Lately, I’ve been reading books that offer an intersection with the practice of NVC. One of these is Training in Tenderness: Buddhist Teachings on Tsewa, the Radical Openness of Heart That Can Change the World by Dzigar Kongtrul Rimpoche. (Listen to a podcast that I recorded about this book review here [27:22])
“Tsewa is a Tibetan word that translates roughly to “tenderness” and is used to describe a common Buddhist ideal. The ideal has occasionally also been translated as “warmth” or “compassion,” but such words fall short of describing tsewa… As a religious concept, tsewa can be loosely defined as the state of being open-hearted toward others in a way that allows people to experience and spread positive emotions such as love and compassion that are the fundamental nature of the human heart.”
This definition speaks to why I was interested in reading this book since, in my opinion, the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) could also be described as a way of developing compassion, warmth, connection, and an open heart — with others and yourself. What I value about NVC, though, is that it gives us specific tools to do so. It’s easy to say (though courageous, in my opinion), “I want to be open-hearted,” but how do we actually do it? I was curious to read this book and to see, as with NVC, if the Buddhist tradition offers specific practices.
As you may know, Marshall Rosenberg, who developed the NVC process, worked very closely with the psychologist Carl Rogers, so there are significant parallels and influence of Rogers work in NVC. Marshall though also studied the world religions and was especially influenced by Buddhism. So I was curious to see what a Buddhist book specifically on compassion and open-heartedness would say.
I did find many parallels; in this book, the author refers to tsewa as oxygen, and also our birthright. Kongtrul says:
“There’s no question that we need oxygen to survive. Whether we breathe in oxygen is not up for debate or negotiation. …Just as our lungs always yearn for oxygen, our heart always yearns to be open, to give and receive tsewa. So when we shut down our hearts, whether intentionally or not, we suffer. We feel mentally and emotionally disturbed.”
Empathy is like oxygen; it’s one reason NVC trainers often say, “put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” In other words, practice self-empathy (get recalibrated and self-connected to yourself) before attempting to connect with and support others, and to listen empathically to them.
And Marshall Rosenberg often talked about empathy and compassion being our birthright. We’ve simply forgotten how to live in this open-hearted way.
And in terms of suffering, when our hearts are shut down, this also matches my experience, and in working with others. In workshops, I’ll ask people to think of a situation that’s leaving them feeling angry, frustrated or impatient. A situation or words they heard that they did not like. Or a judgment that they’re having. And then I ask them to notice what’s going on in their bodies. People notice stress, pressure, and restriction in their bodies, and often even restricted breathing. This is the suffering, emotionally and physically, that Kongtrul Rimpoche’s referring to. Clearly, our bodies do not like it when we’re disconnected.
When people practice self-empathy (connecting with their own feelings and needs) they experience a shift. Their bodies return to equilibrium. They can breathe again. Their hearts open. This usually further happens even when they can guess the feelings and needs of the other person.
Kongtrul asks in his book,
“How does the expansive feeling of being connected with others compare to the contracted feeling of holding up in your small, separate self?”
I believe the exercise, described above, where people think of a judgment or an unpleasant situation, and then practice empathy, gives us a first-hand experience of this through our body knowledge and wisdom. Being connected self-connected and connected with others feels good in our bodies. As humans, we like it!
Another NVC principle explored in this book is the distinction between a person and their actions. When we have judgments, we are making pat statements about someone. Notice in English we usually use the present simple tense: “He is X, Y, Z…” That we use the habitual tense in English, communicates that this quality is fixed and permanent. In effect, it defines the person.
Notice the contrast of how we talk about feelings and needs in NVC-focused on this specific moment: How are you feeling? What are you needing? It’s not static the way judgments are. This is the nature of enemy images.
And as Kongtrul points out,
“No one is permanently one way or another — good or bad, right or wrong, for us or against us.” (p. 48) . When we hold judgment of someone, “we see everything through the lens of that resentment. We see other beings, who are equal to us at the core, as intrinsically selfish, inconsiderate, or just plain bad. They can even appear to us as permanent enemies.”
And we already know how that impacts us, and our bodies. And we also know, from experience, what happens when we attempt to communicate with someone from that way of thinking.
Focusing on behavior, rather than a person’s intrinsic and permanent qualities, Kongtrul adds, “No sentient being is exempt from wrongdoing. But no one is intrinsically bad either.”
I also appreciate, given the current political climate in the U.S. and other places in the world, how Kongtrul also addresses how challenging it can be to maintain an open heart and this larger perspective when we think about a person who has caused or is causing tremendous suffering, “a corrupt politician or ruthless war criminal.” And yet as Kongtrul points out, it is we (who hold those beliefs) that suffer from this way of thinking. I would add, how does this way of thinking help shift what this person is doing and what’s happening the world? I found this point compelling, even if challenging that:
“If we look at things from a wider perspective, we will know that there is something to venerate in everyone.” (p. 59)
I find this way of thinking very consistent with the concept in NVC that each person is simply attempting to meet their needs, even if the strategy is tragic (harmful for that person and others). And again, when we can focus on behavior (the specific words and actions we are not enjoying) and the needs it brings up for us, it becomes much easier to create change and find solutions.
I enjoyed other topics in this book, including a chapter on opening the injured heart and also stories we tell ourselves about why we shouldn’t have an open heart — that we will be too vulnerable, a doormat, and hurt. Kongtrul challenges these beliefs. He also advocates for discernment, exploring how sometimes what is most compassionate is saying “no” and stepping away from a situation or relationship.
He also talks about how maintaining an open heart is consistent with positive thinking, which I believe is also intrinsic in NVC, in that we focus on what we DO want — stating our needs in the positive, and make doable requests to act on those needs, and looking for the positive intent in ourselves and others.
Sometimes I have wondered, How much impact can compassion practices like NVC have on the world? How far can it ripple out? Kongtrul has no doubt about the impact. He writes:
“Any movement, community, or educational endeavor — if it is to have any value- must be founded on tenderness. It must be based on the principle that all sentient beings want to be happy and free from suffering, and that the happiness and suffering of others are important as our own.” (p. 100)
In effect, all humans — and all living beings — have needs. And the more we can hold that awareness, and act in a way that shows care for others needs and see others with compassion (as fully human, with positive intent, the more there will be greater happiness, and harmony, in the world.
“Seen in this light, opening the heart is much more than a spiritual practice. It is a way we can all enhance our relations in the world and with each other. It has social, economic, political and environmental benefits. It is a way of navigating the world. It’s a survival skill.” (p. 101)
This book recommends a mindfulness practice, based on meditation, to become aware of thoughts and beliefs that lead to your heart to close, and, when you’re aware of it, to make a conscious choice to choose tsewa — this warmhearted, compassionate way of seeing yourself and others.
In effect, NVC is also a mindfulness practice. I believe that each time I pause to check in with myself: What I am feeling right now? What I am needing? And guessing silently or aloud about another person’s feelings and needs — that I am practicing being in the moment, checking in with my body and, in effect I am engaging in a spiritual practice. I also appreciate the intention and consciousness that Kongtrul’s book invites: maintaining and protecting our open heart is a choice and a practice that serves us and our community. As Kongtrul says,
“Everything we do or even think has endless, rippling repercussions.” (p. 77)
So what choices will you make today? What practices will support you holding an open heart?
If you would like to read this book, you can purchase it by clicking the title, “Training in Tenderness: Buddhist Teachings on Tsewa, the Radical Openness of Heart That Can Change the World.”