A couple of months ago, while leading one of my Leveraging Your Influence retreats, I spoke for the first time in public about the fact that I have four people with whom I connect, on an open, intimate level, on a daily basis; about fifteen more with whom I connect on the same level, regularly and frequently; and about fifty more with whom I connect deeply whenever we connect, without any particular pattern of frequency. Speaking about it, in the context of that retreat, was transformative, because it showed me, for the first time, the direct link between the way that I choose to live and do my work, and the necessity of so much support.
I have known that these riches are not common; that most people, at least in this country, live their lives with orders of magnitude less support and connection. I have also known that this is an essential ingredient for my sanity, for my ability to do the work, without quite knowing what made it essential. I had been thinking of it in terms of strengthening me because of having unusual sensitivities and therefore needing more support than others.
I still think that is true, and yet an entirely new dimension has been added to this for me because of speaking it at the retreat. Early during that week I semi-facetiously said that what I am doing is training people to be conscious disruptors, which “took” and became a frame I am still carrying. Conscious disruptors are not seeking disruption; they are just willing for disruption to occur if necessary in order to live in integrity. It’s a little bit of a fun way to speak of what Gandhi called noncooperation, and it helps me see why so few people are willing to stand up to the norm even when they disagree with it. It’s because the consequences to us of the disruption we might create are real. It is for this reason that I need as much support as I do. My way of living creates an ongoing friction. I am lucky to live in a country and a time where, with enough privilege, ongoing friction and reduced access to the prized goodies of society are my main risks. For some people – with less privilege, in places with more overt repression – they may well be risking imprisonment or even death.
As I was going through that week, I became progressively clearer that while living as I do and as I invite others to do reliably generates more aliveness, more capacity to navigate challenging moments, more meaning and purpose, and more authenticity and open-heartedness, it is far from being without cost. Even “just” social discomfort, when cumulative over an extended period of time, is unsustainable without adequate support. If I am to invite people to take risks, I want to also invite them to create sufficient support to withstand the ongoing friction. I also want to provide inspiration and tools to know how.
None of Us Can Do What We Do Alone
Part of what’s tricky about it is that asking for support is, in and of itself, a departure from business as usual. I’ve traveled and taught in many parts of the world and have seen both how similar and how different people are across cultures. Sadly, one of the similarities I’ve seen in many parts of the world is a deep conditioning to not ask for what we want. The specific message of why it is frowned upon may vary between cultures. In the USA, where I live, it’s the ethos of self-sufficiency that gets in the way. In other places it may be an ethos of service, which calls on members of society to offer rather than receive service, or it can be a badge of honor. In some contexts not asking is a sign of the strength of manhood, or it can be associated with the willingness to sacrifice that femininity is made of. One could have too little power to ask for what they need, or too much. Whatever it is, I have yet to find a person, anywhere, who isn’t afflicted with it, who has the full freedom to ask for what they need in order to live, thrive, and serve.
We are social creatures, though, and we participate – with or without awareness – in a perpetual flow of giving and receiving that makes our lives possible. In our modern lives, we mask our interdependence through the exchange of money. The formal economy expands, as Charles Eisenstein has suggested in Sacred Economics, when we convert what previously was shared through relationships into paid services. Giving and receiving become transactional rather than an affirmation of our needs and our communal bonds.
All of us, and especially those who want to join me in the fun and difficult task of becoming a conscious disruptor, need to re-learn how to uncouple giving from receiving so that human relationships are no longer a thing to exploit. When our giving can be independent of consideration about what we will receive “in return”, and when we can ask for what we need, all of it, trusting that the giving to us is a gift, then we may begin to reclaim our capacity to steward resources in community for the benefit of all.
Asking vs. Demanding
Before you are ready to outrageously and openly make the requests necessary for you to have the support that will sustain you, I wanted to call attention to the crucial role of your inner state and intention when you are making a request. Any time you make a request with the intention to get someone to say “yes” to you, or, more broadly, to get what you want, it’s not really a request. When I first started learning about requests, and how different they were from demands, I became so clear, so quickly, that I had rarely made any requests. Instead, I was going through a ritual that makes something sound like a request when, in fact, it’s a demand. That was more than twenty years ago, when I first learned Nonviolent Communication in workshops with Marshall Rosenberg, the person who developed the practice. To this day, I am still marveling at layer after layer of new insights I find about the simple act of making requests.
In this moment, since I am thinking about the flow of generosity that moves resources from where they are to where they are needed, I am very keenly aware of how much demands break that flow. When we issue demands, no matter how good our reason, whatever happens is extremely unlikely to emerge from generosity. The most likely outcome is that we either don’t get what we want or we get it at cost to the other person’s sense of choice and trust that they matter. More and more over time, I am clear that almost invariably I would rather not get what I want than get it at such a high cost.
This commitment has meant a growing willingness to not get what I want; to court and encourage people to say “no” even when it’s painful. This has pushed me to deepen and expand my faith in possibilities, in the goodwill of people, in the likelihood of there being someone, somewhere, who can offer me the support or resources that I want. It’s been a glorious path, and a difficult one.
I don’t have any romantic notion that we always get what we need, that “the universe provides.” I know all too well how much the apparent abundance so many of us experience in affluent countries is coupled with a growing gap between the rich and the poor, within and between countries, and with the existence of massive numbers of people who will die without ever having adequate access to resources to meet their most basic of needs.
This is one of my primary motivations for doing what I am doing, even though I am not contributing to the alleviation of suffering in any direct way. In some way, I am absolutely convinced that part of why we are where we are, collectively, is because we broke off the flow of generosity and replaced it with elaborate notions about who deserves what that justify some people having so much more than others. I have written about this before, so I won’t elaborate here. I am only mentioning it now as a context for the necessity of re-learning about identifying our needs and then making requests about them.
In a world in which exchange is the norm, letting go of any accounting, giving as much as I can, and asking for all I want, are radical acts. Every step of the way, I have encountered people who tell me what I am trying to do isn’t possible. Mostly, they have been kind to me, clearly motivated by a desire to protect me from the inevitable disappointment they anticipate I would suffer. Some have been more challenging, at times even hostile. I was ridiculed when I decided to quit a very high paying job in the emerging software industry in the mid-80s – first, I was told I would only talk about it and never do it, and then, when I did to it, I was told I was making a stupid mistake. I am still told, often, that I will never get people to give me things without getting something in return, even though it’s been years that I get exactly that. Many people are shocked and worried about me when I let them know that I don’t have any savings for the future; that I put all the resources I generate from the work I do into furthering the work, willingly accepting the risk that in a time of need there may not be resources flowing towards me, and yet having a clear sense of faith that they will.
All of this, every last bit of the thoughts, insights, challenges, heartaches, joys, confirmations, and support that have been part of my ongoing experiments in living a life based on my own inner convictions and values, is feeding my growing willingness to ask for support, both personally and within my work. I get ever more outrageous, because I am ever more able to convey to people my complete willingness to not receive, and that my giving will never be dependent on my receiving anything in particular, only on there being enough overall to sustain me and the people who have tied their fortunes with the work we do at BayNVC. Equally, I am more and more able to ask for it all because I am more and more willing to receive, unconditionally; to surrender to and feed the generosity of others in the very act of asking.
And I ask asking for even more, here and now. I am inviting you to stretch with me; to tap into your own faith, your own generosity, and learn to give unconditionally; to remove the obstacles that may prevent you from knowing what you need to sustain what you do and live fully; to ask for it without reservations while being open to it not happening; and to make yourself available to receive unconditionally. It might just be a step. Just imagine what would happen if enough of us took it, and let yourself soak up the luminous beauty of expanding and recreating the sacred circle of care and generosity that is our evolutionary expectation and legacy.