I just returned from my fourth week-long retreat with Robert Gonzales, who I regard as a pioneer in illuminating the spiritual underpinnings of NVC. I experienced the latest retreat as rich in learning and personal growth. Here, I’d like to document some of what came to me during the retreat, to support my own integration, and on the chance that it may benefit readers.
First, I’ll offer my sense of some of the general themes in Robert’s work:
- To get full value from the idea of “needs,” it’s helpful to not simply regard needs as concepts to think about, but to engage needs viscerally, as vital, living energies that we can feel and which animate us when we connect to them. We can tap into this “living energy of needs” by imagining what it would be like if a needs were fully met (or what it has been like when it has been met in the past). Or by connecting deeply to what the need means to us, engaging the “felt sense” of what it is we are longing for.
- Connecting to needs means connecting to and dwelling in their “fullness,” the positive qualities we are longing for, rather than focusing on a sense of deficiency or lack around needs being unmet.
- Foundational to everything is being compassionately “present” to the life that is happening inside ourselves and others. Emotions are simply signs of life, energies to be regarded as neither good nor bad. And our inner experience points to our longings, our needs, those cherished qualities which we aspire to, which animate us, and which inspire our actions. Being present compassionately means giving what is there permission to be there, allowing space for and including everything that shows up in our experience. We hold all that we encounter inside or out with tenderness and with appreciation for the vitality it represents.
- We gain freedom and empowerment by being clear about what we are and are not responsible for, recognizing that we are responsible for what goes on inside us and emanates from us, including our thoughts, emotions, actions, and our energetic stance.
With that background, I’ll mention a few of the topics that popped up at this particular retreat, which was held in Carefree, Arizona.
Deficit, Mourning, Pain and Innocence
One issue that has long interested me is how to relate to any sense of “deficiency” or “lack” that might arise in me, either in general or with regard to a particular need. The movement from a sense of deficiency or lack to one of “fullness” and “abundance” seems to be a key to reducing suffering, enjoying life, and connecting with people in a more satisfying way. There is even a project, the NVC and Abundance Project ([formerly at] http://www.nvcabundance.org/), which focuses on this theme. I had had a sense that there was something incomplete about my understanding of this theme. I had an “Aha!” when I contemplated a poem in which Robert referred to the “presence” of “absence.” What occurred to me is that deficiency/lack is a combination of (1) the absence of what we want (unmetness of a need) and (2) our judgment and rejection of that absence (unmetness). For example, we might be noticing that something inside holds us back from experiencing the full depth of our emotions and needs. The need we are longing to meet is one of being fully connected to the flow of life. We are experiencing an absence of that need being met. Awareness of this absence would likely stimulate sadness, perhaps even deep sadness. But true misery is only stimulated when we energetically reject what we are experiencing, perhaps telling ourselves things like, “This is so messed up! Why can’t I feel things fully! I’m never going to have a good life if I can’t self-connect the way others do. It shouldn’t be like this! It’s not fair! There’s something wrong with me. I’ve got to get it fixed! And I don’t know how.” We feel a sense of deficiency and lack. We are telling ourselves, by our energy and by our thoughts, that our reality is “unacceptable” and shouldn’t be the way it is. In Buddhist terms, we are experiencing “aversion.” In NVC terms, we are subjecting ourselves to internal “demands,” that things must be different than they are. Whatever you call it, adding this layer to mere “absence” creates suffering. It’s important to get that it’s not the “unmetness” (absence) that causes suffering, but the judgment and rejection that we layer on top, turning absence into deficiency and lack.
“Mourning,” as it is defined in NVC, is a natural process by which we take in and adjust to the “presence of absence,” that is, the unmetness of a need. Robert clarified that we can move into mourning by simultaneously connecting to and dwelling in both the fullness/beauty of what we are longing for (the living energy of the need), and our experience of the absence of what we are longing for — as much as possible without layering in the judgments and energy of rejection that turn absence that into deficiency. Mourning tends to include a sense of openness and flow, as opposed to the constriction and stuckness associated with the suffering that comes with merely connecting to a sense of deficiency. Mourning often comes with a sense of sweetness; the experience is likely to be bittersweet as opposed to merely bitter. Mourning ultimately moves us towards a sense of wholeness and integration.
“Pain is God in form, entrapped, yearning for release, wonderous release.” This line from a poem by Robert in a way summarizes the essence of his work. There is beauty and aliveness everywhere, often in what we most shun. Embracing it all allows wonders to surface.
Somewhere inside us is a quality of innocence. We are like puppies. In that quality of innocence we want what we want, regardless of how that wanting is received. We delight in what is. When we remember any quality that we used to have, say in our childhood, our memory involves accessing that quality now, and our ability to remember it is an indicator that that quality still lives in us now in the present moment.
Mutuality and Authentic Conversation
People in NVC circles often talk about wanting “connection.” Various trainers have expressed a concern that “connection” isn’t very specific, so that it would often be useful to get more clarity about what particular flavor of “connection” you are wanting.
Robert focused on a particular type of connection he referred to as “full mutuality.” When two people are in full mutuality, both people fully “get” the needs that are up for both of them. In what he referred to as “partial mutuality,” one person fully “gets” the needs that are up for both of them; the other person isn’t in that place of “getting” both people’s needs. When in full mutuality, both people can answer “yes” to this question: “Do you experience in this relationship, in this moment, that your needs matter?”
In the type of “authentic conversations” Robert invited us to engage in, the intention is to support the emergence of full mutuality.
When we are intending to be in authentic conversation with someone, it can be useful to notice: are we responding directly to the other person or are we responding to our reactions to the person? In the latter case, our interpretations and reactions effectively form a barrier between us, blocking our really seeing the other person.
When communicating, or reflecting on our experience of an incident, it is important to take responsibility for what is “ours.” In the absence of this, words that adhere to NVC formulas can fall flat. Suppose you hear someone tell you, “When I saw your unwashed dishes in the sink, I felt hopeless, because that didn’t meet my need for consideration.” This follows the NVC formula (albeit without a request). But it would be easy to hear it as meaning, “By doing what you did you made me feel hopeless; you’re supposed to be more considerate,” particularly if the tone conveys any energy of blame. Robert pointed out that most of our reaction is typically a reaction to our own history, with its backlog of potentially unacknowledged, undigested material. To reduce the tendency to infer blame, it can help to be more detailed about one’s inner life. A more self-responsible phrasing might be, “When I saw your unwashed dishes in the sink, I felt hopeless, because it reminded me of my longstanding wish for everyone’s needs to be considered and brought up painful memories of times when there didn’t seem to be the consideration I was wanting.” This statement more accurately describes what is going on, and acknowledges that the emotional charge is much more a product of our history than of that particular incident
If we each own and are responsible for our own feelings, does this mean we have no responsibility for others? Well, no, says Robert. To some extent we do directly affect others. If we approach another with an energy of anger or blame, this is likely to directly stimulate a response in the other’s nervous system. What you do can create an initial response, though the other person is responsible for what they subsequently do with that jolt to the nervous system. Suppose I throw a bucket of water onto another person. There is a causal relation between my actions and their being wet. But I am not the wetness itself. Now that they are wet, it is up to them what they will do with that wetness. They’re responsible for it.
So, what does this mean? I am responsible for considering my best guess as to the likely effect of my actions on others. Note that this is more a responsibility to myself, about my own need for consideration of others. At the same time, if I am on the receiving end of an action, I am still 100 percent responsible for my experience. I’ll be most empowered if I put the focus on my potential for choosing my own experience, rather than on what the other person did.
Robert warns that when someone does something we don’t enjoy, if we say “stop,” then there is a danger of moving into dependency. We are making our well-being dependent on the actions of others. Instead, we might regard our pain as a message, an indication that something inside us needs attention. Is there a way that we can change our relationship to what is happening, rather than relying on others to change for us?
Related to this, Robert said that in relationship we sometimes say to a partner, “If you loved me you’d do what I want.” He suggested that we would be better off saying, “If you loved me you’d do whatever you want to do, because otherwise you keep me trapped.”
Miki Kashtan has pointed out that it is best if we only apply NVC principles to ourselves. The second we apply them to someone else, we are setting up a “should,” a potential dynamic of blame when they don’t honor those principles in the same way we would want to.
Some people might interpret “self-responsibility” as meaning we should be able to meet all our needs by ourselves. Trying to meet all needs by ourselves is not self-responsibility, but is more what Robert calls “anti-dependence.” It is self-responsible to recognize what we can and cannot do for ourselves, and to ask for help when we need it.
Taking care of ourselves, or applying self-care, has two dimensions, the inner and the outer. Inner self-care is likely to involve bringing compassion to the way we are relating to ourself. Outer self-care might involve something like eating when we are hungry or resting when we are tired. It can be valuable to recognize that acts of outer self-care are often strategies for trying to achieve inner self-care. When we notice a need for self-care, it may be helpful to notice how we are relating to ourself internally.
Reason to Be
Robert shared that for him, he wants his actions to emerge not from his thoughts but from his connection to needs and the “life” that is happening inside him. So, for example, if you wipe the counter in the kitchen, this might emerge from a connection to knowing your partner values cleanliness and order and wanting to express your own love for them. The energy of love then infuses what might otherwise seem like a mundane action.
He further suggested that it’s useful to connect to the largest possible context: What is our reason for being in this world? This is a question not for our head, but for our heart. When you’ve found the answer, you’re likely to sense an inner “Yes!” The invitation then is to connect with this “reason to be,” not as a thought, but as a “felt sense,” how it feels in our whole being to be connected to our reason to be. Once you’re connected to this felt sense, see what inspiration for action comes up for you, emerging out of that inner sense. Acting from that inspiration is likely to be life serving.
This is just a sampling of my interpretations of what came up over the course of a week. I’d enjoy it if you would let me know what if anything you find of value to you in what has been offered here.
If you’d like a chance to spend time with Robert Gonzales yourself, you might want to consider checking out his offerings through his Center for Living Compassion.