23 Apr Disrupting The Trance | Reaching through to our shared humanness
Some time in November 2018 I got onto a train, somewhere on the way from Scotland to Penzance. I was entering a period of illness for which I decided to stay at my parents’ and had settled into my seat for the journey after a train change somewhere.
A group of guys got on at some point. There were around eight, possibly ten of them. They had been drinking and were singing together. It was a bit irritating to me in my tired and wanting to rest state, but I imagined that they would get off pretty soon, so decided to stay where I was rather than move seats. I chose to connect with them from beneath my irritation as a way to calm my nervous system; seeing them as human like me, simply enjoying one another’s company, having fun – like children, with their social awareness dropped because of the drink.
The singing, however, soon started to get more rowdy. One guy started making fun of another in a playful yet deeply pointed way that showed him up and shamed him as a chauvinist in some way. My attention poised within me: I remember from when I was small, some evenings my dad would come home drunk with something to rant about that someone had said to him in the pub that had hit a nerve, we would receive the impact of then needing to then listen to and absorb it. My mum made sure my sister and I were always ready to move, to tidy up whatever we were doing in a flash and run up the stairs to bed, silent, as if we had never been there at all. The guy who was being teased played along at first, though laughing with less joviality, but it continued. I could see it hurt him, he wanted it to stay friendly and jokey, but when the fun stopped for him, and he protested for the other guy to stop it and he didn’t, it crossed a line. I felt the fear rise in my body and my attention focused as the energy in the group suddenly shifted, dropped to a barren hostility with a sprinkling of nervous laughter. A fist flew through the air. My awareness spread to the rest of the carriage, which had quite a few other people in it; I sensed the on-edge tension. I waited a moment to see if the group would break up the ensuing larger fight, they didn’t seem to know what to do and the singing and laughing turned into shouting. One of the guys jumped on the other, pushing him into the luggage rack. I remember a thought going through my mind “not in my home” and felt my body move up and out of my seat. Bear in mind, I am very small – 5”3ish, size 8, relatively quiet-presenting female. I walked up to them, as close as I sensed I could get without being in direct risk of their punches yet within the outer layer of the group, I pulled up as much energy as I could from within me and shouted as loud as I could: “Guys! I am genuinely scared! We are on a train. Please sit down!” I pushed energy from within me in the direction of the intention for the friends who so far didn’t know what to do to pull them apart. Suddenly, it dispersed. The group split, holding one of the guys back near the sliding doors, and the other held in a group near the luggage rack. I walked back to my seat. I saw that there were several people filming, as well as several groups of young women and girls. One looked at me somewhere between shock, fear and admiration and said to me “Wow, nice one”. The train manager appeared and informed the guys that the police would be waiting for them at the next platform. I immediately messaged people to tell them what I had done, for the energetic support. I walked up and down the aisle. Some people congratulated and thanked me and asked me if I was ok. I said I was shaken. I showed them my legs trembling. I stayed in vague conversation with them that I don’t remember the details of in order to draw energy from connection with them, then I lay for a while in my seat to allow myself to shake. I remember feeling grateful for having a relatively established TRE (Trauma Release Exercises) practice that I could use to allow the shock of what had just happened to pass through my body.
Ok. A breather, this was intense to write and I imagine to read, too.
I recently sat – in a zoom breakout group – with a group of people within the NGL (Nonviolent Global Liberation) community to unpack what I did through the lens of NVC – what was it, that we can understand from the perspective of NVC, that possibly contributed to making my intervention effective? While the actual moment took place in probably less than a minute and none of what I did was consciously thought out, we discovered many layers of different NVC principles and practices packed in there, which I write about below and have organised into four different areas:
- Leaning on faith
- Energy matching and subverting narratives
- NVC theory in action
- Practices; being ready
Leaning on faith
I start with what I see as the underlying capacity which enabled me to do this, faith. Fundamentally, I oriented towards the guys throughout, and physically walked towards them, with full assumption of their underlying “goodness” and non-intention to harm. Believing that, underneath all that happens we are, within us, still children attempting to meet our needs within constrained circumstances and doing the best we can with the resources available to us. That if, from within both our internal limitations and external circumstances, other pathways are truly available to us that more effectively attend to needs, we will take them; as Marshall Roserberg said, ““All violence is a tragic expression of unmet needs.” Within them at this moment, I saw that another way to attend to their needs wasn’t available. My offering to them the observation that “we are on a train” was my attempt to give them information that I assumed, in their drunken stupor, they did not have access to, and that if they did, it would support them in releasing from the trance to find more choice.
Leaning on faith requires, for me, completely knowing and living these principles in my body. When I know it in my body, my energetic field is different. I approach with an air of non-separation, underlying trust, openness, and within that, appeal to our shared humanity. Living these assumptions additionally made it easier for me to step towards them physically; I knew within me in that moment that the fight was between them, there was no active desire to hurt me, and as I approached them with an energy of care for them and for all of us in the carriage, I was not in the line of fire energetically and therefore there was less physical risk to me. The risk there was to me I utilised as an offered pathway to them becoming aware that they were surrounded by other people who, at the root of their beings, they did not wish to harm. Looking back and writing about this now, I see this is a pretty deep expression of trust in life which also supported me to break out of an either/or of “do nothing or risk my life”, it expanded my access to choice, from within which I found capacity to act.
Energy matching and subverting narratives
Considering my size, appearance, and the intensity of what was happening, I believe that not only did the fact that I yelled make it possible for them to notice and hear me at all, but also that the way in which I entered into their field energetically impacted what happened in several ways. Walking into a fight and yelling firstly, and perhaps surprisingly, has a component of empathic energetic matching. This is not to say that yelling at people who are fighting is a way to de-escalate, but the fact I walked towards them rather than away along with the message, “I’m scared,” I believe met them within the constricted trance in which they were embedded and delivered a different story; one of open vulnerability and trust. This energy matching was formed, not from anger but from a clear sense of my own mattering and groundedness in my presence, my role-modelling possibly opening a tiny wedge in the door of more choiceful and empathic response from them. Knowing there was little space for messages to be received, I matched the quick, rapid fire of their angry words with short sentences, delivering a clear message within as little airtime as I possibly could. Marshall said not to use more than forty words with an angry jackal; this exchange consisted of thirteen. Within the vulnerability and shame that fuelled the fight, I also believe that my intervention supported them to eventually break up the fight through care for more of the whole, rather than delaying from some fear of taking sides. I believe that my use of the words “please sit down!” also met them in the vulnerability; giving them a simple empathic exit that maintained their dignity in a way that “stop!” wouldn’t have done.
NVC theory in action
What can we learn about what made my intervention effective through the lens of NVC theory? It is clear to me that my anchoring in NVC practice gave me clear ground from which to quickly draw clarity about what, how and why I said and did what I did. Miki’s Principle Based Teaching approach orients NVC learning and practice through the lens of asking what are the principles underlying the components of NVC that will most likely support these specific people in front of me right now to experience and apply the transformational potential of NVC within their context? I was in these moments orienting to drunk people on a train who were in a fight, with clearly very limited capacity for conscious interaction.
For a start, I began with self-connection; one of the assumptions underlying NVC consciousness is that self-connection is the most direct path to peace. I wrote in the previous section “leaning on faith” about living the principles and how this changes one’s energetic field. When I am fully connected to and in full acceptance of my own life energy within me, as compared to, for example, resisting what is and denying or judging myself for my experience, or attributing my experience to others, I am much more able to move, or not, from a place of presence and choice. I noticed and was present with the multilayered nature of my experience; the fear pointing me towards my need for rest and my awareness and care for myself and others in the carriage, my belief that they did not want to harm others held space for my mourning at this expression of theirs arising from a very constrained pathway for expressing what I imagined were needs for connection and fun. All this connected me with the fullness of my experience and provided me with the information I needed to choose what to do. I chose to walk the path of what I saw as the most effective and available pathway available to me in that moment to care for the whole.
As I approached, I allowed all that I had connected to within myself to move through me. Holding within me the assumption that they did not want to harm, I offered to them my vulnerability in the form of fully taking responsibility for my feelings, “I am genuinely scared”, the use of “genuinely” arrived in me in that moment as a tool for energy matching in terms of cultural expression that may land as familiar. The expression of feeling in this way can work to move us at the shared human level and with the full force of the emotion behind it, to agitate the nervous system and break the illusion of action without impact; I very clearly let them know I was there and that somewhere in them, I believed they cared about that. Next, I gave them the clear observation that “we are on a train,“ not giving them opinions about their actions, which would likely agitate them further, but simply drawing their attention to my desire for shared reality about the situation we were in. This expression and especially use of the word “we” contained within it my need for care for others. I aimed to draw their attention towards the greater “we” that inhabited the carriage at that moment. I leaned into trust that based on the NVC assumption that “we all share the same needs,” they would be moved by hearing that need expressed within me, even if implicitly. Furthermore, based on my assumption that they did not intend harm to anyone, my assessment of the situation and expression of observation which they were, at that moment, unable to assess, could actually support them to act in alignment with the care for others that I imagined was important to them at a deeper level. Finally, I gave a clear and doable request “please sit down!”. The clearer a request and the more explicitly it is connected to the need, the more doable it is. I believe that this expression gave them a direct path of action that met them in their drunk and escalated state with a sense of clear invitation towards an outcome that was mutually desired.
Practices; being ready
Finally, I want to talk about practices and “being ready”. Though my memory is hazy of the exact series of events, this interaction on the train happened around the time when I was co-organising the NVC de-escalation team that was supporting XR’s November 2018 takeover of the the bridges in London, as well as at the tail end of a series of trainings I attended in Restorative Practices. I was very much “ready” to respond.
Engaging in regular practices and training is what primes us to be ready, and how we respond in the moment will be the fruit of our integration and practice at that point in time. Another piece that primed me to be ready was a sure sense in me that this planet is my home. I will take action and step into leadership to care as much as is in my capacity for all that is around me in each moment. And finally, I find myself feeling gratitude for my dad’s drinking and ranting and how from that I have composted what was traumatic and mobilised my learning in service of care for the whole.