HomeVolume 7June 2022The universal language of life

The universal language of life

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The universal language of life

THOM BOND is a thought leader, peace educator, author, and mediation consultant who is best known for The Compassion Course. He’s also the founder and Director of Education for the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication. Here he is interviewed by ELIZABETH DENLEY about his journey, his mentor, Marshall Rosenberg, and what drives our behavior and responses to life.

Q: Welcome, Thom.

TB: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

Q: I’ve heard so much about your Compassion Course, and am particularly interested in how you’ve taken Nonviolent Communication to the next level with compassion and your idea of “engineering peace, ”beyond the nonviolent aspect to something that goes toward a very positive solution.

TB: When I wrote the course, my father challenged me not to use the words “Nonviolent Communication,” and I realized that Marshall Rosenberg also did not like the moniker of Nonviolent Communication, because it says what it isn’t, not what it is.

More than that, Nonviolent Communication now has the reputation of being a language model. You can learn to say certain words and, abracadabra, you will get along with everybody and resolve all your conflicts. In some ways that is true, but there has to be something behind those words. You can’t just say the words. I have seen folks who were so focused on trying to get the words right that they simply took their habitual patterns and applied them to this.

I wanted to take a completely different approach: not a language model, but an awareness of what is going on within us and around us. That was the idea behind The Compassion Book. People could learn to communicate from the perspective of awareness, and it was a big deal to help people over the line.

It was heartbreaking when people would say, “Well, I used NVC on my husband, I used all the right words, and it didn’t do anything. ”So I asked, “How can we figure out a way to get right to the beautiful foundation of what Marshall discovered?”

Q: What do you mean by the word “compassion”? It is used everywhere these days. Is it possible for humanity to arrive at a compassionate peaceful place during this crazy time? Obviously you have a vision behind your Compassion Course that’s bigger than the individual. What else is going on?

TB: I’ve been trying to capture that, and I think I have in the term Homo compass. Right now we are Homo sapiens, and the species Homo sapiens has a design flaw – we get angry on a level that no other creature does. We see animals defend themselves and get packed with adrenaline, but no creature sustains the level of judgment and enemy images that we do. This is our challenge as a species.

My long-term thing is that we need to evolve, literally, to become a species that does not kill itself. What does that look like? There’s a list of answers, and one of them is that we become really good at conflict resolution, just like we’re good at building things, and we’re good at other things. Part of that is to learn to counteract our impulses.

I love the word “compass.” It’s not just from compassion. There are around twelve definitions, and I love them all. I wish that humans would understand that we’re genetically at a disadvantage. Our bodies were designed to live in a culture that’s no longer to be found. It’s time to adapt, we have to become the next version, and how do we do that?

Some of us have a deep intuitive sense that anger and judgment just don’t work. There has to be an alternative. That’s what got me going.

The My Lai massacre happened in 1968, when I was twelve years old. I saw it in Life Magazine, and it was astounding to me that humans could do that. I grew up with World War Two movies, but I never saw a three-year-old crying hysterically, running barefoot down a road surrounded by bodies. That vision will never leave me. At that moment, I thought, “This is not working for me, I don’t want to live in a world like this.”

It was a painful time between that moment and thirty years later when I read Marshall Rosenberg’s book. I was having a relationship issue so somebody recommended it. I don’t think they realized what they were handing me. It was the answer to a terrible quandary, and I thought, “This works.” My background is in engineering, so I love to find solutions to problems. Usually it’s some form of technology, like this LED light bulb I designed. Marshall’s work was like the light bulb. It works!

What works? When we develop a consciousness of the parallel universe of life. We have a really amazing connection to life, and it guides our behavior. Life wants life. This is something I’ve learned. When we connect to life, we’re connecting to the life in us, we’re connecting to the life in other people. Life transcends culture if we find the universal language of life.

What works? When we develop
a consciousness of the
parallel universe of life.
We have a really amazing
connection to life,
and it guides our behavior.

The reason it’s a universal language is because we’re going through exactly the same thing, you and me. We’re having a different experience of it, but we’re all humans, right? This struck me so powerfully, and I met Marshall so quickly, it was kind of nutty. I also met Albert Ellis, who was my therapist. Marshall and I were working together in New York at the same time that I was working with Albert, and Marshall said, “I don’t want to meet him.” Marshall almost felt guilty that he had copied some of Albert’s work.

Everything we do, we do to meet a need. Also, everything we think, we think to meet a need.

Albert helped me with that. I’d also worked with The Landmark Forum, which helped me to understand that I am not my thoughts and I’m not who I think I am. It opened up the possibility of being whoever I wanted to be. Then came the question: Who do you want to be? That’s when I fell in love with Marshall’s work, because it was the answer. I could figure out who I wanted to be every moment of the day because of him. And I could help other people figure it out, too.

The idea of connecting to needs was a life-changer for me, and I knew it would work for others. We really need this. But I have to be trustworthy as a teacher because I am asking a lot of others. I’m asking a lot of myself, too. I look at it as a sacred responsibility; it’s critical that I never say anything that’s not true. When I teach, I follow the first two rules of training: show up, which is pretty important, and know what you don’t know and live with that. If you tell somebody something that’s not true, they can never trust you again, even if they want to. There’s going to be a part of them that says, “Remember that time?” So, we took this on very seriously, which is another reason I wanted to get away from NVC terminology, because there were folks saying they were doing it who weren’t. I wanted to separate ourselves and give people a second chance to look at the work.

A part of the practice
is to take that space
and connect to life,
stop the noise, stop the voices,
and pay attention to
something else.

Q: You’re dealing with language as an interface into awareness, especially of the feeling level of existence. You’re going beneath the surface to look at needs and longings, people’s intimate space. Like you said, there’s a responsibility to be trustworthy, to make it safe. In Heartfulness, sound, and therefore language and the human voice are the transmission or expression of inner awareness, the consciousness that we’re holding. So, it works both ways.

In Heartfulness, we work from the inside out; by meditating, we’re working with the inner universe, especially the subconscious, to remove patterns, to remove neural hard wiring. This brings an openness to change, and that change is vital for us to evolve if we’re going to get through the mess we’ve created. It means individual evolution, as well as species evolution. It affects our communication. You’re working in the other direction, with communication, to help discover what’s happening on the inside.

The first teacher in Heartfulness, Lalaji, said that sound is the manifestation of the universe. It’s the essence of the energy that was there from the beginning, before the Big Bang. It moved into everything, and it expresses through the human voice. So, what you’re doing is fascinating and cutting edge, because many people do contemplative practices without translating the inner change into their way of interacting with the world.

With you, I noticed you do two things: you talk about ways of communication, but you also talk about the importance of being in silence and listening to yourself and to what’s going on around as a way of coming back from some state. Whether that’s angry or anxious, you use this method of pausing, of silence, to recalibrate yourself. Can you talk about what you do and how you do it?

TB: Have you ever heard, “Count to 10” when you’re angry? I thought, “I’ll do that.” I spent many years getting angry exactly 10 seconds later. That was not the answer. There was something else. What do we do in the space? What is the space for?

We’re trying something that is not wired into us. We are culturally and genetically wired to get angry, so for us to make progress, to have choice in this, we really need to see this parallel universe. If we learn to use the space to see inside the parallel universe, what happens is easy, we almost can’t help it. That’s when I knew I was onto something. Otherwise, when you try not to get angry, sit there and try your damnedest, good luck!

Let’s talk about why we’re angry, and then see if there isn’t some path. It is an easy path once we see it, but it’s not easy to see because our habitual mind wants to see something else. The path is to see the needs, have a relationship with them, and be able to articulate them. Once we articulate them, once we can see that life energy exists in us, once we start becoming aware of it and seeing it in others, then we articulate that. Then we go, “Oh, my goodness, my needs are bad, feelings are bad. I have all these habitual thoughts that are stopping me from getting into a beautiful relationship with life: “I should,” “I shouldn’t,” things that have nothing to do with life.

A part of the practice is to take that space and connect to life, stop the noise, stop the voices, and pay attention to something else. We don’t even have to stop them; we can just say, “Fine, go on voices, but I’m going to pay attention over here.”

What I’m trying to do for folks, myself included, is to make the journey from a moment of anger, to having a resolution around it, not stomping it out, but turning it into something without making it go away. I don’t have to say, “Oh, anger, bad, go away!” Instead, I say, “Anger is telling me something. What is it? ”Then we can work from that space.

I call feelings the aura of needs,
and needs are the impulses of life.
Feelings tell us how we’re doing.
Needs are the “doing” of life,
the impulses of life.

Q: You talk about needs being in layers. You might start at the surface, what you perceive as being the need, and then you work down to what’s behind that, and what’s behind that, and what’s behind that. How does that work?

TB: Well, life works that way, so all we have to do is observe life. Marshall gave us an incredibly accurate language that reflects the experience of life. He did that both with feelings and needs. I call feelings the aura of needs, and needs are the impulses of life. Feelings tell us how we’re doing. Needs are the “doing” of life, the impulses of life. That’s what we work to understand.

Q: In the yogic traditions, the so-called negative emotions, like anger (known as krodha) and fear, are not seen as negative. In their pure form they have a function that’s like a warning sign, “You need to look at this and something needs to change here. ”They are change indicators.

TB: Exactly. It’s a radar, you could say.

Q: Fear is a cautionary thing, that you need to pull back and discipline yourself, or look at where you’re going and what you’re doing, as there might be danger ahead. Anger is more that something needs to shift. You can’t do much about another person’s behavior, but you can look at your own reactions to what they’re doing, and say, “All right, how can I respond differently to bring about the best possible outcome?”

TB: I just did an anger workshop this afternoon, so I’m really keyed up about this stuff. Anger is not a straight-out emotion, but an emotion from some unmet need. It’s a perspective that it should or shouldn’t be that way, right? It should be some other way. And that judgmental thinking blossoms into moralistic thinking, and all the different forms of judgment – all the daughters, sons, and cousins of it out there. Oddly enough, we live our lives by those things. And those things aren’t life. They are thoughts, judgments, very human things.

Needs are divine. The whole idea is to say, “This is telling me something. What’s the beautiful thing this is telling me? ”For example, I’m thinking that I’m lazy. What is the beautiful message here? What is it telling me that I value, and what am I trying to do with it? Remember, everything we do, we do to meet a need, including thinking things. So why would I think I’m lazy? Well, it’s a tragic way of motivating myself. So, I could say, “Oh, that’s why I think that. ”Because I want to be inspired and motivated. What is it telling me that I value?

Remember, everything we do,
we do to meet a need,
including thinking things.

My dad gave me the “lazy” thing, so I had to work with it. I realized that it is actually a sign I value productivity. Oh, my goodness, I love being productive. I love being effective. So, unfortunately, I was taught that one of the ways I could do that was by calling myself lazy. Just now I found the beautiful thing that “lazy” was telling me, so I don’t need lazy anymore. Now I’m a person who loves to be effective. I know that. So I go straight to that, because that’s who I am. That’s who I want to be.

There are tens of thousands of similar instances in our lives, like “lazy.” Whether it’s “evil,” “stupid,” or “selfish,” we have the opportunity to transcend each one. We hear the criticism from the viewpoint of Homo sapiens, but we can hear it again as Homo compass, at the same time, not making Homo sapiens wrong, but nurturing, empathizing with Homo sapiens. We can’t help it, so let’s have some compassion for that.

Anyway, what are we doing while we’re judging ourselves for judging? It’s like going into a hall of mirrors, and that’s the problem. For example, I don’t really like discussions of the ego. I don’t think it’s a helpful thing to say. I’m so glad I said that at the risk of not knowing if you get it!

Q: I do, because we need the ego; it’s our identity. How to use it in a way that we’re not judging ourselves all the time?

TB: Right. It doesn’t pay for us to think that the ego should be some other way than it is. It is what it is. I love having compassion for that.

Q: In yoga, the ego is just one of the subtle bodies of the mind. You can’t get rid of it as it is part of our makeup. It’s how you learn to work with it, and the soft acceptance you have in moving forward in a positive way, that make it work or not work for you. 

What are we doing
while we’re judging
ourselves for judging?
It’s like going into
a hall of mirrors,
and that’s the problem.

TB: Or to make an enemy of it, or even monitor it, frankly. If I live in a world of judgment, then ego is a very important thing. But if I live in the world of life, then needs are the important thing.

Really, what are needs? Needs are simply how we describe life. Those are the words that we use to express the experience we’re having.

Q: Which is just beautiful.

TB: Yes, so simple and so difficult.

If I live in a world of judgment,
then ego is a very important thing.
But if I live in the world of life,
then needs are the important thing.

To be continued.

Thom Bond

Thom is a founder and Director of Education for The New York Center for Nonviolent Communication. He is the author of The Compassion Book, founder of The Compassion Project, and the author of Shifting Toward Compassion and 64 Days for Peace.


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