A few years ago I published an article in Tikkun magazine called Wanting Fully without Attachment. In that article (an excerpt from a book in progress called The Power of Inner Freedom), I describe the foundation of what I see as the spiritual path underlying the practice of Nonviolent Communication. It is a passionate and courageous path that calls on us to keep opening our hearts wider and wider and wider to all that deeply matters to us, while at the same time developing more and more capacity to accept the possibility of not having what we want.
In the absence of developing this capacity, we tend to go in one of two directions: either giving up on what we want as the only way we understand of what it means to let go of attachment, or removing ourselves personally from what we want by claiming it to be bigger than ourselves, outside ourselves, because it “should” happen.
Here is one personal example. I remember, as a child, that my mother used to insist that what she wanted me to do, such as contribute to the household, was somehow external – it was what needed to happen as distinct from being about what she wanted me to do. In her view at the time, she believed that would make it less arbitrary, easier to accept. These days I wonder how it would have affected my willingness to do those things. In the childhood I had, my willingness was, generally, very small, resulting in my doing things with a sense of victimization and resentment, not a true sense of participation. What if my mother had opened her heart to me, let me know for real how much it would mean to her if I willingly stepped in to support her, and what the pressures on her were (which I now know and were totally obscure to me at the time)? What if she also asked me to do these things, leaving the option for me to choose not to do them? We have no way of knowing, and yet I have a deep intuitive sense some aspects of life could have been different for me if she chose that route.
If this is tricky and messy in the personal realm, how much more so when it comes to what we want for the world. The intensity of our pain and anguish about, for example, the plight of children in the world, is so acute that most of us find it impossible to simultaneously tolerate it and remain open to that pain and our longing for it to be different. How we each respond to this inner tear differs. For many of us, the path we choose is to numb out the pain, and most especially to convince ourselves that our actions and our comforts are independent of the experience of those children; that there is nothing we can do about it anyway; and therefore that it is best if we focus only on our own personal lives. For others of us, the anguish translates, instead, into an intense passion for change, which often shows up as anger and a focus on articulating what “should” happen. Anger and prescribing what others should do to some degree protects us from the vulnerability of feeling our own pain, and is therefore easier to tolerate internally.
Either way, we operate as if to keep our hearts open to the vision and the pain at the same time is not an option. For me, the path of wanting fully without attachment is precisely rooted in the capacity to hold, at the same time, the largest vision of what we want and the biggest acceptance of what is. No contradiction.
I have a growing conviction about how much nonviolence is rooted, in part, in the willingness to be exposed, to take the heat, to lose what’s dear to us, even our freedom, or our very lives (believe me, I am not there with that last one). The reason for this belief is that nonviolence requires an immense capacity for transcending fight, flight, or freeze reactions, so we can actually make a mindful choice how to respond in the moment. If so, finding a way to shift from “should” to “want” is absolutely essential, more aligned with the heart of nonviolence. It allows us to open our hearts, to remove the protection and the illusion of “should” thinking, to experience the humility of not knowing whether and how we can change something, and to be present for reality exactly the way it is.
“Should,” on the other hand, invites us, in some subtle way, to hold tight to an illusion of having more power than we actually have. It’s as if saying that something “should” change is already a step in the direction of making that change happen, because others will simply “have” to agree that it should happen, and will therefore do it. The seeds of war are planted: anyone who doesn’t agree that this “should” happen becomes the enemy. To quote from my earlier article: “If our approach is based on what should happen, without this capacity to accept life, what would keep us from trying to force a solution? We have all seen so many historical examples of revolutions that turned into a new regime of horror. How will we ensure that we can sustain our vision and openness if we cannot tolerate what is happening and those who are supporting what is happening?”
Given millennia of immersion in the world of right/wrong thinking, that fertile ground that seeds and grows “should” thinking and wars alike, shifting our consciousness from “This is what should happen” to “This is what I want to see happen” is no small feat. If you want to gain practice in this capacity, an intermediate step might help. The story of a woman I worked with a few years ago on precisely this shift might be helpful. Let’s call her Laura.
Laura, having been so deeply touched and inspired by the effects that Nonviolent Communication (NVC) had had on her life, readily admitted that she had the idea that “everyone should treat each other according to NVC principles.” She saw, very quickly, that she had complete resistance to the reality in which people simply weren’t. Inviting her to look at what she wanted was too big of a jump for Laura to take all in one step, and so I was searching for an intermediate step that would be more manageable for her. It showed up in the form of “could” thinking. Laura was quite able to reframe her statement simply into: “Everyone could treat each other according to NVC principles.” There was no resistance there, she happily told me.
The next step was small and subtle: to see just how much she would enjoy it if they did: “Everyone could treat each other according to NVC principles, and that would be so much sweeter for me.”
To apply this to the issue of the children, it is a gruesome reality of life on this planet that huge numbers of children die every day from preventable causes related to malnutrition. It’s so easy to think that this should end, that these children’s needs should be attended to, that food should be given to them. To make the same move that Laura made, replace all these statements of should with statements of could. Hunger in the world could end, children’s needs could be attended to, food could be given to them. Next, allow yourself to experience how much joy, relief, gratitude, and integrity you might experience as a human being if all this were to happen. Really and truly: wouldn’t it be an amazing day if we are, collectively, able to make it a priority to end hunger in the world?
As you put your attention on what could happen, and how much it would mean to you, I hope you will experience something close to what Laura did. Her world opened up in unexpected ways. The pain of the reality of what is, which, for her at that time was just how far people overall are from treating each other with the care, integrity, and honesty that are implicit in the NVC approach, was right there for her to feel. Nothing protected her from that intensity. Even with the pain, she was joyous, because she could feel her heart opening, the tight grip of the should releasing, and the vision infusing her with energy. Then she could articulate with simple passion: “It's my fervent dream to help the world become that kind of a place.” This was the final release, Laura’s way of owning what she wants and finding the energy within herself to move in that direction.
Since the fundamental principle underlying NVC is that everything we do is an attempt to meet needs, Laura was then able to recognize, as she said, “the needs I was trying to meet through holding so tightly to all of my ‘shoulds,’” and to find more effective ways of attending to them without the should. She discovered more energy and willingness to engage with the world, because so much of her energy, previously, had been consumed by resisting the reality of how the world is. She discovered the capacity to be with the pain, to mourn it, which opened her up to herself, to more connection, more heart. As she recounted the story to me after some time, this shift even affected her personal life, most importantly her relationship with her children. She learned that “should” thinking was woven through her life, and this one experience of shifting it cascaded through the rest of her life. As she said: “I’ve started connecting with myself and with others with a sweeter, softer energy that’s been immediately felt by those I was with.”
What about the children? Can we truly release the “should” and embrace the “could” and “want” instead? Can any of us open our hearts as fully as it would require us to do, to wail and grieve the unimaginable loss of life, both physical and the potential contributions to life of all the children affected? Can we imagine, even for a moment, recognizing that, in reality, the prescriptions we might have for changing this condition are not sufficient, no matter how much we believe they “ought” to be, because we don’t know how to mobilize enough people to want to end this problem? Can we keep breathing through it all?
I cannot improve on the way I ended that article, so I quote it here:
If … we remain open to the possibility that no solution will arise and at the same time continue to bring our heart and attention and action to working toward a solution, our work takes on an entirely different flavor. We work toward our dreams, we embrace the vision and our needs in full, and we remain open in the face of what is happening. In doing so, whether or not we have external success (and so far as I know, none of us knows how to move the world from here to where we want it to be), our work itself becomes a modeling of what the world could be.
May it be so.
Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call: Tuesday March 19, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a new way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog.We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. This week, as Miki is doing workshops in Europe, Newt Bailey (of BayNVC and the Communication Dojo) will be taking her place.
 For those, like me, who care deeply about this wrenching reality, you may be amazed to hear that the extreme forms of this global problem are diminishing: fewer children die in these ways now than some decades ago! If you are specifically interested in these statistics, click here.
 If you are interested in world hunger and in ending hunger in particular, click here for the story of the city in Brazil, Belo Horizonte, which ended hunger in its midst. Their main finding was the embarrassment so many of them felt about how easy it was once they decided.