Thursday, December 30, 2010

Walking Through the Valley: Personal reflections on 2010

Carrying on a personal tradition that I have been doing for years now, here is a reflection on my own experience of the year that just ended, 2010.

Similar to last year, 2009, this was a year that I spent the entirety of living and working in one place - Camphill Soltane in southeastern Pennsylvania. I've been in a romantic relationship with one person the entire year, and have lived in three different houses at Camphill Soltane throughout the year. So outwardly there has been a lot of stability, but the experience inwardly has been a bit different.

The year has been marked by a kind of ongoing low-intensity inner conflict taking place within me. Most people in my life are probably unaware of this, and folks probably would not think to ask me about anything like this. Nonetheless this has been the main theme for me this year. There are a number of factors behind this.

One aspect is that for me throughout the year various practices, belief systems, and foundation stones for my own sense of identity have gradually been falling away. My sense of profound disillusionment with the philosophy and social scene that clusters around the term "anarchism", continued to grow & develop. This process started last year, and continued on into this year.

My biggest sense of loss and change for me, in this regard, came for me in relation to my no longer considering myself to be an NVC trainer or identifying with "Nonviolent Communication" in general. Similar to the whole "anarchist" thing, "Nonviolent Communication" was a large part of my sense of identity for quite some time. It changed my life, it quite literally moved me, and now I can no longer whole-heartedly endorse it. Ironically enough, the process to become an official certified trainer of Nonviolent Communication officially re-opened this year, just shortly after I decided to distance myself from it.

Another aspect of my ongoing inner conflict this year has to do with what in NVC-land is referred to as my "core jackals". This means my inner judgments and evaluations of myself that are a kind of deep-rooted belief that is wrapped around an emotional pain I've been carrying around with me for some time. This year I found my core jackals coming up again & again, in different forms, often not necessarily even in coherent words.

Because of all of this, as well as because of the general sense of heaviness & seriousness that pervaded the house that I lived in for the first half of the year, I had a pretty difficult time. The turning-point was pretty much half-way through, June 21st to be exact, when it was discovered that one of the people whom I lived and worked with had died in the house that we lived in. This was a blow to all of us who lived there, and it pretty much changed the course for the rest of the year.

The following month, in July, I then decided to join a sort of mutual support community of people with shared values coming out of an NVC background. This group is called the "Consciousness Transformation Community", and so far I have found my involvement with this to be very helpful for me.

The month after that, in August, I traveled to Virginia and re-connected with an intentional community of folks whom I used to live with. That experience was also one that I found to be very nourishing for me.

In September I by chance discovered and read this book entitled Razor-Wire Dharma: A Buddhist Life in Prison by Calvin Malone. That book was by far the most memorable and influential book for me of 2010. One of the effects that that book had was for me to gain an interest in working with men in prison in a Buddhist kind of way. Towards this end I discovered the non-profit organization called "the Prison Dharma Network", which I have since gotten involved with.

That book also re-awakened within me my interest in Buddhism, or the Dharma, and the various practices associated with it. That book reminded me that the times in which I remember and practice the various tenets associated with the Dharma are moments when I feel more at peace and on a productive path in my life. That is where I am left now, as the year is at an end. I realize that the Dharma (or "Dhamma" in the Pali language) is a spiritual/religious path that I have found to be beneficial for me when I walk it. This is something that I would like to commit myself to wherever I find myself in life.

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." - Psalm 23:4

Friday, December 3, 2010

Envisioning a new world

I have long had a vision for how the world we live in can be organized in a very different way than things are now. The way that I have been envisioning this is something that I see as being more respectful and honoring of life in general, and in particular the needs and desires of human beings. I figure that it can be helpful for me to sketch out how I see it as being possible for the world to be arranged. Recently I have been inspired and encouraged by the work that Miki Kashtan has been doing in this area, she has really helped me to breathe new life into my thinking here, and I am delighted to say that I feel a sense of companionship as I elaborate here on what I see as to how a new world could look like. What I say here is a brief outline of this ideal world that I would like to live in.

A needs-based, willingness-based, gift-economy-based social structure

Within this new society people would have different ways of viewing themselves and their actions, different assumptions and understandings about social relationships, different values that are prioritized and emphasized in how they live out in the world, different ways of organizing and coordinating affairs among groups of people, and on top of all this a whole new overall global structure for humanity in general. Without referencing any kind of pre-existing philosophy or ideology, I am simply calling this a “needs-based, willingness-based, gift-economy-based social structure”.

Small-scale face-to-face groups of people

The primary social unit in the new society would be the small-scale face-to-face group of people. This would be a group of no more than ten people altogether, and these groups would be the social basis for the whole social structure. Most of people’s daily lives would center around the various small groups that they are a part of. There would be small groups for people’s work-places, small groups for people’s living arrangements (you could call these “families”, or not), small groups based around people’s shared interests, hobbies, recreational activities, passions, beliefs, what-have-you.

Likewise, when conflicts emerge between people, small groups of people will form to constructively address these conflicts. Small groups would meet to ensure common understanding and to make decisions and come to agreements together. Most importantly, the people within these groups would all feel a sense of authentic heart-felt connection with each-other. This is why I see it as being essential for these groups to be small as well as meeting face-to-face.

Authentic heart-felt connection

The basic social glue for society would be people genuinely caring for each-other and feeling a real sense of belonging, understanding, and appreciation for one-another. Various personal and inter-personal tools exist that can be utilized to facilitate this sense of connection between people. The key thing is that individuals and groups of people routinely check in with themselves to see what the current status is for this sense of connection, since the nature of it all is very fluid and always changing. If people see that the feeling of connection is not there or is weak for some reason, then this will be identified and steps would be taken to restore this connection. Within the small groups special meetings will routinely take place to check-in on the sense of connection within the relationships of the group. These meetings will be separate and distinct from whatever other meetings exist to address more organizational and logistical concerns.

Self-responsibility and willingness

An underlying common understanding within this society would be that each person is ultimately responsible for their own thoughts, feelings, and actions. In other words, each person makes their own choices and decisions about whatever it is that they do, and correspondingly, they each take responsibility for it. Everybody understands that nobody “makes” anybody else do anything – that everything is a choice.

With that all being understood, a second operating assumption also exists, and that is that all interactions and agreements between people take place without coercion and out of a sense of genuine willingness. That is, that people do all that they do because they are willing to, better yet, because they want to, and not out of a sense of pressure, guilt, duty or obligation. Everybody will make an effort to see and appreciate the needs behind everything that they do and will have their own desire to meet these needs be their motivating drive behind the choices that they make.

A needs-based paradigm

One of the basic ideas behind the practice of Nonviolent Communication (“NVC”) is that of seeing the underlying fundamental human needs behind everything that people do or desire. Fundamental needs are distinct from strategies to meet needs because needs are finite and universal to all people everywhere, whereas strategies to meet needs are infinite and specific to particular people and situations. This way of looking at people and actions will be a common underlying paradigm within this new society. Because of this approach, whenever people become aware that they are attached to a particular strategy, they will then take the time to identify and appreciate the needs that are underlying and associated with that strategy. By doing this, space can then be made for more strategies available to meet the different needs at play.

Giving gifts and sharing

Another foundational assumption for this society would be that all of the work that is done in this world, everything that one contributes to others, is done out of the spirit of giving a gift. When one gives a gift one has no attachment or expectation of receiving anything from anybody in return. One gives a gift simply to do something to contribute to the well-being and happiness of others. All giving will be done in this way.

Along with gift giving, a corresponding assumption would be that of sharing and non-possession. In other words, everything would be “ours”, not “mine” and “yours”. When people’s needs for privacy, respect, acknowledgement, ease of access, reliability, or trust (to name a few needs) comes up, then these needs are identified and spoken to others in the relevant groups, and strategies and agreements can be found to meet these needs. All of this would be done out of a sense of everyone’s needs being important, where everybody’s needs are held in common, where resources are available to all to help meet everyone’s needs.

Coordination and cooperation

We are blessed to live in a world today where modern communications technologies, computers, databases and internet systems make it possible for enormous numbers of people and resources to be both accounted for and moved from place to place. These already-existing systems and structures can be used in this new world that I am describing, in a new way.

Rather than accounting for and moving someone’s “property” with the expectation of “payment” in return, instead resources are moved from place to place according to people’s needs & requests, and where there are people present who are willing & able to work with these resources to meet the needs expressed. In a world of billions of people, this all would require systems of sophisticated coordination & communication, which luckily we already have the capacity for.

Bottom-up forming of agreements

As I said earlier here, the basic social unit within this new society would be the small group, whether it is in the workplaces, the living arrangements, or other activities. When it is found helpful to have common understandings and agreements that include more people than just a small group, then groups can communicate with each-other and work together. Depending on the situation, the needs at play, the resources available, the willingness of the people present, and other factors, groups can form small networks of small groups to meet needs. Or, larger and more formalized federations of small groups can be formed to meet needs in more ongoing and long-term ways. Networks and federations of small groups could be organized heavily relying upon computer and internet technology to facilitate communication, shared understandings and common agreements. Or, small groups could decide upon having mandated delegates from within their groups going out to meet with other small groups, or meetings with other mandated delegates from other groups, to come to common understandings and agreements together.

The key thing here is that all of the decisions and agreements made concerning larger bodies of people stem from the smaller groups of people, and that these groups of folks have within them a solid sense of connection and mutual understanding with each-other. The larger organizational structures that are created to meet needs can be dynamic, and the strategies that exist to meet needs are infinite, so permeating it all is a sense of openness, possibility, and creativity among everyone.

Keeping track

Part of having effective coordination & cooperation, and part of having effective group decisions & agreements, is making sure that everyone is aware of all that is going on. Therefore it would be important for everything to be kept track of, and for the information to be made available to all. Some of the things to be kept track of are: who is needing & requesting what, who is offering what, what resources are available, who is currently using what resources, what agreements are currently in place, what agreements are in the process of being created, as well as stuff like group schedules, timelines, inventories, etc. A total transparency and careful organization of all of this information would be available to everyone to support the smooth functioning of this society.

An invitation

There is a lot more that I can say here, and many more areas of life that could be addressed as well. I welcome your input, feedback, questions and suggestions on anything that I said here. My hope is that the general vision for a needs-based, willingness-based, gift economy-based social structure for the world can grow and expand.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nonviolent Communication: Tools and Talking-Points for Practicing the Person-Centered Approach

This is the article that I wrote that was published in the most recent issue (Volume 17, Number 1-2) of The Person-Centered Journal, which is a publication produced by the Association for the Development of The Person-Centered Approach ("ADPCA"). This article is based on a workshop that I gave at the annual ADPCA conference of 2009. This article, publication, and organization is all based on "the person-centered approach", which comes out of the work of the renowned humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers.


Nonviolent Communication:
Tools and Talking-Points for Practicing the Person-Centered Approach

Ian Mayes

Camphill Soltane, Glenmoore, PA

I see the process of Nonviolent Communication (aka “NVC”) as being a set of tools to aid one in practicing the Person-Centered Approach (aka the “PCA”) within interpersonal relationships. The great value of NVC as I see it is that it enables one to take the PCA, which is usually looked at in a very theoretical way, and make it into a very practical thing that anyone can do. I see great potential for Nonviolent Communication being used to assist in the real-life applicability of the Person-Centered Approach in more and more diverse situations.

I will briefly examine here some of the key points of the Person-Centered Approach, with a particular emphasis on Carl Rogers’ 1956 document entitled “The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change”, and relate each to their complementary practices that exist within Nonviolent Communication.

The Origin of Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent Communication was first developed by a man named Marshall B. Rosenberg Ph.D. Rosenberg was a student of Carl Rogers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the 1957–1963 time-period. Rosenberg cites Rogers as being a major influence in the development of his work. Towards the end of their time together they were also colleagues working on the Wisconsin Project. In 1966 Rosenberg was awarded diplomate status in clinical psychology from the American Board of Examiners in Professional Psychology.

The process of Nonviolent Communication came into being through Marshall Rosenberg’s work in the 1960’s providing mediation and communication skills training for communities working to peacefully desegregate schools and other public institutions. In the 1980’s an organization was created, the “Center for Nonviolent Communication”, to provide structure and coordination for all of the Nonviolent Communication training that was taking place worldwide.

Applying Nonviolent Communication practices to Carl Rogers’ six “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change”

Here is what Carl Rogers wrote about the necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change:

“For constructive personality change to occur, it is necessary that these conditions exist and continue over a period of time:

• Two persons are in psychological contact.

• The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious.

• The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship.

• The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client.

• The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client's internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client.

• The communication to the client of the therapist's empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.

No other conditions are necessary. If these six conditions exist, and continue over a period of time, this is sufficient. The process of constructive personality change will follow.”

I will now elaborate on how Nonviolent Communication provides specific practices and means to assist one in creating each of these six conditions mentioned above. I will begin by discussing the three conditions which Rogers refers to as the “core conditions”, which are “authenticity, empathy, and unconditional positive regard”.


Nonviolent Communication has two practices to help bring out authenticity (aka “congruence”) within a relationship. The first is what is called “self-empathy”. This consists of stopping and asking yourself what you are feeling and what you are needing within a given situation. It is a form of “giving yourself empathy”, genuinely listening to yourself to discover what your emotional feelings really are and what needs are motivating them.

The second practice is referred to as “honest expression”. Traditionally this is presented as someone first saying what is observed (ie, what is specifically said or done) without any evaluation or interpretation mixed in. Then the speaker says what feelings and needs come alive for them when that observation happens. This expression of one’s own feelings and needs is where it is useful, perhaps even essential, for the speaker to go through a self-empathy process first before honestly expressing to the other person. Finally the speaker gives a clear and doable request to the other person describing what specifically could be done to better meet the needs expressed.


The practice of empathy within Nonviolent Communication consists of attentively listening to someone with an active curiosity towards what the speaker could possibly be feeling and needing. This kind of listening could be done silently, or it could involve verbalizing guesses of possible feelings and needs to ask the speaker.

Within Nonviolent Communication empathy is something that is focused on to such a great extent that it exists as a specific practice that NVC practitioners often arrange to set aside specific times to practice exclusively. In addition to this empathy is also seen as an element that can exist within all interpersonal interactions, the presence of which it would be beneficial to increase. The NVC practice of empathic listening (often referred to as “giving empathy”) is explicit, intentional, learnable, and resources are available to support the development of this skill.

New social forms have developed within the NVC community to support people’s empathic listening skills. For example, there is the “empathy buddy” one-on-one partnership relationship where individuals take turns empathically listening to the other person and being empathically listened to. There is also the “empathy group” relationship where a whole group of people takes turns empathically listening to an individual.

Unconditional Positive Regard

An important differentiation within Nonviolent Communication is that of “heart-open” and “heart-closed.” In other words, “is your heart open or is it closed?” The phrase “heart-open” is synonymous with “unconditional positive regard”, whereas “heart-closed” is synonymous with “conditional positive regard”. Various practices within Nonviolent Communication exist and are being developed that one can apply to discern whether one’s heart is open or closed.

If one is holding judgments of another person, if one’s regard is given “conditionally”, then there is a process within NVC called the “Translating Enemy Images” process. This process involves learning what your judgments are of another person, seeing what demands you may hold of them and what your thought process looks like there. Then the NVC process of discerning the “Observations”, “Feelings”, and “Needs” is used – applied to both yourself as well as in guesses as to the situation of the person whom is being judged. Eventually through the use of this process the judgmental thinking (aka “enemy images”) is transformed into greater clarity and care for both yourself and the other person.

Another practice of unconditional positive regard is expressions of gratitude and appreciation to another person. These expressions can be aided with the NVC process through containing within the expression reference to the actions that have been done, the specific needs that have been met by these actions, and the positive feelings that arise as a result of all of this.

The Client’s Perception of the Core Conditions

There is a means within Nonviolent Communication to gain a sense as to whether the person you are interacting with perceives you as being authentic, empathic and caring. This is through using what are referred to as “connection requests”. These kinds of requests are focused primarily on the relationship itself in the present moment. Examples of connection requests can be things like “how do you feel hearing me say that?”, “can you tell me back what you just heard me say?”, “do you trust that I mean what I’m saying here?”, etc. Based on how the person replies to these you then have more information to work with to better access whether the other person perceives the core conditions as being present within the relationship.

Anxiety and Fear in the Client

One concept that is used within Nonviolent Communication is that of “edges” and “working with your edges”. An “edge” is the area where one’s comfort regarding looking at and talking about a personal matter suddenly shifts. This is where a personal area then becomes “too personal”, “too dangerous”, “scary”, etc. The “edge” is where one’s “comfort zone” meets “out of one’s comfort zone”. Various practices exist to identify these areas and to experiment with them.

Another concept and practice within Nonviolent Communication is referred to as “walking towards your fear”. This is done through first identifying something which one is habitually afraid of and then identifying a specific individual who epitomizes that which one is afraid of. After that is done then one approaches that specific individual and initiates a conversation with them. Throughout this conversation one tries as best one can to be authentic, empathic and caring, while also offering clear doable requests for what could be done to improve things.

A third concept within Nonviolent Communication that is related to this area is that of “scary honesty”. What this refers to are those things that are on one’s mind and one is aware of, but which one is too afraid to verbalize. Saying what is on one’s mind here would be honest, but it is also “scary” to do so. Developing a practice of conjuring up the courage necessary and then proceeding to say these things is engaging in a practice of “scary honesty”.

Psychological Contact

What is referred to by Carl Rogers as “psychological contact” is referred to in Nonviolent Communication as “heart-felt connection”. Within NVC establishing “connection” is highly valued, with many practitioners seeing it as being the entire purpose of it all. To quote the renowned NVC trainer Robert Gonzales:

“The primary intention of NVC is to create a quality of connection in which everyone’s needs are equally valued and met through natural giving.”

Similar to the other qualities mentioned above, various practices exist within NVC to discern and strengthen the quality of connection between individuals.

Additional Person-Centered Approach Key Concepts

The Actualizing Tendency

NVC has a core belief that everything that people do is an attempt to meet some kind of fundamental human need. A fundamental human need is distinct from a strategy to meet needs, in other words, it is independent of any particular person, place, thing, or action. For example, “love”, “acknowledgement”, “understanding”, “accomplishment”, “belonging”, etc. are fundamental human needs, whereas “Mr. Smith”, “sitting next to me”, “reading a book”, “winning the prize”, “having a membership card” are all strategies to meet needs and are not considered needs themselves.

The actualizing tendency can be seen then as being the basic drive that each person has to meet needs. The actualizing tendency is not the same thing as fundamental human needs, it is instead the basic urge that one has to have needs met. I believe that viewing things this way helps to give a clearer picture of how the actualizing tendency interacts with our day-to-day life.

Personal Power

I see Nonviolent Communication as relating with personal power in two ways. First, it strengthens the ability of each person to see the world in terms of concrete observations and doable requests that are separate and distinct from interpretations and evaluations. Seeing the world as it is apart from people’s thoughts about it I believe helps one to have more of a full understanding as to what actually exists that could be used to potentially meet needs. Secondly, NVC strengthens the ability of each person to be aware of the moment-by-moment choices that they make as attempts to meet particular needs. Once one is aware of which needs one wants to have met in a given situation, then one can re-evaluate one’s course of action and chose that which they think is most likely to result in those needs being met.

Nonviolent Communication as a Modern PC Approach


There are very specific places to focus one’s attention on. For example, you can focus on “observations”, “feelings”, “needs”, or “requests” in a number of different ways. You can focus on them in terms of how they relate to you in the present, past, or future, or in terms of another person, or you can focus on them in terms of the thoughts that you have about another person. With the assistance of a skilled practitioner one’s attention can be repeatedly directed to areas where NVC concepts and practices can be applied.You can also break NVC down into bite-size “chunks”. For example, “observations”, “feelings”, “needs”, or “requests” can each be focused on individually until one feels comfortable enough with each concept before proceeding on to another one. One does not need to fully understand the other concepts in order to find value in working with one of them.


There are specific step-by-step processes that can be applied for practice and learning. These processes can be gone through repetitively until one develops new habits around using them. Also, each step can be checked to make sure that it is actually accomplished correctly. For example, there are ways to check to make sure that a request is actually a request, to check that an observation is actually an observation, a need a need, etc.


The Nonviolent Communication process can be embodied at will by people who are trained in it and who make the choice to use it. Situations where the process is demonstrated by one or more persons using the NVC process can be role-played by people trained in it.

An Invitation to You

For the sake of developing your own skill and proficiency in creating the six conditions that Rogers spoke of as being necessary for constructive personality change, I invite you to investigate more about Nonviolent Communication.


d'Ansembourg, Thomas. (2007). Being Genuine: Stop Being Nice, Start Being Real. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press.

Rogers, Carl. (1989). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change. The Carl Rogers Reader. Mariner Books.

Rogers, Carl. (1967). The Therapeutic Relationship and Its Impact: A Study of Psychotherapy with Schizophrenics. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Rosenberg, Marshall. (2003). Life-Enriching Education: NVC Helps Schools Improve Performance, Reduce Conflict and Enhance Relationships. Encinitas, CA: Puddledancer Press.

Rosenberg, Marshall. (2003). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Second Edition. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Years of Fighting can change a man

Last night I watched the movie Fight Club again. This is probably the movie that has most influenced and affected my life. If you haven't seen this movie before, I encourage you to go watch it before reading further so that you will understand more about what I am referring to here.

This movie had a big role in encouraging me to eventually move out of the safety, security and familiar comfortable sense of "home" that I experienced at Twin Oaks Community, where I was living & working at the time when I first saw this movie in 2000.

This movie also later on in 2003 had a big role in encouraging me to quit my job, leave my gated apartment-home and then-fiance in Phoenix, Arizona and embark on a new unpredictable vagabond lifestyle.

For years after that I would watch this film again for further encouragement in maintaining a kind of insurrectionary anarchist world-view and itinerant personal life.

Interestingly enough, my relationship with this movie and it's influence on my life pre-dated my involvement with Nonviolent Communication. However, even after I was involved with NVC, I was able to draw the connection between the two in that Fight Club emphasizes the importance of emotional intimacy, genuine listening, and real vulnerability & trust. To quote the movie: "When people think you're dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just waiting for their turn to speak."

For me the experience of being a part of groups of strangers who would vulnerably open themselves up in front of other strangers, cry and hug each-other mirrored what I was experiencing through Nonviolent Communication workshops, retreats, and practice groups. As the quote goes from the movie, "strangers with this kind of honesty make me go a big rubbery one."

This movie is filled with different quotes, lines, and exchanges that I have found quite meaningful, inspiring, and poignant. A lot of them sum up quite well different aspects of my beliefs and world-view, some more than others at different points of my life. Here are a few of them:

"You have to know, not fear, know, that some day you are going to die. Until you know that and embrace that, you are useless."

"You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank, you're not the car you drive, you're not the contents of your wallet, you're not your fucking khakis. You are the all-singing, all-dancing, crap of the world."

"Fuck off with your sofa units and string green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let... lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may."

"The things you own end up owning you."

"Hitting bottom isn't a weekend retreat. It's not a goddamn seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go!"

And then there is the description of an idealized future utopian society, that especially appealed to me during my anti-civilization phase:

"In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."

Watching this movie again, now, a few different things stand out to me.

The movie is obviously now out-of-date. The people in it use pay-phones and land-lines throughout the movie, as well as filing cabinets and stacks of notecards. Digital technology is notably absent in the film. Plus, there is this line in the movie that describes "our generation" -

"We're the middle children of history.... no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives."

I would say that the international war against militant radical Islamism is now the "Great War" facing our generation, and the global financial crisis is now the "Great Depression" that our generation is going through. Of course, how we are experiencing and relating to these things seems very different for us now compared to what the people of the 1930's and 1940's were going through. But, that is a separate topic.

What especially stood out for me watching this movie again now is how incredibly male-centric the whole movie is. The story details how a nation-wide underground revolutionary movement of men forms and develops, while the only big female character in the whole movie is this one woman who has a lot of sex with the main character. The men who join and are active in this movement come together through physically fighting each-other, some kind of stereotypical macho-violent instinct is activated in them that gets them involved. This whole thing I find distasteful and disinteresting.

I do see and value how helpful it can be to get in touch with a more fundamental and foundational part of yourself and your base humanity, and fighting & fucking is one way to do that. However this does not seem to me to be that much of a step forward, nor that substantial in & of itself.

I see humanity as having so much untapped potential that can be utilized and drawn from, if we really wanted to do so. This sentiment is also expressed in the movie with this quote:

"Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need."

With that being said, then, how is forming groups of guys fighting each-other and submitting to a kind of top-down authoritarian organization (which is how the underground revolutionary movement is structured) any kind of a positive development? Men beating the crap out of each-other and barking orders at each-other has been the basic structure of society for thousands of years. The "revolutionary" model demonstrated in Fight Club is not really any different from that.

Then there is another aspect of "Fight Club" that I take issue with now. It is elucidated with these quotes: "It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything" and "only after disaster can we be resurrected".

I have an ambivalent relationship with this sentiment because on the one hand I have experienced this as being the case with my life. It has indeed been the moments when I have lost everything, when everything fell apart, failed, when disaster struck, that I found the urge, energy, and ability to really change my life around.

On the other hand, I also recognize that many different resources, things, people, places, and practices exist out there to assist people in radically changing their lives around in more positive and healthy ways. In other words, people can choose to access these avenues of support at any time, without having a personal crisis spurring them on. People can proactively take charge of improving themselves.

This is directly at odds with the sentiment expressed in "Fight Club" - "Self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction..."

I would like to believe that he is wrong.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Out Beyond Ideas of NVC And Not-NVC, There Is A Field, I Will Meet You There

A few months ago I stopped considering myself to be an "NVC trainer". However, if I were asked to facilitate an NVC training, I would probably still do it. I no longer consider myself to be an "NVC person" in general. However, I still associate with other folks in that scene, and I usually enjoy those interactions. I have given up on trying to get people interested and involved with NVC. At the same time, I still personally find great value and meaning in the practices, processes, principles, assumptions, and intentions that are all associated with the term "Nonviolent Communication".

This situation of no longer being something while still being something is not new to me. This same thing has recently come about for me regarding the term "anarchist" as well. In common with both of these I am hoping to take something out of it's label, out of it's terminological container, and still keep and use the good stuff inside.

This is all based on a belief that I have now that the term "Nonviolent Communication" more often than not serves more as a hindrance to the actual practice and proliferation of what is referred to with that term. There are eight points that I have regarding this which fall into three separate categories: "organizational", "social" and what I call "evolutionary":


1) The request regarding the term.

The term “Nonviolent Communication” is a Service Mark belonging to the Center for Nonviolent Communication. This organization has requested that those who are not officially certified by them refrain from using the term "Nonviolent Communication" in what they do. The process for becoming a certified trainer with this organization has been closed to new people entering for a number of years now with no indication on when it will re-open. If everyone who has affinity with what is called "Nonviolent Communication" were to follow this request then most of the people who are promoting it would not be using that term.

2) The originator of the term

The term "Nonviolent Communication" is strongly associated with the Center for Nonviolent Communication and its creator, founder and main leader, Marshall Rosenberg. I no longer have trust in that organization or that individual doing the job that they have set out to do within integrity of the values that they proclaim. I am no longer interested in being associated with that particular organization or individual. Using the term "Nonviolent Communication" when promoting this kind of work regularly brings a conversation to the topic of Marshall Rosenberg and I am no longer interested in introducing, explaining, or defending the actions of this man. This topic has been discussed at great length elsewhere, and others share the views that I have as well. I consider my time and energy to be more effectively and enjoyably placed elsewhere.


3) Turning off and misleading

The term "Nonviolent Communication" turns off a lot of people and it is often misleading. I have personally come across a lot of people who have negative associations with the words "nonviolence" or "nonviolent". People also often see these words as not relating to them and their lives. Also, a lot of what "Nonviolent Communication" refers to is not directly about "communication" per se, so using that word is not entirely accurate in describing what is being talked about.

4) Disembodied robot-speak

There is a very pervasive and recurring phenomena of people becoming very excited about and involved in NVC and as a result speaking to others when "using it" in ways that are described as being very robotic, formulaic, stilted and unoriginal. A lot of folks find these ways of speaking to be very disconnecting, whereas the whole intention behind it all is to increase connection! Additionally, an emphasis on the words used and the way that things are phrased often encourages people to loose touch with their bodily-felt understanding, to be "stuck in their head" so to speak. Abandoning the term "Nonviolent Communication", and these particular associations and habits that go along with it, could help with emphasizing other approaches based on more fully felt authenticity.

5) Priceless connection

What is called "Nonviolent Communication" is usually publicly presented in the social context of a commodity exchange relationship – the buying and selling of a product. Usually one person or a group of people are selling something, a training, a workshop, a retreat, a private session, a recording, a book or some other kind of written material, and everybody else is either buying it or are expected to buy it. I do not want to judge this kind of relationship as being "bad" or "wrong", but I do want to ask: Are there any other ways that we can be together where we are learning, growing, and deeply connecting with each other and are not expected to purchase something? I have known a number of people who when they saw the asking-price for an NVC event they immediately lost interest in it. I am convinced that there are other ways that we can organize these kinds of experiences without folks having to play the roles of entrepreneur and consumer.

6) Like-attracts-like

What is called "Nonviolent Communication" is popular among one particular demographic of people, namely, white women who are middle-aged, from a middle class background in a first-world country, and who hold views that are considered to be "liberal" or "progressive". There is nothing "bad" or "wrong" with this particular demographic of people, some of my best friends come from that demographic! However, I want to point out that there are many many many other different kinds of people in the human race besides that one particular demographic. I am concerned that the NVC scene, like every other social scene out there, has a like-attracts-like dynamic taking place. I am convinced that people are subconsciously drawn towards being around other people who are similar to them. In order to open up all that goes under the label of "NVC" to the rest of humanity I see it as being essential to go beyond residing with this one particular label and this one particular social scene of people that goes along with it.


7) Evolving into something else

As more and more different people use what is called "Nonviolent Communication" the practices, processes, understandings, etc. associated with it will naturally over time change. Things will be tweaked and adjusted, other practices, modalities and traditions will be synthesized with it, developments will be made, in short, what is called "NVC" will evolve. As NVC evolves in different directions according to the contributions made by different people eventually what some people are calling "NVC" will look very different from what was originally called "NVC". Some people may no longer wish to call their developed version "NVC", while others may wish to keep that label. Some people may not recognize what other people are calling "NVC" as being at all similar to what they are calling "NVC". What I wonder is: At what point does the term "Nonviolent Communication" lose it's descriptive value in fostering common understanding between people?

8) People learning together

The learning-context in which "Nonviolent Communication" is usually presented is that of the teacher/student model. If the students persist in not having a sense of their own power, this eventually becomes the demagogue/follower model. This approach overlooks the fact that everybody's knowledge is incomplete, that everybody's perceptions are limited, and that everybody makes mistakes. With this in mind I would like for us to discover and implement ways for people to come together to learn with each-other. We all have stuff to share, things to contribute, and areas where we can learn and further grow in, no one is above or below this. I'd like to see this done together cooperatively with everyone's contributions being valued.

What to say instead?

If the term "Nonviolent Communication" is no longer used, what do I suggest be used to refer to what it refers to? Personally, I do not recommend any one particular term to replace it. Any one term used could eventually develop the same kind of problems that the existing term has. What I would like to see is a new approach of openness and versatility: different terms and phrases used for different people and purposes. Some terms would appeal to and make more sense to some people than other terms that are more useful for other people. A diversity of words and labels can be used to connect with a diversity of people. The key thing is that we continually check in to make sure that we understand each-other and feel connected with each-other, regardless of the particular words used.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Thoughts on "Self-Determination"

This morning I presented a short talk for the last day of "Advocacy Week" here at Camphill Soltane. The word "advocacy" here refers to the "Self-Advocacy movement", of which a conference dedicated to that subject took place shortly after my speech.


I want to say a few words about "advocacy" and "self-determination" here.

I do not personally have that much experience with "advocacy" in the sense that it refers to the "self-advocacy" movement. The concept of "self-determination", which is the theme of today's conference, I do have some experience with - but in a different context from what most people here have.

From about the time I was sixteen to around the time I turned 30 the concept of "self-determination" was in the front of my mind as a value that I held as dearly important to me. For about about fourteen years it was something that I thought about almost every day in some form. Why was this?

What happened was this: when I was a teenager I began to question things. I saw that the people in charge - my parents, politicians, bosses - did not know everything and that they made mistakes. I saw that because people did what they wanted, other people sometimes got hurt because of these mistakes or lack of knowledge.

Not only that, I began to look around at the world around me. I began to notice homeless people on the streets and I wondered why they were there. I noticed the wars going on in the world, including wars that are country is involved in, and I wondered why that had to be the case. I began to wonder if watching television comercials and sitting in traffic jams is really the most healthy thing for people to be doing.

Based on these questions that I was holding, I discovered this one particular philosophy called "anarchism". This philosophy says that everyone should be equals, with nobody placed above or below anyone else. It says that nobody should be forced to do anything and that everyone should be given what they need to survive. According to this view stuff like businesses and governments, politicians and bosses should be gotten rid of, and in it's place people should freely come together to share things, make decisions, and work out problems.

Absolutely essential to this philosophy is "self-determination" - the idea that everybody should be free to make their own choices, have their own lifestyle, and determine their own future however they want to do that. This idea is at the core of the "self-advocacy" movement too, the only difference is that self-advocacy focuses on people with disabilities and anarchism focuses on all people everywhere, in every aspect of life.

My passion for anarchism started out as a kind of teenage rebellion, and it grew and continued on to be a burning desire throughout my twenties to create a worldwide social revolution. The choices that I ended up making, the places that I went and the things that I did was all focused around this desire. I saw myself as being a kind of revolutionary and I wanted to change the world.

As the years went by and I had more different experiences, met more different kinds of people, and read more different kinds of things, I began to notice some stuff. I began to notice that when people make their own choices without an authority telling them what to do that they do not necessarily make better decisions. I noticed that people can hurt themselves and hurt other people just as much without an authority present as they can with one there. I began to change my beliefs towards thinking that self-determination is not the most important thing to be working on.

There is a phrase that people say sometimes, perhaps too often, without people thinking about what it means. The phrase goes: "With freedom comes responsibility."

What this means to me is that with our ability to make choices and take action, we also have to think about what effects these will end up having. Will what we choose to do end up helping people or hurting people? Will we end up helping ourselves or hurting ourselves? Will what we want to do help us just now, or will it help in the future too?

Many different times I have seen people, insisting on their right to make their own decisions and to be free people, end up hurting people by the choices they make. Many different times I have seen people hurt themselves because of the decisions that they make too. I myself have at times hurt other people as well as myself by the choices I have made. In other words - free decisions, making your own decisions, does not mean that it will be good decisions.

On the other hand, just because one is a boss or somehow has authority over other people does not mean that one will make good decisions either. History is filled with stories of different people in authority hurting, killing even, many many thousands of people because of the decisions that they made. So what does all of this mean?

What this means to me now is this: I now think that what we need to work on improving is our own wisdom and maturity. I see this as being the most important, because with this regardless of whether someone is making decisions for themself or for other people - people get helped.

When I say the word "wisdom" here I mean the ability to think through things to see what effects your decision will have. This means having the ability to see who will be affected by the things you could do, as well as being aware of how they could be affected. I also mean being able to tell what would help people the most in a decision you could make, what would be the most healthy, as well as what would be the best things for the future as well.

When I say the word "maturity" here I mean, for one, remembering that whatever emotions or feelings you have in the moment will at some point go away. No matter how happy or excited, or angry or sad, that that too will go away. Maturity involves not letting your emotions make your decisions for you. It also involves taking a bigger picture view - it means that you remember that hopefully you will still be alive in ten or twenty years from now, and that what you decide on now will have affects on you then. It also means remembering that people other then you exist - they exist now and are affected by you now, and they will exist after you are gone and will be affected by you then as well.

Advocacy, or anarchism, or "self-determination" in general, can at times focus on the importance of wisdom and maturity, but they do not have to. As I see it no philosophy or movement can completely talk about it either - because wisdom and maturity is something that we work towards, that we grow into - it is always a work in progress.

I do not trust any person who says that they have all the answers - whether it be one person talking about their own life or an authority figure talking about large numbers of people. This is because part of being human means that we have limited knowledge, limited awareness, and that we can make mistakes. Therefore part of embracing our humanity means opening ourselves up to learning more. This is the kind of free choice and social change that I am interested in working towards now - the art of learning together.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A world where everyone's needs matter

Recently I visited Pittsburgh, PA and Columbus, OH and hung out with a bunch of different folks who either now or have in the past identified themselves as being "anarchists". This has been interesting for me in that on the one hand I no longer consider myself to be an "anarchist" and there are a number of different things about "anarchist" culture that I am personally very uncomfortable with. On the other hand, anarchism, and particularly the philosophy of anarchist communism, is simply just common sense to me. It always has been.

Here is the Wikipedia definition for "anarchist communism", in case you don't know what the hell I am talking about here:

"Anarchist communism is a theory of anarchism which advocates the abolition of the state, private property, and capitalism in favor of common ownership of the means of production, direct or consensus democracy and a horizontal network of voluntary associations and workers' councils with production and consumption based on the guiding principle: 'from each according to ability, to each according to need'"

(if the phrase "anarchist communism" here gets in the way of you understanding, or wanting to understand, what I am saying here, then please just pretend like I never used that phrase. You may substitute in your mind a different phrase that helps you hear better what I am trying to say.)

The "common sense" aspects of all of this goes like: "of course we all would want to share everything, not put anybody above or below another, and all work together voluntarily to figure out how we all can get our needs met." Any other system has simply never made any sense to me in a very core way.

Thinking about this, I also immediately feel fundamentally different from anyone else who would have affinity with this philosophy. My reason for this is because I also agree with this quote:

"The individual, and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is with him." - Idries Shah, Caravan of Dreams

What this means to me is that I think that even if the miracle of an anarchist social revolution is achieved, everything that the critics of anarchism say will happen will happen. This is because people still carry within them the same personal and interpersonal dynamics upon which the structures of authority, domination, hierarchy, class, etc. are built.

This has been the case in my own life and in the case of different anarchist/counter-cultural projects & scenes I have personally come across. I have seen time & again how when an impasse is reached & the pressure is on, "when push comes to shove", that authority/obedience - in short, domination - is resorted to. This is done either by reaching for the roles & power that is offered by the larger social institutions surrounding us such as property ownership, laws, social norms. Or, it's done by recreating them anew within the social relationships themselves, such as giving up on your personal desires because of social fear, submitting to the rule of the heavy talkers, establishing a new informal alpha male elite, among other things.

The principle of "from each according to ability, to each according to need" mentioned above also stands out to me, particularly in light of the Nonviolent Communication perspective on fundamental human needs and my personal experience working with people with developmental disabilities.

Basically, what this all teaches me is the incredibly vital importance of sorting yourself out internally. This means doing the work, so to speak, to get really clear on and make a heart-felt connection with your own core motivating intentions & values that surround and underlie both the work that you do and the people whom you live with. Without doing this personal work & getting your heart back, the principle of "from each according to ability, to each according to need" won't work, it all will remain simply a vague nice-sounding slogan that is said.

At the same time, taking a path of simply just "working on yourself", "personal growth", and "creating a different kind of life for yourself" without an emphasis on profound broader social change as well does not appeal to me either. This is because, in my eyes, the world we live in is absolutely insane and genocidal to all life.

It does not make sense to me to ignore the world around us as we retreat either into a nuclear family structure, a self-help sub-culture, or an intentional community counter-culture that is primarily focused on profound personal change. Disregarding the suffering/oppression of those around us will inevitably result in those people who are pain-crazed and desperate enough interfering with your life. When people are in pain and craving relief they will do whatever it takes to get attention, and the world we live in seems fundamentally designed to create lots & lots of suffering for lots & lots of people all over.

In other words, no matter how wonderful a social bubble is created where health, growth, and positive relationships prevail, the rest of the world ("the real world") will sooner or later come crashing in. We still live together on the same planet. This also needs to be taken into account.

So that's the dilemma - how to support profound personal change, redoing your own fundamental personal programming, while at the same time supporting profound social change, rearranging our relationships & institutions in ways that address all the needs of everybody.

A third factor then enters the picture - how to do all this profound personal & social change stuff while at the same time actually surviving in this world - that is, getting your food, shelter, medical care, etc., needs met in sustainable ways that do not support or reproduce the old ways. This usually ties in with the previous question of how does one relate with the rest of the world, ie, "the real world", because often these needs can not be met now without interacting with everyone else.

Often I find myself faced with the sheer intense enormity of these questions, particularly all of these questions all at once, and my response is simply to shut down. It just gets to be too much. With that, it is easier to just ignore it all, to put everything aside and simply just live my life. But we still continue to live in this world, still continue to live with people, so really truly ignoring it all in the long-term simply does not work.

I also often find it challenging to try to reflect on these questions within a group of people, because either: a) what I am trying to say & address is either not understood or considered interesting enough to really think about b) the people listening already have some kind of pre-formulated ideology or system that they are trying to sell or c) one of the three factors that I mentioned above gets routinely overlooked or not sufficiently considered.

So this results in a certain kind of seemingly dead-end that I do not know what to do with.

Motivating me with all of this:

I know that I want myself & others to feel truly free, being keenly aware of our actions, reactions, and choices made.

I want both myself & others to have healthy, happy, mutually supportive social relationships where everyone, the whole world over, has their fundamental needs seen, valued, and considered.

And I want all of this to be very much practical, tangible, based in the real world that we all actually live in where we can all actually do this.

I continue on, as always. The only difference is that now I am a little less keen on finding a label and saying "this is it!", or finding a particular group of people and saying "these are the ones!" It all seems much bigger than that.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stay Down: A reflection on my experience of 2009

When I look back on my experience of 2009 in many ways the main underlying theme of the year for me, personally, was that of recovering from and integrating all that I experienced in 2008 - and to some extent the last ten years (1999 - 2009) as well.
(for a brief re-cap this music video pretty nicely sums up my experience of 2008. This song accompanies the title for this entry here.)

In a number of ways I feel as if I had quite a few traumas, unresolved pain, and just a general sense of "what have I done?" left over from the last ten years that I had to work through. And this year, 2009, was the first time since 2001 that I was living at one place for the entire year, thereby providing a nice, safe, stable living environment conducive for me to do this kind of inner work.

The first five months of 2009 I was primarily focused on traditional organized religion as a way to support me in finding more stability, grounding, and healing in my life. Primarily Buddhism, Christianity, and the Baha'i Faith were the religions that I was exploring. The Baha'i Faith, which is the religion that I was born into and raised with, I became so involved with during early 2009 that I came very close to officially re-joining as a member. I did not end up re-joining it, however, for I was clear-headed enough to be able to realize that there are a number of different statements and beliefs coming from the Baha'i central figures that I fundamentally disagree with. I yearned for a deep sense of devotion, belonging, community, and faith, and for a while I was attached to the idea of the Baha'i Faith being my means for getting all of that in a sustainable and ongoing way.

An interesting thing is that during the time-period in which I was doing the prayers, meditation, and other devotional acts within the Baha'i Faith I did indeed feel more grounded, healthy, and spiritually nourished than I have felt for a long time. When I stopped doing them I felt differently. Different, not necessarily worse, for other needs were then focused on and met.

The period of time after this (May, June, July) I was focused very heavily on doing Nonviolent Communication work in the form of empathic listening, self-empathic inquiry, and self-reflection using NVC for guidance. It was also during this time that I discovered the work of Stephen Schwartz that goes by the name of "Compassionate Self-Care". This had a profound effect on me, enabling me to go through an experience of mourning, and from that find a level of self-acceptance and self-valuing that was deeply supportive for me to move forward.

Another factor that was helpful for me regarding all of this was the existence of regular ongoing empathy partners throughout the year, that is, people with whom I regularly met with in-person or on the phone to give and receive empathic listening with. This is something that I have very much wanted throughout my life, but have not had due to the instability in my life for so long. Now with one steady stable home-base and a daily/weekly schedule present in my life, I have been able to establish these kinds of ongoing regular supportive relationships.

Speaking of relationships, the whole second half of the year contained within it a big element of - being in love. In June I entered into a new romantic relationship with a coworker at Camphill Soltane. The experience has been deeply nourishing for me. The person is a very calm, grounded, and secure person, and being around her I believe has aided me in developing these same qualities within myself as well. With this, it is not a particular belief system or series of spiritual/self-help practices that has supported me, but a real human relationship of depth, meaning, intimacy, and partnership. I feel profoundly grateful for this.

The experience of being a part of a community, engaging in meaningful work, having ongoing mutually-supportive relationships with real people in my daily life - has been quite profound for me as well. In many ways living/working at Camphill Soltane is nothing new for me for I have been a part of communes before, I have done the circuit of esoteric spiritual ideologies, and being around different weird & crazy folk has been my bread & butter. So that has helped to prepare me for all of this and life at Soltane has been no "shock" for me as a result.

This is not to say that it has not been challenging for me at times. I have struggled at times with great frustrations and judgments. Sometimes I have managed my own inner-energy poorly, resulting in me feeling quite "burned-out". But at the end of it all, it all seems manageable to me, with lots of learning & growth to be had from the experience.

Although I have been living and working surrounded by people, many of whom are often quite loud, dramatic, and seemingly unpredictable, the real work for me this year was primarily internal, as you have probably already guessed by now. I began the year by reading the book "Walking in the Shade" and ended it by reading The Golden Notebook, both by Doris Lessing. These two books each in their own ways document a certain period of time of Doris Lessing's life which she describes as: "I was writing my way out of one set of ideas, even out of a way of life." Through my own ongoing year-long process of self-examination that was my experience of 2009 as well.

Many different core pieces of my old identity dropped away this year. It was this year that I stopped referring to myself as "(I)An-ok", that I ceased to consider myself as being "an anarchist", and that I no longer saw myself as being some big drop-out/commune guy. No big new identity, label, or grand agenda arose to replace all of that - and that feels pretty good. Many of my core values are still the same, although a lot of the outward forms and content are different. I simply no longer feel the drive to be quite so ostentatious about all of it.