The Alchemy of Feelings & Needs in Personal & Social Transformation

by Bonita Ford.  Creative Commons - Attribution, 2010.

I started this blog entry at the request of a friend. We were talking about the roles of "shadow" or "darkness", and "lightness" in bringing about social and personal transformation.

In the last few years, I've discovered that offering inspiration is one thing I can do to contribute to a more joyful, peaceful and healthier world. Instead of staying in fear, denial or overwhelm about the state of the world, I continually feel drawn to the empowerment of the human spirit - encouraging each of us to find the spark, fire and fuel within ourselves to bring our best to a world that needs more humanity.

Talking with my friend, I was reminded of Joanna Macy's work, which has been deeply influential to me. One of the precious gems of wisdom that I've received from Joanna's teaching is the importance of acknowledging and embracing our despair, grief, fear, anger, frustration, helplessness and hopelessness about and for the world. I wish that inspiration and compassion alone were enough to transform the world in a heartbeat. And I have spent plenty of time hanging out with the feelings that I find uncomfortable, disconcerting and painful, learning to honour their messages. 

In Nonviolent Communication (NVC), we say that our feelings come from our needs. Our needs - for well-being, safety and security, for example - which may be met or unmet in any given moment, bring up many different feelings in us. So when I read about a woman living with HIV in South Africa, who brings food and comfort to other woman living with HIV, my inner "giraffe" (the part of me that practices NVC) helps me to be more fully present with myself. I can hear my judgments about "how horrible the world is that women have to live in this way..." and "how every woman and every person should have basic human rights... ". I am also in touch with my deep pain, sadness and rage, which arise from my needs for respect, integrity, understanding and compassion. Listening with "giraffe ears", I hear what is deeply important and precious to me: respect for human life and the desire to honour our shared humanity.

In NVC, I have also learned about the beauty of our needs. Instead of staying in a place where I tell myself "My need for respect isn't being met. Our world is so deeply lacking in respect...", I can choose to focus on the essence and beauty of this need. If I connect with a memory or imagine a situation where my deep desire for respect is fully met, or if I imagine that everyone in the world is fully met with respect, what do I notice? Within myself, I notice a subtle shift in perspective and attitude. My breath softens and my mind is a little more open to new possibilities and ideas; I can envision different solutions or actions I could take that I didn't see before.

This is what Gina Cenciose, an NVC trainer, called "alchemy". We're turning our despair into hope, our hopelessness into inspiration, our fear into courage, our anger into action. Joanna calls this the "spiral of the Work that Reconnects". In my experience working with groups and individuals, the more we connect with ourselves, each other and the Earth, the more we can live in alignment with what is most deeply precious to us.

As I reflect back to the conversation with my friend about transformation, I realise that this alchemy from the heaviness of our "shadow" feelings, which keep us in inaction, into the "light" feelings, fueling us into action, is at the core of personal and social transformation. Personally, I believe that creating deep, meaningful social change necessarily begins with ourselves. Be the change we want to see. Start with ourselves. At the heart of these words, is the reminder that we have the power to transform ourselves and that by empowering ourselves, we have the potential to transform the world.

Read NVC: Starting with Intention.

Read NVC: An Attitude of Cooperation in Activism and Environmentalism.

Please check out our workshops on NVC.



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