Course Stories

The Elements Course, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series telling stories from the recent Elements Course. Check out Part 1 for how the trip began.


Our next stop is Lake Eckersley, scheduled for lunch. Here, I tell the guys we’ll have about an hour to relax, read, eat, swim in the lake or do as you please. Then we’ll do a session and move forward.

The four components of NVC.

Dave E., Irina, Monica, Johanna, James and I all decide to jump in the lake for a swim. The water temperature is perfect for this hot low-30s day and we laugh at the tadpoles nipping at our feet as we enter the water. Dave and Johanna race off toward the other side of the lake where there’s a rope swing. That looks like fun. Being the weaker swimmers, Monica and I casually make our way across. Swinging from the rope brings me back to my days as a kid.

There’s a platform erected on top of the bank for the more daring, but it’s a challenge. You have to basically jump off it and grab the rope, otherwise your arse scrapes along the ground. I get a little nervous about someone seriously injuring themselves, but everyone is okay. A few people do stack comedically (myself included), but no injuries other than a suspicious jarring of the ring-finger for Dave E., Monica and myself.

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Drying off on the banks, shirtless and eating a handful of nuts, I present to the group a model for compassionate communication, based on Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. I really like this model, as it simplifies the process for both a) expressing ourselves, and b) hearing others. I briefly describe the process with some examples then get people to think about an emotional time in their lives (either positive or negative) and express it using this process. Some of the guys are clever, and immediately pick up that while this might be an easy exercise on paper, communicating our feelings and needs in a conversational way is more difficult. Without coming across like a robot, that is.

The process guides the user to connect with their emotions and needs, then express these to others, allowing a greater chance for these needs to be met. The reverse is also true in that it helps us hear the feelings and needs in others. When a few people mention that the process feels “unnatural”, I remind them of a quote by Gandhi and comment that we only feel that way because we’ve been taught a different way of communicating.

Do not mistake that which is habitual with that which is natural.
– Mahatma Gandhi

I wanted to throw them in the deep end with the process and see if they swam. A few people struggled and kicked about, but no-one drowned. Pleased with the overview I’d given them, we moved on to what I believed to be the hardest part of the trail – a 3 km slog uphill through a denser trail.

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The slog follows the Bullawaring Track, up past the Battery Causeway. They’re some of the most beautiful parts of the trail as well as the most gruelling. We hiked through dense eucalypts as we skirted around the eastern side of some mountains in the region. We’re walking in the middle of the day, with the full-heat of the midday sun. A couple of the guys found it quite challenging, for a variety of reasons. Some, the physical exertion of hauling 20+ kilos up a hill under heat – others the mental challenge to just keep climbing that hill in front of you.

Distinguishing observations from evaluations.

We pause at a rocky outcrop overlooking the Heathcote River to catch our breath, take in some water and relax for a bit. I take the opportunity to go into a bit more detail with the compassionate communication process I presented earlier. The objective here? Distinguishing observations from evaluations. I tell them that I don’t want to do away with evaluations, but rather to separate them from our observations, making the two distinctly separate. Why? Because evaluations by themselves, with respect to another human being, limit the totality of that person. “Billy is a bad student” turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Billy thinks that being a “bad student” is his nature and he behaves as such.

We run through some statements to try and distinguish those that are purely observations with those that have evaluation mixed in. It’s here that a few of the guys have an “Aha! I get it!” moment. I highlight how sometimes our language contains words which imply judgement, when we might not think we’re judging. To say that “Joe complained about the water report” is not to observe, because there is an evaluation in the word “complain”. This is likely to cause Joe to become defensive and react. A way to express this which is less likely to elicit such a response might be: “Joe told me he didn’t like the writing style for the newest version of the water report.”

The philosopher J. Krishnamurti once said that observation without evaluation is the sign of a very intelligent person. While I’m not so sure about what intelligence is, I see real value in our relationships to each other distinguishing the two. I’m pretty comfortable that the participants got the message here, too.

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.
– Jiddu Krishnamurti

Feeling refreshed, we move onward to our destination for the evening – Kingfisher Pool camping ground. It’s mid-afternoon and I bet the crew are itching for a swim in those lovely rock pools. I know I am. From here, the trail is much easier walking, dipping up and down as we cross the Karong and Mooray gullies.

We roll into camp around 5pm to find some friends for the night in a group of Indian men who seem to have brought their whole kitchen and are preparing a feast made mostly by their wives.

I tell everyone to dump their gear and take the next hour or so to themselves. A few of us are keen to head over to the rock pools so we don’t even bother setting up camp. There’s still plenty of daylight left. The Kingfisher Pools are gorgeous. The setup reminds me of a Shakespearean amphitheatre. The rocks where you enter the water the stage, the water the audience. In the late afternoon sun we swim around, hanging out on “moss rock” (lovingly named for its slipperiness under the water) while we watch and laugh as Dave E. and Johanna have “doggy-paddle” races.

After a while, I pull everyone in to prepare dinner and go through our next session. We’re sitting up on some rocks overlooking the pools and it is magnificent.

Expressing yourself clearly and honestly.

In the next session, I want to emphasise the importance of expressing ourselves clearly and being vulnerable. Important in that it will help get our needs met and build stronger relationships with others. Typically when we use phrases such as “I feel like…” we’re not actually expressing our feelings, but what we’re thinking. Often this thinking contains moralistic judgement. There are also some sneaky words which sound like feelings, but are actually expressions of how we think others are behaving. Words like “misunderstood”, “cheated”, or “manipulated”. We put this into practice by building a personal inventory of feelings to expand everyone’s vocabulary beyond “I feel good” and “I feel bad”.

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On the rocks overlooking the pools. Note James and his packets of chips…

When I started this journey, I was shocked at how limited my own literacy was, and how difficult I found it to express the actual emotion I was feeling, beyond the vague binaries of “good” and “bad”, “happy” and “sad”.

Looking around, I sensed people were tired and done with content. The sun was setting as we sat up there on the rocks. I called it a day for the content and let everyone know we’d be starting again at 9am the next morning.

-Luke.

Continue reading Part 3.


Interested in hearing more about compassion and empathy?

Every week I write a couple of articles: sharing course experiences, writing guides to communication or the outdoors, as well as musing over compassion, mindfulness and movement as I float through life like a water lily.

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