As a mediation practitioner who aspires
to bring more compassion into this world, I question whether my practice is in
Compassion is easy when I’m not
triggered. But what if I or my family were threatened with physical violence?
It’s an important question to ask and
it feels like a lose-lose question. If I say I would defend my family with
violence, if necessary, then I am told that I am not a pacifist. If I say I
would be non-violent at whatever cost, I am met with incredulity that I would
sacrifice my family’s lives.
First, I am not a pacifist. I don’t
want to even think I could respond according to a philosophy or religion in a
moment of fear and life-threatening survival. Secondly, pacifism is not
passivism. Non-violence is what I do, not what I don’t do.
I grew up a person of color in a
white, working-class, racist town in London. There was a lot of street
violence: at best, name-calling, at worst we had stones thrown at us as we were
chased out of the park, and some events in between. That’s it. Not too bad
compared to some people I knew.
So what saved us?
We were Catholic and we prayed a lot.
But I can’t go there. I can’t believe that God heard our prayers but ignores
the prayers of others. Maybe luck? But it was confusing at the time because I
believed the prayers kind of worked.
What did my parents choose to do in
the face of racism? They ran (that time at the park), they didn’t tell the
police, and they prayed for a way out. A way did not open so we stayed there
for years till the situation eventually improved, thankfully. And then
years later, we had the economic upward mobility to remove ourselves from the
I know this—when my life is
threatened, I do not think. I am an animal and I do whatever I need to do to
keep me and my family safe. I perceive no lack of integrity within me—that I
would use force if necessary. I also know that we need to prepare ourselves,
because otherwise in the face of violence we react with blind fear and in
response to the worst stories we weave that may not be grounded in reality. (Just
think about what’s motivating all the police officers who shoot at unarmed
Black people.) I want to center myself in compassion so that I have a creative
arsenal of non-violent strategies that come to me when I am in potentially
violent situations because I am practised at going there.
My children are excellent practice.
They push me to my edges and I can’t run away. There have been many times I
have wanted to hit them. And I don’t. I want to hit them because on some level,
I feel threatened. Unmet needs, like choice, autonomy and care, may not appear
life-threatening at face value. Yet on an evolutionary psychological level, we
experience them as such, especially if those needs were unmet as children in
painful and life-threatening ways.
Every morning I practice sitting
meditation. I don’t always have the space to sit alone, so my children
sometimes cuddle me while I’m meditating, or climb all over me and fight over
who gets which leg. I get mad. I just want to meditate. The irony is not lost
on me—that I get angry when I’m practising compassion.
But meditation is not a time for me
to retreat from the world, it’s practice in orienting myself towards
compassion. So I like meditating with them now. I pause before reacting, I
notice my feelings, I feel them. I notice if I’m reacting to the thought that
“they should allow me to meditate!” I ask myself what I’m longing for. I notice
if I’m blaming them for not meeting my needs, and I choose a compassionate
response. That choosing is not always an intellectual choice, often it comes to
When I learned Non-Violent
Communication (NVC), I learned about the protective use of force. This is the
minimum force to protect my needs (and those of others, including anyone whose
intention might be to harm me). I do not believe that it is violent to do so.
On the contrary, it is a consciousness of holding my needs and others’
concurrently, knowing we are inter-connected, rather than reacting to my fear
and perceiving them as the enemy.
Non-violence or compassionate
consciousness is a way of living in every moment of my life. It is a
consciousness that I become familiar with through presence and an awareness of
what is going on inside me (mindfulness). Violence is a defensive response to
fear and perceived helplessness. If I practice presence with my fears as they
arise multiple times every day, I can heal the pain that has caused those fears
and bring awareness to my stories. I know that I have choices and am not
helpless. In this way, I practice compassion similar to exercising a muscle. I
notice when I am reacting, I notice when I am about to react.
We encounter many potentially violent
situations. I define “violent” loosely, to mean a power-over/power-under
dynamic. For example, most people will choose not to argue with someone whose
opinions differ significantly from theirs. This is conflict-avoidant—we want a
peaceful life, and it’s a valid choice. A strong debater might choose to
engage, especially if they are likely to win, though this is still a power
How can I engage compassionately with
someone who wants war with Iran or who believes that politicians should
legislate women’s reproductive rights? By starting with self-compassion: being
present with my own fears, that there won’t be change and transformation in the
world, perhaps; and then by choosing my response. When we have done sufficient
self-compassion and self-empathy (perhaps holding ourselves tenderly for all
the times when we haven’t been understood), then we are able to be present with
the other with compassion. In this way, we can see them as a person who wants
to be heard, wants to be understood, and cares about (certain) people but has
chosen a strategy different than we would like to meet those needs. This way
feels more empowering than reactionary living.
So how does this relate to physical
violence and the original question of, “What is a compassionate response to
violence?” I remember a film I saw about Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic
Worker movement. She was in prison and she reached out to a fellow inmate who
was in great distress. The woman spat at her. Dorothy did not react, she did
not see the woman as a threat, just a soul in a lot of pain. She continued
reaching out in compassion.
When we have a heart full of
compassion for ourselves, we are naturally able to have compassion for others.
“I want to be like that,” I thought (especially as being spat at is a huge
trigger for me). But I know that willing myself to be like that
is pointless. When triggered, I react with my pain, not with my head or
even my better self. I want to invite myself into that compassionate
consciousness in all moments of my life. Sometimes all I can do is notice how
scared I am and what that feels like, and that is enough. Life happens through
me. I open myself to life, and creative strategies emerge.
So what if I or my family were
threatened with physical violence? This is all an experiment. Given the safety
of my current life, all this musing may just be an indulgence. I don’t know but
in this moment and the next, I choose compassion.