Thursday, March 22, 2012

Discovering New Frontiers on My Path

by Miki Kashtan

Over the many months of writing this blog, I have alluded often to having chosen vulnerability as a path of spiritual practice for myself, most recently when I wrote about the freedom of committing to a path. As I’ve been on this path for almost 16 years, I wasn’t expecting to be bumped back almost to the very beginning. This is precisely what happened to me over this past weekend as I was sorting out a painful reaction I had to something said about me.

In the past few weeks, I was exposed to quite a number of statements about me that took some effort to digest. I am grateful to years of practice that enabled me to go beyond old habitual ways of taking things personally. For the most part, I felt enormous tenderness toward the person who expressed these statements. Except for this one paragraph that kept spinning inside me. Every time I thought of it, I felt an inner cringe. I don’t like it when I am so preoccupied with something said about me; I feel less free, less open, less capable. I wanted to get relief, and I wanted to have more self-understanding why it was so hard to hear that under certain conditions of acute stress I was perceived as “unpleasant”. And so I brought it up in a conversation with my empathy buddy, fellow NVC trainer Francois Beausoleil.

What I got to after some poking around at the obvious, was the clearest way I’ve ever articulated one of the fundamental dilemmas of being me. The number of times people have difficulties in relation to me is quite high, and I have never been able to understand why. What I am aware of in terms of challenging behavior on my end doesn’t add up to the level of challenge people have expressed to me over the years. There’ve been times, sometimes lasting years, when I lived in debilitating despair about this. Since those days, I’ve developed a high degree of self-acceptance. I’ve also come to a place of much greater peace with the amount of pain and challenge that I experience in my life. Even so, I still experience bouts of acute pain and helplessness. What I became clear about in that conversation was that my internal response to the comprehension gap between my sense of myself and the amount of difficulty people have with me has been to believe - which I still do! - that only by being “perfect” in some elusive way in my social behavior will I be able to prevent the prevalent challenges that people have with me. This belief persists despite my knowing that “perfection” doesn’t exist; despite my knowing that it’s not in my power to affect other people’s reactions to me; and despite my deep self-acceptance. The result is that I put enormous pressure on myself in terms of how I act. During that period of stress when I was perceived as “unpleasant”, and at almost all other times, I strive to either be fully present despite the challenges in my life, or to be fully authentic about my inability to be present, and to ask for support so I can become present. What was so painful was to imagine that my stress “leaked” despite my valiant efforts to manage it with grace.

In this moment, as I am writing this, already calm about this situation, I am not surprised if this indeed happened. One of the areas of challenging behaviors on my end is precisely that I can become abrupt, even shrill in moments, when I am under a lot of stress and I am trying to make something happen. So, looking at it now, all it means is that it happened in some moments when I thought I was more present than I was. That’s only human. I can feel tender toward myself and toward others at the same time.

After my conversation with Francois, I went for a walk with a friend and shared with her my perception of the two ways that I could see myself contributing to difficulties people have with me. One is this behavior under stress, and the other is a certain kind of oblivion in terms of social wisdom, blind spots, lack of consciousness, which always surprise me when anyone points them out. They are always obvious after the fact, and I don’t catch them when they happen. I can so totally see how on the receiving end this can register as lack of care.

That was the point when the bigger surprise came. After listening to me, my friend, who’s known me for years, brought to my attention a third way in which interacting with me can be challenging. I hadn’t remembered that I often make it quite challenging for people to give me love and care unless it comes in “just so” forms which only few people ever find. While I have known this, and know where this protection originated in my childhood, I hadn’t until that day related it to my path of vulnerability. Suddenly, I saw the paradox: how could it be that after almost 16 years of being on that path it was still difficult for me to receive care in other forms than the precise ones that my organism favors? That’s when I understood that my path of vulnerability has been on my terms: I come out, by my volition, and “undefend” myself. I express myself and willingly accept consequences. This is only one side of vulnerability. I’ve not yet even begun exploring what cultivating receptive rather than volitional vulnerability would look like. I’ve had a couple of small experiences that have given me pointers to what this could be. One such experience showed me that this kind of vulnerability is about letting go of a certain kind of holding, allowing the world to “catch” me, and taking the risk that I might “fall” and there would be nothing to land on. A far greater risk to this organism than ridicule or lack of acceptance. It’s about stepping, once again and beyond infancy, into the experience of being at the mercy of others. It’s about a form of deep surrender I’ve only experienced fleetingly. Just as much as I wanted to reclaim my vulnerability when I started my path, I can almost feel the yearning to find my place, to rest in the grand scheme of things, to be part of, not so separate, not so alone.

Now, as I am wrapping up this piece, the confusion I so often have when I write about myself surfaces again. Why would anyone be interested in the intricacies of my inner life? How could this be of any meaning to anyone else? Would anyone judge me for this - as self-absorbed? Complicated? Wordy? And now I see that the journey, the new one, is beginning, because a new question arises: how can I open up to the possibility that some people may respond with love and appreciation? How can I allow myself to take it in, to enjoy it, to rest in it?

Incomplete, confused, raw, and so fully human, I place this piece and myself in your hands.


  1. Wow, Miki, deep gratitude for your sharing! I find it so encouraging to read that you, too, still struggle with places of holding onto conditioning. Somehow that normalizes my own struggles - and puts us both squarely on this Earth as fully human, which is somehow comforting and encouraging at the same time.

    I also appreciate your distinction between volitional and receptive vulnerability as it clarifies something i've experienced: I have trouble feeling love for others when i don't allow myself to feel the love from others! I was missing the two-way street...

  2. After 54 years of whatever journey I'm on, I must confess that the notion of receptive vulnerability never occurred to me. I wonder what it looks like. Is it a basic orientation toward the universe, in which one still feels the cringes that you mention but can nonetheless (I love this phrase) "rest in the grand scheme of things"? Is it, rather, a space in which one no longer feels the cringes at all? I wonder whether the latter is even possible in this life, given our evolutionary limitations: i.e, meeting "attack" with pain as a basic defense mechanism to ensure survival.

    I also wonder (as someone who spends a lot of time exploring spirituality) whether receptive vulnerability was the goal of saints and sages who strove toward self-forgetfulness in service of others and the Ultimate.

    These are random reactions. I also want to affirm your "writing about yourself": as I see it, in writing about yourself you are writing about all of us. In the process, you open new windows on previously unseen things. I know I need that kind of window opening, and I suspect many others do too.

  3. Miki, I'm wondering if the fear/discomfort of "receiving vulnerability" is that one will be seen as needing something and therefore, in a way, exposing our tender underbellies?

  4. I just want to express love and appreciation for what you've written here. My heart is opened having read it. Thank you.

  5. Miki,

    Besides missing you and being inspired by this post to stay up past my bedtime to respond, I humbly hope something I write below contributes even a smallest scent of lavender towards your heart.

    I love this distinction so much between what you are calling "volitional vulnerability" and "receptive vulnerability." When you speak of your vulnerability being on "your terms" I'm curious - what is this expanding which is something else besides on your terms? On whose terms does it rest - or rather - in connection to what does it inspire this expanded holding of vulnerability?

    Re: the idea of only receiving needs in preferred forms and that it is vulnerable to open up to other forms, I am torn.

    1. I want to expand my capacity to receive another's intentionality to love me and allow that to open up my heart. Also, I want to understand any limitations I am imposing on myself to receive a love that really would support me in my life.

    This latter point, that of protecting myself from what I really want, came up for me around contribution. I believe that our needs aren't just met or not, but that there are subtle forms of evaluation that determine via evaluation whether a need is met or not. Other people would tell me I had contributed to them, but it wouldn't sink in, and my need for contribution felt really difficult to meet. It inspired much of what I did, yet didn't ever felt met.

    I became curious in what evaluation I was using to determine if I was contributing or not: the world itself would have to be different in some structural ways. I had set up this thing in my head that said if I was really contributing, then the social field would shift too. When I saw that my need for contribution was actually a strategy for other needs around communal holding of vision, and effective movement towards that vision, I was able to shift towards a different "evaluation" of what qualifies as a met need for contribution. I then became more able to feel a sense of contribution even if I just supported people a little bit in moving to where they want to go. I now feel a greater capacity, through de-coupling contribution and movement towards vision, to experience contribution as met in my life.

    2. On the other hand, there are times when I don't experience my needs as being that flexible. For example: one need that comes up around this is "trust that I can effectively be held with care." This is a huge need for me that comes up around whether I believe others will ever understand me sufficiently to hold care for me. A bunch of needs circulate around this: around mutuality, shared reality, intimacy, etc. I find then that my experience of care from others is correlated with my belief that they are deeply self-connected and deeply skilled at connecting to others.

    I am writing two points here at once: one - that experiencing trust that I can be effectively held with care has a really distinct flavor for me, and this feels like self-care and empowerment, not protection. There are situations where I am not likely to be held effectively with care, and I want to be aware of what contributes to that so I don't constantly create situations where I don't feel a sense of care. Believing others are self-connected has been a powerful "need-evaluation" that is correlated with my experience of care from others.

    Second, because I want to speak to the incredible degree of care I feel in your presence and in your writings, and that this actually touches one of the deepest needs I experience in my life, to trust others can hold me (or anyone really) with care. There is something about the level of self-connection, self-clarity, inquiry that you are inspired to bring into your own life and consciousness that allows me to trust more deeply that human beings as a whole can really care for each other.

    And for this beating heart, that's some big news.

  6. Dear Miki

    Thanks for the rare gift you've shared. To stand naked and fully human, with imperfections exposed by your own hand, takes true grit. To share that journey with others takes a Fearless Heart. What tender courage and vulnerability from your very core. You’ve enriched my own landscape like an artist with true colours, an effervescent breeze through an open window.

    Somehow the timbre of your exposition reminds me of a quote by Marshall “The most important use of NVC may be in developing self-compassion.” I’m curious to know where you intuit your level of self-love and self-compassion. Do you give as much to yourself as you do to others? In times of expressing gratitude to others, do you give silent gratitude to yourself? Do you find inner peace through meditation and soul connection?

    I imagine there are many NVCers like myself who have learned much from you over the years Miki, as a teacher and mentor – from your work with BayNVC to your eloquent blogs, articles and educative videos. You’ve generously shared the fruits of your endeavours. Your tireless work spanning continents to help bring peace to our planet, has not gone unnoticed...even in little ole New Zealand where I live.

    I met you in Japan at the Global Alliance Summit for Ministries and Departments of Peace, representing NZ in 2007. I will never forget your skillful facilitation of our large international gathering, the moving empathy session for our friends from the Philippines, and the workshop where you literally effected a shift of consciousness in one of the participants, leaving us in awe.

    So I’m sending you sincere gratitude from the core of my heart to yours for all you have contributed to the well-being of myself and others, despite your "unpleasant imperfections". I’ll conclude with another question: do you take time to play, have fun, let your hair down, and sing to the moon? Giraffes can dance :)

    Love from New Zealand

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Dear Miki,

      I don't know how to respond to your blog but after walking away for a while, I am going to share with you what I think. It is not exactly empathy.

      We are not exactly perfect as saints. We are human and bound to have 'imperfections' no matter how hard we strive for the completion of anything we practice. There are things that we simply cannot achieve at this time, given the childhood influences and the natural development of our brain. (the trait of "wordy" is how people are when the left hemisphere of the brain is well developed, from what I understand.) But that does not mean something is less of that practice before this discovery.

      I imagine your shock and perhaps heartache at the discovery, and I don't know where you are regarding your needs at this moment so that I can comfort and support you. But I am relieved that you are a human, and continue to strive to reach the excellence of vulnerability the best you can. For me, that counts the most.

      With care,

      P.S. I removed my post because I forgot to put the ending in.

  8. Deeply touching this post, Miki. Gives me hope to know that 16 years of path can still go backwards, so how could I expect (and I do, many times!) that my 5 years of path would have done the job? Silly me, right? So much to learn, so much opening up to do that it pains me only to think about it...

  9. Thank you so much for this post. It strongly feeds my need for connection, compassion and self-acceptance. Thank you!

  10. When I saw your post in my email box I got excited. I don't remember it lately, so I opened it immediately to read and what a beautiful gift you have given me this Lent. Receptive vulnerability is such an attractive way of expressing the most freeing way of living our human experience. Alot of negative expressions have been used for this in my own experience of life, but I am so drawn to what you describe and blessed by it. Thank you.