The Sacred and the Profane

“But what if we discuss it without the endgame of convincing and mobilizing and compelling others to action? Is there value in talking about this with the people in our lives simply to commiserate, communally, on this impending demise?”

— Sam Miller McDonald, Climate Despair

I think my involvement in 12 Characters can give an emphatic YES to these questions, although that’s qualitative and not quantitative. It has certainly given value to me – it’s helped remove a cynicism and apathy that had become calcified into my days; it has changed the lens through which I see and experience the people around me from one of uncaring, self-centered automatons to confused, frightened, lonely people who have never had any sense of what real life could mean; and has helped me experience the enormous relief of that comes over me when I meet someone with no inhibitions talking about the impending apocalypse with a sense of real grief; and it has shifted much of my focus away from whether or not other people ‘get it’ to the importance of having the next conversation.
I know there are others out there who could say similar things – maybe not many, but certainly those in the group who come with me to read Characters for the gatherings have a similar greatly increased sense of importance in having conversations – which means creating spaces in which conversations can happen – which is one of the primary functions of the 12 Characters gathering – a ritual space that we craft together in order to hold the dialog we will have within it. Those of us who have taken part in many such gatherings have a responsibility to the new participants to hold certain key aspects of the ritual space building we undertake: we recognize it as a ritual space, we bring the ritual of Theater to aid us in the leavening of the space, we guide and host the conversation to cultivate intimacy, curiosity, and a vulnerable revealing of a shared humanity in the room. Nights when I leave our gatherings and I know it has been a success I am filled with a renewed sense of the importance of making it to the next conversation.
I don’t think these conversations can happen at the cafes or the markets or in the parks because those spaces are profane – out of the temple – I’m beginning to think there is a sacred element required for these conversations to be possible.

It is not at all certain that we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe

It is not at all certain that we are going to avoid environmental catastrophe. — Mike King in The Writing of ‘Mountain Calls’ on the Dark Mountain Project Blog 

When I read these words I was struct again by the recurring realization that as people we are living in a time when the way of living our lives is killing the web of living beings upon which our own lives are entirely dependent. That we might actually succeed in killing the web of life (and therefore ourselves) is not the main focus of my shock. It is the realization that people have already been born for whom this killing is a possibility. For most of human existence it has not been possible to think the thought that we could kill the web of living beings on this planet – and now it is not only possible – it is even likely by some calculations.

At some level, though we may not wish to, we find it easy to imagine such a nightmare [as described in Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road], because it validates one of the defining beliefs of our civilisation: that life without the supermarket and the superhighway is not liveable. — Dougald Hine in DEFUSING THE APOCALYPSE: A RESPONSE TO JOHN GRAY on the Dark Mountain Project Blog

I realize this idea that the ‘civilized’ life is the only life worth living is one of the formative myths that I grew up with in dominant culture North America. This is made clear in the understanding of ‘being civilized’ as it is opposed to ‘savage’ or ‘primative’ or ‘barbaric’. The connection it seems is not coincidental.

When I hear many of the ideas that pass for ‘solutions’ to the current crises – all of them take for granted the continuation of “life as we know it”. I realize now the connection because having to live without the modern conveniences like the iPhone X is apparently undesireable, unthinkable, or pointless.

THE SENATOR: This is an abyss into which it is better not to look.

COUNT: My good friend, it is not entirely possible for us not to look into it; it is there before us, and, not to see it, we should have to be blind, which would be much worse than being afraid. — Joseph de Maistre, The Saint Petersburg Dialogues

Is 12 Characters a ‘performance’, a ‘workshop’, or something else?

The same friend who asked me recently about what the target group is for 12 Characters events also asked me this question:

How do you see your activity, as a performance, workshop or something else?

Again, this is something that I’ve not really known how to answer and it has mattered to me a great deal. So him asking me the question gave me the opportunity to begin to get clear.

Brief Answer:

We’ve called them ‘Gatherings’ because we haven’t found a more descriptive label that fits. They are half performances (we read the monologues and people listen for 45 minutes) and half conversations (in between every 3rd monologue there are interludes for neighbors to share with one another and after the readings are finished there is 90 minutes for an open hosted conversation).  Currently my focus is learning how to assist people to share candidly and listen vulnerably during the conversation.

Full Answer:

We have purposefully decided to read the monologues from paper as opposed to acting them out from memory. This is to help everyone listening to be able to focus on what gets stimulated in their own thinking as much as possible. If it becomes too much of a performance there will be too much focus on how well we are acting, how good the writing is, etc. I am concerned all that will take away from people noticing what gets stimulated in their own heads and hearts. On the other hand, as readers we put a great deal of effort to give a life to the Character we are reading – to make them believable, to engender understanding for their thinking, and to cultivate some kind of compassion towards them. There’s a lot of reasons for this. Maybe the biggest is that many people can recognize all 12 of the Characters as aspects of their own thinking – some people can at least recognize a few Characters in their thinking. I believe it will help people have more compassion for their own thinking the more we can help them find compassion for the Characters. Another reason is that most people seem to have some kind of a ‘crust’ or a ‘shell’ that gets in their way of vulnerably hearing and sharing. There seems to be a connection between how realistic the characters are portrayed and how vulnerably people share their own experiences.

I haven’t yet found a label that fits. I call them ‘Gatherings’ – I’m happy to find something more descriptive. We perform while reading which takes 45 minutes and the rest of the time is for a hosted conversation. Between every 3rd monologue we pause for 5-6 mins so people can turn to their neighbors and share what’s arisen after hearing the proceeding monologues. At the end of the monologues we have 90 minutes to hold a hosted conversation to help people uncover what’s in the room. Help people find out what they’re thinking and learn how many others are thinking like them or differently.

What is the target audience for 12 Characters

I was asked recently by someone looking to host a 12 Characters event the following helpful question:

What target group you would have in mind, e.g. the  “converted”, the “deniers”,  the “sceptics”, or whatever labels you would like to give them?

I liked it because it made me think long and hard about where I stood. Here are my current thoughts.

Brief Answer:

The target group is those people that think that something is happening, even if they’re not clear about what it is or how bad it is. So definitely not limited to the converted and definitely not including the deniers. I would certainly hope there is room for people who are skeptical – but I’ve found many people who think of themselves as ‘skeptics’ who turned out to be ‘cynics’ instead.

Full Answer:

I have only thought about the target group peripherally – so this is a helpful question. At this point my own hosting capacity is limited – I’m still learning what it takes to support people to take risks and speak about their fears and hopes in relation to the many many conflicting thoughts they are having when they think about whether or not a climate apocalypse is coming. What I have written in my opening notes is that the many labels that have been used “global warming”, “climate change”, “peak oil”, etc. are not helpful for me because of the distance they create between me and what I see. Instead what I am looking at is the unravelling of the web of living beings that supports us and makes our lives possible. The things that we put into the category of ‘changing climate’ is one set of factors that is impacting this unravelling. I am inviting people to have a conversation about their own experiences – about how the unravelling we are living through is impacting them, their families, and their communities. So, the audience then is the group of people that think they are living through an unravelling. At some point I might learn that group of people is too limited and that I want to reach out to a wider audience. The 12 monologues that we’ve chosen from Andrew’s set of 35 all answer “yes” to the question of whether they think Climate Change is real – and from that point they diverge as to how serious a problem they think it is and what they think we should do about it – some are pragmatic and quote Bill McKibben and James Hansen, others are reactionary – preppers building bunkers, partygoers in Thailand, still others are hit by either Hope or Hopelessness, some are just straight-forwardly hard-working to defend the place they live. But all of them thinksomething is happening even if they disagree about what it is.

What that complexity has offered me personally is a deep insight into the workings of my own thinking – that these ‘Characters’ capture aspects of my daily thoughts around what is happening and what I think I should do about it. What it has offered the people who have attended it is an intense and perhaps relentless experience

in which a years worth of thinking about what is happening gets condensed into a single hour. It has created an opportunity for some vulnerable conversations to take place where some neighbors have learned they have more in common than they thought and some bridges have been built between people of differening views of what we should do about it.

12 Characters – Brynfedwen

Things we tried

  • right-brain pause questions
  • spectrogram
  • inviting participants to share with one another before starting the monologues
  • singing before and after
  • opening poem – Grandfather – Sara Jolena Wolcott

Wes Taylor Feedback

This feedback was offered by Wes Taylor in recognition of Jason’s work in the ED project at the MMC.

Jason’s enthusiasm and deep curiosity were inspiring to me as we discussed the work I was doing with Mercy’s Emergency Department in Wales last November.  So his request to come, volunteer, learn and contribute to the work only required effort to get official authorizations and deal with logistics.  There was no question in my mind about the value of having him with us at Mercy.  It is incredibly gratifying to say that there have only been confirmations of that prediction and not a single moment of wishing things were different.

I predicted that Jason would be a great thinking partner – someone who would support the search for clarity and maybe even reveal some unrecognized aspects of the systems here through a set of fresh (and well NVC-informed) eyes.  He has done that wonderfully.  His contributions to the creation of training curricula and ongoing adjustments / improvements have been deeply appreciated.  What I’m a bit embarrassed to admit is being surprised by is how much Jason has been a personal support and a grounding influence for me and my fullest connection to life as I address the sometimes highly challenging issues that arise in healthcare in the US.  Both sitting in discussion in the office, as well as in the training room (about to begin a training as well as in the midst, when participants were engaged in a dialogue practice or written activity and I would approach Jas for a quick confab) Jason diligently asked questions directing attention to my needs, self-awareness, and encouraging self-supportive requests.  Each and every time, this habit of his was a breath of cool air helping me stay connected to that which is most important.  This was the unexpected joy of Jason’s time with me.

Finally, the contributions Jason made directly to the staff of the ED have been so exciting for me to witness.  One part of my excitement was simply having camaraderie and singing in the same voice – sometime a very different voice that what staff were used to.  The other part of my excitement was his frequent offering of content or perspective that was different and a significant addition to what I was offering.  These moments happened frequently in the training room, but just as importantly in the conference rooms and offices when he joined in on operational and tactical discussions.  The Emergency Department at Mercy was going to have the benefit of the principles and awareness revealed by NVC from me in any case – however, they have received a much richer, specific, and practical version because of his presence with us.

I am so grateful to Jason and his family for his time with us.  I am grateful to all of those out there that have supported his participation in this work, for we are all enriched.

Wes Taylor,
Balitmore, MD
April 11, 2013.

MMC Project Report

Wrapping Up

My time here in the USA is drawing to a close for now whilst my attention turns to going to the UK to complete my Certification for CNVC.   I’m taking this moment then to celebrate some of the achievements that I’ve made so far and mourn some of the things that I wished I had been able to do but haven’t yet.

What did I do?

One of the primary objectives was to support Wes to be effective at introducing key aspects of NVC to the staff. I primarily imagined that I could provide an empathic presence in his life so that he wasn’t alone in rough moments. From the positive feedback I’ve gotten from Wes, I provided much more than this – I’ve been an active part of planning the curriculum, engaging with the staff during the classes as well as in the work environment, and debriefing to harvest our learning from the events. I also got to contribute in many ways outside the hospital, working in the Blueberry Hill community where Rhonda lives, sharing NVC in prison, and doing lots of pet-sitting. One of the unexpected ways I got to contribute was offering to edit all the audio recordings produced during Miki Kashtan’s Fearless Heart teleseminars.

Another key objective was to learn as much as I could while I was there. I have had so many opportunities to learn – most completely unexpected. Working alongside Wes planning, executing, and debriefing the classes has really helped me get a much richer picture of sharing NVC within a large organization. Shadowing the staff while they work has opened my eyes to the challenges of working long hours in a continually stressful environment and convinced me that healthcare professionals would be so much happier if we could help them learn nonviolence. Other learning opportunities included visiting a local prison and getting to listen to why prison inmates valued learning NVC, helping practitioners of Focusing learn NVC while I learned Focusing, and getting to work alongside the hospital security staff and learn how they engage with disruptive behavior.

One of the other major gifts of being here was being with family and friends. It was so close to my birthplace, I could spend most weekends with my mother and her partner, hanging out and sharing my love of watching ecologically conscious movies together. And my mom could see her grandkids for the first time in 5 years. I also got to hang out face-to-face with my closest friend from school and his family for the first time in 15 years. And I also made loads of new friends.


Working side-by-side with Wes was the hilite of this project. I was pretty sure I’d find a way to be helpful but I was expecting to be mostly observing or participating. From almost the first day Wes has had me by his side, introducing me to the entire staff of the hospital and introducing me as: “This is Jason, he’s joining us here for a while,  his background is similar to mine in Nonviolent Communication and he’ll be offering you his own perspective on this material at various times during the class.” Wes held my ideas and intuitions with a great deal of respect and regard during the planning, execution, and debrief of our work.

Working at Mercy has given me my first insight into the challenges of sharing this material in a large organization as well as the great need for it. The Mercy project has also given me a huge range of experiences of health care professionals and the stresses and challenges they live with day to day and the way they suffer because they lack access to regular empathy and they lack the skills to be empathic to others.


There is so much more that could be done in this project. I’m taking a break at a time when the staff of the Emergency Department are increasingly concerned about their Safety and Security. The message of class II was – Safety through Connection – and although it was helpful it showed how much more was needed. Many staff expressed pain and frustration because they don’t trust they can protect themselves emotionally and protect their human dignity against the most challenging patient population. That means many of them work in constant anxiety or fear.

The project I am most excited to work on is the idea I call: Empathy Angels in the Trenches. Creating teams of volunteers trained in empathic listening to work in hospitals and other high-stress jobs offering listening to staff and others.

Mercy Project Financial Update

I’d like to share with everyone how my expenses have matched the projected budget we had.

Projected Budget

Here was our best guess about how much it would cost me to be part of the project back in Nov 2012:

Item Unit Cost / Time Time Total Cost
Travel to US $400
Travel to UK $400
Food / wk 50 16 $800
Fuel / wk 80 16 $1,280
Other Travel / month 100 4 $400
Phone / month 30 4 $120
Sundries $250
Clothes $250
Total: $3900        £2412        €2963

How much we’ve raised so far

As of April 4, 2013 the total received is $2,459, which is about 2/3 of the projected budget.

Update: as of April 10, the total is $3,190 or a little over 80% of what’s needed.

Expenses to Date

I’d like to take the time and share how well I have been able to live within the means of what was provided as well as how well the projected budget matched reality. First, here are the actual expenses I’ve had since leaving the UK:

One thing to point out is still running. We had orginally budgeted for 16 weeks, but by the time I leave the USA on April 26 I will have been here for a total of 20 weeks or 25% more than expected.

We overestimated the amount of driving that I would do each week, so fuel costs have been less than we budgeted, and I’ve been giving a lot of support with food, from free lunches at Mercy, community meals at Rhonda’s community, and dinners every weekend at my Mom’s. Also, I’ve lived simply and frugally (beans, rice, and tortillas go a loooong way when you supplement them with some organic chipotle salsa and fresh avocados 🙂

Other costs including clothing and sundries have been pretty much what we expected.

On the down side, we underestimated by a lot the cost of the return trip to the UK, so it will be double what we estimated ($900 instead of $400). Luckily because of a £200 voucher from British Airways, it brings this cost down to around $600. Also the cost of having a phone here in the US was more than twice what I thought it would be, and because I travel so much it has been a critical part of staying in touch with everyone.

So given that the length of stay is 25% longer than expected and that we’ve just about raised 65% of what we budgeted and that I’m happy and healthy, I think we’ve done an amazingly good job, don’t you?

What’s left?

I still have to support myself for the remaining three weeks in the US as well as purchase my plane ticket to the UK so I can complete my CNVC trainign over the next few months before returning and picking up things here.. Also, my two kids, Isa 20 and Adam 17, will come visit me for a week before I go.  Luckily I have an amazingly generous supporter who is willing to match any donations I get from others with an equal amount of his money up to $1000!! I have already matched $600 of the matching funds, so I can still get access to $400. This makes any donations you give twice as effective! As my supporter said: “I want other people to experience the fun of supporting this project – I don’t want my offer to donate to stop others from also donating and miss out on the experience.” So, now you can double your fun 🙂

Fear and Terrorism Overthrown in Iran

(This story was taken from Fifty-Two True Stories of Nonviolent Success, the War Resisters League 2002 Peace Calendar.)

For 25 years, from 1953 through 1978, the U.S.-installed Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, ruled with absolute power. The secret police, SAVAK, created a climate of fear as it tortured and killed dissidents.

Opposition leaders were forced into exile, but resistance grew through the 1960s. By 1977, religious leaders were fully involved in the resistance, and through their networks they wer able to distribute detailed instructions for boycotts, strikes, and other protests. The Ayatollah Khomeini led the nonviolent resistance from exile in Iraq.

In 1978, sparked by propaganda against the Ayatollah, public demonstrations spread throughout the country. Citizens were killed at every demonstration for a year, and more demonstrations followed funerals. Up to 60,000 resisters died during the revolutino, but bloodshed might have been limited had it not been for the ongoing influence of the United States. In September 1978, immediately following a demonstration at which 3,000 unarmed civilians were gunned down, then-President Jimmy Carter called the shah to offer his “full support.”

When Iran’s oil workers called a general strike and shut down the oil industry in December 1978, the Iranian economy came to a virtual halt. Within weeks the United States finally advised the Shah to leave the country. In reaction to the corruption of the Shah and Western influence, Ayatollah Khomeini turned to Islamic fundamentalism and ushered in an era of oppression with a different face. Still, the Iranian revolution offers a clear examply of how mass nonviolence succeeded in overthrowing a ruthless, well-organized government.