Throughout my adult life, whether in organizing at the grassroots level to address the fragmentation and injustices of our local and global communities, or in endeavoring to be the best father and husband I can be, I have been dedicated to practicing and sharing ways to live more fully in the bonds of relationships and to cultivating the kind of communities in which everyone thrives. This commitment took on a world of challenges in 1990, when my wife, Judith, and I joined with others to start the intentional community in which we raised our family and continue to live. Our common vision—to steward the land, share resources wherever possible,and raise children more collaboratively—made all the sense in the world to us then, and it still does today. Determined and filled with a sense of purpose, Judith, the other cofounders, and I walked into the challenges of developing community and it’s juggling of multiple relationships with the best intentions and efforts. Our idealistic goals of deepening friendships and working harmoniously together soon faded, however, into arguments over details, hurt feelings, and parties taking sides.
We all shared a hope that within our community we would find a sense of place and belonging. Instead, what we stumbled into felt more like the families we had all grown up in. Only now there was an opportunity to face as adults the difficulties of our upbringings. It was an initiation for all of us in the truest sense. Consensus has been our model for making decisions, and there has been much to learn. Consensus is far more than a decision-making process. It is about who you are and how you show up in and outside meetings. Over time, the practice of consensus reveals itself to be an ever-changing dance of interdependence between “me” and “we.” At the core of consensus are processes to develop our innate faculties for connecting empathically through our shared existence, a key to comprehensive, truly life-enriching choice making.
Nonviolent Communication and Aikido
At a time when we were desperate to find better ways to work through our differences, one of my neighbors organized a weekend workshop on Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Based on the work of Marshall Rosenberg, NVC’s core teachings illuminate how our feelings put us in touch with our deeper, universal human needs and that when these become the source of our words and actions, we create conditions conducive to enriching our lives through compassionate exchange. Then, we create healthier relationships and generate community.
This introductory workshop brought up more questions than it answered, but the power in its principles was evident, so we pursued it further. Soon after, at another workshop, I was given the instruction to sit and listen with empathy to two women who were engaged in a role-playing conflict. At the time, I found the explanations of empathy somewhat vague, so I filled them in with my imagination.
As the role-playing got underway, the women began to argue. I quieted my breath and thoughts. I imagined a listening field as a bubble around me that grew to include and gently hold the women with care. This produced a heightened sensitivity to who these women were underneath their heated words. The space felt charged with an aliveness that bridged the distance between us. This experience felt familiar, and then I was struck with an epiphany. This is Aikido! I realized that empathy in Nonviolent Communication was the same as a ki field in Aikido, and that giving empathy to these two women was something that I had been practicing for 20 years while training in the peaceful martial art of Aikido.
Not unlike the “force” in the famous Star Wars movie series, one of the more esoteric core aspects of Aikido is training with ki. Aikido training develops the courage and ability to be skillfully empathic in the face of conflict. When someone attacks in Aikido training, we learn to surround the attacker with an intention of loving protection, an energetic ki field, much like I did with the two women in the NVC role-playing exercise. When you include another in such a way, it becomes possible to sense the intentions and needs at the core of another’s aggressive words or actions, and by doing so, to harmonize the “attack” at its source, before it has time to turn to violence.
Empathy is the quality of body-mind listening that connects us to the underlying common ground we all share, the interwoven network of life in which our actions go out as causes and come back to us as results. Wherever I go, I meet people who recognize this imperative and their responsibility to it. When we engage our empathic listening, something essential calls us to face ourselves, to mature, and to advocate as a species in support of universal human rights and a stewardship founded on respect for nature. This mission with the desire for my children and future generations to have a more positive future is what moved me to embark on developing this work and eventually to write this book.
Aikido is essentially nonverbal nonviolent communication. Aikido and NVC are both ways to enter relationships with a skillful vulnerability grounded in the intention of loving protection for all. Both develop and increase the sensitivity to hear the underlying needs, the currents that often flow undetected below our interactions and conflicts. Appreciated in this way, conflict can lead us toward strategies that are truly helpful in the moment. If the signs of conflict are ignored or not attended to, often more harmful or violent strategies emerge in order to get our attention. The more difficult a conflict is, the greater the message that is trying to reveal itself.
When someone is upset, just prior to any physical action, his or her breathing shifts as the feelings and emotions heighten. People become passive, limp, and dissociated, or their muscles tighten and aggression occurs. Training in Aikido increases one’s ability to read such subtle and not-so-subtle shifts and take preventative steps to lead the situation to a place where both parties are protected and the outcome is directed so that everyone’s best interests are attended.
From that moment on, I began to find ways these two harmonizing traditions complement and inform each other. Nonviolent Communication offers an elegant language to those who study Aikido, and Aikido lends kinesthetic elements to every aspect of Nonviolent Communication. As a kinesthetic learner, I found it difficult to understand NVC in the traditional ways it was taught to me. Aikido’s time-honored tradition of mastery suggested exciting new ways to practice Nonviolent Communication to help embody its principles. This, coupled with 30 years as a master goldsmith at the time, I began to cross-reference these two paths and distill a template for the kind of practice that leads to mastery.
At this juncture, all roads seemed to lead to the cutting-edge field of Somatics—the art and practice of sensing the soma, “the body as experienced from within”—and so I began my training as a somatic coach. Somatic coaching attends to one’s lived, historical experience and the wisdom and promise of recurrent practice in learning new skills and interpretations. Somatic coaching provided the perfect medium for weaving together the nonverbal aspects of Aikido and the verbal skills of Nonviolent Communication. Somatics comes from the Greek word soma, meaning “the living body in its wholeness”—mind, body, and spirit. Somatic practices align language, emotions, and actions through meaning that is deeply felt.
The expansive consciousness underlying the field of Somatics clarified to me how living more fully in the body puts us in communion with our own nature, with one another, with human nature, and with the ecology of the earth as one whole, living system.
Somatics articulates that we are always practicing something, both consciously and unconsciously. For example, in this moment, you are practicing how you are reading, how you position your body as you read, and how you are enjoying, judging, or disconnecting from what you are reading. You are even practicing how you are breathing. The emergent field of Somatics shines a light on the nature of practice and how we can do more than hone our edge. To effect real change, to do more than good game, requires us to come back time and time again to rediscover what we love about the path we are choosing—and through deliberate, committed, intentional practice over time, practice who it is we choose to become.
- Modern neuroscience is discovering that, like all natural systems, our brain is opportunistic, and what we don’t use, we lose. Our cultural and educational systems place high value on linear thinking, achievement, and goal-oriented action at the expense of the subtle and fertile landscape of feelings, intuition, and emotional intelligence. I believe that because of this emphasis, our faculties for feeling and empathy have become somewhat atrophied. We need only ask ourselves, “Why do more than half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce?” “Why the alarming rate of sexual abuse and sky-rocketing incarceration?” On a global scale, we ask, “If we truly felt our interdependence and our common humanity, could we cut down ancient forests, bulldoze delicate ecosystems, overfish and pollute our waters, and in doing so extinguish species at such an alarming rate, jeopardizing future generations’ sources of life?” “Would we create such incredible weapons of mass destruction or let such an enormous discrepancy grow between the haves and the have-nots?” From intimate relationships to international politics, the consequences are evident and the cause originates from the deep mistrust of our own bodies, feelings, and senses. Who we are is a heart-brain affair. Our society’s glorification of thinking over feeling splits heart-brain unity into two essentially separate and even antagonistic systems. This schism leads to a long procession of incoherent and destructive personal and communal patterns.
Making life-enriching choices, sensing one’s needs and balancing them with the needs of others, being receptive to all voices, and clearly articulating our own truths within the bonds of relationship are important and learnable skills. Somatic Consensus is the name I have given to both my personal practices and the work I love to share with others for refining their own practices and developing such skills.
With Somatic Consensus, learning to listen and mediate to build an internal consensus between our thoughts, feelings, intuition, and instincts are the same skills needed to build consensus in all other relationships. Building an internal consensus and consensus with others becomes one integrated practice.
Two themes are woven throughout this book:
- Reclaiming our empathic faculties for listening inwardly and to all our relationships, human and nonhuman.
- Finding and empowering our voices by aligning what we deeply value with our words and actions.
I believe that these are essential for any of us who wants to deepen the quality of our relationships, generate community, and effect positive change—personal, social, environmental, or political—at home or out in the world. What we carry emotionally and physically are expressed through our words and actions. In daily life, centering attention on the signals of our bodies, we become present to the direct, immediate experience we are living, the life that moves through and organizes us. This is where we can access a discriminating wisdom, develop reverence for the sacred, and feel the suffering and grief that give birth to compassion. Here is where we find our footing again and again as we walk into the mystery of life and love.
I invite you to play, muster your curiosity, and apply your creativity to the practices offered in this book. Practice is where the rubber meets the road. What you practice must capture your imagination to keep your interest level high over the long haul.
Learning through the body via Somatic Consensus is fun. It goes deep. It’s reconnecting, surprisingly direct, sometimes startling, and always informative. Its practice is a means to transform a lifetime of habits and reactions into resources for connection and healing. My hope is that Somatic Consensus practice helps you come face to face with the history you’ve embodied, your deeper self, your greatest gifts, and the motivation to stay the course of becoming what you need.
A RECIPE FOR COMMUNITY
We are—by our very nature—communal. Our bodies are a wildly complex ecosystem that reflects the vitality and diversity of the landscape that feeds us. Somatic food practices invite us to fully and empathically engage in the connection between the life we live and the life that feeds us. To begin these practices we must tease apart and identify what we care about and how those values inform our choices in how we answer to our hunger. This can be an arduous and challenging process, because every aspect of being human is cellularly shaped by our primal experiences of being fed and loved. These two fundamental needs fit hand in glove: they are the prime ingredients for creating a sense of well being that supports our potential to imagine, engage our curiosity, explore, invent, and create. But first, we must eat to stay alive!
Marshall Rosenberg brilliantly articulated the human duality of me/we, and our striving for both autonomy and community, a sense of belonging. The premise of his articulation of universal needs is that it is possible for everyone’s needs to get met. Marrying this idea to somatic food practices when so many are going hungry on this planet, we are participating in a revolutionary process: to answer to our hunger in a manner that is life-serving, around the planet and across all species.
Within a global food system in a global economy our food choices impact all life. This most personal human act has profound public ramifications like no other time in history.
Our personal health and the health of the planet are bosom buddies. They suckle from the same teat. We are as inextricably linked as the roots of the apple trees in the earth that holds/feeds them to produce those delicious apples that we put in our children’s lunches or in the pie that we put on our table for dessert. The health of our internal landscape is in direct relationship to the health and vitality of the community of life that fills our plates and bellies. To nurture and reclaim the health of our bodies is to restore the health of the earth.
Somatic Consensus and Food
Somatic consensus provides a foundation from which we can begin the journey and practice of aligning “head-over-heart-over belly” as a generative practice to inform our food choices. The following is an example of what this process might look like:
Belly: I’m hungry!!!! Feed me. NOW!
Heart: O.K. Settle down. You’re not starving…let’s go out to the garden, pick some veggies and make a beautiful meal. We can invite your friend over!
Belly: I can’t wait! I’m hungry!!!!
Head: We need to make sure we get something healthy into our body. Some protein, a vegetable, a fruit, a little bit of starch.
Belly: There’s a Taco Bell! Let’s stop!
Head: Well, they do have a salad bar…maybe that will work. But, none of it will be organic or local.
Heart: Ah, come on…you know that isn’t the same as cooking something all together and sitting down at the table to share it. Let’s go home and make a salad! I promise we all will feel much better if we do.
Belly: O.K Can we make it quick though?
Head: I’ll gather the salad mixings while you two make a dressing and set the table.
To reclaim our health in somatic terms, we must first embrace the enormity of the importance of community. Spiritually, we hunger to belong. Intellectually, we understand the importance of it. Physically, our health depends on it—food security is by definition biodiversity, which is the abundant community of life that feeds all community—the community of life that is on our plate, the human family/communities that we belong to and the communion of earth, air, water and fire that comes together in cooking for ourselves.
How we relate to food can become a daily empathic practice for deepening connection to all life. Empathy, our first language and birthright, puts us in touch with the wider horizons of our collective living.
A truism of modern neuroscience is “use it or lose it.” In a culture that values thinking over feeling, our empathic faculties have become somewhat atrophied. Revitalizing our innate empathic abilities takes practice–the more, the better–and since we eat several times a day, our relationship to food presents possibilities to cultivate connection, joy, creativity, and meaning.
When I first feel pangs of hunger, I am aware that in the simple act of turning my attention toward eating and the anticipation sparked begins the process of feeding myself. Hormones are released, my excitement is ignited, the conversation with my body as to what color, what flavor, what texture, what taste is being asked for is the practice of trusting the wisdom of my body and loving that it knows exactly what it needs. In my delight, I walk out to the garden. Greeting all the colorful and diverse plants there, I invite the intimate conversation my belly so easily divines with the plants. The following thoughts came out of a walk through the garden to make my lunch.
I walked out to the garden
To listen to the plants whisper their healing message
As I followed my hunger for life.
Red orach screamed purple for passion, beauty, family, community.
Parsley spoke the taste of bitterness, and the ability to transform it to strengthen the beating of my heart.
Arugula—not too much, she said—appreciate spicy medicine and know when to be more gentle on yourself.
Chickweed spoke of living fully within my skin, old and wrinkly as it may become.
Dill smiled and offered the delight of nuance and accentuation.
Spinach was open and abundant, offering nurturing, tenderness, succulence and nutrition.
Mizuna spoke of delicateness and how it can dazzle in the right light.
I came back to the kitchen and spoke my gratitude to each as I placed them in my bowl.
To share with you…………
As a somatic practice, ask direct questions to your body to nurture and build trusting the wisdom of your body. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, the body never lies.
It might unfold something like the following:
“Orange!” So, Buttercup Squash goes into my basket. “Something green!” I pluck the kale and add it to the basket. “What texture?” I might ask.
“Something crispy and sweet” and Kohl Rabi joins the ever expanding harvest.
Even before I walk out to the garden, the rush of anticipation noticeably releases happy hormones into my bloodstream as I respond to my hunger with wide-open arms.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The greatest delight the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me and I to them. Our meal begins and nutrition added when we respond to our hunger with appreciation that our body knows exactly what it needs. Our bodies never lie.”
A Somatic Food Practice
Stand in a vertical stance–head above heart, above belly. Take a deep relaxing breath and then ask yourself the following questions. When asked, invite your senses and imagination to listen for answers that you might not otherwise hear. The following loop of identifying stimulus, needs, and strategies provides a formula for changing habits to better meet your needs. These kinds of questions exercise your felt sense, the same faculty that you engage for empathy!
First: Identify the Stimulus
Before you eat, ask yourself:
- “Am I hungry? —-How do I know I am hungry? — What happens in my body that tells me this?”
Be specific. Notice and distinguish the difference between the actual physical feeling of hunger and other feelings that trigger strategies to meet a need other than sustenance, such as boredom, nervousness, anxiety, fear, anger, or excitement.
- What is my first response to those “feelings” in my body that are telling me I am hungry?
Do you ignore it? Grab the first food in sight? Think about what you would like to eat? Think about what you think you should eat? Get in the car and drive up to a fast food window? Go for a run and wait it out? Make yourself a beautiful meal and invite a friend over?
Second: identify Your Needs
- “What do I care about and value the most when feeding myself?
- “What am I hungry for? Sustenance? Connection? Excitement? Love? Empathy? Ease? Rest?”
Third: Choose Your (new) Strategies
AFTER IDENTIFYING THE STIMULUS AND NEED, CHOOSE YOUR STRATEGY FROM A PLACE OF INTENTION AND CLARITY—HOW CAN I BEST MEET MY NEEDS AT THIS MOMENT?
If you are actually hungry for sustenance, ask yourself:
- “What would sustain me perfectly right now?” (Be as specific as possible—Sweet. Sour. Starchy. Chunky. Smooth. Purple. Orange. White. Pink. Red. Soft. Hard. Crunchy. Silky. Cold. Hot. Cold and hot. Cooked and Raw.)
Actively engage each act of preparing your meal. In this vein, some questions you might ask yourself are:
- “When I cut this carrot, what shape would be most pleasing as I place it on my tongue?”
- “How would this meal give me pleasure to look at on my plate, or in my bowl?”
- “Would I like to eat alone or with somebody?”
- “Would I like music or silence?”
- “Would I like to sit at a table, on the couch, or on the floor?”
Use your imagination and wisdom to broaden your attention and listen to what may be the most nourishing strategy for meeting our common needs when feeding yourself.
The Spiral Blend
click here for a video of the practice
The Spiral Blend appeared in its early form one day while I was out jogging with my wife Judith. In the middle of the run our conversation headed south as she began to express her frustrations about our shared household cleaning responsibilities. What she said and especially how she said it was hard for me to not take personally. My anger rose as I felt my chest tighten. It was then I remembered “irimi tenkan”, a central Aikido move where you take a step, turn to move out of the way of an attack and then blend with the direction of the attack to create connection. I decided to try something. Instead of positioning myself right in front of her and her pointed words, I stepped slightly to her side and just off her “line of attack” as if to side step a physically thrown a punch. To my surprise, with just that small shift in my position her words seemed to sail by me. I was able to relax, breath easier and clear my mind enough to separate who I was from what she was saying.
I let her jog a half step more ahead of me so that I could run in a position slightly behind her right shoulder where my heart was physically just behind hers and from this vantage point I could see over her shoulder towards what she was seeing. No longer physically in the line of her frustration, I relaxed, paid attention to my feelings and felt more curious about what was going on for her. I spoke to her from a quieter place in me. To my delight, we both lightened up and things resolved very quickly. This was the dawn of the Spiral Blend. If it can work with your spouse, it can help anywhere.
After several years of practicing Nonviolent Communication, my family participated in an extraordinary forum with Marshal Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, outside the city of Nagpur in Central India. . Nagpur is where I began to develop the Spiral Blend as a means to teach Nonviolent Communication somatically across language barriers, with very few words that brought the body more into the learning. Encoded within the Spiral Blend are all the main principles Nonviolent Communication to practice, explore and enjoy.
Thirty-five hundred Dalit, the untouchables and lowest in the caste system of India, built a temporary makeshift town in order to gather and learn more about Nonviolent Communication. Each day everyone would listen to Marshal through an interpreter as he taught. In the afternoon and evenings, along with 20 other trainers from around the world, we worked with and taught families, clans, children, business partners and individuals the basics of NVC. Intimate contact with such a different culture was a wonderful confirmation of the common ground that we all share.
Somatic processes shine a light on how repetitive responses to life’s situations become lodged in our nervous systems and how independent our habituated responses can be from what is happening in the present moment. Simply put, your body will do what it has repetitively learned to do. When you train your attention to shift from the dramas you perceive to what is happening in your body, your body will become a place to come home to when you lose your bearings.
In real life, this practice takes only seconds and minutes. We’ll explore it slowly at first. I have divided this practice into several parts to be learned sequentially. Like training wheels, once embodied, the suggested sequence can be dropped in favor of using your body’s felt sense to divine which position in the process will benefit you the most at any given moment.
- Stimulus and Cause
- Core Strategies
- Finding Common Ground
- The Dance of Empathy and Honesty
- Mutual Strategies
- Internalizing the Practice
The Set Up and Role-Play
There are 2 people in this role-play, the Receiver and the Challenger. In the initial set up, the Receiver tells the Challenger who he or she is and what to say. Set it up so that the Challenger’s role is only mildly triggering. Although it us only a role-play, working with the body can bring up old traumas very quickly, so move slow and with care. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most triggering, set up the confrontation to be a 2 or 3. It is interesting and important to note that the body does not differentiate between what is real and what is imagined. Your body will react in the ways it has practiced the most when you are triggered.
In the role-play, instead of just playing the part, as the Challenger actually imagine “being” the person you are asked to be. For example, if you are playing your partner’s brother, ask yourself what it might be like to be his brother and just try to allow the sense of him to come through you. You may be surprised at how this feels and what comes out of your mouth!
One of the more challenging but necessary things to do in setting up this practice whether in real life or in role plays, is to agree on who goes first. Generally in a conflict, both participants are triggered. As you practice, remember that it is the Receiver who will need to center and self-empathize and give empathy to the Challenger. In the set up, take a moment to get clear on who is the Receiver and who is the Challenger. Remember, one at a time. Trying to process triggering moments simultaneously can get very messy. It may take a few starts and do-overs to land on who is the most triggered and who is the most capable of giving empathy. Relationships are never a straight line from here to there. Do not be afraid to start over. There is no wrong in this practice, only learning and getting better.
Stimulus and Cause
- Challenger: Stand directly in front of the Receiver, point your finger and speak the triggering statement you have been coached to say. For example: “Why don’t you ever clean the tub when you are done!” or “I get so angry when you interrupt me all the time”.
Remember: You are not responsible for others’ feelings; you are responsible for your own. It is essential to identify and separate the stimulus (what the Challenger says) from the cause of your pain(your own feelings).
Core Contractions and Strategies
- Receiver: As the Challenger’s triggering words land on you, drop your attention to locate the center of any tightness, sensation or emotional pain that is stimulated in your body. This is your core contraction.
- Where is there tightness in my body?
- What are the sensations and where are they the strongest?
- How has my breathing changed?
- Is there a deadening or an intensifying of emotion anywhere? Where?
- Scan you body as you practice. Is there anything happening in your chest, shoulders, back, arms, legs….. Bring curiosity and attention to any contractions and sensations you feel. Notice internal stories, judgments or reactions that might surface. At this time try not to analyze things, just notice what comes up and let go of your evaluations. Describe in detail to your partner what you are experiencing.
*Note: If you are struggling to locate specifically where the contractions and sensations are in your body because the triggering seems like everywhere or nowhere, you have probably picked a situation that is more than a 2 or 3 on the scale of 1-10. Chose something less intense. The Spiral Blend can help you through these moments as you explore it in depth. I would recommend that when first learning, its good to get familiar with all the facets of the Spiral Blend before you move into more intense role plays or applications. Everyone has their own ways of responding to stress and conflict. Our systems can only handle so much intensity before fight/flight startle responses kick in and we automatically default into historical conditioned patterns of behaviors. (See Core Strategies, Chap. 5) You can learn to regulate your own system.
When things feel intense and it becomes confusing where you stand, most likely have been knocked off center by what is coming at you. When you are over stimulated and don’t know what to do, move to the next practice to help relieve your system enough so you can think more clearly and center your attention inward. This will also help you to feel and locate your core contractions and core strategies.
It is almost impossible to empathize when you are overwhelmed by emotional pain. The more relaxed you are, the more aware you can be and the more you can feel. The more that you can feel, the more your emotions can point you towards what you
most needed in the present moment. When you are relaxed the people around you relax.
- Receiver: Moving to the wind position (above) step “off the line of attack” and as the Challenger continues to point and speak towards your original position look to see where the words are coming from and then turn your head to follow the Challenger’s words and the energy behind them as they pass you by. Don’t get fixated on the Challenger, remember to turn your head. Only after you have watched this train of words go by turn your head once again to notice where these words originate. This move is much like the toreador who steps effectively and efficiently to the side to let the bull rush by.
*Note: Moving to Wind helps you get a different perspective on the matter. Step off the line and keep the same amount of distance between you and the Challenger, making sure to not move either farther away or closer to the Challenger. Wind is not about leaving or pushing the interaction; it is about attending to your feelings and getting a fresh perspective while staying connected.
- Receiver: In the Wind posture quietly notice:
- What sensations do I now feel in my body?
- How is it different from when you were standing directly on the line of the attack?
- How do the words land on you now?
- Does your triggering subside a bit in this new position?
- Notice if your feelings or judgments toward the other person change at all?
- “Don’t just do something, be here”
Self-empathy is inner listening where you place the light of your attention on your internal world of feelings, emotions, moods, sensations and stories that show up in response to life’s ups and downs. You must regain a centered sense of who you are and what you care about in order to put aside your agendas, judgments or attachment to outcomes and just listen. This is difficult. Learning to get out of your own way to fully listen is something you can cultivate to do in longer and longer moments. In those moments your somatic intelligence can point you towards what you need.
- From the wind position, bring your hands to chest level and with elbows having only a slight bend in them and fingers pointed forward, vigorously rub your hands together.
- Hold your hands apart and extend your arms and fingers as if you’re reaching out to catch a big ball. Notice any tingling of energy in your hands from the friction of rubbing them together.
- Touch your heart. Bring your palms and their warmth to your heart. Remember and appreciate the heart that you have.
- Wake up your belly. Now connect your heart to your belly by stroking your torso from your heart down to the belly. Wake the belly up by patting it in the front, the sides and the back and bring your attention into the center of all that sensation.
- Ground: Move to ground. With your left foot forward, bend your legs slightly so that you feel grounded and centered. Have your hands down by your side and about a foot in front of you, palms open towards the ground and fingers spread wide. Keep your body vertical with your head above your heart and your heart above your belly.
Take a moment to appreciate the ground that is supporting you, that is under each of us— where under-standing is found and what brings more meaning to life.
- Here are some grounding questions to ask your self.
- What do I deeply care about?
- What is the ground I stand on?
- What qualities of being bring meaning and joy to my life?
All of these questions lead to remembering who you are! Finding your ground helps you differentiate between what another is saying or doing and who you are. Take the time you need to appreciate the ground you stand on, what you deeply value and as you gain a sense of your ground and recover the sense of self you can move to the next step of empathizing with your partner.
This is a moment in the Spiral Blend where the lightest of touch is the most powerful one. Where true power arises from meaning understood through the heart and a potent entry point is revealed that touches one another’s deepest needs and passions. To find that point of entry it is essential to recognize where that spot originates within you. Finding what you stand on, your ground is a necessary step to connecting to another’s ground. Finding common ground, what we deeply value and care about is where you find under-standing.
- Receiver: Once you have resourced your own ground, step to just behind the shoulder of the Challenger as he continues pointing at your original position and speaking the triggering statements. In Aikido, this angle of entry is called “shikaku” and means “optimum entering angle”. Shikaku is both a very safe position for someone to move into when attacked and the most effective angle of entry for effectively harmonizing the situation.
- Receiver: Enter with care and bring the palm of your hand directly behind the Challenger’s heart…. but don’t touch yet. Just listen with an intention to connect with the Challenger’s ground. Listen without agenda or pressure to “fix things”. Look over the Challenger’s shoulder and be open and curious to what it might be like to be in his/her shoes. In this position the Challenger can barely see you. In this moment with heart behind heart, with your judgments and triggering out of the way, connection is nascent. Now is when you listen with your whole being to the life you have in common, to your common ground. (See 7 C’s of Empathy pgs…)
- Receiver: With all your senses and imagination engaged, listen and wonder:
- What is it that this person is feeling?
- What would this person love more of?
- What is the deeper needs under the words?”
- What is the ground this person is standing on?
*At any time, if you become too triggered or caught up in the drama of the words of the Challenger, go back to wind and ground position to re-center.
When the Receiver steps into Shi-ka-ku, centered, resourced and ready, then the dance begins between the yin and the yang, the knowing and the mystery. Looking over the Challenger’s shoulder to see what he is seeing, the Receiver’s guess does not come from trying to come up with an answer; the guess comes in a moment and feels like an “aha!” This is listening creatively. (See 7 C’s pg.…) This is listening with all of our senses open, the faculty of our imagination engaged.
By leaving the space open and uncluttered within your self to just listen, the answers to your queries will come.
The main purpose of empathic guesses in Nonviolent Communication is to create connection. That moment of connection happens before touch—before the utterance of any word. The name for this poignant moment in Aikido is dai-ai, Translated from Japanese, it means “big love”. It is the all-encompassing love that reminds us that we are one, and that our needs are one.
Dai-ai is when you hold the other in an empathic listening field and sense the deeper intentions that are below the conflict. In Aikido, the moment of dai-ai happens just before any physical interaction takes place, when your own intentions are clear and you are readied so that by the time your attacker takes action it is already over! You can literally stop the conflict before it turns physical or violent. .(see SURF practice pg… and Empathic Listening pg….to explore this more).
- Receiver: Listen patiently with humility. Pay attention to the rhythm of this unfolding. Give it lots of space. Wait to be moved by a sense or some glimpse of understanding of the ground that the Challenger is standing on. Only then do you make an empathic guess.
To help understand the quality of presence and listening required here imagine that you have traveled a great distance, climbed the mountain to be in the presence of a very wise elder and now you have the opportunity to ask just one question of this divine individual. Take your time to think, feel, check intuitively and then ask your one question with humility, respect and gratitude.
Good timing is process and patience awaiting an advantage. There is a rhythm in all communications. There is a time to initiate and begin, a time to listen, a time for action and a time to end. If you don’t pay attention to the space in a song and rush the beat you hurt the song. It’s the same with relationships. Pay attention, let the space within the interaction inform the timing and quality of your empathic guesses. Like a crescendo approaching in a song, let the urge build inside you until you feel moved. Then guess.
This is where the lightest of guesses can be the most connective. The quality of feeling behind your guess is care that shows that you want to really understand who the other is for the sake of loving connection.
- Receiver: Make sure when you speak that it is a clearly a question and not a In time, find your own genuine way of guessing what the ground level of the others feelings and needs are. For now, here are a couple examples of ways to guess:
- I am guessing you’re feeling frustrated and would love some appreciation or maybe just to be heard? Is that right?
- Are you feeling angry that I came in to your room without asking because you really value privacy and want yours to be respected?
- Receiver: As you guess, you will know by the reaction it invokes how near or far you are from connecting with the Challenger’s ground level needs. If the guess is close, you will notice a visceral “shift”, that in some way that shows a release or an easing of tension as the Challenger begins to feel heard and resistance lessens.
This shift is a moment when you have moved into your heart and touched another, when the conflict becomes no longer a conflict but a place to explore collaboratively.
Savor this precious moment and don’t rush to fill the space with words. Just appreciate this quality of connection. Slow down and deeply feel it. Remember what this feels like. Build a somatic impression that you can reference and keep finding your way back to. This creative moment in the process that everything is in service of and when the deeper needs that we all share become revealed is all too often rushed or missed.
- Receiver: Once you feel the shift and a sense of connection, gently, with the lightest of touch, place your palm on your partner’s back. If the other person feels hesitancy, manipulation, or agenda in your touch or words, then a sense of mistrust can grow. This initial touch is of the utmost importance. As soon as you touch someone they organize themselves around that touch. A compassionate touch transmits compassion and leaves nothing to resist. In the midst of a fight, to be touched in this way brings a relief and intensifies the sense of connection.
- The Dance of Empathy and Honesty
Another Aikido principle is called Zanshin. It refers to a state of awareness – of relaxed alertness. The literal translation of zanshin is “remaining mind”. It literally means being absolutely attentive to the next move right after the previous move.
The next beat in the rhythm of the Spiral Blend is the response from your partner. Make sure not to rush the space between the guess and the response or you might ruin the beauty of the song’s unfolding. The heart has no need to rush. Most often it is our heads that think we should.
Often your partner’s response will let you know if you are on the mark or not, and in some way if you listen closely, your partner will give you breadcrumbs. Always take the time to feel how your words land on your partner.
As you proceed from the last move to this one, remember all the care and effort it took to ignite the connection. Just like building a fire from scratch, once that initial, tiny flame bursts forth the job is not done. Just the right amount of breath and kindling is needed to continue to build the fire, too much or too little and it might go out. So with your presence and attention to that small flame you have kindled, continue from when the Receiver has just put a hand on the Challenger’s back.
- Receiver: Give lots of space between your words and the Challenger’s responses. With care and patience, continue to guess the ground that is under the Challengers words. Listen and. When you begin to feel resonance, like you are getting on the same page, without changing the direction, gently and slowly move the conversation forward. With your hand on the Challenger’s back, gradually suggest with your touch the intention to walk for a while in the direction in which the Challenger is pointing. This movement is a suggestion, not a push.
- Receiver: As you feel a connection and understanding between the two of you growing, gradually move from behind the Challenger to his/her side. Continue to hold the Challenger’s needs with care as you slowly and respectfully, bring to the conversation what you would love and value in this moment as well. Be careful not to introduce strategies, judgments or agendas with attachments to outcomes into the conversation. Get both of your mutual needs on the table first.
There is a moment in Aikido practice that is called “aiki”. It is when conflict becomes a harmonious movement towards greater connection and understanding.
- Receiver: Gently with your hand resting on the Challenger’s back, continue to walk forward together. Keep your focus on the present moment and stay open to possibilities. Continue the conversation with empathy and honesty. Once you can articulate your mutual needs, mutual strategies come easily. Slowly walk in a new direction, one that honors mutual needs and strategies.
Internalizing the Practice
Of course it would look pretty silly to spread your arms and move to wind or step behind the back of the person you are speaking to in the middle of a conflict. Going through this practice with a training partner will help to illuminate places where you get stuck and triggered as well as places to foster deep connection. Set up sessions to practice the Spiral Blend role-plays in groups and with partners and friends. In time you will be able to move through the positions of the Spiral Blend in your mind and imagination with out moving your body or making subtle micro movements that remind you of the full body practice.
Here are some examples:
- When I want to ground, I wiggle my toes to feel the earth and imagine sending roots down.
- I turn my palms behind me to find support at my back. Make up your own micro movements.
- To imagine wind I pivot my body slightly and imagine someone’s words sliding off me instead of landing fully on me. When Judith catches any of my micro-movements in the middle of our fights, she smiles because she knows that the reason I am doing them is to be more present with her.
Just as I did while jogging with my wife, find your own creative ways to blend the Spiral Blend into your daily interactions. The more you practice the more you will glean and incorporate harmonizing conflict into your way of being.
Finding Common Ground
Recently I lead a workshop in Duncan, BC between 12 fathers and 12 sons between the age of 11 and 13. At this age, it is not uncommon for fathers to feel a sense of lose for the kind of connection that they had with their son when he was younger. It seems to me that this is because children as they are entering their adulthood are growing and changing at such a rapid pace that is very difficult for the parents make the changes within themselves that they need to keep up. A centerpiece in this training was a practice that I call the Spiral Blend. This is a practice distilled from a movement in Aikido called “irimi tenkan” which means enter and turn. In the center of the circle of men and boys John was speaking to his son in a role play that recreated a conflict that they were having at home. He said, “Will you keep the noise down! I have to we are earplugs all day to keep the noise down in my carpentry shop and I need some quiet here!”
Normally at home, his son, Andrew would nod his head and in no time make just as much noise as he’d been making before. John would invariably get angrier and the conflict would spiral down. I coached Andrew through this role-play as he stepped out of the way of his father’s words and took a moment to ground himself by remembering what was important to him. He said, “I care about honesty. I care about people listening to each other well. I care about people helping one other.” That’s what he said he was willing to take a stand for in his own life. That was his ground.
He then moved to a place behind his father, looking over his shoulder to imagine what his father was seeing and feeling. His heart lined up behind his dads’. Without judgments or agenda he just listened to his father’s raised voice complaining about the noise. Centered and grounded, Andrew could now give his father’s words some space to feel into what was underneath them. Connecting in that moment to his father’s ground, lightly he asked, “Are you upset because you worked really hard toady and need quiet to rest? His father just stood there as Andrew added, “ and maybe you’d really like me to really get how hard you work to support me too because you care. Is that right? I just want to make sure I’m getting it right dad.”
The room was silent. John stood there looking stunned. His shoulders and back seemed to settle. His breath quieted. Color came to his face. His eyes became a little liquid. He just turned around, speechless and with the gentlest, appreciation said, “My son”. They hugged each other. The beauty and realization of that connection rippled around the room. Empathy for one, touches all. As we debriefed John described the moment. “I felt a connection to my son that I love with my son and have so missed”.
In another workshop, William was struggling with his wife. She was a very intelligent and high-energy woman. She was a manager in company with 40 thousand employees. In a role-play, he stood behind her just after stepping from Shi Ka Koo to a moment of. He was listening to her upset and venting about how hard it is for to live with the chaos in their home. She said, “ You throw your clothes over the chair instead of hanging them up, the tub is left with a film an about how busy she was and that…… If he had not centered prior to stepping into Shi Ka Koo would have felt criticized and blamed. He still got a little uncomfortable and his question came out a bit rushed and “heady” when he asked her,” Are you feeling angry and wanting some ease at home. She responded, Yes I am angry, because you never put things away…I asked him to go back to wind and let her words go by and not land on him and then to ground to remember where he stood. He came back to Shi Ka Ko and to her go on again about what was upsetting her. This time you could see that he was noticeably calmer, not taking what she was saying personally, and, with his heart behind her heart, he just listened.
In almost a whisper he gently said, “Are you just needing some rest time when you are home after working all day and want me to know that if the house was more cared for how that would really help?”
She just stood there, almost stunned. IT is like she was leaning on the door to get in, and all of a sudden it just opened unexpectedly.
She teared up, her demeanor softened and she choked out a grateful’, “yes”. Around the room as if a shockwave went though everyone. Everyone’s attention was riveted to the moment, water rose to several people’s eyes.
At this moment he paused. Connection was made and it is a powerful moment. .
At each moment of connection, appreciate and savor it. Don’t worry about getting to the next moment. If you get triggered you can go back to the wind and ground positions to re-center.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
~ Mary Oliver ~
Reactions to Resource: Shift dynamics through managing your own energy and emotions
Learn daily physical, emotional, linguistic and energetic practices that transform old habits and reactions intoresources for self-healing and building relationships.
Conflict to Connection: Develop skills to create more choice and possibility in conflict situations
Explore and develop skills for cultivating a centered and empathic presence within challenging relationships. Learn practices to build qualities of presence you most desire.
This is an exerpt I have contributied to an upcoming book on Nonviolent Communication and Aikido
“Imagination, helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental facility through which we encounter everything.“ Webster’s
Imagination is a question to the body.
“Imagination … is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein
“Life is all about relationship”. Carolyn Hartness
Some years into my practice of Nonviolent Communication at a workshop led by NVC trainers Barbara Larson and Kathleen McFerrin, I was given the instruction to sit and listen with empathy to two women who were engaged in a role play conflict. As with other workshops I had attended, I found the various explanations of empathy to be somewhat abstract and vague, so, I filled in the instructions with my imagination.
As the role-play got underway, I quieted my breath and thoughts in order to just listen. I imagined that my attention had a slight texture to it as I let it expand out my pores to fill the space around me. My field of attention grew to include the two women, extending my reach to hold them in care. The space was charged with an aliveness that bridged the distance between us, something akin to being in a still pool of water with another person and feeling the gentle waves that emanate from his or her movements as it laps up against my body. Holding a container of loving protection, I became a quiet participant and stabilizing presence in their conversation. The gates to all my senses opened more as I felt a heightened sensitivity and a connection to who these women were below their words. I had a sudden epiphany. This is Aikido! In this moment I realized that “empathy in Nonviolent Communication was the same as a “Ki” field in Aikido, and that what I was doing with these two women was something I had been practicing for 20 years prior in my Aikido training!
In my moment of epiphany, possibilities flooded my mind with ways that Nonviolent Communication’s practice of empathy and connection could be enhanced by the mind/body/spirit practices of Aikido. Since then, many years of fascinating cross training between these disciplines has confirmed that NVC and Aikido are virtually two different entrances into the same circle. The ways these two holistic disciplines complement, inform and add dimension to one another’s training is endless. NVC brings an elegant language to those who study aikido and aikido lends kinesthetic elements to every aspect of Nonviolent Communication training. Most importantly, Aikido’s physical practices of communication are training to bring us home to the wisdom of our bodies and back to our senses during challenging and triggering moments.
I discovered Aikido when I was 26, while looking for a place to work out after a day of intense focus at my goldsmith’s bench. I went to watch a class, with my apprentice who had heard about a certain sensei (martial arts instructor) in the nearby town. We watched this teacher throw students effortlessly across the mat as they attacked. He seemed to move before they even began their attack. I have since learned an old adage in aikido “You attack. I move first.” We were intrigued. In Aikido we learn how when someone attacks to surround him or her with a “Ki” field of loving attention, much like I did with the two women in the NVC exercise. We do this in order to sense the needs below the interaction and by doing so, meet the attack at it its source, before it has the time to turn to violence. In this way, Aikido, done well, gives each situation what it actually needs, and does so with the lightest of touch.
At our workbenches the next day my apprentice and I deliberated over what we had seen the previous evening. Our response was 75% skeptical but still curious to want to learn. The mastery of the teacher, Sensei Koichi Barrish was felt. Aikido is essentially non-verbal, nonviolent communication. Aikido is a way of harmonizing conflict, not avoiding it. By learning to conflict well, it is possible to find the meaning that is trying to emerge from the conflict and drink deeply from that well.
Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was considered the greatest martial artist in Japan around the time of World War 2. At the peak of his mastery he had a moment of clarity where he recognized that the most powerful budo (warriors way) is love. Aikido–in the founder’s words– is “a way to reconcile the world”. Encoded in all of the movements and techniques is loving protection for all. If someone attacks you, not only do you want to protect yourself, but you also want to protect the attacker. This was a great evolution in the world of martial arts. The practice of aikido is a complete metaphor for how I want to be in relationship. I found that if it worked on the mat, it worked in my life.
A core teaching of Nonviolent Communication recognizes that individually and collectively, our deepest needs are one and the same. Both Aikido and NVC training develops our sensitivity to the ground level needs below our interaction, and in this way gets to the heart of a conflict before it turns to violence.
Thinking and Feeling
Take a moment and think about where you are. Look at the room or the view from where you are standing or sitting and just think about it. Notice the quality of your attention; what it lands on and how you would describe what it is like to think about this moment. If there is someone nearby, think about him or her. Notice the quality of your attention.
Now, take a deep breath and feel. How doe the space around you feel. Feel others who might be around you. Notice the quality of your attention as you feel. If there is someone near by, feel what that is like and notice this shift of attention from thinking.
Now again, take a deep breath and for about 20 seconds think about where your are. Just think. Notice what that is like and go back and forth a few times between feeling and thinking, taking 20 seconds to be in each of these two states. Take note of what is different about them. Our bodies are always communicating something
The last time I talked with Joanna, an old and dear friend of mine, she spoke of her son who had died. She lamented how she wished that she had learned more about bringing the body into her communications with him while he was alive. She regretted that she had spent more time talking to him than transmitting what is important through touch. Nonviolent Communication is about touching and although words are very prominent in the practice, it is in the non-physical touch of empathy that I am referring to. To hold someone non-physically, words must be clear and aligned with a felt intention in order not to get in the way of the care and meaning within the empathic transmission. When we talk without feeling, even if the words are very correct the experience is left wanting for touch. In my opinion this is one of the places in the practice of NVC that needs the most shoring up. It is essential to deliberately connect the felt sense, a quality of presence wanting to be shared, to the words being spoken. We must be very mindful to practice with intention during each repetition of the practices other wise we practice not being fully present in our words.
90 percent of what we communicate is not words. Whether, nonphysical or physical touching, the intention must be clear, otherwise touch can distract us from connection and in some cases, be violent. More importantly the feelings need be clear and true. What we feel is transmitted much more potently than what we think. Because touch is so intimate and powerful, it is up to each of us to be vigilant of our intentions and how we use it for connection. Words, together with empathic attention, can hold and touch others. The miscommunication that happens when our words or touch are not felt is all the more painful against the backdrop of the desire to connect.
Physical and nonphysical touch can become more connective through intentional practice. I find the next practice, SURF, to be an exciting way to understand and integrate thoughts and feelings as well as a beautifully intriguing practice for extending an empathic field and imbuing it with a colorful palate of meaning.
S.U.R.F. Centering Practice
“Recalling an event of love or joy through creative imagination throws out a high frequency bridge from the prefrontal cortex to the limbic heart circuit. The heart automatically reciprocates on the that same frequency, lifting us into a higher level of the creative dynamic, defusing defensive reactions already in motion and opening an order of functioning not available to either intellect or imagination alone.”
Joseph Chilton Pearce
Centering practices train us to await our own experience and to listen to the wisdom of our bodies. It brings clarity of the moment in through our senses. When centered we can observe and listen more clearly. Centering brings a wholeness that can shed light on the pros and cons of relative terms such as good/bad, right/wrong, nice/mean, and smart/stupid to define and judge ourselves and others.
Living in relationship is so challenging, in part because we are always transmitting our emotional state. Some days we feel centered and expansive, sometimes we feel tense and contracted. Contraction or expansion can be felt when you walk into the house and someone in the other room is angry. You can feel when another person is open to you or not by how your body responds to theirs. Emotions like anger, hurt, frustration, sadness, shame and guilt are contracted states. Qualities such as honor, grace, gratitude, empathy, playfulness, curious, caring, dignity and joy are expansive states. More than just words, the SURF practice trains this vocabulary of qualities across mind, body, emotional and linguistic domains. Over time along with a greater versatility and understanding of these qualities as a whole self-experience, they become felt and transmitted in your presence and shape. Just like in meditation, how we shape ourselves effects the practices. Imagine a sitting meditation with your head cocked to the side or slumped over. It really is a different experience than if you are leaning back or sitting more vertically. The way we shape ourselves effects how we feel, how we listen and what we communicate. Try talking to someone while leaning forward towards him or her with your face contracted. If we genuinely smile at someone, we will create a different communication than if we’re frowning at someone. How we shape our selves actually changes how we are received, what we perceive and what we communicate. This is a practice that overtime can profoundly change the ways you shape your self. The practice of shaping and comporting yourself with more honor, grace, empathy, playfulness, joy, appreciation and such will bring more of those qualities into your life; from within yourself and from others around you.
The SURF practice, done regularly will enhance your ability to articulate and integrate your thoughts and feelings. It is an exploration that brings a multi dimensionality and distinctions to the nature of empathy and the many qualities of being that we can train to become.
Step 1: S – Shape Yourself
I practice this as a sitting practice, but it can be done while standing just as easily. First sit or stand in your full vertical length. Let your skeleton hold you up in alignment with gravity as it is meant to do with your head above heart above belly. If you are leaning, slouching or overextending, you are fighting gravity and using more muscle than you need to. To aid you in relaxing:
- Let your jaw go and let the back of your tongue relax.
- Let your shoulders fall and relax as if you were letting any weight you might be carrying in your life fall off.
- Let your sphincter muscles relax.
- Imagine the bottom of your feet opening to the ground as you connect to the earth you are standing on.
- If you are seated, feel your sit bone connect to your seat.
Step 2: U – Unify
Take one or two long, slow breaths in and then let them out with a relaxed “Ahhhh…” sound. Straighten your back as you breathe in, keeping the shoulders relaxed and uplifting from your back muscles- not by lifting the shoulders. Breathe up your back and release the breath down your front. Let your belly be relaxed. Continue to breathe in this way.
If you have more time, after a while, just let your breath naturally flow without trying to control it.
Step 3: R – Re-source
Take a moment to connect to your deeper needs and consider one quality you would like to draw up from within yourself. Choose one word that represents what you would love to have a little more of in your life, such as: peace, dignity, respect, openness, acceptance, courage, joy, understanding, appreciation, gratitude, empathy…..
Ask your body:
What would it be like if I felt a bit more _________? (Fill in the quality, just one)
- Live with the questions while the heart dances with the answer.
Try not to have a mental idea of the answer before you answer. Muster an attitude of open curiosity.
The quality you choose represents a forward movement of your spirit and by moving towards it, you embrace life. In the time between asking a question and getting an answer, there is a moment of not knowing, a state of openness. This is where intuition and creativity arise. We are trained from early on to want to know the answers and even give ourselves grief for not knowing. This is a wonderful practice for developing a tolerance for this open creative state.
Give yourself time and space for your body/soma to respond. Engage your imagination and just allow yourself to be curious as you let your body shift. Notice any changes in posture, breathing, body temperature, mood, etc. If you don’t know what it is like to have more dignity, for example, use your imagination to play with what it might feel like. Think of a person you know or a TV character that has that quality and try it on for yourself.
Step 4: F – Field
Sustain the shifts you felt inside in Step 3.
- Bring your attention to the space from your body to a few feet in front of you. Now place that that much attention behind you, above you, below you and then to the sides of you. You can imagine this as if you are in the center of a bubble. Try to equalize your attention all around you.
- Imagine the quality and feeling of the resource you feel filling the space around you.
Remember that energy follows attention: Notice how you can enliven the space around you just by how you focus your attention. In the course of the day, as you engage others, practice holding them in this field. This is the essence of empathic listening. It is essential to that as you extend the space to include others that you extend this “listening field” in all directions, not just towards the person you are listening to. This gives you more width and depth to hold them. As you do this process, do it with imagination engaged and curiosity. Be open and curious with an attitude of “Isn’t that interesting…?”It is important to make this work interesting for yourself; it must be compelling enough to draw you back from the drama of your life. Maintaining these kinds of practices on a daily basis is how you make real changes in yourself. This practice can take only 15 seconds, less than a commercial break. So do it several times a day. Imagine your listening to a word from your sponsor. This can also be a daily sitting or standing practice that you can enjoy for 15 minutes or more. My suggestion is to pick just one quality at a time and explore it in depth over a period of time such as a month, 6 months or a year.
The Spiral Blend
Becoming What You Need – Core Practice
“Under duress we do not rise to our highest expectations, we fall back to what we have practiced most.” Bruce Lee
“Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behaviors and our behaviors change our outcome, so fake it till you become it.“ Dr. Amy Cudy
The more relaxed we are, the more aware we can be. The more we can feel, the more our emotions can point us towards what we care about. When we are relaxed, people around us relax.
The Spiral Blend
- Core Strategies
- Empathy and Honesty
- Mutual Strategies
VII. Internalizing the Practice
I have been together with my wife, Judith, since 1986 and for many of those years practiced and taught Nonviolent Communication. It takes time to embody the practice and become artful in it. It was pretty comical when we first started teaching together. We’d lead a one-hour Nonviolent Communication intro class and then come home and argue for another hour or two as our newly practiced skills flew out the window.
Our love goes deep and although we have learned a variety of communication skills, we still argue about things. The Spiral Blend appeared in its early form one day while I was out jogging with Judith. Running along, our conversation began to head south as she conveyed her frustrations and concerns regarding our shared household cleaning chores. It was hard for me to not take what she said personally. My chest tightened and I could feel my anger rise. It was then I remembered “irimi tenkan”, a core move in Aikido for entering conflict in a way that creates connection. I decided to give it a try.
Instead of positioning myself right in front of her pointed words, I stepped slightly to her side and just off her “line of attack”. To my surprise, instead of landing on my chest, her words seemed to sail by me. With that small shift in position, my chest relaxed, breathing became easier and my thinking cleared enough to separate who I was from what she was saying.
I let her jog a half step more ahead of me so that I could run slightly behind her right shoulder. Now, physically my heart was just behind hers and from this vantage point I could see over her shoulder towards what she was seeing. No longer physically fielding her emotions, I relaxed and instead of being triggered, I was now curious! I genuinely wanted to understand her and gently spoke to her from that intention. To my delight, we both lightened up and things resolved quickly and beautifully. This was the dawn of the Spiral Blend. If it can work with your spouse, it can help anywhere.
Soon after this “aha moment”, my family participated in a Nonviolent Communication forum with Marshal Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, outside the city of Nagpur in Central India. Thirty-five hundred Dalit, the untouchables and lowest in the caste system of India, built a temporary makeshift town in order to gather and learn more about Nonviolent Communication. Each day people would listen to Marshal through an interpreter as he taught. In the afternoon and evenings, along with 20 other trainers from around the world, we worked with families, clans, children, business partners and others sharing the basics of NVC. This intimate contact with such a different culture was a wonderful confirmation of the common ground that we all share. In Nagpur, I continued to develop the Spiral Blend practice and found it to be an excellent way to teach Nonviolent Communication using very few words while engaging the body.
The Spiral Blend is a series of practices that revolve around three points of connection: self connection; connection to the other person and the connection of mutual needs to a strategy. I have divided the practice into many parts, first to be learned sequentially and in time more organically. Like training wheels, the sequence can be dropped in favor of using your body as a pendulum divining which step in the process will nourish you the most at any given moment.
A basic premise of Somatic work is that we are always practicing something. Somatic processes shine a light on how our repetitive responses to life’s situations become lodged in our nervous system and how independent our habituated responses can be from what is happening in the present moment. Simply put, our body will do what it has repetitively learned to do through practice regardless of what we think or say. When we train our attention to shift from the dramas we perceive to what is happening in our bodies, our bodies become a place to come home to when we are lost.
The practice of listening and appreciating our body’s signals rather then reacting to them develops our “inner guidance system” that can warn us of dangers and lend direction and clarity to the choices we make. To empower our voice, it is essential to be aware of the physical nonverbal messages and reactions we send. We cannot lose them, as we cannot lose our histories. We can learn through them. If these reactions are not in sync with our words, then the listener gets mixed messages. If we do not face these reactions, out of our emotional pain, it is easy to fall into disconnected strategies and project enemy images onto others. When our verbal and non-verbal communication is aligned, our lives touch others.
There are 2 people in this role-play, the Receiver and the Challenger. First, the Receiver coaches the Challenger as to who he/she is and what to say. For starters, while becoming familiar with this practice set it up so the Challenger is saying something that is only mildly triggering, on a scale of 1-10, make it a 2 or 3.
Regarding role-plays, it is interesting and important to note that the body does not know what is real and what is imagined. It will respond in the same ways that it has practiced the most in real situations.
Instead of just playing the part, the Challenger can imagine “being” the person. For example, if you are playing your partner’s brother, ask yourself what it might be like to be his brother and let the impressions come through you. You might be surprised at how that feels and what comes out of your mouth!
Stimulus and Cause
- Challenger: Stand directly in front of and at the end of your partner’s reach. Point your finger at the Receiver and speak the triggering statement you have been coached to say.
2) Receiver: As the Challenger’s triggering words land on you, drop your attention into your body to notice the center of any tightness, sensation or emotional pain that is being stimulated. This is your core strategy. Describe in detail to your partner where and what the physical shifts you are feeling inside your body are as you become triggered. You can ask yourself:
- a) Where is there tightness or contraction?
- b) Where are the sensations the strongest?
- c) How has my breathing changed?
- d) Is there a deadening or an intensifying of emotion anywhere? Where?
Remember: You are not responsible for others’ feelings; you are responsible for your own feelings. It is essential to identify and separate the stimulus from the cause.
- Core Strategies
Because of our different histories and make-ups we each have our own ways of responding to stress and conflict. Our systems can only handle so much intensity before our fight/flight startle responses kick in. Our emotions flood and overload our internal systems and we default into old patterns of behavior, the ones most prominent being our core strategies. (See Core Strategies for more in depth understanding and processes.)
- Receiver: Bring a gentle curiosity and attention to the contractions and sensations you feel. Notice any internal stories, judgments or immediate, fight/flight reactions. At this time try not to analyze things, just notice what comes up and let go of your evaluations.
- If you are struggling to locate where you are triggered because it feels like everywhere or nowhere, you have probably picked a situation that is more than a 2 or 3 on the scale of 1-10. For now, pick something less triggering to work with or go to the next step and move to the “Wind Practice” to relieve your system enough to locate your core strategies.
Remember: It is up to us to identify and learn to regulate when we feel over stimulated. It is very difficult to empathize when you are in pain. This next section is a way to center and relax enough to listen more deeply and fully to what is needed in the present moment.
3) Receiver: Move to the wind position:
- a) Moving from the position of being face to face with the Challenger, step slightly to the left or the right. This would be like stepping “off the line of attack” if some one tried to punch you in the nose by moving to the left or the right. Step off the line but don’t back up or move farther away from the Challenger. Imagine that there is an un- stretchable chain attached between your two bellies. Wind is not about leaving the interaction; it is about self-regulating in order to release your tension, attend to your feelings, gain perspective and stay connected. Imagine the bull coming towards the toreador and how the toreador steps effectively and efficiently with the slightest of movement off the direct line of the bull’s attack. By doing this you allow the energy behind the strong words and pointing finger to pass you by.
- b) While the Challenger continues to point and speak towards your original position, turn your body sideways and spread your arms wide, like a bird soaring. From this new position, imagine the Challengers words are like a train going by and make sure your whole body is off the tracks. From this safe vantage, turn your head as you see it coming, watch it all go by and then notice again where it came from. This will help you to center and calm yourself.
4) Receiver: In the Wind posture notice quietly to yourself:
- What sensations do you now feel in your body?
- How does it feel different from when you were on the line of the attack?
- Does your triggering subside a bit in this new position?
- Notice if your feelings about the other person change at all?
“Don’t just do something, be here”
Self-empathy is listening with just the light of your attention to the internal world of feelings, emotions, moods, sensations and the stories that show up in response to life’s ups and downs. Learning to listen without agenda or attachment allows your emotions to move you towards what you need.
1) Bring your hands up to your chest level with your elbows having only a slight bend in them. With fingers pointed forward, vigorously rub your hands together.
2) Hold your hands apart and extend your arms, hands and fingers as if you’re reaching out to catch a big ball. Notice the tingling of energy from the friction of rubbing your hands together.
3) Touch your heart: Bring your palms and their warmth to touch and appreciate your heart.
4) Wake the belly: Now connect your heart to your belly by rubbing from your heart down to the belly. Wake the belly up by patting it in the front, the sides and the back and then bring your attention into the center of all that sensation.
5) Ground: With your left foot forward, bend your legs slightly so that you feel grounded and centered. Have your hands down by your side and about a foot in front of you. Have your palms open and facing the ground and your fingers spread wide. Keep your body vertical with your head above your heart and your heart above your belly. Move into this position consciously and in your own way, bring a sense of gratitude for the ground that is supporting you, that is under each of us and that brings under-standing and meaning to our lives.
- Here are some grounding questions to ask your self:
- a) What do I deeply care about?
- b) What is the ground I stand on?
- c) What brings meaning to my life?
- d) What can’t I truly ever get enough of?
All of these questions lead to remembering who you are! Take the time you need to appreciate the ground you stand on, what you deeply value and who you are.
An Additional Centering Practice: The Water Practice
Receiver: By this time you may feel a strong sense of self and be ready to move on. At this point, If you need an additional step to resource and stabilize yourself you can move into the Water Practice. The element Water helps to connect with Belonging~All your Relations. Take your left foot and move it back so that it is behind your right foot „Water Position“):
- Use your imagination to remember, appreciate and find gratitude for those all around you, both past and present- all your relations.
- Bring your hands slightly behind you and open your palms to face all that is at your back. Take a moment to appreciate the teachers in your life, the great teachers of our world (past and present), older relatives and ancestors that were healthy and whole (be mindful about who you invite) and the nature around you and the wisdom contained in your genetic history since the beginning of time.
- Reach out to your sides and take a moment to appreciate all who walk beside you. Friends, brothers, sisters, partners and associates.
- Turn your palms towards the front to appreciate the younger ones in your life who remind us to play and who we hold with such care and love.
- Gather All your Relations with gratitude. Remember you do not have to do it all alone.
Water is about belonging and relationship. As we shift to water, your body moves back and down. As we back down, we can take some rest and solace in the knowing that we are always connected to all the relationships around us. Resourcing all our Relations is a practice of elder wisdom cultures around the world. In our culture, we often forget these powerful resources and imagine that we are alone in this world. Take time to feel what is at your back and around you and choose wisely what you choose to invite.
“True empathy requires listening with the whole being; the hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.” Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu
Power vs. Force – Requests vs. demands
Our true power arises from meaning and meaning is understood through the heart. When we connect meaning to our motivations then our words and actions become powerful and moving. Power is always associated with the needs that support the significance of life itself and appeals to what is ennobling. Empathic listening is empowering. It’s not forced and does not feel forceful.
We can recognize true power because it is associated with compassion and leaves us feeling good about ourselves. Force is connected with judgment and leaves us feeling poorly about ourselves. Force always creates an opposite force; it can cause polarization and lead to win/lose situations. Defensiveness arises from force and in home, work and in global affairs takes a toll.
This section of the Spiral Blend brings us to a moment where the most powerful touch gently moves all who it contacts. It is a centered moment when we truly know where we stand so that we can fully listen without agenda or taking things personally that another is saying or doing.
Continuing from where the Receiver is centered and grounded and after having moved just off to the side of the Challenger who continues to point a finger and speak towards the Receivers original position.
- 1) Receiver: Step to just behind the shoulder of the Challenger as he continues pointing in the original direction and speaking the triggering statements. Open your attention and bring the palm of your hand directly behind the Challenger’s heart…. but don’t touch yet. In Aikido, this position is called Shikaku, which means “optimum entering angle”. It is a safe position for someone to move into when attacked. This is the most effective angle of entry to give just the amount of effort needed to evoke the least amount of The intention is connection.
2) Receiver: Look over the Challenger’s shoulder to more easily imagine experiencing what the challenger is seeing and feeling, what it might be like to be in his/her shoes. In this position the Challenger can barely see you. In this moment, it is not about you. With heart behind heart, it is the twilight of connection. Listen with your whole being.
If you are feeling triggered again and caught up in the drama of the words of the Challenger, go back to wind and ground positions and re-center.
3) Receiver: Follow the line from tip of the Challenger’s pointed finger back to his/her heart to the source of his/her motivation and the ground below the words. With all your senses and imagination engaged, holding your partner with care and curiosity. As you listen in this way, silently ask yourself the following questions:
(a) “In this moment, what would this person love more?”
(b) “What is the deepest need behind these words?”
(c) “What is the ground this person is standing on?
Remember: Asking ourselves to imagine is a question to the body. Imagination helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge. Here are two images to help muster the quality of presence for this moment of the practice.
(a) Imagine that you have traveled a great while to be in the presence of a very wise elder and that you have the opportunity to ask just one question of this divine individual. Imagine how you might take our time to think, feel, check intuitively and then ask your question with humility, respect and gratitude.
(b) Imagine you are in the presence of a fine musician who has invited you to play together. As you stand there with your own instrument, the musician begins to play an elegant piece of music, one you have never heard before. As you listen to the music, you presence yourself and wait until it feels just right and only then begin your accompaniment.
- 4) Receiver: Listen patiently without agenda just to be moved, to understand. Wait for inspiration. When you feel a resonance, an “aha” within yourself, this is a time to make an empathic guess. In time, you will find your own genuine way of guessing feelings and needs. For now, here are a couple examples:
- I am guessing you’re feeling frustrated and would love some appreciation or maybe just to be heard?
- Are you feeling angry because you want your privacy to be more honored?
5) Receiver: As you make the guess, you will know by the reaction it invokes how near or far you are from connection. If the guess is in the right direction, you will notice a visceral “shift”, an easing of tension as it touches the Challenger and he/she begins to feel heard. When you feel the shift, savor this precious moment. Don’t rush to fill the space with words. Just appreciate this quality of connection.
The shift is a moment when we have moved into our heart and touched another, when the conflict becomes no longer a conflict but a place to explore collaboratively.
The beauty of this moment in the practice is a savoring of empathic connection. Slow down, deeply feel it and remember again and again how it feels. Reference this feeling when you get lost in relationship and need to find your bearings. This is the creative moment in the Nonviolent Communication process that all is in service of and is often rushed or missed. It is a moment when the deeper needs that we all share become revealed. It is a startlingly powerful and healing experience that in our day-to-day lives we can ignore while yearning for it at the same time.
Remember: We are here to understand how we touch one another. No matter if it is a physical or an empathic touch, because of the danger of communicating one thing with words and another with touch we must be impeccable with how and when we touch one another. We must use our empathic listening skills to know when our touch is appropriate or not.
- Receiver: Once you feel the shift and a sense of connection, gently, with the lightest of touch, place your palm on your partner’s back. If the other person feels hesitancy, manipulation, or agenda in your touch or words, then a sense of mistrust will grow. This initial touch is of the utmost importance. As soon as you touch someone they organize themselves around that touch. A compassionate touch transmits compassion and leaves nothing to resist. In the midst of a fight, to be touched in this way brings a powerful relief and sense of connection.
- Empathy and Honesty
Another Aikido principle is called Zanshin. It refers to a state of awareness – of relaxed alertness. The literal translation of zanshin is “remaining mind”. It literally means being absolutely attentive to the next move right after the previous move.
Remember: To move from the last move to this one, it is essential to remember all the care and effort it took to ignite the connection. Just like building a fire from scratch, once that initial, tiny flame bursts forth the job is not done. Just the right amount of breath and kindling is needed. Too much or too little and it goes out. So with your presence and attention to that small flame you have kindled.
1) Receiver: Give lots of space between your words and the Challenger’s responses. Continuing from where Receiver has just put a hand on the Challenger’s back, carefully continue to find the ground that is under the Challengers words. Guess, as needed. Listen and reflect to help the Challenger articulate the source of the pain and what it is that he/she would love. When you begin to feel resonance, like you are getting on the same page, without changing the direction, gently and slowly move the conversation forward. With your hand on their back, gradually begin walking in the direction in which the other person is pointing. This movement is a suggestion, not a push.
- 2) Receiver: As you feel a connection growing, while holding the Challenger’s needs with care, check in on what you would love and value in this moment. As you move forward and come more and more mutual appreciation and understanding, gradually step from behind to the side of the Challenger.
- Receiver: Walking side by side, you can begin to also share your own needs and what it is that you would love more of as well. Be careful to not place a lot of attachments to outcomes.
- Mutual Strategies
There is a moment in Aikido practice that is called Aiki. It is when conflict becomes a harmonious movement towards greater connection and understanding.
- Receiver: Continue to walk forward, keep the focus on the present moment and staying open to possibilities. As you find common ground, strategies will come easily. Continue the conversation with empathy and honesty. As new possibilities emerge be careful to not place to much attachment on outcomes. Slowly point yourselves in a new direction, one that honors a mutual solution. Suggest and invite the Challenger to move together with you.
VII. Internalizing the Practice
Of course it would look pretty silly to do all these movements in the middle of a conflict. Just as NVC is practiced in groups to embody the skills and consciousness you can set up places to practice the Spiral Blend to do the same. Just as I did while jogging with my wife, find creative and ways to blend it into daily interactions. The more practice the better.
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Lowen, A. (1994) Bioenergetics. New York, NY (Penguin)
Palmer, W. (1994) The Intuitive Body: Aikido as a Clairsentient Practice. Berkeley, CA (North Atlantic Books)
Rosenberg, M. (2003) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life“. 2nd ed. Encinitas, CA
Strozzi-Heckler, R. (1993) The Anatomy of Change: A Way to Move Through Life’s Transitions. Berkeley, CA (North Atlantic Books).
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(1997) Holding the Center: Sanctuary in a Time of Confusion. Berkeley, CA (Frog, Ltd.)
“The wound is the place where light enters you” Rumi
A Place of Grace
Self-discovery and the work that it requires can be unsettling. There is a place to come home to within each of us. Each of us is born with an unencumbered place in ourselves, free from expectations, harsh judgments, regrets, humiliation, shame, ambition, distress and fear….a place of original grace and kindness. Theologians call this place the soul, psychologists call it the psyche, Hindus call it Atman, Buddhists call it the Dharma, Native Americans call it Spirit, Jesus calls it Love and Marshal Rosenberg calls this our “Needs”. To know this inward place is to know our selves not by the surface masks of identity we have taken on, not by our occupation or clothing styles but by feeling our relation to this inward place, inhabiting it and Sum.
The practice of becoming is a constant layering over of our beginnings, and then the chipping away of non-essentials. A path towards mastery on any path requires a life long commitment to do what it takes to peel back these layers and self-limiting beliefs while seeking-out peace and guidance from that un-corruptible inward place of grace at your core. Communion with our deepest knowing is essential. In our depths, we are all beautiful and as we discover this, healing, connection, empowerment and community takes place.
“Up to 93% of communication is non-verbal, including gestures, posture, and tone of voice”. Albert Mehrabian at UCLA
“The body is the shape of our experience and any change in the self changes the worldview.”
Dr. Richard Strozzi-Heckler
The stories we grow up with permeate our perceptions, become set through repetition and practice into our muscles, cells, intentions and all of our communication. What will bring us love, safety and belonging is what motivates us powerfully and sets the habits in our bones that are hard to change. What you communicate through tone, gesture, body shape and movement exceeds the impact of your choice of words. Who you are in how you show up communicates what you have lived through, what you hide away, the ways you have mustered your courage, taken a stand for what you care about, your judgments of self and others, the hits you’ve endured and where you hold your pain. Consciously lived, each story is a potential source of wisdom. Unconsciously lived, the same narratives can limit things considerably. Stories reveal our uniqueness and our commonality and sharing them is connective and healing.
Core Strategies are the main strategies that you’ve used to bring you to this moment. They are the primary patterns of behavior you have historically developed and put in place to meet your core needs for safety and belonging. Some of these strategies practiced regularly and unconsciously, may serve you well while others may not. Core Strategies form at any time in your life, but most profoundly during preverbal development when your brain and body are in rapid change.
You can’t lose your history! Although our early life is to imbedded to get rid of, old reactions can become the compost to grow new resources. This process begins by noticing and appreciating when, how, why and where these historical, unconscious strategies show up.
Through out our lives, as we begin to know who we are, we find out how those parts of our selves that we suppress or ignore eventually come back to bite us and taint how we express ourselves. The interior work here is to nurture the relationship with your unconscious self, to endeavor to understand its purpose and processes enough to have it become your own best friend. Establishing a friendship helps bring unconscious habits under conscious control and as a way of life widens horizons.
Your unconscious self establishes strategies to serve your most essential needs. Our unconscious, at the request of the conscious, if asked, not demanded will alter its habits. The important thing to remember here is that the unconscious self won’t do so in any manner that undermines the primary needs that those habits were set in place to serve.
An Indian Fakir can slow his heart to nearly undetectable levels but he cannot force his heart to stop permanently. The only reason his unconscious self will agree to alter autonomic functions at all is because the fakir honors the intelligence and tasks of the unconscious.
Safety and Belonging
As an organism we’re always moving towards contact, to be safe, nurtured and loved.
In the moment of meeting, boundaries touch boundaries, reactions trigger reactions and below the words we use and the stories we
tell, there is a play of very real non-verbal forces, habits and responses.
In our early years, we live in the question, “What will keep me safe and bring me love?” and then create strategies for securing it. All too often the answer to that question sounds something like, “ If I do what they want me to do, I will be loved” or “If I keep my opinions to my self, I will be safe”. My mother in-law once said that a child’s world is like being in a room where the doorknob is on the outside. Invariably, we all create strategies growing up that organize around a unique set of circumstances. The meaning and interpretations we connect with our core strategies fortify them. We are biologically wired for “yes” as well as “no”. When we experience beauty, a gorgeous sunset, a plate of yummy food for example, a core strategy that we may develop around these experiences is relaxation, appreciation and a feeling of expansion. We may have learned to open our hearts in certain ways when someone says “I love you”, where as some one raised under different circumstances might have learned to feel fear, mistrust and emotional pain, contractive states of being when they hear the same words. We become expansive when we live in the feeling of what we love and care about. We become contracted when we are in pain or fearful. Over time expansive and contractive core strategies become unconscious, embodied, deeply embedded in our nervous systems and integral parts of our unique personalities.
What’s your main social response, the one that you employ when surprised in challenging social situations?
Do you move towards conflict, away, give up, acquiesce try to make?
Imagine that someone is walking towards you on the street, an unknown presence, someone who may or may not pose a threat. Muster your imagination as best as you can to evoke an emotional reaction as this person steps closer and closer. As the stranger approaches the edge of your personal space, try to notice any tenseness that you may feel in your body in response to this potential threat. When this unknown presence gets too close for comfort, where do you notice yourself tensing the most? Point to it. See if you can find the epicenter of the tightness and sensations you feel in this triggering moment. This is a core contraction. If you are not noticing anything, try again and if need be, increase the intensity of the imagined scene you are creating to be slightly more menacing.
Do you want to fight or flee?
Do you want to connect?
Do you want to sever connections and create boundaries?
Do you freeze or go limp?
These primary emotional responses to triggering situations are the learned strategies we develop to protect core aspects of our being.
Core Contractions form in response to defining moments, trauma or recurring theme`s that have impacted our lives such as: the loss of a parent, a divorce, being left alone for extended periods, the surprising addition of a new sibling, an abusive relationship, even the backfiring of a car at the wrong time to an unsuspecting child. If the experience is not fully processed at the time it begins to congeal in the body and over time becomes a primary contractive reaction.
A rush of energy happens in response to any challenge, large or small, from being held a gunpoint to the ringing of the telephone. When we become startled our system is flooded with a stream of energy in an effort to restore familiar ground. Our own resistances to the increase of energy we experience can knock our system out of alignment. This rush of energy can represent the force of change that we feel as conflict, both internal and external.
During these intense upsets, we “check out” of the situation as it is, ignoring the energy that is streaming through us and adopt a familiar, conditioned way of behaving.
When these historical “fight/flight” strategies kick in our muscles stay in a particular way, we assume a specific posture, use familiar speech and gestural patterns, breathe a certain way and take a stance, literally, that manifests the tendency. In this state, giving empathy is very difficult.
Core contractions forms as a way to self regulate the amount of energy we can take in or not. Just as the iris of the eye opens and closes to regulate how much light is needed, depending on our nature and nurturing, our bodies expand and contract to regulate the intensity of energy from emotional experiences that we can handle. We expand to let in the beauty of a puppy’s cuddle and we tighten and contract against an insult spoken to us by a loved one.
When we fall back on our core contractive responses we utilize more of our implicit (preverbal) memory responses. We also lose some of our higher reasoning power as we shift to our sympathetic nervous system and our reptilian brain kicks in. This natural rush of energy and fight flight response makes sense if you imagine how our early ancestors lived in the wild. When predators showed they needed to gather themselves to meet the threat quickly and powerfully… tensing their legs to go into a crouch, quieting their breath to listen, focusing their eyes. After an intense encounter, they might walk for miles back to their tribe, trembling and crying to process the trauma’s residual energies and allow their systems to recalibrate.
In our modern culture, all too often, this gathering of energies and processing of residual tension gets detoured, tamped down and blocked as we conform to acceptable cultural norms. We struggle for survival to pay the bills; there are wars and daily violence on the news. We are told to sit quiet, be a good girl, boys don’t cry and to do what we are told, even when it goes against our own heart’s advice or our gut instinct. In this kind of way the energy that gathers to meet a threat, that once naturally got processed, is instead stopped up and left unreleased. Some of us are taught that it is not ok to cry or grieve. Un-released energy shows in our bodies as chronic low-grade tightness in our shoulders, headaches, back problems, shallow breathing and narrow focus. Most of us live with some form of low-grade unprocessed trauma all the time.
These embodied and core contractive strategies show up internally as emotions, sensation and stories. Lived unconsciously they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Outwardly they are visible in the ways that we comport ourselves, in gestures, tone, the tensing and relaxing of muscles and of course our words. Because of this, these embodied automatic habits can compel our actions, beyond what we might truly intend or want. For example some people will habitually demure or acquiesce, while others quickly are moved to anger, some are compelled to help while others tune out.
Contraction is a way to dull physical and emotional pain. When someone hits you in your arm, your muscles contract in pain around where you were hit as you hold and rub the sore spot to soften the pain. In the same way when we take an emotional hit, we contract around the pain to protect ourselves from further attacks and to dampen the pain. We might hunch our shoulders and tighten the muscles around our hearts to protect it from further “attacks”, or tighten our bellies to hide and protect our “gut” intuitions that are belittled, we contract around our throat region if we learn that when we express ourselves our loved disapprove. When we contract around emotional pain it softens the sensations of pain that we feel. It also keeps us from fully engaging those resources we are protecting. We hide away our most precious assets, distancing our selves from our bodies’ messages. These messages when chronically ignored become a source of dis-ease. When listened to, those messages can lead us toward greater self-acceptance, awareness, our power and unique gifts.
Recent discoveries in neuro-science support somatic incites of how relational and behavioral learning is a whole body biological experience Working somatically offers us the opportunity to physically and energetically experience our habitual strategies and shift them to more inclusive and collaborative ways to respond to conflict and resistance.
By becoming familiar and learning to listen and appreciate our body’s signals rather than to react to them, an “inner guidance system” becomes available that tells us of dangers and brings direction and clarity to the choices at hand.
By noticing where your muscles tighten, how your breathing changes, where your contractions are, you can slowly touch in on the precious resources protected by those contractions in the first place and with care, attention and practice transform old reactions into new resources for connection.
Reaction to Resource
Recent studies of the brains’ neuroplasticity show that contrary to accepted beliefs; old dogs can learn new tricks. Our adult brain is much more changeable than once thought. Core strategies are changeable. It helps to recognize that within our biological evolution we are hard-wire to maintain a status quo. Within the breakdown and breakthroughs that are a part of transitioning to new habits are two reactions: one is a kind of panic in letting go of control because of our identification with old accustomed strategies, the other is a sense of aliveness and possibility as we begin to re-organize, frame things differently and find meaning in what we are becoming. This is where centering practices come in.
When centered we feel our emotions. When un-centered, we tend to mechanically, hide our feelings and emotions behind practiced patterns of comporting and expressing ourselves. Centering establishes awareness around your emotions which allows them to be felt so you can notice where you feel it, where you hold your hurt and what it is trying to say to you. Over time, through centering and re-centering in various situations it’s possible to lengthen the time between the stimulus and automatic response by a fraction of a second. This crucial moment provides enough space (with practice) to consciously shift your strategies to more effective and inclusive ways to respond to pressure and conflict.
Attending to what you’re feeling immediately brings you present, because sensations only occur in the present moment. Like uncramping a water hose allows more water to flow, when centered, your body relaxes so more energy can flow through. The more energy that flows the more able you are to feel excitement and joy. Opening to, rather than squeezing off some part of your lived experience results in a stronger presence that is felt by others. Learning through the body is to return again and again to the energy that presently wants to be lived: listening and hearing the subtle urge for a new profession, to release a long held resentment or perhaps an unacknowledged desire to bring more gratitude and friendship into your life.
By paying attention to the narratives you’ve embodied, it is possible to side step the stories we spin around and around in our heads. The repetitive reactions make visible what is embedded in our nervous systems and by tracing your habitual patterns back to their source it becomes possible to assess their efficacy and shift the strategies. Emotions are messengers that inform our choices. Whether a threat is real or imagined, the emotional pain that we feel as our bodies tense and contract tells us we have something to attend to.
As valuable as it is to reconcile our inner splits there are times when we compartmentalize the pain of deep trauma as a protection mechanism because the awareness of it would be too much for our systems to handle. These are the splits that are so incompatible with our lives that we can only store them away deep in our unconscious.
For most of us though becoming reacquainted with and listening empathically to those hurt places within us is like being reunited with someone you have loved and missed for a long time. With it is a sweet melancholy, a feeling of both grieving what you have missed and the joy of reuniting with what you love.
In training after training, what is wonderfully and startlingly confirmed for is that the most precious source of our own power is what these core strategies were originally and intuitively put in place to safeguard. Reintegrating and fully inhabiting your body, in every respect brings more tolerance and understanding with your emotions and the emotional difficulties of others.
The somatic practices in this chapter and the last section of this book shed light on our habitual patterns. When faced, they can become a trail of breadcrumbs to healing something experienced in the past that may be in the way now of being fully present.
Two Sides of Gratitude: Mourning and Celebration
In one of my evening classes on Embodying NVC we explored self-empathy within the Spiral Blend practice. (page …..) I spoke about the healing that comes through mourning and celebration. I explained that we celebrate when there is someone or something present in our lives that we love. It is a sweet feeling. Mourning is when we express the sadness and pain that we feel when we love something or someone that we miss. As we resumed the practice, I noticed that the woman sitting next to me was quietly weeping. I asked her what was going on for her. She replied that she was feeling sad about a dear friend of hers that had died. She explained how reframing grief as gratitude had freed her from notion that she should be suppressing her emotions. She said that until now she did not know what to do with her pain. Realizing that her tears were just a deep gratitude for the beautiful friendship that she was now missing, she said, “my tears are no longer something I need to hide away, instead they are here to fully honor and appreciate my friend who is no longer with me.”
I asked her how she was feeling now. She wept for a moment more and then with a gentle smile said, “I feel good. This feels right.” She also said that she felt a little embarrassed to be crying in front of the others in the room. So with care, I asked if she would be ok with looking around the circle of participants for a moment. She noticed 16 sets of caring eyes. I asked the group this question,” If you feel more connected with Diane. and experience her tears as a gift in this moment then please raise your hands?” Everyone raised their hands. And then I asked, “Who feels themselves move away as Diane expresses her emotion?” No hands were raised.” This gave Diane a chance to check her internal stories about crying against the visible feed back of the people around her.
When I ask these types of questions in a circle I leave room for participants to express their discomfort as well. When I do encounter people who feel they want to move away from someone who is crying it’s always been because of the stories and the “shoulds” that they tell themselves in regards to crying such as, “she shouldn’t cry because it will make every one uncomfortable”. Following those threads leads to insights and healing as well. I asked D. how that reflection was for her. Thoughtfully, she replied that it was a bit “altering” in a good way.
I know that feeling too. Once an instructor of mine, Mark Mooney at the Strozzi Institute brought to my attention that I seemed to contract and then hide my face when my tears came up during a moment when some emotional pain of my childhood was re-stimulated.
I was born in 1956 and was a child of the ‘60s. When I turned 13, to my father’s consternation, I chose to grow my hair long. This clearly did not fit his view of the world or what he thought was best for me. Dad worked long hours and many nights. He stayed in the city and did not come home. The nights he did come home, after hard days at work and several drinks, more often than not, he would corner me about my long hair. This was the first place I took a stand as a young adult. Our fights escalated about my hair and over time branched out into everything else he thought I should be doing, about what is right and who’s wrong. This kind of “interrogation” went on for years until I left home for college.
I remember the shift inside me when I first learned to stifle my tears, seeking respect and falling into the story that men shouldn’t cry. Before those fights, I cried freely when I felt hurt or sad. For decades after those painful arguments I have stifled my tears.
When I cry I also hunched my shoulders to protect my heart, looked away to avert my my shame, tightened my throat to stay quiet and unseen. These core contractive strategies were accompanied by stores I told myself such as; “I should not cry” and “I am burdening others with my tears” and that “I should just be able to take it like a man”. Many years later I began to appreciate and reconnect with what was under the pain. As I began to reunite with a younger part of myself, it was like meeting with an old friend that I had not seen for a long time. There was the sweetness, the celebration of the meeting and the sadness, the mourning of all the time I had missed this beautiful part of myself. Mark shared that I looked more present to him now. He asked how I was feeling at this moment and although I still had some tears coming, I said that I felt good, a sweet sadness. He observed that my body was still a bit collapsed and that my face looked sad. He suggested that since I now felt good, that I see how it felt to smile and maybe sit up a bit. I noticed that the smile felt right and that when I sat up, it also made some sense.
Being a father motivated me to work triple time to face my early conditioning and model what might be better. My personal goal for raising children has always been to give my children a smaller pile of shit than I received. I’m happy to say that I met that do-able goal. We get caught in stories and it takes effort to change them. Stifling tears and emotions did not something I cared to model for my children. Crying is healthy release, as natural as burping and farting. Crying feels good. Crying opens us to our interior. In my trainings I’ve noticed that when one of the participants tear up, it loosens the tears and emotions all around the room. In fact, in many cultures around the world, there are places where those who can cry readily are hired for weddings, funerals and special occasions as tear looseners because they are seen as being close to spirit and their tears bring everyone closer to spirit.
What I practice now is this: when the tears come, I appreciate them and cry with dignity. Instead of hiding my face in my hands, I often sit up, explore how I feel and look at who I am openly and with dignity. I notice that there are many moments when I cry that I actually feel like smiling through the experience and so at times, I do. What I tell myself now is that “Crying feels good. Crying is as natural a release as burping or farting.” That when I do cry it means I am close to spirit and that it is actually a gift to those around me”.
The Tiger’s Eyelash
Their lived a young woman who was at her wit’s end. Her husband had always been a tender and loving soul mate before he had left for the wars, but ever since he returned home he was cross, angry, and unpredictable. She was almost afraid to live with her own husband. Only in glancing moments did she catch a shadow of the husband she used to know and love.
This went on week after week, and he was so bad-tempered she was really frightened of him and she went to the healer in the village and she said, “My husband is just, he’s just impossible. Can you give him a potion, can you give me something that will make him gentle and loving once more?” And the healer said, ” Well yes I can but you know I, I need an ingredient I am all out of,… one tiger’s eyelash. So I would need you to go climb the mountain and to go find the tiger and bring me back an eyelash, and then I can make the potion for you and everything will be alright.” And the young woman went, “Thank goodness for that, that there is something to be done.” So she went out to the mountain and she had told her family that she was going to do this.
She went out to the mountain and she went out under the trees that had leaves that looked like stars. And she went into the foothills where there were boulders that looked like great big loaves of bread. And she started climbing the mountain, and the mountain had flowers that had thorns that tore at her clothes. And the mountain had rocks that scraped her beautiful pink hands. And the mountain had strange birds that flew out at her in dusk and that scared her and made her heart beat very, very fast. And still she climbed higher and higher, and a snowstorm began. And it began snowing sideways, so that the snow was coming straight into her eyes and her mouth and her ears. But still she climbed higher, and she found a little cave. And she put herself in there, and in coldness and in hunger and exhaustion she fell asleep. And when she awoke in the morning, the snowstorm had stopped. And things were peaceable, and even little green plants were coming out of the ground, out of the snow. Well, she thought, I’m here at last, and I am going to go and have to find this tiger.
Well she didn’t have far to look because as she looked out of her cave there went this majestic, beautiful, black tiger; striding across the mountain leaving great big footprints in the snow. Well, she reached into her bundle because she had brought food and she set it out on a little plate, and she watched where the tiger went into his lair. And then she set the plate right outside the lair and then she ran back to her cave and she hid there. The tiger smelled the food and he came out of his lair, and he looked around, and he ate it right up. Well the next day she did the same thing, she put some food on a plate and she set it right outside of his lair, but this time, instead of going back to her cave, she stayed just about half as far away. And the tiger came out, he smelled the food, gobbled it up. And he went back into his lair. And this went on for many days, until she decided she was brave enough to come even closer, so she put the food on the plate, put the plate outside the lair and she stood practically right beside the plate so when the tiger came out he not only looked at the food, he saw her feet as well. “Please dear tiger, I’ve come all this way because I need a cure for my husband. I have been feeding you all these past days, could I please have one of your eyelashes?” And the tiger looked up at her snarled and looked at her for a while and then slowly walked towards her and said, “Make it quick” And so she reached out, and she took hold of one of those long, glossy hairs, and quick as a wink- pulled it, “ooh!” she said. And tiger said nothing because he was brave. She said, “Oh thank you tiger, so much.” And the tiger just turned around, went back into his lair, paid her no mind.
She rushed down the mountain. She rushed down the mountain so far and so fast that by the time she got to the bottom, she was all bruised and she was all bloody, but she could hardly wait. She stumbled over the boulders that looked like great big loaves of bread and she ran under the trees that had leaves shaped like stars on them, and then she ran all the way into the center of the village and down into the hut where the healer was, and she said, ” Look! Look! Look! I have it! I found it! I got it! The tiger’s eyelash!” And the healer took it from her, and held it up to the light, and twisted it between his two fingers, and said “hmm…” and threw it into the fire where it was consumed. “Why did you do that!” she said, ” Well,.. you…. I went through all that to …” and the healer said “Calm down, it’ll be alright… what you have
done with the tiger all these past days, go home and do with your husband.”
This story is about how to approach our Core Strategies. Spend time near your core strategy, that younger part of yourself and for a while as if it were the tiger, just listen. Like the husband coming back from war, he or she might not want to be near you. Be patient, invite and only listen for a while. If you had a sitting practice you might invite that three-year-old to come be near you. If you like to walk regularly invite that 10-year-old out for a walk. Take that pimply faced 12-year-old out for an ice cream and if he or she does not want to go that’s okay. Just make your intention clear that you would love to listen whenever he or she is ready. You might add that you are a little sad that for all these years you have spent time not listening when the younger one in you was trying to help. In time when those triggering moments do come up you can touch that younger part of yourself and say, “I am listening”. “Tell me what you want me to hear” and then just listen. In time, enough trust will be built-up so that you can come up with a mutual strategy that will effectively address those triggering moments when they come up.
I once had a student who really took this practice far. Mark was a very intelligent, sensitive man who found it very uncomfortable to express himself and feel confident in himself. In our workshop he came in contact with a core contractive strategy he developed at a younger age that was very much hindering him now. In earnest he began to journal each day. The journal was a thick blank book when he started. With his left hand he began writing from the beginning of the book in the voice of what he called big Mark. From the back of the book with his right hand he started writing from the voice of what he called little Mark. Being left-handed Little Marks writing was practically illegible at first. For a full year he kept this journal and by the time big Mark and little Mark met in the middle of the journal, not only had little Mark’s handwriting become beautiful, both Mark’s were now fully integrated and that younger part of himself had now became a powerful resource.
”Where do I end and you begin?”
In the moment of meeting, boundaries touch boundaries, reactions trigger reactions and self-talk intensifies. Training your attention and becoming more familiar with your personal space helps you relax and know where you end and another begins. The more relaxed you are, the more aware you can be and the more you can touch another empathically.
Physically when someone enters your personal space, you map them out within your brain and they become a part of you in your brain. Centering puts you in contact with your perimeter to notice what is yours, what is not, how things land on you and what you send out.
Beneath the words we use and the stories we tell, every encounter is a play of very real non-verbal forces. Listening to another empathically can trigger your own pain, so you have to be able to tolerate emotional pain within your self first
The following centering practices offer a way to build your tolerance for the emotional pain you feel and to take full responsibility for its arising. It’s possible to change your relationship to your experiences by where you place your attention. Studies of neuroplasticity have shown that the neural network pathways of our nervous system change depending on what we pay attention to, and how often we pay attention to it. We can change our reactions by placing our attention on what we need.
The greater the reaction the greater the need underneath it.
Energy follows attention and what you focus on.
Energy will flow towards the needs we articulate because what we articulate directs our needs.
The following attention practices will help you visualize ways to stay connected and come back to being expansive and inclusive when you get knocked off center.
- Core Attention
Core attention brings our attention into our bodies and back to our self. This is the basic building block and foundation for all relationships. These two circles and the dots at their center represent two individuals at the perimeter of their personal spaces, at arms length.
Aikido has taught me the value of staying connected even through adversity. In any interaction, if at all possible, follow connection with the other because the more skillful we become, the better we can utilize whatever connection we have, even if it is very little.
Bumping up against another can knock us off our center. The practice of Core Attention, brings your focus into the center of your body while keeping contact with your partner. With practice you can learn to access their center from where your peripheries touch.
Monitoring the space around you helps discern whether you are physically safe or not. Knowing that you are safe, you can relax, center yourself, breath and be more aware present.
- Empathic Attention
“If your heart is large enough to envelop your adversaries, you can see right through them and avoid their attacks. And once you envelop them, you will be able to guide them along the path indicated to you by heaven and earth.”
Morhei Ueshiba founder of Aikido
Expanding your field, gives you more ground. Being centered and grounded, makes room for others.
This diagram is a visual representation of empathic listening.
Empathic attention is a skill that is inclusive, vulnerable and powerful. Once you have checked in with your core and then you can let your perimeter slowly begin to expand from your core until you include the other. One person centers and expands enough to fully include and allow the other person to just be.
By maintaining a centered presence you can stabilize the
listening field around you, expand it and make it large enough to touch or hold others graciously. Balancing your own field of attention without attachment or resistance allows unimpeded creative movement to any part of the interaction. Empathy and the basis for compassion is not about trying to change others. If we can hold the space above below and around as intensely as the feelings flowing from our hearts, then we can love in a compassionate way. You can ask yourself how high, deep and wide must I be with another and then adjust as need be.
When you center and open your attention to hold others with care, they are drawn into that calmness and stability. In doing so, you can get a clearer read on intentions of others, as well as gauge distances that feel safe or not. In this way, skillful vulnerability fosters connection and greater safety!
- Merged attention
Merged attention comes in those moments when you loose your center and believe that your feelings and needs are the responsibility of another. Merged attention is when you loose your center and cannot clearly delineate between who is who. In this state, we blame others for our problems, morally judge them, and take what others say personally believing that others control what we need and feel. Merged attention is where we have lost our sense of center and lose our clarity about where I end and you begin. There is an unclear sense of “us”.
If you find your intention is to change others, you have lost your center. In this diagram, merged attention is represented as an oval with no true center. In this state, with 2 centers it is hard to discern who is who in the interactions. We are responsible for our own feelings. Where we forget this, blaming and shaming is common. It is easy to be seduced by merged attention. It is easy to be drawn to those outside us in favor of ourselves. Merged attention is when we lose ourselves to the other and when we base ourselves on the other. This can cause a lot of pain and confusion.
A Merged Attention Practice
To play with this attention state, take a partner and engage in a round of:
blame and shame,
power over oppressor/victim scenario
Give some heavy judgment to one another.
On a scale of 1 to 10 make the interaction a 2 or 3 please. Let the argument go
on for a minute or so and than notice how it feels. Do you have a clear sense or your needs. Are you taking full responsibility of your emotions? Do you feel centered?
- Harmonizing Attention
Merging and harmonizing both have a moment of empathy. The difference is that with harmonizing attention your sense of autonomy remains intact.
It is when the other and I happen together in a moment in sync with our collective needs.
When we recognize that our deepest needs are the same, what’s to resist? In this moment, there is no longer attacker and defender.
When there are two of us and you see me as different, it is easy to want to attack. In this diagram of harmonized attention there is no center as a reference point.
It is a powerful state that once we become attached to it, we loose it. Athletes know it as “being in the zone”. A moment of peak performance where self and other, thinking and feeling become one. It is where our training kicks in and it is no longer about trying, it is about letting go, allowing and trusting.