Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Understanding Everyone: Empathic Reflections about Osama Bin-Laden’s Killing - Part 2

by Miki Kashtan

This is part 2 of a post I started a couple of weeks ago. At that time I was offering my understanding to the people who are celebrating Osama Bin-Laden’s death, as well as to those who judge the celebration.

Today I want to explore in a similar manner other positions that people have within the range of responses to his killing that I am aware of. However, before doing that I want to respond to some comments on the previous post.


First, to an anonymous person who said this:

“I think you missed a vital point while trying to walk in someone else's shoes, and that is that some people seemed to be celebrating because they believe in vengeance. … They are celebrating because it's a video game, because they believe in an eye for an eye, because he's the bad guy and we're the good guys, and because they don't see him as a real human being. … it's much more of a challenge to empathise with someone who believes in the justness of the killing (murder, actually), and think they would be happy to do it themselves, given half a chance.”

I am appreciating the invitation to stretch even further into the experiential gap with those who are different from us. Initially it seems next to impossible. How can I truly enter the experience of believing in vengeance, of wishing I could be the one to kill, or seeing him as not really human? I feel in me the recoiling, the visceral level distance. And so I walk slowly towards it, as far as I can, to make emotional sense of it. I know enough to know that connection is not made at the level of beliefs. If I only put my attention on someone’s beliefs I am unlikely to get anywhere. And so I shift my focus, I try to ask: What is at the heart of the belief that someone is bad, that someone could be less than human? What is at the heart of the belief that it’s OK to get rid of some people because they are bad? I want to remain curious about the answer, open to discovering it, letting it emerge from practice.

Why is it that some of us want vengeance, that some of us think of killing someone as justice, so much so that we can even derive pleasure from doing it? Thinking of someone as less than human is familiar to me. I have done it plenty of times over the course of my life, and can still feel the pull to go there with regards, ironically, to those who might be making someone else less than human. Irony, and no surprise. Beholding such a gap and remaining open-hearted is such intense pain and confusion. I can see wanting to close the heart.

This is not the end. There is more. There is the delight in someone’s death, the belief that it’s the right thing, the just thing, the only way to go. What is the fundamental human need that’s leading someone to believe in “an eye for an eye?” If I truly embrace the core assumption at the very heart of Nonviolent Communication – that every human action is an attempt to meet a need – then I must find a need that could give rise to this belief. I am struggling to connect the dots in full, because I have no emotional reference point. I still find immense value in the effort to understand, even if I never get there in full. It is a human phenomenon, it’s happened since time immemorial, and I want to understand it. My faith tells me it’s a human experience emerging from needs that are no different from my own. I can name them, and have no emotional vibrancy to them. That’s how far I can go. Perhaps I need to role play this person in order to make contact. For now, I imagine that this kind of belief creates an enormous relief with regards to order in the universe. A sense of belonging in a human family now purified. I do, still, believe that deeper down is fear, and the desire to protect what is dear, and that the delight is in the success itself. And the journey is incomplete. I hope to keep learning this one for as long as I live.


I am imagining myself living in Pakistan, being a Moslem, and having the experience of violation of my national sovereignty and social dignity as the army of a foreign and ill-liked country proceeds to do whatever they wish on my soil. I imagine feeling infuriated and helpless, humiliated.

I am curious why I find so much more ease in relating to this experience, even though it’s also not one I have experienced myself? I guess it’s because I do have an emotional reference point. It’s quite completely different, and yet I sense the affinity. I’ve had the experience of non-consensual sex, with someone I knew, to boot, and more than once. That experience provides a window through which the helplessness and anguish are clear as day. I can sense the depth of the wish to be able to protect what is dear, to maintain the integrity and dignity of identity, of body, of borders, to have a say in what happens to me, to us, on our land. It blends easily with my experience. Even though I have never felt the fury and rage that often come in such moments, I can completely see it. It’s not difficult for me to imagine how much of a fertile ground this experience is for future generations of people set on destroying the people who caused such harm.

And now, through this, I can loop back to the celebrators, united across their opposing positions. I imagine this was my missing link: that the vengeance, the eye for an eye, the celebration of the killing in different moments in different groups, points to the assault on the soul that is at the heart of loss of dignity. I can now imagine that the people who wanted Osama dead, who wanted to kill him themselves if they could, experienced previous actions by Osama as an assault on their dignity and humanity, and that the vengeance is a response to that level of humiliation and helplessness, more so than to safety. I still don’t have a way of knowing. It just feels a little more true, a little more humanly rich, and closer to them as fellow humans.

I don’t feel done quite yet, so I may very well come back to this topic one more time. Still open to new perspectives and players to understand, please send my way.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nonviolence and Killing

by Miki Kashtan

In the wake of Osama Bin-Laden’s killing a very active discussion emerged on the email forum used by the community of trainers certified with the Center for Nonviolent Communication. One thread of this conversation has been about responses to the particular event, and especially how to relate to the people celebrating Bin-Laden’s death. This exploration was the primary inspiration for my previous entry (to which I still intend to come back). Another thread has focused on a more general question: can killing in any way be compatible with nonviolence?

This is by far not a new dilemma in human affairs. The Dalai Lama, one of the living icons of nonviolence, also engaged with this same question, citing a Buddhist scripture that suggests killing may sometimes be necessary, so long as it’s done with utmost compassion and in extreme and rare circumstances. Whether or not the stringent criteria implicit in the story were met in this circumstance, the Dalai Lama’s essential claim is that Buddhism, in principle, is not categorically opposed to killing.

Others, including Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist leader who is also deeply associated with peace and nonviolence, and others who embrace a consciousness of nonviolence, are suggesting that killing is never to be done. For some, true nonviolence entails the willingness to die rather than to kill.

Earlier today an NVC trainer from Germany who is also a Sikh posted on the email forum, and included this sentence: “Killing seems to be part of nature – the question to me really is, what is the consciousness behind it.”

With some significant changes and additions, I am posting here my response to this post. This is an invitation to engage with this question, with all questions, with complexity and with love. In our times, with what we are facing, I don’t believe that simple one-dimensional answers will do. I sense that paradox and complexity are essential for our survival.

I was reminded of a very complex process I went through when I had cancer in 1997. At that time I was part of the Thich Nhat Hanh community, and, specifically, had taken the five precepts, the first of which is no killing and no condoning of killing. This was the background against which I was presented with the prevalent image of "war" against the cancer. I was deeply troubled, because I had complete clarity that these cells, no matter what else was true of them, were part of me, and were alive. I had a lot of difficulty embracing the idea of killing them.

What helped me were two insights, both of which seem relevant to this essential question.

The first was coming to understand that life depends on killing, at all levels. For example, if our immune system stops killing invading germs we will all die in short order. That realization was shocking, disturbing, and also expansive in terms of my understanding of life.

The second was that cancer is an unsustainable life form. It has no way to survive because of the indefinite growth that consumes more and more resources and will, eventually, kill the person whose cancer it is. My choice, as someone with cancer, was to do all I could so that the cancer would die faster and therefore I would stay alive.

In this moment it appears to me that most of the killing that happens in life is interwoven with the ongoing processes of living, eating, shelter, and other such basics. And then there are times when the option of killing happens as an active, conscious decision. I see the example of my cancer as a metaphor for one of the criteria about when killing is harmonious with life.

In a movie I saw many years ago I remember some people who were asking forgiveness of animals before killing them for food. In that act I saw recognition of the inevitability, as well as understanding of the grief and anguish of the necessity, of killing.

When it comes to killing humans I imagine that process being extraordinarily difficult. I have serious doubt that most of the killing that happens amongst humans receives that quality of immense care and attention.

Subsequent to my cancer experience, I lost my capacity to see “no killing” as a vow I could accept. I haven't yet found an elegant way to come up with a simple and tight set of criteria to use in deciding about killing. Nothing that is useful enough to share with others. It has been evident to me that the hermetic and single-focused “no killing” is in most instances easier to observe than the agonizing process of becoming conscious each time and deciding in the absence of clarity. I dropped out of the community, because I didn’t see that I could find companionship in the excruciating work of disentangling the complexity. So I wrestled by myself. Do I kill the ants that one day swarmed into my house in the many hundreds? I did kill them. Was it necessary? I doubt it. They were not threatening my survival in any way, only my comfort. Was the killing done with compassion? Hardly. I was frantic and shaking all over in primal disgust, and didn’t have any sense of presence of mind while spraying them.

Ants are not human, and I still also believe that I myself would not be able to kill another person even in very difficult circumstances. I hope very much that I don’t find myself in such circumstances, because whatever happens will no doubt be deeply traumatic for me.

Whatever else is true, I am confident that the more we can all learn and integrate into our body, mind, and soul the options of dialogue and nonviolent resistance the less likely it is that we would find killing the only option in any given circumstance. In addition to courage and love, I know I want to cultivate creativity so as to be able to find the nonviolent options: the magic of dialogue, the energy of nonviolent resistance, and the vision of love that grounds them both. I want all of us to walk beyond the constraining visions we have inherited, so we can truly see the possibility of transcending either/or thinking and develop trust that we can create outcomes that ultimately benefit everyone.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Understanding Everyone: Empathic Reflections about Osama Bin-Laden’s Killing

by Miki Kashtan

I have had a dream for many years now to be able to provide an empathic response to the news, whatever they are, so that everyone is seen as fully human. I see this situation as just the right time to explore this approach. There are so many ways in which people have participated in or responded to this event, and I want to capture the humanity of all of them. Some are rejoicing, some are horrified, some are skeptical, some are apathetic, and all are fellow humans. As tough as it sometimes is to really feel that commonality, that is what I most want to do.

People Celebrating Bin-Laden’s Death
I confess that this one is particularly challenging for me. Then I remind myself: the more challenging it is to viscerally step into the experience of another, the more necessary it is for me to do so in order to mend the separation. Whatever else is true, what is foreign to me, what is challenging, what is frightening, what I may judge, is also part of life. By distancing myself from it, I remain closed to some aspect of life. When I can truly get into those different experiences, then I embrace life, then I am in flow, without resistance, without claiming to know, and certainly without claiming to control any outcomes. Certainly a tall order.

And so I try to imagine myself being so happy that someone is dead. Why would I be happy that someone is dead? What could possibly be the experience that would lead me to wish for someone’s death? I don’t have to go very far. While I never wanted to kill anyone, I did have a few experiences in my life of reaching such a degree of helplessness and despair in a relationship, that I fantasized about the possibility that a particular person would die, somehow, and relieve me of my immense suffering. I also remember twice in my life when someone died and the primary feeling I had was one of relief. Now I can use these experiences as entry points. I can imagine having so much fear, so much helplessness about the basic, primal sense of safety for me and for the people I care about, both individually and collectively, that I would just be consumed with thoughts about how to get rid of this individual I see as the direct cause of my suffering. Of course, my fear, if I am this person, is likely fed by the media. That doesn’t make my experience one bit less real. I am rejoicing because, for a moment, I actually believe that the source of my troubles is removed.

And what’s the effect on me of having done this exploration? Twofold. First, I feel much less separate. For as long as I held the people celebrating Bin-Laden’s death as “other,” I didn’t even have the memory of my own experiences of extreme helplessness. Now I have more tenderness, for them, and for me. Something feels soft, and in that softness I relax into such immense anguish, and I have tears streaming down my face, and they are the first since I heard the news. My reaching across the divide to understand has opened me to me more fully to my own fallible humanity, as well as to my passion and dreams for how I want the world to be. I know I want different responses, and now I can stand within that dream more fully. I am soft, and I am committed to do what I can.

People Judging the Killing and the Celebration
I have a different challenge altogether in opening my heart here. As is likely evident already, I, too, responded with shock and despair when I heard about people celebrating. On that level it’s so much easier for me to understand the experience that leads to the judgment. At the same time I can also easily access disappointment that people who speak about nonviolent solutions, especially those who have been steeped in the study and practice of nonviolence, respond with distance and judgment. I can easily tell myself that they are reaffirming the very kind of thinking that perpetuates the structures and practices we have in the world. In moments of unconscious righteousness I can be pulled to minimize the differences between the celebrators and the judgers of the celebration.

I wake up from such moments through remembering that my own judging of the judgers is no different, either. Once I remember, the full openness is right there. Why do they judge, why do I judge? Time and again I have come back to the same clarity: when I judge, I am protected in some way. I don’t have to feel whatever is going on in its fullness. I have done that so many times, and continue to do it. Most of the time only for brief seconds, because I so prefer the open-hearted state that I easily choose to unfurl my protection and enter into the experience underneath. Not all the time. In some areas my judgments have not yet been dissolved. Those are the ones that are most likely to help me understand those who judge others. It’s not my agreement with their fundamental perspective. Agreement does not easily lead to empathy, because agreement keeps us at the level of content, and empathy arises at a different level of meaning, closer to the core of our shared human experience of responding to life, moment by moment.

As I keep asking, I see my judgment arising from the depth of my care, and in those places where I least know how to contribute to transformation. I judge, most easily, any time I view someone else as not caring, or not caring enough, and taking actions that I see as potentially harmful. I know that believing there’s lack of care on anyone’s part, whether small or large, frightens me deeply. So I judge as a way to have hope, perhaps. Because the judgment has some strength to it, some conviction. Even after so many years of study and practice, I still don’t have sufficient visceral trust in the power of just being with my own depth of experience, with my own needs, and dreams, and visions. I have seen time and again that the willingness to be with my experience, and to open my heart to another’s, has created breakthrough outcomes. How very sad that this is so. And how very human, given the thousands of years of being taught separation, distance, and creating order through enforecement.

Now the cycle is complete. I can now experience that blessed tenderness, that essential compassion, for the judgers, too. Because, once again, I am not separate. I am, once again, in the flow of life, open to all of us, regardless of where we are.

More to Come
This piece is only the beginning, as there are so many more players. I had, truly, no idea of where this writing would take me. This has been a personal exploration. Without quite planning to do so, the internal integrity or following truth led me to delve into the one-person experience that I have in trying to imagine how all the players are human like me. I am amazed, moved, and grateful for the many years of practice that allow me to share with such vulnerability, and through that experience such connection with life. As I am about to post this piece, I now imagine you reading it, and I feel the stretching into the vulnerability extending further. So many of you I don’t even know. Will you accept me? I see, vividly, that my own relaxed and complete acceptance of myself is what makes it possible to post this. I share this, because I am longing to inspire you all to embrace who you are more and more, so you can be stronger and stronger.

In the coming days I plan to come back and explore additional perspectives. You can help me with this by letting me know through your comments about anyone whose response is challenging for you to understand. Depending on how many such comments I receive, I may or may not find ways to explore them all. I am also inviting you to engage in the same way I did, or in any other way that would support you in seeing the humanity of all.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dialogue and Nonviolence

by Miki Kashtan

I have often reminded others (and myself in the process) that our commitment to nonviolence is only tested when people do things we don’t like. How are we going to respond when we see an individual, a leader, a group, or even a nation, acting in ways that are not aligned with what we want to see happen in the world?

Nonviolence gets its power from love, from breaking down the barriers of separation and cultivating compassion for everyone, from the courage to face consequences to our actions, from the willingness to stand for truth, from the fierce commitment to overcome fear and act in integrity.

Responding nonviolently to what we don’t like, then, invites us to find ways of bringing love, courage, and truth to the situation even while we are trying to transform it.

Nonviolent Resistance and Dialogue
What can our actions look like when we come from this perspective? We either engage in dialogue, when such is available, or we engage in nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance can be seen as an escalation of dialogue just as much as war can be seen as an escalation of diplomatic fear-based negotiations. In nonviolent resistance we bring to bear resources to increase engagement, to make visible our plight, to appeal to the humanity of those whose actions we want to change, or simply to reduce their ability to keep doing their actions without cost so as to invite more consideration of other options. Nonviolent resistance was the quintessential method of Gandhi, MLK, and many other movements, including the recent ones in the Arab world.

Truly nonviolent resistance aims to create an outcome that works for everyone through the recognition that only solutions that work for everyone are sustainable. Any solution that is forced on another person, group, or nation simply has too much potential to breed resentment, even hatred, and therefore to backfire at the soonest opportunity of the forced party to seize power again.

This deep commitment to an outcome that works for everyone is the connecting link between nonviolent resistance and dialogue. Dialogue, unlike nonviolent resistance, requires two (or more) people or groups that are in agreement to talk with each other. However, dialogue doesn’t require both parties to agree to be in dialogue, only to agree to talk. The discipline of dialogue, at its heart, is a commitment to make dialogue possible, to continue to pursue the goal of an outcome that truly works for everyone even when others are only looking out for their own interest.

Dialogue and Conversation
“Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness.” -- Margaret Millar

“Dialogue is a conversation … the outcome of which is unknown.”  -- Martin Buber

While every dialogue is a conversation, not every conversation is a dialogue. What are the features that distinguish dialogue from other forms of conversation? If we accept Buber’s characterization of dialogue, what makes it possible for the outcome to be unknown?

Listening: I know I have embraced dialogue when I recognize in me a sense of openness to the other person’s experience. Part of what makes so many conversations different from the true magic of dialogue is that so often we use the time during which others are speaking to think about the next thing we are going to say, without giving our ears and hearts to the person speaking. This is even more pronounced when whoever is speaking is someone whose actions, words, or opinions we are opposing. This, after all, is the context for this exploration: dialogue as a response to a situation we don’t like.

Openness to change: An unknown outcome means that something along the way has changed from whatever it was that could have been predicted as an outcome. Especially if we are unhappy with how things are, this willingness takes active dedication and commitment. Without it, I don’t trust my own integrity. If I am unwilling to change, to be affected by what I hear sufficiently to consider options which are new to me, on what grounds am I expecting the other person to change?

Holding everyone’s needs: At bottom, embracing the spirit of dialogue is a commitment to caring for everyone who is part of the dialogue, even if they have taken actions that deeply concern me. I love what I see as the radical gift of this commitment. Without it I could so easily be tempted to impose solutions on a less-than-willing person just because I believe they address my own needs better. With this commitment in place I work for an inclusive solution even when the other person may still be advocating for their needs only. This, to me, is where the strength of the commitment to nonviolence gets tested: I want to be able to hold enough love and trust, both in myself and in the humanity of the other parties, that I will stay the course until we are connected, until we have some solution with which we can all live. I have seen it happen on a small scale, and I continue to have faith that such dialogue is possible at all levels.

Honoring Our Limits
The commitment to dialogue may appear to ask of us to have infinite capacity. Always be open to dialogue? With anyone? About anything? Any time they want it?

I have wrestled with this question for years in various contexts, and just recently I reached some clarity that has helped me put it to rest, at least in part. Key to my peace was the distinction between the openness to shifting through dialogue and the act of having an actual conversation with a particular person. Inner and outer aspects.

As to the act of being in conversation with another, that act happens on the material plane, and is therefore subject to finitude in a way that willingness is not. Willingness, like any inner state, has not limits. Our capacity to schedule, mobilize resources, and create the conditions for dialogue to occur, is humanly limited. I have often seen many of us get so confused by material limitations that we close ourselves down and disengage. If I am going to say “no” to participating in a dialogue, I want absolute honesty with myself that my choice is based on clear assessment of my resources rather than a subtle form of avoidance, closed-heartedness, or any other form of putting a barrier between me and another person.

I have found repeatedly that the experience of openness to dialogue in and of itself is transformative. I can tell the difference, sometimes in a very visceral way, in my body itself, when I am or am not open in that way. I know how attachment feels because I have had so many times now the experience of not having it, and the immense freedom that comes with that. It’s not about not wanting, even wanting passionately; it’s not about not having opinions, even strong ones; it’s not about going along with anything or anyone. It’s simply about the willingness to be affected by what I hear, or even by my own imagination about another’s needs or perspective. It’s about allowing connection with needs, my own and another’s, to be the moving force of life, the source of creative strategies.