Staying Open to Life despite Losses

By Miki Kashtan

When I sat down to count the number of times that I lost a friendship by actions of another, I didn’t imagine I would reach the number 29 in the last 27 years, almost all of them close friends, or other people with an ongoing connection, who chose to sever contact with me. Each a story of its own. Some with reasons I understand. Some without any reason ever told to me, though surely with a reason that made sense to that person. The worst was a condensed period of two years during which I lost seven of seven close friends, and then had no new ones for more than six years. The most recent last month, during my visit to Israel, one of the extremely few people in my life I was sure beyond any doubt was a friendship for life. No more.

I decided to write about it when a friend who heard about it wrote: “Wow. Just Wow. It’s a miracle, and a testament to your tenacity, that you continue to trust and to open your heart.” Even though I know that such cutting off is traumatic, and that I have endured most likely a higher-than-usual rate of these, reading this response I realized more strongly that what I was doing, how I was responding to life, was perhaps something useful to reflect about publicly. Specifically, a look into what is making it possible for me to trust and open my heart, and how far does this openness go.

Why Framing Matters

One of the fundamental insights of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), my spiritual and political home of sorts, is that what happens isn’t in any simple way what causes our reaction. Our reaction emerges from what we tell ourselves about what happens. I have watched this, studied this, and worked with people about it long enough to recognize this insight as a life-saver. It brings freedom to the inside, because I am continually reminded that I have no way of knowing what is true inside another person that leads them to actions that I may not like. Fully accepting the humility of not knowing leaves me with much more choice in what I tell myself about other people. The labels I may assign to them are mine, not simple truths about life. The vivid conviction I have about what motivates their actions is also mine, and says at least as much about me as it does about other people. In the absence of the futile search for who is to blame for what I am enduring, or for certainty and truth about others’ inner landscape, I am now free to take full ownership of my own inner landscape, critically examine its contents, and choose what I say to myself and where I put my attention.

There are no choices without consequences, and this holds true for this kind of choice, too. The stories I tell myself can open my heart or close it; can lead me to walk towards life or to run away from it; and, even, can offer me a path to a new identity of a powerful, alive, and open person. NVC provides a template story, a framework for making sense of life, that supports me in showing up in the very way I want, in line with my values, which include care for self, others, and the whole.

Because the story of my losses is so dramatic, I want to use it to illustrate this rather complex point. I imagine that any of you reading this asked yourself why so many people have made this repeated choice to exit my life. Of course you do. We all want to know the why of everything, from the moment we discover that the question exists, and forever unless curiosity is rooted out of us. Wanting to know why is never an issue for me. What I mourn is the that our civilization habituates us to answer the “why” of human relationship often with pointing fingers at who’s to blame for what happens. In this frame, the more people choose to exit relationships with me, the more “evidence” it provides that there is something fundamentally “wrong” with me that leads one person after another to move away from me. The only alternative to there being something wrong with me is some elaborate way of painting me as a victim, helpless in the hands of so many people who treat me without care.

The other frame that NVC offers is that in this case, as in all human affairs, actions are expressions of needs. Good and bad dissolve into a different perspective, one in which more and more awareness of needs can lead to more choice, more care, more integrity. I’m all in. Neither I nor 27 people who made specific choices in relation to me are good or bad. We all have the same needs, and they contain the code that can help me decipher this drama.

As my sister Arnina has identified and now teaches, needs often cluster, and there are two core clusters that are pivotal to who we become. One is the cluster of security, which also includes belonging and being seen as essential needs, and the other is the cluster of freedom, which also includes truth and presence. The tragedy of socialization within the patriarchal world we live in is that the two triangles polarize. As children, our security triangle is not a given; we have to earn it by being obedient, “good”, and overall following adults’ ideas and instructions. This means we get a subtle and profound message that says that the price of security and belonging is loss of the freedom to be. The overwhelming majority of us accept this extremely difficult deal. We give up who we are, our truth as it lives in us moment by moment, for the hope of being seen and accepted as part of the whole. We conclude that freedom is impossible, and keep longing for it.

A very small minority of us, in the same circumstance of polarization, choose freedom knowing full well that this means living without safety, belonging, or being seen. I am one of them and as such I can tell the story. It’s really not fun. Not that giving up on freedom and authenticity is any fun. It’s just that the longing for freedom is so huge, that I often find people who believe that because I have retained freedom I have a better deal. I am not wishing to compare notes. The solution I want is to eliminate the fundamental requirement to choose one or the other. I want us all to have both.

And I chose freedom, accepting the price of not belonging. And that, as Robert Frost’s endlessly famous line states, has made all the difference. Yes, I live with a lot of inner freedom. I follow my own convictions and adhere to my own values. I have worked pretty relentlessly for many years to release shame, and am pretty close to my ideal of being 100% shameless. I have reached a great deal of inner peace and I enjoy being me, within me. The cost may not be so apparent. Perhaps the cost is, precisely, the high rate of loss in human relationships.

This reframe helps because it brings me to tenderness. For myself, it’s tenderness for the choices I made, who I have become, and the agony of the price. For others, those who have left relationships with me, it’s tenderness for their longing for freedom and authenticity, and for the discomfort that I imagine them experiencing with my ways of being which are so often at odds with societal norms.

Tenderness allows me, to some degree, to remain soft-hearted towards the losses. It’s a softness that partakes of mourning, gently. With that, I can continue to open myself to each new person with unself-conscious willingness to imagine new possibilities, something different from older relationships.

Surrendering to Vulnerability

Being different from others, and being criticized and often shunned for it, has been excruciating. Although I was tracking only losses since I moved to California in 1989, the trail of losses begins with early childhood.

Given that I wasn’t going to respond by giving up on freedom and accepting instead what others wanted from me as the price of belonging, the only other option I knew was protection and a fierce and rather desperate independence. It was always, in my internal landscape, up to me to look after my own needs, because I had little trust that anyone else would care enough about me to want to offer support or assistance. I never saw any reason to speak my needs. I lived as an internal engineer, figuring out what I can do to walk between the drops and manage an existence on the margins.

What I gradually came to see was that I was consistently protecting myself without choice. Whenever I was out of strategies for how to care for myself without imposing anything on others (that has always been my clear commitment), I got lost in helplessness. In those moments, which still happen from time to time, though way less often, I sadly respond abruptly, in ways that are clearly unpleasant to others, in ways I would rather not respond. And not by choice.

It is easy for me to see that this protection kept me separate, inaccessible, and could easily contribute to at least some of the choices that people made to sever connection with me.

Then, in 1996, I adopted the practice of vulnerability. The result has been a dramatic softening that has come through increasing choice and releasing protection. The practice consists, precisely, of choosing to continue to reveal myself – my feelings, my struggles, my needs, what I want others to do – even when I don’t trust it will be received.

As the practice has deepened and become more integrated, and my awareness of my internal landscape and of choices within it increase, I have also grown in self-acceptance and self-love. Paradoxically, this has allowed me more choice in being myself, and doing it softly. Not in defiance, simply in being.

In short, the practice of vulnerability has given me peace and less helplessness; it has given me more freedom to be myself in a simple way; and it has made me more accessible.

Because of this practice, I can remain open hearted even in the face of repeated trauma, because the practice in unilateral and unconditional, nourished only by my commitment and the exquisite benefits I get from it.

I believe the practice of vulnerability is one of several that can bridge the two need triangles, regardless of which of the two we gave up early on. As we move towards more and more integration, we have the option of reaching a unique destination that Arnina calls the star of life.

Star of Life

When integrated, our presence is connected with being seen, our truth is no longer at odds with belonging, and we can experience freedom and security at the same time. This may be as close to heaven as we can get in this tortured world.

In my own journey, deepening my practice of vulnerability has brought me, in addition to the softening around my freedom and ways of bringing what is true in me outward, unexpected bounty in terms of human connection and belonging. It’s been painstaking and hard won, and yet it’s now true, no matter how much my eleven years old self would have been unable to believe: I have a circle of people who love and support me and with whom I experience belonging; people who don’t just tolerate me, as I always feared people did; people who enjoy who I am and thrive in their connections with me. Yes, there is no forever, and there may still be those who will choose to leave, and it doesn’t take away from the enormity of the shift.

Another unexpected outcome of the practice is discovering new layers of freedom that are available within this new sense of belonging and affirmation of myself. This is freedom to seek, learn, and share with the world beyond any limit I might have feared was there. I’ve adopted for myself a goal of becoming progressively more radical and less alienating, and I see that the more I soften, the more I am able to bring my full, vibrant, radical, subversive self while alienating fewer and fewer people. With the strength of my own vulnerability and the love and acceptance that surround me, I am less likely to freeze in fear, and more likely to act in ways that are aligned with my vision for the world, with my purpose for being here as I understand it, and with the values I hold most dear.

Joy

The final impetus for writing this piece came when I read the recent article by Oren Sofer that was posted along with the BayNVC bulletin – Giraffe Juice: The Necessity of Joy. What struck me more than anything was the idea that access to joy is tied to “one basic capacity: the ability to receive. To feel joy, we must be willing to let things in, to allow ourselves to be touched by life.”

Reading this was the moment I understood even more deeply the devastating cost of the losses I have endured. While I have been able to grow my capacity for outward vulnerability – the acts of allowing others to see my inside – I have continued to protect something within me in terms of inward vulnerability. My resilience and capacity to keep going depended on protecting myself from what came from the outside. I was living without joy, most of my life. While I found ways of making my vulnerability unconditional, a way of living, that very unconditionality made me impervious to what comes my way. In this time of such clear departure from the trauma of my childhood, such harvest of so many years of practice, and so much that aligns with what I want for myself, I feel readier than ever to release the self-holding underneath my entire practice, and to surrender to new frontiers of not knowing, allowing life to carry me instead of me carrying myself. In moments when I can do that, I can feel the stirrings of true, simple joy, the delight of being in this mystery called life, and living it in full.

INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image Credits:  top: Walking Away, Twin Peaks, San Francisco, CA, by Sunny Lapin, Flickr, (CC BY-SA 2.0). below: three diagrams, by Arnina Kashtan, with permission.

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10 thoughts on “Staying Open to Life despite Losses

  1. Rowena Alietta

    Thank you for this beautiful sharing. It has come at a time in my life when I am trying to make sense of all the inner conflict that resides within me that has led me to make the choices I have made in my life. The use of the two triangles has really helped clarify this inner conflict me as well as the allowing of vulnerability, both inner and outer, to create the link for these two triangles of our inner being to live in harmony together.

    Reply
  2. Verene Nicolas

    Hi Miki. I am new to Arnina’s cluster and welcome the clarity that it brings, especially as your post illustrates it powerfully. I also welcome your last paragraph on joy. I recall coming to the end of “Spinning Threads” (I think) and feeling some heaviness as regards to the pain you were describing living in your organism. I love this phrase: “I feel readier than ever to (…) surrender to new frontiers of not knowing, allowing life to carry me instead of me carrying myself.”

    Reply
  3. shanker

    I notice how by ‘allowing’ myself to be vulnerable, I touch the very joy of just ‘being’, nothing to achieve, nowhere to get to. Thank-you.

    Reply
  4. Cory Tyler

    Hi Miki. This post really spoke to me. I have lived much of my life often wondering what other people thought of me and my interpretation of that would then inform / color what I thought of myself. I appreciate your exploration and sharing of your journey in self awareness, love, vulnerability and joy. Cory Tyler

    Reply
  5. Marcela

    Mmmm- Reading your words, allowing myself to connect to my own yearning for belonging, and the needed vulnerability for showing up authentically. Surprised by the rush of fierceness, and the deeper realization: I had made my only viable choice a surrender to freedom— choosing autonomy over interdependence to prove my own strength and capacity to survive, understanding now,that in part I did so, so as not to risk betrayal by others— your words accompany me in a journey where I’m choosing to go into my own road less traveled. I am shifting to a more disconcerting path with a measured degree of tender abandonment, a dripping and uncomfortable sensation that alludes to my role in betraying my self in the longing to protect. This incursion into rawness is what I imagine might be your reference to untaming the me-s who have learned to conform to my construct, a construct derived from a paradigm that no longer serves me.
    With much appreciation for your willingness to share, openly with loving tenderness and in the process providing an opportunity to ease into my own process, feeling less alone. With a deeper sense of trust and appreciation for what others give, softening into the possibility of receiving. With a new-found sense of joyful temerity– thank you!

    Reply
  6. Mike Wilson

    Thanks for sharing this, it has led me to some clarity about choices I have made in life. I hadn’t seen this clearly before, but I am aware now that I chose authenticity and freedom at the expense of belonging, connection and being seen/heard. I’m aware that most people who get to know me find me unlikeable, and I’ve put up with that, not wanting to bend myself into some shape others may find more acceptable. I have a sense from reading this that there is a way to have more connection & interdependence without giving up on authenticity & freedom. Lovely food for thought.

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  7. Gerhard

    Dear Miki, thank you for this. I enjoy the openness and the theoretical perspective. There is one sentence that seems important to me and that I don’t understand. It is this one: “While I found ways of making my vulnerability unconditional, a way of living, that very unconditionality made me impervious to what comes my way.” I don’t understand how the unconditionality made you impervious. Can you explain it to me? Thank you

    Reply
    1. Miki Kashtan

      Hi Gerhard,

      It is actually quite difficult to explain, and thank you for asking. Here is my attempt. Let me know if this helps or makes it even less understandable.,,

      If I am unconditional, no matter what comes towards me, in some ways I am not affected. This means that I can continue to be vulnerable even if I am not supported in doing so, and that is the part of it that is the strength and resilience. It also means that I am protecting myself somehow from being nourished by the care and love that could come my way.

      I am doing that less and less, and that is the new part of the practice: to allow myself to be affected in new ways, not just to be affected in ways that pain me; to also let in what can nourish me.

      Miki

  8. Jason Stewart

    Dearest Miki,

    My first comment here in a long while! It is nice for me to read other people commenting again as it was in the days of the “old” blog!

    Once again your journey through the path of your life provides amazing food for us all to share and from which to nourish ourselves. My gratitude to you for your continuing commitment to the path of vulnerability that enables you to write publicly about issues that affect so many humans. I’m also celebrating the gift of your clarity and precision that enables such complex matters to be rendering in words that connect with many who read them.

    I was enjoying my own reactions and thinking as I read – the first was something along the lines of: “There must be something about Miki that makes people turn away” – so I loved reading that part where you wrote: “I imagine that any [sic] of you reading this asked yourself why so many people have made this repeated choice to exit my life. Of course you do.” – it made me grin at myself and at being human. And then because I know you a little, I began to wonder whether it was something about your path of vulnerability that was costly on friendships. So when you wrote about the two cluster of needs and how your fundamental choice was Freedom over Belonging I had one of those ‘Aha!’ moments… Yes, of course. How could it be otherwise? So it got me pondering if there is a close link to the human concept of friendship and Belonging. I wonder if someone’s fundamental move is choosing Freedom over Belonging that could get ‘communicated’ to others in various ways and unless there’s a deep level of self-awareness on both sides coupled with a lot of skill to speak non-judgmentally about what is going on I can imagine that it would be bewildering for both people. For someone who has unknowingly ‘chosen’ Belonging I can imagine that it might seem like a person choosing Freedom just doesn’t “play the game”. This is a tension that I’m sure I have witnessed third hand through my connection to friends and family from different cultures such as India and Japan. How people in some cultures use shame as a pressure to preserve the culture and a sense of Belonging. And then I wondered about your path to become “100% shameless” and how this would be experienced directly or indirectly by others in regards to Belonging and a preservation of culture.

    I was super grateful for the piece you included about Joy. It helped me understand something else about the path of Vulnerability that you’ve described many times. Here you described it as two pieces: inward and outward vulnerability. I think that for a long time I’ve thought of that aspect you call “inward vulnerability” as Transparency – letting others see what goes on inside me. And Vulnerability I’ve reserved for letting things touch me, letting what other people say and do affect me – which I think you’re calling “outward vulnerability”. It seems what you’re saying echoes things I’ve experienced myself and also read from others – that our ability to experience all aspects of life are interconnected – if protect ourselves from some, we limit how we experience all of it.

    With Gratitude for the chance to wonder aloud about things that affect us all, jas…

    Reply

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