“You can choose courage or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both.” – Brené Brown
Fortunately for me, in my beginning years of learning Nonviolent Communication, my friend and teacher Miki Kashtan introduced me to the power of vulnerability. The practice of vulnerability has led me to the fundamental knowledge that vulnerability is a source of courage and strength in my life. Practicing vulnerability has proven to be liberating, as if suddenly the walls of persona and masks drop, all at once! It’s been scary and exhilarating at the same time. Yet in spite of this soul-level truth—that the practice of vulnerability brings liberation—somewhere in the last year and a half, the mask and persona have not fallen with such confidence nor willingness as they once did.
Choosing vulnerability in life situations has felt a little like falling off a cliff, an experience well-documented in the journaling I’ve used for self discovery. Just yesterday, as I was completing one journaling book to begin another, I leafed through the previous year’s book. There I was reminded of the inner inquiry I began in January of this year exploring the effects of living the fullness of womanhood in a patriarchal world—no small inquiry! The grief I’ve experienced while recognizing the strategies I’ve chosen for comfort...is both surprising and painful.
As the universe would provide that day, I also found a reading from Thich Nhat Hanh that was meaningful to me the day I journaled about it, and was also just what my soul needed in the present. In the little book entitled How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh, he observes that a handful of salt added to a cup of water makes the cup of water undrinkable. However, when the handful of salt is poured into a river, people can continue to drink, wash, and cook with the water. He writes:
“The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore.”
The question, he continues, then becomes “how do we help our hearts to grow?”
Having been a student of living Nonviolent Communication for these many years, I’ve applied practices to my life that strengthen my capacity to hear and facilitate the growth of not only my heart, but others’ hearts too. No matter the disconnection, scarcity, and separation that conflict in relationships creates for me, I come home to the skills, the living spiritual practices, I’ve learned through living NVC.
Yet, giving this modality, Nonviolent Communication or NVC, a name or a label, somehow lessens the depth and width of living its essence. It’s soul work facilitated by these practices of NVC and Living Compassion. They are the light from the shore, signaling my way back home when I’m adrift in dark waters of suffering caused by wanting someone or something to change. The drifting is excruciating for me. Impulsively, I want to do something to fix it, to transcend it, rather than to feel it. But the teachings of NVC founder Marshall Rosenberg urge us: Don’t just do something, sit there!
NVC has introduced me to many resources that enable me to move from suffering, which I distinguish from pain. In suffering, I’m attached to a strategy, person, place, thing, or situation, believing that if it would only change, my discomfort would be alleviated. In pain, on the other hand, I’m connected to the needs that are triggered by a given situation, and by mourning the needs that are unfulfilled, I become aware of the value of those needs in my life. The focus on the beauty of my needs transforms the suffering I experience due to being attached to an outcome. It’s a beautiful, transformative experience to live in the beauty of my unmet needs.
To keep my heart open to myself regardless of the pain or suffering I may feel, there are a number of supports I implement. One of the supports I began utilizing many years ago and continue today are scheduling calls with people who practice empathy. I have an empathy call with someone every day of the week. Being heard with resonance by someone like my friend Sarah Peyton is the best medicine for my drifting soul. Many years ago, I also joined a community whose intention was to live by a set of 17 Core Commitments written by Miki and Inbal Kashtan. For the past two years, my personal commitment has been number 7, Loving No Matter What:
“Even when my needs are seriously unmet, I want to keep my heart open. If I find myself generating judgments, angry, or otherwise triggered, I want to seek support in transforming my judgments and meeting others with love.”
Keeping my heart open no matter what has been my greatest challenge and my greatest source of re-connection to myself.
NVC has gifted me with a treasure trove of support, including internal and external resources previously unknown to me. Lately, as my sharp edges have bumped into others, I’ve activated these resources to help me connect to the question posed by Thich Nhat Hahn of how to help my heart to grow. Mark Nepo, writer and poet, tells the story of a woman who found a sea sponge, dried and hardened. He writes, “She carried the sponge to the waters of the sea, and up to her waist in the deep, she watched it unfold and come to life in the water.”
It takes courage to walk to the sea with the brittle shell of a heart. It is difficult and unmanageably uncomfortable. Yet I find the waters healing, so I keep going to the sea… accompanied, always accompanied, by the lights from the shore.