus on the content and final result – the agreement itself. However, mediators are often tempted to push for an agreement themselves. (Because of donor pressures; the desire to burnish one’s professional reputation; the ethical imperative to stop the violence, etc.). The danger here is that the mediator may rob the contesting parties of their ownership of the agreement, and thereby make the outcome illegitimate in their eyes. One of Dan Harris’ personal dilemmas when starting meditation was that he felt it would make him so balanced and “Zen” that he would lose the ambition that made him an effective professional. He solved the dilemma by realizing that it is OK to be passionate and ambitious, but the key is to have a “non-attachment to results”. Meditation can condition meditators to not obsess over results, and thereby focus their passion and ambition on shaping a constructive process, which is what they should remain focused on.
  • Self-care: In all professions that deal with human beings under duress and in conflict – including mediation – the self-care of the professional is important, primarily to work well and avoid burn out. There are different, highly individual ways of doing this. One of them is to practice meditation. Dan Harris speaks of the Buddhist term “prapañca”, which means “proliferation” or an “imperialist tendency of mind”. It’s a phenomenon where a person has a worrisome thought that then triggers an entire cascade of worrisome thoughts and doomsday feelings. While it is useful to think ahead, these worries can be highly counterproductive. There are innumerable possible “worries” in mediation work (e.g. over participation, logistics, security, etc.), and techniques such as meditation may help one to avoid prapañca.
  • Mediation attitude: The use of meditation methods in the military poses some ethical questions. Using them to enhance mental self-discipline can lead to more effective action, but the action’s impact on others may not be positive. It was this realization that made Dan Harris explore a form of meditation that is called “metta meditation” or “compassionate meditation”. Rather than focus on the discipline merely for one’s immediate benefit, compassionate meditation involves feeling good wishes and pursuing compassionate actions towards other human beings, which then may also add to our own happiness. People have different motives for doing mediation work, including altruism, enhancing their professional reputation, ego gratification, money and the “sizzle” of performing a challenging task. The practice of compassionate meditation can help steer mediators away from motives of immediate ego gratification and strengthen the desire to be of service to others.

So, if and when you next go to a mediation workshop and get told by the hotel staff that your meditation meeting room is down the corridor, just smile, take a deep and mindful breath, and reflect on the five benefits that meditation can confer on mediators and their work. After all, since mediation is a way of dealing with interpersonal conflicts and meditation is a way of dealing with intrapersonal conflict, it shouldn’t surprise us that the two disciplines share more similarities than how they sound. And for those of you who want to read more about these links,  you might also want to read “Mindfulness Meditation and Mediation” by Daniel Bowling, or “Meditation and Mediation” by Barry Nobel.


Simon J. A. Mason is a senior researcher and head of the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS).

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One Response to “Mediation Perspectives: Meditation for Mediation?”

  1. A good piece Simon. Meditation actually changes the structure of the brain. Its been shown to reduce the size of the amygdala (or amygdalae as we actually have two!) which regulates our emotions. Its the part of the brain that will triggers our stress response when we feel threatened at all -physically or psychologically. By reducing the size, and in fact its ‘reactivity’ – we can more easily tolerate and regulate our uncomfortable emotions.