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Mindfulness and Conflict Engagement

This module was created by Rachel Wohl and Wendy Wood. It will provide concepts and tools to enable users to:

For detailed information about how to Practice Mindfulness Meditation, click here.

This module will address the following Core Competencies

  • Build awareness of physical and emotional responses to conflict
  • Enhance ability to regulate emotions while engaging in conflict
  • Cultivate empathy and compassion
  • Support skillful communication
  • Support healing and restoration during and after conflict
  • Restore hope, trust and a sense of belonging

Social movements and political organizations often fail to handle conflict productively because they are unaware of their mental, physical, and emotional responses to conflict. Lacking awareness, typical reactions to conflict include:

  • Defensiveness
  • Aggressive or passive behavior, and
  • “Othering” those with whom we are in conflict

“Mindfulness” means being aware of what is going on around you and inside you, moment to moment. This awareness is neither harsh nor judgmental; rather, it is a kindly curiosity. Such expanded awareness increases our capacity to take skillful strategic action, even in the heat of conflict. When we engage in conflict mindfully, we are aware of our own reactivity, the complexities of the situation, and the humanity of all involved. Then we have the ability to respond to conflicts productively and to contribute to the positive changes we are working to achieve.

What are the Benefits of Engaging Mindfully?

Engaging mindfully helps activists deal skillfully with the conflicts and pressures inherent in working collaboratively for social change.
It also:

  • Helps lower our distractibility, reactivity, and stress.
  • Increases our self-awareness and our ability to listen deeply and speak authentically.
  • Gives undistracted access to our knowledge and strategic thinking.
  • Help us act compassionately, with confidence and clear purpose.
  • Maximizes our ability to bring a calm, focused presence to bear during conflict and in chaotic or crisis situations.

Mindfulness meditation also promotes self-regulation, good health, and brain development. There is an ever growing body of empirical research on the many benefits of mindfulness meditation.

Basic Concepts

This section will discuss three key concepts:

  1. The difference between Mindfulness and Mindful Meditation;
  2. The importance of Compassion; and
  3. Focusing on Breath

What is the Difference Between Mindfulness and Mindfulness Meditation?

Being Mindful in our lives and our work means paying focused attention, on purpose, without judgment, to what is happening in the present moment. It means having an undistracted compassionate awareness of what is going on right now, both internally - in our own thoughts, body sensations, and emotions - and externally - in our environment and with those around us. 
It includes our ability to notice when we are not being mindful and to bring ourselves back to being clear, calm, and present. We need to practice because, although we all have the ability to pay attention, our minds are easily distracted, floating into the past and the future, and easily clouded by judgments and emotions, especially in the heat of conflict.

There are many was to experience mindfulness, like running, gardening, music making and other practices that manifest this focused nonjudgmental presence. There are many different kinds of meditation, for example: devotional meditation using mantras or prayers, meditative movement practices like yoga and Qi Gong, cultivating particular physical/mental/emotional states, loving kindness meditation, contemplative meditation (addressed here) and more. The most effective way to grow our ability to be mindful under pressure, however, is mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is a silent practice, done sitting or walking, that builds the muscles we need to be mindful in our lives and work. Beginning meditators learn a “concentration practice” to help build their self-awareness and focusing muscles. Concentration practice involves anchoring our awareness in our breath - and observing our thoughts, body sensations, and emotions coming and going - then intentionally returning our focus to awareness of the breath. The present moment is where we live our lives, where we know ourselves and connect with others. Building our ability to be present and stay present enriches our lives and allows to be skillfully responsive to what is going on inside of us and around us. Mindfulness meditation is sometimes called an “insight practice” because, in noticing our internal landscape, we become aware of our patterns of thinking and feeling, giving rise to greater and deeper self-awareness. When we notice habitual patterns that are no longer useful, we can free ourselves from subconsciously, mindlessly repeating them. Sitting in “bare awareness,” staying present without concentrating on the breath, is a more advanced form of mindfulness meditation.

What’s Compassion Got To Do With It?

Self-compassion is a necessary ingredient for meditation. Without self-compassion, beginning meditators, who are taught to notice their in-breath and their out-breath, often fall prey to defeating beliefs and frustration, and give up meditation practice. Without practice, it is very difficult to build the muscles needed to engage mindfully. With self-compassion, we can release misunderstanding and frustration without engaging in self-defeating struggles.

The most common misunderstanding about mindfulness meditation is that meditators are trying to have a blank mind, empty of thoughts To the contrary, we are noticing our thoughts coming and going with kindness, regardless of the content of the thoughts. If we are sitting and trying not to think, or fighting our thoughts, it is impossible to meditate.

It is also common for beginning meditators to become frustrated by trying to meditate “correctly.” They may struggle with recurrent thoughts like, “I’m doing it wrong. I can’t do this.”  We are quite used to being harsh with ourselves, thinking of compassion as something to be given to others, not to ourselves. When meditating mindfully and with compassion, we notice the thought, “I’m doing it wrong,” but we do not believe the thought. Instead, we notice it with “kindly curiosity” and we gently, compassionately, return to noticing our breath. Treating ourselves with kindness, we develop a sense of ease about being present with ourselves.

In our society, self-compassion can be difficult to attain. It means accepting exactly who we are, what we do and how we look. Because meditation requires us to be compassionate with ourselves, our ‘compassion muscle’ also gets stronger with meditation practice. As a consequence, seeing ourselves with compassion enables us to see others with compassion too, rather than with anger or fear, and helps us be more effective social change agents.

Why Focus on the Breath?

Breath is primal. The first thing we do when we are born is take an in-breath. The last thing we will do before we die is breathe an out-breath. Between birth and death, there is always an in-breath and an out-breath. Thoughts, body sensations, emotions, all come and go. The breath is the only constant.

The breath is also a powerful anchor to the present moment. Each in-breath and each out-breath you notice, is always happening right now. You cannot notice a past breath. You cannot notice a future breath. You can only notice this breath that is happening in this present moment. So every breath we notice brings our awareness immediately to the present.

Although we are often absent, our minds drifting and daydreaming, we live, connect, interact, and take action in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation builds our ability to engage mindfully, with more depth and expansiveness, right here, right now.


Mindfulness and acting with compassion can relieve the burdens so often associated with taking action to make a better world. Good intentions and altruistic thoughts are often not enough, nor are mere words adequate. It is our mindful presence, focused intentions, and motivations which are vitally important. If we are to take appropriate actions while navigating ordinary, as well as difficult and perilous situations, then we must do so with confidence and purpose.

We need to learn to know ourselves, regulate our mental, emotional, and physical states, and be compassionate with ourselves and others, in order to live and work in ways that do not harm. Sitting or walking in mindfulness meditation is a powerful way to meet these needs.  The more we practice, the faster and more easily we can identify what is going on in our internal landscape and happening in the present moment, even in the heat of conflict. This wedge of awareness gives us the space we need to respond skillfully and effectively; to build community rather than enlarging the rifts tearing us apart.

Next Steps

Developing a Mindfulness Practice

Below is an outline of some practices for developing mindfulness, including breath pauses, sitting meditation, mindfulness meditation, and contemplative meditation.

Mindfulness Meditation is difficult to learn by reading about it alone. We recommend:

  • Taking a mindfulness training
  • Finding a teacher and/or meditation group
  • Using online resources
  • Participating in mindfulness meditation retreats

For a detailed description about how to practice meditation click here.


Using Breath Pauses

When we notice that we are triggered, distracted, confused, anxious, or having negative thoughts/emotions/body sensations, taking a Breath Pause helps to calm us and allows us to center ourselves and concentrate our focus on what is happening in the present moment. Breath Pauses can be particularly useful during conflict.

How to Take a Breath Pause and "belly breathe"

  • Place one hand on your belly and take a slow gentle breath in, causing your belly to rise on the in-breath, and fall on the out-breath.
  • Practice Belly Breathing until you can do it without placing a hand on your belly.
  • If you have trouble learning to Belly Breathe, it may be helpful to practice leaning back or lying down.

When you take a Breath Pause

  • Cast your eyes down at the ground in soft focus.
  • Take 3 slow Belly Breaths, breathing in so that the belly rises and breathing out so the belly falls on each breath.

Surprisingly simple and surprisingly effective, you can take a Breath Pause in the middle of an argument or a heated conflict. If anyone notices that you are looking down and pausing, they will probably have the impression that you are deep in thought. If you notice thoughts/body sensations/emotions while you Belly Breathe, just notice them with kindly curiosity and return your focus to belly breathing.

How To Sit To Meditate

  • Sit in a chair or on a cushion with your back erect, and bring your shoulders back a bit, which will expand your chest.
  • Holding an erect posture, as though a string is pulling you up from the back of your head to the ceiling, fully relax your body around that posture.
  • Be both relaxed and alert. This posture can give rise to a sense of our inherent nobility.
  • It is important to be comfortable, so make any adjustments you need. Close your eyes or cast them down with a soft focus.
  • Let your hands rest comfortably on your thighs or in your lap.
  • Soften your facial muscles and let the expression slide from your face.
  • Soften the body and loosen your abdominal muscles.

Fundamentals for Practicing Mindfulness Meditation

Go To Practicing Mindfulness Meditation to get a detailed description the fundamentals of Practicing Mindfulness Mediation with detailed instructions. Here are the four fundamentals in brief:

  • Anchor in the breath
  • Observe thinking
  • Observe body sensations
  • Observe emotions

Click here to learn more about the Fundamentals of Mindfulness Meditation.

Contemplative Meditation

We generally know what is truly right for us, but we may not often take the time to listen deeply within. An ultimate answer to your question may not arise is one session. It often takes many sessions to arrive at your own wisdom. You will know it when it arises.

  • Take your erect relaxed noble meditation posture.
  • Take three slow Belly Breaths, then find your normal relaxed way of breathing in and out through your nose. Notice your breathing.
  • Now that you are in a meditative state, pose a question silently to yourself. The question may be about an upcoming strategic decision or transition, an action you are considering taking, a conflict you are engaged in, or any other matter you want to have more clarity about.
  • Ask yourself this question, then allow answers to arise within you.
  • When an answer attracts your attention, ask yourself what that answer really means. What is important about that answer “to me?”
  • Allow answers to those questions about your prior answers to arise, and then question those answers.
  • Continue to pose the original question and to question the answers that arise.

Tips for Starting and Maintaining a Meditation Practice

  • Find a good meditation teacher, sitting group, or take an online meditation course.
  • Find a quiet place in your home to meditate.
  • Begin with short meditations.
  • Set an intention to meditate daily and be specific about why you are setting this intention.
  • Do not be discouraged. It does get easier with practice.
  • Slowing the breath and bringing it into the belly, changes our body chemistry.
  • If sitting on the floor, a cushion is helpful.