Saturday, February 26, 2011

Beyond Submission and Rebellion

by Miki Kashtan

(This piece is part of a book in progress called, for now, Reweaving the Human Fabric)

I have never been successful at mastering obedience. As a child, often enough it was my attitude toward my father rather than something in particular that I did which was the cause of punishment and criticism. Obedience is highly prized in authority-based systems. No surprise, then, that my father was attempting to control my defiant spirit more than my specific actions.

Obedience is a form of submission, of giving our will to another out of fear of consequences. It is almost essential to obedience that there be no specific rationale for the action demanded by the authority. “Do as I tell you” leaves no room for questions. We are not supposed to understand, only to carry out.

My father never managed to break my spirit, as was his clear and explicit intention (my mother regularly tried to dissuade him from this plan, to no avail). My defiance, a deep-seated rebellion of the spirit, became an article of pride for me. More often than not, I did what he insisted I do, simply because I had no particular reason not to. And yet I knew that I wasn’t going to let him “get to me,” and I know much of his wrath was precisely about that.

Given my inner satisfaction at emerging from childhood with my full defiant self, I was utterly surprised when I first heard Marshall Rosenberg say: “Never give anyone the power to make you submit or rebel.” It had never before occurred to me that my rebellion, however successful, left the power in my father’s hands. Internally I was more preoccupied with not giving in than with knowing what I wanted and going for it. I chose my actions reactively, not truly from within. I didn’t see what is now so clear to me: that true choice, true freedom, emerges from inner clarity.

I still struggle with this legacy, all these years later. Any time I see someone in a position of authority, be it a police officer, a doctor, or even a therapist, I stiffen a little to protect myself. I recognize that vigilance, that intentionality of protection and defiance, as blocking my soft, open-hearted access to myself, my values, my needs, my feelings, and the choice that emerges clearly from there. Still, often enough I don’t have the inner resources to release the protection.

As luck would have it, I also became, myself, an authority figure for hundreds if not thousands of people who have studied with me. I have watched the dynamics of submission and rebellion from this side, too. I have seen people defer to me when I didn’t ask them to do so, and have felt the pain of separation, the loneliness I experience when people give their power away. I have also seen people respond to me in defiance and rebellion, react to what I didn’t say or do, just because I am in power.

I have been studying this now for years. Although I am still learning, I have already figured out some things. I know that much of the challenge revolves around asking for what we want and being asked by others. When power differences exist, which they do most of the time, even in apparently equal relationships, making requests, saying “yes,” and saying “no” are not simple matters.

Transcending the paradigm of submission and rebellion means asking for what we want without giving away our own power and without taking away the power of others. Children are usually trained to believe that the power resides with the parents. Accordingly, instead of asking for what they want, they tend to say “can I …”, a form of request that leaves the decision about what will happen with the parent. This is a form of submission. Rebellion, often in teenage years, though sometimes years earlier, takes the form of “I am going to …” without leaving any room for the parent to have a say. Freedom, for me, resides in the dialogic stance. “I would like to … and I want to know how you are about it.” Possible at any age.

Moving towards full choice also means being able to receive another’s request, however it is couched, in a way that maintains our own dignity, autonomy, and care. I continue to work on being able to say “no” without closing my heart in defiance, and on being able to say “yes” with full generosity and willingness even when someone is in a position of authority and from their perspective there is no room for dialogue. Choice is soft, empowered, intrinsic.

Such choice is at the heart of a radical consciousness that can see and understand without reacting; a consciousness that can stand up to authority without losing love. Radical consciousness means standing outside the authority structures, seeing them fully, understanding the effects they have on us and others, and knowing internally what matters to us. Sometimes what matters to us is at odds with the culture, and sometimes it is entirely within. Sometimes it aligns with what others want, and sometimes it makes us stand out in our naked vulnerability. Either way, we see, and know, and choose from within, continuing to liberate ourselves from our own blindness, fear, complicity, and mindlessness, and moving towards freedom and full human aliveness, until we become unstoppable.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Year of Blogging

by Miki Kashtan

Today is exactly the anniversary of starting this blog. I looked at the first piece I wrote, and have been reflecting for a few days on this past year through the lens of writing the blog. What stands out to me is that writing this blog marked the beginning of an amazing journey of freedom and finding room for myself in this world.

The very act of writing a blog has been liberating. I remember even when I started the blog I was still struggling with wondering why anyone would want to read my thoughts. Over the course of the year I have felt bolder and bolder in terms of what I am willing to say. I have shared openly about myself and my inner world over the course of this year. I have ventured into controversial topics. And I have allowed my passion and my vision to show. I am holding back less and less, perhaps not at all any longer. This has been a profound experience for me.

On top of that twice this year I have been asked by people I greatly respect to do just this: let go of holding back. One was an invitation to write down all of my dreams, all the projects I long to carry out, the concrete steps I believe can move us towards the vision I hold with such fervor in my heart. I was invited to say it exactly like it was, without holding back, toning down, or censoring in any way. It was very easy for me to come up with the list, because generating ideas has always been easy for me. I was surprised by how hard it was to describe each of them. Many of them brought up fear that I would be judged as naïve or megalomaniac. I had to call on all my being to commit all the words to screen without editing. And now I am only weeks away from publicizing this list and inviting support to make at least some of them happen.

The second invitation was to write a book. My instructions were very stringent: to write a book that has my entire message to the world, including the prophetic vision, the challenge and invitation to look and see where we are, the vision of what’s possible, the concrete practices that I believe support movement towards that vision, the struggles I’ve had in living with this vision and with being who I am. In short: everything. This particular invitation has unleashed more power and joy for me than anything else I can remember this year and for many years. I have been flowing with this invitation, and I anticipate being done with a draft of this book probably by end of April or May. I have almost been in an altered state working on this book, writing, looking for what I have written over the years, putting what I have been thinking about for years into digestible (hopefully) chunks of information. I have found enormous joy in this process, and I feel happier than in such a long time I no longer even remember.

This year has also been a year of gratitude. For most of this year I have maintained a daily practice of gratitude at the end of the day. You may find out about it in the 2nd piece I posted that first day of the blog. I had read reports from research that said that even after three months of just a weekly group practice of sharing gratitude as compared to sharing annoyances, there were differences between the two groups in various measures including physical health! So I know gratitude was powerful. I just didn’t know how much doing more than a year of daily practice would shift my inner landscape. I can’t imagine that this practice isn’t, also, part of what brought me to this place of experiencing joy and satisfaction to such a degree. I have integrated this practice sufficiently to where I am now looking for another daily practice, and am experimenting with a few. Ahh, it’s so sweet for me to think to myself that of course I will keep you posted about this, in a very literally sense.

The third thing that happened this year, which I don’t see as related to this blog and yet is so central to the transformation that’s happened in me, is that I have taken many steps this year to line up what I do with my clearest vision and goals, and to review and reconfigure my commitments. I weeded, expanded, modified, shifted focus, reframed. The result is another part of my current joy – knowing that I am truly and actively looking forward to everything that’s on my calendar now in terms of sharing NVC.

What a rich year!

In conclusion, two things. First, sitting here wondering what I might be able to do or say that would encourage you, the person reading this, to break loose and show up in full, to take the risks, to bring your tender heart and full soul and mind too to everything you do. I want this for all of us, I want this for the possible future of our species. Will you join me?

The second is the sense of mystery. This piece, in addition to closing year one, is also opening up year two of my blog. What will this year bring? So much unfolding, both personally, in terms of my work and calling, and in the world. Far from all good, on any of these levels. I want to trust myself to be the person I want to be in response to all of it. That is, ultimately, my favorite form of freedom.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tests of Courage Part 3 – Our Role in Maintaining the Status Quo

by Miki Kashtan

On Saturday I attended the first annual “Love Warriors’ Convocation” - an event that was put together by Seminary of the Street, one of my favorite local organizations in Oakland.

For the last few years I have had the good fortune of having regular walks with Nichola Torbett. I accompanied her, in conversation, through a process of resigning from her last job and founding this organization. Hers is the courage that takes people into confronting their deepest fears and opening up to life.

Over the course of Saturday’s event we were asked to do just that. I was most struck by what happened in the first part of the afternoon, as part of continuing to digest what has happened in Oakland since Oscar Grant was killed. Sujatha Baliga from Communityworks invited us to share in a circle our response to the following question: “How are you implicated in police brutality and the criminal injustice system?”

There were about 22 of us in the room. The object that was held by each speaker kept moving through the room. As each of us spoke, I felt a growing sense of honesty, a bond of truth between us. Everyone present contributed to a growing tapestry of clarity about what keeps it all in place. One by one we shared stories, small and large, of moments in which we had opportunities to stand up, to make a difference, and to show our humanity, and didn’t because of fear.

By the time it was my turn, I was deeply grateful, profoundly grief-stricken, and in awe. I was so grateful to have this experience of so much honesty, so much willingness to expose the ways we didn’t act on our highest truths and values. I was grief-stricken, because I saw how all of us were caring human beings whose lack of action was based in fear. How were we going to create change if we have so much fear that blocks us? I was in awe, because despite it all what shone to me more than anything was the infinite dignity of everyone in the room, no matter how much we didn’t show up fully. The dignity of owning the truth made us human and dear to me.

My Own Complicity
I want to honor the trust that others who were in the room placed in me by speaking only about what I shared in the circle. I identified three ways that I was implicated. The first was immense fear that I have in relation to the police. I shared the memory of a time, about 10 years ago, when I was witness to a police officer taking a young black man away who was accused of stealing from a store. I had enough courage to come out of my house into the street. I had enough courage to stand and look, relatively close. I even had enough courage to talk to the young man from time to time. I had absolutely no courage to face the police, to say anything to the officer, to try to do something to make things easier for the young man instead of just saying what I hoped were encouraging words. I stood there and felt the fear. I don’t think I knew it so fully until that afternoon.

The second was my inability to love the police fully. It’s so clear to me that to the extent that I keep myself separate from the police in this way, I participate in the same system, because I am perpetuating separation, the fundamental building block on which violence, brutality, and domination all rest.

Lastly, and the most ironic, I knew and shared that my reticence about my ideas is also based on separation. I am so deeply situated in the framework of nonviolence, that I find it difficult to fully relate to people who are open to use of violent means to achieve their goals. I am reticent because of not trusting that my ideas would be heard, taken seriously, or engaged with by the young people who are in the streets chanting and demanding a longer sentence for Mehserle.

Moving toward Possibility
To round up this description, I want to quote from Dave Belden, Tikkun’s managing editor:

“After we had gone round the circle Sujatha asked the opposite question: in what ways have we each refused to be complicit with police brutality and done something to counter it? She urged us not to set the bar too high, and to celebrate whatever we had been able to do. I sensed that she was trying to turn the emotions and analysis in the room from self-recrimination, self-judgment, guilt, or simply sorrow, towards hope, self-support, possibility.

“It was sad to me that she didn’t tell any of her amazing stories of what happens in the circle process with young offenders. I wanted her to paint the picture of the system she imagines, where every community has circle holders who convene circles like the one she had just led that help people get to know each other deeply, long before any trouble erupts in the community, so that trust is built, and when trouble comes, people will go to the circle before they go to the police. She did describe it briefly. But once that kind of idea gets hold, it becomes clear what we could each do, if we want to, in our neighborhoods and schools, whether we are rich, poor, privileged, unprivileged. We can build the alternative structures, experience and trust, that must be in place before we can reduce the police presence and the punitive justice system. That will start to wither away only in so far as we build the alternative ways to protect people, prevent harm, redress harms done.”

I look at what happened in Egypt and wonder, as I am sure so many others do: what would it take for there to be a truly mass nonviolent movement in this country? What can I do to make that possibility more likely? Whatever else it takes, I wish that I and all of us could trust ourselves completely, without reservations, enough to keep our hearts open to others who may well disagree or even fight against us. I wish for us to come together, with honesty and acceptance, to see where we are complicit and what we can do to recover our strength and our courage to rise to the occasion. It’s never easy; it always demands of us to overcome our fears and live on the basis of our hopes and our faith. I keep walking in that direction.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Perspectives on Egypt

by Miki Kashtan

I have been asked to write about what's been happening in Egypt, and all this time I have felt completely ill-equipped to do so.

Now I am happy to say that I have some links to other responses to the events that I found meaningful and hope you will, too. This is also an opportunity for me to speak about two organizations I have a lot of trust in.

First, here's a link to an Al-Jazeera video that focuses on one group of protestors that had a leadership role in the events. Most of the video is about how they run the parts that they run. What I found particularly fascinating was a part in which the video points to links between this movement and earlier nonviolent movements, specifically the one in Serbia that toppled Milosevic. I am so heartened to imagine that nonviolent movements do, indeed, build on each other through history.

Second, I want to introduce everyone who is interested in nonviolence in general and in this uprising in particular to connect with an organization that I have deep respect for. It was founded by Michael Nagler, who I consider to be an exceptional visionary and sharp analyst of nonviolence. Their website has an entire section that is about news from a nonviolent perspective, and I would urge you to visit and browse for soak up the vision and beauty.

Third and last, I want to introduce you to Tom Atlee and the Co-Intelligence Institute. Tom wrote a blog entry on the potential next steps in Egypt and what true democracy could mean for a movement that's as diverse and decentralized as the Egyptian uprising has been. Along the way you will be introduced to Tom's way of thinking about  governance, which has been inspiring me since 1995 when I first met him.

I am so grateful to have access to all these rich resources to be able to share them with you. I hope this supports a wider perspective for at least some.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tests of Courage Part 2 - Who Did and Who Didn’t

by Miki Kashtan

“If I were there [meaning in Germany, during WWII], I would likely be one of those who would go along without asking questions until it was too late.” So began an extraordinary conversation with a woman I recently met when I was in England. I had never imagined hearing anyone say this, so I had nothing but respect for her. “How can you know this about yourself?” I continued. Her answer amazed me even further. She told me she knew herself not to ask many questions, to go along with things. She could see how one little step could lead to another, and by the time you had an inkling of what was actually going on, you would be too entangled to back up. Your family and kids would depend on your income, or your standing in the community would be too precarious anyway. I am wondering if she is ultimately right about herself. After all, she is reflecting on these issues, and with such self-honesty. Wouldn’t that kind of courage give her a moral compass?

The Challenge of Taking a Moral Stand
In an earlier post about these kinds of moral dilemmas I described an extraordinary film I watched when I was in Israel that looks exactly at the challenge of standing up when the cost is high. While still in Israel, I saw “Saviors in the Night,” another astonishing film that directly bears on this question. The movie depicts a true story of a family of farmers in Westphalia that hid mother and daughter during the war under immensely difficult conditions and at high risk to themselves in a small community replete with Nazis. At first not even the entire family knew that their “guests” were Jews, and the teenage daughter was completely identified with the Nazis. One of the most extraordinary scenes in the movie shows the father taking the teenage daughter, after she discovered the truth, to hear some stories that would finally open her heart to the humanity of the Jews. I have rarely seen on screen someone’s heart cracking open to truth, and I sense we can all learn from the choices the father made for how to reach people who are elsewhere.

What this film made abundantly clear to me is just how much courage would be needed in order to make a choice to stand up to the force field of Nazism, to the government, to the individuals around, and to the fear of death itself. It clarified for me why so few had done so. There are only a few hundred documented cases of people saving Jews in Germany. Between this movie and the conversation with the woman in England, I have ever more appreciation for the immense complexity and daunting challenges.

Obedience, Fear, and Empathy
Walking out of the movie I heard someone comment to another about these numbers in a surprised tone in which I heard an edge of moral superiority. I was saddened, because I want us to grow in humility, to learn that we have no way of knowing, any of us, about ourselves. This morning, as I was sitting to write about this, I poked around the web for more information about this movie. I came across a comment from someone that captures this intensity beautifully for me: “If your government was exterminating a despised minority, do you think you would refuse and resist? Or do you think you would go along?”

We know most people didn’t resist. That would mean most of us wouldn’t, either. What makes that possible? What force is powerful enough to be a block to empathy, to what I believe is the natural response to others’ suffering? Milgram’s famous experiments from the 1950s shed some chilling light on the role of discipline and obedience. In his experiments the overwhelming majority of participants were willingly subjecting others to electric shocks which, though in reality imaginary, appeared to them to inflict severe pain on the victims, and which they nonetheless continued to administer.

I had the enormous good fortune of actually watching Milgram’s film, an experience which completely changed my perspective and understanding of what is significant about his experiments. What I found most striking was the degree of personal anguish so many of the participants experienced as they were administering the electric shocks, clearly indicating that their basic reaction was one of aversion to harming another. While people can be brought to ignore, overcome, suppress, or numb out their natural empathic responses, Milgram’s experiments show the enormous cost to human beings of overcoming natural empathy. It’s obedience or fear, not lack of care, that allows these acts.

Who, Then, Stands Up?
Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted a massive study of people who saved Jews during the Holocaust (The Altruistic Personality). Based on many hundreds of interviews, a couple of telling things stand out. One is that rescuers were asked to do so. This is also true in the movie. The farmer would not likely have offered without being asked. When we are asked, we are confronted with the moral dilemma in a way that makes it harder to ignore and downplay. Let’s not give in to the notion that others are too busy or wouldn’t care enough. Let’s give them the respect of asking, always, for what’s truly needed.

The second distinguishing factor is that the people who rescued Jews they tended to grow up in households where punishment was not the norm. They were raised on engaging with values rather than being punished for doing the wrong thing. As a result, they had less fear and more willingness to stand up. This has implications for parenting: we can raise our children without fear, without calling them to obedience. We can honor their endless questions, encourage them to make their own choices in matters of moral principle, and accept their mistakes as part of learning.

This brings me back to the woman who was so open to the possibility that she might have gone along. I like the idea that the more we are willing to stand up and ask questions, all the time, the more likely we are to maintain our moral courage. This is something we can do on a daily basis. We can ask questions, especially in relation to authority, about everything. We can reclaim this capacity we all had as children. We can cultivate it as an inoculation against complicity, against losing our humanity one not-asked question at a time.