Asheville professionals teach empathic discourse for uncertain times

NEW PARENTING PARADIGM: Gina Mashburn Heath and Coy Heath use the principles of compassionate communication to enrich their partnership and relationship with their child. Photo courtesy of Gina Mashburn Heath
NEW PARENTING PARADIGM: Gina Mashburn Heath and Coy Heath use the principles of compassionate communication to enrich their partnership and relationship with their child. Photo courtesy of Gina Mashburn Heath

In an otherwise polarized world, many Ashevilleans are embracing an alternative: compassionate, or nonviolent, communication, which fosters slower, more mindful conversation dedicated to fostering unity.

Jerry Donoghue, founder of Asheville Compassionate Communication Center, didn’t grow up well-versed in the principles of nonviolent communication. But over time, he became aware of how different it is from his learned communication style: “I noticed how much I communicated with judgments, intellectual analysis, [and how I] was not connected with my feelings —kind of a habit I picked up from my family upbringing and the larger culture. As I deeply studied compassionate communication, I discovered how it gives us an alternative way to express what we want without judging the other.”

Typical communication, Donoghue explains, falls into two categories, starting with “communication that blocks the flow of compassion, [such as] someone sharing something deeply vulnerable and the other giving advice.” The other type “emanates out of the right/wrong framework. An example of that is when we are in conflict and say things that are trying to prove yourself right and the other wrong.”

NVC, in contrast, encourages identifying one’s feelings, naming them and making a request — unlike common day-to-day negotiations of conflict, Donoghue says.

Pioneered by psychologist, author and teacher Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s, nonviolent communication offers an alternative to the aggressive discourse dominating much of contemporary society. Born of a turbulent sociopolitical era in our nation’s history, NVC seeks to foster connection and dissolve conflict in interpersonal relationships, organizations and society. Central to NVC are three principles: empathy for self, empathy for others and honest self-expression. The overarching ethos of the practice suggests that there are no unhealthy needs — only unhealthy (and unsuccessful) ways to go about meeting those needs (

Most powerfully, NVC provides the tools with which to bridge the seemingly insurmountable divide between self and “other” — whether partner, friend or nation. The magic tool? Empathy. (

If you’re like most people, your habitual response to conflict is one of three alternatives — fight, flight or freeze. But at what cost?

Certified HeartMath and Connection Practice coach Cathy Holt says such common responses lead to faulty communication. “I saw how when I didn’t acknowledge a feeling, it would generally come out sideways — it would show up in my body language, tone of voice — it would leak out, in a way,” she says. “It would come out as judgments of other people. You see the world differently when you’re judging all the time.”

It is this very lack of awareness, Holt says, that is the source of violence. “Marshall Rosenberg used to say,” she adds, “A tragic suicidal expression of a need is when we make an attacking, blaming statement to another person.”

Roberta Wall, certified NVC trainer, agrees. “I think most of the violence in the world is happening when people aren’t even aware that they have anger. They think they’re under a duty or they’re protecting something — they think, ‘That’s why I’m fighting, as a pirate or a soldier or a so-called terrorist.’

CONSCIOUS COMMUNICATION: Locally and in Israel and the West Bank, certified nonviolent-communication trainer Roberta Wall facilitates mediations, trainings and coaching that integrate NVC and mindfulness. Photo courtesy of Roberta Wall

“Marshall Rosenberg invited us to discover the ‘surprising purpose’ of anger,” she continues. “I think what he meant by that is that when we look at our anger, it’s pointing us to [ask] what is so important to me that in this moment I am willing to put this relationship on the line? What is so important to me that in this moment I’m willing to do violence? So the surprising purpose of anger is to awaken me to what is so important to me.”

Wall continues, “We sometimes call NVC ‘a language of the heart’ because it’s a language and a way of hearing language that connects my heart to your heart.”

And, perhaps in no relationship is the power of NVC more evident than in romantic partnerships.

“We have a no-blame household,” says Gina Mashburn Heath. She and her husband, Coy Heath, say their relationship has been revolutionized by the tools NVC provides. “Because we have a practice of using NVC, I can just talk about my feelings — I’m not making [someone else] responsible. If I come in the door and Coy is really angry, I don’t imagine, as I would have in the past, that that’s my fault, or that I need to take that on. In the past, I would have felt an attack was coming and started putting up my defenses. Now, I can keep my heart open. I can just go with him and be with him with what’s going on for him without personalizing it.”

Coy agrees. “The shift for me is dropping those old models of blame and shame.” He notes that the practice involves saying, for example, “‘When the dishes are left in the sink, I feel really upset because my need for cleanliness isn’t being met,’ as opposed to saying, ‘You always do this.’ [The practice entails] talking about specific issues as opposed to making a blanket statement and then airing all of my grievances that I’ve been bottling up inside for months and blowing up.”

Yet the effects of the practice are not limited to their interpersonal relationship. Exploring uncharted territory, both Gina and Coy have been utilizing the practice to raise their elementary-school-aged child.

Gina says she is supporting her child in cultivating empathy and an intrinsically motivated way of moving about the world. “It’s good to be a few years into it now and to see her having empathy for others, her having consideration, and it’s not because she should,” she says. “It’s because she’s generating that herself, and it feels good to do that.”

Referring to picky eating, a challenge faced by many parents, Gina says, “I used to work with kids that had distended bellies. Instead of saying, ‘Don’t be a spoiled brat — just eat it,’ you get in touch with your own feelings. This is the reason I have this strong value of not just throwing away a plate of food. I have to be able to articulate it, and then I can share that with you, and then perhaps you have an honest shift — that’s something talked about in NVC — that by hearing someone else’s feelings and needs about something, you might genuinely shift to where you’d like to contribute to their life by doing something different.”

So although the practice does not always work in certain cases, such as getting a child to eat food, parenting guided by compassionate communication is a long-term investment, Gina says. “[Our child] was two when I started learning from Jerry. So, we don’t guilt people and shame people and blame people. What do we do instead? What’s my intrinsic value that I want to share with my child versus ‘I need to get you to do what I want you to do?’”

Imagine an all-too-common parenting quandary, Wall suggests: You’re late, your child is dawdling, the minutes are ticking away. “What do I want my child’s reason to be for hurrying up right now?” she asks. “Do I want them to hurry up because they’re afraid of me? Do I want them to hurry up because love will be withdrawn if they don’t? Do I want them to hurry up because I want them to take care of my emotional life? Or do I want them to hurry up because I want them to find enjoyment supporting our family functioning in a sustainable way?”

Parenting from this paradigm, Heath acknowledges, is not without its challenges. “I want to put it out there to other parents who may be utilizing NVC to not be discouraged, because it’s long-term parenting. In the moment, it won’t work if working means getting somebody else to do what you want them to do. It’s not behavior modification; it’s not controlling your child’s behavior. But if your goal is to teach them about your values — that’s the empathy.”

Donoghue underscores the long-term value of NVC, saying, “The right/wrong way of communicating takes so much emotional energy, and nothing gets resolved. I think compassionate communication changes relationships because it helps people connect to themselves in a deeper, more vulnerable way, which then gets naturally transferred to connecting to loved ones in deeper, more vulnerable ways.”


Mountain Xpress Interview

Am I right or am I right? The spirit of compassionate communication

Posted on July 1, 2014 by Jordan Foltz

Xpress spoke with Jerry Donoghue to get a deeper perspective into his work with compassionate communication:

Xpress: What is at the root of people’s difficulty communicating compassionately?

Donoghue: We are conditioned within the right/wrong paradigm to make judgements and analyze others instead of expressing how we feel and what we want/value in any given situation. When judging others, we are often experiencing discomfort of some sort and are less inclined to want to empathetically connect with what the other is feeling or wanting/valuing. For example, if a friend calls me on the phone and spoke all about her exciting news and had to go before I got a chance to share my news, I could easily make the judgments: ‘she’s inconsiderate,’ or ‘she’s so self-centered, or ‘it’s all about her.’ But instead, I could express to this friend that I feel frustrated and want to be mutually heard. I could also acknowledge that she felt excited by her news and wanted to be heard. Once there is this need-based conection where nobody is wrong, we can think of ways to get both sets of needs met.


How do we get so attached to being ‘right’ and making others ‘wrong’?
I believe the attachment to being ‘right’ comes from having deeper, unacknowledged needs. The needs linked to this urge to be right can be triggered/activated when having a disagreeing or conflictual conversation where the intensity of feelings and unwillingness to see other viewpoints could be fueled by needs for acceptance, worth, security, empowerment. … When such linkage happens, we are no longer arguing our points of disagreement with a person on a particular topic, but unwittingly fighting for these needs to be met.

On the deepest level, what do we feel is threatened in the act of giving up being ‘right’?
What is threatened is the fulfillment of the deeper unacknowledged needs that are linked to being right in a particular context. I view the urge to be right as a strategy to fulfill those unacknowledged needs as mentioned above. In simple terms, being right could be linked to avoidance of seeing one’s self as a bad person, or the desire to see one’s self as a good person. So in a conversation, it is imperative to be right because your badness or goodness is at stake.

What if someone feels that they are inherently compassionate? Are there still modes of perception/communication that they are unable to see?
Some people mistake being compassionate with being nice. What they might not see is that not asking for your needs to be met (being nice) is not being compassionate to yourself. Other people might understand compassion as some ideal, perfect spiritual state and then unwittingly go about violently judging themselves/others when not living up to such an ideal. … I believe many of us have a sincere intention and want to be compassionate, but, unfortunately, our conditioned ways of responding reside in the right/wrong paradigm and miss the mark. Compassionate communication is a way to learn to bring our language in alignment with our intentions and show up compassionately in the world — even when there is conflict.

What: Jerry Donoghue is the founder and coach at Asheville Compassionate Communication Center on E. Chestnut Street. His training is based on the nonviolent communication model developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s during his work in the civil rights movement to forge ways for people to communicate and interact in a way that emphasizes quality connection instead of determining who is right or wrong.
Principle tenets of the practice are that we resort to manipulative or confrontational behavior and communication when we are not being openly honest about what our needs are and how they are or are not being met. The psychology behind it is sometimes boiled down to a primitive fight or flight response, where we unconsciously feel that our very survival is at stake within less-than-dramatic, modern scenarios.


Western Psychology Meets Nagarjuna: Understanding Psychology On A Buddhist-Graduated Nondual Spiritual Path

by Jerry Donoghue

“The one who experiences perceptions does not exist before, during, or after the experiences of seeing and so forth. Knowing this, all thoughts of an experiencer of perceptions either existing or not existing are over-turned.”—Nagarjuna

I thought it might be interesting to explore how western psychological concepts fit into a graduated path inspired by the Buddha. The path I lay out uses the four refutations of Nagarjuna’s tetralemma or fourfold path. Nagarjuna is one of the greatest Buddhist philosophers who founded the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism. He refutes the various positions we hold about ourselves and the world. I plugged needs-based psychology into his refutations to inspire understanding of how emptiness can be applied in very practical ways in our daily lives.

Even though our growth and development are more complex and uneven than these kinds of graduated presentations suggest, I find it a useful tool for understanding. So as you read through these levels, it is useful not to take them as absolute levels through which we neatly progress from one level to the next in linear fashion, or to interpret them to mean that, once we reach a certain level, we are forever exempt from returning to the lower level. I think development is much more chaotic than these linear notions suggest. However, even with these limitations, there is much value in laying out a template for understanding our experience and relationship to western notions of psychological needs.

The meaning of the word emptiness in this article is to indicate the status of objects of our awareness. To say a table, a psychological need, or a self-sense is empty in nature or lacks inherent existence means that these objects don’t exist independent of causes and conditions. In other words, they exist as interdependent forms and not at all as independent forms as our language suggest. These objects have many other relationships with other things in order for them to appear to us in the form that they do. We typical use language to make object static or reify them. There is a certain convenience and functionality in using language this way. We can put a label “table” on the assemblage of wood and tell people we will eat at the table, and people won’t eat off the assemblage of wood known as the floor.

There are pitfalls as well to labeling. When we use static language over and over again, we begin to forget about the interdependency and start to assume that objects of our awareness inherently exist. In other words, we believe objects of our awareness exist independently of causes and conditions. This may not be that problematic for objects like tables, but when it comes to objects of our awareness like psychological needs or a self-sense, such static language labels begin to constrict and limit our experience in life. We shall see how the actualization emptiness in daily life with regard to psychological needs and a self-sense they refer to can actually create more functionality and liberation than if we hold them as inherently existent. 

Becoming Aware and Experiencing Psychological Needs/Desires

What do you want from life? What do you need? What do you long or hope for? What is it that you desire? What do you value? Can you point to any expectations you have? What is your level of attachment to what is referred to in these questions? All of these questions can be put under the banner of psychological needs and desires. Many of these needs/desires are in conscious awareness, many are not. The ones that are not may be repressed or denied for one reason or another. Others may be outside awareness because they are embedded in our assumptions of reality and are therefore hard to see.

One Western psychological approach that focuses on human needs/desires is Nonviolent Communication (NVC), developed by Marshall Rosenberg. NVC using language to support people in connecting to their own and others needs and desires as a way to resolve conflict and enrich life. One aspect of learning NVC is building up one’s need/desire literacy. NVC gives people a language to describe and relate to their needs and desires. Many people who learn NVC quickly discover that they are not aware of or connected to their needs/desires. They are submerged deep in our psyche as reified assumptions, expectations, values or wants. The basic task in learning NVC is becoming conscious of and connecting to our unconscious needs, hopes, desires, wants, values, expectations, and longings, as well as the feelings they evoke when fulfilled or not.

This correlation between feelings and one needs/desires is important in the NVC work to connecting with one’s self or the other. If you know what you are feeling in a certain context, you can more accurately access the need/desire that is connected to such feeling. For example, in a context where you feel fear about expressing yourself vulnerably, your need/desire in that moment is emotional safety.

On the other hand, if you know your need/desire in a particular context, you can infer what you might be feeling. For example, if you want support for a particular endeavor, it can be inferred that you might feel disappointed or frustrated in not getting the support you wanted.

For one reason or another, we repressed, denied, and otherwise lost touch with many of our needs/desires and our feelings as we grew up. We actively disowned some of them in order to meet others’ needs. However, these needs/desires with their associated feelings are constantly in play throughout our daily lives whether we are aware of them or not.

We all vary in how much awareness we have of our needs/desires and the associated feelings. The exploration at this level is about connecting to unconscious needs/desire and feelings and bringing them into awareness. Our needs and feelings fall into a category I call unconscious knowings. This is something we know, but it remains out of our conscious awareness. For example, suppose a wife is watching two small children, the phone rings and there is someone knocking at the door as her husband sits in a lounge chair in the back yard. After this experience, if I asked this woman whether she was feeling frustrated and overwhelmed and was wanting support or help, I imagine she would get a sense that I understood what she was experiencing. Also, she could have been disconnected from her need for support (unconscious knowing) or her feeling of being overwhelmed and when I offered that need and feeling as a guess, in that moment, she experienced a deep sense of self-connection and clarity. I gave her words to bring forth her unconscious knowing.

I’ve seen this countless times with people whom I empathetically guess what they were wanting. They felt a sense of relief, and there was a noticeable shift in their body and energy. Part of that experience, I would suggest, is a previously unconscious need and feeling (unconscious knowing) being made consciously known to them. When we bring into awareness a need/desire that is being held as an unconscious knowing, we empower ourselves to act upon it by devising strategies to fulfill the need/desire, or we can assess our level of attachment to the need/desire.

At this level of development, the general movement is to bring needs/desires into conscious awareness, which moves needs from being “real but unconscious” to the next level of needs being “real and conscious and trying to get them met.” Even though I am positioning this level as the basic level, this can be a very powerful and necessary level that many spiritual enlightenment aspirants bypass.

Many people who embark upon a spiritual path that includes transcending the “I,” ego or self-sense often are not aware that the most powerful aspects of their self-sense exist outside of their conscious awareness in the form of these unconscious knowings or disowned needs. It is difficult to change the relationship we have with an “I” or see it as false when it is out the range of our awareness. Besides needs, these unconscious knowings take the form of unconscious beliefs and judgments about ourselves that really solidify our sense of “I” in the form of unconscious memories. Therefore, the act of experientially becoming aware of our unconscious knowings (needs/beliefs) is tremendously supportive for those interested in enlightenment wisdom paths that value inquiry of seeing the sense of self as false or fabricated. So this level of uncovering unconscious needs is important and becomes the foundation for the more refined work on this graduated path.

A more abstract philosophical way to express this is that Inner presence work is using NVC and psychological “parts work” to become aware of deep unconscious psychological “I” structures (beliefs, assumptions, unmet needs, trapped feelings), which are already held as subtle unconscious reifications. Such awareness tends to have a de-reifying effect and happens naturally when we have a certain quality of connection and experience such reifications as empty of inherent existence.

Let’s simplify our complex inner dynamics to illustrate this point: An adult holds deep inside an unconscious part that suffered some traumatic event or a series of developmental events that inspire him/her to form the belief that “you can’t trust people.” This adult can experientially and empathetically connect (not intellectually) with this part by listening and being unconditionally present to its deep unmet needs and pain. Such quality of connection inspires self-correction mechanisms to take over. The parts construction of mistrust is naturally seen as false or not useful in the adults current life. A life-long unconsciously held position influencing how this person relates to others is de-reified. Since these unconscious reifications affect our lives in many ways and keep us attached to a solid sense of “I,” experiencing them and their beliefs as empty has a certain liberating effect in the way experience flows through. Below is a detailed application of Nagarjuna’s fourfold path on how people can typically experience needs/desires.

1) Needs/Desires Are Real And Inherently Exist (There Is A Self)

At this level of exploration, there is a concerted effort to practice identifying, connecting and expressing needs that emerge within us. We slowly shake off our conditioning, which does not value the language of needs, and eagerly explore our needs. We learn the new language of needs and begin to relate to our experience in that way. We begin to feel more comfortable with the position that needs are real and exist and start holding them in conscious awareness. We connect with previously unconscious needs and begin to savor the self-connection as well as our connection to others, that this awareness brings.

Part of this learning that “needs are real” is that we consciously or unconsciously assume needs are grounded in and representative of some intrinsic reality. We give them absolute status and begin to speak about them in that way. Our sense of self or “I” begins to be embedded in the new psychological needs language. Whereas our sense of self might have been partially formed by unfulfilled unconscious needs in the past, now our sense of self is more conscious, yet remains a sense of self or an identity.

As we gain practice, we begin to notice that some needs we express seem to have extra energy or deeper feelings associated with the need than the situation of context warrants. In other words, the emotional intensity is disproportionate to the situation. There might be a backlog of desires and wants, and these are expressed sometimes in desperate or intense ways. For example, a spouse wanting to be heard about something might be unconsciously superimposing old hurt and frustrations from childhood around being heard onto the present-time situation. This can be a challenge for people using the model because they may perfectly use the suggested NVC form, but their intense feelings cause them to abandon the important “intention of mutual connection” inherent in the NVC paradigm. Their requests end up having heavy demand energy behind them despite the inviting language.

So part of the learning process is coming to the experiential realization that “needs being real” can be experienced in both an attached and a nonattached way. We can experience, relate to our needs, and ask for them to be met in a way that is demanding or in a way that is holding them lightly. We quickly learn whether our self-requests or requests made to others to meet our needs are made with the heavy energy of demand or the lighter, non-attached “would like to have” when these requests are denied.

Some of this demanding energy I attribute to having wounds associated with unmet needs and/or having a backlog of unfulfilled core needs. If we make requests from our wounds, we are asking the other person to be responsible and resolve our wounds and the pain associated with them. This is also true for our backlog of unfulfilled needs. As we open up to our unconscious needs and make them conscious, many fall into the category of what I call empty bowls. We take these empty bowls and go around begging others to fill them, either in a covertly subtle or overtly demanding way. In other words, we automatically equate awareness of needs to external fulfillment, never realizing that we ourselves can fill our empty bowls.

At this level, we realize that in order to make requests that are a true request, deeper work needs to be done. This is the what we do in the basic Inner Presence work. Accessing and holding compassion for our disowned needs and parts that emerge in present-time contexts is one way to learn to hold needs lightly. Until we do this deeper work, the associated need most certainly will carry heavy demanding energy when it emerges.

Another pitfall to this level is the tendency to identify with our needs. For me, being strongly identified with the fulfillment of needs means that I define who I am by what I need. In other words, I think I am my needs. I form an identity around my needs. Demanding energy can arise from identifying with and linking our needs to unconscious core needs. A simple example of this is when someone doesn’t meet our need for support, and we silently conclude that they don’t value us. Our sense of worth, being loved, and accepted is subtly attached to and dependent upon many of the surface needs being met. Such identifications can be limiting and confound our understanding and relationship with needs. If we base a sense of self or “I” in a new language that is embedded in an assumed absolutistic context that needs are real, then we have simply created a better language trap for ourselves.

Even though NVC language is a relative process language, our internal psychological structures are formed and reside in our being in the absolutist dualistic language we were enculturated with in modern life. Our absolute deep psychological structures reveal themselves as we try to use process language in everyday life. There is bound to be a philosophic clash. People negotiate this clash in different ways. Some dismiss NVC as irrelevant because it does not support their comfort level and certitude of being identified with absolutist perspectives. Others stay on and struggle to learn, often experiencing confusion and tension. There is a certain awkwardness in trying to learn NVC from their absolutist perspective. In the beginning, we try to reduce the relative process language to the absolute.

Because we might have wounds or disowned needs undergirding our current expression of a particular need, which promotes strong identification, and because we might still be using an absolutist assumed ground to express our relative process language needs, a correction for this heavy identification is suggested in the exploration of the position that needs are unreal or don’t really exist in any ultimate sense. This supports moving to learn to dis-identify with needs or to experience them as empty. This can be a scary and uncomfortable process for many people, so few take this journey. For some, to give up the absolute status of needs means they create the conditions to experience the vulnerability of many deep core wounds or unmet needs.

2) Needs/Desires Are Unreal And, Don’t Inherently Exist In Any Ultimate Sense (There Is No Self): At this level of exploration, we begin to entertain needs being relative “things we tell ourselves we need.” Rather than mentally associating needs with biological or psychological imperatives, we experience their empty nature. In other words, they are seen as socio-linguistic and psycho-linguistic constructions. This is a correction for the absolutist position of “needs are real and inherently exist.” Needs are viewed as concepts that ultimately have no inherent existence and are empty. There is the exploration that needs don’t really exist in any absolute sense, but are relative expressions of things we want in this world as we live here. This treatment or regard for needs will support people in holding them lightly and expressing them in a more functional way.

This is a more difficult level of exploration for people who have experience using NVC in their lives. Why? Because many people enjoy the relief and freedom that comes from connecting with needs and having them fulfilled through requests. Also, much of the early NVC training is about persuading people to get in touch with their needs and actively promotes treating their needs as real and existent to bring into conscious awareness. It seems like a reversal to entertain the notion that needs are unreal or don’t exist in any ultimate sense. To suggest that exploring the concept that needs are unreal or don’t exist I would imagine is NVC heresy in some NVC circles.

I’m guessing some NVCers will confuse the position of “pretending like we don’t have needs” with this liberating “needs are unreal, don’t exist in any ultimate sense” position. So let me be clear that I don’t want you to go back to pretending that needs/desires/preferences/values don’t exist or to repress or disown them. Rather, I want you to consider changing your relationship with your needs! This exploration of the concept that “needs are unreal” is a correction to a relationship that seems to naturally form around the fulfillment of our needs: When we move from unconscious unfulfillment of needs to bringing them into to consciousness awareness and fulfillment, many of our needs take on a “have-to-have” energy and fulfillment is externally focused for reasons outlined above. When we don’t do the deeper work at the core level and learn to dis-identify with core needs, we disempower ourselves and can become slaves to the fulfillment of our needs.

Often people are reluctant to explore this needs-are-unreal position because they are afraid of falling into nihilism. In other words, they believe they will lose their meaning and purpose in life if they don’t have their needs inherently exist or give them absolute status. The exploration of “needs are unreal, don’t exist” is about changing our linguistic relationship with our needs to be able to hold them lightly. We still can use the language of needs/feelings to make sense of our experience and to let others know what we want and value, but the attachment that comes with the position “needs are inherently real” naturally falls away. In my experience, the needs-based consciousness that holds needs lightly is a more efficient tool for navigating this world than the needs-based consciousness that is supported by an absolutist dualistic good/bad self-system that uses demanding energy of the “this is the way things are!” Holding needs lightly means the sense of self “I” is not so heavily burdened with self-worth/acceptance/love energy. The “have-to-have” energy is no longer dominating our expression of needs. There is a general nonattachment to getting needs exclusively met externally. In other words, the model begins to be used without the influence of the dualistic self-system. Experiencing needs as empty and using the NVC model this way honors its inherent nondualistic relative nature.

3) Needs Are Both Real and Unreal (There Is A Self and No Self): At this level, needs are seen as both real and unreal or exist and don’t exist. Let me explain: As our relationship with our needs changes from “consciously real/exist” to “consciously unreal/don’t exist,” there is a tendency and potential to unwittingly get caught up in an extreme position. We can begin to misuse the “needs are unreal or don’t exist” position by forming an ideal about needs being unreal that we try to live up to in daily life. We can easily begin to devalue our needs and speak about them as though they were insignificant or an illusion. Many people who study nondual wisdom find themselves in this predicament when they pronounce all the stuff of daily life as a dream and renounce this world as an illusion in a derogatory way. They also will pronounce that the “I” is an illusion. Instead of the “I” being a coalescence of needs, they become identified with something other than the mundane reality of need fulfillment. They might announce frequently the mantra that there is no self, cherish and identify with that construction or position! They construct an ultimate reality outside of needs-based life and disassociate and deny the stuff of daily life in favor of this ideal, no-self state, (which ironically can be seen as just another form of a self-expressed in through negation).

In order to correct this tendency, the exploration of needs being both real and unreal is useful. Needs are real in the sense that they emerge in us in any given moment and are a part of our functional daily life (in Buddhism, this is called conventional reality). They are unreal in the sense that they can be “seen through” as something we tell ourselves we want, or they can be empty of inherent nature; they lack inherent existence (in Buddhism, this is called the ultimate reality). Just knowing that needs are both real and unreal seems to cause a shift toward experiencing a more functional relationship with them. Even though we know and accept that our sets of needs are constructed material, we can still enjoy them and use them as a real way to navigate daily life. Knowing that a flower is empty of inherent nature does not detract from experiencing its beauty.

This is the basis for the two-truth doctrine in Tibetan Buddhism. The ultimate reality exists conventionally. Translating this into NVC language: The ultimate reality exists when we see needs (conventional reality) as empty of inherent nature. Nirvana is samsara. So the ultimate reality is not some idealized state outside of whatever feelings, needs, values, and wants emerge in us in daily life. Instead, it is a shift in the relationship we have with our needs in daily life. 

4) Needs Are Neither Real/Exist Nor Are They Unreal Or Nonexistent (There Is Neither A Self nor a Non-Self ): As we begin to experience life with needs being both real and unreal, we can be seduced into making that a fixed position or an ideal to follow. In other words, we take the ultimate position that “the emptiness of needs and using needs as robust tools in daily life” and turn it into an ideal to be attained. To correct for that tendency, we can move to the fourth level, that the ultimate reality of experiencing daily needs as empty is also empty or devoid of inherent nature. This is the emptiness of emptiness. Our minds are conditioned to make emptiness into something that can be gained or lost. So it is useful to remind ourselves that the emptiness we are seeking does not inherently exist. At this level, nondual awareness is “seen through” as empty. There is no witness awareness that observes needs and feelings arising; there is experience flowing through a mind/body system. This is best described in a verse in Longchenpa’s “Treasury of Natural Perfection”:

In total presence, the nature of mind is like the sky,

where there is no duality, no distinctions, no gradations,

there is no view nor meditation nor commitment to observe,

no diligent ideal conduct, no pristine awareness to unveil

no training in the stages and no path to tread,

no subtle realization, and no final union.

In the absence of judgment, nothing is ‘sacred’ or ‘profane,’

only a one-taste matrix, like the Golden Isle;

the self-sprung nature of mind is like the clear sky,

its nature an absence beyond all expression.


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