Susan Kaplan

Peace Wrestling Builds Non-Violence Muscles!

by Susan Kaplan, M.S.W., M.P.A.

Walking across the basketball court toward a man I had never known, I was nervous about meeting my cousin Rabbi David Kaplan. We met by coincidence at the same conference set up a quick time to meet between the afternoon sessions. Memories flooded by mind. Told over the dinner table, I heard story after story about how my father, Al, had been wronged by this brother, Irving. My heart was layered with conflicting and intense emotions. Over the years, my extended family had taken sides, creating a constant flow of anger, hurt, and patterns of verbal & emotional violence for more than 25 years.

What should I do with these stories? If I don't honor them, will I devalue my dad's life experiences?

Could I trust my cousin? This bag of stories was so heavy on my heart. As I walked toward my cousin, I realized I had to decide to either carry the stories with me and essentially color my experiences with David today or I could set them aside in an effort to give him and our relationship a chance. Family stories, as with all of the stories we carry, can be so powerful that we don't even question them — they are our reality and truth which blocks rather than builds our experiences. I was curious about who he was — a man I never saw at our large family gatherings. This was an opportunity for me to "step out of my family story."

After our brief hug, we both mentioned our conscious decision to put our fathers' stories down and leave them behind us. Laughing with surprise, we realized that we both had the same experience growing up, although it was the same story from a different perspective. When you can "step out of your story,” you form a new relationship to those experiences, use what you have learned, and are no longer stuck. This is peace wrestling — changing the meaning of the story or stories to move forward toward greater non-violence in our life. David and I formed a new relationship, which later rippled into our extended family, welcoming his whole family back into the family circle. Although our fathers never reached a place of peace within
themselves or with each other, David and I were able to do what others could not.

What is in Your Story Bag?

Metaphorically, our story bags hold stories which can move us forward or keep us stuck. Learn how to let go of the negative energy in your stories, and you can create new meaning and direction with those experiences. Non-violence includes the building of a new type of relationship with yourself or others, kindness & compassion, forgiveness, deep listening, active problem solving and conscious decisions to use your new energy toward new goals & dreams. Often though we imprison ourselves and our relationships with patterns of violence, including bitterness, hurt, anger, revenge, silence and being emotionally unavailable to someone, name calling, gossip, addictions, and the list goes on and on. Challenge yourself to hear what stories you carry in your story bag and "step out of those stories." Just as Jacob wrestled with the angels, so we each must wrestle with and find meaning in for our lives.

Peace Wrestling as a Daily Practice

Peace and non-violence can be experienced on many levels. A peace wrestler uses great courage to ask questions and live with more questions than answers. This is an ever unfolding journey, as peace is both a process and a goal. Although peace wrestling is an unique process for each individual, there are steps which help us build habits of non-violence. These activities include: deep listening; change in perception; deepening of our connectedness to ourself, others and the earth; building blocks of vision, values and skills; and, a daily practice.

Deep Listening to Self and Others

What is non-violence and how does it show up in our inner and outer daily life? The first step is deep listening with no judgments. In my private practice, Balance and Harmony, I often hear individuals express discouragement by saying "This is too overwhelming because there is so much I'm not doing. I can't be a monk!" My work always begins with the suggestion of finding one's strengths, gifts and needs. We all carry a "tool chest" — full of our unique collection of skills, gifts, history and strengths. Use this exercise of listening to yourself and others and discover what your strengths are!

Sit on your shoulder and watch yourself. Do not judge, but rather observe and use empathy. What do you hear yourself say & feel on both the inside and outside? What do you actually do — not what you think you do — but what you actually do? How do you move through your day? How and when do you feel a deep sense of connectedness?

Finding Your Gifts

Jack, a middle aged man, struggling with a deep incongruence of what he wanted in his life verses the stark reality of still not being in a committed relationship. His constant self talk of what he was not doing and his constant dialogue about what he was never going to have kept him spinning in circles. After spending a week of watching himself and listening — he began to hear new things. Although it was difficult to stop judging himself so harshly, he found that he was good at forming and maintaining friendships, had a need to share his emotions with friends more, and liked a balance between having fun and being serious. With this new information, he now had new energy to create a more positive direction and began to spend time with some new friends who supported him in his needs.

What does Violence look like?

Below are some examples of the faces of violence. Often we are not aware that particular behaviors are violent and our blind spots are hard to see.

verbal: hitting with hurtful words; name calling; sarcasm; discounting; criticism; hurtful angry patterns of screaming or stone silence; talking behind someone's back; gossip; our own negative or destructive self talk.

emotional: discouragement; always focus on negatives; equate mistakes to being a bad person; non-acceptance; not allowing healthy expression of emotions or a range of emotions; denial of feelings; judging with a label (since you have A.D.D. you will never amount to much); blaming; laughing at instead of laughing with.

physical: punishment instead of discipline; shaking; pinching; holding down; spanking; hitting; using objects to hit or scare someone; denying food; lack of self care, nutrition and sleep; addictions; pushing yourself to extremes; rough touch; destroying things as a means to release anger — breaking a plate, fist in a door, etc; over-exercise; holding stress.

sexual: inappropriate sexual touch, activity not age appropriate, such as exposure to sexual images; incest; rape; expectations to look like the beauty images in the magazines and not honoring our own sensuality and body image.

spiritual: a lack of connectedness within home; growing up too fast & inappropriate adult responsibilities for a child; materialism; life style which disconnects from self, others and the earth; overindulgence; denying a grief process; too busy of a life or over scheduled; isolation from others; mistake glamour for beauty; not offering help when you have either the knowledge or resources to help someone in need.

In addition, we must be sensitive to cultural differences and develop an understanding of how culture influences our perception of violence. For example, growing up in an interfaith family, I saw that my mother, with her Southern Baptist background, experienced my father's Jewish family as being loud, intrusive and blunt as an personal assault. Sometimes they were violent in how they talked and acted, but they were also just a more expressive, honest and open culture.

Magical Curiosity

Develop meaningful questions as you listen deeply. Our fears, judgments, and expectations often block our listening to our self and others. Ask open ended questions, such as:

What do I want to "keep or let go of" from my personal, family, religious or spiritual, cultural or racial history?

What stories do I need to "Step out of?"

What have I learned from my experiences that I could do differently rather than what was done to me?

What do I have in common with others?

What are my special strengths?

What are the special gifts in others that I might not be noticing?

What do I need?

What does the other person need?

If I need something different, what can I do?

What do I gain from being so angry? What do I lose from being so angry?

What part of your story do you own — that is your responsibility? How can you move forward to change the situation with positive choices for everyone?

Continue with your own list of questions. Often the questions we ask ourselves lead us toward violence or non-violence.

Change in Perspective

Listening opens our heart and mind. When we begin to change our perspective we can release negative energy and behavior and discover valuable renewed energy and power to make meaningful changes in our life.

Anna was a parent torn between the values of her two "worlds" — her cultural traditions from Argentina and the modern popular culture of the United States and her role as a professional working mother. Angry exchanges with her parents, often left her feeling confused and never meeting anyone's expectations. Then she stepped out of her battle and explored the different gifts in each of her "worlds." Anna began to see some possible bridges between her two worlds. Anger is always the second emotion, and she had never looked underneath to understand what the needs were under her and her parents’ anger. She identified feelings of love, respect, independence, protection and fear. She was able to release her own anger and now listen more deeply to others and her self. She developed a strategy on where she wanted to maintain her cultural ties within her life and how she wanted to talk to her parents about her modern stresses and joys. Anna created a rich dialogue with her parents and a renewed relationship. The conflicts did not completely go away, but the patterns of intense anger and hurtful conversations did.

Sense of Connectedness

Liz Loescher, the founder of The Conflict Center in Denver, coined the phrase, "build the relationship and solve the problem to create a win-win solution.” What is more important to you — to build and nurture relationships or to solve the problems & move on? We need a balance of both of these aspects.

The real question is not which is the right way, but rather, how can we move forward together so that we can both "win"? Too often violence erupts when we take sides, demand perfection, use power over instead of power with, and try to change the other person.

During a stress workshop for a non-profit child care center, Amy realized that she created problems when she randomly took mental health days off. Hurt, anger, vicious gossip and revenge were often the result of when she was just trying to take care of herself. Through a group problem-solving session, the group identified how difficult the situation was and the violence that resulted. As an individual, Amy was not good at setting limits and taking care of herself, which led to exhaustion and not being a predictable team member.

The teachers acknowledged that they did not know how to talk to her directly and instead complained, gossiped and planned how not to help Amy as a get-back. The center was reminded that the daily stresses and lack of adequate staff were common reasons why they lost good teachers.

With a respectful listening process, skill building and a commitment to work together, the whole center began to change their relationships! Now the center gives all teachers planned mental health days off and has a small list of substitute teachers. The teachers learned how to express their needs to each other with non-violent communication techniques and how to ask for support from each other. Amy is learning how to take mini-breaks during the day and to let go of things so that she is not stocking-piling burdens. A win-win on all levels!

An Holistic Model for Balance and Harmony

You can nurture non-violence in many areas and in depth within those levels. Over the years I have developed and use a holistic model, integrating body, mind, heart and soul. Each person integrates these levels internally and integrates these levels in their relationships with others. These levels are like the legs of a table. In order to create balance and harmony, each leg needs to equal the other legs to make a solid foundation. When one leg is shorter, then the table wobbles. We all wobble at times in our lives and in our relationships. Some individuals or families have longer legs than others because they have not had the resources, time or awareness to develop each level. These four levels form a strong foundation for peace and non-violence.

Briefly this is what each level symbolizes:

body — your actions and how you bring your values into the world; how you treat your body, how you move through space and set up your physical surroundings, how you physically relate to others

Respect for how each person wants to be touched; appropriate care of self & others; respectful sexual touch; talk with gentle soft eyes; calm voice; match non-verbal behavior with verbal words; set up and maintain living space to foster a sense of calmness and peace; self care; tie your values to your daily actions; develop a peaceful rhythm for your daily routine (i.e. avoid rushing culture); eat together as a family or with friends and slow down as you eat.

mind — your thinking process; opinions; details; rational and left brain; cultural and personal history; need for stimulation; learning; and our strategies and way we approach life; communication.

Love your child and help guide behavior; positive discpline; positive self talk; dialogue instead of lectures; mindful listen instead of talking; acceptance and tolerance; kind use of words; set reasonable limits; balance stimulation with reflection; disengage from information addiction; enjoy learning; forgiveness; creative problem solving; develop strategies which reflect the values of non-violence; honoring the details and process.

heart — expression of emotions; development of passions; right brain and creativity; healthy expression of a range of emotions; intuition; playfulness, love, and joy.

Cooperation; patience toward self and others; practice of compassion; healthy expression and receiving of a range of emotions; listening for what is under someone's words; playfulness; celebrate everyone's personality; sharing of joy and love; sharing of passions; creative outlets developed; honoring the whole picture and the love of what you are doing; inspire yourself and others everyday.

soul — sense of connectedness to something greater than self, i.e. G-d, Jesus, Buddha, nature, etc.; awe and sacredness; religious or spiritual; sense of hope; dance and singing.

Support what each person is becoming, including yourself; develop sense of connectedness with self, others, and what ever you are connected to spiritually through rituals and traditions; honor sacred moments; dance and sing!; plan rites of passage; pray; practice gratitude; linger and just be; enjoy nature on many levels.

As we develop each of these levels, we gain a depth in our own lives. Balancing these levels also help form a solid foundation to create peace. This process is ever changing as we grow personally, move through the developmental stages of our children and as parents, and our life stages bring us new opportunities. Within your life, how do each of these levels reveal non-violence? How does non-violence show up in your family, neighborhood, communities, or work place?

A singe parent asked for help because his family was almost destroyed by layers of violent anger. Ernie and his son were close to fist fights and there was constant put downs and yelling. Instead of screaming during difficult conversations, the father learned how to release his anger by playing basketball before his talk and then to walk & talk as they discussed their conflict. By choosing his words carefully, he found that he could actually invite his son into problem solving by dropping his accusations of "You always do..." and replacing it with sharing his own feelings and needs. This then opened up their ability to share other emotions than just anger. They nurtured the soul of their relationship by developing new connections to each other. They both loved music and decided to learn about each other's music. In working through all four levels, the whole atmosphere of the family moved from a fragmented and hurtful home to a growing trust and rebuilding of their relationship.

Building Blocks of Skills, Values and Vision

Our vision sits upon values, dreams, skills and desire. First you must clarify what values are important to you. How do these values look when you give them life? Do your actions bring your values alive or are your actions not connected to your values? How we use our present skills is important. Equally, what non-violent skills do you need to sharpen or learn? The following questions can be helpful in identifying how to create your vision:

Name four important values in your personal and professional life.

List how your non-violent skills and how you bring those into your daily life.

When your children leave home to become adults, what values of non-violence will they carry in their suitcase?

What type of supports do you need to bring your values alive?

Does your vision reflect any of your family, cultural or spiritual history?

Are your values alive on all levels of your life?

Do your skills reflect your values and vision?

Sometimes we say we want peace in the world, but forget to develop peace in our own intimate relationships. On the other hand, I have meet people who are very disconnected from other people in the world, but are very kind and loving in their daily interactions. Use your vision to develop a congruence within your daily life.

Create a Daily Practice

Just like any physical discipline or passion (yoga, pilates, sports, music, cooking, art, writing) the more you practice the more you succeed in reaching your goals. Research has shown that in order to change a habit, you need to practice the new behavior for 21 consecutive days. Be realistic and choose one specific skill or area you want to develop. Form small, achievable steps of how to practice that skill each day. Avoid trying to change too many areas at once. For example, if you are coming home exhausted and want to figure how to be avoid being angry with your family — consider the options:

walk around the block before you walk into the house

lessen distractions, like phone calls, when you get home

take a quick hot shower upon coming home

call a friend

sit outside to talk with family members

change your clothes

Develop a positive vision of what you want. In this example, it might be "I want to release and let go of any negative energy from my work ". Pick the best idea you are willing to try, i.e. change clothes when you get home. Then do it. Practice it. Check in to see if you are pleased with what has happened. Celebrate your progress! Do you want to change anything or add something else? Are there any supports you might need?

Is there a next step or level, i.e. create a problem solving dialogue with your spouse on how to create a more relaxing atmosphere at home.

Our vision helps us create and maintain a daily practice. Find a personal or spiritual mentor who can help guide, support and celebrate with you. Daily markers also help us to maintain a practice. Many years ago I decided to take a deep breath and do a quick body scan whenever I heard the geese fly over. With young children, a young family, and my work, I needed to learn how to take care of myself and slow life down. What a pleasant surprise when I realized how often the geese fly!! This daily marker helped me to maintain a constant practice of inner peace, which also affected my family life!

Celebrate your efforts!

Living a life of non-violence is a life long journey. Celebrate your small, teeny, tiny steps along with any major jumps along the way. Everyone makes mistakes, but the deep learner uses those experiences as positive opportunities and direction for a life of meaning. Look into your story bag and make conscious decisions about your stories. Celebrate your courage to create a life on greater non-violence. I wish you much blessing and positive energy in your journey.


Susan Kaplan works with the power of story and the empowerment of skills. With over 28 years of experience, she has worked with a wide variety of people and communities and holds two master degrees in Social Work and Public Administration. She is a member of many organizations, including the National Association of Social Workers and National Storytelling Network Healing Alliance.

Through her private practice, Balance and Harmony, she offers a variety of innovative workshops, conference presentations, individual and in-home consultations and Walk & Talk Sessions. Workshops include: How to nurture your family soul; Parenting & teacher workshops; Develop rituals of peace; How to use storytelling to heal, calm and overcome obstacles; positive discipline; change the face of anger — a holistic approach and Stress for the whole person — whole community.

As an associate trainer for The Conflict Center, Susan coordinates Stories for Peace — a program of Stories and Skills of Peace for Families and provides training in various settings. In recognition of living a more balanced life, Susan is also a co-parent of two wonderful teenagers, loves to walk with the family golden retriever, read, and has a home practice of yoga and pilates.

To learn more about her work — please use the following information:

Balance & Harmony for Family, Classroom & Workplace
Workshops, Consultations, Walk & Talk
Spiritual Parenting & Teaching

Storytelling & Story Listening
Applied and Educational Storytelling Performances & Workshops
Peace Wrestling — Stories & Programs
Intentional Use of Story for Professionals

(303) 871-8469
P.O. Box 102379
Denver, CO 80250-2379
Web site:

Top of Page | The Lotus Home

Email Sydney | Go to Mythic Yoga | Go to Storytime Yoga
Mythic Yoga ™ and Storytime Yoga ™ are registered trademarks of Sydney Solis.
© Sydney Solis | All rights reserved.