Bird excursion into my head

When I lived in the Netherlands, I loved to go on bird excursions. Every Thursday in April I would get up at 5:00, leave at 5:45, and bike to the dunes in The Hague. I would gather with 15 or so other bird watchers and then go off on a bird watching expedition.

Image courtesy to“Shush… I hear a nightingale.” Everyone freezes in their movement, attentively listening to what might be a nightingale. Or a lark, a robin, a tomtit. Whispering. Quiet. We don’t want to disturb the birds and spoil our fun. We are always equally excited, however mundane or unique the bird. Every bird seems a treat from heaven. And even if we see none, we enjoy the elevated anticipation.

Not once did I have the inclination to mediate between birds quarreling over their domain. Not once did I feel the urge to interfere on behalf of the bird that didn’t attract a mate. Not once did I step in to portion out the food more fairly.

I just watched, carefully observing their behavior, their colors, their sounds. I just had this sincere longing to get to know them.

This Monday during an empathy session I realize how differently I treat my own thoughts and feelings. I judge, evaluate, criticize them constantly, and most of all I want to change them. Into more acceptable thoughts and feelings. I talked about how my back pain had kept me up at night. I interrupted myself, saying I was babbling. I didn’t even notice the judgment in that word. My empathy buddy did. With a shock I see how harsh I can be about myself, thinking my thoughts and feelings are not good enough, thinking I am not good enough.

And all of a sudden I imagine how open, relaxed, compassionate, free flowing my life would be if I watch my own thoughts and feelings with the same openhearted curiosity as when I watch birds. “Oh, here is a flock of grackles. They are loud and chase the other birds away. Fascinating.” “Ah, there is a Caroline wren, her little tail pops up as she sits. So cute.” “Wow, there is a cardinal, I wonder where his mate is.” Accepting whatever comes along, or doesn’t come along.

All these thoughts and feelings flying in and out of my head. On a rainy day, a sunny day, through wind and hail. What a delightful image. I am happy to welcome and observe them.


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Small commitments, big successes

My new year’s commitment for 2015 is simple: when I’m getting angry, I am gonna put my hand on the spot in my body, where the anger sits, and just breathe into it. Nothing more. Just connecting to my anger and bringing awareness to it, if even for just a split second.

Last year I made a much bigger commitment, and failed at it at least 150 times, if not more: “When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger.”

At the end of 2014, looking back at all those failures, I realized I was practicing at PhD level. My mindfulness practice is not strong enough to prevent myself from slashing out when I am angry. I nurtured the habit energy of anger for such a long time, that I probably can’t stop myself when anger overwhelms me. The habit energy of my anger is like a tank, firmly grounded in the solid course of its pain and hurt. It might take a while to steer it in another direction.

So I decided to set myself up for success and commit to a practice I most likely can keep, and trust that just a little nudge of the rutter will change the course of my tank in a more wholesome direction.

Small commitments, big successes
Image courtesy to

I accept I am a toddler, wobbling on the path of mindfulness and compassion. Sure, I mastered standing up. And sure, my goodness, am I excited to walk and get somewhere. And yet, I fall all the time. I am not ready to run with the elite. Let me first learn how to walk with a stroller. And then, maybe, without. And then maybe, go a little longer, Till I can run as fast and far as I want.

But now, start where I am. Right here. Right now.

Put my hand on my body where the painful feeling arises. Breathe into it. Embrace it with compassion and acceptance. Speak to it: “Hi precious anger, I now you’re there. I’m just as angry as you are. I’m just as scared and confused. I don’t know how to help you yet, but I’ll stay with you. I won’t leave you alone, I’ll hang in here and hold your hand.”

That’s my commitment for 2015. What’s yours?


Want help making a commitment that leads to big successes? Contact me 512-589-0482. I would be honored to help.

Buddha of suffering

“If when I die, the moment I’m dying, if I suffer that is all right, you know; that is suffering Buddha. No confusion in it. Maybe everyone will struggle because of the physical agony or spiritual agony, too. But that is all right, that is not a problem.” Shunrya Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Image courtesy to Robert Boni: Shunryu SuzukiBuddha of suffering.

I feel so relieved when I read this quote. There are just many Buddha’s, not just the peaceful one. Buddha of confusion. Buddha of stuckness. Buddha of anger and fear.

Being on a path of mindfulness and compassion doesn’t mean that we feel happy, peaceful, and open all the time. Even Thich Nhat Hanh writes about moments of anger and sadness in his life. Being on a path of mindfulness and compassion just means that: being mindful and compassionate of all that arises. Our sadness, our fear, our anger, our jealousy, our depression. Embracing all feelings with love and care, no discrimination. Using our experiences to really understand what it means to be a human being. “Oh, this is what anger looks like. This is how it feels in my body. These are the thoughts that come with it. These are the impulses that grab me.”

Usually we aren’t in this space of openness. We have an aversion to our unpleasant feelings. We want them to go away, and we will go to great lengths to get rid of them, yelling, slashing out, blaming included. Or, we have an attachment to our pleasant feelings. We want to be happy, peaceful, calm all the time, and we hate it when these feelings disappear. Or, we are deluded and ignorant of what’s going on inside us. We zap our time away, drink, drug, sugar coat our experience, or lose ourselves in mindless reading, talking, gaming, watching television.

Aversion, attachment, delusion, the three causes of suffering according to Buddhism.

The less we can stand our feelings, the less able we are to connect with people and situations with openness. Instead of being penetrated by our feelings, and standing our discomfort, we look for a scapegoat, someone we can blame for our suffering. We want to make them wrong, hoping this will make our experience better. We are unable to observe clearly and truthfully, and start creating enemy images in our head.

If we want to connect to the reality of life, we better learn how to accept our feelings. Then we can separate our pain and suffering from the trigger, and look deeply into the causes of our suffering. We might have wrongful thinking. We might carry emotional trauma. We might have unmet needs. When we stand our feelings, we can see the causes of our suffering, and we can connect to the beautiful, precious, universal needs underneath our feelings. Then, and only then, can we make requests that enriches all life.


You want help to stand your feelings and connect more openly to life? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary discovery session.

VegaNVC 3/3

Now that I’ve publicly declared I am committed to go vegan, I am noticing anxiety coming up. Thinking of my upcoming travels to family and friends in the Netherlands, and not eating slices of bread with Gouda cheese. Not eating pancakes with Jeroen, poffertjes with my mom. Not sneaking out of bed and eating ontbijtkoek with butter. Not now. Not ever.

All those moments of connection are history. And not only that, the easy strategies to comfort myself, when my social anxiety, shame, loneliness, confusion, and sadness come up, are history. No more stuffing myself up, so there is no space for them.

Image courtesy to merrillohana.blogspot.com100% Veganism requires me to be more conscious of what and how I’m eating, if I ever want my food choices to bring more compassion and mindfulness into this world. That includes animals. All the workers who brought this food to my table. Do the laborers get decently paid? Do the chauffeurs get enough breaks during their drive? Does the store treat it’s employees with respect? And myself. Am I willing to compassionately embrace all the shitty feelings that hit me once in a while?


Rather not!

Rather I feel happy, clear, energized, calm, self-confident, than all the unpleasantry of feeling shame, upset, loneliness, confusion, you know the drill. And if I have to feel these feelings, because they are too loud to be ignored, I rather eat. Eating is such a perfect strategy to silence these feelings. Whether it is sweets, cheese, chips.

I practice five minutes of mindful eating each morning. I recite the five contemplations as offered by Thich Nhat Hanh, I thank G*d for my enoughness, and I chew consciously. Only recently have I started to bring awareness to how my food lands. And I notice how often I continue eating, even though I am full. I want to eat for the full five minutes. I want to finish my breakfast. I like the taste. And most importantly, I like having a bloated belly. Not the look of it, but the feel of being stuffed. Not feeling too much discomfort, but forcing myself to chunk along. The last two weeks I stop, as soon as I notice that feeling. And I realize how overeating is an easy strategy to silence my uncomfortable, unpleasant feelings. Or at least, stuff them. Just like we do with our animal properties. Stuff them.

Maybe my veganism is actually about deepening awareness. Expanding my willingness to embrace all of my experience. And thàt is something I’m willing to say ‘yes’ to.


You want help to embrace all of your experience? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary discovery session.

From blame and criticism to self-connection and understanding

Everything always starts with connection.

Image courtesy to David Nayer
Image courtesy to David Nayer

Well, maybe not always. Maybe not even so very often. Maybe, just maybe, hardly ever. Maybe, we usually start with a judgment, a counterattack, a criticism. We hear a message and something in us gets triggered. The message doesn’t even have to be a difficult one, it can be a neutral one, or even a positive one. Instead of listening, wanting to connect, trying to understand, we stand ready with our well-trained battalion of jackal thoughts.

“Michelle is offering a free intro Nonviolent Communication at church.”

Just that one sentence, and off you go. ‘She is an idiot. She has no clue what Nonviolent Communication is about, she has only be teaching it for half a year, she didn’t even study with Marshall Rosenberg himself, she just took some classes with Peter, who is an idiot too. Why didn’t they ask me? I have facilitated classes for more than three years, participated in all kinds of programs with renowned trainers X, Y, and Z, etc., etc.’

An endless stream of angry, blaming thoughts.

Oops. No connection there. Just disconnect through labels, judgments, criticisms. Doesn’t sound very NVC, does it?

And yet, these thoughts contain an immense richness, a whole world of inner experience, a wealth of feelings and needs if we would just empathize with them.

Maybe you feel hurt, you want acknowledgment and appreciation for the value you add. Maybe you feel frustrated, because you care about the integrity with which Nonviolent Communication is taught. Maybe you feel scared, because you want people to really get the support they need. Maybe you feel sad, because you were hoping for more collaboration and inclusion. Maybe you feel lonely, because you want more connection and acceptance.

Behind these jackal ears outward is world of beautiful, precious, human, universal, and timeless needs. And that is the basis for connection.


You want help to translate your jackal ears outward into feelings and needs? Contact me for a complimentary, discovery session 512-589-0482. I would be delighted to talk with you and see if and how I can help.

A glimpse of my true nature

The kids want someone else to babysit them tonight. Not forever, just this once. “She’s more fun, because she plays games with us.” Ouch. Well, honestly: ouch, ouch, ouch. I’ve been with them for so long. I try so hard to support everyone’s needs. I care about them. And I want acceptance and appreciation for all of that.

It hurts. It just hurts.

I think of my ex-husband. I told him five years ago that I wanted to leave him for someone else. We had been together for 14 years. He had supported me through some of the most difficult periods of my life. He was unconditional in his acceptance, always supportive, and deeply loving. I can only imagine how devastated he might have felt when I told him,  “I’m leaving. I found someone more fun to be with.”

And yet, he has never stopped accepting me, supporting me and my choices, and, I think, loving me. I experience him as the epitome of unconditional, selfless love.

Image courtesy to
Image courtesy to

And now, as I feel this  hurt, I feel some of that too. I do feel the pain of what I perceive as rejection, ànd I also feel a love that is way bigger than me. It is a love that is personal and non-personal at the same time. It is love for for the kids, love for myself. It is a quality of love with no object, no subject. It has nothing to do with what’s done, what’s said. It’s not even about who is. It is love for love’s sake. It is not my love, it is a love that is universal and timeless. It flows through me, it touches me, the only ‘I’ in this love is that I’m the vessel for it.

I feel relieved. Apparently I can feel unconditional love, at the same time that I feel pain, loneliness, sadness.

This must be my true nature. Some call it basic goodness. Some call it the Christ-essence. I call it Love.


You want help to touch your own true nature? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary, discovery session to see if and how I can help.


A holy journey into my fear

I get in my car to drive off for my salary negotiation. I feel anxious. A deep fear comes up that I have to face I’m not that important, that I don’t matter that much, that I won’t be heard.

I stop.

Image courtesy to
Image courtesy to

I do a quick self-connection practice. Breath. Physical sensations. Feelings. I relax. What, if I view this conversation as a holy practice of loving speech and deep listening. What, if I see this as an invitation to meet my inner demons? What, if I use this as a journey into my fear of conflict, disconnection, and not mattering, like my tree climb was a journey into my fear of heights? What, if I commit myself to stop, breath, and connect to myself as soon as fear arises? And trust that our connection offers support, so I won’t fall? Imagine that my friends are here to be my belay to catch me if I do fall, so I won’t hurt myself?

I relax. A peace comes over me. I can do that. It’s not about a salary raise, it’s about the practice of sharing honestly what’s alive in me, what I want, and hearing deeply what’s alive in them, what they want.

And about using every sign of anxiety, fear, discomfort, as an invitation to connect. To myself. To take good care of my fear. To own it, and be responsible for it.

I walk into the conversation with an open heart and a clear mind.

I walk out of the conversation with pride and appreciation. For all the times I shared honestly from my heart, vulnerably. For all the times I caught myself being scared and stopped talking, breathing into my fear and letting it be. For all the times I listened to really get what my employers are saying. For all the times I captured their message and reflected it back. For the level of integrity and courage I showed to myself.

I leave my employers with appreciation and gratitude. For all the times they expressed themselves directly. For all the times they listened. For the offer they made.

And the salary? That is just a strategy to support our needs for contribution and to be seen for our contribution. We can work that out. Easily.


You want help to negotiate? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary, discovery session to see if and how I can help.

Can advice be true empathy?

Something is jammed in my neck. It is stiff and painful. I can turn it -carefully- to the left and right. I can bend it forward. I can hardly bend it backward. Drinking my tea is a challenge.

Image courtesy to Flickr
Image courtesy to Flickr

I tell my husband about it. He immediately comes up with advice: take a ten minutes very hot shower, roll your back, let me give you an ortho bionomy  treatment.

I love it. I love all his advice and faithfully follow up on all his suggestions.

Sometimes advice is much better than just empathy.

Marshall Rosenberg defines empathy as the ‘respectful understanding of what others are experiencing’. It is the slowing down to really get what it’s like to be the other person, to see their world through their eyes, to imagine walking in their shoes.

My husband could have responded with guessing my feelings and needs, our usual form of empathy. ‘I hear you’re in pain. Are you confused what happened? Are you worried about your neck? Are you scared you have a herniated disk and your insurance won’t pay for treatment? You want health, reassurance, physical safety?’ What if he had walked away, after I affirmed that he got it?

I would have felt sad, lonely, confused, maybe even frustrated that I didn’t get the support I so desperately wanted.

For me, true empathy always leads to the opening of the heart and a natural longing to relieve suffering and to contribute to life. For me, true empathy is not only guessing feelings and needs, it is also guessing the implicit, unspoken request hidden in what’s being shared. For me, true empathy leads to an openhearted curiosity to figure out how to support the other person’s needs and honoring your own. My husband got that without many words. He acted on it right away with his advice and offer for treatment.

Sometimes, advice is the natural result of true empathy. And more than welcome.

Thank you, David, my neck is much better and my trust that I can heal much increased.


You want help to empathize with implicit requests? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary, discovery session to see if and how I can help.


Empathy for unsollicited advice

You struggle with your co-worker. You feel frustrated and upset and you want more collaboration, understanding and support. You’re looking forward to talk about it with your friend. Alas. As soon as you start talking about the situation, she responds with advice. “You should sit down with him and tell him what’s going on for you and what you want from him. If that doesn’t help, you should go to your boss and let him intervene.”

You’re noticing you’re getting triggered. Something doesn’t work for you. You don’t want advice, you want understanding for your struggles, acceptance of your experience, and trust that you have the inner wisdom to navigate the situation with care and compassion. Maybe even some encouragement ‘You can do it!’. Or hope that the situation can and will be resolved.

You’re about to tell her that her advice didn’t work, when you remember ‘Empathy first’. You have heard yourself say that só often, and now -when it would be really helpful- you almost forgot. ‘Empathy helps. It always does.’

So instead of expressing your frustration, you start guessing her feelings and needs. “Are you sad, because you want me to do well at work?” “YES!” “Are you hoping that your suggestion will help me to move through this situation with grace and resolution?” “YES!” “You just want to support me and see me happy?” “YES!” A sigh of relief… A pause… Then she starts talking. How hard it is for her to see her friends being stuck. How this reminds her of her childhood, when she was expected to resolve situations she was unable to resolve. How scared and powerless she felt.

Image courtesy to FlickrAnd you listen… Just listen… You give her space to share her pain when other people are struggling. And your frustration dissipates. Instead of judging your friend of doing something wrong, you now see a human being who wants support and understanding. Just like you. And in this space of compassion, all you want is connection. From one human heart to another.


You want help to empathize with advice? Contact me 512-589-0482 to schedule a complimentary, discovery session to see if and how I can help.

Mediating conflict with empathy, 2

Image courtesy to freedesignfile.comSo I here I am at Hoppin House trying to figure out how to talk with the parents of the kid, who apparently said “f… you” and support Maya’s needs for safety and respect, my need for acceptance and safety, and the parents’ and kid’s needs, probably for safety, acceptance and respect too. I am not looking forward to the conversation and need some self-connection first.

I breath in and out.

I remember Thich Nhat Hanh‘s advice to ask for help when you’re upset.

That I can do.

I walk up to the table. “Hi, I am Elly and I need your help. My girl…” I interrupt myself. The kid shows up. Maybe just five years old. I want to be transparent and support his sense of emotional safety. I don’t want to talk about him as if he were not here. I look him in the eyes and say gently “Hi, I’m Elly, what’s your name?” “AJ” “My girl is upset, because she heard you say ‘fuck off’.” “I didn’t say that! I didn’t say that! I didn’t say that! I didn’t say that!”, he yells. I see him fidgeting with his fingers, fumbling his shirt. I hear his mom tell him to apologize, and I remember “Empathy first.”

“Are you scared you will get into trouble with your mom?” He looks down, nodding ‘yes’. “Are you scared you will be punished?” Wildly nodding ‘yes’. “Do you want your mom to love you, no matter what you do?” His head still hanging down, nodding ‘yes’. “Maybe you want to walk over to your mom, and hear her say that she loves you?” Nodding ‘yes’, more quietly. He walks over to his mom, she looks at him, with some sweetness in her eyes. She seems to be telling him non-verbally ‘It’s okay, I’m not mad. Let’s work this out.’ I take a break. “Do you want your mom and me to know that you want to play in a way that works for everyone?” ‘Yes’ “Do you want me to go over to my girl and tell her that?” ‘Yes’ “Do you want to hear that I am not angry with you, and that I rather be friends with you?” ‘Yes’ “Can you look me in the face, and see I’m not angry?” He finally looks up, still a little scared, just a little puppy. He has a faint smile on his face. I touch his shoulders “Thank you!” He seems relieved as he runs off to play again.

When we leave an hour later, I say goodbye to a table full of smiling faces.


Do you want help to resolve conflicts in a way that creates connection? Contact me 512-589-0482. I would be honored to help.