Two Sides of a Prison Wall

by Alan Cohen

A young Japanese man named Shui was riding on a crowded train when a belligerent drunk made his way through the train car and began to rough up passengers. Shui had studied martial arts for many years, yet never before had he been forced into a public confrontation. Shui felt his blood begin to boil, and realized the ruffian needed to be stopped before he hurt someone badly.

    Shui stood up, blocked the fellow’s path, and the two exchanged angry words. As the men were about to square off, Shui felt a hand on his arm. He looked down and saw a frail old man. “Let me handle this,” the elder insisted.

    Shui watched in amazement as the old man invited the heavy to have a seat next to him. Strangely, he acquiesced. The elder began to engage the fellow, asking him questions about his life and looking him in the eye with kindness and compassion. After a while the thug confessed that his wife had just died and he was in great pain; he had gone out and gotten drunk to numb his agony. The old man placed a comforting hand on the fellow’s shoulder, and he began to weep. Before Shui’s eyes the intruder was transformed from a villain into an innocent child.

    When the train arrived at the next station, the tough guy thanked the old man and exited the car. Shui, stunned, sat down next to the old man and asked him, “Why did you stop me?”

    “You were about to meet that man’s violence with your own,” answered the old man. “In true martial arts, if you hurt your opponent in any way, you cannot call your act a victory.”

    We have all encountered people whom we feel we must protect ourselves from. Yet there is a way to keep ourselves safe without hurting others. It is the strongest way to protect our peace. Although we have been taught that we must wield pain as a weapon to keep others at a distance, it is not so. We gain all together or not at all. To wish ill upon anyone is to hurt ourself.

    I used to visit a prisoner named Ron. Years earlier, in college, Ron had a girlfriend named Jen. One night the couple had an argument, and in a fit of rage, Ron beat her up. Tragically, she died. Ron was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to many years in prison.

    I met Ron when he was up for parole after nine years of incarceration. In contrast to his violent act, I found him to be a gentle soul. He was contrite about his crime and he had used his time in prison to advance his spiritual growth. Ron studied A Course in Miracles, he was active in the prison church, he was liked by the other prisoners and staff, and he had worked his way up to a responsible position managing the prison laundry. When I visited Ron, I sensed no cruelty in him and he certainly did not seem like a dangerous criminal to me.

    Ron told me that he had been denied parole repeatedly because Jen’s parents had mounted a citywide campaign to keep him in jail. Each year when Ron was eligible to be released, Jen’s parents took out newspaper ads, exerted their political influence, and orchestrated a concerted community effort to “keep this killer off the streets.” Yet, looking at this man, I did not see a killer at all. I saw a basically good man who had made a heartbreaking mistake.

    “So how are you dealing with Jen’s parents?” I asked Ron.

    “I send them love and prayer,” he answered. “I understand that they are very angry and they must be in great pain. If I could go back and undo my act, I surely would. More than anything, I wish I could bring Jen back. But I can’t. So I am just deepening my relationship with God right where I am and trying to be a blessing to the world.”

    As I left my meeting with Ron that day, I wondered who was really in prison. Ron was locked up physically, but his soul was soaring. Meanwhile, Jen’s parents were quite wealthy and enjoyed unlimited physical freedom, yet they were consumed by anger and vengeance. It seemed to me that their wrathful thoughts were creating walls more formidable than those encasing Ron.

    Because we are spiritual beings at our essence, what we do with our spirit influences us more profoundly than what we do with our body. Heaven and hell are not places we go or conditions the outer world imposes on us; they are experiences we create with our thoughts and beliefs. A Course in Miracles tells us, “I am affected only by my thoughts.” Where our mind goes, there we are. The desire to hurt brings us instant pain, while the desire to heal brings us instant freedom.

    If you are angry with anyone, or involved in a conflict, keep reaching for a solution that leaves everyone whole. If you feel you need to hurt someone or take something away from them to make things even, you do violence mostly to yourself. Instead of seeing them as a villain, regard them as wounded or calling for love. No one does anything mean or foolish unless they are in great pain. To try to inflict more pain only exacerbates their sense of disconnection. As you connect with your own sense of peace, you invite them to claim theirs. Only then can you say you have won.

Special thanks to Alan Cohen for making this story available free on his website


That person has needs too? ~ how to transform our enemy images!

One of the great blessings we've had is sharing NVC at one of the homeless shelters in Santa Barbara. One of the residents, Ward, shared some of his experience with us.........."That first night I came to class, I could have sat in the class and been grumpy and irritated cause 'they're making me do this'. Then I realized I just might get something out of it." Ward came to sessions and participated actively.

That was many months ago so it was fun to see Ward recently and hear how much he gained from the sessions. He said the thing that most impacted him was the idea that "the other person has needs".

He shared the following experience with 86 woman in his neighbourhood needed some assitance and being a handyman, he offered to help. Imagine his surprise when, instead of receiving appreciation for his offer, the woman launched into a stream of jackals!

Ward says "I could feel my triggers coming up and knew I was in fight or flight mode and I'm not the 'flight' type."  He could feel his teeth clenching and wondered to himself "Am I going to hit this 86 year old woman?"

He took a breath, then asked himself "what am I doing?" The thought that came was "this is a test!" Just pausing long enough to connect with himself in this way gave him the space to get to "I wonder what her needs are? I bet she's feeling scared and helpless & wanting support, understanding and help"

As soon as he had the wondering about her needs, he noticed that he felt sadness and compassion for her. As this shift was taking place in Ward, the woman shifted her behavior and thanked him for his offer of assistance. The woman's caregiver was astonished and asked Ward what he did to cause such a shift in the woman's behavior! 

How profound it is to breathe, take a moment and remind ourselves that this person in front of us has needs as well. Imagine the kind of world we'd co-create if each of us practiced this only once a day!

Anne Walton, CNVC Certified Trainer

Transforming Road Rage - anger is a powerful teacher

by Rodger Sorrow, Certified Trainer

I’m zipping along the Ventura Highway headed south on US101 toward Los Angeles.  I’m happy cruising along at seventy-five miles per hour in the fast lane listening to my tunes.  Traffic is moderate and I look up into my rear view mirror and here is some jerk right on top of me.  What an idiot!  What’s wrong with this moron!  Where are the cops when you need them?  I think I’ll teach this guy a lesson.  My blood is boiling, my whole body is tight and I have a fisted grip on the steering wheel.  I’m pissed! 

Have you ever been there?  If so, then you know what I’m thinking I’ll do next.  I’ll step on the brakes and see how he likes that!  Fortunately at that moment I remembered nonviolent communication (NVC) and I remembered to breathe.  Breathe and enjoy the jackal show.  Breathe and hear my need for safety.  Breathe safety.  Place my attention on safety and connect with it.

When I do that I relax.  I’m not so angry anymore but I am scared because I want safety for me and everyone else.

What would safety do?  Safety would drive in a way that is safe for me, the vehicle behind me and those around us.  That’s what I do and I celebrate safety and using NVC.  I also notice I’m not carrying anger and frustration with me as I continue my journey.  I notice it’s relatively easy to return that place inside myself of happy cruising.

The first time I did this I wanted to shout it from the roof top, “NVC works!  Yahooooo!”    I was so excited and happy to have a little hope for working with my anger.  It had cost me so much in my connection with myself and in relationships.  Now I had some hope and was eager to apply these new skills.

Well I certainly didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to practice.  I’m driving on the freeway again.  I look into that rear view and here comes another one of those jerks!  This idiot probably expects everyone to get out of his/her way!  How thoughtless and inconsiderate!  Oh yeah!  Breathe!  Safety!  Yes, with a side order of respect and consideration please!  I pull over into the next lane and let this person pass.  I’m pleased that I got to my needs quicker this time.  I also noticed respect and consideration in addition to safety.  I liked that.

This process repeats a number of times.  I notice that gradually with practice I’m getting quicker at getting to my need when I’m triggered.  Then one day I’m out on the freeway and I look up and I don’t see a jerk and a pack of jackals coming but rather I see safety and an opportunity to contribute.  I pull over and he zooms by and then slows down and matches my speed.  He blinks his lights on and off and then zooms again.  He is gone.  I told myself that was a “thank you”.  Wow!  I’m receiving acknowledgement and appreciation out on the freeway!  I’m contributing to the safety and well being of others!  I’m meeting my own need to contribute!  This is the road I want to be on!  This is the world I want to live in!

I don’t know what the needs of the other driver are in moments like these.  Perhaps she/he is on their way to be with a loved one in the emergency ward, or they will be late for work and it will mean their job or perhaps they’re having fun cause they like to drive fast.  I don’t know what their need is but I do know that whatever it is I have those same needs at times.  And I want their needs to be met at the same time there is safety, respect and consideration of others.  

I share this story because it gives me such hope.  We can learn to respond to stimuli that trigger us with NVC.  Even when the stimuli get repeated we can breathe.  Enjoy the critical, blaming judgments we make.   Breathe and choose where we place our attention next because it’s likely to come to us quickly.  There is a lot of energy flowing so it’s important to put our attention on what we really want.  Connect with the energy and wisdom of our needs and let them guide what we say or do next.  This is what I understand to be the life serving purpose of anger. 

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