“Don’t just do something, stand there.”
The Indian Ocean beats down on the beach, relentlessly dragging the shoreline back and grinding the sand with its frothing mouth. Ravens squawk and shit in the eaves of the thatch and wild dogs howl indiscriminately at passing scavengers. The sun is seething, flattening the sea breeze, while Pete and I sit on the rough hewn cement of our two-storey hut, taking shade and eating a breakfast of idli pancakes.
We’re discussing the book I’m reading, Non-Violent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg, and Pete asks if I think there is sometimes a need for violent communication. My sense is that our communication baseline is already violent. We’re brutal to ourselves, criticising, blaming, putting ourselves down and insisting that we should be better than who we already are. The gift of consciousness veiled by the illusion of unworthiness. We place unreasonable demands on ourselves and others. We’re violent in our judgement. We cast aspersions, make comparisons, measure people by our own perceptions and ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. And we can be unaware of the violence we bring into our relationships. Wanting to get our own way, wondering why our lovers, friends and family don’t understand us, won’t listen to us, won’t do as we say.
The premise of Non-Violent Communication is based on Ahimsa, one of the five yamas in classical yoga. It translates as ‘do no harm’, which is not to say don’t be boundaried or stand up for yourself, but be alert to your thoughts and actions. The invitation is to listen to what’s really present. To put our own story to one side, whilst becoming more skillful at understanding our own feelings and needs and then those of the Other. Tools and skills that help us to move beyond the communication baseline. To articulate ourselves more clearly, to speak our truth more compassionately, to know the difference between requests and demands and to learn how to deeply listen.
As we sit and talk, a low table lies between us, with a murti of the Goddess, Tara, taking centrestage. Tara represents compassion. Her name means ‘star’, ‘guide’ or ‘the one who traverses’ and as I send my whole self across my makeshift altar, I attempt to traverse the space between us, to be more fully on Pete’s side. To be more compassionate to his feelings and needs by offering up my presence.
“The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all the faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.”
Chuang-Tzu, Chinese Philosopher
When we arrived in Chennai, four weeks ago, the air was thick with diesel and uncertainty. There was no money in the ATMs, my laptop had packed up, I was missing the studio and my feet were yet to feel the hot, dry earth. Inside the first few days, we found ourselves in an arts and crafts shop and this heavy, bronze murti of Tara called to me. Resting in easy pose, holding mudras of fearlessness and openness, she insisted on joining us as we travelled. And, in honor of that, I began a Tara saddhana, chanting her mantra, meditating and journalling each morning, inviting compassion, non-violence and empathy to take root in my heart. Calling my awareness back to that intention as I move through the increasingly hot days. Having compassion with myself, with Pete and with our new friends and experiences.
Non-violent communication is the practice of compassion in action and the refinement of holding space. It’s the skill of ‘emptying our mind and listening with our whole being’. I can sense the shift when I do this and I can hear my harsh language when I don’t. Telling Pete that he ‘should’ do this or offering misplaced advice that is neither needed nor invited. Interfering but believing I’m ‘just trying to help’ and seeing my tendency to control a situation rear its shadowy head… before remembering to be compassionate with myself again.
Rosenberg presents the following examples of how we don’t listen empathically or truly hold space. How we try to fix things when someone just wants to be heard and held.
Advising: “I think you should…” “How come you didn’t…”
One-upping: “That’s nothing, wait till you hear what happened to me.”
Educating: “If you just did this…”
Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault. You did the best you could”
Storytelling: “That reminds me of the time…”
Shutting down: ”Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad…”
Sympathising: “Oh, you poor thing…”
Interrogating: “When did this begin…”
Explaining: “I would have called but…”
Correcting: “That’s not how it happened…”
“Believing we have to fix situations and make others feel better prevents us from being present”. We go up in our heads. Start strategizing. Finding ways to solve things. And it’s not that this is wrong or bad or that we now have to start judging and criticizing ourselves but we can pull back, offer our presence and perhaps notice a shift. What we might find is that our need to solve and fix and advise is more about us than the person we’re trying to help.
“The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have the capacity do not possess it.”
Simone Weil, French philosopher
When the wifi is strong enough, I’ll share my saddhana and post an online class around the theme of Compassion in Action and we can practice together, across the Indian Ocean. If you want the saddhana, in the meantime, then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give you the details.