On Dialogue

Socrates. 13th Century Seljuk illustration. Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul

Dialogue has been a feature of our retreats for some years. It is still somewhat controversial and presents difficulties for many participants. Here I will outline my thinking on the topic. I am following David Bohm’s definition of the word, which comes from the Greek word ‘dialogos’. Although ‘logos’ has a range of meanings, depending on context, here we simply means ‘the word’ and ‘dia’ means ‘through’. It suggests a flow of meaning between people out of which may emerge some new understanding. It is a co-operative use of intelligence in the spirit of friendship and openness.

In the process we bring to bear our native intelligence on the fundamental questions which are there for everyone. We are not trying to resolve personal problems, but looking at human and cultural questions. The dialogue is an attempt to examine our assumptions directly and expose the contradictions in our thinking and views. 

Dialogue has been a way of exploration since Classical times in Ancient Greece and India as a means of uncovering truth. We are following, in all due modesty, a line that runs from Socrates, Plato, the Buddha, the sages of the Upanishad up to Nisargadata, Krishnamurti, David Bohm and the Dalai Lama.

There is no method or technique involved. We avoid method and structure, as these inevitably occlude the eye of Dharma.  Thus there are no rules in the ordinary sense of the word. However, there are certain guidelines which inform this art of inquiry. Firstly, the participants need to be attuned to the whole process of what is actually taking place. This comes about through listening, a particular type of listening which is difficult to define, but which could be seen as an effortless, open attention free of strain. We could call it ‘meditative listening’.

Our approach is echoed in John Keat’s ‘negative capability’, in which the poet articulates the creative flow which emerge in art free from the pressure and restrictive framework of logic or systems. Contemplating his own art and that of others, Keats says that one should be ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.  Nor should there be any striving after the dead end of conclusions, one might add.

For Keats Shakespeare was the Master, and exemplary in this respect. Like him, we put aside our opinions,  philosophies and preconceived systems and move into a state of of uncertainty which brings an openness to all experience. We are receptive to what is happening, rather than searching for fact or reason. 

This approach has something in common with the ‘via negativa’,  found in all mystical traditions, in that it is through negation of the false we arrive naturally at the truth. The dialogue proceeds by the reduction and elimination of questions and assumptions. However, when we try to grasp truth directly, we inevitably run into problems of speculative thinking, ideals and fabrication.

A difficult point for many people is that we are not aiming to find an answer to the question, or solutions to problems. We are not trying to decide on what to do about anything. This is crucial. It seems that we are so addicted to solution-orientated looking that it is almost impossible to look at anything without some kind of psychological demand. This approach prevents seeing and insight. We fall prey to verbal explanations, which offer a false clarity which in itself blinds. It is a kind of cerebral clarity which is one sided and leads to abstraction. On the contrary, we must have leisure and space where we are not obliged to do anything or say anything.

We simply allow the question to open up to larger and varied perspectives on the issue. In the process, the roots and branches of the issues begin to appear with all their complexity and the labyrinthine alleyways of thought show forth.

As far as possible we leave out personal stories and references to past experiences. These take us away from the immediacy of our experience into the past. The ‘how?’ question is also put to one side. Once we go the way of ‘how?’ we are caught in method and strategy and we move away from the actual inquiry.

It is not therapy. However, if we refer to the original Greek meaning of ‘therapeutes’, ‘those who care for the gods’, those ‘who attend to anything’. ( A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford 1968), we are closer to our purpose. Our gods, as Jung pointed out, have become complexes which haunt and enthral us. Like the therapeutes, our attitude is caring, flexible attention. It has more in common with sailing than conquering, closer to the give and take of tai chi and aikido than head on confrontation. We are in the position of that ‘man of twists and turns’, Ulysses who, venturing homeward on ‘wine dark seas’ required the navigators skill, perceptive subtlety, acute listening and watching. We too need the navigator’s skill and devoted attention to the undercurrents, the curling tides, to the ‘white-maned seahorses, champing, bright wind-bridled’. 

The voyage of dialogue can lead to a certain confusion, since assumptions are challenged and upended. Often when this happens there is a demand for quick solutions and certainty. There is a strong urge to get away from the intensity which the inquiry generates and to find a safe harbour, as it were.

But this uncertainty offers a situation which is fertile for the awakening of intelligence. Since the solidity of assumptions has been shaken, an openness, albeit uncomfortable, is present, making itself felt in a state of not knowing.  Thus insight may not come from the centre but from the edge of creative chaos. It is out of this chaos that creative insight can be born. By insisting on the authoritative voice of the controller and refusing slight chaos, we block the gap, the opening to the new and the unknown. In fact, I am not recommending chaos, but suggesting that we allow a little of the ‘edginess’ of uncertainty to emerge, that which Keats refers to as ‘negative capability’.

The process may reveal the deeper well of human fear and loneliness, both personal and existential. We are going into the heart of the world rather than beyond it. But as many sages have pointed out, it is right there, in the very place we dared not look, that perhaps we will find the jewel of compassion and freedom. And that is where the questions leads us.

Now, dear reader, what question has life brought to your door?

Shall we begin?

Again?