Tools for Personal Transformation

by Joseph de Rivera


There are two different ways personal peacefulness is related to societal peace and justice. From a spiritual perspective, the development of global peace will occur when enough individuals have developed their personal peacefulness. From this perspective, personal transformation is the best, and perhaps only, way to achieve societal peace. From a more secular point of view one may argue that global peace is far more dependent the behavior of nation-states and on cultural, economic, political, or societal conditions. However, changing these conditions is helped by personal transformation. This is most evident when we consider the personal strength needed to maintain nonviolent struggle, but a moments reflection will reveal how a decrease in egocentrism and an increase in caring is helpful, and perhaps necessary, to do successful negotiation and governance. Increases in strength and caring, and decreases in egocentrism can only occur through personal transformation.

What sort of person do we want to become? What are our ideals and how do we want to deal with the gap between our ideals and the reality of who we actually are? Who are we and how do we want to live our lives? These questions will come up as we consider various tools for transformation. However, I will assume that most persons reading these pages would like to live free, fulfilling, and nonviolent lives. They or may not enjoy competition, but they want to avoid oppressing others. To live such a life it is helpful to learn about some tools that can help us develop.

There are tools for defense that nonviolently protect us against assault, tools for assertion that allow us to get what we need without harming others, tools for helping other people, and tools for helping ourselves in the struggle for justice. Each of these sets are described in the links below:

Tools for defense

Many of us do not live in ideal conditions, and even in relatively ideal conditions some violence may occur. Rather than carrying a gun, hiring a body guard, or confining our living to a guarded community, we may want to learn how to defend ourselves in a nonviolent way. See here for nonviolent protection against assault.

Tools for assertion

When we don’t like how another person is acting we tend to judge them. Thus, we may think they are stupid, inconsiderate, a slob, or bossy, etc. If we don’t say anything they will keep behaving in ways that offends us, yet if we tell them that we “feel” they are stupid, inconsiderate, bossy, etc. they will become hurt or defensive. How can we tell them without making them defensive? It is often helpful if we tell them how we actually feel. See here for more information on tools that allow us to get what we need without harming others.

Tools for helping someone else

All the tools for helping others involve sharpening our ability to listen, but different situations call for different tools:

1. When we are confronted by a person who is angry with us or demanding (but not threatening) we may use the inverse of Rosenberg’s ideas for making a nonviolent assertion. That is, we may assume that the angry person has some need that is not being met and is making a judgment that they are imposing upon us. Thus, if we can avoid becoming defensive we may simply say that we are sorry they are feeling upset and ask about what they need. What are they requesting from us? Do we want to grant that request?

2. When we observe someone who has been hurt we are apt to feel bad and almost
unconsciously avoid facing what has happened. Kaethe Weingarten!calls this common shock because it is so common that we don’t notice that we are experiencing a shock of sympathetic pain. For example, we may see a salesclerk being rudely treated by a customer, an employee being disrespected by a boss, child mistreated by a parent, a man or woman being insulted by their partner. We feel for the hurt person but don’t know what to do, so it is easiest to pretend that it did not happen. Unfortunately, this does not help the injured person and leaves ourselves with a residual that may influence the rest of our day. Rather than trying to ignore the situation it is often possible to recognize what has happened, realize that we are experiencing common shock, and say something to the person who has been hurt. This statement can be as simple, as saying that we are sorry. “I’m sorry that happened” A simple statement establishes a human connection that restores dignity and that relieves much of the pain. Of course, this sort of statement is also called for when we learn that someone we know has suffered a loss. The pain of loss is compounded when it is ignored. When we learn that someone is dying or suffering we may attempt to avoid the pain by denying the situation and it can be quite difficult to simply practice compassionate witnessing. One physician has compared it to the difficulty of standing unprotected in the rain.

[Reference: Kaethe Weingarten, Common Shock ]

3. When a person asks us for help, or when we are in a relationship with a person who obviously needs help we tend to give advice or try to minimize or solve their problem. Unfortunately, while these tactics make us feel better they usually of little help to the person who needs our assistance. Compassionate listening is much more effective. However, it is very much harder to do. Carefully studying when he was able to help the people who sought his assistance, Carl Rogers discovered some important factors. Some were counterintuitive and many led him to assert that helping others required him to work on his own development. To learn what he discovered see here:

  1. Complete acceptance of the other is necessary if the other is to change. Of course, this is counter intuitive because from our perspective something about the other needs to change. They drink, smoke, or eat to their detriment, are unhappy, take drugs, deny their problem, or cheat. We would like them to change. They are not who we would like them to be. Yet if we cannot accept who they are they will resist us. It is only when we accept them that they may, sometimes suddenly, change. This means that we cannot be in the sort of relationship where we are dependent on the other to change. In fact, if we accept who they are we may need to change the relationship. It does mean that we cannot try and get them to change.
  2. We must let them be separate from ourselves and not be frightened. We must attempt to free them from both positive and negative evaluations of who they are so their identity is not fixed in our mind and they are free to become something different.
  3.  We need to understand why they behave as they do. This is not an intellectual understanding, but an empathic knowledge that if we were who they are, and were in the situation they are in, we would behave in the same way. Note that this requires us to maintain a certain type of emotional distance lest we become emotionally overwhelmed by identifying with them too closely. We must let our self into their world without judging who they are.
  4. None of the above should imply the denial of our own feelings. Rather, we must be aware of how we are feeling, allowing both positive and negative feeling and accepting who we are. Instead of reacting to how we are feeling, we must fashion a way to behave that is congruent with what we feel. That is, we must be genuinely ourselves with the other rather than pretending to be someone we are not. This means that we have to accept ourselves as we are, even when we may dislike some aspect of our self or make a mistake, or fail to meet our own ideals. Needless to say, this can be quite difficult to do and a continual challenge for our own growth.

Rodgers ideas emphasize the personal relationship between our self and those we care for and would like to help. However, the idea that acceptance may facilitate change by avoiding resistance may also be involved in techniques that may be used to help someone who is finding it difficult to change a habit they would like to change. For example, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick point out that if we point out the problems with a habit and suggest a way to help someone break a habit, the other may state the benefits and will find something that is wrong or difficult with our suggestion. By contrast, in “motivational interviewing” they suggest that we ask questions that lead the person we are helping to themselves state the problems with the habit and what they might do instead of their current behavior. By reinforcing what they themselves suggest we may encourage a change.

[Reference: Carl Rogers, “How can I Create a Helping Relationship?”
William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, Motivational Interviewing.]

Tools for helping ourselves work for peace and justice

It isn’t easy to work for peace and justice. There are other demands on our time, it is easy to become overwhelmed and disillusioned, and we are often called upon to deal with our own hurts and anger. Here are some exercises that may help:

1. Dealing with other demands so we do not incur burnout or lose important relationships requires that we respect these demands. Interestingly, when we do we may find that we are actually more able to commit to doing important work for peace and justice. Mary Watkin’s has developed an interesting exercise that may help maintain balance. She suggests that we think of ourselves as having two quite different selves, one that is committed to serving the world and one that is committed to do whatever is good for one’s narrow self-interest. Then, as a novelist might imagine a character, let your imagination develop an independent character for each self. What are their genders and ages, how are they each dressed, what are their interests, what astrological signs do they have, etc. One may be surprised to find out how different these selves are. Finally, as a playwright might, arrange a scene in which these two characters meet and begin to interact. It is easy to imagine a meeting in which they dislike each other, argue and reject each other’s point of view. In theory, since these characters spring from our own imagination, antagonism between them is what saps energy for our own ability to live our life in the most fulfilling way.

Hence, it may be fruitful to see if we can imagine a way for them to accept one another. Although we lack empirical research, we may conjecture that if we can imagine these different aspects of the self accepting each other they can work together in a sustainable way.

[Reference: Mary Watkins, “Imagination and peace: On the inner dynamics of promoting peace activism, Journal of Social Issues, 1988, 44, 2, 39-58.]

2. The tendency to be overwhelmed by the challenges facing our world may lead us to try and evade the news of painful events and possibilities and avoid caring for things we think we can do nothing about. In order to help us to continually face the
challenges and enhance our energy to meet them, Johanna Macy has suggested a
number of straight- forward exercises that may help empower us. These range from
simple physical exercises to more complex uses of our imagination. For example,
“embrace tiger return to mountain” involves our simply centering ourselves and
imagining the energy from the earth flowing up through us as we step forward to
embrace the challenges and then pulling them towards us as we move back to our
center point. “Reincarnation” asks us to imagine that before we were born we
observed the problems on planet earth and decided to be born to help. We purposely chose our gender, nationality, time, family, and character in order to help, but have forgotten why we did so. Given our situation and who we are, what is it that we chose to do? Of course for any particular person, some exercises will be more useful than others. Ongoing workshops may be found at www.

[Reference: The entire set of 40 may be found in Johanna Macy, Despair and
Personal Power]

3. A related exercise that is best done by a group asks us to imagine the future.
Elise Boulding points out that evidence shows that what we imagine has the capacity to influence what happens. Most of us have the some knowledge about what the world was like when our parents and even grandparents were young, and can imagine what the world may be like for our children and grandchildren. She has asked groups of people to imagine a world about 50 years in the future—far enough away so that the world may be quite different than now—yet within the realm of possibility. She asks the group to imagine an ideal world in some detail. Would there be cities or simply towns, how would people get water, food, and medicine, what transportation would be like, how would people relate to one another, etc. Once there is agreement on the desired world, the group works back to consider a series of possible steps that could link the present world to the desired world. Thus, a connection is made between action that can be taken and what might at first seem an impracticable ideal.

[Reference Elise Boulding, “Image and action in peacebuilding” Journal of social
issues, 1988, 44, 2, 17-37]

4. When we are hurt by others, particularly by those we care about or counted as allies, we become afraid and lose faith that we are cared for and have the ability to work for peace and justice. We may dwell in the past so we cannot imagine a desirable future and are not living in the present. It seems clear that to move on with our life we need to forgive those who hurt us. This does not mean that we should forget what happened, and we may need to change our relationship with those who hurt us. It means that we need to let go of something we are holding onto that is preventing us from going forward with our life. This process, which may be extremely difficult, is obviously not helped by well-meaning others who tell us that we should forgive or need to forgive. It may be helped by prayer, and by seeing the goodness of others.

There is also some evidence that the following exercise may be helpful. However, it
is extremely difficult and requires us to enlist a trusted friend or counselor who may
assist us by listening while we try and do the following:

Tell the story of what happened, including your feelings. Retell the story until something new emerges that you did not initially tell. Now tell the story from the point of view of the person who hurt you. Retell their story until you fully understand how the other saw the situation and you, even though this may be quite painful. Now, notice that you are telling the story from a distanced, third-person perspective (e.g. “He must have thought that…). Try and tell the story as though you were the other person, using “I” instead of “He” or “She”. This may be extremely difficult because we do not want to identify with a monster. But it is this refusal to see the other as human (even though they behaved in an inhuman way) that may be preventing us from forgiving and moving on.

[Reference: Rebecca Richardson, Forgiveness: Its Nature and Facilitation,
PhD thesis, Clark University, 1998]

A way of living

Aside from using the tools we have mentioned above, a person committed to personal transformation in the fullest sense may want to consider ways of living his or her life in a fully peaceful way. One way of doing this has been suggested by Thich Nhat Hanh. He suggests the possibility of continually living in the present (rather than or trapped in the past or being distracted by goals or future illusions), identifying with all living beings rather than only with ones self, and acting with the good of all (rather than simply in the interest of one’s self or the particular groups with which one identifies). Of course living such a life is a challenging proposition. To constantly live in the present, identify with more than ones self, and act in a way
that recognizes how all things are interconnected requires continual awareness. To attain this awareness, Thich Nhat Han suggests that one may want to establish a center that can be experienced and remembered throughout the day. This centering can be done by establishing a practice of daily mediation and using the experience that it furnishes as an anchor for responding to daily events and acting for peace and justice. Things that could be frustrating can, instead, be viewed as opportunities for awareness. Difficult emotions can be composted into rich soil.
Dangerous conflict can be met with calmness. Anyone interested in exploring ways to lead a fully peaceful life will be rewarded by reading his Peace Is Every Step.