Acquired Spontaneity

Thoughts and practices for personal and social transformation

The Long Arc of Commitment

On the conflict between long term commitments and short term needs

One of the challenges that many people must transcend along the way of integrating the radical freedom that living from within our needs spells is the temptation to ignore commitments we made at a certain point because of a more pressing and live need that arises in the moment. At a recent workshop, the difficult task of balancing spontaneity and intention came up. In the conversation that ensued we used a metaphor that helped us understand more fully both the challenge and what we can do about it.

Whenever we make a decision to do something to attend to a need or some needs, the metaphor goes, we are drawing an arc between the moment we are in and the completion of what the decision is about, ideally the fulfillment of those needs. If I decide to go to the market to get vegetables for dinner that arc is much shorter, and therefore closer to the ground, than the arc that would signify a decision to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in sociology. At any moment in time, any number of arcs are active at various places on the trajectory. I, the person who always decides what I do next, choose among the many of them which I will give my attention to. On the way to the market I encounter a friend I haven't seen in years, and am faced with the choice of delaying the vegetables and the dinner they promise. While in graduate school I find myself impatient with the book I am reading for a seminar and I want to take a ride to the beach. Having decided that I want to dedicate my resources to supporting people working to transform the world, I am faced with an invitation to work with a corporation, at a time I am financially strapped.

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What is it that helps me stay the course with the initial, longer arc, when the immediate needs keep arising? Is this even what I would want to do, in all circumstances? How do I discern fruitfully? "I am not a slave to my own decisions," a friend said one day when he lit up a cigarette within days after deciding to quit. What does freedom really look like in those moments when an earlier decision that may no longer feel alive, relevant, or real, encounters an immediate call to our attention, another need that is born from within the flow and reality of the moment? It "feels", often, freer to ignore the past decisions and only respond to what's in the moment, one of the challenges that anyone who seriously applies themselves to the study of Nonviolent Communication learns sooner or later. Is that the real freedom, or is there another kind of freedom in being able to stay true to an earlier decision, to follow the arc of life inherent in the moment in which the commitment was made?

One of the functions of the arc metaphor that emerged in our conversation was to illustrate that challenge in a new way. The visual helped us see why it's so compelling to follow the moment. That arc, the shorter one, by virtue of being closer to the metaphorical ground, is that much more accessible. I don't have to raise my head, to strain to feel its aliveness. It's right there immediately next to me. To even notice and find connection with the meaning and fullness of the needs that led to that earlier choice requires some conscious effort.

Our core values, in this metaphor, can be seen as the longest arcs we have. The choice to adopt a core value is not one we take lightly or often. Once we recognize a core value, we draw an arc that extends from that moment to the end of our life, hoping and longing to have the integrity to live in line with that value. The arc metaphor helps me in having compassion for myself and others for all the many moments in which we ignore our values. It makes it clear that the length of the arc requires some shorter arcs that will help me stay in vivid, vibrant connection with the longer arc of the value in question. This is, I now see, one of the values of practice: it keeps alive the underlying values that the practice is serving.

Although this simple visual clarity was not yet available to me in early 2010, I nonetheless had the intuitive clarity that we need support structures in order to stay the course with our deepest values, most especially when they stand in some tension to the habitual flow of the culture in which we live. I wrote a list of seventeen core commitments, which are now posted on my blog, and formed a community of practice around them. While the community itself has dwindled to almost nothing since I left earlier this year (a topic I may write about another time), the commitments continue to inspire many around the world.

As I am posting them here in a permanent location (how fitting, that they would stay while each individual blog entry comes and goes and disappears into the past), I want to offer some specific ways in which they can be used and have been used by people.

Reflection Tool

I have heard from people who have the commitments on their fridge and look at them daily. I know others who have them printed on small pieces of paper and have them with them, in their wallet. Still others choose one to carry with them for a day to affect their choices for that day. I have, at times, taken some moments in the morning and chosen one to engage with internally, to make a movement or shape that captures the essence of that commitment. Others have done journaling about each of the commitments as another way to anchor them internally.

Each of these commitments can also be used as the focus of meditation. Take any of them and you can sit and reflect on the following or some other questions. What would it look like, how would it truly affect you life, if you chose to be open to the full emotional range, or to accepting what is, or any of the other commitments? Where does your being open in delight to the challenge, and where is there tension, doubt, confusion? How does the commitment that you chose for the meditation relate to some of your other core values?

Discussion or Empathy Group

I know of groups that get together to engage with the commitments. It's clear to me that they stand in some tension with how our culture is structured and what we are trained to do, so it doesn't surprise me that we would need support from others to find strength and creativity to let these intentions truly affect our choices.

Sometimes such groups use the commitments for inspiration, to allow themselves to be touched by who they could be if they lived such commitments in full. At other times people engage empathically with each other about how well they are able to incorporate the commitments into their lives. When the virtual community I had initiated was fully active and we were meeting frequently on the phone, we sometimes engaged with trying to understand what each of the commitments truly meant, how they related to each other, where we had obstacles in imagining ourselves truly committing to any of them.

The more we engage with these commitments, the more they can become part of the fabric of who we become, anchors of the grand experiment some of us are taking on, of responding to the world, to everything that happens, with love, courage, truth telling, and care for everyone. Each of them captures a facet of what nonviolence entails, both internally and in the world. They are each a lens into how we could choose differently.

Resources to Guide Our Choices

Ultimately, when integrated, the commitments can become a compass, an invitation and a way of shaping how we respond to situations in our lives. Recently, at a retreat I led in upstate NY, one woman, let's call her Irene, told us that a friend of hers speaks about ongoing life difficulties at much greater frequency and length than Irene can be present for. This is an experience so many of us have had in one form or another. How do we respond to such a situation with integrity? We consulted the commitments, and saw how many different options they presented. Focusing on "Responsibility," for example, would lead Irene to be honest with herself about what she really wants, and find a way to let her friend know, make the necessary requests of her, and engage to find a solution that truly works for her. Focusing on "Generosity" instead, she would work internally to remove all obstacles to choose to give her attention to her friend more fully. Focusing on "Authenticity and Vulnerability" would lead Irene to remove all blame and protection, and to let her friend deeply into the depth of the dilemma she is facing, inviting compassion for herself while also caring for her friend. Focusing on "Accepting What Is" would lead her to stretch to remove tension and resentment, to sink into her understanding that her friend's speech is part of life, and release all expectation that things be different. We saw how much having these commitments can be a way to remember that life is an ongoing and mysterious flow of one choice after another. There is never a "right" way to respond, no matter how habituated we are to believe there is. There is also never a choice that has no consequences. Whatever we do in any given situation affects us and those around us. There is no escape from our interdependence, from being part of life, shaping it and being shaped by everything around us. And we never lose choice, and our options almost always are wider than we imagine.

Miki Kashtan, Ph.D., is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication and serves as its lead facilitator and trainer.

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