The following article is based on a presentation made during the
Second International Conference on Integral Psychology,
held at Pondicherry (India), 4-7 January 2001.
The text has been published in:
Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.
Insight dialogue session
Insight Dialogue is a meditation practice that includes listening and speaking, and, in an on-line format, reading and writing. Since the best way to understand a practice is to experience it, I'd like to invite you to begin engaging in the reading aspect of the practice right now by settling in... slowing down... and becoming aware of the changing sensations of the body as you sit reading this article. Notice any tensions ... and invite them to relax... Take the time to do this without striving... without judgement... Make sure you pause from time to time as you read... to observe whether you've gotten caught up in your reactions to the words or in a passing thought or feeling... and take a moment to step back from that involvement.
Now bring your awareness to the activities of the mind and vital... notice any expectations which may be there regarding what you're about to read... any biases... any thoughts or feelings still percolating from whatever activity preceded this one, any thoughts or feelings about what you'll be doing next... and begin to step back from these movements, relaxing into a deep and wide listening space.
As you continue to read, observe any responses that may arise... any reaction of attraction or aversion, like or dislike... without becoming involved in them. When you find yourself becoming involved, then without judgement, simply let go and step back once again into a wide and calm receptivity and attentiveness.
The practice of Insight Dialogue was originally developed by Greg Kramer and Terry O'Fallon in 1994. At that time, Greg had been meditating and teaching insight meditation for over 10 years and was concerned and intrigued by his observation that the clear, calm and compassionate states he experienced in meditation did not readily endure when he arose from his cushion to engage in relating to others. He sought a way to expand his meditation practice that would include the challenge of interaction. While completing his doctoral studies in psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, he became involved in the practice of dialogue developed by physicist David Bohm. This practice is designed to make conversation the vehicle for something truly creative and transformative-creative in the sense that something brand new and totally unanticipated might emerge into awareness, and transformative in the sense that those who participated might leave the encounter somehow widened or deepened by virtue of it.
While Bohmian dialogue can be a profound practice unto itself, Greg found that when he deliberately brought to it his practice of insight meditation, something yet more profound and more interesting began to happen. Insight dialogue emerged as an offspring of this integration and has become the means he sought for bringing the calmness and clarity of solitary meditation into the realm of interaction. This article will offer a brief glimpse into Bohmian dialogue and insight meditation, and a brief description of their merging in the guidelines for Insight Dialogue.
At this point, you might wish to check in with your experience... becoming aware of thoughts... feelings... sensations that have arisen... and if you find yourself attached to or involved in any of them... take this moment to relax... step back... and re-gather the strands of your awareness into a one-pointed poise in the present moment.
What does it take to have a conversation from which we emerge with new understanding, unexpected insight, a larger or deeper perspective—a conversation which is free from the tendency to recycle the cherished beliefs, assumptions and opinions with which we enter into it? How do we collectively learn to look out through fresh and unconditioned eyes so as to be able to see whatever truth is wanting to be born in each unfolding moment?
In Bohmian dialogue, the process is one of becoming more fully aware of the mental and vital habits that prevent us from being fully present and open to what's emerging in the moment, habits that keep us tethered to familiar patterns of thinking and feeling. Such habits include occupying a particular role, needing to be right, leaping to judgement, jumping to conclusions—all of which tend to close us off from hearing anything that might disprove, or even enhance our own point of view. Once we become aware of these habits, we can suspend them so that they do not limit or distort our thinking, feeling and speaking.
...in the calm mind, it is the substance of the mental being that is still..... If thoughts or activities come, they cross the mind as a flight of birds crosses the sky in a windless air. It passes, disturbs nothing, leaving no trace. Even if a thousand images or the most violent events pass across it, the calm stillness remains as if the very texture of the mind were a substance of eternal and indestructible peace. A mind that has achieved this calmness can begin to act even intensely and powerfully, but it will keep its fundamental stillness.
Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 637
It is difficult to become aware of deeply ingrained mental and vital habits, no less to suspend them, without cultivating the capacity to stay focused on our present experience, as well as to disidentify from it. Thus, the Bohmian challenge is one which many have found difficult to meet in the absence of some sort of explicit meditative practice. Insight meditation happens to provide an excellent complement to Bohmian dialogue because it is precisely about being fully present and attentive to the changing nature of thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise and pass away moment by moment, and releasing any tendency to get caught up in them.
The “insight” in insight meditation refers to becoming aware of the shift that takes place as the sense of a limited and separate self which is identified with the changing movements of the nature, yields to the sense of a vast and unchanging awareness which gives rise to and contains all movements without being affected by them.
The following guided meditation is offered with the hope of imparting a sense of the experience of insight meditation. If you have already been reading in a state of meditative awareness, this may simply offer an opportunity to deepen your experience.
Allow yourself to settle into the sensations of the physical body... noticing any tensions that may be there and inviting them to relax... noticing the panorama of thoughts, feelings and sensations rising and falling, moment to moment... allowing yourself to drift inward to a place of stillness and calm from which you can witness the passing show without being moved by it.
Begin to get a sense of the physical boundary of the body, and a sense of the separate self which it seems to enclose... allow that boundary to gradually soften and dissolve so all is now floating in a vast, unbounded field of conscious awareness... very calm, very still, and infinitely compassionate.
Noticing the movement of energy in this field of awareness... movement which we experience as thoughts, feelings, sensations... arising out of stillness.... moving through stillness... and merging again back into stillness.
Notice the tendency to grasp on to these movements as “my” thought, “my” feeling, “my” sensation, and notice how the sense of a solid, separate self begins to congeal around that grasping, recreating “my” self-image.
Notice the shift between grasping and letting go... between the tension and suffering that accompanies the grasping, and the freedom and joy of letting go. And let it all be held with great tenderness, kindness and compassion for the suffering of that apparent self which experiences itself as separate from the Divine and from the Divine in all beings and all things.
In the depths, at the core of this vast and still field of awareness, perhaps you can sense a warmth, a softness, a sweetness, gently and quietly radiating, suffusing that infinite ocean of conscious awareness with ananda, and loving kindness for all living beings.
The guidelines for insight dialogue
Having touched briefly on the methodology of Bohmian dialogue and the practice of insight meditation, we now turn to the methodology and practice of Insight Dialogue by offering a brief description of its guidelines. Each guideline, in its own way, invites us into an experience of being truly open and receptive to whatever is wanting to emerge fresh in each moment. At the same time, each serves as a reminder, shining light on a particular form of conditioning which might stand in the way of that openness and receptivity, confining us to the re-creation of past experience.
As you read through each guideline, I'd like to invite you to reflect on how it might be relevant to your experience in the moment.
Guideline 1. Commit to the process
The first guideline invites us to be fully awake to the nature of our moment-to-moment experience, noticing the changing flux of thoughts, feelings and sensations as they arise and pass away in each new moment. At the same time, it is a reminder to become aware of moments when we find ourselves lost in a passing thought or emotion, or in reaction to what someone has said or written... and to gently bring our awareness back into the moment, calling to mind the guidelines which follow. Ultimately, it is an invitation to bring the fullness of our being and concentration into the moment, with the faith that in so doing lies the joyful possibility of freedom from reactivity—a freedom to relate to each other from the inner depths with wisdom and compassion.
I invite you, in this moment, to notice how fully present you are to your experience, to notice whether you've become absorbed in a movement of the nature, and if so, to bring your awareness back to its poise in the present moment.
Guideline 2. Pause-Relax-Contemplate
This guideline describes the rhythm and overall choreography of an Insight Dialogue session. “Pause” refers to the practice of pausing between comments to step back from the onrush of experience into the stillness and calm within, and from there to take note of what is arising in response to what others are saying, or to hearing or seeing our own words ringing in the silence. It also suggests the generally slower pace of an insight dialogue session, a pace necessary, at least in the early stages of the practice, to allow for that stepping back and detection of automatic responses which might otherwise escape our conscious awareness.
“Relax” is an invitation to release any inclination to identify with the automatic responses that arise, as well as the tendency to construct a limited self around them, and to rest in the breadth and calm of the inner being from which they can be seen in the all-gentle light of loving kindness and are known to be but rising and falling waves of universal nature.
From that place of stillness and calm, “contemplate” invites us to sit quietly with what's been said, to see the rhythm and shape of what is emerging, and allow a sense of deeper or larger meaning to intuitively emerge.
I would invite you, once again, to notice any tendency to rush headlong into the next moment, next sentence, or next unexamined reaction, propelled by the force of habit, and to slow down... pausing from time to time to observe your experience... relaxing inward... and opening to intimations of a deeper understanding.
Guideline 3. Trust emergence
This guideline invites us relax into the freedom of not needing to know what will be happening in the moment which follows, the freedom of “doing” nothing more than being fully present to the truth that is wanting to emerge in each new moment. It is also a reminder to be aware of any preferences or demands we may have, subtle or overt, with regard to what should or should not be happening either in our individual experience or the collective unfoldment... and to let them go. In its fullest sense, this guideline points to a deep and abiding trust in the Divine Will as it manifests through ourselves and each other, moment by moment.
Once again, I invite you to look at your present experience, to notice any preferences or demands you may have on the truth of this unfolding moment, and to let them go.
Guideline 4. Speak the truth, listen deeply
This guideline reminds us to discern, of all that is arising in the moment, what wants to be offered into the collective process, what will help to nurture the truth that is taking shape. It refers to listening from the depths of stillness, with a sense of spiritual inquiry in search of what is beautiful, noble and true behind all appearances, while continuing to notice the passing flux of the outer nature and being mindful of its potentially distorting influence.
Guideline 5. Release roles
This guideline asks us to be mindful of the roles or self-concepts by which we tend to construct a false and limited sense of self, concepts which determine what we allow ourselves to hear, think and say... and to let them go. These can be enduring roles like teacher, sadhak, elder, psychologist—or transient ones that arise in the context of a particular interaction, like speaker and listener. It is a reminder to take note as an arising movement of sadness, shyness or envy begins to congeal into the concept of a person who is sad, shy or envious, and to let that sense of a solid person soften and dissolve.
In its most profound sense, this guideline points to the dissolution of what Sri Aurobindo calls the “ego sense” or “ego idea” which permeates our consciousness with that sense and notion of a separate self that underlies all our self-concepts. The invitation to release roles thus offers the possibility of freedom from all fixed and limited images of ourselves and others; and a freedom to know each other as the vast, eternal, all-blissful One.
You may wish to pause for a moment to reflect on any roles or images you hold of yourself or others that might limit what you allow yourself to experience, and to allow for an experience that is blossoming newborn into each unfolding moment.
Guideline 6. Seek out assumptions
Here we are invited to become aware of the shades of meaning we read into what someone is saying or how they are saying it, their motivation, the words they use, the gestures they make, or the tone of their voice. We are being asked to hold these interpretations lightly, and, with a curiosity that aspires only for truth, to subject them to inquiry—whether in the privacy of our own mind, or aloud where we can benefit from the perspective of others.
In a more profound sense, this guideline invites us to look into the assumptions we make about the nature of who we are and the world in which we live. The possibility to which it points is one in which the thick and tangled web of mental and vital formations that stands between “us” and “what” we know, becomes progressively refined and ever more translucent to the light of the Real at the heart of all experience.
Guideline 7. Observe judgements
With this guideline, we are reminded to notice the judgements that are continually arising with respect to almost anything—thoughts, feelings, images of ourselves and others... sounds, sights or smells in the environment... the nature of what's taking shape—and to step back... to meet those judgements with compassion and loving kindness for the suffering they cause, while refusing to limit our awareness according to their narrow constructs. Thus, we are invited to experience the possibility of an awareness which sees and appreciates the rasa, the taste of things as they present themselves in the moment... unfettered by the filter of habitual attractions and aversions.
Once again, you may wish to pause... to observe any judgements arising in your experience... to suspend them in loving kindness... and look out anew through eyes untainted by mental or vital preference.
Guideline 8. Share background thinking
This last guideline invites us to share, with discernment, some of the thoughts, feelings and reactions that arise which may not seem to be directly related to the thread of conversation but, when offered into the collective process, may shed light on some element that holds the key to a larger understanding. Sharing such background experience can be helpful as it may take someone with a perspective other than our own to either recognize the key, or see how to use it to unlock the collective meaning which is emerging.
Missteps and misconceptions
There are two primary ways in which an Insight Dialogue session can go astray. One lies in the tendency to become caught up in the sweetness of sharing and empathizing with another's emotional experience, perhaps offering kind and well-intentioned words of solace or advice. While an entirely worthy and often healing function of group engagement, this is not the purpose of insight dialogue. In insight dialogue we observe our tendency to get caught up in another's identification with the movements of their vital nature—whether higher or lower—and attempt to step back from them. By retreating into an inner stillness, we can be with the person in loving kindness, while seeing their experience as part of the ebb and flow of universal tides, thus inviting them to do the same. In this way, we continually support each other in choosing the path of freedom—turning away from the smallness and suffering of our reactive nature, toward the fullness and joy of our true being. And thus do we create an ideal setting in which purification and eventual psychic transformation of the outer nature can be nurtured.
The other tendency is to be drawn into an intellectual conversation, getting caught up in what may well be a fresh and compelling flow of ideas. Again, this is an immensely valuable and invigorating pursuit. However, if we do not engage these ideas with the calm mind, we may remain blind to a host of conditioned and largely subconscious habits which, from the shadows, control what we think, feel and say. It is bringing these habits to awareness in the interest of freeing ourselves from them that is the particular province of insight dialogue. From the depths of inner stillness emerges the possibility of a yet richer, more creative, and intuitive discourse liberated from the knots of karmic compulsion.
Having contemplated the guidelines which describe the Insight Dialogue practice, as well as two of the principle ways in which the process can be derailed, it will perhaps be useful to address some misconceptions that can easily arise.
Insight dialogue is simply a conversation in which everyone speaks more slowly and pauses often.
The intention of the guideline, Pause-Relax-Contemplate, is not to create a new, slower and apparently “spiritual” form of conversation. Rather, the pacing and pausing in an insight dialogue session are a skilful means of creating the space most of us need in order to stay mindful of our moment-to-moment experience, and to repeatedly take refuge deep within.
As the guidelines become internalized, and as a group matures in the practice, a dialogue session can become more like a musical improvisation—fluid and playful, capable of accommodating a wide range of rhythms, themes and feeling tones—without losing its essential poise in the breadth and calm of the inner being.
In Insight Dialogue it is not permissible to tell stories, philosophize or speak in mental abstractions.
The essence of Insight Dialogue is the commitment to remain conscious of our moment-to-moment experience so that we can release the grasping around which a falsely constructed sense of self solidifies, thereby knowing the love and deep connection with others which effortlessly arise as a result. When recounting stories or engaging in philosophical discussion, there is a strong tendency to lose ourselves in the memories, feelings or ideas they embody. Since it is challenging enough for those who are new to the practice to stay mindful at all in the context of interaction with others, it can be helpful in the beginning, while new capacities are being nurtured, to keep the conversation focused, for the most part, on what is arising in the thoughts, feelings, sensations and intuitions of the moment. At a more advanced stage of practice, it may be possible to engage in storytelling or philosophical discourse while maintaining inner stillness.
Insight Dialogue is a strictly regulated conversation with rigid rules about the way you should talk and what you can or cannot say.
In spite of the high and pure experience to which they point, the guidelines are not intended as rigid rules that must be faithfully adhered to by everyone in every moment, lest they be judged in violation of the insight dialogue norm. Nor are they meant to eliminate all but the most perfect utterances of which human beings are capable. Rather, they are designed to support us in becoming conscious in each moment of the habits that ordinarily escape our awareness. When we pause to become more conscious in this way, we can step back into the wide stillness of the inner being where we are free from the impact of this outer reactive nature. Liberated from the tyranny of past conditioning, we are free to meet and engage, I with Thou, on the sacred ground of Love and mutual Self-knowing.