Mindfulness and Conflict Engagement

Mindfulness and Conflict Engagement

Created by Rachel Wohl and Wendy Wood, 2019

Learn how mindfulness builds your conflict engagement capacity

  • Be aware of and skillfully manage our own mental, physical and emotional states, even in the heat of conflict
  • Discover the benefits of mindfulness while engaging in conflicts within and beyond social/political organizations
  • The role of self-compassion and compassion for others
  • How to remain balanced, nonjudgmental, and discerning while building clarity for wise action

Tools and Tips

Learn tips for starting and sustaining a meditation practice
How to take breath pauses to become calm and centered
How to seek wisdom using contemplative meditation

Mindfulness as a Key to Skillful Actions in the Heat of Conflict

Social movements, political organizations, and communities 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 is ‘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. Read More

Mindfulness meditation also promotes self-regulation, good health, and brain development. 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

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. Read More

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 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.


What’s Compassion Got To Do With It?

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.

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.
Read More 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.


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

Tools and Tips

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.

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

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.

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.

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.


How to Do Mindfulness Meditation Concentration Practice


Sit in a chair or on a cushionwith your back erect, and expand your chest, which will bring your shoulders back a bit.  Holding an erect posture, fully relax your body around that posture.  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.  

The Four Fundamentals of Concentration Practice

First – Anchor in the Breath  

  • Become aware of the breath.  Feel the body breathing. 
  • Take three slow Belly Breaths.Notice the the rythm of the breath.
  • Then find your natural comfortable way of breathing in and out through the nose.
  • See whether you can find a specific point on your body, such as the tip of the nostrils or the belly or chest rising and falling, where you can most easily notice your breath coming and going.
If you find a spot, focus your attention on that point, noticing the breath as it comes and goes. 
  • If no spot seems best, follow the river of the breath as it flows in and out of the body.
  • Notice the temperature, rhythm and quality of the in-breath and the out-breath.
  • See if you can find a sense of ease  being present with the breath
  • It may be helpful to say silently to yourself, “In” on the in-breath and “out” on the out-breath.

Second – Observe Thinking

Notice your thoughts coming and going. They may be narratives of likes and dislikes, fantasies, ruminations, complaints or other thought forms.  You may find that your mind is unruly and goes all over the place.  You may become lost in thought, forgetting that you are meditating, forgetting what you are thinking about, and catching yourself thinking after some time has passed.  This is all OK.  Whatever thoughts you notice, do so with kindly curiosty, being compassionate with yourself. Do not make yorself wrong.  Wherever your mind goes, it is the “noticing” that is the “mindfulness.”  Having an active mind is a good thing.  It give us lots of opportunities to notice.  Whenever you notice that you are thinking, gently, without judgment or rebuke, move the focus of your awareness back to the in-breath and the out-breath that are always happening in the present moment.  Our thinking is only a problem when we confuse our thoughts with reality.  

Third – Observe Body Sensations  

Fourth – Observe Emotions



Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach (Bantam 2003)
The Dance of Opposites: Explorations in Mediation, Dialogue and Conflict Resolution Systems by Kenneth Cloke (Good Media Press 2013)
Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Hyperion 2005)
Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (And World Peace) by Chade-Meng Tan, (HarperCollins 2012)
Leonard L. Riskin, Rachel Wohl, “Mindfulness in the Heat of Conflict: Taking STOCK,” Vol 20 Harvard Negotiation Law Review, 121-155, 2015.
Do No Harm: Mindful Engagement for a World in Crisis by Wendy Wood and Thais Mazur


The Karuna Center for Mindful Engagement

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA)


Ted Talk: All it Takes is 10 Minutes (Andy Puddicombe)
You Tube Video: Practice Mindfulness and Change the World (Dr. Cynthia Bane)
InsightTimer Meditation App

Need help building mindfulness into your conflict engagement strategies?

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