CONVERSATION AND SPIRITUALITY
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
Speaking is an act of courage because it means offering our very self to the uncertainty of another’s world, hoping for reciprocation but risking rejection. How many times have you shared something at a party, perhaps shyly because it was important to you, only to have it ignored, leaving you feeling exposed and foolish? Never again, you say. But of course, you do, for speaking is an act we are impelled to make because it is the way we live and grow, the way we learn to survive and thrive in the world.
Ursula Le Guin – in an essay entitled Telling is Listening – speaks of two models of communication: one is mechanical whereby information, coded in an agreed upon medium of words or pixels is transmitted from a sender to a receiver who decodes the information in order to understand the information. However, Le Guin says, there is much more than this going on in a human conversation. The second model is what she calls ‘relationship’ where the medium is more complex: less like a code and more like a language, or a function of society, or even a culture in which speaker and listener are both embedded. Live communication is essentially inter-subjective which means that it is more than stimulus and response, but rather a mutual, continuous interchange between two consciousnesses.
Le Guin offers the analogy of amoeba sex. Amoeba usually reproduce alone by simply dividing themselves, but sometimes in order to foster a richer genetic exchange they meld and give each other genetic information – bits of themselves. They mutually respond to each other through a connection or bridge that is also made of bits of themselves. Two people in conversation form such a connection, says Le Guin, sending and receiving bits of themselves. In this sense, talking and listening are the same thing.
Conversation, she continues, is actually synching our essential vibrations. All living beings vibrate: they pulse, move rhythmically, keep time on multiple levels. This is actually the process of life-made-visible. We multi-celled beings have to coordinate millions of vibrations as well as interactions among vibrations both in our own bodies and in our environments by finding a master rhythm. This is called the process of entrainment. Like two pendulums that will come to synchronize their movements, two people can mutually ‘phase lock’. Human relationship is about such entrainment: getting into sync with each other.
Consider deliberate synching, like singing, marching, rowing, or human sex with its foreplay, or infant-mother breast-milk synching: so speaking and listening is synching rather than reacting; it is joining with, becoming part of an other. Speech connects us in such an immediate way because it is a physical process to begin with and only later a mental or spiritual one. This is also the reason why speech is such an important part of forming a community with its calls and responses, its collective inspiration and commitment.
Sound, adds Le Guin, is event, a happening. We see a mountain, for example but realize that something is happening when we hear it. She describes how the sound wave of Mt. St. Helen exploding in 1980, eighty miles north of her in Portland, was so huge that it skipped Portland entirely and touched down in Eugene, a hundred miles to the south.only then causing the event, as it were, when people realized that something was happening. Speech, she concludes, is the most specifically human sound, and the most significant kind of sound; it is never just scenery, it is always event. All speaking presupposes a listener and is shaped accordingly. Speaking is therefore an act – a mutual act, in fact – whereby the listener enables the speaker. Speaker and listener entrain each other, synchronize each other into a mutual vibration.
The power of the speaker is augmented by the entrainment of the listener. A community grows through mutual entrainment that happens through speaking. Words have power: they are events; they change things. Speaking is magic that transforms speaker and listener who feed energy back and forth to each other, who exchange understanding with each other and thereby amplify it.
In the world of art (and ritual) speaking is central. The stories that are presented are actually few in the sense of fundamental or archetypal, but they are ever-different in their telling whereby they constantly and continuously reveal and renew. Such is the power of spoken stories that we know instinctively through our parenting and teaching and in the many forms – novels, songs, movies – through which stories shape and reshape us. It is the process of binding and bonding into the communion we all long for in the silence of our own inner infinite spaces.
However, in the light of the memories stirred by my initial question (about sharing and feeling ignored), I would add that for conversation to truly (and effectively) play this role of entrainment and syncing, a method and skills are required: Dialogue for Life (DfL) offers such a method and skills. DfL is a method of conversation that consists of four steps or stages – Connecting, Deepening, Discovering and Acting – with each stage implemented through simple but critical skills, most of them forms of listening.
The four stages are founded on the clear and deliberate intention to participate in the generation or emergence of true meaning and right action. I say both generation and emergence to highlight the proactive nature of the process but also its grace. We play our part in the emergence of meaning in the form of insights and ideas by interacting creatively. But, we ultimately realize, like the farmer who diligently cultivates the ground where he plants the seeds with the realization that germination is a gift, that meaning is also such a gift that we can never presume or take for granted.
What Le Guin says seems right. Certainly conversations are more than the exchange of information. Words impact us at every level: we experience their impact in our bodies – ‘that went straight to my heart….’ we say. Perhaps because it so common and so much a part of our everyday, conversation seems to be an unlikely spiritual practice. And yet, it is clear, as Le Guin notes, that it is conversation that shapes and reshapes us more than almost anything else. So, in the first place, it would make sense, to pay attention to how we do it. And if we define spirituality – as I’m inclined to do – as (ways of) going deeper, living more fully, deliberately, consciously, then, in the second place, true conversation can surely be a real spirituality.
I have often said to participants in my Dialogue for Life workshops/retreats, that, if you raise the level of your listening even 5%, you will change your world.
I just read an article in this month’s Scientific American, called ‘Talking to Ourselves,’ (Charles Fernyhough) about the new science of inner speech which tells us that self-talk is an actual conversation and that its power comes from the way it orchestrates a dialogue between different points of view. I’ll come back to this inner Dialogue in the next Blog. In the meantime, let me ask you if this makes sense to you?
- Have you experienced what Le Guin describes: that conversation – at least occasionally – is more about sharing bits of ourselves than simply exchanging bits of information? More about discovering together than simply convincing or winning?
- And what allows/enables this to happen, do you think?