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.
Hanna, T. (1988) Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. Cambridge, MA (HarperCollins Publishers, 1988)
Johnson, H.D. (1995) Bone, Breath, & Gesture: Practices of Embodiment. Berkely, CA (North Atlantic Books)
Keleman, S. (1986) Emotional Anatomy: The Structure of Experience. Berkeley, CA (Center Press)
Kurtz, R. (1990) Body-Centered Psychotherapy: The Hakomi Method: The Integrated Use of Mindfulness, Nonviolence and the Body (Life Rhythm)
Levine, P.A. & Frederick, A. (1997) Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. Berkeley, Ca (North Atlantic Books)
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).
(2003, ed.) Being Human at Work. Berkeley, CA (North Atlantic Books)
(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.
Grow vertical first and then horizontal like plants.
Be in the form to let it remind you to re-center.
Then soften, open and make room for inquiry…then discover
Gratitude connects us. The more you cultivate gratitude, the less you are a victim of resentment, depression and despair. Gratitude will act as an elixir that will gradually dissolve the hard shell of your ego and need to possess and control as it transforms you into a generous being.
Imagination is a question to the body. Imagination is the language of the soul. (Webster’s) Imagination, different from fantasy helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental facility through which people make sense of their lives.
- This is a sitting practice. Have your head above your heart above your belly. Soften your gaze or close your eyes. Let your tongue rest on the back of your throat. Lengthen the back of the neck, imagine the weight that you carry falling off your shoulders for now. Unclench your sphincter muscles and feel your connection to the earth. Set the form then soften into it. Feel your tail bone connect to the earth
Breathe- Take a deep and relaxing breath in and let out an audible “ahhhhh” sound as you breathe out. Again.
Begin a gentle, even rhythm of breathing up you back and down your front and continue this through the practice.
S-Shape your foundation
Put your attention to the area around the base of your tailbone.
Imagine roots spiraling down into the earth and then spreading out, connecting you with the ground, the dirt, the rocks, other roots and organisms, the plants, animals, all living creatures, water, the air, birds, sun, the sky, the stars, all creation.
Take the moment to be grateful in your own way for the earth and nature that supports you.
U- Unify your Relations
Breath up your back and down your front.
Put your attention in your belly. Just a couple inches below your navel is the hara, the center of spiritual confidence.
- Place your attention to the space that is behind your belly, at your back. Feel into what supports you from behind and all that came before you. You can be selective. Invite the ancestors and older relative who were healthy and whole. (Leave the crazy ones out), the teachers in your life, the great teachers on this planet past and present. All the wisdom contained in your genetic cellular history back to the beginning of life. All this is behind you. Feel the support at your back. Remember you are not alone and that there is always much to support you no matter what you may think. You can imagine many hands holding and supporting you from behind.
Let a sense of gratitude wash over you for all that supports you from behind.
- Now place your attention to your sides and imagine all those who walk beside you in your life. Your friends, brothers and sisters, partners and associates. Again be as selective as you like.
Take the moment to be grateful for them.
- Now place your attention in front of you and imagine all the young ones who remind us to play, who will take us into the future and go beyond us, who make it all worth while.
Take the moment and in your own way be grateful for the young ones.
*At your own time and speed in your daily practice you can place your attention to those people on any side of you who were less easy for you to be with. Take time to look under their words and strategies to our common humanity. Appreciate how these difficult people are your best training partners. Your relationship to them brings your attention inside to places that you would never find without them. Reframe these people as your Lucifers, your light bringers. These people shine a light in places inside you that you would never find without them. In time, with practice you can build your capacity for loving those who challenge you in your life. *(See All Our Relations Practice for more on this).
R- Re-source Your Self
- Put your attention to the center of your solar plexus, that is around the hollow of your chest below the heart region and above the belly.
Take a moment to appreciate and give gratitude for all you are and all that you bring to the world. If this feels lovely, stay with it and sit with that. If you notice that somewhere inside yourself sensations of uneasiness, sadness, pain, contraction, emptiness or the like, bring your attention to where it is in your body. Ask yourself this question and listen closely to the first intuitive answer that comes below and before your thinking.
- How old was I here when I learned this? If you do not get an answer try again until you do. Any answer is useful. Answers could be at birth, 2, 4, 6, 10,32, and 50, before birth… What ever it is take note.
- It is an infant or newborn, imagine, holding yourself, looking into each other’s eyes. Take the moment to be grateful for the beautiful child within you.
- As a young child. Let him/her nudge his/her way into your lap. Invite this child with love and gratitude. Take some time with the ages that stand out. Imagine holding, listening, walking with, or tending to these different ages of yourself in ways that you would have loved. Be patient with these younger ones. They may feel hurt and unseen. Take courage, a gentle curiosity, some caring and creativity. Consider the best way of being to care for another person at those various ages.
Take the moment to be grateful for each of those ages of yourself.
Take the moment to be grateful for your present self.
If this is a regular practice, it might be most useful to spend time with only one or two of these ages of yourself a day. (For more on this go to Core Strategies practice)
F- Field of the Heart
Breath up your back and down your front. Connecting and breathing from the earth you sit on, all your relations, yourself and now your heart.
- Bring your attention to your heart region. This heart pulsating, radiating in all directions, offering and receiving. Connecting to all other hearts, to all life, giving meaning through all you feel.
In this moment, in your own way, have gratitude for all the love you are and that you are connected with.
I- Initiate- Self Expression
Breath up your back and down your front.
Breath up through the earth you sit on, all your relations, yourself, the heart and now your throat area.
Move up to your throat region.
- When you are rooted in the nature that supports you, all your relations, yourself and your heart you can know what is true for you. Rest in this knowing and express your self with confidence.
Take the moment to be grateful for your ability to speak your truth.
N- Navigate-Blend and Lead
Breath up your back and down your front.
Breath up through the earth you sit on, all your relations, yourself, the heart, and your voice and now up to your forehead, just between and above your eyes.
- When you are connected with all these resources and relations that are always available- trust that you know what is true for you.
Take the moment to be grateful that you can know your truth
G- Generate – Creating your Future
Breath up your back and down your front.
Breath up through the earth you sit on, all your relations, yourself, the heart, and your voice and now up to your forehead, your forehead and now the crown of your head.
As you breath, imagine extending your vertical line down to the center of the earth and then back up through the centers of your body, through the crown of your head to the sky.
Take this moment to be grateful for the present moment.
Now is a good time to begin a sitting practice and /or move into your day with a sense of gratitude.
*In this practice, as we move to each center in our bodies, with gentle curiosity and caring notice any places of discomfort, emotionally and physically. Let your feelings be. It takes courage of heart to just be with your self. By learning to tolerate your own feelings with love and patience, you increase your capacity for graciousness and dignity with others.
“We are a part of everything that is beneath us, above us and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.” Haudenosaunee teaching
“Imagination … is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein
In Nonviolent Communication there is an emphasis on developing a vocabulary to express needs. Needs in this persuasion are universal. They are words that express the Life that moves through us all. You know you are speaking about a need if it is something that we all need. Sometimes we’ll call it joy or play, sometimes we’ll call it understanding, autonomy, mutuality, empathy, peace, connection, and so on.
Our words alone are a clumsy way of expressing something so divine and requires some imaginative cognitive acrobatics to make it work sometimes. In this practice, as we connect to what supports us from behind, we can utilize all of our senses to practice being the qualities of a need we would love to have a little more of in our lives.
Our body shapes our experiences and is the shape of our experience. We can bring to awareness what our body is saying and let it connect us to the resources that are available to us.
Gratitude for those we appreciate, past or present, as a practice helps us to become more familiar with the virtues that that we most admire. When we appreciate and are grateful for certain qualities of others we engage our feelings, imagination and emotional intelligence. The more we do this, the more we can become familiar with and incorporate those qualities within ourselves. Over the years, working in many cultures around the world, I have asked people to bring their attention to what is at their back. For some, it is unfamiliar, often startling and very difficult to do. Why? Because they have practiced something else for so long. It is not unusual for someone to tear up or cry as they reunite with a part of themselves that they have generally practiced ignoring. This sadness that comes up has a sweetness to it, like seeing an old friend that you have missed for so long. The sweet sorrow is grief. Grief is gratitudefor something you love that you have missed. It is still gratitude. It is this gratitude and appreciation that deepens our connection to what supports us from behind.
This is a centering practice. Any of those we bring through us can become a different facet of center that we can learn to access more quickly.
With time and practice, you will be able to call up the qualities and virtues you would love more of, at any given moment. The more you practice doing that, the more readily you will be able to.
The story that “you’ve got to do it all on your own” permeates our culture and in turn has shaped our lives. We live in a society where the individual is often glorified at the expense of the collective. Consequently many of us exhaust ourselves by thinking we are alone and not getting the help we need because it does not occur to us to ask for it. We lose sight of people and resources that are readily available. Our backs ache as we hold this weight alone forgetting that we are a part of a collective, with more resources then we can imagine.
Our imagination helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental faculty through which we encounter everything. The ability to imagine one’s self in another’s place is a cherished ideal around the world. Imagination is also a question to the body that connects us to our innate resources.
Everywhere in our language you can see the imagery and qualities that our backs represents in phrases such as: He’s got no backbone, Talking behind your back, I’ve got your back, “Back down”, Don’t get your back up, He’s got no one to back him”.
This practice brings new life to what was commonplace in the older wisdom traditions around the world, to remember our ancestors and bringing their support and wisdom through us. Mitakuye Oyasin is a phrase from the Lakota that reflects the their world view of interconnectedness. The phrase translates as “all my relatives,” “we are all related,” or “all my relations.” It is a prayer of oneness and harmony with all forms of life: ancestors, other people, animals, birds, insects, trees and plants, and even rocks, rivers, mountains and valleys.
When I sit in a sweat lodge with my Native American friends, we call in all our relations.
During a Passover Seder from my Jewish heritage’s tribal roots, I eat the foods of my ancestors to viscerally remember their passage from slavery to freedom, their struggles and virtues. Indigenous cultures listen to the wisdom of their ancestors at their backs. Presently in western culture, our focus—realistically and metaphorically– is generally on what we are doing, where we are going and what needs to get done. In other words, what is in front of us. Rarely do we consciously bring our attention to what is at our back, to our histories and to what can supports us from behind.
Here is a simple practice for resourcing the wisdom and support of those who came before us and who are at our backs. At its core, this is a practice of gratitude and re-membering.
Exercise 1: Our Helper
a. Choose one person in your life that has come before you, that embodied a quality or virtue that you would love to have a little more of in your own life. This could be one person that has supported you in some way; a relative, an ancestor, a teacher, a great teacher in the world (past or present) or simply someone who has positively effected you in a way that you love. Just pick one.
b. Remember one of the qualities they have (had) that moved you. Remember how it feels to be in the presence of their beautiful virtue. (Ex: The expressiveness of Martin Luther King, the humility of Nelson Mandela, the devotion of Mother Teresa, the tenderness of your next door neighbor, the dignity of your father……)
Exercise -2 A Writing Practice
Write a colorful creative description about the person you chose. Vividly describe this person so you can literally feel what you truly loved about them. Explore what they exemplified and how their presence touched you. Write as much or little as you want. Most important, let your writing move you, so that at any point you can remember what you wrote in order to draw up that feeling, that whole-body sensation of the qualitie(s) you love about the person. Embue your writing with the gratitude and regard you feel.
A personal example
Sometimes when I get too busy or agitated I get upset and struggle with being as kind as I would like to be. I often bring to mind a dear old friend who has since passed, John Hazlett, to somatically remember the quality is kindness
As a young man, I left college to apprentice as a goldsmith in a very fine 4-generation jewelry making business in Detroit. I supplemented my apprentice wages with evening jobs, lived in a poorer section of Detroit. Outside of working day and evening, I had very little social life. I was 22 and John was 63 when I met him.. He had a way about him that was gentle and humorous. He seemed to live to make me smile and I felt loved and welcomed in his world. John and I worked together, literally back-to-back, for hours on end for 3 years. He was a kind soul, during a period when I was struggling and felt very alone. There were two elderly goldsmiths at the shop. The other goldsmith, Ted, truly was one of the best goldsmiths in the country, but to learn from him was difficult, as he guarded his trade secrets. John on the other hand, called me over when ever he was working on something interesting. To this day I can feel the grandfatherly love as I rested my chin on his shoulder watching his masterful hands create beauty. He generously taught me about anything I wanted to learn. No secrets. I cannot recall an angry word ever coming out of his mouth. And whenever I was frustrated or feeling hurt, he would listen. When I was upset, he could always make me laugh. I miss him dearly and am ever grateful for his presence in my life.
Exercise-3 Qualities of Center
Stand in your vertical line with your head, above heart, above belly.
- With open eyes, soften your gaze.
- Let the back of your tongue soften and relax.
- Allow the weight you might feel that you are carrying on your shoulders to just fall off. (If you are worried about it, know you can put it back later.)
- Unclench your sphincter muscles and feel the bottom of your feet open to the earth you are standing on.
- Take a deep, unifying and relaxing breath, with an audible Ahhhhhh sound on the outbreath.
- As much attention as you have in front of you, place that much attention behind you. You can also imagine yourself in the center of a large bubble. Sometimes it is difficult or unfamiliar to bring your attention behind you. If so, you can ask a friend to put their hands on your back and let your attention surround them.
- With your hands by your sides, and about 12 inches from your torso, turn your palms to the space behind you. Like radar dishes that pick up the signals of what is behind you, imagine feeling into the space behind you. You can also try to imagine a large soft cushion that is supporting your whole backside. Imagine that it is holding you.
- In that “field” behind you, place the person you have written about and recall the quality that you admire. You can imagine their hand gently supporting you from behind. With a sense of gratitude feel the support at your back. Keep an impression of how this experience feels so that with practice, you can draw it up quicker and quicker as time goes by. Another image to play with is of being a sail and letting the wind fill you. Take a moment to be grateful for this support.
Part 4: Re-sourcing Yourself
At first it can help to explore this as a partner practice. Once understood this can become a practice to be used anytime and anywhere with anyone. It is also a practice for working with your own internal conflicts
1) Imagine a triggering moment that you have had with someone in your life. Coach the other to say a triggering statement to re-create the scenario.
2) For starters, let the triggering moment be no more than a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. Don’t make it too overloading, otherwise it becomes a little difficult to assimilate.
3) As the person in front of you speaks allow yourself to get triggered and verbally respond without censoring yourself. Take notice of what you say and how you say it.
4) Begin again, but before you respond, feel into the resource you have written about, who is now at your back. Allow yourself to feel that whole somatic impression of the quality you would love a bit more of in your life.
5) Imagine the person at your back and remember the quality of theirs that you hold so dear and then slowly let that quality come through you
6) As the currents of the quality moves through you, continue to keep it flowing by remembering to keep the connection at your back. Let the urge to speak originate from your back and be the source of your words. Become it. * Now within that same mildly triggering moment, say what comes naturally to you and notice how you feel and what is different.
*Remember:You are mostly space. You are porous. Those resources behind you can come through you. Maybe you don’t know what to say, you don’t have the heart to – there is someone behind you that does! Maybe it is your Aunt Judith; maybe it is Gandhi. Maybe you don’t have the intelligence to deal with a certain person. What you need is at your back. There are many resources at your back that can come through you. You are not alone if you choose to connect to your support.
These days I have a somatic impression of what that kindness feels like, thanks to my relationship with John. John died many years ago now. I recall his image, his words, his mannerisms, his way of making me laugh and his virtues. When I have a need for kindness or belonging, as a practice, I can recall a whole body somatic impression of the qualities that he embodied. As I do this, a smile comes to my face, my breathing becomes more rhythmic, and my chest and shoulders relax. Moving from this “shape” and intention of kindness draws more of it into my life. Like attracts like. This is a part of becoming what you need.
Instead of trying to think of what kindness feels like, I can pull from what is at my back, to call up exactly what I need.
Always accessible, always there.
The term, “dojo” literally means a “place to wake up” or a “place of the way”. Dojos are traditional Japanese training halls where mastery of a chosen path is pursued. A “do” is a way or a path. There are dojos in Japan for learning many disciplines from flower arranging to Zen meditation, calligraphy to the martial arts. Dojos are a place to not only practice and master an art they are a place to broaden moral, ethical and spiritual horizons. Traditionally the martial arts dojo was a place where the Samurai of ancient Japan developed their “budo”, the warrior’s way. Here they would ground their practice in meaning by codes of ethics, the protection of their community and connection with Nature. They honed their spirit through the arts of conflict.
Wherever there are relationships there are conflicts. Conflicts show up in the process of change as our resistance to change. Facing and eventually embracing our resistance directly puts us fact to fact with what we need. Reacting to or ignoring conflict distract us from what life is trying to show us. The dojo is a traditional place to train in self-mastery. It is were we learn to face our own resistances with dignity, integrity, honesty and empathy.
My first dojo was a judo school in NJ. My parents enrolled me when I was in junior high school right after they caught wind that I had been in an afterschool fight. Mr. Shimimoto was a well-regarded judo instructor. He welcomed me into his dojo with a warm smile. He emanated a dignity and integrity that invited respect and my attention without any affect or forcefulness. In the 4 years I trained with him, I never saw him raise his voice or reprimand someone in a demeaning way, and yet his presence was commanding. His dojo was well lit, clean and unadorned. Fresh flowers were always at the front of the dojo and trophies lined the shelves in the outer greeting room. The respectful etiquette and attitude required were clearly visible in the dojo. Each night we’d all train vigorously throwing, flipping, tripping, pinning one another and then bowing to appreciate and honor our partners each time. After every session I would come home drenched in sweat and happily collapse into a hot tub. The more I trained, the less interesting the after school fights became. The intentions of honor and respect that Mr. Shimimoto brought to his dojo were qualities that became imbued in my own practice.
The first dojo I opened was at a rec center with some old wrestling matts, florescent lights in a bare room. Add some flowers and a candle in the front of the dojo, with a declared intention of Aikido training and we were good to go. Dojos come in all shapes and sizes. When I met my Aikido sensei, Reverend Lawrence Koichi Barrish his dojo was a modified garage at his home. Thirty years later his dojo out mountains by the rushing river is the main Shinto shrine in the US. As a senior Shinto Priest, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America which he built, is the dojo of all dojos. Enshrined within is the spirit of Morihei Ueshiba No Mikoto (the Kami), the founder of Aikido. Whether it is a garage or a magnificent shrine with live deities, training takes on the intention that the dojo is imbued with.
Drawing from that tradition, wherever I teach my trainings, I declare our training place a dojo. Speaking is an action. Declaring something is a creative act and a first step towards creating possibilities that you are choosing to participate in. Declaring and creating an intentional space to train in provides the environment for doing it well. In the ritual of my marriage there was a moment within the ceremonious setting when Judith and I declared ourselves husband and wife. Everything changed from that moment on. A declaration articulates a vision that when grounded in passion, understanding and commitment invites possibilities, collaboration and others to a cause. Declarations create new and unchartered narratives to live in. Along with these new waters come new practices and attitudes. Change can be difficult, especially inner change. Creating an intentional space for this to unfold safely and with care helps to stay the course. A dojo is where ever you declare it to be.
The intention of the dojos I declare is learn how to “conflict well” and from that well to drink deeply. Practicing to conflict well means to practice staying centered and present in moments of conflict in order to feel its messages and give what is needed: not too much not to little. Creating a safe and respectful container for the practices to unfold with a mutual intention and commitment facilitates deep learning.
We do best when we reach out and teach ourselves. When this happens with other people, learning is accelerated.
A dojo is where ever you declare it to be
My wife Judith is a woman of many talents. One of her most exceptional gifts is through what she calls, Connective Food Practices. A big name for something quite simple and profound. Every detail of the food that Judith prepares for others (lucky me) is created within her kitchen. Food is her’ “do” and her kitchen dojo is shaped and ordered to manifest the most powerful budo, Love. She will make sure the vegetables are organic, most often picked for freshness out of our gardens. Meat, eggs and dairy are local and raised with care. She will make sure to cut the cucumbers at the right angle for beauty and flavor. She’ll chiffonade the kale making sure it is just thin enough to have the best texture and shape. She might walk outside to pinch off a bay leaf or two to bring out the flavor in the sauce. She will make sure the colors of the food and table are aesthetically enjoyable. Every aspect of the meal is imbued with and transmits the love care, time and energy put into its preparation. When it is our turn to cook in the rotation of dinners in our community, nobody misses a meal from our home. Some things are unexplainable, but over time when they happen enough, we just accept them as true. What I accept is that when something like a meal prepared by Judith is served and eaten, magic follows. Conversations are enlivened, the atmosphere takes on a welcoming texture, and ideas begin to fly and the next thing you know we are all planning to build a sauna together, planning a group retreat, envisioning future possibilities. Magic. Houdini said “Magic is Practice.
Practices imbued with intention, manifest what that intention is and in time bring us to places we might never have known.
We learn through deliberate, recurring practice that over time enable us to take new actions. A dojo is a place to learn about our selves. We can approach the dojo as a metaphor for our bodies. How we are with others tells us a great deal about how we are with our selves. How we treat others show us a lot about how we treat ourselves. There’s an old Jewish saying,” you get honor by giving it”. Honorable ways begins with ourselves. Our bodies are a temple. Our body is a dojo. When we train with others it’s important to keep this in mind. In all my classes and training one of the first things I do is to declare a dojo.
A dojo is wherever you declare it to be. In your own trainings whether you are alone or with others, intentionally create the space most conducive with what you want to learn. Orient the space. Where is the front? Bring flowers or objects that lend meaning. Enter and leave it with gratitude and reverence.
Anyone can declare a dojo. In my dojos I have articulated guidelines for training. The guidelines apply to individual or group practice. I have distilled guidelines for intentions to train with from conversations with others and where I have some mastery; aikido, as a Goldsmith, in Somatic Consensus. Here are the basics that I find that apply to all of them:
- Enter the dojo as a metaphor for our inner world
- Cultivate qualities of the heart: Courage, Care and Gratitude
- Muster your curiosity
- We are always free to begin again
- Leave self-condemnation at the door
- There is always room for improvement and do your best
- Practice staying present to what is alive in you
- Train with the values you wish to embody
- Cultivate a spirit that honors all
- Forgiveness is always available
- Give your judgments only the light of your attention
- You cannot do anything wrong in the dojo, you can always do it better.
- Just do your best.