Nonviolence: Commitment, Capacity and Community

In the mid 1990s I went on a backpacking trip with a friend that turned into a relational nightmare. Reverberating from the intense conflict, we set aside time to reweave intimacy and understanding. At a certain point, she expressed what seemed almost like anger directed at me for not protecting myself from her meanness towards me. A flash went through me, of deep understanding and unexpected affinity with none other than Jesus, a figure that, over the centuries, had not been a positive association for Jews like me. Agitated, passionate, and intensely happy, I proclaimed loudly: “I don’t want to protect myself. Jesus didn’t protect himself. Jesus loved no matter what.” I didn’t know then that this would be the beginning of a journey that continues today, the first of what are now 34 commitments that mark my best unfolding understanding of the deep practice of nonviolence.

Shortly thereafter, I had conversations with another friend, a Lutheran minister who was born a Jew and converted in her late teens. We often talked theology, and so I wanted to hear her take on the conversation, given that Jesus was so central to my response. I especially wanted to know whether it made sense to her to adopt the principle of non-protection in all circumstances. She opened a new area of inquiry for me by introducing me to the distinction between redemptive and non-redemptive suffering in Christian theology. Redemptive suffering is suffering that has a purpose, usually one of purification and alignment with the divine. In contrast, non-redemptive suffering serves no purpose. The Talmud, my own tradition with all its complexity for me, offers a similar distinction using different language: the distinction between agony of love and agony of punishment. Both of these have supported me over the years in the ongoing discernment about embracing discomfort, a necessary aspect of every spiritual practice that’s designed for anything other than self-soothing.

The TalmudWhat the Talmud adds is practical clarity about how we can tell which is which. While the criterion used in the Talmud is completely rooted within that tradition, the wisdom of it can be applied to discerning which discomfort is strategic and which is simply beyond capacity. The Talmud says, essentially, that, if in the midst of the agony, the person can still study the Torah, then it’s agony of love. In the context of my explorations, this translates into simple clarity: If my level of discomfort is such that I can keep showing up and keep doing what I need to do to live, to connect, to attend to my needs, and to offer myself to life, then it’s useful discomfort. Strategic discomfort is necessary for bridging the gap between commitment and capacity. When my commitment is strong, and my capacity is lagging behind, key to closing the gap is finding the path of enough discomfort to grow my capacity while not overstretching it to overwhelm my nervous system (which, paradoxically, would slow down the movement).

These two strands: clarity about the fullness of the commitment to nonviolence, however my understanding of it evolves over time, and the necessity of stretching in order to bridge the gap between commitment and capacity, have been central to my work ever since. It took more than 15 years for them to become articulated and for the first draft of a community to be formed.

Draft One: A Failed Community Gives Rise to a Robust Support Group

Core Commitments

In 2009, after one of many bouts of despair about the small impact of the work I was doing given the state of the world, I began to see a way forward that was new to me at the time: naming more clearly what I was doing, and inviting people to join me based on that clarity. The clarity came in the form of articulating what I ended up calling the Core Nonviolence Commitments – my best understanding at the time of what it means to live a life of nonviolence and the foundation of a community I would start for living them together. Within a few months, the list settled on seventeen of them, ranging from “Openness to Myself” through “Availability for Feedback” to “Celebration of Life” and fourteen more, in four areas of living: relating to self, orienting to others, relating to others, and relating to life. This list has supported more people than I know. It was translated into four other languages that I know about. People have written to me from around the world about creating little cards to support their practice, about studying them with groups, and more.

Right from the beginning, I knew that a community of support would be needed for those of us who want to live these commitments in a culture where that means swimming upstream. The “Consciousness Transformation Community” was born in 2010 as an effort to be that source of support for all of us who joined it. The design of the community was intricate and ambitious, elaborate in its attempts to make room for everything needed, and leaning way too heavily on me as its founder and the one running most of the offerings within the community. To my relief, members of the community (which numbered about seventy at its height) offered fierce feedback. Decision-making structures changed, decentralization ensued, and, for a while, I was breathing fully, imagining that we would coast. We even had structures for feedback and for conflict transformation (which I Iater began to articulate as two of the five systems needed for an organization to function well and have seen many groups falter without). (See the Center for Efficient Collaboration for more on this.)

Within a year, there was enough information to know that trouble was brewing. The clearest signal was that a conflict within the community was not brought into the structures we had established for engaging with conflict. Instead, conversations happened behind closed doors, were not brought into the open or the rest of the community, and a small and subtle rift began that neither I nor anyone else consciously attended to in a focused way. A year later, the community space was filled with uncontainable strife. I ended up leaving the community I had formed, which subsequently disintegrated through a process I wrote about at the time. A group of nine women emerged from the ashes, and we’ve been meeting monthly in support of each other’s capacity to practice and apply the commitments in our lives. Now, more than six years into it, we know each other intimately. With the trust and support of each other, we wrestle with the places where we are challenged to live as nonviolently as we would like, stretching ourselves into strategic discomfort, not beyond what is possible, and growing each month. It’s a little micro-heaven.

This, and the original list of seventeen commitments, and the many people around the world who use the commitments as a guide to their lives, is the harvest from draft one. We didn’t change the world. We didn’t manage to create a large community that ventures into the world to imagine and bring about transformation. We did manage to create a small foundation for practice in support of individuals who move along the trajectory of embracing nonviolence. Nothing to scoff at even if not the dream I had.

Draft Two: A Global Community Gives Rise to a Larger Perspective

Some months ago, during one of our meetings, I became sharply aware that the commitments no longer felt sufficiently aligned with my current understanding of nonviolence, life, and what it means to be human now. I believe that, rather than originating in me, the commitments emerge from some deeper wisdom beyond me. When this wisdom flows through me, it is shaped by my filters before it gets put into words that my mind articulates. As I evolve, so does the way I filter everything that comes to me. It was time to revisit the commitments. I scheduled a writing retreat to do this, along with one other member of the small commitment group who would be working on her own writing project.

Core Commitments - Self-care

The first day, I marked the list with changes I wanted to make. “Self-Care” no longer felt true as the name of a commitment, for example. It was much too steeped in a world of separation, smacking of patriarchal and capitalist overtones. How come I left out “Humility”, “Trust”, and “Receptivity” the first time, I wondered? And what to do with a proposed 18th commitment to “Nonviolent Resistance” that I had been looking for a way to integrate into the set for a couple of years, ever since it appeared at the end of my first book? Is “systemic awareness” core to nonviolence or only to its application in specific contexts? Do I want to take on talking about use of force, a topic on which I’ve been writing a piece in my head for months without putting one word down yet? All I had by the end of that day were incoherent notes, curiosity, and confidence that clarity would emerge. Indeed, the next day everything fell into place. One commitment after another came into clarity. A whole new category materialized – “Engaging with the World,” and now I am baffled by how I ever put forth a list of commitments about nonviolence that didn’t include that category alongside the other four. By the end of the writing, thinking, and talking with several people, the number of commitments doubled to thirty four, with most of the new ones landing in the new category. Nonviolence now came into fuller relief, combining the inner, interpersonal, and systemic lenses into one whole guiding analysis, practice, and activities.

Nonviolent Global Liberation Logo

Then I invited dozens of people to participate. This, like all I do now, wasn’t going to be a lone person project. Collaboration, a mainstay of deep nonviolence, allows greater wisdom to emerge. Not too long into this process of engaging with comments, I recognized the relationship between this new set of commitments and the work of a community called Nonviolent Global Liberation. Before I can speak of this relationship, here’s the bare bones background about this project.

Initially a seed in my mind, this community, which is in its early stages and yet to be fully open for people to join, is now comprised of about sixty practitioners from five continents. Constantly evolving, all of us now consider ourselves both practitioners and apprentices. At the beginning, we sloppily referred to what we were studying and applying as “Miki’s approach,” before starting to integrate the same truth that I just mentioned in relation to the commitments: I am not the fountain. I drink from the same fountain that everyone else within NGL drinks from. I simply have a particular relationship with it that allows me to see and name certain insights and principles in a way that supports all of us on our path. The apprenticeship is with a framework, not with me. Most recently, we’ve started shifting our language to refer to the “NGL Framework” and identified the need to articulate more clearly what this is.

The aha moment I referred to above was when I realized that, in expanding the commitments, they were beginning to merge with that elusive “NGL framework” that we’ve been aiming to articulate. Each of the commitments effectively names and lays out the contours of an NGL core principle. This insight helped me immediately understand the quantum leap in focus that I’ve taken since the first draft. While the new one, like the old, is essentially a guidepost for an individual who wants to embody and integrate deeply the commitment to nonviolence, the new one includes the focus on the world which was entirely lacking from the first. The first was purely engaging at the inner and interpersonal levels. The new one invites the practitioner to engage at all levels, from the deep inner work of full openness to self, to the widest willingness to engage in nonviolent resistance to change our global systems.

Support: Bridging the Gap between Commitment and Capacity

I have often told people that all of us find it easy to be nonviolent, collaborative, loving, and relaxed when everyone does exactly what we want and life flows along in support of our needs. In other words: the commitment to nonviolence truly begins when we are facing challenges. The structure of the commitments reflects this:

  • Even when… – this first part defines the specific circumstance that could be the stressor that challenges our commitment to nonviolence.
  • I aim … – the second part is a reminder that it is precisely under those circumstances that we want to affirm and assert our commitment. It is a reminder of who and how we want to be, regardless of what life presents, regardless of our personal history or social location, regardless of what others do. I sometimes affectionately call this the “double standard” of nonviolence: we always walk the high moral and spiritual ground. And, as one of our commitments, we want to honor our limits. Committing to nonviolence in a violent environment means we will often be asked to stretch, and we cannot stretch beyond our limits, including the limits presented by the extent to which traumas we carry are affecting us in the moment.
  • If I find myself … – these are some of the signals we can notice that remind us that we are not living in line with our commitment. Their presence serves to alert us that we need to take action to create the conditions that would allow us to choose differently.
  • I aim to seek support … – this, the vital ingredient, points toward overcoming the socially induced habit of isolation and self-sufficiency to remember to reach out beyond the self into community, into support structures that are forever necessary for us to be able to stay present and resilient. The more serious the challenge, the more support is needed. The more trauma we carry, the more support is needed. The more demands on us, the more support is needed. This is true of everyone; it’s not a defect we have to hide.
  • to … – this final part is the moment of landing in the full import of the commitment, the vision and beauty that inspires us, so that we can ground ourselves, again and again, in where we ultimately want to be, through our consistent efforts to move in that direction.

We likely won’t get there. Again, not because of any individual deficiency. Rather, because we live in a world where all systems are based on destructive and extractive principles, leaving us all without sufficient support, on a massive and global scale. Just as we need more capacity, we have less. This is similar to a painful reminder in a recent article in the Guardian: “Just when Earth badly needs pro-environment leaders, we get big-business strongmen.”

Watching the unraveling of so much, we understandably feel helpless. As individuals, we cannot change the largest systems that are running the world. Even as groups, our collective successes are limited. The commitments are not a blueprint for how to create the world of our dreams. In releasing them, again, to the world, I am hoping that they will serve a more modest purpose as a moral and practical compass for those of us who are ready and eager to embrace the full gravity of committing to nonviolence at this time in human evolution.

The commitments are my current understanding, informed by engagements with many others, of what it takes for any of us who wants to stand up tall, liberate ourselves from the devastation called patriarchal socialization, and commit to liberation for all. This version is not forever. It’s now. As we continue walking, as we become clearer, as the challenges become sharper and more intensely focused during the deeper crises we are facing, we will find our ways of aligning with life in service to all.

Image Credits:  First: Photo by Chajm Guski, CC BY-SA 2.0. Second and third: Leo Proechel, used with permission. Fourth: NGL logo.


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