August 11, 2009

Zen. Nonviolent Communication. How do they relate? Where do they intersect? Here. This body. This mind. This moment.

Dukkha, or {tooltip}stress1{end-link}Dukkha is commonly translated as “suffering”, however, I prefer Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of dukkha as “stress”. This speaks more to my experience, where suffering is felt as a subtle energy of stress, from which emotions like fear, worry, anger, and depression spring.{end-tooltip}, is often what brings a person to a practice such as Zen or NVC. As a moment-to-moment practice, the Buddha’s teachings on dukkha invite us to reflect deeply on what the cause of stress, is, in this very moment. In Nonviolent Communication, we might name what our present feeling is, the need behind it, and a request to satisfy the need. Bringing the two approaches together, we have fertile ground for exploration. For example, there is a very natural curiosity that can arise when certain feelings and needs recur, over and over again. In these moments, I wonder, “What is really going on here? Is a need for empathy really the cause of my frustration?”

This kind of investigation can turn up remarkable things. For example, we can discover for ourselves how certain feelings are not connected to needs at all, but in fact are related to thoughts. Yes, Marshall Rosenberg says anger, guilt, shame, and depression are caused by our life-alienated thinking. But how about fear, worry, stress, that subtle tension in our shoulders? And which thoughts are they connected to? Are we really, deeply aware of our own habitual ways of thinking and what their effect on us is, or are we just finding comfort in teachings from someone else’s investigation? We can even become aware of our own addiction to structure, finding emotional safety in the language of naming feelings and needs, and comfort in the company of others who share our training. “My husband really needs to learn NVC”, we might think aloud, relaxing into the sympathetic gaze of our NVC practice group members.{tooltip}2{end-link}Of course, this kind of thinking isn’t limited to NVC. Certainly there are Buddhist practitioners who find emotional safety in the forms of their particular temple and comfort among their sangha, or community.{end-tooltip} Indeed, this may offer us some much needed understanding and rest. Once we’re revived, however, the questions remain, “Do I really experience connection outside of NVC circles? What actually works? What doesn’t work? Why am I experiencing stress?”

To orient ourselves this way is to come back to what the Buddha called Right View. As Nonviolent Communication has found its way into the Buddhist world, it has sometimes been analogized to Right Speech. Within the Eightfold Path that Buddha laid out, Right Speech is preceded by Right View:

“Thus these three qualities – right view, right effort, & right mindfulness ­ run & circle around right speech.

Of those, right view is the forerunner.”{tooltip}3{end-link}Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu{end-tooltip}

In NVC, this can also be called coming back to the intention of NVC, to create the quality of connection that enables everyone’s needs to be {tooltip}met4{end-link}“Met”, in the sense of becoming familiar, even intimate with. It is a “meeting” of the needs, as one would “meet” a good friend, as opposed to meeting in the sense of trying to satisfy everyone’s needs. The purpose of NVC is NOT to satisfy everyone’s needs. It is to create the quality of connection that is fully present to everyone’s needs.{end-tooltip}, so we can then assess whether or not “I feel ___ because I need ___” is the most effective strategy in the moment to make connection, with ourselves or others. Without this view, or intention, our words will not be Right Speech or Nonviolent, even if the words we say are textbook NVC. Knowing right view means becoming intimate in our own life with the causes and conditions of connection and disconnection.

Buddhism and Nonviolent Communication share a similar message, that it is our habitual, life-alienated way of seeing things that obscures our ability to be present to two incredible simultaneous perspectives of life: each moment and each aspect of each moment is completely its own expression; at the very same time, every expression is inseparable from a life energy that is shared with all other expressions.

Buddhism describes these simultaneous perspectives as the three bodies of Buddha: Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya. Translating that into Nonviolent Communication terms, every one of us is, in fact, an evolving, constantly changing strategy (Nirmanakaya), a unique and physically tangible expression of needs, needs which are in turn an energy that is neither tangible nor intangible, is shared with all other beings on this planet, and can be experienced as bliss or what some would call love (Sambhogakaya). Dharmakaya addresses everything else: that there is also an aspect of Buddha or, to use Marshall’s term, Divine Energy, that is unmanifest, inconceivable, knows no bounds, and cannot be accessed by what we call “experience”. I think of this as a reminder to be open to the unknown, especially when we think we know everything there is to know about NVC or Buddhism!

Understanding NVC from a Buddhist perspective frees NVC from the inherent limitations of its own structure, namely, “When I hear __, I feel __ because I need __ and would you be willing to __?”. It allows me to be more flexible with how I respond to others and acknowledge that there is more to connection than the magic phrase, “are you feeling __ because you need __ ?”. This could also be called understanding the “being” of NVC as well as the “doing”.

At the same time, understanding Buddhism from the NVC perspective makes Buddhism more accessible to those of us who were born in cultures steeped in the religion of science and psychology. It allows me to understand the ancient teachings in a way that clarifies rather than confuses; undoes my conditioning, instead of compounding it; and increases the joy in my body, instead of the fear. After all, who needs an enlightenment that can only be experienced by mythical Chinese Zen masters?

The wisdom contained in both Nonviolent Communication and Buddhism is unbelievably simple, yet extraordinary. In my experience, accessing it requires more than relying on what any one teacher or system teaches. It requires investigating our present experience with our whole being and finding out for ourselves what actually creates the quality of life that we want.

At the end of his life, the Buddha said it this way to his disciples:

Be lamps unto yourselves.
Be refuges unto yourselves.
Take yourself no external refuge.
Hold fast to the truth as a lamp.
Hold fast to the truth as a refuge.
Look not for a refuge in anyone besides yourselves.
And those, Ananda, who either now or after I am dead,
Shall be a lamp unto themselves,
Shall betake themselves as no external refuge,
But holding fast to the truth as their lamp,
Holding fast to the truth as their refuge,
Shall not look for refuge to anyone else besides themselves,
It is they who shall reach to the very topmost height;
But they must be anxious to learn.{tooltip}5{end-link}From Joseph Goldstein, The Experience of Insight, quoting the Dhammapada{end-tooltip}

I’ve heard Marshall Rosenberg sum it up concisely as “How to Enjoy Fucking Up”.

I call it Live (really LIVE!) and Learn (really LEARN!).

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