There is a saying we have in Bulgaria — ‘where two fight, a third one wins’. The saying is used to discourage people from engaging in conflict, as someone else will take advantage of the mess and get the prize both sides want so much.
Every time I hear it, I imagine a rat chewing on some juicy meat while the leopard and the hiena fight to determine which of them should get it.
Recently, however, I realized something profound was buried beneath the surface of this saying. The solution of the very problem it refers to (conflict), is contained within the words. All you need to do is change your perspective from ‘people’ to ‘options’:
‘When two fight, a third *option* wins’.
There is always a ‘third option’ that is better than the two you are oscillating between right now. I bet you’ve heard that many times. Me too. In my mind ‘third options’ used to belong in the ‘corporate bullish*t’ box, together with the ‘win-win’ solutions, synergies and all. However, I’ve had a pretty great year with lots of time to read, reconsider and experiment with ‘third options’. What I’ve found literally changed my life. And that’s why I’ll do my best to summarize it below for those of you that don’t have the time to read as much as they wish. For those that do — read the books I refer to, they are awesome.
So far, ‘third option’ awareness has helped me on 3 levels: personal, relationship and cultural. Here’s how.
On the personal level, the ‘fight’ is usually between one you and another you, the angel and the devil in your mind.
It usually looks like useless noise in your head, as your mind swings from job troubles, to worry about your direction in life, to that cat food that you forgot to buy yesterday. Each thought is like a boomerang, coming back again and again until you choose between ‘this option or that option’ and take action.
In ‘The Power of Now’, spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle talks about regaining your piece of mind by separating this noise (or your ego, as he calls it) from your actual self (as master of your own mind). In the ancient Buddhist tradition, this happens not by pushing the thoughts away or punishing yourself for them, but simply by detaching and looking at them as a silent non-judgemental observer. It all comes down to maintaining awareness that you are NOT your thoughts and feelings, but something separate from them.
Sounds a bit weird, but trust me — it works. You will be amazed how much this little ‘schizophrenia’ can do about the noise in your head and your times of trouble.
The bad news is that it’s not an ‘out-of-the-box’ solution. The emotions you feel in stressful times make it nearly impossible to detach if you didn’t train yourself and build the ‘awareness’ habit first. The good news is that it’s a muscle you can train with simple steps. Here’s how it worked for me.
1) Set yourself a specific timeframe that fits your daily routine (say on the solitary drive/walk back home from work, 30 minutes before going to sleep etc). Within a week (or appr. 4 hours of training), you will have enough training to summon your ‘power of now’ outside of the training ground, into the real world troubles as you face them.
2) Make it a goal for yourself to watch your thoughts during that timeframe. Imagine yourself as a cat looking at a hole, waiting for a thought/the mouse to come out (mine is called Diego, nice to meet you). The mouse will hide back in as soon as you see him. As your awareness goes down again, he will come back out as another thought. Remember, you are training your awareness, so even if the thought is positive or neutral, you should not let it get out of the hole unnoticed. Once you let your cat go to sleep, because you’re thinking positive things and that seems OK, the ‘bad Diego’ comes out again. At first you will fail, but the more you practice, the better you will get, guaranteed 🙂
After you’re finished with your muscle training, you will be able to notice the mouse in actual times of noise, trouble and stress. You will be able to control your mind and emotions, instead of them controlling you.
On the relationship level, the fight is not about who washes the dishes or whether we send that email. It’s between your view of the world and theirs.
Few things in life can make us feel so bad as an argument with a loved one or a colleague. Failing to find a solution that makes both sides happy can lead to many bad things, including some more noise in your head. ‘I am right. I want X. I deserve to get what I want and he/she is not giving it to me’ and ‘Or maybe I am wrong? Maybe I should change, adapt myself and learn a new way of dealing with things.’ And back again, in an endless loop.
Here comes another amazing book that helped me see the way out — ‘The Five Languages of Love’ by Gary Chapman. The idea of the book is that we all crave love, but each of us has a different language in which they prefer to give and receive it. These are:
- Words of affirmation
- Small acts of service
- Quality time
- Physical touch.
For example, for me love means quality time spent together. For my boyfriend, it is something between words of affirmation and physical touch. Before finding this out, I felt bad for us not spending enough time together. When I told him about it, being a person who appreciates words of kindness and affection, he felt critisized and unappreciated. This made him want to spend less time with me and to my appreciating him even less.
Just the simple realization that we speak different languages, helped us look at each other with a new respect and understanding. I chose to speak his language — even when I feel bad, to tell him one thing that I love about him every day. In just one week, I was in a completely different relationship, feeling happier than ever.
It sounds easy, and it is. At first. After that, it is not. Because once you feel good and comfortable, it’s easy to skip a day or forget. Then it rolls back downhill and you have to push it back up.
Anyway, lesson learned — next time you go in the ‘Am I right or am I wrong’ cycle, remember you are neither — the person in front of you is just different from you. Regardless if it’s a loved one, a boss, a colleague or someone else. And as long as you respect that, you can join forces and look for that third solution that makes you both happy. Together.
The final stage of awareness goes against the grain of the social values and beliefs in which we were born and raised — it is the culture level.
People can be quite arrogant — we like to believe our way is the only way, that if someone is to be smart, handsome and generally awesome, they have to be like us. A key part of our self-identification and acceptance in society relies on us thinking like that (which is good for cats, who survive on our belief that we are the smart ones and their masters, rather than the opposite).
In Korea they eat dogs, in China — human embrions. In Guam a professional ‘deflowers’ a young virgin before marriage. In Ancient Egypt, everyone believed it was completely possible for a person to turn into a leopard. Native American tribes believed there is another magical world coexisting with ours that takes a shaman and some ‘herbs’ to look into. A mosquito turns into a huge monstrous guardian between the two worlds when you take some peyote, as Carlos Castaneda writes in ‘A separate reality’. The list goes on forever. Once again — thinking they are wrong once again is limited thinking, a ‘fight between two’. Who are we to say whether they are right or wrong?
Michiu Kaku, one of the most renowned physicists of our time, recently wrote in his ‘The Future of the Mind’ book that according to the multiverse theory, in your living room, right now, you co-exist with endless versions of yourself, with monsters, dinosaurs, aliens and anything that could ever exist. It’s just that your atoms are vibrating on a different frequency, so you can’t see them (like tuning in to a specific radio station, while you have all the stations’ radio waves in the air around you). How different is this from the Native American’s magical worlds in its essence?
Just the fact that we have science does not mean we know everything. Our science can only see as far as we can.
It is not once or twice in human history that it has turned out that science was completely wrong. Don’t get me wrong — if we see science as an exploration tool that helps us push our boundaries and understand the world and ourselves better, it is beautiful. However, if we see it as a persuation tool to kill different thinking and solutions, it is ugly and dangerous. And it’s not only our science/logic-centricity. The same goes about any aspect of our culture — religion, democracy, love, food, the way we use the toilet, you name it.
Our growth and advancement as a species depends on us realizing there is no right or wrong. Not in our internal conflicts, not in our relationships, not in our cultural differences. The two sides fighting are just an illusion, a wall that prevents us from seeing the third option.
The thing is… the third always wins sooner or later.
We get to choose whether this means rats chewing on what we want because we are stubborn. Or purposefully ‘zooming out’ in search of a better alternative.
*** Originally published on Medium, 5 July 2015.