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This Being Human

In the previous article we looked at a poem by Rumi, Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing. Here’s another poem by Rumi that I sometimes read at the start of my workshops. I use it to illustrate how we might apply the insights of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to our inner dialogue. I guess that it’s more of a challenge than the first one, so I’ll offer some tools as I introduce it.

In The Guest House, Rumi says:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

The way I understand this is that being human is like running a hotel – every day new guests arrive. And who are these guests?

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness
Comes as an unexpected visitor.

The guests who come to our hotel are our feelings, and unexpected moments of awareness of how our feelings come and go…

So how do I deal with my feelings – of joy, depression and anger? Well, I don’t try to ‘deal’ with them – I try to ‘stay’ with them, to ‘be with’ them. For me, this an important difference between Nonviolent Communication and some other processes, where you try to ‘change’ your feelings e.g. from unpleasant to pleasant.

In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), feelings are caused by our needs. If the needs are met, the feelings are pleasant. If the needs are unmet, the feelings are unpleasant. Trying to change the feelings is like trying to change the warning lights on a dashboard without understanding that these are signals to tell you about the state of the engine underneath.

So I try to ‘stay’ with my feelings, to stay with whatever is alive in me at the moment. And now I’d like to bring you in – to ask what comes up for you when you imagine ‘staying’ with whatever is alive for you? Perhaps fear? Or confusion? Or frustration? If you feeling fearful, do you need to protect yourself If you are feeling confused, do you need clarity and understanding? If you are feeling frustrated, do you need choice about who your guests are?

In my workshops I encourage people to go through this process for each of their feelings – to get in touch with the basic human need behind or underneath. I’m doubtful that just getting in touch with the feelings will have an integrating effect. In my experience it’s at the level of basic needs – when you start understand and get in touch with the engine (what drives us) – that I connect deeply with myself and the people around me.

So this is how NVC suggests that we get in touch with what’s alive in us: by fully experiencing the feeling and then focusing on the need behind or underneath it. And when we do this, something surprising happens – we feel different. The feeling changes – becomes sweet in some way.

Here’s an example from my own inner world. Since I was a child, I have been bothered by feelings of grief and loss, without an obvious reason for them. At times these feeelings, and my confusion, contributed to a sense of hopelessness and depression. Meditating for more than fifteen years helped to lighten these feelings, but didn’t transform them completely. Psychotherapy helped me to understand more about the triggers – what made me uncomfortable – but didn’t give me a way to tackle it directly. It was only when I came across NVC that I realized that my feelings of grief and loss were caused by my unmet needs – for connection, dignity, love, belonging, meaning, safety, contribution and seeing the fruits of my efforts.

My feelings of grief and loss became sweet when I connected them with the unmet needs that caused them. Suddenly I didn’t want to change the feelings – they were important reminders of what is deeply important in my life, and a spur to trying to get these needs met for myself and everybody.

Coming back to Rumi’s poem and the image of guests arriving at a guest house, Rumi suggests that we:

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a “crowd of sorrows”, dark thoughts, shame, or malice, he suggests that we “treat each guest honorably” and

Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.

So this is Rumi’s suggestion and challenge, and with the tools of Nonviolent Communication I feel confident to meet it — to stay in touch with what’s alive in me.

Next, Four ways of listening.

The full poem:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

The poem is quoted from Rumi: Selected Poems, translated by Coleman Barks, with John Moynce, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson (Penguin, 2004).

© Shantigarbha 2005. This article first appeared in Funky Raw magazine. It has been lightly edited for context.