In this episode, I’ll tell you the story of how I adopted my first spiritual practice, and I’ll describe how that practice had some negative effects on me that I hadn’t foreseen. I’ll talk about how I eventually freed myself from those negative effects, and I’ll tell you what I learned from the whole experience.
In my 20s, for the first time in my life, I joined a spiritual institution: the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was going to grad school. I’d recently gone through a breakup and I’d been feeling pretty lonely. The church provided an instant community of people who shared my values, and I dove in, gratefully.
One of those values was intellectual freedom: the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs. Intellectual freedom is pretty important to Unitarians. At one point, my church friends and I set up a table on campus to pass out literature. I made a sign to hang on the table that said, “NO DOGMA.” We weren’t about to tell anyone what to believe; that was one of our selling points. We were selling salvation from oppressive religious institutions and group-think.
Fast-forward 15 years to my late 30s, when I started realizing, to my dismay, that I’d become stuck in a small conceptual box; I was living my life based on a limited set of beliefs and practices which, in turn, limited my freedom and my ability to respond effectively to life. How could this have happened to someone who values freedom as much as I do?
It all started in my early 30s, in the middle of my high-tech career. I felt drawn to explore a self-help practice called Nonviolent Communication (or NVC, for short) which was created by a psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg. He and his colleagues seemed to have superpowers that I lacked. What first caught my attention was their commitment to seeing the good in everyone and refraining from moral judgment. As I got more involved in the NVC community, I discovered that they also had an uncanny ability to work skillfully with intense emotions. By simply talking with people, they could often defuse interpersonal conflict and help people who were in emotional turmoil return to a calm, peaceful state of mind. They seemed to have a similar ability to regulate their own emotions. Some of them radiated an interpersonal warmth and openness that I liked, and they seemed way less caught up in thoughts and thinking than I was.
All this was very appealing to me. I cared about people and I considered myself to be intelligent, but in the realm of emotions, I was starting to recognize that I wasn’t very skillful or articulate at all. I was also starting to recognize that I could be quite judgmental sometimes, and I didn’t like this aspect of myself. To address these issues, I started getting involved in the community of people studying and practicing NVC.
My First Spiritual Practice
At first, I was somewhat skeptical about Nonviolent Communication, and I applied critical thinking in my learning process. However, I was also enthusiastic about it, and my enthusiasm was growing. A couple of years into my training, I found myself at a 10-day international intensive training with many other NVC enthusiasts from around the world. At this training, someone gave a talk describing NVC as a spiritual practice. Something caught my attention about this. I’d never had a spiritual practice before. As someone grounded in the values of science and academia, I was wary of spirituality. However, I liked the idea of adopting NVC as a spiritual practice since it seemed aligned with my values and seemed to be based on practices with observable benefits. I made a decision to adopt NVC as my first spiritual practice, and my heart started overflowing with joy and gratitude. It seemed that I’d found a spiritual home.
Over the next few years, I spent a lot of time with other Nonviolent Communication practitioners. I decided I wanted to get certified as an NVC trainer; that required me to spend many hours studying, practicing, and teaching NVC. Nonviolent Communication became the organizing principle behind my thinking, and I became somewhat of an NVC zealot.
I was convinced that everyone would love NVC as much as I did—if they would just learn a little bit about it. I gave away NVC books to my friends and family as “gifts.” Occasionally, I ran into people who were interested in learning more, but this was the exception rather than the rule. To my surprise, some people seemed to actively dislike NVC.
Over these years, NVC got integrated into my being; it became the underlying operating system I used to make sense of the world and to interact with others. Eventually, I was able to develop some of the skills that drew me to NVC in the first place; this felt like a big accomplishment.
Alternative Views of Human Nature
Soon after I discovered Nonviolent Communication, I started exploring another practice, in parallel: meditation. At first, my meditation practice was just a way of reducing stress, but that changed when I discovered the work of Ken Wilber. The maps of consciousness and spiritual awakening that he described opened up a whole new world for me, and I felt a deep yearning to explore this territory. I dove deep into Wilber’s books, audio recordings, and videos, and I also started reading books by other authors that Wilber had mentioned in the fields of psychology and spirituality.
When I encountered ideas related to Nonviolent Communication, I tried to make sense of these ideas in terms of NVC; I translated and reduced competing perspectives to NVC. I felt ambivalent about this. Part of me believed the NVC model captured fundamental, irreducible truths about reality and believed everything significant in other theories could be explained better through the lens of NVC. However, another part of me wondered if I might be losing something in the translation process.
The further I got in my exploration, the more I started to encounter theories that were difficult to reconcile with the NVC model. I felt magnetically drawn to explore these theories more deeply. For instance, I felt drawn to read a book called People of the Lie by the psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. In this book, the author describes some very dark, real-life stories the author encountered in his work as a psychiatrist. He makes sense of those stories using a theory about something that doesn’t get talked about much in the NVC community: evil. As I read this book, I was impressed by the way Peck’s theory of evil allowed me to see and make sense of phenomena that would be difficult to understand—even difficult to see—using the framework of NVC.
Soon after reading this book, I was selling a camera on an online auction site. The winning bidder was polite enough, but I felt uneasy about some of his requests. Something just didn’t feel right about the transaction. Then I remembered something I’d read in People of the Lie: the sign that you’re in the presence of evil isn’t fear, but confusion—and confusion is exactly what I was experiencing in this transaction.
The winning bidder had a fairly high rating, but I hadn’t bothered to look at the details of the feedback he’d received. As I looked more closely, I discovered that he had plenty of positive transactions, but a fair number of negative transactions as well—and the comments on the negative transactions were striking. I’d never seen feedback like this before. For instance, one unhappy person had written, “Beware! Stay away!” I extracted myself from the transaction as quickly as possible, despite protests and threats from the winning bidder.
I believed I’d narrowly escaped a scam; I felt relieved about this, and I also felt grateful to have had a theory that helped me recognize when I was about to be taken advantage of. However, when I described this incident to a fellow NVC community member, she was aghast that I hadn’t stayed in dialogue with the winning bidder to look for a solution that met both his needs and mine; she shook her head in disbelief and disapproval.
Something was changing in my relationship to the NVC community, and this experience was evidence of that change. When I first adopted NVC as a spiritual practice, the worldwide community of NVC practitioners immediately felt like allies. We shared a belief system, we shared common values, and, for the most part, we trusted each other. I’m sure this contributed to the joy that I felt at the time. Now, all this was changing. As I started to question the basic assumptions of NVC, my role was shifting from insider to outsider.
Alternative Views of Anger
Nonviolent Communication includes some strategies for anger management; ideas like “give yourself empathy” and “put your attention on the other person’s feelings and needs, not on their blame and criticism.” These strategies sounded good in theory, but they never worked well for me in practice. In a conflict situation, I’d sit there trying to give myself empathy and put my attention on the other person’s feelings and needs while they expressed their frustration and waited to hear my thoughts about the situation—which I never fully expressed because I was so busy trying to empathize. This was frustrating for everyone involved, and more than once, I ended up storming off in an overwhelmed state of mind after my feelings reached a boiling point.
For a long time, I assumed that my problem was lack of skill in NVC. However, eventually, I started looking beyond NVC for ideas about how to deal with anger more effectively. One of the books I read was an overview of a broad range of theories about anger. I found this incredibly helpful because it placed NVC anger management strategies in a broader historical context. It became clear that the NVC approach to anger hadn’t been handed down by God; it had been derived from psychological theories that were in vogue at the time when NVC was being developed. Through reading this book, I recognized that there are many competing theories of anger and how to deal with it. There’s no clear winner, just many different views—each offering a different perspective. There was something freeing about recognizing this.
The Limits of Reason
Over the years when these events had been unfolding, I’d continued to do a lot of meditation. I’d joined a local Tibetan Buddhist sangha, I’d started listening to the Buddhist Geeks podcast, and I’d discovered the recorded Dharma talks of Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod, which I’d been consuming at a rapid rate. Through all this spiritual practice and study, something was shifting for me internally. I was recognizing that every model or theory has limits; every model shines a light on some aspects of reality and casts a shadow over others. Every model has a limited context over which it’s applicable, so if we try to rigidly apply a single model to every life situation, it’s inevitable that we will eventually encounter unexpected and unpleasant results. This helped me make sense of some of the experiences I’d been having with NVC; I was starting to recognize that NVC was appropriate for some contexts, but not others. I was letting go of NVC as an overall guiding principle for my life.
Around this time, I read a book called Immunity to Change by psychologist Robert Kegan. In this book, the author describes three levels we may go through as we develop: socialized mind, self-authoring mind, and self-transforming mind. At the level of socialized mind, we have no choice but to make sense of reality based on the culture of those around us. At the level of self-authoring mind, we gain the capacity to choose our own beliefs and values, which may differ from the beliefs and values of those around us; however, we’re still identified with our own beliefs and values and we feel threatened when they are challenged. At the level of self-transforming mind, we disidentify with our own beliefs and values; we gain the capacity to look at them critically and recognize their limitations. Our beliefs and values become something we have, rather than something that has us.
Kegan’s framework helped me make sense of the transformation I was currently in the midst of. I was shifting from an uncritical acceptance of my chosen beliefs toward the ability to recognize the limitations of all belief systems. As I started feeling more grounded in my intuition, I no longer needed any particular belief system to stabilize my sense of self. NVC and Integral theory had seemed magical and special when I first encountered them—gateways to The Truth; now, I was starting to be able to view them with a greater sense of perspective. Both of them were somewhat useful, and both of them were somewhat flawed. They were two theories among many competing views of reality. They’d lost the glow of divine truth that they’d had for me earlier.
This was all well and good—but now, I was faced with a problem. A big problem. I’d spent years in the NVC community. I’d been intentionally learning new patterns of thinking and communicating, which had now become deeply ingrained habits. These habits had once been my spiritual practice, but over time, they’d started to feel oppressive. I was now faced with the task of escaping from this box by changing my habits.
Just as I had to practice engaging in the patterns of NVC to make them into habits, I now had to actively practice disengaging from them to free myself from them. So, when I noticed I was limiting my thinking or behavior to conform with NVC norms, I started trying to do something different. For instance, for years, I’d been limiting what thoughts I shared with others, especially in conflict situations; now, I started rediscovering the power of communicating my thoughts more freely, without censoring them.
I had another, more subtle problem, too. Like all conceptual models, NVC is based on a set of assumptions. For instance, the assumptions that we should avoid violence, we should avoid making moral judgments about people, and we should avoid diagnosing people as mentally ill; when we’re in conflict, we should stay in dialogue and empathize with everyone involved so we can transform our anger to compassion and work out our differences. When I’d first heard these ideas, they’d seemed refreshing and intriguing; but somehow, over the years I’d spent practicing and teaching NVC, they’d started seeming like facts or obvious truths. I’d lost my ability to think critically about these assumptions; I’d even lost the ability to recognize them as assumptions.
If someone had asked me if I was willing to accept on faith the basic assumptions of the NVC model, I most certainly would have said, “No.” But true belief had snuck up on me. When I’d first encountered NVC, I’d been like a person dipping my toe in the water and thinking about going for a swim. When I adopted it as my first spiritual practice, I dove in. Somehow, over the years, I’d become a fish. The foundational assumptions of NVC had become the water in which I was swimming, and the water itself had become invisible. I’d become a true believer, without even realizing it. Now, I was starting to recognize what had happened, and I was faced with the task of identifying and questioning assumptions I’d been taking for granted for years.
On an interpersonal level, the NVC community had been an important part of my social life and work life for years. As these inner changes started happening, I got much less interested in participating in this community. I let go of my professional collaborations with NVC community members and I let my certification lapse. Over time, I made new friends, escaped from my conceptual box, and changed my career focus to psychotherapy.
Now, I can look back on my involvement with Nonviolent Communication with more gratitude and a greater sense of perspective. NVC was an important stepping stone on my spiritual path, and the skills I learned in the NVC community have been helpful in my personal life and my work life. Is there a way I could have received these benefits while at the same time avoiding the challenges I’ve described? I don’t know for sure—but I do have some ideas about this.
There was a key turning point in my relationship with NVC—a turning point that may have led to all the challenges I experienced. Did you catch what it was? It was the point at which I decided to adopt NVC as a spiritual practice. At that point, I adopted it as both a guiding principle for my life and an organizing principle for my thinking. In other words, I intentionally gave it supreme importance in my life.
When I did this, it started getting harder to look at NVC critically. Fortunately for me, there was another process happening at the same time: I was actively exploring contemplative spirituality and psychology. This exposed me to many useful ideas, some of which were incompatible with the basic assumptions of the NVC model. When the resulting cognitive dissonance got strong enough, I was able to start viewing NVC with a greater sense of perspective; I stopped giving it supreme importance and started looking at it as one spiritual practice among many.
In my opinion, ascribing supreme importance to anything is generally a bad idea. For instance, when we ascribe supreme importance to a spiritual practice like NVC, we become zealots; when we ascribe supreme importance to a religion, we become fundamentalists; and when we ascribe supreme importance to science, we fall prey to scientism. When we ascribe supreme importance to pleasure, we become hedonists, and when we ascribe supreme importance to the belief that nothing matters, we become nihilists. I could go on and on. In each case, viewing something as supremely important causes us to lose our perspective on it; as a result, life gets out of balance, we suffer, and so does everyone around us.
So, what’s the alternative? Don’t we need something to guide us? Without holding any belief system as supremely important, how could we possibly know what to do? My experience has been that spiritual practice has helped me get in touch with an intuitive knowing that’s informed by reason but that doesn’t depend on reason. These days, my actions seem to flow spontaneously from that intuitive knowing, rather than being guided by any particular belief system.
So, am I making intuition supremely important? Not really. I don’t fully trust my intuitive knowing, so there are plenty of times when I use reason to question my intuition. I also expose myself to a steady diet of ideas from other people, and I use these ideas to question my own. So, who’s in charge here? What’s running the show? Really, I have no idea. Somehow, it all seems to work out. Mostly. All I can say for sure is that there’s a lot less suffering in my life now than there has been in the past, and I think that has a lot to do with spiritual practice.
Is it supremely important to never make anything supremely important? I don’t think so. Religion seems to be really helpful for many people who do make their religion supremely important, and I think that can be okay—at least as a temporary resting point in our development.
I do sense some kind of underlying force or principle that seems important to me. It seems much bigger than me; I can participate in it, but I can’t own it or control it. I find myself thinking that it must have something to do with subjective experience—or, maybe it has something to do with balance or compassion—but each time I try to put my finger on it, it slips away. As soon as I try to name and explain what’s most important to me, I find myself in deep trouble; my explanation immediately stops feeling right, and I start thinking of exceptions. So, for now, what’s supremely important to me shall remain nameless. Maybe it must remain nameless.