Interpersonal Harmony: A Psychological Perspective – M.S. Srinivasan

The foundations of collective living and sources of inner harmony in a community.

Key Perspectives

The Problem of Harmony; integrating diversity; cause of conflict; sources of harmony; non-judgemental understanding; inner fraternity; unity of consciousness.

Unity, Harmony and Solidarity are the ideals of Collective living. It is relatively easy to achieve a semblance of outer harmony but much more difficult to achieve inner harmony among people. But without this inner harmony, outer harmony is uncertain and unsustainable. This article examines the problem of interpersonal harmony with an emphasis on the psychological dimension.

The Problem of Harmony

An interesting episode from a Sufi lore:

A Sufi disciple asks his Master: “Sir, why there is so much conflict in our community.” The Master does not reply directly. First he says “what is the use of sweet words when there is a frown in your face.” After a pause, Master adds, “what is the use of a smiling face when there is a frown in your mind and heart.”

This story sums up the essence of the problem of harmony.

Integrating Diversity

Imposing uniformity can create some form of outer harmony but such a harmony will be not only short-lived but also uncreative. Individual uniqueness in terms of viewpoints, attitudes, inclination, temperament and capacities is a rich source of creativity and should not be suppressed but has to be actively encouraged and harnessed for the realization of organizational goals. But at the same time there should be an equally strong collective solidarity, which can weld together this rich diversity into a harmonious whole.

There is a vague sense of subconscious unity among people who live or work together. It becomes a little more conscious when people work together for a common purpose or for some shared values. It can be made still more conscious by collective disciplines like group exercises, singing company songs and social and cultural gathering like picnics, retreats and celebrations, collective studies, meditations or prayers. But all these, though helpful, cannot bring enduring inner and outer harmony among people, nor can they eliminate or even minimize wasteful conflict among individuals. To achieve this integral harmony we have to understand the major causes of conflict among individuals and also the factors, which lead to inner and outer harmony.

The Causes of Conflict

The causes of conflict are many and varied. The first cause of conflict is the conflict within the individual. Someone who is in a state of conflict within him cannot live in harmony with others. Unity and harmony within the individual is the foundation of unity and harmony in the collectivity. When the individuals in a community are at peace and harmony with themselves, it leads to a spontaneous harmony in the community. So to bring unity and harmony in the community, every individual in the community has to make a conscious effort to integrate his body, mind and heart and his thought, feeling, will and action around some life-enriching values which unite people.

The other source of conflict at the mental level is the clash of opposing viewpoints, attitudes and ways of thinking or the friction caused by pride, arrogance, scorn or the sense of superiority. In the emotional level it can be due to negative feelings like anger, jealously or hurt feelings created by insult or failed expectations. At the root of all these negativities and conflicts lies the hurt or self-assertive ego. Sometimes the conflict may be due to psychological incompatibilities. When two persons think and feel differently or in the opposite directions, it creates an inner friction, which translates itself in the emotional level as an irrational dislike. In the moral level self-righteous judgments based on personal moral or spiritual notions can be a source of inner conflict. If someone behaves in a way contrary to my ideals of truth and goodness, then I feel a sense of disapproval and dislike. Not all of these negative feelings and conflicts express themselves externally in the form of open quarrels. Much of them remain suppressed and simmering within, while outwardly there is a deceptive appearance of smiling or impassive faces or a hypocritical and superficial camaraderie.

Non-judgemental Understanding

The remedy for mental and moral conflict is to understand and accept the fact of individual uniqueness. Each individual is a world in itself and looks at the world and experiences it in a different way from others. The nature, temperament, attitudes, values, inclinations and the stage of mental, moral and spiritual development differs among individuals. It would be unwise and immature to insist that everyone should think, feel, behave or act in the same way I do or according to my moral or spiritual notions. We must learn to understand the other person’s point of view however different or even opposite it may be to that of my own angle of vision. We must also try to understand why a person thinks, feels or behaves in the way he does.

This requires a non-judgmental attitude to people. This doesn’t mean approval or acceptance of thoughts, feelings or actions, which are detrimental to the well being of others or for the collective purpose, harmony or order. It means, as long as the individual is not willfully hurting others or causing disturbance to the collective order or hampering the realization of collective values, ideals or purpose, he or she should be given the freedom of thought, feeling, speech and self-expression within the constraints of collective discipline. We must refrain from unnecessary moral judgments of the harsh kind based on our personal values.

We must remember that our thoughts and feelings are not mere abstractions but psychological forces and they are contagious. An uncharitable thought and feeling, even when it is not expressed outwardly, hits the other person in his mind or heart, which will induce a similar reaction in him. As the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram points out: “When we meet a person, our criticizing thoughts give to him, so to say, a blow on the nose which naturally creates a revolt in him.” So to achieve harmony in communal life, we have to put into practice the biblical dictum “do onto others what you want other to do onto you” not only outwardly in speech, behavior and actions, but also in our thoughts and feelings.

The Inner Fraternity

At the emotional level the healing balm for all conflicts is a positive state of the heart, which is variously called as benevolence, compassion, trust, goodwill. In a general way we may say, to achieve a deeper and more enduring condition of harmony than the one achieved by external methods, what is needed is an inner psychological fraternity made of mutual goodwill or in other words, goodwill for all and goodwill from all is the basis of peace and harmony in a community. When there is a deep feeling of inner fraternity and mutual goodwill in the heart and mind, then friction created by individual uniqueness or variation do not lead to painful or lasting conflict, and the harmony is quickly restored. But for this to happen, goodwill should be not only mutual but also integral which means it must be present in thought, feeling and will. In the will this positive state of consciousness manifests as a constant and persistent urge for the well being of others. In the feeling it expresses itself as kindness, compassion, generosity, trust, forgiveness. In thought it is understanding, tolerance, non-judgmental attitude and benevolence. All these qualities of the mind and heart have to be consciously cultivated and their opposites have to be firmly and persistently rejected. In yoga this inner discipline is called Chitta-shuddhi, which means purification of the mind.

Unity of Consciousness

However even this inner fraternity created by human love, goodwill and compassion is not the highest state of unity and harmony. This inner fraternity prepares our individual consciousness to rise beyond human fraternities to the true and everlasting unity of the spirit in which we can feel our oneness not only with all human being but also with all creation, human and non-human. As we have indicated earlier to realize this spiritual unity, we have to enter into inner depth of our being and come into some form of direct or reflected contact with our inner most spiritual self in the stillness of our mind or heart.

This inner unity of consciousness expressing itself at the outer life as perfect mutuality and unity is the spiritual ideal of collective living. As Sri Aurobindo explains:

“Unity is the basis of the Gnostic consciousness, mutuality the natural result of its direct awareness of oneness in diversity, harmony the inevitable power of its force, unity, mutuality and harmony must therefore be the inescapable law of a common and collective Gnostic life.”

This inner realization of unity is an ideal far away for most of us, individually and collectively. But we can grow towards it through a process of progressive inner evolution. The first stage of this growth is the psychological unity, which we have discussed earlier. This prepares the inner being of the individual and collectivity for moving forward towards this spiritual unity. The next stage of the discipline is an introversion of consciousness by which we can shift our consciousness from the surface level to the deeper subliminal and spiritual level where we can feel unity as a concrete experiential unity. This can be achieved only through the psychological and spiritual disciplines of yoga.

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