by Miki Kashtan
The term “experiments with truth” came from Gandhi as the title of his autobiography. The significance of this way of framing things has grown within me over the last number of years. Some insights come to me in a flash, while others slowly mature. Finding the inner resolve and confidence to name how I was living and the work I was doing as an experiment with truth was on the slow end of things. I had to work my way through fear of being seen as pretentious as well as fear of people being intimidated by me and, once again, being alone. I landed in it, in full, only when not doing so felt out of integrity.
It isn’t new to me to live within deep ongoing experimenting. The only part that is new is daring to put myself explicitly as being in Gandhi’s lineage. Below is my best understanding of what experiments with truth are, taken from the website of the Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) community which I conceived of and then brought into being in co-creation with about 20 other people in 2017, and is now comprised of close to 300 people in various degrees of commitment. NGL’s purpose is “to integrate nonviolence into the fabric of human life through ongoing live experiments with truth focused on individual and collective liberation.” We explain each part of this purpose below it, and here’s what we are saying about experiments with truth:
We use this phrase to refer to a deep commitment to practicing here and now every aspect of our vision, including at the edges of what we can imagine, to see how far we can go in applied nonviolence. It also refers to a commitment to honesty and exacting and tender examination of the results of our striving for nonviolence to continue to evolve our discernment.
The first experiments with truth that I remember took place between when I was 4 and 11. Without getting into details, the ones I remember all had the frame of acting from within my own authority and agency in the face of overwhelming power around me, with a clear awareness of wanting to see what would happen if I did this or that. I actually believe every child born into patriarchy does what I did for a while. Maybe the difference is only about how long we last and what it takes for us to recover the capacity to act from within our own agency once we lost it. I believe we do it until the consequences are beyond our capacity to integrate. By the time I was 17 and wanted to arrange a fictitious marriage to avoid being drafted to the army in Israel (married women are not subject to compulsory military service), I didn’t have sufficient capacity left in me to stand up to my parents. I didn’t follow through with my plans, was in the army for two years, and was lost for about ten years until I discovered feminism and found my path again in the mid-1980s.
My discovery of feminism exploded my sense of possibility that another way of life was possible for humans because, after all, patriarchy and the scarcity, separation, and powerlessness that it brought us aren’t inherent to human beings and arose through circumstances only. I’ve been living experimentally ever since. There is simplicity in the craziness that this brought into my life. Nothing is permanent and nothing is beyond questioning. Everything that makes sense to me is instantly folded into my experimentation. I accept just about all cues for liberation possibilities. Over time, my experimentation has become ever clearer and sharper, more informed by vision rather than the simple insistent refusal to accept what was given to me as the only option possible, and progressively more informed by my commitment to nonviolence and my growing learning about human social evolution.
Writing about experiments with truth, which I started doing within NGL for internal consumption, brought to my awareness an implicit assumption I have likely had for a long time: that everyone else also lives like me, always moving more and more towards vision, liberation, and what makes sense, which in my case is nonviolence, even if there is discomfort involved, even if it challenges existing relationships, and even if we have no idea whether or not what we are doing will go anywhere. Within NGL, in particular, which is now my main site of experimenting with truth, I imagined that experiments with truth were everywhere within NGL and that all or most of us were consciously and actively pulling towards vision with all our might.
What are experiments with truth in practice?
Below the initial description of what we mean by experiments with truth, on the same page, we added: “There is humility in this experimentation, and a willingness to recognize that each of us can access only part of the whole. As we each seek to find alignment between inner and outer reality, we develop deeper trust to follow our inner discernment and willingness to face the consequences and learn from what then happens. This aspect of experimenting with truth can also be expressed as experiments with love in action, where love is a force for inner and outer change.”
There is almost no end to what we can do by way of experimenting. I am listing here a few of them in the hopes of inspiring and informing those who want to join the minuscule minority of people on the planet who consciously and actively seek to engage with life in this way.
Working with the Vision Mobilization framework
The Vision Mobilization (VM) framework can be thought of as a way to organize and sustain experiments with truth that move us ever closer to our vision. Any of us who are engaging in experiments with truth of any kind would benefit immensely from having a VM structure that we update regularly. As we grow our capacity, we may even find ourselves needing to expand or refine our vision. My own VM structure is publicly available on my website, and whenever I work on it, with support from Emma Quayle, anyone within NGL is now invited to observe.
Working with the VM structure means regularly looking at the gap between our capacity and our vision and actively taking steps to close that gap. The pathways within the VM framework are many. We may tweak agreements we have with ourselves and others. We may develop what we affectionately call an “instruction manual” to let others know how to orient towards us when engaging with us. We may develop practices to work on as well as compensate for limitations we discover in our capacity assessment. Whatever we do, our approach to this practice leans on creating sufficient support structures for ourselves, because the pull of the way things are is so strong that on our own, almost none of us would be able to persist in moving towards vision.
Core Nonviolence Commitments
The Core Nonviolence Commitments can serve as support for aligning ourselves more and more with living nonviolently. Each of them is a short version of a deep practice. Their totality is one way of seeing the entirety of the field of nonviolence and what it means to choose it as a way of living. I myself engage with them at least monthly through an ongoing group that formed in 2012 and continues to meet, where we support each other by picking specific commitments to apply to the situations we bring forward. Sometimes I pick commitments to lean on more often. When the intuition of which one to follow is accurate, they feel like solace, respite, and support rather than any pressure.
Part of this form of experimentation is precisely about seeing how much we can shift from submission or rebellion to choice about how we engage with commitments we make. Another example could be taking any one of the commitments and examining all that arises when we try to live from it every second of our awake life. The possibilities are endless if we lean in this direction.
Aligning any work we do with vision
One of the things that are recently happening within NGL is an explosion of interest in taking on experiments with truth. Over the years, even after writing experiments with truth into our purpose, the work that was happening within the many teams that exist within NGL was taking on a more operational than visionary flavor. This led to me beginning to be proactive about mentioning it and inviting people, especially on coaching calls, to reflect on what they are doing and how to reframe it so that it would fit the stringent criteria that experimentation with truth implies.
For something to be an experiment means we don’t know the answer; we are in an active, humble investigation. That, in itself, is already quite a stretch in a cultural context where “predict and control” is the norm. When, in addition, we are experimenting with vision, with values that are aligned with that vision, and with purpose that is aiming in that direction, this becomes ever more demanding.
And still, it’s doable. It means orienting to any work we do, within any team or project that is part of any organization or community, however big or small, as an experiment with truth. This means that we consciously look to shrink the gap between capacity and vision in relation to how the team functions and what it is stewarding.
For any team, this could mean how we orient to leadership within the team and how all of us manage to empower ourselves to initiate projects and to support others’ initiatives. Similarly, it could mean how we orient to who does what and seeing how far we can go in the direction of truly basing all such decisions on capacity and willingness, not on roles, seniority, education, or any other fixed notion that usually accompanies such assignments.
In terms of what teams steward, I want to use as an example the NGL Resource Flow team I am part of. Our task is to care for the flow of any resources within NGL, from the agreements and principles that we aim to follow, to the actual way that money, human capacity, tasks, requests, and offers move around within NGL. We are constantly holding the biggest vision possible of what a fully needs-based resource flow could look like, looking at where we imagine capacity is within NGL and in our current global systems, and at where we can shrink that gap.
Beyond how we function internally, any of us can continually experiment with how we orient to our work with people, groups, communities, and organizations that are not part of our experiment. We can look at any such encounter as an opportunity and approach it with a particular research question that is, specifically, about closing the gap between capacity and vision. For example, recently a group consisting of people from NGL and from the Convergent Facilitation community responded to a request for proposals from Wikimedia. They asked for training in various areas that NGL has a hefty amount of expertise in. What would an experiment with truth be in relation to such a proposal? I could see the experiment revolving around several possible questions, different ones at different phases of the project. The first one was implicitly in the air: how far can the proposal be written with an explicit radical/visionary framing before it would alienate them?
Having reviewed the proposal, my assessment was that it was quite tame in its radicality, while being very impressive in showing the experience and expertise that the group leans on. I actually thought the group that wrote the proposal was going to get it and was not surprised that they were invited to an interview. In the end, though, they were not selected. From what little Wikimedia said as feedback when asked, it seems clear that it was specifically certain parts of the proposed path which were the more radical ones, such as asking for collaborative design of the specifics, that led Wikimedia, in the end, to give the work to others. Making the proposal even less radical would have been out of integrity.
In that sense, the experiment is complete: with how we see things and how we frame them, and even though what we have to offer within the NGL framework can be immensely practical and helpful for any group, we are unlikely to be able to engage usefully with large, mainstream organizations without overstretching our integrity. At least this is my conclusion.
Had the proposal been accepted, there could be other questions and experiments then to follow, as the question doesn’t end. One that interests me is to find out how far a major organization like Wikimedia could be pulled in a visionary direction while offering them support in the areas they asked for.
As another example, this year the NVC Academy and I are running the 45-week Responding to the Call of Our Times course that I offer every year on a gift economy: anyone can register and give whatever they give without any hurdles, forms, or applications. The question I had was whether moving in this direction can end up bringing in the same amount of money while allowing more people to register. It’s still an open question, because the course remains open for the entire year. At present, we have 50% more people signed up for the course and about 95% of the income. It took quite a bit of work to get us here, and I am elated. Part of why I am so grateful for what has happened is because this course is a significant part of what supports the sustainability of both the NVC Academy and BayNVC. Part of why I am so delighted is that it shows me that even when engaging within a larger system that is entirely based on exchange and when most people are fully within scarcity thinking, we can go quite far in the direction of needs-based engagement. I am also delighted because the NVC Academy itself still operates largely within exchange, and any experiment like this that works out increases their growing willingness to engage based on needs. I am touched and humbled by the many people whose trust and willingness got us here. And it’s not over. For me, it’s not over until we align significant portions of our human family with the reality of being part of one interdependent pod.
We had very different results in these two experiments, and, at the deepest layer, whatever the result is, we learn. Experiments with truth are always experiments, aimed to learn something, so we can keep moving closer and closer to vision. Recently, on one of my committed coaching calls, we engaged with this deeply, and a principle emerged to guide further experimentation: “If our purpose of serving what people want us to support them with and the purpose of supporting humanity as a whole to move towards liberation distract us from each other, then this is a likely indication that the gap between them is too big.” In other words, experiments with truth, like everything else, can only happen within capacity. If we are taking on something that’s too big of a gap, we likely will either not give people what they are seeking support with or, more likely given systemic contexts and our own internalization, we will only manage to focus on that purpose and at least in part abandon the experiment and the research.
My deep longing for NGL, and beyond, is for us to continually put the experimentation and the research at the forefront of what we do, and that, within capacity, we let go of work opportunities that don’t give us the possibility of engaging in experiments with truth. This is what I have been doing more and more, to where I now generally say no to everything that is outside the experimentation that happens within NGL and within the community experiments that have emerged from it.
Aligning our thoughts, words, and actions with nonviolence
Another ongoing and all-encompassing experiment with truth is to see how far we can align our thoughts, words, and actions with the principles and practices that emerge from the vision we aim to bring into being in all our relationships and all our interactions with others. Everything that is within any of the packets turns into inquiry about how far we can go with it in our own individual, family, community, or organizational settings. This is an endless fountain of possibilities. Here are some of the questions we can investigate:
- How far can I move outside exchange relationships with my clients before they or I are outside capacity to engage at all? How much risk am I willing to take when asking for money?
- If I am in a relationship in which the other person isn’t entirely on board with my vision and practice, how far can I shift my relationship with my partner by choosing how I show up (e.g., with vulnerability, empathy, or holding dilemmas together) and without subtly demanding that my partner adopt my practices and commitments?
- How far am I willing to bring up topics of discomfort within my spiritual community? How much holding of the whole am I capable of if there is pushback from some of them?
- In this moment, with whoever is with me, how much can I stretch in the direction of vision and accept the consequences of that choice?
- If there is nothing that is possible outside of me because of constraints or capacity limits, what can I learn from the action of aligning my inner landscape with my vision and values, so that I can tell myself a different story and possibly find new openings around me where previously I didn’t?
There is no end to such experimentation. The learning that comes from living this way is the source from which I draw more than anything else. It is, in very large part, how all that I do and write about has been created and continues to be created.
Why don’t more of us do this?
There is nothing about experiments with truth that is easy, though it does become easier over time to accept the permanent discomfort that comes with living this way.
Given that so few of us do this, I’ve also been engaging with people in conversations where we aim to understand what is keeping so many of us from doing such experimentation on a much larger scale, so that we can truly form the tiny seeds of what could turn around humanity’s march towards extinction. Here’s the first draft of what we have identified so far.
Attachment to how things are
However much privilege we do or don’t have, we all have some things within our lives that are familiar and may be comfortable. This could be our jobs, our families, certain relationships, or an overall comfort with how things are, even if there is a great deal of suffering within it. I walked away from everything several times in my life, most recently when I left my home three years ago and started the vagabonding that is now beginning to wind down.
I have often pondered the very intense words that are attributed to Jesus about people needing to leave their family, even hate their family, in order to become his disciples. I am 100 percent certain he didn’t mean it literally, especially since he himself worked with some of his family members. Nor do I believe that when he talks about being his disciple or following him, he means himself as a human person. What, then, is in those passages?
My sense of what he means is that in order to align ourselves fully with vision, which is what he saw himself bringing to his fellow Jews (that’s who he was engaging with, not building a new religion, which was done later, by others), any of us would need to be willing to risk everything: the very familiarity and comfort that keep us attached to things as they are. My own thinking is that being attached to things as they are, even when we are entirely critical of them systemically, is a key part of what keeps the status quo going. I hold immense tenderness for this, for everyone caught in this, including my own limits in this area. I simultaneously hold more grief than, in moments, I can stay open to, when I concentrate on grasping how unlikely it is that enough of us will have enough courage and determination to work our way through these attachments.
Given that NGL is the place where I am now doing most of my experimentation, and that I hold with great passion the intention for my work to outlive me, this question is of critical importance to me within that context. My intuition is that for enough people to integrate what I am bringing so that it becomes a living body of knowledge co-held within a community, more of us within NGL will need to embrace the shaky, unsteady, and possibly terrifying path of being fully willing to walk away from the familiar if that’s what our experiments indicate is next. If we don’t do that, my sense is that what I leave behind would not become that. It could easily become some dogma inherited from me that people debate about what I meant about something, as is sadly happening now, often, with Marshall Rosenberg’s legacy. Or it could be diluted into some set of practical tools empty of radical, visionary content, as I imagine is already happening in some cases where people apply what they learned from me without, first, letting it burn within them as it has burnt within me, shaping and transforming who they are, not only what they offer and what they say about it. We cannot take anyone on a more radical journey than we ourselves have taken.
Capacity drops as a form of rebellion
Experiments with truth call for significant capacity. They challenge us to be courageous, creative, loving, and committed to truth. They challenge us to maintain vision when others don’t, to care for the whole when we are not cared about, to hold dilemmas together with those who fully advocate for their own needs only or who give up on their needs and submit. This calls on immense strength, confidence, and sheer mobilization of energy.
Patriarchy, especially in its capitalist version, functions as a major extractive machine. Patriarchy, from the start, was an assault on biology, a refusal to accept our small place within the mysterious dance of life, an attempt to control life and go beyond limits to capacity. At present, this deep groove is inching us closer and closer to extinction, as current economic norms hold no reverence for earth, for non-human life, and for human life. Just about each of us is trained, in different ways, to disregard our own limits and “produce” whether or not we have the capacity to do so.
When we discover the possibility of honoring our capacity limits, many of us begin to feel, maybe for the first time in our lives, the horrendous cost of submitting for so many years. Jumping from submission directly into nonreactive discernment about capacity is too big of a leap for many of us. Instead, what happens to many, including within NGL, is that we become so concerned with overstretching ourselves, that we overcompensate because we can’t fully trust that when we stretch it’s through discernment and not capitulation. Individually, this makes total sense and I have immense tenderness for this struggle. Collectively, this brings me enormous mourning and, on the more challenging days, active and debilitating despair. This is because I see the gap between how much capacity we are able to mobilize, both in NGL and elsewhere, and how much capacity I believe we need to mobilize in order to respond skillfully enough and radically enough to what is happening to our fellow humans, our non-human kin, and the totality of the biosphere.
Deep habits of disempowerment
Humans, I believe, are extraordinary creatures. I believe we are resilient and creative beyond anything we have been given to believe about ourselves, individually and collectively. Even in our current times, when conditions break down in certain ways and we lose our tranced conditioning, often enough we come together and work out imaginative solutions to the problems that then arise. The stories about this are simply too numerous and inspiring to ignore.
This means, as far as I can see, that any system that aims to benefit the few at the expense of the many would have a deep and prime incentive, even if generally not an intentional goal on the part of anyone in particular, to keep us all believing that we are small and insignificant, that our actions don’t and can’t amount to anything, and that we need to look to others for guidance, for permission, or for solutions.
This is a deep interference with experimenting with truth because to experiment we need to take ourselves seriously enough, to trust our intuition and our vision, and to take action knowing there are likely to be consequences that may be challenging. In order to fully embrace the level of experimentation that I see as necessary, many more of us humans will need to find the source of our power despite all the conditioning, despite all the oppression we have suffered and internalized, and despite all the trauma that we have endured.
In the details, this means changing just about every habit we have, something that is beginning to happen within NGL and which is entirely necessary in relation to the goal of my work outliving me.
It means not waiting for anyone who has already stepped into leadership, like me, and who may have more willingness or capacity. Not waiting for leaders to do things, for permission, or for support; nor asking those in leadership to change who they are, to become more of this or that in how they function, to give feedback, to receive feedback, to do more, to do less, to make more decisions, to make fewer decisions, to collaborate more, or to be more decisive… All this waiting is chopping away at our power and capacity, and we are all needed.
What I want is for all of us, anywhere, to choose what we want to do, and to then do it, experiment, take the consequences, learn, and keep going. Almost no day goes by without hearing from someone how much they are inspired by what they have learned from me and want it to make a dent in how the world functions. These appreciations most definitely serve as support, as reminders, especially on the harder days, that what I do reaches people and touches the place of vision within them. And I want more. I find both our planet and our species gloriously beautiful, despite all the horrors. And we are in great danger now. It’s time for many more of us to stand up to our conditioning and choose to trust ourselves and life. I am longing for many more to join me and the very tiny and slowly growing number of people who, like me, are ready and willing to experiment with truth, now, today, anywhere, regardless of “being ready” or of conditions being just right. Will you be one of them?
All four drawings by Gwen Otlon
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