We welcome for the first time Oren Jay Sofer, who will be teaching a weekend retreat at the Garrison Institute May 1 to 3 based on his recently published book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication (Shambhala, 2018). The interview below is based on details from his book.
Since the word “mindfulness” has come to mean so many things, I might frame the comparison more with Dharma practice in order to compare and contrast the modalities. One can view Dharma practice, Nonviolent Communication and Somatic Experiencing as three different ways of understanding and addressing human suffering. While they are distinct in their outer forms and theoretical frameworks, at the root I think they share a common goal of freeing the heart and supporting the human spirit to thrive. When practiced properly, the inner experience of each of these processes is very similar in many ways. One could even go so far as to say that they are different methods or doorways of accessing a process of healing and transformation that is innate to the human mind and body.
Dharma practice begins with the explicit aim of addressing human existential suffering. It offers a comprehensive training or way of life to support an inner and outer transformation of the conditions that create and perpetuate human suffering on individual, relational, and social levels.
Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which was founded by psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, has been described as an awareness practice masquerading as a communication technique. NVC begins with an inquiry into the roots for violence and a systematic training to create the conditions for human beings to cooperate in sharing resources and meeting needs on our planet. The application of the principles and tools of NVC are far-reaching, from personal healing to interpersonal conflict resolution, from organization development and systems transformation to social change.
Somatic Experiencing® (SE) is a therapeutic technique for the healing of trauma founded by Dr. Peter Levine, and is based on both a biological understanding of the human nervous system and certain complimentary psychological frameworks. (NVC and SE share common roots in the work of humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers). While focused explicitly on treating trauma, the healing process that the SE modality accesses is something that’s innate to the human body and psyche, and thus arises in many other forms of healing or transformation work, both individually and collectively, when the conditions are right.
As I mention in the introduction to Say What You Mean, I spent many years trying to map one method onto the other, seeking a coherent “master system” that would encompass all three. Eventually, I recognized that what was more important than an intellectual framework that could explain them all was integrating and embodying the wisdom each had to share. I use the analogy of streams in a watershed running together. These three systems and their corresponding practices can live as one river, as a seamless whole experience of being alive. I’m focused on sharing what I hope are accessible tools to the basics of interpersonal communication that can be used to create concrete shifts and changes in one’s life.
Yes, each has a role to play and makes distinct contributions to each step of training. Though all three depend on one’s ability to be present, Dharma practice offers perhaps the most explicit tools of the three for cultivating an embodied, moment-to-moment awareness, what I call “presence.” NVC compliments this by providing an additional framework for identifying and connecting with one’s own emotions and deeper needs. SE helps us to understand how the level of activation in our nervous system supports or hinders our capacity for presence, and provides tools for modulating that activation so that we can return to a state of more balanced, oriented awareness.
The second section, entitled “Come from Curiosity and Care,” is about shifting our intention. This too is integral to each of these modalities. In Dharma practice, we learn how to shift from the mind’s default, habitual mode of trying to control experience to an overall attitude of interest and kindness. We can apply that same shift in our relationships and conversations, which can be radically different when we can come from a genuine intention to understand and be kind in a conversation. Finally, the tools of an SE practitioner depend on one’s ability to lend their natural curiosity and care to the client, helping the client learn how to relate to their own difficult experiences with more space and balance.
The third section, “Focus on What Matters” is about training our attention so that we have more choice and skill in how we use our mind. Attentional training is the foundation of all contemplative practice, and a cornerstone of the discipline of Nonviolent Communication. One needs to learn how to withdraw the attention from habitually unhelpful narratives and stimuli (what you did/said, who I think you are, my narrow fixation on one particular outcome) and instead focus on places that help us to understand one another and work together. This is part of the core skill in NVC. Finally, SE trains the practitioner to refine their attention to notice even the most subtle changes of breathing, muscle tension, posture, and more in the client. This kind of training can help us to connect and relate more skillfully with others in our lives.
That’s a good question. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t really think about or experience them as separate any more. It’s about learning to live a life that’s imbued with qualities of awareness, wisdom, kindness and relational sensitivity. I suppose that the baseline for me is Dharma practice: how am I living? Am I aware? What intentions are driving my actions and how is the mind relating to myself, others and the world around me? When I’m paying attention, this investigation informs even the most mundane moments of my days: washing the dishes–am I rushing, cultivating stress and impatience, or bringing some ease and balance to the process? Sitting at the computer writing or doing email–is there tension in my jaw? Am I aware of any subtle reactivity in response to an email or blindly acting it out?
My training in NVC comes into the foreground more clearly if there’s any emotional charge towards myself or another. I’ve trained my mind to use that as a cue to soften, make more space, and connect with what’s important to me. So when I read the latest devastating article about climate change or feel reactive about some piece of political news, instead of spinning with judgment, fear, despair or bitterness I’m able to first make space for those emotions (a key training in meditation), and sense on a deeper level what needs and values they’re pointing to. In conversations or relationships, if something irks me or if someone is upset with me, I’m mostly able to receive that with a quality of acceptance and curiosity, listening for what matters and connecting with empathy. For example, when my partner expresses displeasure or disappointment, I rarely take it personally and am able to instead hear the beautiful longing in her heart for more connection, attention, or closeness.
The work I’ve done with SE has given me more tools to handle intensity. Understanding stress, fear, and anger as the body-mind’s natural response to threat or challenge depersonalizes it. Once we understand and experience the unfolding of these states and their natural resolution, they’re less gripping.
I was giving a lecture at a local university last year, and one of the participants became very upset about something I said. I could feel her distress, and my own heart rate increased. I immediately felt in my body the intensity of her anger and the vulnerability of sitting in front of this room full of people. It was uncomfortable, but it didn’t bother me. Because of my training in all three of these modalities, I was able to simply stay present with my own experience, and therefore was more available to hear and connect with what she was saying. My Dharma practice grounded me in the present moment. The NVC training helped me to hear what was in her heart rather than any blame or judgment in her words. And my background in SE helped me to handle and modulate the activation in my nervous system without letting it run the show.
I may have answered this already, but just in case: my aim in writing the book wasn’t to teach people how to practice mindfulness or heal trauma—which is why you don’t see those modalities explained in full. My aim was to create a pragmatic guide to better conversations and more meaningful relationships. So the perspectives of mindfulness and trauma healing are woven throughout the book without trying to separate or parse them out.
For example, one of the refrains for all of the practices I share in the book is “start small.” As tempting as it may be, don’t try the tools for the first time with the most challenging situation you’re facing! You’re likely to get flooded and not learn much. This approach comes directly out of Peter’s work, where the process of healing trauma depends on building capacity and self-regulation at lower levels of activation. It’s the same in our conversations. If we can’t lead with presence and come from curiosity and care in an ordinary, low-stakes conversation, how can we ever expect to do it in a full-blown argument?
I experience it less as a state of mind and more as a state of being. When human beings’ basic needs are met—when we’re not stressed, hungry, tired, or under threat—the natural state of our organism is to be relaxed, aware, and connected to our environment. We’re curious, compassionate creatures, because that’s adaptive. We would never have survived if we weren’t alert and aware of our surroundings, or able to tune in to the emotions and needs of others and cooperate.
But we live in a time where the pace, demands and pressures of most of our lives disconnect us from this natural capacity for presence, curiosity and care. So our work is less about creating some special state and more about discovering what’s getting in the way: our addiction to busyness, obsessive thinking, the never-ending pursuit of novel pleasure, the modern diseases of alienation and depression that come from destroying communities and selling people on the idea that happiness is about how much you own or how your body looks.
When we see more clearly the things that are getting in the way of our natural state, we can start to unlearn them and return to a more relaxed and open quality. This doesn’t mean we always feel peaceful and happy. It means that we’re not spending our lives running from one crisis to another, never slowing down enough to rest and recognize our basic capacity for goodness, ease, and sanity.
In many ways, it’s nothing special. I’m not talking about some high state of enlightenment. I’m speaking of the most ordinary thing—basic goodness and awareness—which ironically, when you really begin to notice it, starts to appear like more and more of an extraordinary gift that we’ve been given in this life.
Oren Jay Sofer