Non-Violent Communication and Zen

About a year ago I, rather tardily, stumbled across Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg. I say tardily because I have since discovered that Rosenberg and his work have been widely acclaimed and recognized for decades and yet somehow had not appeared on my radar. I have since attended several intensive training courses run by a certified NVC Trainer that have helped me to deepen my understanding and skills. Needless to say, I have much ground still to cover on the front of skill development and living the practice on a day to day, moment by moment basis. Learning and embracing the concepts of NVC helped me to see a common thread running through the centre of human suffering. It would be too much to go into all of these now but I will share one or two aspects that have stood out for me and continue to provide me with grist for the mill.

At the heart of NVC is the intention to manifest compassion, both towards oneself and others.  I have come to realize the imperative need to start with compassion towards myself before I can extend it toward anyone else.  This begins with hearing and acknowledging my internal, critical voices – referred to in NVC as jackal voices.  These are the internal voices that pipe up with accusations that I am: stupid, lazy, ugly, greedy, selfish… ad nauseum.  We are generally taught to ignore or get rid of these jackal voices in order to avoid the feelings of fear, despair, depression and grief that often arise with them.  They are sometimes referred to as self talk, and it is often assumed that they are the cause of our unhappiness, and that if we could only get rid of them we wouldn’t be unhappy anymore.

In particular, some current modes of psychotherapy and personal coaching advocate better management of negative thoughts without delving deeper into the function of those thoughts.   However, Rosenberg astutely purports that ‘when we feel the need to get rid of something, violence starts to look attractive’.  NVC teaches us that the jackal voices are important in that they point to an underlying unmet need, and that it is that unmet need that gives rise to the unhappiness not the voice itself. 

An example of this might be that in the writing of this article I suddenly feel some anxiety and hear a jackal voice accusing me of ‘being too dumb to write a thing like this’.  Then another one might say, ‘You should have more confidence in yourself madam, stop being such a wimp.’  Now I’m starting to feel pretty poorly and might be tempted to scrap the endeavour altogether or alternatively, to press on in spite of the inner voices and feelings of anxiety, in a state of tension and inner turmoil.   However, what I could do instead is to ask myself what need these jackal voices are attempting to meet.  In this case, I have a need for acceptance.  In offering something deeply personal about myself I have a need for it to be received with respect and positive regard.  The mere act of acknowledging this need releases a tension in my body and I can now make a choice from a clearer space about whether I want to continue to reveal myself or to change the nature of the article.

The effect of this process means that I am more accepting of myself and consequently more accepting of other people.  I’m sure you’re familiar with the notion of being unable to tolerate in others the things we can’t tolerate in ourselves.  Consequently, I am less judgmental of myself and others and can finally allow compassion to arise toward myself and others.  Five years ago I received Jukkai and was given the name Tsuko, which more or less means penetrating light.  I had requested that my dharma name reflect the line in the sutra ‘may penetrating light dispel the darkness of ignorance’.  I have since endeavoured to live up to it and consider it a grave yet privileged responsibility to do so. NVC has become a practical means for me to begin to manifest this in a way that I sincerely hope helps to make life more wonderful.