Monday, November 1, 2010

Zen and Interpersonal Needs

Several years ago, we had a few workshops at the zen center on the topic of Non-Violent Communication. The leaders of the trainings had studied with Marshall Rosenberg, who has given over his life to exploring ways in which how we speak to each other impacts almost every aspect of our lives. I must admit that I was very skeptical about NVC when I first encountered it. It seemed too touchy-feely to me, a kind of "niceness" that I wanted to shed from my life, not reinforce. However, as the years have gone on, and I have payed closer attention to speech in my life, I have found that Rosenberg's work is pretty damned intelligent, and worth considering as part of my Buddhist practice.

Yet, I still have some reservations about it. Or questions perhaps. Here are some comments about NVC from an interview Zen Teacher Robert Joshin Althouse did with the website Sweeping Zen:

I learned about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) many years ago from my teacher, Jikyo Roshi. I then had the opportunity to study with Marshall Rosenberg. I have always found NVC to be very useful and helpful for many of my students. So I am very comfortable using and applying it in my life and within my Zen teachings as well. NVC is a language that grows out of a “needs” awareness. If people just try to mimic the language they end up sounding like NVC parrots which is not helpful at all. The heart of the matter is shifting to an awareness of needs which includes the needs of others around us as well. I think that is a very difficult teaching in this culture, and actually an important one. We all have some conditioning around this. Growing up many of us have learned that it’s not ok to have needs. I’ve even encountered Zen students that don’t think we should have needs. But to me that is just ridiculous. In NVC needs are defined as anything that supports our life. So as long as we are alive we’re going to have needs. We have physical needs for food, water, clothing and shelter. We have interpersonal needs for understanding, respect, love, and empathy. Being aware of our feelings and needs can help us move away from judgments that often interfere with our ability to connect and communicate with others skillfully.

I've never had a qualm with those basic survival needs Althouse mentions. The Buddha's own experience of trying to deny those needs almost killed him. But when we start diving into the list of interpersonal needs, it starts to get murky to me.

There are, in my view, a few ways to look at this. On the one hand, you can view some of the interpersonal needs as attachments, desires, and possibly hindrances to one's practice. The Center For Non-Violent Communication has a pretty extensive list that isn't even, in their words, exhaustive. It just seems to me like it falls too much in the "You're perfect just the way you are" direction, with not enough "But you need a little improvement" - to use that often quoted Suzuki Roshi saying.

Having a need to be respected, for example, can get you into big trouble if you believe in it too much. I had many political arguments in the past which often boiled down to wanting the other person or people to respect my viewpoint - one that tended to be far outside the mainstream. Now, if you understand NVC process and philosophy, you'd know that the "wanting the other person or people" to respond in a certain way isn't helpful. In fact, that wanting is viewed as a major trouble point. So, in that way, NVC is very much in line with Zen practice, for example.

However, I still have to wonder about speaking about "having a need for respect" is, in itself, beneficial. It seems questionable to me. In fact, it seems like one can easily use that as a way to prop up a sense of self.

On the other hand, if you approach NVC as a process to work with what's present RIGHT NOW, then speaking of interpersonal needs might be very useful. If I come from a place of this is where things are at - I am experiencing a need for respect in this moment - perhaps it might be a place to be able to let go of that, and better meet the person, people, and circumstances you're in dialogue with.

But I think this is somewhat different from saying people have these needs, and that it's fine to continue to come from a place of having these needs, so long as you are honestly working with them. That seems too much like speaking about a solid personality, which I just don't think is very helpful.

One of the things I really admire about Rosenberg and his colleague is the effort they have made to expose the various layers of judgment humans make within their language and thoughts. And they have worked hard to show that NVC is about how you function in the world, not how you want others to function.

So, perhaps some of you out there have even more experience working with NVC than I do. I'm curious to know what people think about "needs" and how they play into Buddhist practice, and expression of the dharma. Any thoughts?


NellaLou said...

I wonder if a need from an excessive viewpoint could be neutralized by rephrasing. For example instead of needing to be respected, which could go on into a lot of narcissistic stuff one could say a need not to be disrespected, meaning not to be abused or belittled or taken less than seriously in an issue. An equalizing sort of viewpoint, enough so that one is sure they are heard but not so much that one dominates strictly due to forcefulness rather than persuasiveness and rationality of the opinion.

Nathan said...

That makes sense to me.

Ji Hyang said...

In our Korean Zen tradition, we speak of four ways of helping someone. Teaching the Dharma, of course, is the first-- which also simply includes sharing the truth as we perceive it. Right now, it is 5:25 here; that is Dharma, that is truth. The next category of Bodhissatva action is to give someone something they want or need. So if we are aware that their need for respect or understanding is surfacing, and meet that, it is helping them. The third category is giving someone good speech, which helps them believe in themselves-- the grandmotherly approach. The fourth category is "together action", for example, taking a bit of turkey at the family dinner on Thanksgiving.

So imho nonviolent communication may sharpen our Bodhissatva upaya-- though it would be a slip to attach to any view--

gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

Nathan said...

Thanks Ji Hyang. It seems that the forms of the four ways of helping could help determine whether one's approach to NVC is problematic or not.

Carol said...

The "need for respect" is an interesting one. When I feel disrespected, I'm definitely identified with a sense of self. Recognizing that when it arises in myself and others has been helpful to me.

I think it was Robert Thurman who said if you want to know what the sense of self is, just think of a time when you've been accused of something awful that you absolutely didn't do. The self-defense immediately arises. Likewise with disrespect.

So, I can see "the need for respect" not so much as "propping up a sense of self" but more as the natural urge for freedom from self/other identifications. Or freedom in the midst of self/other identifications. Something like that.

Nathan said...

Hi Carol,

Great comment! Thanks.