Living in Community is Hard, and Thank God for That

By Jaya Priya, Kashi Ashram Cooperation Circle

Living in community is hard. Anyone who tells you differently hasn’t done it. That said, the places of difficulty are also the places of beauty. In each other we see our own reflection and are presented with the frequent opportunity to learn about ourselves. Often, this learning is experienced as judgment of either ourselves or the other. But sometimes, when equipped with the right tools and an open heart, we might experience compassion instead. This is the gift that satsang (spiritual community) offers us every day; an opportunity to build a compassionate relationship with ourselves and others. The opportunity to practice.

If we consider ‘being in relationship’ as a space for our practice, then we also understand that ‘communication’ is what allows us to pass meaning between us in relationships. Living in an intimate community, communication becomes the center of daily life. I find the words of M. Scott Peck to capture this connection accurately: “The words “communicate” and “community”, although verb and noun, come from the same root. The principles of good and bad communication are the basic principles of community building. And because people do not naturally know how to communicate, because humans have not yet learned how to talk with each other, they remain ignorant of the laws or rules of genuine community.”

Taking this a step further, we might also consider the inevitability of conflict as the greatest opportunity for our practice. Recently, I learned that there are a number of communities and schools that have come to terms with this truth and created containers (whether they be physical spaces or practices) that they call “fight rooms”. Like all of our other basic needs, such as sleep or eating for which we build bedrooms and kitchens, conflict too has its space: hence the fight room. Although the name may be misleading, they are not spaces for violence. Instead, these are spaces for the intentional and conscious engagement of conflict that are more likely to result in a restoration of relationship and a deepening of understanding. To achieve this, they are designed around a set of agreements on ‘how we will be together’ which draw from philosophies such as Nonviolent Communication and Restorative Justice.

At Kashi, for the past year and a half we have been employing listening circles as a means to work on our communication skills and build community and connection. This particular form of listening circles comes from the field of Restorative Justice. Based on our experiences with circles, we more recently realized that the tools of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) might be a natural complement to our efforts to build understanding and compassion among our satsang.

As a result, over the weekend of November 11th – 13th, Kashi hosted a three-day workshop on Nonviolent Communication with professor and facilitator, Mikhail Lyubanski. Mikhail’s work is broadly focused on conflict and restorative responses to conflict. Since 2009, he has been facilitating, teaching, and writing about Restorative Circles and Nonviolent Communication. Thanks to Mikhail’s generosity, Kashi was also able to hold trainings for all of our staff, our board members, and our swamis, in addition to the open weekend workshop. I was able to participate in all of the sessions with Mikhail, and feel inspired to share with you a bit about what we learned and how I foresee this work impacting Kashi in the future.

Traditionally, NVC is characterized as a philosophy and practice based on historical principles of nonviolence – the natural state of compassion when no violence is present in the heart. It is both a practice that helps us to see our common humanity and a concrete set of skills, which help us create life-serving relationships and communities. According to Mikhail, Kit Miller’s (director of the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence) description captures the essence of this practice most acutely. Kit says, “NVC is a spiritual practice masquerading as a communication tool”. Based on my own experiences over this powerful weekend, I would agree.

Over the course of the weekend we explored the personal practice of NVC, but we also looked into its use in our relationships and in our community. To do this, Mikhail focused us on the following: (1) the importance of walking towards conflict (2) how principles of NVC can be used as “inner work” to deepen self-connection (3) strategies for moving from judgment to connection during challenging encounters (4) ways to find a win-win during conflicts and heated interactions (5) the underlying meaning of “hard to hear” messages and (6) how NVC can be used as a tool in group decision-making.

To conclude our event, we explored the meaning of “financial coresponsibility” and what that meant for our relationships in the practical context of economy. One of the tenets of the Nonviolent Communication movement is that we are all responsible for how things go—whether in an interpersonal encounter or at a learning event like this one. With that in mind we designed the community event so that it was accessible to everyone (there were no fees for entry). However, to cover the costs and make future events like this possible, expenses were disclosed and, toward the conclusion of the event, participants were invited to consider the benefits of their learning and decide what they would like to contribute. As a learning community, we collectively pooled our resources and came to agreements about how to distribute those funds. What I came to learn through thisprocess was that it was not only about the financial resources circulating, but about the open space we created for expressions of gratitude and meaning to pass between us. Again, a focus on relationship.

Looking into the future, I am personally inspired to learn what conflict has to teach me within my own self, as well as within my community. I trust that our work with listening circles has equipped us with enough mutual understanding and practice in deeply hearing one another, that we are prepared to engage the juiciness of conflict with curiosity and compassion. In the words of Dominic Barter (founder of Restorative Circles), “Conflict is the river.”