What is dialogue? What does it mean to be in dialogue?
In answering those questions, I am thinking of David Bohm’s excellent little book On Dialogue, his dialogues with Krishnamurti in The End of Time, and of A Course in Miracles. Although I am no longer a formal ACIM student, the course’s focus on undoing as a means of encountering those blocks which impede awareness of love is enhanced by an understanding of – and the use of – Bohmian dialogue.
Like Bohm, I understand dialogue first in terms of its lexiconic origins. It is a Greek word – dialogos. Logos means word or, better, the meaning of the word. And “dia” means through – not two. So dialogue is not a verbal exchange between two individuals; rather, it is the creation of shared meaning, a cooperative exploration of thought as it arises in relationship.
Dialogue does not aim at the “Truth.” Bohm would want to know what one means by that word. Really, we can only ascertain its usefulness or relevance if we are clear on its meaning. I am positing some absolute – God, say, though I am less partial to that word that I have been – that can be discerned through careful dialogue. Discerned and realized.
And I am saying further – and here I think I am safely on Bohmiam ground – that the difficulties we face as a society (globally, nationally, locally, familialy and even personal) cannot be resolved absent that discernment and realization.
We have to be clear: about what is going on and why it is happening the way it is.
So then one thing that dialogue can do is it can move slowly. This seems important. Something in us longs to go quickly – to get on with life, as if the journey exists solely for the destination. We all know – intuitively if not explicitly – that strictly speaking there is no destination, but that does not seem to slow us down. Using the past as a map, we gloss over the present in the interest of building some (more) desirable future. There is not much time to talk, let alone get clear on what we mean when we talk.
For example, I made reference to “truth” earlier – even gave it a capital “T.” It is fair to ask what I mean by that. But even the answer I gave – in terms of the absolute – begs some exploration. There are all sorts of implications in that word – especially when it is tagged with “God.” So maybe it is worth slowing down and trying to get clear about it. Is there a better word? Can we separate “God” from all the philosophical and theological baggage to which it has so long been chained?
And it is not just about philosophy or morality or what have you. It is also about conditioning – it is about our filters. Bohm suggests that our filters – the senses that take in data, the brain that selects and organizes it – are effectively an observer. We cannot really have a dialogue about truth if we are not challenging – raising to light – our various filters in this regard. On what basis do we retain some ideas by discard others? What are the rules by which the brain functions? If we cannot see them – if we cannot both listen and speak – outside of them, then we are not really going to get anywhere. We’re just going to go in circles.
So we can say that dialogue moves slowly and that it moves slowly because a) that enables us to be very very clear about what we mean with this or that word and also b) because it is hard to maintain awareness of our filters – our conditioning – if we move too quickly. The filters are default settings and that is what we are trying to undo. That is the influence from which we want to escape.
Dialogue implies talking, of course, and I think – perhaps because I am naturally a talker – most of us look at it that way. There’s nothing wrong with that. Speaking slower, being more selective with language, being aware of the thought process that underlies our inclination to and mode of communication is all very helpful.
Yet the other aspect of dialogue – as necessary if not more so – is listening. I hate phrases like “active” listening or “dynamic” listening. They come up sometimes in workshops or classrooms and they are always soft code for “pay attention.” I am all for paying attention, but there is a big difference between simply hearing what somebody says and listening to them. Listening as I am considering it here – hopefully with Bohm as a sort of guide – has to do with self-awareness. Who is listening?
In other words, the filters are as active when we hear as when we talk – maybe more so. And so somebody says the word “truth” and we simply translate it to our own personal meaning and continue merrily along our way. Yet it is impossible that you and I should use the word “truth” and mean precisely the same thing – or even roughly the same thing.
If we are listening while aware of the activity of the filters, then a word like “truth” will sound almost foreign to us. So perhaps we will I am not sure what you mean by this.
I think this sort of careful and deliberate dialogue can help us to clarify what is happening in our thoughts – it can make more obvious the belief systems at work and thus enable us to question their effectiveness. It is not really possible, for example, to engage in Bohmian dialouge around, say, Jesus in A Course in Miracles, and not make some contact with our egoic mind and its chaotic extravagance. If forgiveness is right seeing, then dialogue – this sort of dialogue – is an excellent tool at our disposal.
I want to add one other thought. It is easy to relegate dialogue to the category of becoming – another means of self-improvement, betterment, et cetera. But is it not just problem-solving. It is not another mode of psychotherapy. Rather, it is an experience unto itself – at its best, that is what it is. We have a direct experience of both self and communication. And that is immensely energizing. If you have ever felt it, you know what I mean. It doesn’t really matter what was said, or whether any conclusions were reached, or future dialogues scheduled. You are simply lifted by what transpires, as it transpires.
Thus, dialogue is active – intensely, joyfully active. Its effects are ever in our reach.