Observation as Liberation
by Christine King
Of the four components of Nonviolent Communication, I find observation to be the most challenging and at the same time, the most liberating. When I’m describing an observable fact, then I’m not judging, assuming, interpreting, labeling, comparing, evaluating or reacting. When I’m observing, it’s not possible for me to be anywhere else but in the present moment.
Let’s take a moment to look at judgment. Let’s imagine someone is doing something I don’t approve of or like. For example, I am in the grocery store and there is a woman raising her voice at her child. In my mind, I might be thinking “that’s wrong for a parent to yell at their child”, or perhaps I am thinking “What a bad parent” or “child abuser”. What leads me to believe these thoughts? Is it cultural conditioning? Am I reliving memories of being yelled at as a child? Does it bring back the pain of yelling at my own children when they were small?
If you have these kind of thoughts (and let’s face it, most of us do), the problem isn’t in having the thoughts, rather in believing them. When I’m believing my judgmental thoughts, I’ve separated myself from the humanity of the other person. So, in NVC, we take a moment to calm our jackals down using the tool of self empathy. I might say to myself “it’s painful to see a mother raise her voice at her child because I value respect and kindness”.
Once my jackals are heard and acknowledged, I might turn my attention to the mother “She seems exasperated and I’m imagining she is wanting ease and cooperation in the grocery store.” If I can feel compassion for the mother, then I have just re- centered and released judgment. I may or may not want to say something to the parent. It might be a knowing smile or words like “It’s not easy shopping with an energetic child”. However if there is any lingering jackal thinking in my mind, then judgment will be what I’ll communicate.
Now let’s say I’ve practiced observation for a long time and I’m either not having or not believing my judgmental thought. Now I just see a mother raising her voice at her child. I don’t go into reactivity, right/wrong thinking, or separate myself from her humanity. I haven’t lost my center. I am present to this moment and the suffering of this person. I have liberated myself from past conditioning and I am free to let compassion flow to the mother.
It’s my habitual conditioned mind (jackal thinking in NVC) that prevents me from being fully present in this moment. When I’m in jackal, I’m thinking vertically—power over/power under. I’m judging myself or judging others as wrong or right. I’ve entered the world of duality. If my attention has wandered to the past, I may be in a place of hurt or anger. In this case, perhaps anger at my own parents for yelling at me. There may be a feeling of aversion, perhaps even hatred—a pushing away. Or maybe my attention has gone to the future. I might be afraid to say something to the parent in the grocery store for fear she might raise her voice at me. Again I’m pushing away—I’ve left my center and separated myself from the present experience of life.
We all have jackal thoughts. This is not to say that jackal thoughts are wrong. Don’t resist, avoid, or ignore them. Be present for them and acknowledge their good intentions. Feel those feelings fully in your body and know they are just energy in motion (e-motion) that will eventually pass through you. Bring awareness to them. Have compassion for them. Now your communication will be horizontal—power with the other person.
Zen teacher, Cheri Huber, calls jackals our sub-personalities. One may be there to warn of danger. Another might have a certain smugness that tells me of my superiority over someone else. Another sub-personality may want to keep reminding me that I don’t belong. Cheri recommends we observe our sub-personalities by reflecting what they tell us. She suggest that we silently listen to and speak to them, “so what I’m hearing you say is…..” If the sub-personality persists, we continue to reflect back. In this way, we have become the witness to our own experience and we have given ourselves the spaciousness to see that it’s just a thought passing through our mind like a cloud in the sky. Now I’m in choice. Rollo May said freedom is in the space between the stimulus and the response. In other words, it’s not the thoughts I’m thinking that cause my suffering, it’s believing those thoughts.
So by observing everything, I can only be in the present moment. I am free from suffering and have calmed those conditional jackal thoughts that want me to live in fear or anger or sadness. When all this is pealed back, we can find ourselves in that deep blue sky of awareness, wonderment, and compassion.