Sunday, November 28, 2010

Simulated City Council Meeting

by Miki Kashtan

A couple of weeks ago I had the unusual honor of facilitating a city council meeting. The main item on the agenda was a proposal to build affordable housing right at the center of town. As you can imagine, the topic brought a lot of charge for many of those present, and people were polarized on the issue. At the end of the meeting we had a list of criteria for the proposal to address, and sent it back to the committee to re-work. No one got angry. Many shared they experienced much more hope than at the beginning of the meeting that a solution could be found that would address all or most of the criteria. I was, needless to say, overjoyed.

The only problem, though, was that this was a simulated exercise, not the real meeting with the real players. It took place during an advanced training for trainers in Nonviolent Communication that I led a couple of weeks ago. During a session on group facilitation skills, I wanted to demonstrate group decision-making, and asked for an example from the group. The affordable housing proposal was a real issue for the town where one participant was living. She presented the context for us, and then I asked each person in the group to pick a position on the issue that they could identify with. From then on, although this was simulated, people expressed a lot of passion about their position and it felt real as life.

Here are some of the facilitation guidelines that I used during that “meeting,” and my reasons for using them:
  • Reflect back everything that everyone says. This provides several benefits. First, it allows each person to have an experience of being heard (assuming that the facilitator has listening skills…), which contributes to a sense of inclusion, as well as to peace and calm, very useful resources when facilitating a group. In addition, this provides information for the facilitator about what’s important to different people, which is essential for creating a solution that works for everyone or close to that. Lastly, reflection also slows down the conversation and makes it more mindful.
  • Identify and record the core essence underlying what people say. This begins the process of de-polarizing. For example, one of the participants who was opposed to the proposal raised the issue of loss of property value. What we identified as the essential core of this concern was a wish for security for homeowners. Everyone in the room could line up around wanting security for homeowners, even though some people didn’t resonate with preserving property values. Recording each item also deepens the sense of being heard.
  • Create a shared ownership of the criteria for the proposal. Although this may seem small, I have found that having only one list of what’s important to people in terms of criteria/qualities/needs for the proposal makes a huge difference. If two lists are maintained, the polarity gets reinforced. With one list everyone is invited into a space of shared responsibility for the well-being of all.
  • Consciously invite people to only say what hasn’t been said before. Everyone needs to be heard. Not everyone needs to speak. Once a particular position has been heard in full, there is no need for anyone else to say it again. One of the reasons for recording all the needs. As facilitator, I make a point of asking specifically for only new pieces to add to the puzzle. From a certain moment on, when I already have confidence that the shared ownership is taking place, it no longer matters who has which position, and there isn’t even a need to ask for position. People grasp the concept easily, and can add directly to the list of needs/criteria.
  • Tracking and respectful transitions. To increase everyone’s trust that their voice and presence matter, it’s vitally important to track who has something they haven’t yet said, and also to explicitly acknowledge and get agreement from people before moving to speak with another person. This could look like: “I know you have more to say, and I would love to hear it. At this point I am worried about staying with you because so-and-so hasn’t spoken yet at all and wants to. Are you comfortable with me switching to so-and-so and coming back to you later?” Or, in a different context, “I see that your hand is up. Are you OK waiting another couple of minutes until I finish hearing from so-and-so?”
  • Transcend either/or proposals. Although sometimes the group may not have a say in the matter, whenever possible leave room for taking things back to the drawing board for re-doing a proposal. The more criteria and needs we want to include, the more flexible and creative the solution. Such flexibility usually transcends a yes or no to a fixed proposal.
At the end of the meeting we had the following list of criteria that everyone agreed were important in order to achieve a solution that’s workable:
  • Providing access to affordable housing
  • Ease of traffic (the proposed site would likely affect traffic patterns)
  • Security for homeowners
  • Fiscal soundness
  • Care for endangered species (the proposed site was habitat for some species)
  • Culture of peace in town
  • Creative use of resources
  • Creative reuse of resources
  • Consideration of town's infrastructure
  • Providing people directly affected by decisions a real choice in their future
The woman who brought the issue expressed astonishment and immense hope at what had happened, and was planning to meet with the mayor and propose some ideas to him. The overall feeling in the room at the end was one of elation and curiosity, with an opening to the possibility that this could be the way towns conduct business.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Recommitting in the Face of Grief

by Miki Kashtan

In the last several days I have had what I consider the amazing fortune of tapping into some areas in my life where I carry with me a lot of pain and anguish. I feel so blessed by what happened that I wanted to share it in the hopes that others may find meaning in it, and because I want my full humanity to be known. I imagine that the idea that experiencing grief can be a positive experience may be puzzling to some and possibly inspiring to others.

I am reminded of a line that inspired me many years ago, from R.D. Laing: “There is a great deal of pain in life and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.” Although I have long accepted pain as an integral part of life, the organism still habitually resists embracing the experience of pain. Not much. Just enough so that when I succeed in opening my heart up in full to the wrenching experience, whatever it may be, I feel the difference and the relief of being aligned with life again.

For myself, and I know it’s not so for others, the only reliable way to release that last little closing of my heart is to be in the company of others whose love and presence I trust, either globally or at least in the moment. So the first blessing was having had the experience of trusting another’s presence so much and being able to rest in that trust sufficiently to release the last threads of tightness around my grief.

I was most conscious of that gift in the first instance of touching grief. It was about a fundamental way in which I feel alone in the world. I’ve been blessed with much that I want to offer, and I am receiving more and more encouragement from others that the gifts are wanted. I have many people who are passionate about supporting me and I know I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without the ongoing flow of support I receive. At the same time, at the very core level, I lack a sense of anchor in the world, support in the day-to-day of my life, the kind of support that people share with each other when they are in a primary relationship or in a tight-knit community. When this first came up, the person I was with attempted to offer me suggestions for what I could do to structure life in a way that would result in more support for me. I engaged with that conversation without touching the grief that was there. I didn’t experience the suggestions as full presence with me. When I remarked on this to my friend, and when the energy shifted and I experienced her full presence, I was able to relax and in that trust found my way to the grief.

The second blessing was the gift of truth and acceptance. In each of these encounters I came to more clarity about something in my life that I don’t see a way of changing for the moment. In opening to the pain I am opening to acceptance. It’s as if the resistance to the pain comes from the unconscious idea that by not accepting it I can have more hope of changing it. Not so. In the acceptance I find peace, alignment, and the recognition that my choice is internal.

This gift was most pronounced in the second instance of grieving. I was able to share with another friend the pain of having had many significant and close friends exit the friendship, sometimes even disconnecting altogether, by their choice. In certain moments I found the pain so excruciating that it took a certain kind of effort to keep breathing. There was no accusation of others for having left, no self-blaming for not knowing how to show up in ways that people can relate to with sufficient ease over time. Just clean grief. I cannot change what happened, nor the fact that it may well continue to happen again and again. If I find acceptance, I can have more choice about how to meet my life. This has happened about 30 times in my adult life. The only chance I see for continuing to choose, again and again, to show up and keep my heart open to the possibility of being so attached and affected in a new friendship, comes from accepting that all this has happened to me, and letting myself grieve it.

And so comes the third blessing, the gift of energy and freedom. By finding a way to release the residue of visceral resistance to experiencing the pain, I lose my fear of the pain, and I gain back the energy, at times immense energy, that it takes to keep the pain at bay. Losing the fear means more choice, more freedom to be and live as I wish.

The last example of dipping into grief was the clearest to me in this regard. This time I connected with the familiarity and frequency of times of conflict in which I find capacity in me to stretch and open my heart to another until they experience themselves fully heard. And then, when I try to express my experience of the same conflict, the other person doesn’t find a way to be with me and hear me. This one comes to the heart of what nonviolence means to me: the willingness to keep showing up and acting in the world in integrity with who I want to be regardless of how others act. I need all the energy in the world to keep this commitment again and again despite all the disappointments. Grieving, letting myself cry and cry and rip my heart open without blaming, without grasping for change, and without contracting, frees up enough energy that I can keep my heart open.

This energy allows me to re-commit, freshly each time, and without reservations, to keep my passion for my work and plunge without knowing if there will ever be enough support or anchoring; to make myself available to love and be loved without knowing if anyone will ever stay; and to show up with compassion and integrity without knowing if I will ever be received in the way I long for. That, in a nutshell, is the power of grieving.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is the World Perfect as It Is?

by Miki Kashtan

A week ago I finished leading a 6-day intensive training for people who are sharing NVC in the world. One morning I brought to the group my perspective and passion about using NVC to support creating change in the world. In particular, I shared the essential points I wrote about on this blog in a 9-part mini-series earlier this year.

As luck would have it, I was soon invited to practice what I preach – to make myself available to dialogue even when I feel passionately about something. The occasion: a comment/question from one woman in the group about why we would even want to seek change rather than seeing the world as perfect already.

I imagine that some of the people who are reading this would resonate with this comment, and others would resonate with the wave of anguish that arose in me as I heard it and thought of the billions of people on this planet whose plight is such that I can barely understand how they get through one day of their lives, or of the many thousands of children who die daily of preventable food-related causes.

Over the course of this conversation I felt many waves of that anguish, and the related fear about having so many people do nothing to alleviate this suffering and transform the conditions that I believe create it. Each time I experienced such a wave I took an inner breath and just let the wave pass, so I could be present for the dialogue, so that the connection could continue. I also noted the judgment that arose, and my joy at seeing that it didn’t stop me, as judgments had in the past, before I immersed myself in the practice of NVC. The thought kept coming up - “This kind of belief can only emerge from a place of privilege.” – And I kept putting it aside and showing up for the dialogue.

Not only was this tough emotionally because of the intensity. It was also tough because for that whole time I was letting go of specific pieces of teaching that I was hoping to share with the people in the room. I was able to do that, in part, because I was confident that we were right in the thick of a key piece of what I wanted to teach and want all of us all to learn: how to maintain connection, respect, and engagement in the face of intense and potentially irreconcilable differences.

And so I focused on understanding her, which became easier the more I did it. I was able to see that underneath her particular belief about the world she was speaking for values I also have. Primary among them is acceptance of what is, and celebration of and trust in life. The gap was closing already just from understanding her.

And yet dialogue goes both ways; it’s not only about listening. Full dialogue is ultimately an invitation for both parties to hear each other. And so I asked for the group’s support in finding what was under the judgment. I was particularly moved by the participation of the very woman I was judging. With everyone’s help I found a way to open my heart wider, and to have the full passion of what I wanted without the experience of separation and distance that the judgment generates.

What was important to me at bottom is that I am longing for companionship in a kind of courage that I treasure: the willingness to look at what is happening with openness to being touched, affected, moved, and possibly changed in the process. I am also longing for care in action, including the willingness to pay a personal cost and to give up comfort and convenience in standing up for the things we care about.

I was also able to see the difference between accepting what is and believing that everything is perfect. The difference, as I see it now after that conversation, is that accepting what is does not imply liking what is, or evaluating what is in any particular way. It’s simply a recognition that what is happening just is. It’s neither OK nor not OK, it just is. Saying that the world is perfect as it is, on the other hand, evaluates the world, and finds it “good” in some way. Meeting Rumi in the field that’s beyond “thoughts of right and wrongdoing” means letting go of thoughts of right doing, or of perfection, in addition to letting go of thoughts of wrongdoing. Understanding this increases my ability to live in the paradox of accepting what is at the same time of wanting things to be different.

I was able to communicate all of this to the woman who had initially challenged me about creating change in the world, and I trust completely that she was able to hear me. Did we reach an agreement? No. Am I disappointed about that? Not at all. Although I am, still, quite habituated to seeing agreement as a sweet accomplishment, and although disagreement continues to frighten me at times, I am more and more aware that disagreements, even major differences, are here to stay. History is too full of people killing each other because of not tolerating disagreements and differences. How can we, instead, live with disagreements without trying to make them go away? I want to continue to learn, with others, about finding enough curiosity and openness so that even when the going is tough we can hold jointly the gaps between us, because we remember, respect, and love our common humanity.

Monday, November 15, 2010

New York Snippets

by Miki Kashtan

I am writing from New York, a city I love, at the end of a 5-day visit. I lived in Manhattan for 6 years in the 1980’s, and I come back as often as I figure out how. Here are some moments that stay with me from this visit.

I’ve been walking around the apartment where I’ve been staying in short sleeves. I’ve been sleeping with only a light blanket. The windows have been open. The first night I ignored my friend’s advice and closed the window to block of the noise. This resulted in the temperature in the room rising to 80 degrees by morning. Since then I’ve left the window open while the heat is blasting. Talking to another friend, I learn this is common, all around town, in the older buildings. She tells me that because there are fewer cars than anywhere else, and because of the concentration of living spaces, NY actually uses a lot less energy than other cities in the US. Still, knowing the global situation of oil depletion and rising temperatures, I find it unbearable to settle with this widespread leakage of energy. Is there really no solution?

The following are not specific to NY. I have seen and heard similar exchanges elsewhere. In NY much happens in the streets, in public. There are so many people on the streets all the time, everything happens at once, intense, incessant. So all of these I saw within 5 days.

  • Two people walk toward me, clearly in a fight. I don’t know what it’s about. The man says something to the woman before I can hear them. As they walk by I hear her say, in a raised voice: “Don’t talk to me like that. I am not your child.” She is saying, and maybe she doesn’t know she is saying it, that it would be OK if she were his child. This statement suggests that talking “like that” to children, whatever it actually was, is acceptable, normal, routine. Why are we collectively assuming it’s OK to treat children in ways that adults would find offensive if directed toward them?

  • I am on the subway. A young man sits with an older man and an older woman on both sides, and a back-pack kind of contraption situated between his legs in which a little pre-verbal boy is perched. The adults are all talking adoringly about the boy. Probably father and grandparents. At one point, while talking, the older man reaches into the contraption and arranges something or another. His hands move, pull, push different bits of sweater and straps. The movement strikes me. There is no relating in that movement. The boy is handled, the way an inanimate object would be. Later the boy falls asleep, his head drooping to the side. They reach their destination, and the young man picks up the contraption, swings it, and puts it on his back. How I wished he would touch the boy’s face for a second, smile to him, wake him up gently, tell him what’s happening.

  • I am walking with a friend in the Upper West Side. A young girl, no more than 3, probably less, is walking in front of us, crying her heart out. Her mother, I presume, is speaking to her in harsh tones. Then she walks faster and ahead, and the girl’s crying intensifies. From eight feet away mother calls to daughter, raising her voice, telling her that if she wants to be with mother she better stop crying and walk faster. Girl is trying to run, still crying. I cannot continue to talk with my friend, as my own heart is crushed. What would have to happen to a person to get to a place where threatening a little one with leaving seems normal, familiar, common? What makes it possible for at least some adults not to see, feel, hear, experience, the anguish of the small person who knows nothing about continuity of connection unless it’s right there?

No Comment
I am at the Russian Bathhouse on 10th Street and 1st Ave (if you live in NY and don’t know about it, try it out!). This is a treat I give myself every time I come here. I am sitting with a friend, resting between one form of heating our bodies and another. A man speaks to us, with a big smile. “Ahh, I think I’m done, ready to go home,” he says. And I say: “Did you soak in all you could?” He smiles again and says: “No, I vented it out, all of it. Now I am no longer a NY statistic. I can survive another 24 hours in NY.”

Friday, November 5, 2010

Privilege and Needs – Part 2

by Miki Kashtan

What is it that we are taught we can’t have, and what is it that we are encouraged to pursue instead? Here are the pairs I have come up with so far. Can you think of any others? If so, I invite you to post them as comments.

We live in a society which provides a huge amount of convenience to those who can afford it. So much is available at the push of a button which makes life so much more convenient. Yet none of these things provide much joy. It is becoming more and more apparent that this level of convenience is numbing, and that many societies and groups, both outside the USA, and within some groups in the USA (not the dominant group) have significantly less convenience in their life, yet display in many instances a lot more joy despite the oppressive conditions.

Both individuals and groups try to establish for themselves a sense of security, both physical and economic, unsuccessfully. Yet societies exist in the world, or neighborhoods, where the sense of community has not died, and where people are not obsessed by security. Doors are unlocked, and people know that whatever resources exist in the community will be shared. Real security lies within a community, not in amassing fortresses and savings.

Individuals within this society (and others) are striving for success, and sacrifice years of their lives working hard in order to succeed. But their deep need for a sense of purpose in life is not at all addressed, no matter how “successful” they become. At the same time more and more people discover the possibility of experiencing a life away from the tension of success, which is at the same time filled with a sense of purpose.

Technology has made every aspect of our lives more efficient and productive, and that is offered to us as a substitute for exercising our creativity and being able to contribute our gifts in full to others and to life. We speed up to get things done, and we have more and more gadgets and “time-saving” devices, and yet fewer and fewer of us have a sense of meaning on a daily basis, or experience that we make a difference in the world.

The drive to accumulate money is fueled by the assumption that having a lot of money means being free to do what we please. And yet the true sense of freedom eludes most of us. No amount of money can buy internal peace, the ability to respond to situations freshly, and the transformation of debilitating internal messages and external pressures into clarity about what we want and how we want to move towards it.

Finally, having given up on the hope that we will have the power to have our life be the way we want it and have our real needs met, we seek instead to have control over resources and other human beings. Time and again it becomes evident that people's sense of power does not increase with the amount of control they are able to exercise over others. In fact, there is reason to believe that at least some of the time people’s sense of power actually decreases with more access to resources and is replaced by fear and isolation, which drive people to exercise even more control.

Learning about Privilege
The real question for me remains how to support learning about access to resources and privilege without guilt or shame. I do not pretend to know the answer. I only have some preliminary thoughts about this immense task. It’s clear to me that love is essential, so the landing into reality is cushioned, not harsh. I also imagine that rekindling the hope in having our real needs matter makes it more likely that we can open up to experiencing the longings we have. My goal, for myself and for others, is not to “give up” privilege. My hope is that each of us can wake up to the deepest goals and dreams that we have for ourselves and everyone else. When we can accept and celebrate both our needs and our resources, we can learn to use resources with conscious choice. That is my vision of true responsible freedom. I look forward to the many conversations that will support all of us in going in that direction.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Privilege and Needs

by Miki Kashtan

What is it that makes us so attached to privilege when we have it? I have seen a lot of polarity in discussions about privilege, with people who have little access to class, race or gender privilege often having disparaging views about those who do have such access, while those who do have the privilege feeling confused, ashamed or guilty, but nonetheless unable to make a decisive stand on it in terms of their own lives.

I remember in particular a striking example that happened in 1994. I was at the time part of a group of people who were very committed to a shared vision of a transformed society, similar in many respects to the vision that I am working towards these days. At one point in one gathering of the group, the person who was facilitating the gathering asked the people present what would get in their way of committing a significant portion of their income or savings to the joint project. As people responded to the question, I noticed the very vivid level of fear about having nothing left which leaked out of them. I understood then that the key to making sense of the difficulty lay in understanding the nature of the fear.

I have thought about that moment a lot over the years. The question seems even more pressing today, because our very survival as a species, it seems to me, depends on being able to reduce our consumption of resources dramatically. Because I am completely committed to doing so without coercion, I am called to find the root of the issue, so that letting go of privileged access to resources will be seen as attractive rather than a giving up.

These days, with my deep grounding in the centrality of human needs, I have an understanding that I want to put out in the hopes of generating further discussion. I am hungry for leverage to create a peaceful, collaborative transformation in how we live.
My understanding at this point is that privilege is a substitute for real needs. While I don’t believe that any explicit conversations take place about this with children, I have a sense that an implicit process takes place in which we are first cut off from the hope that we can get our real needs met. We are made terrified and hopeless, and actually give up any belief in getting our real needs met, often to the point of losing track of what those needs might be. This gets reinforced later by theories (such as Freud’s) that tell us that our true, unconscious drives are insatiable and can never be fulfilled. I know how often I meet people who dismiss the idea of the real possibility of having their needs met.

Then privilege is offered to some of us as something we can have. Although privilege is a very meager substitute for our real needs, it becomes the only thing possible to have. This is how I currently understand the sometimes desperate clinging to privilege: it looks to us as if giving up the privilege would amount to giving up everything, since the real needs cannot even be experienced. The fear of the void and the nothingness is so strong, that oftentimes it can obscure our own clarity of vision about how we want the world to be.

With this framework in mind, I have set out to identify pairs consisting of a real need and the privilege that's offered as a substitute for it. In each case, the privilege end of the pair supports the existing structure of society. I also like to believe that if more and more of us reconnected and reclaimed fully the needs that we gave up, by necessity this would make us subversive, agents of change. I see comfort as the cement that holds it all in place. Comfort when we have privilege, and comfort in the familiarity of the numbness and craving of privilege that we have when we are, like so so many people in this country and everywhere, without our real needs met and without access to privilege. This understanding provides some relief, some tenderness, lots of compassion for why change is so hard.

In my next post I plan to present the pairs I have identified, and explore what we might do to support ourselves and others in overcoming this key obstacle to transformation.