Does anyone remember the Monty Python sketch about argument? “I came here for an argument,” says Michael Palin. “No you didn’t,” counters John Cleese. “You came here for an argument.” “I just said that!” declares Palin. “No you didn’t,” counters Cleese. “Yes I did,” maintains Palin. What is funny about this sketch is that clearly John Cleese is not interested in listening, he is interested in arguing. To his way of thinking, if he is going to argue, he must take an opposing view.
That’s a simplistic way to boil down polarity: arguing at the expense of listening. In our culture, disagreement often means defending one’s position. I would argue that polarity is what becomes simplistic. Black vs. white. In the process of arguing, black can become white. No you didn’t. Yes I did.
But, you may argue, at the core of disagreements may lie fundamental differences in worldview, and if we do not properly defend our worldview, it is likely to be trampled. I can see I’m going to need to use more words, yes I am.
Part of the difficulty is that disagreements can seem threatening to the individual ego and the foundations of an individual’s worldview. By engaging in disagreements we may be protecting a core aspect of our view – something central to our identity. That view may be filled with hard won illumination or littered with associations and inherited beliefs of our childhood and life experience.
Sometimes disagreements, by shared definition, can carry the specter of conflict. Sometimes disagreements, from experience, are often divisive and can lead to fragmentation amongst friends, family, and community. There are reasons why some people instinctively smooth disagreements and even cede their personal viewpoints in order to maintain apparent harmony. There are good reasons to be uncomfortable with disagreement. Agreement can foster harmony and strengthen our view. It may be human nature to desire agreement, and to endeavor to win others over to a core aspect of our view. Failing that, we may tend to protect our own view by erecting boundaries. Sometimes that’s not a bad idea. But alchemy will not be achieved.
It’s not enough to agree to disagree if you want to achieve alchemy.
The more mature view is to allow healthy disagreement (I’m not talking about the disagreement of chaos, selfish manipulation, or madness). Allowing disagreement means that we’re listening. Listening is not always easy, because it means not only hearing what is actually communicated, but also making an effort to understand what someone is trying to say. If we are not trying to win an argument, we should be willing to help someone express their view. If our listening is full, we may achieve understanding. Without understanding, there can be no true discussion or exchange of ideas. If we achieve understanding, the opportunity to merge elements and begin the process of alchemy has arisen.
Alchemy is the blending of disparate or unpurified elements into a purified form. Disparate elements develop out of apparent opposites – like liberal and conservative, intellectual and emotional, or the Cartesian split of science and religion. When opposites develop, unhealthy disagreement may follow.
In the Middle Ages, European alchemists strove to turn lead into gold. While a literalist may have seen this as a get rich scheme, serious alchemists understood they were searching for an illusive quality of mind, a mystical amalgam that mediated participation with Nature through the distillation of the individual soul. Turning lead into gold was a quest to discover the philosopher’s stone, a quest to integrate the mind into illumination, the melding of matter and spirit. What emerges in this process is a new state of matter; insights and awareness that are both psychological, mystical, and may even have physical impact. Disparate elements merge through the process of transmutation and are transformed into a larger whole.
Unhealthy disagreement does not come full circle into harmony from a single sitting. People often feel trained to hold tight to their views. People often feel defensive and wary of manipulation. In these situations it might be skillful to hold back on the exposition of your own view. This does not mean that you’re smoothing, it means that you are strong and are able to recognize when pushing an agenda is counterproductive. It means you can become an agent of change.
There’s a time and place for everything, and it is certainly true that some views require a certain vitality of communication – unification through the voice of leadership. But if one is also capable of alchemy, if our communication has integrated both the yin and the yang of a disagreement, then it is more likely to gather discriminating ears and achieve a balanced unity. Mutual understanding and respect are not mutually exclusive with disagreement.
I am, in this moment of writing, practicing alchemy with disagreement by listening to some of the dynamics of disagreement (via reflection and internal dialogue). If we’re to achieve blending and the potential of rebirth, we need to listen. This means not only hearing the words, but also hearing the meaning behind the words. This process involves an active striving to gain an understanding of the other – becoming aware of the polarity of a disagreement; the clear recapitulation of both sides.
Here’s a thought experiment. Within imagination, have a conversation with someone with whom you disagree. It may be helpful to imaginatively engage the conversation in a special place, a favorite local or place in nature (or even when stuck in traffic or waiting in line). Play out the conversation as it might occur given your separate views: ego to ego. When you have both had your say, elevate the conversation in your sacred imagination. This time, have the conversation soul to soul. Allow the higher aspects of your potential to speak. Try to connect on a higher plane, so to speak. Observe over time if this connection affects your relationship and how the disagreement plays out.