I remember the first time I saw a kaleidoscope. I felt awed by the ever-changing, unique patterns that materialized and disappeared as I manipulated it. I felt entranced by the beauty and complexity, joyfully astonished at the seemingly infinite variety of temporary pattern and color. I still feel excited when I see kaleidoscopes!

When I started teaching NVC, I used a kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the ever-changing, dynamic nature of our human responses, our feelings. When something happens in the world, it stimulates us in our bodies. Something arises within us, our subjective experience of physical sensations and emotions. These signals give us vital information about the current state of our needs.

Developing an ever-increasing awareness of feelings, as well as a vocabulary to describe how we feel, supports both self-connection and connecting with others. We can develop descriptions of our inner landscape to support us in understanding our own needs and communicating our requests to others. This expanded inner awareness also supports us in empathy as we realize that feelings can be pointers to Needs.

We generally experience pleasurable feelings as easy to be with (e.g. happy, content, satisfied, relaxed); but, painful feelings can be challenging! Learning to stay present and observational during painful emotions stretches our capacity and goes against the grain of a deeply habitual reaction to automatically move away from pain. This seems like a common experience among all people and other living beings. Sometimes it even saves us from more pain to move away! This deeply adaptive response is hooked to our very survival!

It’s easy for me to connect to the fear of experiencing certain feelings in myself or others. For example, it’s still a challenge for me to stay present in the face of anger directed toward me or the suffering of someone I’m close to because of my habitual fearful or sympathetic reactions. I’m learning to increase my presence to that kind of strong emotion by sharpening my intention to observe what is happening and to connect to the meaning of the feeling. I’m also learning to coach myself to stay present by gently challenging the assumption that experiencing a feeling can permanently damage me or others.

Once, I had developed an expectation that Jori and I would go out on a date together, celebrating at a local restaurant. When the time for the date arrived, our life circumstances had shifted and other pressing requests caused us to change our plans. I felt disappointment. As we talked about this together, a wave of emotion arose within me. I could also notice how much I wanted to move away from this strong, painful reaction.

Instead of following this old habit to move away, to find some balm or mask for the pain, I excused myself and went to just sit on my meditation pillow, curious to see how deep these feelings would go if I allowed myself permission to explore them with Presence. I noticed the pain ebbing and flowing, tears welling, crying, disappointment, annoyance…my emotional experience shifted to a monologue of life’s parade of disappointments, how I “always” “had to” give up my needs for others, how I “never” got what I wanted! This suffering mutated into a seething stew of resentment and anger.

Suddenly, I contacted a deeper level of sadness. Sitting in the sadness, I cried. Soon, the sobbing quieted, my mind stilled, and an openness in my heart awakened. And all that in about 5 minutes! Wow, what an eye-opener that was for me.

Of course, I felt sad! So often, humans feel the sting of things not going the way they expect! Of course, we hurt when this happens!

When I remind myself that feelings are transient, usually lasting for 40 seconds or less, I feel open, relaxed, and alert. As I open to the present experience of emotion within me or alive in others, I am learning to cultivate wonder, focusing my attention on the meaning of the signal represented by the feeling. This awareness supports me in an opening to the quality of connection that inspires compassionate giving and receiving.