I recently joined a NVC group here in Kathmandu. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the acronym, NVC stands for Non Violent Communication, a practice that is also known as Compassionate Communication. Created by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and conflict mediator, NVC has gained world-wide recognition as an effective means of addressing conflict, whether it be in personal relationships, between communities or warring nations. My novice understanding of this practice leads me to believe that more than just avoiding conflict, NVC cultivates constructive and empathic dialogue to navigate through the rough waters of hostility and/or discord. NVC assumes that, at our core, we are compassionate beings; we share the same basic human needs and our behavior is a strategy to have those needs met.
Even with a limited knowledge and practice of NVC, the changes it has fostered in my relationships and work have been powerfully positive. I am hooked. I like it. I love it. That being said, if truth be told, I haven’t always been so keen, nor am I always ready to be non-violent. Yep, that’s right. There are times when I don’t want to be grown-up, or constructive about things. It’s not exactly that I don’t want to be nice; it’s that I want to, at times, hide behind the smothering veil of vengeful feelings. I want to let myself be intoxicated by anger or pain. I want to be carried away by the raw power of the emotion. I long for the feelings of aliveness that it injects into my body, literally–my blood, bones, muscles, nerves, brain and heart temporarily hijacked by adrenaline. I long for that experience of my thought process being arrested. Flatlined.
The high doesn’t last very long. In fact it disintegrates into heaviness, chaos and confusion pretty quickly. The down after the high. Unpleasant and draining, anger, when left wildly unleashed, leads more often than not to feelings of regret and/or guilt. The mess after the storm may be material or physical; it is always emotional and mental.
This addiction to certain alienating, life-severing, emotions is not as uncommon as you might think. I see it in myself, and I see it all the time in my work with others. As much as a situation, a habit, a resentment, might be unpleasant, it is familiar and strangely comforting. Shocked? I’ll address this in more detail in another post. My point being: alienating emotions, termed “poisons” in yogic psychology (guilt, greed, jealousy, anger, laziness etc) can be addictive and a hard habit to kick. Hence the need to be clear, real and armed with some concrete tools when working with them.
Are there times when anger can be appropriate and helpful? Certainly. Are there times when violence is appropriate? Never. The most pressing issue is how to deal with the anger in the moment it arises, in other words how to channel the charge of the feeling. NVC is one mechanism. Yogic practices offer a wealth of tools to do the same. In fact, there are a plethora of techniques to channel the subtle dimensions of thought and feeling in constructive, uplifting ways. Some use physical movement and breathing, others use mindfulness, language or energy work.
A few years ago I started taking classes in Aikido, a Japanese martial art that adheres to non-violent principles and offers a means to protect oneself and the aggressor from injury. When face to face with an attack–a punch, hit or hold– one uses the very energy of that move to deflect it back to the aggressor. In Aikido we become transformers of energy. Alchemists. Aikido’s movements are graceful, flowing and exact. The practitioner remains centered, focused and faces the aggression rather than running, freezing or firing back. Aikido invites us to dance with the assault. Without using one’s own energy the force received is offered back without causing injury to either party.
Aikido appealed to me because of its qualities of non-violence and protection. But again, just as with NVC, I found that initially I didn’t really want to be non-violent. I wanted to kick some butt. And I didn’t want to wait for a guy to make a move. I wanted to do it before it happened. Just in case. This reaction was certainly an outcome of a traumatic experience that had happened months earlier. Returning home in the early evening from a dinner gathering, I was violently attacked as I walked along the alley near my house. Two young men, masked, approached me from behind and began to beat me relentlessly with a large glass bottle. The blows came non-stop for what felt like a very long time. My head first, and then when I got it out of the way, the rest of my body. They took nothing from me, nor did they touch me in any way. Just the bottle bashing. My reaction was instinctive: blood curdling, visceral screaming. My brain and body pumping with adrenaline, I was on auto-pilot: Survive. Get them away from your head. Stay conscious. I did not strike back. Instead I ducked and tried to move away from the hits. What ultimately saved me, I think, was my voice…and Grace. People came running out, and the men sped off on their motorbike. For the two people that acted in violence, there were 20 who came to tend to me, holding me until my shaking body calmed itself, wiping the blood from my face and calling the police.
Looking back, the two emotions that were most apparent during the attack were fear and anger. What I can now see, two years later, is another feeling that surpassed the other two in its force: Love. A love for life, a cry of Spirit to continue to dwell in the physical body that is mine. This Love is fierce, protective, unapologetic and unstoppable. Words do it little justice. It is Life itself.
In that moment of life-threatening danger, anger saved me. It threw open to doors of my heart to a Life force I hadn’t recognized or felt for some time. Did I want to strike them back? Not really. More than anything I wanted to protect my Life. In the direct aftermath, replaying the events over and over, I day dreamt that I might have done things differently, even hurting the men so they would go away, and so they might feel the intensity of fear that I had felt. There was a small part of me that wanted an eye for an eye. There was greater part of me that knew that would leave all of us blind, as Gandhi so wisely said. Now, a few years later, I do not wish them harm. Instead I wish myself more goodness, more self care and Love. I have vowed to be smarter about taking care of myself and honoring the Life force that flows in and through me. I equip myself with tools–physical, verbal, mental–that will allow me to navigate through situations where violence is present. I also equip myself with a daily sadhana (spiritual practice) that tenderly and patiently coaxes my heart to trust and to grow.
When we feel in danger, whether it be physical or psychological, our knee-jerk reaction tends to be one of a few options: to close up and freeze, to run or to lash back. What both Aikido and NVC teach us is to attend to our wellbeing by preserving our most fundamental need for connection with ourselves and others, for safety and honoring all life. They teach us to do so by transmuting the blows of aggression into a language and a movement of graceful compassion that are reflected back to the other without creating harm. Anger and pain stand no chance in the face of Compassion. It is the most powerful force in this dimension that we know.
To hone this powerful energy of love and to learn how to use it takes willingness, practice…and more practice. It also takes great courage and faith. Courage to move through the fear of being hurt, of being excluded (disconnected), the fear of not being enough. Courage to not give into the alienating language and actions of anger. Courage to accept ourselves fully, without rejection, for all of our weaknesses and strengths. Faith that we can move into our hearts of compassion and share them with others, without danger. Faith in the very power and intelligence of Love.
Here is to our hearts of compassion. How is yours beating?
For more on NVC: