I have long been a proponent of what the poet David Whyte calls the “conversational nature of reality.” What we articulate and communicate to one another has power;in the conversational mirror of the other, we gain access to the freedom to think new thoughts and to see ourselves in new ways. This gives conversation an enormous potential to deepen our experience and even transform our identity.
However, not just any conversation will do. As I observe this process in my own experience, it seems to me that in addition to a pre-requisite interpersonal resonance, I need to feel that my listener has the capacity to understand what I am trying to say in a deep way. It is only when I feel “well met” by another that a truly generative conversation is likely to happen.
There are as many different kinds of conversation as there are people or topics to talk about, but I highlight the following dimensions that seem to invite generative or transformative dialogue:
- First, the quality of connection is key. In much the same way that particular characteristics of children are brought forth by what their parents see and respond to in them, we continue to transform throughout life in response to the interactions and conversations we have with others. (In one such relationship, my friend told me that she felt like I was a thirsty plant that, for whatever reason, she had a talent for watering ).
- Second, dialogue can be enhanced as a function of the intention(s) that each of us brings to the conversation. I prize most highly those conversations in which I engage with someone(s) in deep inquiry around some particular question of interest. Psychotherapy is one example of such a specialized conversation. Its intersubjective magic, I believe, happens when we have the intention to provide a healing relational environment for the other and when we are able to see both who the other is and what is standing in his or her way.
- Third, the power of the dialogue we share with others is a function of the depth of Presence brought to the process of listening. Contemplative dialogue can be structured around topics decided in advance but it need not be. We can simply engage one another in a process of discovery about something of interest, where we listen for what wants to be said and known at the tip of the current moment.
In what follows, I describe a deep inquiry that I have been engaged with in dialogue with a dharma colleague. I had a specific goal for this inquiry: to overcome the inhibitions that stand in the way of my freedom of self-expression as a writer. I articulated my purpose or aspiration as finding the authentic voice of my own wisdom. As described in the bullet points above, my belief was that simply by engaging in this inquiry and encountering the inhibitions that arose, the entire matter of authenticity would get clarified for me; and it was.
Here are some of the main ideas that informed the inquiry that unfolded:
- Since one of the central premises in my practice of inquiry is that answers unfold in response to the questions that we ask, I began to reflect deeply about what my important questions were. I knew that the general area was self-doubt. But what were the specific things I felt inhibited to speak about? And why?
- I could best find the answers I needed by entering into conversation and seeing what views and opinions I felt reluctant to express. Ironically, I already knew that inquiry itself would be the hardest thing to talk about, because that is my leading edge at this time and is what I am challenging myself to articulate in writing.
- I felt that it would be valuable to think out loud with others – especially with others I respect as discerning and astute— in order to see where the holes in my thinking might lie and in order to gain greater clarity and confidence. (This was one of the conscious intentions I had when I began to meet with this particular colleague.)
- I have in the past opined that thinking, like language, is essentially a relational act, but in our shared dialogue, this became increasingly and abundantly clear: Often I don’t even know what I think in advance of hearing what I have to say!
- The emergence of “answers” and insights in the process of our inquiry/dialogue were often heralded by my feeling anxious or upset following a conversation. When those feelings came up, my effort was simply to feel my way into whatever was most sharp and uncomfortable. Often, this process found its way into my meditation sittings, where clarity would emerge.
- I gained considerable conceptual clarity in these conversations. But beyond ideas, what emerged for me was also a feeling of being able to rest in the process of dialogue and in the truth that thinking actually is a relational act. Though I had described this process before, I now felt that I could “put my money where my mouth was” and trust that this conversation was one which could hold me. I could rest in the relationality of thinking!
What stands out for me in hindsight is how much braver I have become over time about expressing my ideas. As I reflect on why this is so, what strikes me is that it has to do with the risks I have taken in allowing myself to be vulnerable; my willingness to reveal my ignorance and to disclose parts of myself that I tend to guard. In short, this conversational arena gave me lots of chances to show up as myself, and in so doing has allowed me to grow more comfortable in my own skin.
In short, by repeatedly making the choice to be vulnerable and to communicate authentically,
I planted seeds which were able to blossom into flowers of mutual understanding and greater self-acceptance. This to me is the essence of how we listen one another into being.
“Each friend represents a world in us,
a world possibly not born until they arrive,
and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
– Anais Nin