Just breathe


In the journey of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Hema Pokharna, a US-based Jain practitioner, has experimented with its various facets. In a candid chat with Shammi Nanda, she explains how Jainism supports her in connecting with NVC and how the learning of NVC reinforces her connection with Jainism. She is also the person who brought Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of NVC to India for the first time.

H I will start by explaining what attracted me to Nonviolent Communication. Upon completion of the Ph.D. programme, I received a postdoctoral fellowship at Case Western Reserve University. Then I had a certain lighthearted attitude towards life and research. I was to work on a research hypothesis which I had designed as a graduate student. With good fortune, I was in a position to collaborate with a skillful biochemist and an excellent researcher, whose guidance I very much wanted, yet, in one of our discussions he was so frustrated that he said, “Are you sure you have a Ph.D, you don’t seem to be bright”. I felt very sad and scared because I was considered to be a good scientist and productive researcher, so far. My identity was in jeopardy. In that moment I considered myself a failure since he was a very renowned scientist; his words were the truth to me. This was a very painful experience. After spending three hours of crying and breathing, I returned to his office renewed with compassion and said, “Can I spend a few moments in your luminous presence so that I can brighten myself?” By then I think he was aware of what had happened and was very kind to me ever after.

Particularly rewarding at this time was the reminder to breathe. At this point I found and understood that the best antidote to any violence was to breathe. This has been one of the most exciting and major turning points in my development. Towards the end of the fellowship we had published three papers together. And my continued association with him has meant a great deal to me. After that day, my “Ph.D” stood for “Psychologically healthy and Delightful”. In those three hours of breathing, I was aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and inability to listen to others. I affirmed my own convictions to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to my fellow beings and relieve them of their sufferings if possible. After understanding that words can create happiness or suffering I am now much more conscious to learn ways to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. The principle of nonviolence had a newer and much deeper meaning.

As a biochemist, the words the professor said had a physiological effect on me. I sensed a disturbance inside me at mental, spiritual and emotional levels and also stimulate fear and anger. I got very curious of the impact of words on our wellbeing. I was already introduced to NVC in the course on Alternative to Violence which I was enrolled in at the University of Akron. After this incident I was fortunate to meet NVC advocate Marshall Rosenberg, who would come to Cleveland frequently then. I also enrolled at the Gestalt Institution of Cleveland and Focusing Institution to deepen my understanding of violence caused by words, and how psychology used words and verbal therapies for healing.

For personal growth I found NVC very valuable, and in the exchange of empathy I found myself feeling internally very peaceful, learnt to be able to focus on the present moment and that led to me gradually becoming less fearful of life, people and places and specially being alone in the USA. I enjoyed being with people different than me. I learned to truly connect with them and understand what mattered most to them. It was magical to maintain connection and compassion in spite of people being diagonally different than me in their beliefs and practices. This led to more curiosity of the magic of empathy and the growing fearlessness of conflicts. The more my sister and I studied with Marshall, the more we got clear about the HOW TO of being Jain. We understood what was prescribed that Jain is one who refrains from Rag (likes) and Dwesh (dislikes or aversion), and NVC gave us tools and practices to actively navigate through our reactions and good and bad thinking, and right and wrongness of actions and behaviours. We became clear that by using NVC we were not in agreement, but we got deeper in understanding the principles of Anekantwad (relativity of viewpoints) and how not accepting of people’s viewpoints was violence, and deepened our clarity of the Jain Motto ‘Live and Let Live’.

Jainism’s precepts v/s NVC
I am not sure how different each is from the other. Ahimsa according to Jainism is to stay in your svabhav or atma in any situation. And what is expected is IF you are in that place then you will respond to life and circumstances versus REACT. So NVC gives the mechanics of how you make sense of what it means to be in your atma or divinity. For me what that translated into was when I am in values/needs focus or awareness I am in svabhav and or at least oriented towards svabhav and my chances of reacting out of fear, shame or guilt are much less. Of course, this has taken years of practice, given our reactions are very habitual and NVC takes practice and much heightened awareness.

The process of self empathy is crucial in being able to be compassionate to the world around, so as practice NVC becomes very powerful to arrive closer to what Mahavir, Gandhi and Jesus spoke about practical nonviolence. NVC has made my Jainsim practice richer. The ‘pravachans’ or religious discourse I have been listening to for a long time, I can’t hear anything but the NVC and vice versa. I can hear the principles and commitments aligned to the goal of connection, and integrated existence or interdependence.

Bringing Marshall to India
We visited India once a year for 3-4 weeks, and friends and family were always curious how we maintained our Jain values so much more closely than the local Jains. They praised our shanti and lovely, caring ways, and were curious about what we ate, and we would get to sharing NVC, and with time, friends arranged small gatherings where we shared the basics of NVC etc. Then I was invited to serve on the board of Parliament of World Religions, and because of that I got to meet many religious leaders from different religions, which led to invitations to their organisations and schools etc., to share NVC.

We always came back excited and rejuvenated to share the growing hunger for NVC in India, which led to conversations with Marshall and his willingness to bring NVC to India and Asia. In partnership with Fr Chris, who is an NVC trainer from Sri Lanka and has been committed to make NVC accessible to the people in Sri Lanka, my sister and I organised the first NVC convention in Bangalore in 2004, which was very well attended and people wanted it to happen again. In the meantime my friends in Pune where I am originally from got really excited and were eager to support my passion and dream to bring Marshall to Pune, my home town. My oldest brother still lived in Pune then and so the excitement to bring Marshall to our home where we grew was very exciting. So in 2006 we organised the second NVC convention in Pune.

My dad was a freedom fighter and he had friends in India who adored him for the nonviolent life he led, and how he raised his seven kids and educated them, despite my mother’s very early demise. One of the freedom fighters and industrialist N.K. Firodiya and his son Abhay Kumar Firodiya (of Kinetic Honda), owned a beautiful resort for corporate trainings, and were willing and enthusiastic to support bringing Marshall to Pune and train 100 people in their facility at no charge, as a gift for my passion and a YES to my request. Other friends stepped in and shared their vehicles to pick people from the airport and train stations etc., and bring them to the resort, which was a bit remote from downtown Pune.

My dream was to make this accessible to anyone who could attend and wished to be in Marshall’s presence and also make it sustainable and an ongoing process. People who were touched by our skills and compassion were eager to meet and learn from Marshall, and were willing to hold the Pune end of organising the event. Many favourable factors got aligned, sponsors to host and people eager to attend. Also, Jains in general contribute to the upliftment of people through spiritual and nonviolence trainings etc. Not necessarily religions alone, so that was a good fortune.

NVC – the American experience
In the US I find a lot of people, who are committed to nonviolence, and they are more Jain and more nonviolent than me…..I really appreciate all the books on spirituality, nonviolence and so much more that promote and advocate nonviolent living. So I find it very exciting to be in the US and live my values and be celebrated for them. It is much appreciated by those who don’t have that depth and breath of what NV or NVC is about. But in the last few years, my NVC practice group of 21 years is flourishing, and people from all walks of life take advantage of the free and open class, which happens every Monday.

A few years ago, the challenge was not getting enough vegetarian food, but that is changing very rapidly. Now that we are on a Jain diet (no onions and potatoes and other root vegetables, honey, spinach etc.,) it’s harder to find Jain food, so we are committed to eat mostly home cooked food and not eat outside. Other than that, I think life has been wonderful where ever we go….India or USA. And having giraffe ears makes a wonder of a difference, every step of the way.

I love everything about America as much as I enjoy India, especially the people and places I hang out and associate with. I think being a minority has allowed me to deepen my learning and align to my values. Not that life is easy. We have challenges every step of the way….what’s exciting is we come out of it stronger and bolder.


Hema Pokharna

Hema Pokharna, PhD, is a scientist, writer, speaker NVC certified trainer with more than 20 years experience coaching clients toward wholeness, collaborative communication, and resilient leadership. Hema is also an interfaith peacemaker and mediator, and has served on the board of Parliament of World Religions. Together with her physician sister Mandakini, also NVC certified trainer, inspire and educate people around the world to make healthy, harmonious life choices.