Instead of wasting thousands of dollars on medical care when we get serious illnesses, it makes sense to me to look at how we can prevent illness by taking care of ourselves and doing things that cost nothing. Think of the money and time saved. Think of the suffering saved. Think of our family’s energy saved.
We get more information on diet and exercise these days. My main interest is in how emotional and mental wellbeing relate to our physical wellbeing. It’s not something most doctors tell us about in detail.
For a start, did you know that studies show that
– appreciation is good for your heart health and that negative emotions can lead to heart disease?
– depression is linked to low self-compassion?
– marital stress is linked to heart disease?
This is something I feel really passionate about so I’m really looking forward to sharing what I learn from the science on this…stay tuned….
This survey is an easy way to check in on which areas of our lives could do with stress management.
I liked quite a few things about the stress and well-being survey by the Institute of HeartMath. It reminded me to connect with my feelings before answering questions instead of just answering quickly from my head. The questions were all in one page so it looked manageable. And I liked the coloured bar graphs they used in the results section. I could clearly see which areas of my life have the most and least stress as well as where my strengths in being resilient lie.
(I have not tried HeartMath products so this is not a recommendation for the products they sell.)
I spoke to Kit Miller, Director of the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, New York on 20 October 2010. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Vadivu: How do you respond to skeptics and cynics?
Kit: I am a big fan myself of skepticism. For me, skepticism is an indication that you really want to be able to trust more than you do; that something is genuine and authentic. I love skepticism because skeptics ask the hard questions. They are the ones who say, “Does this really work? Show me”.
Cynicism is just a more hard-boiled version of skepticism. Cynicism is skepticism wrapped up in pain. Because if you become a cynic, you’re someone whose skepticism has hardened into hopelessness. You’re no longer sure or think things will be able to change. And you don’t want to risk your heart again in believing in anything.
What I want to do when I am with anybody, rather than convince them of anything is to offer them empathy for their experience. If someone said something like, “I think this stuff is a bunch of flakey nonsense”, then I would be tempted to say, “So you really want to have more faith than you do right now that what I’m saying can actually work”. And just stay with that truth for them. And be open to be educated myself. The more attached I am to having a certain outcome to anything, whether it is a conversation or in a project, the less likely I think it is to happen.
When someone is willing to share the gift of their truth, even if it is a truth that is really cynical, I really want to honour that and I think my experience is that when we’re not out to change anybody, people become a lot more open to change. ..I do want the world to change but I don’t want to force anyone else into changing… I don’t think educating or shaming people to try and do or see things differently changes anything.
I’m more interested in saying, “Let’s skilfully meet each other with our human truths”..Many of us are walking around with so much pain in relation to the systems that we are interacting with all the time that don’t serve us – whether it is the health care system or the education system…pick a system – they all seem to have their problems now…
…In that way, we have an actual dialogue. It’s not them lecturing me or me convincing them; it’s a dialogue in which we can both be changed. I learn better how to speak next time about it or have a sharper capacity to understand someone else’s perspective and hopefully that person walks away thinking, “OK, this idea has more merit than I thought it did”.
On Gandhi’s struggles
Vadivu: Do you know of times where Gandhi himself was tested in practising nonviolence? Or did it come naturally to him?
Kit: I don’t think it came naturally to him. He had years of practice that were very alive for him. When we were speaking earlier, I was saying that he was a person who was not afraid to change his mind. I think one of his gifts as a servant leader was that he didn’t think, “Oh I’ve said this three years ago so I have to say it forever.” He held to the truth very lightly and he kept looking for it all the time. And when new things would come in, he would acknowledge his past shortcomings and say, “Now we’re going to do it this way.” So I think he was very life-affirming in that way.
And I remember there was one time when he was in his early forties, and he was back from South Africa in India and the first national nonviolent action they had in India, there was a death or a couple of deaths as a result of the action. And he called that his “Himalayan blunder”. He said that he had made a mistake. He didn’t realise in such an enormous country with so many people as India how much more discipline would be required for people to really take up nonviolence; to be able to stay nonviolent even when they were provoked. It still feels a little of a miracle to me that is happened in the way that it did. But he always took that on when he learned of something that he had done an error…he took that on himself and those were often the causes of the fasts that he made, even the fast that happened after the partition when Pakistan was created. He basically took that on himself and said, “If I had been able to know more or lead in a better way, this wouldn’t have happened.” So he stopped eating as a way of taking that on and also as a way to try to get the people to try and stop killing each other. And it worked.
I think he was someone who was really aware and humble. And again, I urge you to read his autobiography because he speaks very clearly and beautifully about that.
On Kit’s personal introduction to Non-Violence
Vadivu: How did you encounter nonviolence?
Kit: When I had my third child and there were more children in our house than adults, I realised that something needed to change. I was a very good student and pretty successful person in business before I had my children. That meant I was very goal-oriented. And when my youngest was born, I decided I wanted to stay at home. I didn’t want to be a working mum anymore. I was really keen to stay at home….in just a few weeks I realised that it was an awful idea because… little people teach you that if you’re not connected to the joy of the process, you’ll go crazy…
I had to become a person of process – a person who valued what was happening in the moment instead of continually looking for the goal, the end-product. Or I felt it was my duty to my children to put them in the hands of people who knew how to do it and go back to do what I knew how to do which was to make money.
In that period, I ran into this work on Nonviolent Communication. This was pre-internet..about 17 years ago…we didn’t have a television so I had no way of learning through television and there were no books written on it at that time… There was one audio-tape so I would listen to the audio-tape in my car and finally went to an introduction [to non-violent communication] in Cleveland, Ohio and then began to be a student of the work.
Vadivu: How has it changed your life?
Kit: I am always 51% connected now to process, no matter how excited I am about a goal. I am pretty consistently now more interested in the means than the ends.
On changing systems
My interest now is in changing systems instead of solving problems. I have a mentor who retired from the UN last year, named Monica Sharma, and her voice is always in my head, “Kit, you must not be solving problems, you must be changing systems.” …One of the projects I love is our project [Restorative Rochester] on restorative justice…
On restorative justice
Vadivu: What are some of the myths and fears that people have with regards to restorative justice and how do you address those?
Kit: One myth that people have is that people will say anything to get off. So they want to have more trust than they do that it won’t just be an opportunity for people to not get sufficiently punished. Because we really have an idea now that we get people to learn through punishing them. When I ask people about that, “Do you think people actually learn by being punished?”, they often will stop and say, “I’m not sure”. “What did you learn when you were punished?” so often I’ll just stop with people and look at what their story is about it.
Then I’ll show then that a restorative justice practice holds people accountable; it has high degrees of accountability for their actions but also high degrees of support.
Because if you only hold people accountable, and don’t give them support, that’s just punishment. That’s when you’re doing something to somebody. If you’re only giving them a great deal of support, with no accountability, that’s when you’re doing something for people. That’s kind of like this permissive, “Don’t worry, don’t ever do it again”. But holding both things is when you’re truly doing it with [someone].
There are a number of organisations connected to this coalition. One of them has been doing restorative justice in the community for years and they have one high school in the city they have been working with where on the third year of really working with restorative justice principles, they’ve had extraordinary results.
When the principal of the school started, [there were] so many gangs, so many fights, so much ethnic violence going on that she had, during the first year she was there, 46,000 hours of kids being in school suspension. ..[They got] all the staff in the school trained in using circle technology – to sit down and use a talking piece, which they did preventatively. And then when things happen in the school, they would use the same format to resolve. Two years after they started, there was 260 hours of in-school suspension. So 46000 to 260…
One of the things we’re working on now is measuring how much money that has saved. Because that saved…I’m guessing…it’s got to be hundreds of thousands of dollars both for the school district and for the police department because the police department used to have about half a dozen police officers [when] there would be a riot, fires, fights happenening all the time there and now, nothing…
There is a beautiful video… on a school in West Philadelphia which was on a dangerous list and it’s not anymore. And it’s a very similar story to what’s happening here.We’re basically trying to ignite the moral imagination of the community.
Vadivu: You have this vision of being the most restorative city in the US. Why Rochester?
Kit: One is that we happen to be there. Gandhi has this concept called “swadeshi” which was to “think global, act locally”. So this is where we are. This is the home of Fredrick Douglass, the major hero in ending slavery in this country. It’s a home of Susan B. Anthony who was one of the major women to help bringing women’s suffrage in. She died before it happened but she worked tirelessly for fifty years and lived and died within ten minutes of this building… but the bottom line is that we’re here.
I had a mentor long time ago who said, “Want to know where you get your head at? Look where your feet are!”
If you want to improve relationships in your life, whether at home or at work through nonviolent communication, the Institute recommends that we:
1. Commit 20-30 minutes each day to a practice that supports contemplation and self-connection such as meditation and yoga. (For more ideas on contemplative tools, I find the the Tree of Contemplative Practices a good start, which we can adapt…obviously we don’t do marches in Singapore.)
Why do we benefit from a contemplative practice? Kit says, “because what people need to become nonviolent is they need to be working with breaking this stimulus response pattern. This thing happens…the pause after the stimulus…whether it’s a harsh word or a raised fist, or even an eyebrow that stimulates whatever the reaction is…we need to be working with that incredibly productive pause, where we can choose to do something different than our habitual response of violence, anger, resentment, bitterness toward others or all those things directed inward…”
2. Spend a little time each day learning about nonviolence through books, film and other media as an antidote to the violence we experience or hear everyday. (The public libraries in Singapore have quite a few resources. Search using “nonviolent communication” as key words.)
Kit also recommends an online course on nonviolence through the Metta Centre website. She also gave me a book, “The Hope” which she says is a beautiful way to stay connected to the idea.
3. Participate in some project that supports the spread of nonviolence.
St Paul’s chapel stood as a sanctuary and a beacon of hope during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Many relief workers found rest and comfort there and today the Chapel is a memorial to 9/11. The photos say more than I can so will let them speak for themselves.
I sat down in silence for a while. I hoped for transformation of the pain and anger of that day to be transformed into healing and peace. I also honoured the role of the chapel that day and I wondered:
What are our sanctuaries when we have destruction in our lives, be they people, places, silence within or even books? Where are we just allowed to feel fully? Where can we get a hug and a listening ear? Where can we get restored emotionally and spiritually? And do we give thanks enough to these beacons of hope?
My only exposure to Gandhi, while growing up, was a statue we had at home of him and the movie, Gandhi. But my own transformation from using anger as a fuel for social change to using more love led me to visit the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence in Rochester, New York in October 2010.
Gandhi was thrown out of the first class area of a train in South Africa because he was Indian. This made him want Change. And using nonviolent means, he freed India from British rule.
Conversation with Kit
I truly enjoyed my conversation with Kit Miller, the director of the Center and staff member, George Payne who was my learned guide for the day.
What I took away most from my conversation with Kit was the openness with which she embraces skeptics. I learnt to see skepticism as opportunities for mutual transformation, when handled with humility and empathy.
I confess that I had grown up thinking people who hurt others should be punished and should suffer. It was “justice” in my mind and it is only in the past few years that I have learnt to view this issue differently. So being up close to someone working on restorative justice was special for me. While researching for this post, I learnt about restorative practices in Singapore and would love to hear from those involved about their experiences.
I like that I got to learn about not just the clearly positive parts about Gandhi but also how he was fully human, made mistakes and took responsibility for them. (The video below is a frank portrayal of him and covers both the light and shadow of Gandhi’s life.)
“Be the change” workshop
During the workshop on the day we met, Kit asked us, “What is Gandhi’s relevance today”. It’s sad that his name is mainly only in the history books (and even then I am not sure the children of today know who is was) because his work can help us heal so many kinds of relationships today.
I had read Marshall Rosenberg’s book on Nonviolent Communication, which is where I first learnt about this powerful communication method. Seeing Kit role-play this method during the workshop made it seem easy and inspired me to practise it more. I find that it is most difficult to practise it with those close to us so I’m looking forward to trying more diligently.
Honouring The Environment
The Institute is based by a river. George shared with me about their “Riverkeepers” project, in which students, members of the community and the staff clean the river periodically. They do this to save the wildlife, promote the idea of stewardship and thirdly, to change perceptions of such tasks from mundane to sacred. Manual work is given to those who have done a misdeed as a punishment. So this project helps people see all forms of labour as precious. (I offered one more interpretation: that clearing the physical clutter is a symbol for us clearing internal clutter from our minds, hearts, souls and bodies.)
Through this project, I understood how the Institute’s environment informs their work and how they positively influence the environment. Often we don’t see this connection to where we are and what is around us that needs care.
What really stood out for me was where the Institute is situated – at the interfaith chapel where people of different faiths can pray.
And this, below, was my favourite poster at the Institute’s office.
Gandhi is no longer a distant historical figure to me. In fact when we put people on pedestals, we somehow think we cannot be like these great souls, when in fact, they often want us to emulate their positive messages.
I had asked a few friends and members of my family what questions they may have for the Institute.
My mum sent me an email when I was in Rochester, saying, “If only a quarter of people practised what Gandhi did, the world would be a different place.” Yes, and the question for us to answer is whether we are one of the 25%.
And my friend, Melissa De Silva, sent me an email, “In terms of non-violence for ordinary people, I’ve wondered about non-violent communication – how we can disagree and work through conflict with those closest to us, family etc, without succumbing to ‘violent’ communication like exploding, harsh, rough tones, etc during arguments…”
If you have wondered the same, Kit shares how in my interview with her. You can also access materials by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. And the public libraries in Singapore carry a range of materials on nonviolent communication, including for parents and teachers specifically. (Use “nonviolent communication” as search words at nlb.gov.sg.)
This had always been a big concept to me which I was incapable of acting on. How do we forgive those who have caused extreme hurt, maybe not just to us, but many others who cannot speak for themselves.
It is only in the few years that I have experienced its power in my life. And it took time to learn from different sources and create a method that worked for me. To be honest, I did not even know what I was doing was piecing together a way for me to forgive. I just felt my way forward slowly.
But before I share what works for me, why bother to forgive? Forgiveness really helps the forgiver. Research shows that forgiveness has huge health benefits. Forgiveness expert, Dr Fred Luskin’s website mentions that forgiveness training has helped improve productivity, reduce hypertension and improve immune and cardiovascular functioning.
How I forgive– and grow
This is what helps me —
1. First, I allow my feelings to flow, whether they are hurt, anger or fear. I don’t block them. I write. I speak to wise people. (As I have used the following steps more, these feelings have been replaced by more peace.)
2. I have changed my self-talk from: “These are mean-spirited people” to
– “This person has a Story. He was taught to be this way by his family, teachers and others who shaped his mind, heart and soul. That is what he knows. This is the best he could do at this point in time. Some of my own weaknesses were also developed this way. As I extend compassionate understanding to myself, I do it towards him.”
– “This person has a Struggle. He has an emotional/psychological wound. He has been hurt and hasn’t healed his hurt. He may not even know this and may even deny he has wounds to be healed. But he is functioning from his wounds, which causes pain to me and others. I also have emotional and psychological wounds which I inflict on others. As I extend compassionate understanding towards myself, I do the same towards him”. (Please see my ex-professor, Donna Hicks’ work on dignity for more information on dignity violations. It has helped me greatly in understanding why people act unkindly.)
– “This person has some unmet needs.”
– “This person is a mirror to me in an important way. I am particularly upset by his actions and traits because I have done or been those things to others, even if it may not look the same. Alternatively, I may have an unhealthy version of the opposite trait. For example, if someone’s irresponsible action is upsetting me, either I have been irresponsible myself or have an over-developed sense of responsibility. This is very difficult for me to accept but when I do, it offers me an opportunity to grow deeply.
– “This person has Strengths, just like I do. He may be over-using some of his strengths. But he is certainly more than his wounds. He has gifts to offer the world, which if given the opportunity, he could do more of.
– “This person is my Teacher. I can learn some precious lessons which could help be become better, not bitter from this experience. I need to discern what these life lessons are. I am grateful to him for these lessons.”
3. Finally, I send them loving and positive thoughts. I wish the person well; I intend that they will heal and be happy and thank them for helping me become a better person. I NEVER thought I would be able to do this for some people but I do try now and it feels liberating.
Don’t wait for an apology
None of this requires contact with the person who has hurt us. This took me a while to digest that it does not require an apology from them. This work is done in our hearts and souls. It may result in us making or having new dialogues and connections with people who have hurt us. Sometimes they may not be ready to speak of the past. They may not even know that they hurt us or how badly. And we need to accept this. It is not easy – but it does get easier.
I have found that extending this compassionate understanding gets more difficult with people close to me since they have the opportunity to cause more intense hurts. But I am trying and it’s a process.
I think forgiveness shouldn’t be forced on anyone. If you ask me to forgive when I am not ready, I might withdraw from you because you don’t seem to understand my pain. But when we are ready to forgive, there are tools available, which is what I’m making available here.
Forgiveness also doesn’t always mean I need to stay in a relationship with someone. That needs to be assessed case by case.
Hardest person to forgive
For me, hardest of all is to forgive myself for mistakes or weaknesses. In the Fetzer Institute’s website, they write something I find very useful:
“In Spiritual Rx Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat recommend a simple practice to help you recognize the big picture of who you are; it can be very helpful when you are down on yourself. “The next time you tell a story about yourself, instead of saying ‘I am’, substitute the phrase, ‘Part of me is.'”
When it is just one part of me, it is more manageable and I look at it like a child who doesn’t know what to do and made a mistake. Then I can teach this child gently to act in a different way next time.
I’ve discovered that the more forgiving I am of myself, the more forgiving I am of others.
Here are some excellent resources on forgiving yourself:
The first time I saw this on a wall in downtown Singapore, I ignored it. I thought it was an advertisement (as it resembles our tourism campaign logo). Then I did a double-take when I read the line at the bottom of the poster.
It is rather a brilliant piece from a creative standpoint.
I showed it to a few people and they agreed with the artist’s sentiments. And I admit I used to as well. But I don’t anymore and if you stick around, perhaps you’ll find out why my view has changed.
Although I love the ingenuity of the poster above, I much prefer the positive post-it messages of someone in Singapore who leaves them around town anonymously. He has been posting one message every day for over 500 days.
Upper East Coast Road, Singapore
What do the walls around you say? What messages can you take home and live out and which do you prefer to leave on the walls?
Marjorie was a pioneer of animal welfare in Singapore. She was one of the founders of the local SPCA, an advisory director with the World Society for the Protection of Animals and Secretary of the International Primate Protection League. And she was one of my role-models.
I met Marjorie in 1992 when I was just starting out on my journey to reduce animal suffering.
She worked for animals independently, using her own funds.
She had a deep impact on my life and I am writing a letter to her today, 18 August 2010, after returning from her funeral.
Thank you for so many things but especially for teaching me some precious life lessons. You taught me –
The Power of One – One person can make a tremendous difference. You did. You spoke up on animal use in industries such as farming, entertainment and experimentation long before most people did in Singapore. You made me feel less lonely. Walking up Changi Village to your home was like a trek to a quiet sanctuary where I felt there was someone else who cared about the issues I did.
The Power of the Written Word – You wrote great letters to The Straits Times Forum page and to government agencies speaking up for animals. I enjoyed us reading each others’ letters. You taught me to always use the written word carefully and research something accurately before writing it.
The Power of Peaceful Engagement – You built bridges. You were respected even by people you lobbied. You spoke well of public servants who cared about animals and the constraints they also faced. You did not demonise people who could not do what we wanted them to. I had more anger than you in those days and it has taken me longer to realise the power of love in advocacy work.
How Ego-less One Can Be – You worked quietly behind the scenes, never caring about recognition.
What Real Commitment Looks Like – We live in a fast-paced world where we lose patience when it takes just a little longer to even download something from the Internet. You knew that it takes commitment and patience to really make a lasting difference. You were committed to animals for over 50 years.
Most of this you did by just being who you were. You were a peaceful warrior.
My dear Marjorie, I am so glad I told you all I wanted to say to you about how I felt about you and the impact you had on my life when you were still alive.
You have left when I am starting my own new special journey in Singapore. I ask for your blessings for I am about to embark on something that is also going to take a lifetime. Please bless me with the strength to live out the patience, commitment, truth, justice and peace you stood for.
During one of my last visits, you whispered, “Remember me”. You needn’t have said that. Legends are never forgotten.
Although I felt sad when Marjorie died, I felt peace that I had appreciated her when she was live and that I had visited her periodically even when she could not speak much anymore.
One thing I did for Marjorie which she appreciated was introduce her to talking books, available from the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped. She started losing her sight some years ago and these books brought her the intellectual stimulation she needed. If you know someone who is also losing their sight, you might find help at SAVH (http://www.savh.org.sg/).
Who has had an impact on your life? Would you like to write them a letter of appreciation and read it to them in person? Would love to hear from those who try this out as well as from those who have reservations about it.