True Dialogue

About eight years ago Sally and I began to gather groups together for what we called “dialogue circles.” Sally’s a highly skilled therapist, coach, and group facilitator, and she designed these circles based on ideas from David Bohm (the quantum physicist behind “formal dialogue”), Scott Peck’s community building work, and our own accumulated experience and wisdom. Our groups ranged from maybe nine people on the small end up to thirty five or so on the large end. They lasted for three days, and involved morning, afternoon, and evening sessions, and would generally total up to between 16 and 24 hours spent sitting in circle, when all was said and done.

The dialogue circles could be thought of as a process designed to sideline, at least temporarily, the human ego-structure™, that suite of ingrained or habitual beliefs, expectations, thoughts, reactions, values, and assumptions which tends to run most human beings most of the time. The process could be stressful at times, as it can be challenging, to suspend one’s unquestioned beliefs and assumptions, and to step out of automatic patterns of thought and reaction. People usually identify these ego structures as “who they are,” so the process can feel like a loss, or at the very least, deep questioning of one’s sense of self.

But this work, in my experience, and I think for most of those who participated, was ultimately freeing, heartwarming, and inspiring. To my mind, what emerges in the absence, or quieting, of the habitual chatter of our “monkey minds,” is a new energy, palpable in its strength, which speaks with a wisdom and clarity far above that of any of its individual participants. And for myself, I would say that a dialogue circle is one venue where I can most clearly feel my love for other human beings.

One thing I would say that I learned in my bones from these experiences is that the phrase “of like minds,” as it is generally used in our culture, is not a helpful notion. People are often in search of, or feel pleased to find, what they call “like minds,” others who seem to believe as they do, think as they do, and want and value what they want and value, people who will join them in some project or action which is important and meaningful to them, or who will join with them in creating community.

But so often, groups of “like minded people” fail to work out the way the individuals involved had hoped they would. They start out with great intentions and high hopes and compelling vision, but then conflict arises and the group, unable to process the conflict, opts for hierarchical structures or strained tolerance or a set of arbitrary rules. Or the group devolves into infighting, or breaks apart completely. Those once wonderful “like minded people” turn out to be mere human beings, with all their shortcomings and foibles.

Dialogue circles, at their best, take a deeper path, and go through the following process. They start in a honeymoon period, what Peck called “pseudo-community,” where everybody is just tickled to be with others who seem to want what they want. For a while the conversation feels light and easy, as people get to know each other. But after a while, differences begin to emerge. People share their various thoughts, feelings, goals, values, and positions with the group, only to learn that not only do the others in the group think and feel differently, but that some of the participants have reactions to what they say, or even oppose them. “Pseudo-community” progresses into what Scott Peck (in The Different Drum, his book on community) called “chaos,” as people learn that these “like minded people” surrounding them are confused, mistaken, damaged, or even crazy human beings. The members of the circle set about, with the very best of intentions, to convince, convert, or heal each other.

Unfortunately, this does not work. Those “like minds” are actually deeply different, having achieved and earned their differences from long and wildly individual lifetimes of experience and learning. Those differences are not easily given up. Nor should they be, as they come from experience that deserves reflection and clear, conscious awareness and understanding. So the conflicts between participants can continue for a long time. And sometimes the interactions get very difficult.

It’s at this point that groups face a choice: they can stop the chaos and “retreat into organization,” constructing or adopting a set of rules and limitations and behaviors and agreements and hierarchical structures which will keep the chaos to a minimum and allow the group to function, albeit rarely in the manner they’d imagined in their hopes and visions, and often devoid of joy, playfulness, and true affection.

Or they can do something that sounds impossible or crazy to most people: they can continue to work their way together through the chaos. They can continue to acknowledge, and try to move, the mountain of differences and conflicts. They can struggle to heal or convert or convince each other. They can continue to try to “power over” the others.

And if they do this, then something magical can happen. Faced with exhaustion, human egos will eventually tire of the struggle. It will become clear that healing and converting will never work. And eventually it will begin to dawn on participants how limited their own viewpoint is, and how unfounded or incomplete their assumptions are, and exactly where it is that they “do not know what they do not know.” It will become clear that the others in the room hold their differing thoughts for real and understandable reasons. And then chaos evolves into what Peck called “emptiness,” and the room grows quiet. Because what is there to say when you finally get that many of your habitual thoughts or positions or arguments or beliefs no longer work the way they always had before, to keep you in control, to protect your vulnerabilities, and to make sense of the entire universe? Fuck.

With grace and patience, the human ego can stand aside in such a space as emptiness. The habitual programming which serves as one’s default interface with the rest of the Cosmos proves insufficient to control the situation. One literally doesn’t know what to do or say. And there’s little choice but to surrender and grow quiet.

But once you give up, you are free to notice other things. Like the fact that those other people around you – the ones who are so wrong, the ones you have been unable to convince or fix or argue out of their delusions – they’re good, real, living human beings, doing their best with what they have. They’ve stuck it out, and stuck with you. They didn’t go away, even as you strove to control them, even as you told the real truth of your experience, even as you exposed your vulnerable places, even as you risked. And darned if some of the things they said didn’t make some sense. And darned if each of them, at one time or another, even the quietest or craziest™ amongst them, didn’t say something that was the exactly right thing to say, that added to the conversation, that brought a piece of wisdom to the room.

And rising out of the space of emptiness, something becomes clear: those others, those “like minds” who proved to be so surprisingly “unlike,” have a great deal more in common than their differing thoughts and beliefs and assumptions might make it seem. These are not “like minded”, but “like hearted,” people, and each of them is wanting something good and helpful for themselves and for others, just as you are.

What can grow in this space of emptiness, in my experience, is the palpable feeling of love for these others. Each is essentially good, and doing their best from where they stand. Each has a piece to share, a valuable experience that informs, a unique viewpoint through which they see the world.

And when you give up control, and accept the limitations of your own human experience, and feel in your body how much you don’t even “know that you don’t know,” and grow tired of your own habitual reactivity, then you learn that you are surrounded by others who can see things you do not. You can have access to something you didn’t have before. Instead of navigating the world of problems and situations and questions and decisions from only your single, limited viewpoint, you can now face these things with a group perspective, seeing from many more angles and through many more lenses than you ever could before. Once you give up your egoic desire to be right and in control, you find yourself in the space of group wisdom. And in my experience, that group wisdom can enter the room like a presence, a spirit, a force that enlivens and animates every member of the circle. It refills the space of emptiness with something new, and “pseudo-community” blossoms into “true community,” and nothing is ever the same again.

These experiences have been difficult for me, to be sure. Because I’ve been so smart, and so knowledgeable, and so “right” about so many things. Because I’ve felt so wounded and defensive and reactive. Because my Asperger’s neurology is so prone to overwhelm and so in need of habit and routine and control. Because my vulnerabilities are so near the surface. Because I have been so undone in the presence of strong feelings and conflict.

But these experiences have been instrumental in helping me become clear about who I am and what I need. And in that way, these experiences have ruined me. Because now I know what’s possible for human relationship, and it is difficult, and even uninteresting, for me to settle for something less than that. I wilt in the presence of what I fear to be unending pseudo-community and the honeymoon game of “like minds.” I can get lost and confused in the presence of unspoken and unacknowledged differences and conflicts, which I imagine will never get processed and revealed. Mainly I just get bored with human ego structures, since I have one myself, and have seen all its tricks. I have little interest in the habitual output of my own and others’ default programming, the limited set of assumptions and beliefs and thoughts and values and expectations proffered and pronounced as “truth” and “is.” I am suspicious of solutions and answers and advice which have not sprung from a community of souls, and suspicious of those purveyors of answers who have not submitted fully to the rigorous process of true dialogue, in order that their answers might arise from the greater wisdom that groups can access.

What I really need in order to love people is for them to show me something beyond their ego structures, and to allow me to do the same. This is what Sally and I have done together for all of our thirteen years: we’ve conducted an ongoing two-person dialogue circle, in which each of us regularly offers our differences to the “group,” pushes through the chaos that arises, works to re-establish emptiness, and falls back into community with each other. As wounded and reactive as we can be, we lay our limitations and vulnerabilities on the altar of dialogue, find the space that lies beyond control and judgment and rightness, and, together, find the wisdom greater than either of us.

Sally is better than I at creating this space of dialogue out in the world beyond what Vonnegut would call our duprass, our “soul group” of two. My Aspie nature can make this a risky venture even in the best of times, and my life of traumatic experiences, disappointments, and mistakes adds to my hesitancy. But in the sacred space of a dialogue circle, I can consciously set these things aside and find my self, and my voice. And slowly, at least with some, I am growing better at finding at least a part of this out in the world. I have been unable to find much of what feels like true dialogue and true community online, though I have looked far and wide. Facebook, in particular, feels to me like a place stuck in “chaos,” where attempts to convince, heal, and convert mostly rule the day.

And it feels risky to me, to seek this in the real world, as so few seem to have any inkling of what dialogue offers, or have any experience that would lead them to believe it to be possible, or would be willing or curious enough to enter into a process which asks them to suspend the strategies they have been using to survive in and control their worlds. But I remain convinced that dialogue circles, as difficult as they can feel at times, offer something that adds to our lives, and to the world, in amazing ways. Learning to question my assumptions and enter into collaborative dialogue, even as it has proceeded in fits and starts, has felt like an evolutionary step for me. I wonder if it would be an evolutionary step for human culture as well, or at least the righting of a boat that got overturned in the storm of the dominant global culture. Learning to integrate the practice of seeking group wisdom with the gifts we have received on our long cultural journey into hyper-individualism may provide distinct benefits in an ever more rapidly changing world.

One of our intentions in re-establishing ourselves in a place with a much larger population is that Sally and I will seek again to pursue this work in some new fashion. Leading groups of some sort, perhaps. Working with couples or groups of couples. Perhaps working with Aspie Spectrum and Non Spectrum spouses. The possibility is compelling, and our experiences from the past continue to tug at our hearts.

We await the next adventure.

PS: Thanks to Sally for her help with this. My first draft occasioned another bit of “dialogue” between us, and she helped with editing to make this better than it would have otherwise been.

2 Comments for “True Dialogue”

says:

I appreciate reading this. The dialogue circles I participated in with you and Sally are etched into my memory.

I love the phrase “like-hearted”— like-heartedness keeps me going, and I keep tapping into it. (I wish I could feel less itchy and troubled by the phrase “like-minded,” but I guess I’ve earned the itchiness, and maybe at some point I will graciously allow it to float away—everything you said about it rang very true to me.)

Glad to hear you are contemplating leading groups again.

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