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Beyond Right and Wrong

Previously we looked at what happens when people are in conflict, in You Never Listen to Me! My experience as a mediator tells me that they are usually thinking and expressing themselves in terms of what is good, what is bad, what is right, and what is wrong. One of the things I enjoy about Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is the clarity it gives me that this type of thinking actually fuels conflict and increases the likelihood of violence.

The Sufi poet Rumi didn’t invent Nonviolent Communication (he was born in 13th-century Afghanistan and Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of NVC was born in 20th-century America), however, he seems to have been deeply in touch with this aspect of it. In a poem that I often use to start my workshops, “A Great Wagon”, he writes:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

As I understand it, Rumi is saying that we get connected with each other in the space that opens up when we let go of our ideas of good and bad, right and wrong.

My partner Christa and I were out for a walk in the bright sunshine this Spring near her village in Germany. She’s also an NVC trainer, and this is one of her favourite poems, so I asked her what it meant to her. She told me that when she feels safe and connected to herself, she doesn’t need to use the labels of right and wrong. And when she is connected to herself, she is also connected to the people around her. She finished by saying that it is important for her to know the steps towards getting there – the place where she feels safe and connected.

Here’s my suggestion for the steps:

  1. Ask myself what am I thinking about a particular person or situation.
  2. Translate the thoughts in my head into what is alive in my heart by asking ‘What am I am feeling and needing at the moment?’
  3. When I listen to the other person, instead of hearing their thoughts, asking myself ‘What is in their hearts? What they are feeling and needing at the moment?’

My prediction is that if everybody did this, it would lead to a reduction in violence in the world. And in the meantime, Marshall Rosenberg says: If you want to live a long time and have a happy life, don’t listen to other people’s thoughts!

So I’ll start with an example of one of my thoughts from an incident at the airport last week: “It’s wrong for that couple with the baby in the pushchair to push in front of me in the check-in queue.”

Secondly, how do I get connected to my feelings and needs? What am I feeling when I have this thought in my head? Well, I’m feeling surprised and hurt. And what am I needing at this moment? I guess that I need consideration and fairness, and I stay in touch with these needs.

Thirdly, instead of listening to their thoughts: that it’s none of my business and besides they were waiting for twenty minutes in the queue before they had to go for a loo break, I ask myself: What is in their hearts? What they are feeling and needing at the moment? And I’m guessing that they are tense and tired and needing consideration and fairness too. It’s on this heart level that we connect with each other. I don’t need to agree with how they handled the situation: I still would have liked them to say something to me before stepping in front on me.

So these are the steps I suggest to get to the place where I feel safe and connected to myself and the people around me. Rumi addressed his poems to his teacher Shams of Tabriz, as a lover. He finishes the poem:

When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
Doesn’t make any sense.

It is this kind of heart connection, beyond right and wrong, even beyond words, where we are connected in such a way that it hardly makes sense to talk about us as separate beings, that I want in my life!

The lines above are quoted from the poem “A Great Wagon”, Rumi: Selected Poems, translated by Coleman Barks, with John Moynce, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson (Penguin, 2004).

In the next article, This Being Human, We’ll be looking at another poem by Rumi, The Guest House.

© Shantigarbha