I have a pet peeve. It’s hypocrisy. I’m not saying that Quakers are hypocrites but given our peace testimony, I have to ask: how do we hold conflict in our meetings? We long for transformation in this world, and we have different beliefs about how to get there. Sometimes even with the best of intentions, our passions clash. Conflict is hard and sometimes we avoid it rather than hold it constructively. I don’t want to point the finger, so I’ll focus on my longing—for integrity.
Integrity is my favorite testimony. Without integrity, the others feel like prescriptions on how to be a good Quaker. Integrity is an alignment between inner and outer lives. We listen to the Light, we live. Of course, it’s harder than that. We all hear slightly different things. Spirit telling one person to march for peace in Palestine and another to pray for peace are not mutually exclusive.
We bring the sum of ourselves into whatever we do, replete with our conditioning and past experiences, and our pain can guide us more than our Light. That’s scary if we live in the dualism of dark vs. Light, good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. It’s easy to believe that only the good stuff is divine. If we could embrace it all as one big wholeness, inherently divine and human, then it’s all beautiful life. So what do we do with our darkness? The answer is both tautological and like Parker Palmer’s Möbius strip in A Hidden Wholeness. If we bring our whole selves into communion with the Divine (including the anger and judgments), then our whole selves will be in communion with the Divine.
Do Friends live in that dualism? I believe many do. I often hear messages that judgments and anger are wrong, and peace is good. People may believe that conflict is inevitable, and that peace is the way rather than the goal. Yet many of us are conflict-avoidant and dub certain behaviors as “un-Quakerly.” What do we do when we want to criticize or lash out, and how do we deal with rudeness and criticism? Since I grew up as a person of color in a poor, racist, and often violent neighborhood, I learned I could not avoid conflict very easily. The privilege of upward mobility through education gave me freedom, and I have retained an understanding of conflict such that I know there’s no real running away. I tried to live like Paul Simon in “I am a Rock,” cloistering myself from the world, building walls to protect me. Later I tried aikido. Yet deep down I knew it would be of little help with street violence, for many reasons including deeply ingrained patterns of fear. I probably would not win in a power-over dynamic, and I wanted a heart full of compassion.
When I was introduced to Marshall Rosenberg’s practice of Nonviolent Communication, I thought it was a communication style. However I became convinced that NVC would benefit Friends because it is a spiritual practice rooted in heart transformation. It has woven together Quakerism and my meditation practice with every aspect of my life. Quakers have a peace testimony, yet many of us don’t know how to hold conflict. How can we opine about global or domestic conflict when we avoid it in our meetings?
The basics of NVC are: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. That’s just a formula, but the beauty of NVC is in the transformation. We live from our hearts and we embrace the insights of our minds and our bodies. This is how we jump onto the Möbius strip. At the root of every behavior is an intention. An awareness of intentions is crucial for understanding our needs. Rosenberg has identified a number of universal human needs, some basic, such as food, water and air. Others, while not necessary for basic survival, are vital for us to thrive and include love, connection, autonomy, and meaning. When our needs are met, we experience feelings such as happiness, exhilaration and joy; when our needs are not met, we experience feelings such as frustration, sadness and confusion.
I invite you to take a look at the issues in your life, whether inner turmoil or outer conflict. When you think about these issues or react to the pain of them, are you in your element? I believe we are at core whole and compassionate, and that when we live from that core, we thrive. When I am in my essence, I am high on life, thriving on a connection to a life-spring deep within me.
Pain is inevitable, as is conflict. It is a fact of life that our needs aren’t always going to be met. This is when people may use Nonviolent Communication to express to another that a behavior that they have observed has not met their needs, that feelings that have arisen, and that they wish for a change in behavior. Yet it’s easy to use NVC in a way that communicates what we are trying to avoid: blame and shame.
Blame and shame are coercive, while the purpose of NVC is communication that connects and leads to life-affirming choices. If a person agrees to a request because it feels coercive, there may be lingering resentment or a lack of commitment to the solution because the other person’s needs are unmet.
Are we responsible for meeting the needs of others? Some needs seem to rely on the cooperation of others—connection, touch, and being seen—yet when a request becomes a demand, it is coercive. What is the consequence of saying no? Will approval be withdrawn? We respond well to requests when they meet our needs, and there is a natural desire to meeting others’ needs too. If the answer to a request is no, it is more constructive to explore what’s behind the “no” rather than forcing it or submitting to it.
Here’s an imaginary situation that might arise in a Friends meeting. Ann is feeling annoyed because she is not enjoying Betty’s frequent ministry during Worship. Betty cares deeply about immigration issues and was drawn to the meeting because of its passion for peace and social concerns; Ann is a contemplative who wants Betty to discern what is ministry before she speaks. What options does Ann have for dealing with her annoyance?
Ann might do nothing but sit and fume every Sunday (this is unlikely to alleviate her pain).
Ann might complain about Betty to another, garnering support for her point of view, perhaps to justify her feelings.
Ann might complain to a Ministry and Oversight Committee, and if they agree with her, they might elder Betty and/or hold a workshop on discerning ministry.
Alternatively, Ann might speak directly to Betty. A possible though unlikely discussion might go like this: “Betty, I am so sick of hearing you go on and on about immigration. Sure, I care about it, but when are you going to learn what ministry is? It’s supposed to come from Spirit, not your opinions.”
If Ann uses the Nonviolent Communication formula the conversation can change:
Betty, when I hear you give ministry every week, though I think immigration issues are important, I feel frustrated because my needs for spiritual connection and integrity with Quaker processes aren’t met. Would you be willing to think before you speak and take your concerns to Peace and Social Justice Committee?
In all of these scenarios, Ann is blaming Betty. Furthermore Ann is ignoring an opportunity to explore what is really going on for her. Conflicts arise because we are triggered by a certain behavior. If Ann is triggered or weaving stories about why Betty is behaving the way she is, any communication will probably sound like blame. Conflict is an opportunity for compassion and healing for self and the other.
So here’s an admission. I yell sometimes. And yes, I’m Quaker. If I put myself in a box that limits my behaviors, I suppress emotions; and suppressed pain doesn’t heal. My behaviors are not always “Quakerly,” and I think that’s good. If we are present with what makes us yell and explore our triggers, we can discover the source of pain. Pain can sound trivial until we find the deeper issue, and then—in my experience—it’s never trivial.
So what can our two Friends in conflict do? Meditation helps us see our stories, but awareness is not enough. When we are embracing our feelings and body sensations, we can identify our unmet needs. Life is painful and needs aren’t always met. We cause more pain by holding ours at bay and demanding that others meet our needs, but we can take responsibility for our healing.
When I have spoken with people with complaints like Ann’s, the issues have revolved around integrity in worship, the schism between being and doing, and a sadness that the peace of meeting is interrupted by messages that are not grounded in Spirit. We can hold strong judgments about the right way to be Quaker. These judgments need to be accepted and heard so that we may get in touch with our needs.
Someone like Ann might have become a Quaker because she wanted to reconcile her inner and outer lives. She longs to be Spirit-led and feels frustrated because even conversations with Friends like Betty feel polarized. “Ann” needs to mourn that there is so much pain in the world, and be present with what she experiences as her impotence.
Needs are often associated with ideas such as deficiency and neediness. If, however, we shift our understanding of “needs” to “that which contributes to wholeness,” then inquiry, presence, mourning, and connection become spiritual practices. Needs connect us to our essence, the source of life within us, and a wholeness in which there is an abundance of love and compassion.
Robert Gonzales, in his Living Compassion workshop, says that another way to meet your need is to get acquainted with how this need “lives in you” as an expression of your essence. When we touch that need, we are touched by life. When we become acquainted with our needs and embrace them, we are fully and energetically experiencing the quality of our needs without regard to their fulfillment.
Beautiful and often creative strategies arise organically when we get in touch with the living energy of the needs, that to me feel like divine guidance. A dying person’s need for life may not be met, and in that moment, they may mourn their imminent death and experience life in a way never felt before.
When we can get in touch with the living energy of our unmet needs, we move closer to healing our pains and remember a time when those needs were met. We may still be in pain, but our intentions are to heal and have compassion. Gonzales says that every need has a quality of wholeness in it. Developing a familiarity with this wholeness is a kind of meditation. By practicing this, we begin to live from the core of these qualities.
We can commit to this inner work as a faith community. Inner work is important, and once that’s done, we connect. We can speak our longings to each other and hear each other’s pain with compassion and empathy, supporting each other in our healing so that we can all act from that place of power and compassion.
The spiritual practice of Nonviolent Communication can be applied in every moment. It’s the convergence of mysticism and spirit-led activism, and includes seemingly mundane decisions of life that we can transform with compassion. In constantly turning toward Spirit, we open our hearts with compassion and empathy, and deeply listen to our pain. When we meet our own needs for empathy and heal our pain, when we live in a place of wholeness and natural compassion, we can enter into conflict with others confident that we can support them in holding their pain. In every moment, we step into the invitation to live from the essence of our needs: love, compassion, life, and an embodied spirituality with no separation.