Category Archives: Synapse Sensations

Nonviolent Communication: Requesting That Which Would Enrich Life

That is a lengthy title for the fourth precept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as described by Marshall Rosenberg in the book of the same name. The first four precepts of NVC deal with self-expression, of which this is the final precept. The remaining four components (about which I am still reading) deal with how to receive other people’s self-expression.

Precept three deals with taking responsibility for our feelings, and that is what I focused on in my previous post. However, part of taking responsibility includes identifying what is needed. “By focusing attention on our own feelings and needs, we become conscious that our current feeling of hurt derives from a need…” (p. 50)

Precept four is all about how to make a request so that someone else will be able to assist with fulfilling a need. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part to the NVC process because inadvertently using inappropriate language could cause the request to backfire. For instance, a request should be asked for in a positive tone, using “clear, positive, concrete action language,” with care taken to avoid sounding like a demand is being made rather than a request. To accomplish this successfully, it is helpful for the person making the request to include not only their need but also the feelings they have that accompany the need.

One of the more useful tools of NVC was introduced in this chapter, that of the listener reflecting back to the speaker what the listener believes they heard. This is a way to make sure that the words and tone of the speaker are being correctly heard and understood. I have seen this approach used myriad times in school settings when a teacher asks a student to reflect back what has just been stated by the teacher. If the teacher is using this tool properly, it is a way to check both for understanding on the part of the student, and clarity of expression on the part of the teacher.

Rosenberg sums up NVC in nifty charts on pages 6-7 of the book. The four components inform the process, of which there are two parts. The first part is applying the components to oneself by “expressing honestly through the four components”; the second part is applying the components to others by “receiving empathically through the four components”. Ideally, this is a give-and-take conversation between two people, where each person is able to express themselves clearly and also take in what the other person has to share.

Four components of NVC:
1. observations
2. feelings
3. needs
4. requests

NVC Process
The concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being
How we feel in relation to what we observe
The needs, values, desires, etc. that create our feelings
The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives

Nonviolent Communication: Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings

My first yoga teacher once shared these words at the beginning of a practice.

Life is not the way it’s supposed to be – It’s the way it is –
The way you cope with it is what makes the difference

Deb Gorman

This third component of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), taking responsibility for your feelings, seems to me directly related to Deb’s comment.

As we go through life, each of us will hear words directed to us or about us. The words may not be what we think they should be, but nonetheless they are the words that are uttered.

How we react and respond to the words is what will make the difference. We will have control over how the words make us feel, and that, in turn, will impact how we cope and deal with the situation. This opportunity for taking responsibility for our feelings and actions is what makes all the difference.

On the face of it, this may seem logical and even manageable. However, I think that learning how to manage our emotions, how we feel, is a learned art. So how does NVC approach taking responsibility for one’s emotions.

NVC heightens our awareness that what others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings. We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our particular needs and expectations in that moment.

Nonviolent Communication, page 49

NVC suggests there are four approaches we could take in dealing with a negative message or action: blame ourselves, blame others, sense our own feelings and needs, sense others’ feelings and needs. At various times I have certainly laid claim to each of those, sometimes – especially when I was younger – employing more than one to deal with a negative situation.

Over time (which I often say is a benefit of aging) I have learned to parse my reactions and feelings before ascribing any blame. Indeed, except in extreme circumstances, I have worked successfully at trying to understand where the other person is coming from to better grasp the meaning behind the words or actions. Ultimately, this leads to reflecting on my needs and on their needs.

I have just finished reading chapter 7, and so far each chapter concludes with one of the more interesting and useful methods I have encountered for checking on understanding. Ten brief one- or two-sentence statements are presented.

To determine if the reader and author are in agreement about the precept that was discussed, the reader is asked to choose which statements reflect the precept. The author, Marshall Rosenberg, then discusses his choices and why. He never says “right” or “wrong;” rather, he simply explains why, if the two of you chose the same you are in agreement, and if you chose a different response, why you two are not in agreement. I found this a positive approach to garner understanding and promote additional thought.

Nonviolent Communication: Identifying & Expressing Feelings

This is a chapter in semantics. But I get ahead of myself!

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is an approach developed by Marshall Rosenberg for communicating with others. I have been reading his book and thinking about how useful it might be for a wide ranging array of conversations as well as for garnering an understanding of oneself. My previous post was about the first of the four essential precepts of NVC; this post is about the second, identifying and expressing feelings.

On the one hand, especially for me, this might seem quite easy to accomplish. I can often sense my feelings and usually have little difficulty expressing them, though more intense feelings or feelings as a result of complex situations, often leave me a bit encumbered in trying to state how I feel.

Turns out, precept two is an exercise (and a chapter) in semantics. Semantics is all about the meaning of words, and what we may call “feelings” are not always – according to Rosenberg – feelings. For instance on page 43 there is a list of words, many of them verbs that end with “ed” and he ascribes these words to “how we interpret others, rather than how we feel.” The way I speak, any of these words could easily have been used to express a feeling.

Rosenberg makes several distinctions: “between feelings and thoughts; between what we feel and what we think we are; and between words that describe what we think others are doing around us, and words that describe actual feelings.”

All is not lost in the world of words! To assist with expressing feelings Rosenberg provides a two-and-a-half page list of words for describing emotions. (Refer to the image at end of this post.) As for the difference between emotions and feelings, there is a wealth of information available with a quick web search, and I leave that to you if it is of interest.

Perhaps the strongest lesson I take from this chapter is the importance of thinking before I speak in order to come up with accurate expressions of what I want to express. For me, this is not just about expressing feelings, but having conversation in general. There is such a wealth of words available to us if we give ourselves time to choose them and incorporate them into our daily language. I am not suggesting using “fancy” words when simpler ones will do; just choosing the words that most truly reflect our feelings and thoughts.

Nonviolent Communication: Observing Without Evaluating

Not too long ago I heard of a new three-session workshop, Difficult Conversations: Using Nonviolent Communication in Our Relationships, hosted by a yoga teacher whom I have studied with multiple times online. The required reading is the book What We Say Matters: Practicing Nonviolent Communication, authored by the teacher and her former husband. Ultimately, I decided to pass on the workshop to conserve funds that have been too readily spent during the pandemic!

In the meantime, during a conversation with our younger son and his girlfriend, I mentioned the workshop, and immediately Katryna responded that it reminded her of the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, which she had on a bookshelf, having read portions of the book but not a cover-to-cover read. I then blurted “that is who trained the leader of the workshop!”

All this by way of explaining how, thanks to our local library, I have come to read Rosenberg’s book.

In general, I tend not to have patience for reading self-help books, which is what this book initially felt like. However, I was determined to give it a try and so pushed on to chapter two and then chapter three, by which point I was hooked.

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is grounded in four essential precepts, the first being observation without evaluation. Immediately this idea hit home. As a teacher and a parent, I can recall too many instances where adults made value judgments based on what they saw rather than simply stating what they noticed. A typical example: This child is lazy because she does not turn in her homework on time. The observation would be: This child does not turn in her homework on time. The judgement is: This child is lazy.

This type of thinking is not unusual for us humans, as assumptions about the reasons behind what is seen or heard helps to give meaning to actions. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for those assumptions to be made without benefit of knowledge or understanding of the actual conditions behind the action. The result is inaccurate evaluation; evaluation that is incorrect.

Our older son and his wife are both trained Montessori Guides and as such had to studiously learn how to observe children without evaluating them. After one of her training days, Sandra returned home and described spending hours at the Central Park Zoo diligently recording regularly paced observations in a journal. Each observation was of the same animal throughout the day. Even while it was sleeping she remained attuned to how it positioned itself, whether it moved, if it made noise, and anything else it did.

This may sound tedious, and at times she said it was, but it brought home to her the importance of simply observing. The exercise helped to fine-tune her sense of looking, watching, noting, heightening her awareness that observation takes focus. And, as I learned in a nature journaling class this past fall, only by truly focusing on an object can you begin to see it. Often, this focus leads to questions, which should be duly noted for future research, yet the questions are not the actual observation; they are two distinct entities.

Liz, the nature journaling instructor, shared the Curiosity Cycle. As this is a cycle, the Further Questions would lead to additional Observations, and so on. Drawing is from my Nature Journal.

While this is not a one-to-one equivalency with NVC, the observation component meshes them together. Simply put, an observation can only ever be a neutral statement of what is seen. The way to know the meaning behind what we see is to then ask questions to find out the “why”.

…I noticed close to one hundred ducks swimming in the Mill Pond, almost all of them moving in the same direction. Gradually, a bunch would turn 180 degrees and ascend in flight. Maybe they were swimming with the tide, or preparing for flight by swimming in one direction to give themselves enough of a runway for taking off in the other direction. And that had me wondering if there is any intentional synchronicity to floating en masse? Knowing that they do not ride the currents as other water fowl do, does wind direction impact how ducks prepare for flight? What is the relationship of this large group of ducks to one another? What is the deal with duck families?

From my Fall 2019 Nature Journal

The Gene – An Intimate History (2/2)

This post follows on the heels of an earlier post this morning. As noted at the end of that post, about half of the sticky tabs I stuck throughout the book deal with a particular interest of mine and that’s what this post covers. What we consider as normal and not normal in terms of our physical, biological, and cognitive lives is determined in large part by how we choose to frame the definitions. 

As the 1800s was turning into the 1900s, the English doctor Archibald Garrod “had conceptually visualized a human gene and explained human variation as ‘chemical diversities’ encoded by units of inheritance. Genes make us human, Garrod had reasoned. And mutations make us different.” [bold face my addition] Garrod’s work set off “a systematic effort to create a catalog of genetic diseases in humans” and, oh my, there is an astonishing array of such diseases. Penetrance refers to the fact that “even if a mutation was present in the genome” of a person, “its capacity to penetrate into a physical or morphological feature was not always complete.” 

I am intrigued by Mukherjee’s further elaboration on these ideas as he takes us through a growing definition of disease.

The definition of disease rests, rather, on the specific disabilities caused by an incongruity between an individual’s genetic endowment and his or her current environment–between a mutation, the circumstances of a person’s existence, and his or her goals for survival or success. It is not mutation that ultimately causes disease, but mismatch. (p 264)

Even the nature of the “mismatch” is mutable: since the environment is constantly subject to change, the definition of disease has to change with it.”

…the lack of fitness–illness, in colloquial terms–was defined by the relative mismatch between an organism and environment. (p 265)

Over and over I was struck by the normalcy of differentiation among humans. It turns out that “facial features and heights are shared because genetic variations are shared among individuals,” meaning within families. Stop for a moment to consider what humanity would be like if we all looked the same with the same physical traits. How would we know who was who? And what traits would be the ones that we all had? Surely there is already a sci fi book with such a pretense. (If you know of one, please list it in a comment so I can borrow a copy from the library. Thanks!)

The natural segue is to move from pondering physical differences to intellectual differences and the influence of environment. More vocabulary words emerge from this discussion: heritable, which is a trait influenced by genes, and inheritable, which is a trait that is handed down intact from one generation to the next. (p 346) 

Using the example of growing a tall and short plant in various conditions (insufficient nourishment and appropriate nourishment), both plants grow short without the necessary nutrients, while both plants grow to their natural height with adequate nourishment, meaning the short plant grows to a short height and the tall plant grows to its tall height. Mukherjee states that

Whether genes or environment–nature or nurture– dominates in influence depends on context. When environments are constraining, they exert a disproportionate influence. When the constraints are removed, genes become ascendant. (p 347)

This is an important idea to him, and he asterisks it to a footnote on the page: There can hardly be a more cogent genetic argument for equality. It is impossible to ascertain any human’s genetic potential without first equalizing environments. [italics my addition]

There is much food for thought in this book. It is filled with a history of the discovery and science of genes, diving deep into DNA and spiraling back out to try to discern what it means to be human. I am very much in synch with Mukherjee’s thoughts about equalizing environments and think about this in the context of 38 years of teaching, 36 years of parenting, and over 60 years of living in a world consisting of beautifully diverse humans!

I leave with this image of the circular flow (p 410) of biological information, the final flow that began as a few statements many pages earlier in the text (and was noted in my previous post).circular flow


The Joy of Movement

This blog post is both a book title, The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage, and an apt reflection of how I feel about moving. The more I move, the happier I am. A day without ample movement is a day where my body and mind feel less than content, less focused, and less agile.

Author Kelly McGonigal has detailed numerous stories about people who have undertaken either extreme physical challenges or undertook movement to heal their bodies (or both!) Along the way, she inserts  glimpses of the neuroscience behind human body movement.

This morning I posted my review of her book to Goodreads, and am including here some of my review, along with additions.

I found portions of the book that resonated, the first dealing with music.
When listening to music, we listen with our muscles. -Oliver Sacks (pg 98)

I have taken three Dance for Parkinson’s trainings, and was heartened to see McGonigal include this approach to movement, the premise of which is that music coupled with dance training is beneficial for people living with Parkinson’s. In addition, I have written a bit about the impact of music on the brain and movement, including Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition! on the SharpBrains blog

This next quote is applicable across so much of life, not just movement. These are words of encouragement coupled with a firm belief to not give up.

If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving. -Martin Luther King Jr (pg 107)

As a lover of human anatomy and a teacher of yoga who occasionally suggests turning the corners of the mouth up towards the eyes, I especially appreciated learning the name of the muscle responsible for this movement: zygomaticus major. This muscle “contracts reflexively, similar to when a physician taps your kneecap to make your leg swing.” Our external movements, from facial expressions to body position, let us “talk” to the world.

The body is how we translate what is happening inside us–thoughts, feelings, desires–into something observable that other people can understand. (pg 116)

Finally, one more vocabulary word that speaks to yoga as well as movement in general: proprioceive. I have long known that proprioception is an individual’s sense of where their body is in space; this is something we consciously or unconsciously consider whenever we move. McGonigal discusses how empathy while watching someone else move causes us to proprioceive it.

When you watch others move, you don’t just perceive this action. You proprioceive it. You receive it into yourself. This is what empathy does: It creates, in your mind, a felt sense of what you are observing. (pg 149)

WHO Report on the Power of the Arts

I have posted a bit about the power of dance and, in particular, about Dance for Parkinson’s (here and here). After taking trainings with Dance for PD I became a subscriber to their site for resources and updates. It was a recent email that brought to my attention the World Health Organization’s (WHO) report reviewing “the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being.”

A few sections stood out for me – the general overview of the benefits of the arts, in particular dance and music, and the sections specific to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.


The report organized the benefits under two categories: Prevention and Promotion, and Management and Treatment.

Within prevention and promotion, findings showed how the arts can:

  • affect the social determinants of health
  • support child development
  • encourage health-promoting behaviours
  • help to prevent ill health
  • support caregiving

Within management and treatment, findings showed how the arts can:

  • help people experiencing mental illness;
  • support care for people with acute conditions;
  • help to support people with neurodevelopment disorders;
  • assist with the management of noncommunicable diseases; and
  • support end-of-life care.

While the report focused on a wide range of arts, my specific interests are on the performing arts of dance, music and singing. In the report several case studies are mentioned, including Systema Europe and Dance for PD programs worldwide.

The section on Cognitive decline mentions playing a musical instrument has been found to improve or preserve…general cognition, processing speed and memory…. and dance has been linked across the lifespan with better learning and memory. Dance has  been shown to…support functional improvements in balance and attention. 

A later section in the report discusses the benefits of music to help the development of new neural pathways…and to enhance structural neuroplasticity for people who have had a stroke, as well as enhancing mental health and well-being. In the same section on neurodevelopment and neurological disorders the report details the benefits of dance to improve the motor ability of people living with Parkinson’s. Just as meaningful as the physical and cognitive benefits is the impact on participating in a Dance for PD program: …dance studies involving people with PD have also typically shown high compliance rates, low dropout and continued activity beyond the study period.

I was not surprised to see a section about how the arts can positively impact caregiving across a wide range of areas including empathy, communication, understanding, clinical skills, personal skills, and personal mental health. Music has been found to improve mood and reduce stress while working, as well as improving levels of concentration, efficiency, enthusiasm and ordered working.

If you or someone you know is dealing with any number of health related issues, there is a good chance that some form of participating in the arts can prove beneficial. To that end, I urge you to peruse the WHO report to find those sections that have meaning for you, and then jump in to find an approach or program local to you or the person for whom you are caring.

Ekphrasis & Health

Recently my husband and I visited our son and his girlfriend in Olympia, Washington. There is always the joy of seeing them, plus travel brings another benefit – the opportunity to have my eyes opened to new people, places, sights, sounds, tastes, ideas and words. Most interesting word during this trip: ekphrasis. This explanation from the Poetry Foundation helps clarify the meaning.

Ekphrasis came out of a wide-ranging conversation with Katryna. We also talked about the role of inequality as a strong influence in people’s health and well-being. Katryna works for the State of Washington to assist people with health care questions and issues regarding Medicaid. As part of that conversation she shared with me this list of Social determinants of health and health inequalities from the Government of Canada, as well as the chart below from the Kaiser Family Foundation policy brief Beyond Health Care: The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity.


We also talked about epigenetics, and how health can be impacted by events that happened to an individual during their life, as well as by how a person’s parent(s) or grandparent(s) fared. From there we discussed race and what, exactly, the word means. On a basic level consider this: humans make up words and give them meaning. How has that process impacted the way we treat people who do not look like us? To that end Katryna told me about Dorothy Roberts’ book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century. This was a book Katryna read for a course in college so I was not surprised (but a little disappointed) that my local library does not have a copy (and I just realized I can request for a copy to be ordered!)

The words in the title of this post, Ekphrasis and Health, may or may not have any relationship (I haven’t thought about that in any deep manner) but they are placed together so as to not lose any of the bits of information. Perhaps at a later time I will return to them and write separate posts. Suffice it to say that Ekphrasis fascinated me both for the sound of the word and its meaning, while the issue of inequality as a determinant of health has long been a topic of conversation in my home. My husband and I both are aware of the research and statistics, and believe that numerous issues in the United States could be made less horrific if the massive inequality was mitigated.

Being a bit “gut”sy

In 2015 I wrote a post about the gut. Then, this past Fall, I had my own interesting (and not very comfortable) reintroduction to my gut in the form of a GI (gastrointestinal tract) rebellion to an antibiotic given as a prophylactic to stave off a possible blood infection from a bee sting. (The length of that sentence should give you an idea of the duration of my discomfort!) While it took just one night and two full days on the medication to provoke a reaction that caused me to lose three pounds over as many days, over the course of almost four weeks it also depleted my energy, found me on a BRATT diet (bananas, rice, apples, tea and toast), spurred my doctor to test me for a variety of not-so-good possibilities (thankfully, all came back negative), and had me missing numerous full or partial days at work.

This might have all been water under the bridge, never finding its way to a post, but then a friend at work shared The Power of Poop video with me that I find fascinating. 
Still, this post almost did not get written, until my dinner last night. I met two friends for a meal at a local restaurant where I ate a delicious Beet Salad: organic roasted beets, ruby red grapefruit, sunflower seeds, some type of greens, and avocado, all topped with sherry-ginger dressing. The salad was quite filling with four full-size beets. Came home, relaxed, took a bath, and then the all-too-familiar GI discomfort began at one in the morning. Big sigh…

As it turns out, an abundance of beets can have that impact (nothing like experiential learning). Hence, the motivation for this post as a vivid reminder of the power not only of poop but of the GI tract, in general, and the powerful gut-brain relationship, in which  the two entities are more equal than you might imagine.

Worship the normal curves

I learned a lot about the human spine this summer in the Experiential Anatomy online class led by the highly talented teaching team of Judith Hansen Lasater, Mary Richards and Lizzie Lasater. First of all, in fairness to Mary Richards, I need to get the nomenclature correct! As she noted, the vertebral column is a column or chain of vertebral bodies, whereas the spine is an anatomical term relating to a bony feature or ridge on various bones. Vertebra is singular; vertebrae is plural. There are some 33 bones in the vertebral column, most which move independently but several that are fused together and move as a unit.

The vertebral bones are arranged by size and shape, these being influenced by the curve in their respective part of the spine, and all of these attributes influences the function of that part of the spinal column. In order to bear more weight the bones get bigger from top to bottom of the column. In addition, the cervical vertebrae have less stability and more mobility, and progressing down the spinal column the lowest portion has more stability with less mobility.

Worship the normal curves 

is the mantra that began the study of the vertebral column, giving new meaning to the age old exhortation to sit (or stand) up straight. Years ago I was able to memorize the number of vertebrae in each area according to meal times: 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, 5 lumbar vertebrae (breakfast at 7, lunch at 12, dinner at 5). I guess the snack is the sacrum, with 5 vertebrae fused into 1 bone, and the coccyx (aka tailbone) that consists of anywhere between 3 to 5 vertebrae.

The cervical curve is the neck area, and has as its first two vertebrae C1, the Atlas (named for the Greek God who held the heavens on his head), and C2, the Axis, which is responsible for head turning. The thoracic curve’s 12 vertebrae all attach to two ribs each, one on either side. The lumbar, or low back vertebrae are the most massive of all the vertebrae; think about how much weight they must bear, hence the need for their size. As noted in a prior post, there is maximum pressure on the vertebral discs when sitting, medium when standing and the least amount of pressure when lying down. Turns out this is why we are a tad taller in the morning.

slinkyEver play with a slinky? If not, that’s a picture of one at the left. It is a spiraling column of wire that can “walk” down stairs and any movement in it reverberates throughout the entire slinky. This is similar to our backbone, which is a kinetic chain – “a connected chain of moving parts” where movement gets transferred up and down the spine.

The trio summed up the vertebral column as the central organizing axis – a giant, curved, coiled antenna receiving signals from the whole body. This axis connects to the hip axis, which is the central axis of movement. The part that connects these two axes is the sacrum, part of the vertebral column at the lumbrosacral joint (the joint between the last lumbar vertebra and the first sacral segment) and part of the pelvis at the sacroliliac joint (between the lowest part of the scarum and the iliac bone in the pelvis.)

My next post will explore each part of the vertebral column in a bit more detail.