The Spiral Blend
click here for a video of the practice
The Spiral Blend appeared in its early form one day while I was out jogging with my wife Judith. In the middle of the run our conversation headed south as she began to express her frustrations about our shared household cleaning responsibilities. What she said and especially how she said it was hard for me to not take personally. My anger rose as I felt my chest tighten. It was then I remembered “irimi tenkan”, a central Aikido move where you take a step, turn to move out of the way of an attack and then blend with the direction of the attack to create connection. I decided to try something. Instead of positioning myself right in front of her and her pointed words, I stepped slightly to her side and just off her “line of attack” as if to side step a physically thrown a punch. To my surprise, with just that small shift in my position her words seemed to sail by me. I was able to relax, breath easier and clear my mind enough to separate who I was from what she was saying.
I let her jog a half step more ahead of me so that I could run in a position slightly behind her right shoulder where my heart was physically just behind hers and from this vantage point I could see over her shoulder towards what she was seeing. No longer physically in the line of her frustration, I relaxed, paid attention to my feelings and felt more curious about what was going on for her. I spoke to her from a quieter place in me. To my delight, we both lightened up and things resolved very quickly. This was the dawn of the Spiral Blend. If it can work with your spouse, it can help anywhere.
After several years of practicing Nonviolent Communication, my family participated in an extraordinary forum with Marshal Rosenberg, the founder of NVC, outside the city of Nagpur in Central India. . Nagpur is where I began to develop the Spiral Blend as a means to teach Nonviolent Communication somatically across language barriers, with very few words that brought the body more into the learning. Encoded within the Spiral Blend are all the main principles Nonviolent Communication to practice, explore and enjoy.
Thirty-five hundred Dalit, the untouchables and lowest in the caste system of India, built a temporary makeshift town in order to gather and learn more about Nonviolent Communication. Each day everyone would listen to Marshal through an interpreter as he taught. In the afternoon and evenings, along with 20 other trainers from around the world, we worked with and taught families, clans, children, business partners and individuals the basics of NVC. Intimate contact with such a different culture was a wonderful confirmation of the common ground that we all share.
Somatic processes shine a light on how repetitive responses to life’s situations become lodged in our nervous systems and how independent our habituated responses can be from what is happening in the present moment. Simply put, your body will do what it has repetitively learned to do. When you train your attention to shift from the dramas you perceive to what is happening in your body, your body will become a place to come home to when you lose your bearings.
In real life, this practice takes only seconds and minutes. We’ll explore it slowly at first. I have divided this practice into several parts to be learned sequentially. Like training wheels, once embodied, the suggested sequence can be dropped in favor of using your body’s felt sense to divine which position in the process will benefit you the most at any given moment.
- Stimulus and Cause
- Core Strategies
- Finding Common Ground
- The Dance of Empathy and Honesty
- Mutual Strategies
- Internalizing the Practice
The Set Up and Role-Play
There are 2 people in this role-play, the Receiver and the Challenger. In the initial set up, the Receiver tells the Challenger who he or she is and what to say. Set it up so that the Challenger’s role is only mildly triggering. Although it us only a role-play, working with the body can bring up old traumas very quickly, so move slow and with care. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the most triggering, set up the confrontation to be a 2 or 3. It is interesting and important to note that the body does not differentiate between what is real and what is imagined. Your body will react in the ways it has practiced the most when you are triggered.
In the role-play, instead of just playing the part, as the Challenger actually imagine “being” the person you are asked to be. For example, if you are playing your partner’s brother, ask yourself what it might be like to be his brother and just try to allow the sense of him to come through you. You may be surprised at how this feels and what comes out of your mouth!
One of the more challenging but necessary things to do in setting up this practice whether in real life or in role plays, is to agree on who goes first. Generally in a conflict, both participants are triggered. As you practice, remember that it is the Receiver who will need to center and self-empathize and give empathy to the Challenger. In the set up, take a moment to get clear on who is the Receiver and who is the Challenger. Remember, one at a time. Trying to process triggering moments simultaneously can get very messy. It may take a few starts and do-overs to land on who is the most triggered and who is the most capable of giving empathy. Relationships are never a straight line from here to there. Do not be afraid to start over. There is no wrong in this practice, only learning and getting better.
Stimulus and Cause
- Challenger: Stand directly in front of the Receiver, point your finger and speak the triggering statement you have been coached to say. For example: “Why don’t you ever clean the tub when you are done!” or “I get so angry when you interrupt me all the time”.
Remember: You are not responsible for others’ feelings; you are responsible for your own. It is essential to identify and separate the stimulus (what the Challenger says) from the cause of your pain(your own feelings).
Core Contractions and Strategies
- Receiver: As the Challenger’s triggering words land on you, drop your attention to locate the center of any tightness, sensation or emotional pain that is stimulated in your body. This is your core contraction.
- Where is there tightness in my body?
- What are the sensations and where are they the strongest?
- How has my breathing changed?
- Is there a deadening or an intensifying of emotion anywhere? Where?
- Scan you body as you practice. Is there anything happening in your chest, shoulders, back, arms, legs….. Bring curiosity and attention to any contractions and sensations you feel. Notice internal stories, judgments or reactions that might surface. At this time try not to analyze things, just notice what comes up and let go of your evaluations. Describe in detail to your partner what you are experiencing.
*Note: If you are struggling to locate specifically where the contractions and sensations are in your body because the triggering seems like everywhere or nowhere, you have probably picked a situation that is more than a 2 or 3 on the scale of 1-10. Chose something less intense. The Spiral Blend can help you through these moments as you explore it in depth. I would recommend that when first learning, its good to get familiar with all the facets of the Spiral Blend before you move into more intense role plays or applications. Everyone has their own ways of responding to stress and conflict. Our systems can only handle so much intensity before fight/flight startle responses kick in and we automatically default into historical conditioned patterns of behaviors. (See Core Strategies, Chap. 5) You can learn to regulate your own system.
When things feel intense and it becomes confusing where you stand, most likely have been knocked off center by what is coming at you. When you are over stimulated and don’t know what to do, move to the next practice to help relieve your system enough so you can think more clearly and center your attention inward. This will also help you to feel and locate your core contractions and core strategies.
It is almost impossible to empathize when you are overwhelmed by emotional pain. The more relaxed you are, the more aware you can be and the more you can feel. The more that you can feel, the more your emotions can point you towards what you
most needed in the present moment. When you are relaxed the people around you relax.
- Receiver: Moving to the wind position (above) step “off the line of attack” and as the Challenger continues to point and speak towards your original position look to see where the words are coming from and then turn your head to follow the Challenger’s words and the energy behind them as they pass you by. Don’t get fixated on the Challenger, remember to turn your head. Only after you have watched this train of words go by turn your head once again to notice where these words originate. This move is much like the toreador who steps effectively and efficiently to the side to let the bull rush by.
*Note: Moving to Wind helps you get a different perspective on the matter. Step off the line and keep the same amount of distance between you and the Challenger, making sure to not move either farther away or closer to the Challenger. Wind is not about leaving or pushing the interaction; it is about attending to your feelings and getting a fresh perspective while staying connected.
- Receiver: In the Wind posture quietly notice:
- What sensations do I now feel in my body?
- How is it different from when you were standing directly on the line of the attack?
- How do the words land on you now?
- Does your triggering subside a bit in this new position?
- Notice if your feelings or judgments toward the other person change at all?
- “Don’t just do something, be here”
Self-empathy is inner listening where you place the light of your attention on your internal world of feelings, emotions, moods, sensations and stories that show up in response to life’s ups and downs. You must regain a centered sense of who you are and what you care about in order to put aside your agendas, judgments or attachment to outcomes and just listen. This is difficult. Learning to get out of your own way to fully listen is something you can cultivate to do in longer and longer moments. In those moments your somatic intelligence can point you towards what you need.
- From the wind position, bring your hands to chest level and with elbows having only a slight bend in them and fingers pointed forward, vigorously rub your hands together.
- Hold your hands apart and extend your arms and fingers as if you’re reaching out to catch a big ball. Notice any tingling of energy in your hands from the friction of rubbing them together.
- Touch your heart. Bring your palms and their warmth to your heart. Remember and appreciate the heart that you have.
- Wake up your belly. Now connect your heart to your belly by stroking your torso from your heart down to the belly. Wake the belly up by patting it in the front, the sides and the back and bring your attention into the center of all that sensation.
- Ground: Move to ground. With your left foot forward, bend your legs slightly so that you feel grounded and centered. Have your hands down by your side and about a foot in front of you, palms open towards the ground and fingers spread wide. Keep your body vertical with your head above your heart and your heart above your belly.
Take a moment to appreciate the ground that is supporting you, that is under each of us— where under-standing is found and what brings more meaning to life.
- Here are some grounding questions to ask your self.
- What do I deeply care about?
- What is the ground I stand on?
- What qualities of being bring meaning and joy to my life?
All of these questions lead to remembering who you are! Finding your ground helps you differentiate between what another is saying or doing and who you are. Take the time you need to appreciate the ground you stand on, what you deeply value and as you gain a sense of your ground and recover the sense of self you can move to the next step of empathizing with your partner.
This is a moment in the Spiral Blend where the lightest of touch is the most powerful one. Where true power arises from meaning understood through the heart and a potent entry point is revealed that touches one another’s deepest needs and passions. To find that point of entry it is essential to recognize where that spot originates within you. Finding what you stand on, your ground is a necessary step to connecting to another’s ground. Finding common ground, what we deeply value and care about is where you find under-standing.
- Receiver: Once you have resourced your own ground, step to just behind the shoulder of the Challenger as he continues pointing at your original position and speaking the triggering statements. In Aikido, this angle of entry is called “shikaku” and means “optimum entering angle”. Shikaku is both a very safe position for someone to move into when attacked and the most effective angle of entry for effectively harmonizing the situation.
- Receiver: Enter with care and bring the palm of your hand directly behind the Challenger’s heart…. but don’t touch yet. Just listen with an intention to connect with the Challenger’s ground. Listen without agenda or pressure to “fix things”. Look over the Challenger’s shoulder and be open and curious to what it might be like to be in his/her shoes. In this position the Challenger can barely see you. In this moment with heart behind heart, with your judgments and triggering out of the way, connection is nascent. Now is when you listen with your whole being to the life you have in common, to your common ground. (See 7 C’s of Empathy pgs…)
- Receiver: With all your senses and imagination engaged, listen and wonder:
- What is it that this person is feeling?
- What would this person love more of?
- What is the deeper needs under the words?”
- What is the ground this person is standing on?
*At any time, if you become too triggered or caught up in the drama of the words of the Challenger, go back to wind and ground position to re-center.
When the Receiver steps into Shi-ka-ku, centered, resourced and ready, then the dance begins between the yin and the yang, the knowing and the mystery. Looking over the Challenger’s shoulder to see what he is seeing, the Receiver’s guess does not come from trying to come up with an answer; the guess comes in a moment and feels like an “aha!” This is listening creatively. (See 7 C’s pg.…) This is listening with all of our senses open, the faculty of our imagination engaged.
By leaving the space open and uncluttered within your self to just listen, the answers to your queries will come.
The main purpose of empathic guesses in Nonviolent Communication is to create connection. That moment of connection happens before touch—before the utterance of any word. The name for this poignant moment in Aikido is dai-ai, Translated from Japanese, it means “big love”. It is the all-encompassing love that reminds us that we are one, and that our needs are one.
Dai-ai is when you hold the other in an empathic listening field and sense the deeper intentions that are below the conflict. In Aikido, the moment of dai-ai happens just before any physical interaction takes place, when your own intentions are clear and you are readied so that by the time your attacker takes action it is already over! You can literally stop the conflict before it turns physical or violent. .(see SURF practice pg… and Empathic Listening pg….to explore this more).
- Receiver: Listen patiently with humility. Pay attention to the rhythm of this unfolding. Give it lots of space. Wait to be moved by a sense or some glimpse of understanding of the ground that the Challenger is standing on. Only then do you make an empathic guess.
To help understand the quality of presence and listening required here imagine that you have traveled a great distance, climbed the mountain to be in the presence of a very wise elder and now you have the opportunity to ask just one question of this divine individual. Take your time to think, feel, check intuitively and then ask your one question with humility, respect and gratitude.
Good timing is process and patience awaiting an advantage. There is a rhythm in all communications. There is a time to initiate and begin, a time to listen, a time for action and a time to end. If you don’t pay attention to the space in a song and rush the beat you hurt the song. It’s the same with relationships. Pay attention, let the space within the interaction inform the timing and quality of your empathic guesses. Like a crescendo approaching in a song, let the urge build inside you until you feel moved. Then guess.
This is where the lightest of guesses can be the most connective. The quality of feeling behind your guess is care that shows that you want to really understand who the other is for the sake of loving connection.
- Receiver: Make sure when you speak that it is a clearly a question and not a In time, find your own genuine way of guessing what the ground level of the others feelings and needs are. For now, here are a couple examples of ways to guess:
- I am guessing you’re feeling frustrated and would love some appreciation or maybe just to be heard? Is that right?
- Are you feeling angry that I came in to your room without asking because you really value privacy and want yours to be respected?
- Receiver: As you guess, you will know by the reaction it invokes how near or far you are from connecting with the Challenger’s ground level needs. If the guess is close, you will notice a visceral “shift”, that in some way that shows a release or an easing of tension as the Challenger begins to feel heard and resistance lessens.
This shift is a moment when you have moved into your heart and touched another, when the conflict becomes no longer a conflict but a place to explore collaboratively.
Savor this precious moment and don’t rush to fill the space with words. Just appreciate this quality of connection. Slow down and deeply feel it. Remember what this feels like. Build a somatic impression that you can reference and keep finding your way back to. This creative moment in the process that everything is in service of and when the deeper needs that we all share become revealed is all too often rushed or missed.
- Receiver: Once you feel the shift and a sense of connection, gently, with the lightest of touch, place your palm on your partner’s back. If the other person feels hesitancy, manipulation, or agenda in your touch or words, then a sense of mistrust can grow. This initial touch is of the utmost importance. As soon as you touch someone they organize themselves around that touch. A compassionate touch transmits compassion and leaves nothing to resist. In the midst of a fight, to be touched in this way brings a relief and intensifies the sense of connection.
- The Dance of Empathy and Honesty
Another Aikido principle is called Zanshin. It refers to a state of awareness – of relaxed alertness. The literal translation of zanshin is “remaining mind”. It literally means being absolutely attentive to the next move right after the previous move.
The next beat in the rhythm of the Spiral Blend is the response from your partner. Make sure not to rush the space between the guess and the response or you might ruin the beauty of the song’s unfolding. The heart has no need to rush. Most often it is our heads that think we should.
Often your partner’s response will let you know if you are on the mark or not, and in some way if you listen closely, your partner will give you breadcrumbs. Always take the time to feel how your words land on your partner.
As you proceed from the last move to this one, remember all the care and effort it took to ignite the connection. Just like building a fire from scratch, once that initial, tiny flame bursts forth the job is not done. Just the right amount of breath and kindling is needed to continue to build the fire, too much or too little and it might go out. So with your presence and attention to that small flame you have kindled, continue from when the Receiver has just put a hand on the Challenger’s back.
- Receiver: Give lots of space between your words and the Challenger’s responses. With care and patience, continue to guess the ground that is under the Challengers words. Listen and. When you begin to feel resonance, like you are getting on the same page, without changing the direction, gently and slowly move the conversation forward. With your hand on the Challenger’s back, gradually suggest with your touch the intention to walk for a while in the direction in which the Challenger is pointing. This movement is a suggestion, not a push.
- Receiver: As you feel a connection and understanding between the two of you growing, gradually move from behind the Challenger to his/her side. Continue to hold the Challenger’s needs with care as you slowly and respectfully, bring to the conversation what you would love and value in this moment as well. Be careful not to introduce strategies, judgments or agendas with attachments to outcomes into the conversation. Get both of your mutual needs on the table first.
There is a moment in Aikido practice that is called “aiki”. It is when conflict becomes a harmonious movement towards greater connection and understanding.
- Receiver: Gently with your hand resting on the Challenger’s back, continue to walk forward together. Keep your focus on the present moment and stay open to possibilities. Continue the conversation with empathy and honesty. Once you can articulate your mutual needs, mutual strategies come easily. Slowly walk in a new direction, one that honors mutual needs and strategies.
Internalizing the Practice
Of course it would look pretty silly to spread your arms and move to wind or step behind the back of the person you are speaking to in the middle of a conflict. Going through this practice with a training partner will help to illuminate places where you get stuck and triggered as well as places to foster deep connection. Set up sessions to practice the Spiral Blend role-plays in groups and with partners and friends. In time you will be able to move through the positions of the Spiral Blend in your mind and imagination with out moving your body or making subtle micro movements that remind you of the full body practice.
Here are some examples:
- When I want to ground, I wiggle my toes to feel the earth and imagine sending roots down.
- I turn my palms behind me to find support at my back. Make up your own micro movements.
- To imagine wind I pivot my body slightly and imagine someone’s words sliding off me instead of landing fully on me. When Judith catches any of my micro-movements in the middle of our fights, she smiles because she knows that the reason I am doing them is to be more present with her.
Just as I did while jogging with my wife, find your own creative ways to blend the Spiral Blend into your daily interactions. The more you practice the more you will glean and incorporate harmonizing conflict into your way of being.
Finding Common Ground
Recently I lead a workshop in Duncan, BC between 12 fathers and 12 sons between the age of 11 and 13. At this age, it is not uncommon for fathers to feel a sense of lose for the kind of connection that they had with their son when he was younger. It seems to me that this is because children as they are entering their adulthood are growing and changing at such a rapid pace that is very difficult for the parents make the changes within themselves that they need to keep up. A centerpiece in this training was a practice that I call the Spiral Blend. This is a practice distilled from a movement in Aikido called “irimi tenkan” which means enter and turn. In the center of the circle of men and boys John was speaking to his son in a role play that recreated a conflict that they were having at home. He said, “Will you keep the noise down! I have to we are earplugs all day to keep the noise down in my carpentry shop and I need some quiet here!”
Normally at home, his son, Andrew would nod his head and in no time make just as much noise as he’d been making before. John would invariably get angrier and the conflict would spiral down. I coached Andrew through this role-play as he stepped out of the way of his father’s words and took a moment to ground himself by remembering what was important to him. He said, “I care about honesty. I care about people listening to each other well. I care about people helping one other.” That’s what he said he was willing to take a stand for in his own life. That was his ground.
He then moved to a place behind his father, looking over his shoulder to imagine what his father was seeing and feeling. His heart lined up behind his dads’. Without judgments or agenda he just listened to his father’s raised voice complaining about the noise. Centered and grounded, Andrew could now give his father’s words some space to feel into what was underneath them. Connecting in that moment to his father’s ground, lightly he asked, “Are you upset because you worked really hard toady and need quiet to rest? His father just stood there as Andrew added, “ and maybe you’d really like me to really get how hard you work to support me too because you care. Is that right? I just want to make sure I’m getting it right dad.”
The room was silent. John stood there looking stunned. His shoulders and back seemed to settle. His breath quieted. Color came to his face. His eyes became a little liquid. He just turned around, speechless and with the gentlest, appreciation said, “My son”. They hugged each other. The beauty and realization of that connection rippled around the room. Empathy for one, touches all. As we debriefed John described the moment. “I felt a connection to my son that I love with my son and have so missed”.
In another workshop, William was struggling with his wife. She was a very intelligent and high-energy woman. She was a manager in company with 40 thousand employees. In a role-play, he stood behind her just after stepping from Shi Ka Koo to a moment of. He was listening to her upset and venting about how hard it is for to live with the chaos in their home. She said, “ You throw your clothes over the chair instead of hanging them up, the tub is left with a film an about how busy she was and that…… If he had not centered prior to stepping into Shi Ka Koo would have felt criticized and blamed. He still got a little uncomfortable and his question came out a bit rushed and “heady” when he asked her,” Are you feeling angry and wanting some ease at home. She responded, Yes I am angry, because you never put things away…I asked him to go back to wind and let her words go by and not land on him and then to ground to remember where he stood. He came back to Shi Ka Ko and to her go on again about what was upsetting her. This time you could see that he was noticeably calmer, not taking what she was saying personally, and, with his heart behind her heart, he just listened.
In almost a whisper he gently said, “Are you just needing some rest time when you are home after working all day and want me to know that if the house was more cared for how that would really help?”
She just stood there, almost stunned. IT is like she was leaning on the door to get in, and all of a sudden it just opened unexpectedly.
She teared up, her demeanor softened and she choked out a grateful’, “yes”. Around the room as if a shockwave went though everyone. Everyone’s attention was riveted to the moment, water rose to several people’s eyes.
At this moment he paused. Connection was made and it is a powerful moment. .
At each moment of connection, appreciate and savor it. Don’t worry about getting to the next moment. If you get triggered you can go back to the wind and ground positions to re-center.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
~ Mary Oliver ~