about nonviolent communication

In this section you will find more information on Nonviolent Communication—how to learn it, resources to support you, and articles written by our trainers.

NVC advocates radical self-responsibility for what we are experiencing at any given moment. It offers a simple yet effective framework to bring awareness to what we are thinking, saying, doing, and how we are listening, so we can connect and communicate with more clarity and compassion. Rather than judging, blaming, or criticizing we start on neutral common ground to share what’s important to us, and connect on an empathetic level with others by tuning in to what they are wanting and what’s important to them. Integrating NVC tools and principles requires intention and attention, especially to break through and transform habitual ways of thinking and communicating into compassionate connection.

NVC Practices

Using these practices in our everyday relationships and circumstances can help us be in harmony with our values and open our heart to see everyone’s humanity. These practices are not about changing other people. They are about sharing what is true for us and discovering what is true for another. The intention of this process is to arrive at strategies that work for everyone.

NVC focuses on three aspects of awareness and communication:

1. Self-Empathy: A deep and compassionate awareness of one's inner-experience.

To experience self-empathy, identify and connect with your body sensations, feelings/emotions, and needs/values in a particular situation, the objective being to replace old habits of judging, blaming, or criticizing yourself. Try out different feelings and needs words until you discover ones that resonate with you. You may experience a felt sense of relaxation when you have connected with your body, feelings, and needs.

2. Empathy for Others: Listening compassionately to the feelings and needs of others.

Listen with your whole being and presence; with your attention on what you’re hearing expressed. Relax your body and take your time. Breathe, pause, and trust whatever emerges. Say back to the person what you are hearing them say (reflective listening) without adding your thoughts, ideas, or solutions. Guess (silently or out loud) someone’s feelings and needs (what matters most to them) rather than expressing old habits you might have of judging, correcting, or criticizing. Integrate your guesses within the flow of the conversation. The speaker will most often agree with or clarify your guesses and in doing so will have the experience of being understood. When you maintain a slow pace, you may sense the other person becoming more relaxed and self-connected. At this point, they often are ready move on to strategies, actions, or requests. Or this might be the timing for you to express yourself.

3. Honest Self-Expression: Expressing oneself authentically by taking responsibility for our own experience.

We often avoid sharing our honesty with someone because we fear we’ll offend them or be seen as blaming them. The NVC process guides us to share:

• What we are observing

• The feelings/sensations we are experiencing in our bodies

• What we are wanting or needing (what we care about, what’s important to us)

• A request we might have to help fulfill our needs

Four Components of NVC

NVC contains four basic components: Observations, Feelings, Needs/Values, and Requests (referred to as OFNR). They are used when empathizing with our self and others, or in sharing our honest self-expression.

The following key distinctions are made when practicing NVC:

1. Observations are distinct from Evaluations, Judgments, Labels, Analysis, Interpretations. Make neutral statements of what you actually/objectively see or hear; objective facts without subjective filters.

2. Feelings are distinct from Perceptions, “Victim Verbs.” Express pure emotions and/or body sensations rather than what you think/perceive someone is doing to you. Victim verbs are thoughts disguised as feelings that often contain blame, such as: (I feel) insulted, attacked, blamed, unappreciated, disrespected, ignored, or misunderstood.

3. Needs/Values are distinct from Strategies, Blame, “Should Thinking.” Needs/Values are considered to be our universal life energy, that which motivates and sustains us. They are intangible, without reference to specific people, actions, or things.

4. Requests are distinct from Demands that use fear, guilt, shame, manipulation, or reward. Requests are made in the present, and are doable, concrete, specific, and affirmative actions (a “do want,” rather than a “don’t want”).

Two types of requests:


• Connection requests for reflection of what you just expressed, to see if what you said came across to your listener. For example: “Would you tell me what you’re hearing me say?” And, “How do you feel about what I’ve just said?”

• Action/Solution requests for strategies to meet needs: “Would you bring the groceries in from the car? I could use some help.”

When making a request, it is important to be willing to hear a “no”. Ask yourself before you make a request if you are attached to a particular outcome or action, because if you are, your request will likely be a demand or expectation in disguise. (Health and Safety issues are the exception.)

Examples of the Four Components

(These can be used in any sequence - each example shows a different order of the OFNR components.)

Observation: “I hear you say you won’t have the report complete until next week…


Feeling: …and I’m feeling some frustration and concern.


Needs/values: It’s important to me that our team is timely on reports so the production team can be efficient.


Request: Would you tell me what’s preventing you from completing the report, and what our team might do to get it finished by 4pm tomorrow?”

 

Feeling: “I feel irritated…


Observation: …when I see you’ve returned my car with an empty gas tank.


Request: Would you fill it up by tonight? 


Needs/values: I want to trust that I can get to work tomorrow.”

 

Request: “Would you be willing to take me to the airport this afternoon? 


Feeling: I’m feeling somewhat anxious…

Needs/values: …and I could use some support and help.


Observation: My car hasn’t been running well this week and I can’t get it fixed until after my trip.”

 

Needs/values: “Because sharing responsibility is important to me in our family…


Request: …would you set the table while I get dinner ready? 


Feeling: I’m happy…


Observation: …seeing what you’ve already done this week to help out at home: you fed the dog, brought your dirty clothes to the laundry, and made your bed each morning. Wow!”

 

Observation: “I’m hearing you say you would like to go out dancing tonight;

Feeling: and I’m feeling so tired and overwhelmed…


Needs/values: … I’d rather take some downtime and rest.


Request (connecting request): How do you feel hearing me say this?”

 

NVC Websites

nvcsantacruz.org  NVC nonprofit in Santa Cruz, California (home base for Christine and Jean); workshops, classes, trainings, and 6-month Integration and Immersion Program (IIP).

cnvc.org The international website for the Center for Nonviolent Communication; CNVC certified trainers; schedule for founder, Marshall B. Rosenberg; books, CDs, DVDs, training supplies.

k-hcommunication.com Books and games for parents and teachers. Includes the   “No Fault Zone Game.” Founded by educators Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson.

nvctraining.com The NVC Academy offers NVC teleclasses with CNVC certified trainers from around the world.

nvctoolkit.com A comprehensive 500 page guide for NVC facilitators by Lucy Leu, Raj Gill, and Judy Morin. When you purchase the book, they give you web support with videos and handouts.

nonviolentcommunication.com Puddle Dancer Press publishes books by Marshall Rosenberg and other NVC authors. It’s also a resource for sharing and learning NVC.

nvcdancefloors.com Designed by Bridget Belgrave and Gina Lawrie, the NVC Dance Floors provide kinesthetic learning of NVC.

theempathylabyrinth.com Also a kinesthetic learning tool to give empathy to yourself and others created by Marc Weiner.

empathy-conexus.com John Cunningham offers a free downloadable booklet with all the components of NVC.

nvcworld.com NVC trainer Ian Peatey calls his site "the most extensive source for Nonviolent Communication resources on the web" 

Complimentary Websites 

thework.com Byron Katie’s inquiry process that teaches us to identify and question our thoughts. Handouts are available for downloading from this website.

hbdi.com Whole brain learning can give us the ability to think and act outside of our preferred thinking style.

restorativecircles.org Restorative Circles are held when an act has occurred to disrupt a community. This is a non-punitive was to restore trust, safety, and connection.

corstone.org Their mission: “Fostering emotional resiliency for challenge, conflict or crisis.” Their toolkit includes: Attitudinal Healing, Restorative Practices, Positive Psychology, and they offer other trainings and workshops to support emotional resiliency.

There are many ways to learn NVC, including: through books and materials, workshops, DVDs, CDs, classes,  practice groups, and/or individual sessions with NVC trainers.  For the committed learner, we recommend using ALL of these  approaches.  We often hear people comment that “Marshall’s book got me interested and the classes and workshops brought the material home to me so I could apply the principles and skills in my daily life and in all my relationships.

For Learning On Your Own

(1) We suggest you start with Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Communication FUNdamentals is an illustrated primer with a light hearted touch which covers many of the topics in Marshall’s book. Lucy Leu’s work book, Nonviolent Communication Workbook for Individual and Group Practice can also support your learning. You can buy these books and other materials through the CNVC bookstore. (Chris: please link that to cnvc.org) You can find out more about Marshall’s book and NVC at PuddleDancer Press, his publisher’s website.

(2) If you would like to see Marshal teaching NVC on video, we recommend The Basics of Nonviolent Communication, An Introductory Training in Nonviolent Communication with Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. 

(3) If you’d like to learn by listening to an audiotape or CD, we suggest starting with Speaking Peace: Connecting with Others through Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, for a comprehensive introduction to NVC.

(4) Join one of the email groups available through CNVC website and share the learning process with others.

Articles

by Christine King

I work in a minimum security womens facility that is more like a college dormitory than a jail. The women take classes in life skills, parenting, substance abuse, knitting, and Nonviolent Communication. There is a garden where they grow vegetables and then prepare the food in their kitchen.  They also foster kittens that are too young to be adopted. This gives the women something to nurture and love and it’s sweet watching how fiercely some of them protect those kittens. 

One day when I came to work at the jail, some of the inmates were furious because the whiskers had been completely cut off one of the kittens. These women were going from room to room announcing what had happened and how they were going to find out who did it and she was going to pay. Eventually, an inmate was accused of cutting off the whiskers and ‘rolled over’, meaning she went to a higher security jail. I never saw her after that.

I tell this story because I thought long and hard about why someone might cut off a kitten’s whiskers. The woman who allegedly did it was a student in my class. When she told her life story and others guessed at emotions such as angry, pissed off, furious, she often said, ‘no, I didn’t mind when my boyfriend treated me like that’.

Many of these women come from homes where emotions were not safe, valued, or encouraged. This is not unique to the prison population, yet it may be more pronounced because most of these women come from abusive homes, molested by their grandfathers and fathers, the very people we look to for love and protection. I once heard an ex-offender say he grew up thinking the world was a scary and dangerous place so he had to be scary and dangerous to protect himself. This is also true for many of these women.

I believe the healing process is enhanced when these women can begin to identify and trust their emotions. So I start with a pretty gentle, common sense approach. I begin by teaching them that feelings keep us alive—if we didn’t know we were hungry or cold, we wouldn’t put on a jacket or eat food. From there, we explore the full range of physical and emotional feelings and connect the feelings to needs. My experience is that the women in the jail are hungry for empathy.

Reflecting about the woman who cut the whiskers off the kitten, I realized cat’s whiskers help orient them and feel into their world. If the kitten couldn’t feel anything, then in one sense, the kitten was experiencing the exact same thing as the inmate who was not connected with her own emotions. To not be isolated or alone, we need others to share our experience. If our experience has been one of phased abuse, unconsciously we may inflict abuse on another to “share” our experience. Cutting the kitten’s whiskers was the woman’s woeful attempt to receive empathy.

I believe many of the crimes these women do commit are misguided desires for empathy. One of my current students is in jail for physical violence. She was beaten by her own stepfather who also beat her mother. We talk about her childhood and all the pain she still carries around from that experience. By physically harming others, it’s like saying “if you feel exactly how I felt, then I’m not alone and there is someone else to share my feelings.”

It’s possible that crimes which physically inflict harm on others may be tragic attempts for empathy. It backfires of course when the person who commits the crime is incarcerated and punished. Because then more pain is created and the need for empathy increases and so the cycle continues.

I dream of a world where those who are in emotional pain receive the empathy and understanding they need.

by Christine King

Several days ago, I wrote an email to my sister letting her know I would be in town and asking her if we could get together. Today an email arrived replying that she would be leaving that particular morning for Tassajara Hot Springs and therefore could not meet me.

Here’s what flashed through my mind the instant I read her email:

“Tassajara…I’m the one who goes to Tassajara, not my sister.”

That’s not her kind of place—she’s too conservative for Tassajara.”

She will have to go through my town to get to Tassajara—why didn’t she let me know she was coming through town or even invite me to join her?”

Body contracting. Breathing getting shallower. Welcome aboard the Jackal Train.

Thankfully, I’ve been a meditator most of my adult life and a NVC practitioner for the past nine years. I’ve been trained to watch my Jackal (Eckhart Tolle calls it the Pain Body) and while I’m not always successful, it gets easier. The amount of time I experience this contraction has shortened over the years.

Here’s my process. Take a breath. Breathe again. Keep breathing until contractions release and the body relaxes. Understand what the egoic mind is attaching itself to: comparing, evaluating, interrogating. OK, so breathe, relax, soften, open, and expand. When I open and expand, I embrace the universality of this moment to encompass the external world—in this case, my sister’s reality.

And what is the Observable Fact here? My sister told me she is going to Tassajara. How am I feeling? Disappointed, Envious.

My Jackal jumps in again “Those aren’t very nice emotions.”

Breathing again. Releasing tension from the body. What’s the habit-mind, the Jackal Show doing now? I’m evaluating my emotions. What’s the need here? Acceptance and openness to all emotions, no matter how uncomfortable.

Breathing again. Relaxing. Opening. I can accept these emotions, allow them to exist, knowing they are only e-motions—energy in motion—passing through me, temporary, impermanent. Recognizing this, I can know the nature of the habitual mind and release it’s impossible burdens.

What’s my need vis-à-vis my sister’s trip? Inclusion, Connection, Fun, Play. Do I think these needs are unmet and she has to meet them? Can I breathe into these needs, knowing I can meet these needs anytime I choose—I don’t have to wait for someone to invite me to meet these needs.

I can mourn those needs which seemed impoverished to me at the moment. I mourn I wasn’t invited to accompany my sister to Tassajara. I mourn that she didn’t let me know she was coming through town.

So what would I like to request? I really don’t want to ask her “Can I come?” or “I’m curious why you didn’t invite me.” To be honest, we don’t socialize much outside of family gatherings and I’m not sure I would want to go with her to Tassajara. Besides, I can’t go Monday even if she had asked me. Now I’m mourning that we don’t socialize much—we’re not as close as I’d like to be with a sister…and I can forgive myself for not working harder on this relationship and set the intention to work at it.

And so I turn the request to myself. “After acknowledging your feelings and needs, has anything shifted?” The answer is emphatically “Yes”. I recognize these thoughts as passing through—I don’t have to believe or buy into thoughts my mind is telling me. I don’t have to pick up that second arrow and pierce my heart. Instead I can recognize the truth of impermanence and not believe in or act out my habit mind’s reactivity.

Now what am I feeling and needing? More spacious, more alive, more self-connected, peaceful. I wait a few hours until my Jackal Show is completely over and I hop off the Jackal Train. I write my sister an email something like: “Tassajara. How cool is that! Have a wonderful time!” And I truly mean it.

How precious my Jackal.

by Christine King

Sitting on my cushion before sunrise, I listen to the Pacific Ocean breaking against the shore and seals barking the day awake. The seashore is a constant reminder of the emotions coursing through me. I observe my breath. Thoughts arise, thoughts pass, no attachment, no clinging. I am the embodiment of calm, a peaceful Boddhisattva, at one with my zafu during that special time of transition when it is neither day nor night, and the spirit world reveals itself.

And then day breaks and chaos takes over. The peaceful Pacific is
replaced by the cacophony of cars that buzz outside my window, and my peace of mind evaporates. The dog needs walking, breakfast needs cooking, children need to get to school and parents to work. The phone rings and the world intrudes. I wonder what happened. It was all so simple and easy on the cushion. This is not a recent phenomena; rather, it’s a dilemma that has dogged me for over 25 years whenever I have re-entered the world from meditation and attempted to continue being present with an open heart moment-to-moment awareness.

It was my son who helped me bridge the gap between practice and life. As a teenager, he wrecked more than one car, experimented with all of the temptations that a California beach city offers, dropped out of school, quit his job, and bummed around the state--living in trees, churches, and abandoned barns. In the midst of those events, I was an emotional wreck. I kept telling myself if only he would wake up, grow up and wise up, then I wouldn’t suffer anymore. We tried therapy for several of his teen years, but eventually he would refuse to go after it became abundantly clear the therapists were biased toward my husband and me. In the midst of my despair, I was asked to attend an in-service training along with the other staff and faculty at the Santa Cruz Waldorf School. The training was called Nonviolent Communication.

The weekend before the class, I stayed up half the night reading 
Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion. While most of the book resonated with by Buddhist training and beliefs, I wondered if I could apply those four simple communication steps: Observation, Feelings, Needs and Requests. It seemed so canned and mechanistic. Wouldn’t others see through the fact that I was following a speaking formula? The trainer, Jean Morrison, was skilled and adept at using the language and made it seem so simple. But my judging mind was getting in the way. Jean used stuffed animal puppets. I told myself "she doesn’t realize we use only natural toys in Waldorf Schools". I also kept thinking, "using mechanistic language would block true heart-to-heart communication." Yet desperate for any tool to help me better connect with my son, I persevered.

At first, I would practice NVC in the sauna at the gym, where people 
are surprisingly open about their lives. It took a lot of presence to remember the NVC components: cerebral work, certainly not heart work. But I was getting results. People were responding, and I learned that what Marshall Rosenberg says is true: sometimes when someone speaks, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we show empathy, they begin to reveal more of the iceberg. Before we know it, we’re learning that this person never felt they were good enough in their parent’s eyes and have spent their entire adult life trying to prove they are worthy. Witnessing this process, I learned something very important: I don’t have to fix anything, give advice, console, agree, or even sympathize. The mere act of being present, getting in touch with feelings and needs, has tremendous possibility for spiritual growth and transformation. Thich Naht Hanh calls this "deep listening".

Recently, I had the opportunity to go even deeper with this work at several week-long NVC retreats. Many of the attendees had spiritual practices and a lot of silence was used during the training. In our morning empathy circles, I was privileged to once again witness transformation as individuals would share what appeared to be a conflict in their lives. Once we got down to the basic human needs (understanding, peace, cooperation, appreciation, love), we discovered the apparent discord was really just different strategies to fulfill the same need. When this understanding resonated with the speaker, something shifted, and there was an ah-ha cathartic moment. As I witnessed others touching their suffering, my pain diminished as well. I came to the realization that empathy has the power to heal both the speaker and the witnesses. Empathy is the practice of peace.

Nonviolent Communication is the "wise or mindful speech" I have been missing in my life. The deeper I experience and enjoy using NVC, the more it complements my sitting practice and the more I am able to be empty, be present, and connect empathically with my family and friends. One of the strongest connections I see between the two practices of meditation and NVC is the idea of pure observation. If I can observe without judgments and evaluations, then I can see clearly into the nature of things. When I use my judging mind, I am no longer objective and there is disconnect. And when I am in touch with feelings and needs, there is connection. Emotions are impermanent, constantly changing, and thus freedom of choice arises at every moment. I have a choice to look for the need behind an emotion, or simply observe it, as it arises and subsides.

Meditation has given me the mental clarity to see that other people’s anger and frustration has nothing to do with me. Through studying and practicing NVC, I have learned that their anger is an expression of unfulfilled needs. Through the practice of empathy, I can serve others in helping them to discover the cause of their suffering. I can join them in a dance of discovery and not be intimidated or upset by their anger. And I’ve learned there is really only one war that I have control over, the war that goes on inside of me every day. When I use self-empathy and stay aware of my feelings and needs, I am more at ease with myself and able to share that peace with others. Mohatmas Ghandi once said "be the change you want to see in the world"—this is what NVC offers.

My son is now 20 years old and living in La Paz, Mexico. When he
realized I had no more demands or expectations for him to attend 
college or get a job, he took the first bus to San Diego and followed his heart to warmer climates. His Spanish is almost perfect now and he sends us hand-painted post cards. His voice on the telephone is joyful and contented. He’s talking about coming home for the holidays and re-enrolling in the community college for the Spring semester. Whatever he decides, it will be his decision to choose his path without guilt, demands, or expectations from me. I am deeply grateful to him for being the catalyst that helped me touch my own suffering and healing--and discover how to actively practice peace moment-to-moment.

by Christine King

Of the four components of Nonviolent Communication, I find observation to be the most challenging and at the same time, the most liberating. When I’m describing an observable fact, then I’m not judging, assuming, interpreting, labeling, comparing, evaluating or reacting. When I’m observing, it’s not possible for me to be anywhere else but in the present moment.

Let’s take a moment to look at judgment. Let’s imagine someone is doing something I don’t approve of or like. For example, I am in the grocery store and there is a woman raising her voice at her child. In my mind, I might be thinking “that’s wrong for a parent to yell at their child”, or perhaps I am thinking “What a bad parent” or “child abuser”. What leads me to believe these thoughts? Is it cultural conditioning? Am I reliving memories of being yelled at as a child? Does it bring back the pain of yelling at my own children when they were small?

If you have these kind of thoughts (and let’s face it, most of us do), the problem isn’t in having the thoughts, rather in believing them. When I’m believing my judgmental thoughts, I’ve separated myself from the humanity of the other person. So, in NVC, we take a moment to calm our jackals down using the tool of self empathy. I might say to myself “it’s painful to see a mother raise her voice at her child because I value respect and kindness”.

Once my jackals are heard and acknowledged, I might turn my attention to the mother “She seems exasperated and I’m imagining she is wanting ease and cooperation in the grocery store.” If I can feel compassion for the mother, then I have just re- centered and released judgment. I may or may not want to say something to the parent. It might be a knowing smile or words like “It’s not easy shopping with an energetic child”. However if there is any lingering jackal thinking in my mind, then judgment will be what I’ll communicate.

Now let’s say I’ve practiced observation for a long time and I’m either not having or not believing my judgmental thought. Now I just see a mother raising her voice at her child. I don’t go into reactivity, right/wrong thinking, or separate myself from her humanity. I haven’t lost my center. I am present to this moment and the suffering of this person. I have liberated myself from past conditioning and I am free to let compassion flow to the mother.

It’s my habitual conditioned mind (jackal thinking in NVC) that prevents me from being fully present in this moment. When I’m in jackal, I’m thinking vertically—power over/power under.  I’m judging myself or judging others as wrong or right. I’ve entered the world of duality. If my attention has wandered to the past, I may be in a place of hurt or anger. In this case, perhaps anger at my own parents for yelling at me. There may be a feeling of aversion, perhaps even hatred—a pushing away. Or maybe my attention has gone to the future. I might be afraid to say something to the parent in the grocery store for fear she might raise her voice at me. Again I’m pushing away—I’ve left my center and separated myself from the present experience of life.

We all have jackal thoughts. This is not to say that jackal thoughts are wrong. Don’t resist, avoid, or ignore them. Be present for them and acknowledge their good intentions. Feel those feelings fully in your body and know they are just energy in motion (e-motion) that will eventually pass through you. Bring awareness to them. Have compassion for them. Now your communication will be horizontal—power with the other person.

Zen teacher, Cheri Huber, calls jackals our sub-personalities. One may be there to warn of danger. Another might have a certain smugness that tells me of my superiority over someone else. Another sub-personality may want to keep reminding me that I don’t belong. Cheri recommends we observe our sub-personalities by reflecting what they tell us. She suggest that we silently listen to and speak to them, “so what I’m hearing you say is…..” If the sub-personality persists, we continue to reflect back. In this way, we have become the witness to our own experience and we have given ourselves the spaciousness to see that it’s just a thought passing through our mind like a cloud in the sky. Now I’m in choice. Rollo May said freedom is in the space between the stimulus and the response. In other words, it’s not the thoughts I’m thinking that cause my suffering, it’s believing those thoughts.

So by observing everything, I can only be in the present moment. I am free from suffering and have calmed those conditional jackal thoughts that want me to live in fear or anger or sadness. When all this is pealed back, we can find ourselves in that deep blue sky of awareness, wonderment, and compassion.

by Christine King

In Nonviolent Communication, when we teach empathy we often begin with the following phrase “Are you feeling (insert feeling guess) because you’re needing (insert guess)? Students of NVC know that this phrase is a launching point for personalizing empathy in a way that feels natural and easy.

However, I’m concerned those I teach may get the impression the formulaic phrase is empathy, which it is not!

So, what is empathy? Wikipedia defines empathy as the capability to share and understand another's emotions and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes." Scientists have been attempting to measure empathy in humans and primates. In the early 1990s, Italian neuroscientists were able to identify cells located in the primate brain that seem to be the region of empathy. When the motor cortexes of rhesus monkeys were monitored, researchers discovered interesting phenomena. If someone repeated the same action as the monkey, the very same cells in the motor cortex of its brain would light up. In humans too, this experiment was replicated by pricking the finger of one individual. The same cell lights would light up on a second person in the room as if their own finger had been pricked.

Empathy is a natural response to someone in pain! We are biologically programmed to resonate at the same frequency as another, to feel what they are feeling.

The implications of these experiments are profound because at some level, the brain did not distinguish between self and other. Spiritual teachers and mystics throughout the ages have said that we are all interconnected, and modern science is now discovering this connection. As Thich Nhat Hanh says “we are interbeing”.

So, if empathy is our natural state, why aren’t we able to respond empathetically all the time? Perhaps we fear that the suffering of others will become our suffering and in order to protect ourselves we fall into habitual responses of fixing, denying, or avoiding. If I feel your pain, then I might have to feel my own and that’s a scary place for some people to go. Spiritual teachers might tell us the self-perpetuating ego gets involved and overrides our natural state.

And yet our bodies are hard-wired for connection and compassion. We can see this in the state of oneness a small child feels when they are not separate from others.

So how do we return to this state of natural connection? After many years of teaching and practicing the formulas of empathy, the only way empathy authentically works for me is to be completely present for the other person and myself, without wanting to fix, without agreement or disagreement, without needing to protect myself. Meditation has been a tremendous support on my path to returning to that natural state, focusing on the breath, letting go, being still. It’s comforting to know I don’t have to make empathy happen, I only need to get out of my own habitual patterns to allow the empathy to flow.

One day when I was sharing some emotional pain with a friend of mine, she looked me in the eye, put her hand over her heart, took a deep breath, and said “Ahhhhhhhh.” This was some of the best empathy I have ever received because it was so heartfelt and I felt such abiding presence from my friend.

I’m reminded of the Buddhist saying “Don’t just do something, be there!” I’ve come to understand that empathy is the ability to be present and connected to one’s own source, one’s natural flow of energy and luminosity. It doesn’t require words, merely witnessing presence.

by Christine King

I initially became interested in prison work upon hearing a colleague say “I learned about freedom by going into prisons.” As a long time mediator, this captured my attention. It seemed an oxymoron. How could one learn about freedom in a prison? And yet, at some level I knew we are all walking around in our own self-imposed prisons with bound hearts and emotional wounds needing healing. So I wanted to find out for myself.

San Quentin State Prison is California’s original prison. It has the distinction of being built by the prisoners themselves during the Gold Rush, which brought all the trappings of greed and desire. Perched on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in California, San Quentin is a commanding presence on the San Francisco Bay. As the fog lifts, one can easily imagine it as a luxury hotel, health spa, or even a midlevel palace. I once heard someone say the only reason property developers haven’t gotten their hands on it yet is because the only death row in California provides a comfortable livelihood for many San Francisco lawyers.

Being in such close proximity to the bay area, literally thousands of volunteers check through the heavily fortified gates each year. I, a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, am one of them. The male inmates are mostly minorities of all ages from less privileged backgrounds. As a teacher of Nonviolent Communication, I bring with me the desire to support these men in how they communicate their needs. I attend, listen, and validate their lives and their stories. Yet a niggling thought in the back of my head wonders if they are willing to accept me. The only time I was ever incarcerated was for blocking the road in front of Lawrence Livermore Labs in the 1980s along with 1000 other protesters. Our experience was more like a summer camp than a state prison.

After several years of assistant teaching, I have a class of my own. Of the six men, two are white and the other four are mixtures of Black and Hispanic. We spend the first class getting to know each other better. It’s a level two NVC class and I’m curious to know how well they understand the process and concepts. They get it. I’m pleased because it means I can spend my time going deeper with this work.

I used to think of Nonviolent Communication as spiritual work. These days, I consider it life work, connecting us at the level of our humanity. In class, we often spend time processing something a prison guard said that led them to believe they are sub-human. Certainly the penal system can suck the humanity out of anybody. A friend of mine once said “violence is caused by the very deep belief that one is too flawed to belong.” The message “you don’t matter” is rampant in a place like San Quentin. It is based on a simple rewards and punishment system—the same method used in most American institutions including schools, churches, corporations, and families. Ironically, the gangs that govern the prisoners work on the same hierarchical system as do the prison guards.

I feel safe in San Quentin. These men are ‘watching my back’, and they have things to teach me. I am transparent and real with them. Their concerns are the same as mine—health, survival, and relationships. One inmate wants his reluctant sister to bring his niece and nephew to visit him. Another has a wife who is seeing another man. One inmate diagnosis with a brain disorder is concerned about how he is perceived by others. And another has issues with his cellmate. I share my own pain and suffering. My son is dual diagnosed. He is in Mexico living la Vida loco, brushing up against the law and struggling with addiction. I am distressed and deeply worried for his safety. He calls and asks for money.

The men understand my pain because they too have seen themselves as the cause of this anguish in those who love them. I ask for their advice. They tell me “he’s just doing what he’s doing. You gotta take care of yourself. Turn all that NVC stuff around on yourself girl.” Easier said than done. And yet, their voices stay with me when my son returns to California and is arrested by Homeland Security for outstanding warrants. When he is released after one week and continues the same behavior, I learn to say no. I don’t let him into my home; I don’t pick up his phone calls. I am weaning myself off my addiction to my son and his addict behavior.

As I write this, my son has checked himself into a treatment center. He says he is not finished with drugs and alcohol. Perhaps he wants “three hots and a cot” as they say in the incarceration business. Maybe he had no place else to go. And possibly, he really does want help. I have a “God box” in my kitchen where I have placed his photo—a constant reminder to turn him over to a higher power. From the support and advice I have received, I know I am not his higher power, despite wanting to control his behavior. This is not easy for me. From the prison guards, I understand that when everyone else has given up on inmates, mothers will continue to visit.

The last day of class, I make a request of the men. Would they be willing to write a letter to a 25 year old man who can’t decide which side of the law he wants to be on? Below are the unedited letters written by these men. When I read their letters, tears well up in my eyes. I can’t even write these words now without crying. These men poured out their hearts to my son, and in doing so, I felt their deep love and caring for me.

Dear Jack,

For several weeks I have been hearing of your ‘adventures’, and in support of a good friend, I would like to share some facts of my life when I was 21—my last year of freedom. (I am 45 this year).

My exterior image—my grooming, the car I drove, the clothes I wore, and the amount of money I could spend on ‘fun’ (sex, drugs, and rock and roll), these were the most important things in my life—my values. I was on active duty in the US navy in San Diego. While there, if I did not maintain my grooming, I was disciplined. And it happened that I was (note: is there a word missing here?). It was a humiliating experience. I also was subject to random drug testing. Once I was caught—again I suffered humiliation. My self-image was in a conditioned habitual behavior pattern where my lack of self-discipline was being corrected by the authorities I was subject to in the military. I didn’t have enough time left of my freedom to learn self-discipline. One weekend when my car was working fine, a friend came up with the $400 dollars he had owed me. I spent $150 to have a keg party. Someone brought a gun and I felt I had to use it because my image was threatened. I felt fear—then anger at the person I thought was the cause of my fear. I was very drunk and not in control of these feelings—my inhibitions against violence were removed—I was under the influence and a man died because of my temporary inability to think. Society has judged that I am totally responsible for what happened.

Today, I try not to live up to that image. It is not my true self. Changing habitual behavior has taken time. I believe every human being is addictive by nature—we are addicted to breathing. Just look for a life enhancing addiction instead of life damaging ones and you will probably avoid my fate.

Sincerely,

John

PS My addiction that gives me the most joy is writing poetry. You can find out more about me at www.keepthetrust.com

Jack,

First, let me introduce myself. My name is Mike. I’m currently 29 years of age. A little history as well should I give. I was 17 years of age when I received a life sentence in prison. I’ve been here ever since.

I know you are wondering why I’m writing this letter. Well, there’s one reason I will share with you. An older man helped me many years ago to change my life for the better. So, I’m taking the stand or, “paying it forward.” We should help each other in any way we can.

I understand people think you ain’t living so well. Maybe you agree or maybe not. Whatever the case, someone truly cares for you.

Nowadays, anything can lead you to prison. Believe me, this is no country club or strip bar! It really does suck in here.  My point is that some of the things you are doing may bring you here! Maybe you’ve been in jail and this would be no sweat. After eleven years, it is something to sweat.

My advice to you is take the help offered to you and better yourself. Life is so much more better sober and free! But, you have to work at it. Remember, you have something we want, we have nothing you want!

Respectfully,

Michael 

Jack,

I live in a rectangular 9’x4’ shared room. I have been living like this for almost 28 years. I chose to live here because it is the result of living a criminal lifestyle. I no longer feel angry about the circumstances that led me to this imprisonment. I may feel angry because of the politics that continue to make things difficult for me to parole. I have the need to be heard and for freedom.

I do feel frustrated when I am told there are others who have made the choice to have. I don’t understand why someone would make the same choice.

Jay

Death…I see bodies falling….Wasting away without hope….Lost in a system of hate….Without a spirit or a soul….Buried in the CDC&R

The secret of living is to learn how to die while still alive. It is the kind of freedom that I seek even while in prison.

Of course, for too long, I became a slave to smoking, drinking, and snorting all kinds of drugs. I did not (could not) know or want to stop living as a slave. In the process, I was slowly, but surely hurting myself, hurting my family, and ultimately committing a slow suicide.

Then, the end came when I was busted (arrested) and sentenced (condemned) to the California prison system. I found my freedom as I walked into and through the prison gates. In here, I was forced to get off drugs. I was made to accept myself—as I am.

After Life….Living in the moment….Forgiving myself first….Accepting life on life’s terms….Being real too myself…Inside, doing life….In the S.Q.

For me, (R. Calix), there is no past, and no future. These walls have cut me off from that world which includes all of the things you now take for granted.

But it is okay, because I am free. Free from drugs, free from harm, and safe from myself. But most of all, my family will never suffer again from my selfish acts.

I have no advice or suggestions. Your decisions or choices affects more than Jack.

Be good to Jack,

R.E.C. 

Jack,

I write this communiqué with the hope that we could come to an understanding of the needs that could and would be met if only we took the time to look at someone else’s condition, and we may be affecting the world through our deeds and actions. I’ve been incarcerated now for 25 years and it took me 20 of these years to start understanding that it’s never been about me. Every action that I’ve taken has always been about someone or something other than myself, believing that they owed me or that I deserved it, which left me always in a position of taking from someone that I should have been giving to instead.

That person that I’m speaking about is me/you…through these years we find ourselves with this self-inflicting personality, which means we abuse ourselves, and in the process abuse and hurt anyone close to us. So look for your true self and find peace or play the role you’re playing and I’ll see you here in prison.

Yours truly,

Me Me Me 

Jack,

To begin, let me say that I can empathize with you and what you are going through. Over the past weeks, I/we have come to know a bit about you by way of the hurt your mom goes through. So from what I hear is that you have had a few brushes with the law, nothing major, yet. I too was once young with a need to do things as I saw fit.

Well in hindsight, my foresight was shortsighted. I did not see the value or the wisdom of those around me who I knew loved me and had been on this earth for longer than I. If I could go back and do it all over again…well we need not go there. However, where we can go is here. My doing this, writing you, is meeting my need for compassion, not so much for you, but for your mother. Dude, you only get one and trust me, when she’s no longer in your corner, you have to really, really take a look at yourself. Life has a way of all of a sudden just taking off on us and if we are not anchored to some strong ideals and principles, one can end up bring taken for a ride. At present Bro, you are on the fast track to end up either in here, destitute, or dead. Live. I am no fortune teller, however, what I do know is that you are living a lifestyle that is very old, played out by many, many before you and the end result is always the same. Dude, I wish I had had someone to attempt to pull me out of my addiction. It took my coming to prison for LIFE to convince me to sober up. Regardless to how bad it may seem, you can pull yourself out if you want to, but you can’t, can’t do it on your own.

The bottom line is this--you are breaking your mom’s heart and killing yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be just another statistic. Though you do not know me, I sincerely do care about your well-being simply due to the beautiful work your mom has done in here for us. So with that, Bro, I pray that you are able to find your way out of the madness of addiction. There truly is more to life than the drugs will allow you to see. Take care and God Bless.

In true sincerity,

Abraham

by Christine King

On a recent vacation in a Mexican village, I was surprised to find myself in the midst of a community in mourning. Two days before I came, a 21-year-old girl had died in a car accident. Everyone in the town knew her and was openly affected by her death.

When I arrived from my long bus ride, I knew immediately something wasn’t right. There were rows of portable chairs lining the street and people were huddled around talking in somber tones. Others were waiting in line to view her body, displayed in a semi-public room surrounded by candles and religious icons.

The next day was similar to the first-people of all ages clustered together, moved around the square, and consoled one another. On the morning of the third day, there was a Mariachi band playing music, yet no one was dancing or singing as one is accustomed to witnessing. Instead, there were tears, hugs, and silent downward gazes.

As I passed the gathering, I couldn’t help being profoundly moved by this expression of communal mourning. I stopped in respect for their pain and put my hand over my heart to convey my sympathy. But at that moment, I found my body experiencing a cathartic release of sadness. Tears welled up in my eyes and streamed down my face. What was happening? I didn’t know the girl, nor had I a relationship with the village or any of the residents. Yet I found myself swept up in the grief and heartache of the community.

Was it their pain I was experiencing or my own? I felt an overwhelming soul connection to the heart of this village and my entire body was quivering with the sorrow of this small community. Several strong men lifted the casket from the display room and carried it into the street. The Mariachis followed and played on while the townspeople trailed behind. I was mesmerized and found myself following the procession. At each intersection, the pall-bearers stood still, making sure everyone was included in the process. Everything seemed to stop and people came out of shops and homes to pay their respects. The casket was deftly handed over from one group of men to another as it continued along in procession.

In the midst of this event, I began to have doubt about my inclusion, but the looks on the faces of those welcomed me for me to bear witness. The event continued along the beach to the graveyard “Playa de los Muertos” and the festivities lasted into the evening with burial music, tamales, and eulogies at the ocean front gravesite.

I have since contemplated the power of public grieving such as I experienced in Mexico. I am reminded of our North American death customs, so less public and less ritualistic. To openly mourn in the public plaza and to share that grief with the entire community seems like a healthy and respectful way to honor life and death. For when we can cry all our tears, truly and thoroughly grieve and mourn-not just for lost lives-but for the wide spectrum of human disappointment and loss, only then can we fully know and celebrate the exquisite beauty and fullness of life.