Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Making Room for Being Different

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel different, even when I was very young. Being different is as familiar to me as breathing and eating. Last week, as part of the Institute for Sacred Activism I attended, I experienced a major shift in relating to being different. Because the path I am walking is the path of vulnerability, and because I have some hope that what I experienced may be of use to others, I decided to write in some detail about the opening that happened and about what I learned as a result.

Let me start from the end. I have had a storyline for most of my conscious life that says there is no room for me in the world. What I came to see this past week is that I can be different and there can still be room for me. I also had a shocking realization that the idea that there is no room for me leads to feeling separate, and has been hampering my effectiveness in the world.

Being different is not something I can or want to change. My responses to many things are different; what I like and dislike tends to be different; I often want different things from what others around me want; my sensitivities are generally far more pronounced than those of people around me; I see things others don’t see (and don’t notice things that others do); I articulate things differently from how others do. I have complete acceptance of all of that in me, almost all the time. It took years of work to get to where I like who I am and feel at peace with myself about where I am.

The difficulty has always been what to do with my difference. In my habitual way of being, whenever I have had a response that’s different from another person’s I could only see two options. One was to hide my response, suppress my difference, not ask for what I want, and endure the pain of inauthenticity, which is for me pretty excruciating and vivid. The other was to express my response, share my difference, or ask for what I want, and risk (and often experience) the pain of disconnection or conflict.

I already wrote in my previous entry about how I came forward and shared with the group at a time that I felt very separate. When I was writing about it I hadn’t taken in that I was breaking a longstanding pattern. Now I see it: I found a way of being fully authentic that created more connection instead of less.

Then I did it again towards the end of the week. I let people know, again, that I was in a different place from where most were, and that I was speaking in order to make room for myself at the table. Once again the discomfort of feeling so separate and inauthentic melted into tears, and I was back in the flow of life. And once again I heard back from people that they appreciated my doing it.

In this moment I can see the possibility that there can be room for me to express my response, what I want, what I like, what I feel sensitive about alongside the other person with their responses, likes and dislikes, and what they want, however different the two are. Neither of them negates the other. There need not be separation between us just because we are different.

Since then I have also learned how my inner experience of separation reduces my effectiveness. Because I have lived in an either/or consciousness about being different, and specifically assuming that my responses would not be welcome, I have been holding a layer of protection around myself that was invisible to me. When I have chosen to hide, I would become stiff and less flowing. It’s easy to see why that would result in less receptivity to me. Even when I have chosen to express, and despite all the years of working on vulnerability, I know that I have been expressing myself with edges because of the protection. The result is that often people experienced themselves being judged by me, whether or not that was true. It’s my separation, my protection, that came across as judgment. Once again, the result would be less receptivity to me. In both cases my lack of trust acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If I can learn and master the possibility I now see for bringing myself forward with much more openness and humility, making room for myself and thereby allowing room for others, I imagine something fundamental can shift in my experience of being alive. I can, perhaps, finally come to a place of true belonging, and thereby reach and connect with more people without separation between or within.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shame and Love

This post was inspired by an email I received two days ago: “Where does shame come from …? How can we approach it so we can eventually free ourselves from it? What works for you? What did you see working for others? Anything alive in you around this topic that might serve other readers as well?”

I don’t really know where shame comes from, so I can only share my opinions and conjectures about it (and I tend to have those about almost anything). My sense about shame is that it’s a primary mode of punishment, a way that adults instill forms of behavior in children who then internalize it and grow up carrying enormous amounts of shame in them. If you look at the language, adults will often say, most literally: “shame on you.” In Israel, where I grew up, the equivalent expression translates into: “Be ashamed of yourself.” In both cases the adult is commanding the child to experience shame as a way of expressing their unhappiness with how the child acted.

Shame is in the category of what are called social emotions, and is deeply connected to our sense of belonging and being loved. If we are shamed often and deeply enough, we end up feeling shame about our very desire to be loved and accepted. Shame is endemic in this culture, and has consequences beyond the pain that it brings to those who feel it. Profound shame is one of the most common experiences of very violent people, a tragic finding to which I have already alluded (see my post Nonviolence and Living Undefendedly). If Gilligan is accurate in his understanding of violence, then overcoming shame goes beyond feeling better – it may well be an essential condition for a violence-free society.

My earlier studies when I was doing academic research point in the same direction. Cross-cultural studies suggest that the single most powerful predictor of a violence-free culture is the length of time that babies are carries in arms, and the other key predictor is the degree to which teenagers are allowed free sexual play in a given culture.[1] Our freedom to love and be loved, both in our infancy and when our sexuality wakes up, is the key to understanding all of these findings. The pain of not being allowed to show love and ask for love is so extreme it can lead to violence.

So how do we overcome shame? How I have worked with my shame is by walking directly into it. I have been doing it for many years now, and I am delighted to say that I have burned through most of my shame. It takes immense discipline and courage. Often when I have done it I felt totally spent afterwards. It means going against everything I was ever told is wrong about me, doing what I was repeatedly told is shameful, and setting myself up for potential ridicule and shunning. Perhaps it’s been relatively easy for me because I have suffered so much ostracism in my life that the prospect of it is no so frightening any longer. I often think that the best way to experience deep safety is by being thrown into what we are afraid of and seeing that we can survive it. One tool that helps with gathering up the courage is finding my own inner acceptance, which can then nourish and protect me if others don’t. The practice of NVC helps me find the acceptance through connecting to the shining light of the core human need or longing that is at the heart of whatever it is that I feel shame about. In my case it’s almost always about love: wanting love, wanting to show love, or trusting love or people.

As life would have it, the next day after receiving that email I had the opportunity to practice. I stepped in front of a group of 40+ strangers who are attending an intensive program with me (Institute for Sacred Activism, led by Andrew Harvey). I let them know about my struggles with the program, and specifically that in some ways I was not resonating with what has been moving and inspiring to them. And I believe I managed to do with dignity, with undefended vulnerability, and without in any way implying judgment of anyone who was resonating with the language. The result was a sense of more connection, more appreciation of the people, and more trust that there is room for me to be.

Later that day I received one more reference to shame in a comment on my previous posting (A Slice of Heaven). In that comment I see familiar themes: longing for human connection, yearning for support for one’s heart and sadness, aching for love. We all do, we all want so so very much to give and receive love. When will we, collectively, lift the taboo on tenderness so we can release the shame that plagues us and live and love freely? 

by Miki Kashtan

[1] If you are interested in exploring, you can look for this article: James W. Prescott, "The Origins of Human Love and Violence", Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 10(3): 143-188, Spring 1996. Bear in mind this is very difficult to find; even many academic libraries don’t have it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Slice of Heaven

 Dante & Beatrice gaze upon the heavens.
by Miki Kashtan

Being someone very deeply immersed in this world, my notions and images of heaven are also about the here and now, not about some other world or some mythical time. Heaven for me is about dissolution of what I see as culturally-imposed barriers between people, and between any of us and the experience of being fully and glowingly alive. I never expect heaven to be pain-free, or even conflict-free. I only hope for the possibility of facing and using all pain and conflict as doors into the vast space of the human spirit, and into our capacity for love that surrounds and encompasses all that is human.

One of the reasons why I so treasure the work that I do is that it allows me, time and again, to experience snapshots of this kind of heaven. I just returned from one such experience, and I have a burning desire to invite all of you, my known and anonymous readers, to dip into this experience with me. My hope, almost invariably, is for this dip to inspire you into attempting to create such islands of love in your surroundings.

All this happened during the Living Undefendedly women’s retreat that I just came back from on Wednesday. There were eighteen of us. All of us wanted more freedom in our lives. One by one we each took a turn to expose, open, share, delve into, and transform the places in us that block us from flowing fully with life. The level of commitment and dedication I discovered as we opened our circle was to begin was beyond my expectation. This willingness, the trust and the hunger that it signified, then served as the foundation for all the learning and surprises that came as the days unfolded.

We got to see and feel the depth of how debilitating shame can be, and how much it interferes with living fully, openly, and authentically. We noticed how shame even interferes with loving and presence when we begin to think that what we have to offer is not enough or not the right kind of support. For some years now I have had the goal of becoming 100% shameless, so I can experience freedom beyond measure, the freedom to show up with the fullness of my love, power, and longings.

And so, one by one, we opened up and exposed the truth of our being. For some this meant revealing painful secrets, sometimes things that had never been shared with anyone else before. As each bit was revealed, a tapestry of love and respect was being woven together. We discovered we are not alone, and not the only ones. Others allowed themselves to express feelings they had previously been ashamed to show. The similarities and connections between different pieces of work became palpable. So much so that at times a piece of work began, or continued, during someone else’s turn rather than one’s own. At other times many in the group mobilized their empathic presence beyond the already long hours we were keeping to support someone’s work. The unifying theme behind it all was finding the core human needs that gave rise to everything. We discovered, for example, the depth of care towards self and others that was motivating some painful behavior for one participant, and the longing for authentically including all parts of herself that another behavior was signifying for another. Those moments, when we could all connect with the beauty at the root of what had been so hidden and despised inside, nourished all of our faith in ourselves, each other, and people more generally.

And so it was that the biggest surprise was ultimately not surprising at all: the love we created, which deepened and deepened as our time proceeded. We did this work over the course of six days. The quality of presence and attention and empathy that were necessary to support each of us on her way were summoned up from within each of us. Even as some of the time some of us became a trigger for each other, we didn’t shy away from facing the difficulties, and in the end those, too, were rewoven into the fabric of our magic. As we grasped all that we brought forth, all the anguish that led us to adopt our defenses and protections, and all the life underneath, we became luminously beautiful to each other. There is no doubt in my heart and mind that this is what it ultimately means to be human.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Approaching the Oscar Grant Verdict with Empathy

by Miki Kashtan

In a few days, possibly as early as tomorrow, a controversial trial will come to an end, and the verdict of Johannes Mehserle, the police officer who killed Oscar Grant in Oakland last January, will be released. This is a tense moment in Oakland. What will happen if he is acquitted? What will happen if is found guilty? Whatever the verdict is, some people will be unhappy. Some people will interpret whichever result as unjust. What can be done at that time?

One thing that some of us are imagining is having a nonviolent presence with the goal of increasing the chance that people will be heard and treated with care and respect no matter what their position is, or how they express it.

The Bay Area Nonviolent Communication Empathy Team is working in partnership with others to participate in efforts to organize such a nonviolent response in the streets of Oakland. They are planning, in particular, to come to downtown Oakland and support whatever happens, and whoever is there, with the simple and radical gift of empathic presence, which, as French mystic-philosopher Simone Weil said, “is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have the capacity do not possess it.”

The Empathy Team, just celebrating its first anniversary, already has experience offering empathic presence in the midst of intensity and polarized opinions, and is planning on increasing its capacity to be a source of love and empathic presence in our communities in times of difficulty such as the impending release of the verdict. I am so amazed and touched that this group of individuals has taken to heart the idea of seeing everyone’s humanity, no matter their positions or actions, and are now putting it into action.

In May the Empathy Team deployed at the “Israel in the Gardens” event in downtown San Francisco, which takes place around the time of Israeli Independence Day, and tends to draw many attendees and protestors on all sides of the charged issues surrounding Israel and Palestine. This year was particularly tense, as it came right on the heels of the Gaza flotilla incident. Protestors were carrying signs such as “Settlements steal Palestinian land,” and, “No more US tax dollars to support occupation.” Counter-protesters were waving Israeli flags, some shouting insults and slogans. The event was heavily guarded by private security. Judith Katz, one of the co-founders of the Team, wrote that:
By the time we finished, we had talked to over 90 people from all sides of the debate over the course of 3 hours. We heard from members of the Communist Party, Women in Black, and Stand With Us (a pro-Israeli group), as well as Israeli citizens and police officers. Listening to impassioned stories and reflecting back observations, feelings and needs helped contribute to a sense of calm in some cases. People thanked us for listening, some with the resentful caveat that, ‘those on the other side never will.’
The Empathy Team is planning to offer similar support after the Mehserle verdict is announced. In preparation for this activity, I am offering a training this evening, 7-8:30pm, in Berkeley, to support individuals in choosing a nonviolent stance and in getting more grounding in how to offer empathic presence in the face of intensity, conflict, and their own reactions to what they hear. If you are local to the Bay Area and are moved to participate in this activity, I am hoping to see you there.

In a couple of weeks the BayNVC Empathy Team is holding a Gulf of Mexico Empathy Circle, as well as an open house about the group and its activities. Link to event on Facebook. I am excited to imagine this approach growing in its visibility and capacity and offering an alternative model of responding to challenging news, conflicts in the community, and events in the world.