Reaching Into the Universe

The first thing I was taught in school

artistic rendition of earthI remember one thing from my first day of school: I remember the first thing I was taught.

We started the first day of kindergarten in the largest room in the school—the Multi-Purpose Room they called it. Gathering us around the teacher and her aide, we were instructed to sit. Not just sit, but specifically cross-legged.

"We need you all to sit on your sitting bones," they said. What the heck was a sitting bone? Whatever it was, I knew sitting cross-legged was uncomfortable for me. I raised my hand. "I usually sit on my knees," I stated. I was answered with a repeat of the instructions, emphasis on "all of you," and I gave in.

I don't know why I gave in. More to the point, I don't know why I said what I said when I raised my hand, why I didn't tell them about my physical discomfort. Looking back, I can see that I hadn't been taught by my family to speak my truth or my needs. I certainly wasn't taught to advocate for myself—how many 5-year-olds are?

The first day of school, the first thing I was taught was that here, too, the authority of adults was higher than the authority of my body.

Nearly 20 years later, I would be sitting in another classroom on the first day of class. The instructor would ask us to sit in a particular way. I would be too uncomfortable in my body to do so. And it would be different than my first day of kindergarten in two meaningful ways.

First, there was no expectation to conform. The instructor had said, "If you can sit seiza, that's nice. If not, sit in a way that's comfortable for you." Not, "I need you all to sit this way," but simply "that'd be nice". He didn't desire to control us.

Second, seiza, the traditional Japanese sitting posture, was exactly how I used to sit as a young child. It was there at massage school that I noticed that the ability to sit comfortably in that position had been trained out of me by my kindergarten teacher. Throughout massage class, I had to sit cross-legged.

It's perhaps only a small way, but this is certainly one way that the weft of control that's woven throughout our culture landed in my body. I feel some sadness around each part of these memories and experiences—sadness acknowledging the kind of culture I was born into and that its consequences don't just exist "out there" in environmental disasters or social injustices but also "in here," in my tissues and the history they embody.

Touching into these memories, I feel not just the sadness but also pain as I draw the connections between global and social issues and my own vulnerable little boy self. I see how these ways that we currently enact our human presence on the planet do not meet my very basic needs for physical safety and well being.

So what do I want? I want a culture that's grounded not in our separation and difference but in our interbeing and interconnection. I want a culture that seeks to cooperate rather than control—cooperate with each other, with nature, with life.

I want to be around others who also want that, who are willing to do what it takes to shed their domestication, let go of the need to control, and live from a realization of non-separateness.

Ok, so that's a work in progress. What, I'm curious, do you want?

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Do other people “make” us angry?

Angry monkeySaw some confusion on anger recently...

A Facebook friend posted this zenhabits article, The Other Person is Never the Problem, with the following comment: "Intellectually I know this is true. No one else can make me angry or upset. I'm doing that to myself. But it's sure hard to realize this and stay calm all the time. Something I need to keep working on."

I was surprised to see someone else's comment responding that the idea was "bullshit," that people do indeed "make us angry and upset us." Apparently I've been living in a bubble because I don't expect to see that from people anymore.

But I remember what it was like to think that way—blaming other people for my feelings. And I also remember what it was like "in between"—understanding, on some level, the idea that I am responsible for my feelings... but not really knowing how to do anything useful with that knowledge.

Something called Non-Violent Communication (NVC) changed all that for me...

NVC to the rescue...

I had two responses to the conversation on anger from an NVC perspective:

  1. There's a difference between what someone does and my feelings about that thing they do.
    NVC's model of communication helps clarify that difference, as well as explains the connection between the two.
  2. "Staying calm all the time" is not really the goal.
    Feelings are important information, especially anger. Anger is a sign that our needs our not being met.

So, what's NVC?

The NVC communication model has four basic components:

  1. Observation
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Request

Observation is the stimulus, the thing that actually happened. For example: a friend is half an hour late in meeting us, a relative pushes our buttons at a family gathering, the roommate does that thing we don't like for the millionth time.

Feeling is the feeling that comes up in us in response to what happened. But while what happened may be the stimulus it is not the cause of our feelings. Our feelings arise out of the transaction between the stimulus and our thoughts about it. We can see this is the case when we ask questions like, "Would everyone in this situation feel the same way?" Different people would have different ways of interpreting and evaluating, different ways of thinking about, the exact same stimulus. Different thought, different feeling.

For example, I feel annoyance (feeling) when I see that my housemate has not taken out the compost and it's his turn on the chore's chart (stimulus). I feel that way because I have thoughts like: it's a big deal, I shouldn't have to take out the compost when it's not my turn, and other people should be more mindful. Whereas other people might feel differently (ambivalent, curious, or some other feeling) because they have different thoughts, like: it's not a big deal, I wonder what's going on in his life right now, etc.

Needs are at the root of feelings. In the example above, my needs for consideration and responsibility aren't going met. You might feel unhappy when someone shows up to a meeting late because it doesn't meet your need for respect. When your partner works late too much, perhaps your needs for connection and companionship don't go well met.

Our feelings represent information that tells us if our needs are being met or not. When our needs are being met we feel feelings that we usually call "positive". Conversely, when our needs are not being met we feel feelings that we usually call "negative". As information they are neither good nor bad, and both kinds are important.

Requests are clear, concrete requests for what we want that would meet our needs better. Requests are always made along with the observation, feelings, and needs that we notice.

All four pieces are critical in an effective communication. We include the observation so that the other person can know exactly what they did that we are referring to. We include the feelings and needs so that the other person can empathize with us. We include the request so that people know exactly what we would like from them—otherwise, people make assumptions about what we want.

The request is especially important. Since many of us are trained to take responsibility for other people's feelings and expect others to take responsibility for ours, if we don't include a request telling people what we want, people often assume that what we want is for them to be responsible for our feelings.

Less Zen, more communication

If we make a goal out of staying calm in the face of all stimuli, we misunderstand the important role feelings play. We risk ignoring the important information they represent. Rather than attempt to be calm instead of angry, equanimous instead of annoyed, we can allow our feelings to point us to which of our needs are or aren't going met. We can then use all of this information to invite empathy from others and make requests of them.

The zenhabits article suggests that we refrain from action when angry and "toss our expectations into the ocean". Of course this is appropriate in many cases—how would we begin to request to all motorists that they never cut us off in the future?—but as a rule, I see greater value in learning how to communicate my feelings, needs, and requests to others in ways that help them empathize with me and consider my requests, which can lead them to make different choices that enrich both our lives.

Further info

This is a basic overview; anyone interested in learning more about NVC should check out one or both of these books: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by the creator of NVC, and Don't Be Nice, Be Real: Balancing Passion for Self with Compassion for Others.

Filed under: Communication No Comments