Writings

January 2018

Remembering the Truth of Who YOU Are

REFLECTIONS

Preface

Remembering is more than simply calling to mind: re-membering – is putting back together or even reconstructing in a different form. Religion has the same sense. The roots of the word – re-ligare – mean to bind back together. So religion might be described as a sacred re-membering: a putting back together of essential and fundamental things. My old mentor, Thomas Berry, once wrote that the universe comes to consciousness in us. So our remembering, our ‘saying’ – naming – is actually giving a voice to things, giving eyes to the universe. Through my eyes, the stars look back on themselves in wonder. Perhaps, in fact, this is the work of a human being: to reflect the consciousness that has emerged in us. The poet Rilke captures this idea: about the truth of who we are:

…Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window –

at most: column, tower…But to say them, you must understand,

oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves

ever dreamed of existing.?

– Rilke: 9th Duino Elegy

My life and work has been about such re-membering. The Greek word poeisis, which has the sense of bringing out or revealing something that is not immediately visible or obvious, captures this process. I will share this art of poeisis as it has unfolded in my life and work and then offer a simple practice to give us a taste and a tool for exploring it in our own lives.

My Personal Story

I am the son of a mystic-mother and a philosopher-father. Neither had the opportunity – due to circumstances – of developing their natural abilities in a formal or professional way, but their influence on their children was profound. While my mother provided me with the framework of a universe that was bigger than the world that society offered, my father provided me with principles and practices for living appropriately in this world. As a Master Carpenter he would say that it is important to leave things just a little (not necessarily a lot) better than we found them. Moreover, the Catholic world that I grew up in was a world of angels and spirits and other realms that became natural to me. One example was All Souls Day on November 1 when we were commissioned as children to release souls from Purgatory by doing certain rituals (visit the Blessed Sacrament and say designated prayers for the Pope’s intentions). While there were perhaps elements of magical thinking – a natural stage in religious development – in these rituals, they nonetheless enabled me to see myself as participating and having certain responsibilities in a vast and mysterious universe. It gave cosmic meaning and purpose to my young life.

My first efforts at exploring this vast universe were on Black Mountain behind our home on the outskirts of Belfast. There, lying in the heather, I would feel myself one with the creatures who inhabited the mountain. At times, I would feel myself one with the earth beneath me that seemed to hold me the way the water in the Irish sea, where we swam as children, miraculously held us afloat. I recall a movie, called ‘Gregory’s Girl’ that came out in 1980 where the young hero lying on the ground with his girlfriend tells her to hold on. ‘Why?’ she asks, confused. ‘Because we’re spinning at a 1000 miles an hour,’ he tells her. That was the feeling of my early mystical experiences.

Around that time I started attending mass every day in the local church, not because I was particularly pious, but because I realized that I got a similar feeling in the winter morning candle-lit church: the sense that I was part of a vast world that I certainly didn’t understand but nor did I feel afraid of it. I would share my thoughts with my mother who seemed to think they were quite normal, but I instinctively refrained from sharing them with my friends who, I sensed, would not appreciate them in the same way.

My uncles – Jimmy and Danny – who were both unmarried at the time, used to take an interest in me who was their first nephew, and I didn’t mind the attention and the occasional pocket money. One evening in May, when I was about thirteen, they took me to a place that was special for them: a Trappist monastery. I discovered later that the monks provided them with a sense of special purpose in the religiously divided world of N. Ireland, and they made regular trips to the monastery to share their challenges and get guidance from these wise souls. It was there that I had another glimpse of the vast universe that, by now, I had concluded, lay not in some distant place but actually right here, within things. That May evening, as I stood watching a monk under a tree in a meadow that sloped down to a river, all of it illuminated by the golden rays of a setting sun, something happened that I can only describe as follows: Suddenly I was the monk, but then I was also the tree, then the meadow and the river, and finally the sun that seemed to rush through me – all of this expanded me – in a way that felt like the deep ocean that held me afloat and the vast universe of spinning planets that held everything. The experience lasted only seconds I’m sure, and, at first, I didn’t realize what had happened. So I didn’t tell anyone for a long time. But I began to realize that this was, in fact, the real world even if we all seemed not to see it, except occasionally when the conditions were right. Certainly no one spoke about this world: not the newspapers, not the political leaders, not even the religious leaders. Even the monks, when I hinted at this, seemed not to get excited, preferring, it appeared, the more moralizing approach to things that religion generally took. Later when I came across the writings of Thomas Merton, an American Trappist whose autobiography had become a bestseller and attracted many young men home after a disenchanting World War II in Europe, I read his criticisms of a monasticism that he felt had lost its way and simply followed rules and rote rather than hearts and depths. But the May evening experience stayed with me – burned itself into my heart – and inspired me to come back to the monastery for the remainder of my school days, often spending entire school holidays there. alone in the old Victorian guesthouse at night after the monks had retired early to their cells. In fact, I spent an entire month of my final school-summer there, living with the community, this time on the inside, with the express purpose of discovering what my path in life should be.

In fact, I already knew that it had to be about exploring this vast universe that had revealed itself to me. However, I saw quickly enough that – as I implied – even the monks with their contemplation and psalm-chanting and rituals didn’t seem to be about this. So, at the end of the month, in spite of encouragement from the monks to join their ranks, I fled the monastery and ended up – in a kind of rebound – in a seminary for missionary priests. In retrospect, I think that, having grown up in the small, defensive world of a Catholic in N. Ireland, I felt that being a priest seemed like a logical direction to take my strange deep impulses. Not a priest, however, like the local clergy who had even less of this neo-mystical urge, but a priest in the wilderness of Africa which sounded like it reflected something of the vast universe that had seduced me. In fact, the seminary was really like the monastery, even if less austere, but similarly focused on rules and right behavior. Even the meditation practices of St. Ignatius felt more like finding motivation for right behavior in the various models – Jesus and the saints – who were presented as heroes to be admired and followed. But two things kept me going, rightly or wrongly: one was the beauty of the Wicklow Hills where the seminary was located, and where I could seek out portals to the infinite world within among the fields and in the mountains and forests. The other was the news that was beginning to drift down from the recent meeting of all the Catholic religious leaders of the world – the so-called Second Vatican Council. We heard rumors of a new – expanded – sense of God, no longer confined to the Catholic church. There were hints that revelation was not simply words in a book but deep experiences in the heart. And there were suggestions that the church was going to transform itself into a critical force for living in the modern world. All of this would have implications for mission that could no longer be a neo-colonial imposition of a one-size-fits-all approach. It seemed enough at the time to keep me going.

Throughout the eight years of the seminary program, pieces of this new paradigm change – because it truly was a major shift – made their way into our courses and conversations. But like all such changes in an ancient institution, they were received and interpreted differently by different people. So, who was in charge and who was teaching was always important. Suffice to say here that I made it through to the end: to ordination in my home parish in Belfast in the midst of the conflict in 1973, and afterwards to Kitui in Kenya where I was contracted, as it were, for the next eleven years. I was fortunate, it feels from here, to find myself part of a group of Irish priests (the first two local priests were ordained the year I arrived) who were creative and open in a number of ways: to the people, most importantly, and also to new ideas. My early years of missionary work were, in fact, characterized by efforts to engage the local people in exploring and improving their own lives in ways that reflected the Christian Gospels but were more directly inspired by the methods of people like the Brazilian educationalist, Paulo Freire. I thrived on the freedom and the new ideas and, after five years, was sent for graduate work to the Gregorian University in Rome, the alma mater of many of the popes. There I was convinced that the world was truly changing; but there I also realized that there would be resistance to the changes from a deeply rooted establishment. The first major expression of this resistance was the election of John Paul II, a conservative and, because of his experience in Poland under communist rule, something of a reactionary. I saw his impact immediately upon returning to Kenya in 1981. An attempted coup led to reprisals and suppression of any perceived threats, like our missionary efforts to engage people in thinking about and changing their own lives. We were ordered by our bishop to keep our heads down in order to be able to stay with the people. I instead began to advocate for two different things: one was the multiplication of ministries that would give genuine authority to the people of the local churches; the other was strategic withdrawal of missionaries as a way of making space (and trust) for the local church to form its own response to the Christian message and become its own unique expression of church. After three years of this in the form of writing and speaking, and challenging in some cases, it became clear that it was time for me to leave, if only to be able to continue to follow my own deeper calling which was never the promotion of an institution, though I still hardly knew what kind of forms it could take. I declared I was going to seek further understanding of our predicament in the U.S.A. where there was a more deliberate and strategic approach to responding to the changes of our time, what Pope John XXIII, who had convened the Vatican Council initially had described as aggiornamento (bringing the church into the modern world).

This move turned out to be my first real stage of transition, which is always about letting go. For, I arrived in the U.S. on a one-way ticket in 1984, having had to walk away empty-handed after a confrontation with my superiors who had insisted that I return to Rome for the further understanding I had spoken about. The letting go stage of my transition lasted for a while as I took up residence in a local parish and began the first steps toward a Ph.D. The latter I saw more as a focus for my efforts than a purpose, which was really about re-membering, in the sense I suggested at the beginning, the truth of who I am. However, I didn’t survive very long in the constrained world of a Catholic parish and found myself thrust into stage 2 of my transition which, experience has shown me, is characterized by uncertainty. Of course, it was in that stage that the wonderful chaos of breaking down and building up occurred. Here it is enough to say that a dissertation with Thomas Berry, one of the early voices of theology and ecology, gave me a new, expanded framework that more accurately reflected the vast, infinite spaces that had been the source of my original calling. That framework became the foundation of various efforts at that time: as a religious adviser to the UN Environment Program, as a Director of Global Issues at a conference center, as the leader of a spiritual community made up of members of the parish I had worked in who were themselves seeking a more relevant form for their religious impulses. Around that time too, I created a non-profit organization to develop an Earth Charter (from a religious or spiritual perspective) for the UN Earth Summit in 1992 in Brazil. After that important gathering I spent some time in the world of retreats and conferences, offering a message of an earth-centered way of life. At that time, I was still formally a Catholic priest though I was clearly on the margins of that world. However, there was the growing realization that I was not prepared to take on the great institution of religion and attempt some kind of reformation, and certainly not from within.

Falling in love with Ann gave a new and immediate focus to this realization which resulted in my resignation from priesthood in 1993 and my marriage to Ann in 1995. The new world of a home (and mortgage) and step-children contributed its obvious part to thoughts on a new way which was the start of the third stage of my transition which some call ‘new beginnings.’ The latter included a consulting role with the Centers for Disease Control and my initial work on the art of Dialogue. It also took me into other fields, some of which used the developing Dialogue tools – like efforts with my local community on responding to climate change. My religious roots drew me into retreats and conferences on Celtic spirituality, and my history in Africa drew me into a project in Kenya that we called Sokoni (the Swahili word for ‘in the market place) where we brought groups to participate in the work of Nobel Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai. My work with Thomas Berry inspired me to join with three fellow alumni after his death in 2009 to create the Berry Form for Ecological Dialogue as a way of helping birth a new era of mutually enhancing human-earth relations, what Berry had called the ‘Ecozoic Era.’ Other efforts affirmed my long-time intuition that access to the infinite spaces I have described was not confined to religion or even explicit spirituality, when I was invited to be the spiritual adviser to the Leatherman’s Loop. The ‘Loop’ is a 10K run in April – a veritable rite of spring through the rivers and the mud – that now draws 1500 runners. We begin the race with what we call a ‘Celtic-Navajo’ chant that goes:

Beauty before me as I run
Beauty behind me as I run
Beauty below me as I run
Beauty above me as I run
Beauty beside me as I run
Beauty within me as I run.
I see beauty all around.
In beauty may we walk.
In beauty may we see.
In beauty may we all be.

These are some of the new beginnings of my unfolding transition which I have come to see now as lifelong.

A few years ago, I decided to take another, more focused look at the process I had been on, partly by choice, partly by circumstances, by making a pilgrimage to the places that had shaped my path, and starting a Blog to think aloud, as it were, and publically about what was – and had been – going on in me. Or, perhaps more accurately – as I realized increasingly – through me. The following are some of the emerging conclusions.

The essential reality is the vast universe I experienced initially as a child on Black Mountain. It holds all things, as the ocean holds all it contains. But it also informs – gives form to – everything that has ever been or will be. Our unique identity is our unique form of that essential reality. Like our own breathing, we are breathed into forms that we call life, and then out of these forms through what we call death. This process, however, is not simply within the timeframe we understandably impose but, like our breathing, is part of a vaster rhythm that has been described by modern science in terms of vibrations and thermodynamics, and evolution and expanding. Our identity is both individual and collective, as well as unique-separate and one-in-union. We are both human and divine. The evolutionary, expanding aspect suggests that we participate in a process of infinite becoming, that our lives contribute to the life of God.

The implications of this are simple enough: wonder and gratitude. This is the fundamental moral stance; the rest is of our own making, mostly out of confusion and fear. Our well-being – happiness in the truest sense – is the result of an appropriate response which can be described simply as receptivity. This is not the same as passivity but instead means a proactive relationship with life. This same morality applies to everything that exists; to us it applies in a particular way that I described at the outset. The unfolding universe has come to a form of self-reflective consciousness in our human species, so our contribution – our unique role – is to be the eyes and ears and mouth of God. As, one of my most helpful fellow travelers – R.M. Rilke – has written:

Are you, then, the All? And I the separated one
who tumbles and rages?
Am I not the whole? Am I not all things
when I weep, and you the single one who hears it?

There may indeed be many forms with similar forms of consciousness – the universe is vast – but this does not deny the validity or relevance of our contribution to speak and sing and dance and be expressions of life in the way that Rilke describes elsewhere:

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions…..For the god
wants to know himself in you.

Here it might be appropriate to turn briefly to how to do this, how to live this truth; or perhaps how to do it better, in the sense of more deliberately, more skillfully, more comprehensively. One implication might be that much of what we experience in our world today as predicament and potential tragedy is because we have forgotten this basic fact of life. While some suggest that there is an ancient wisdom, held by special souls in the past, that we have lost, I am more inclined to think of this in terms of development. In other words, just as a child certainly knows in a – pre-differentiated – way that it is one with its mother, our ancestors knew that we are one with our mother earth/universe. However, just as a child must differentiate from its mother in order to develop to higher levels of being, so our species similarly had to differentiate from our mother earth/universe. Of course, there are dangers for the growing individual in this differentiation stage – illusions of grandeur, delusions of separateness – that can cause real challenges, even death to the teenager, as we know too well. In a similar way, the differentiation of our species brings dangers of the same kind to us all, as our present ecological and social challenges demonstrate all too vividly. Resolution or salvation for us is a re-membering, not through a simplistic reversion to childhood ways, but in a new way that has been described as a ‘post-critical naivete.’ It is this new post-differentiation conscious awareness that allows us to step into an adulthood that reflects the basics principles of the universe: a new kind of community that Berry has described in terms of mutually-enhancing human-earth relations. The price of not taking this necessary vast step, in Berry’s words, will be like this:

The human community and the natural world will step into the future as a single sacred community or we will both perish in the desert…

Which brings me to my final piece which is a simple tool that both reflects and serves this essential step. For a year or so now I have been experimenting with what I call Meditation-Dialogue. The apparent oxymoron reflects this re-membering we have been exploring in the sense that it brings together two parts of ourselves – individual and collective – as well as two parts of our ways of living – presence and thinking/doing.

Meditation-Dialogue is a way to bring together meditation and dialogue in a simple process intended to generate enhanced consciousness. Meditation is essentially about presence (through attention), dialogue is essentially about listening (through connecting, exploring and discovering). Together they can provide a practice for living that reflects the truth of who we are. A good definition of Dialogue as ‘participating in the emergence of meaning’ captures this sense of working with life as its own self-reflective consciousness. A deeper consciousness, moreoever, is the key to a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and others with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them, and freedom to participate in a way that contributes to the unfolding of life. A by-product of this way is peace and joy for ourselves.

To demonstrate this mutually enhancing meditation-dialogue relationship I have developed a simple template or method for living the truth of who we are. There are three steps in the process that can be practiced alone or with others so that they become our way of living:

  1. Wonder that comes from Presence via Connecting

  2. Humility that comes from Appreciation via Exploring

  3. Gratitude that comes from Awareness via Discovering

These steps enable us to move:

  • From the moment to the Eternal

  • From the one to the infinite

  • From the material to the spiritual

  • From the visible to the invisible

These steps bring together the particular of the poet’s focus with the universal focus of the philosopher into a Dialogue for Life of the mystic.

Comments

I remember when I encountered Dialogue in a formal way (a training with some MIT colleagues). However, it was only later that I realized that I had, in fact, encountered Dialogue-in-action years before when I lived in Kenya among people for whom it was part of their culture: the way they determined how to address a challenge. They connected naturally; in fact, a conversation did not really begin until people had connected by sharing a piece of their deeper self. They explored thoroughly, listening to everyone and every perspective, often in ways that frustrated someone like me from a more ‘impatient’ culture. Finally they seemed to know instinctively when it was time to discover by listening FOR what was emerging and building shared understanding together. Perhaps, in fact, dialogue like this is the natural way, and that it is only the impatience that a culture of illusory control that has removed it from our places of governance and learning.

 

Appendix 1

MEDITATION-DIALOGUE

STEPS

  1. Meditation[1] in order to be present to the moment, to oneself and others 3 m
  2. Connect through a question that invites sharing from this presence                     10 m
    • What is going on for you? What is most important right now?
  1. Meditation to savor the connection                                                                         2 m
  2. State/Read theme (poem, reading, music, etc.)                                                         2 m
  3. Meditation to notice what the theme says to you:                                                       3 m
    • Pay particular attention to where you feel this in your body
    • Remind yourself of the validity of every perspective:
  1. Explore by sharing the different perspectives elicited by the theme                       10 m
  2. Meditation to acknowledge the importance of differences AND                      2 m
    • To advert to my ‘triggers’
  3. Explore our differences and deepen our understanding through inquiry              10 m
  4. Meditation to hold the tension between our differences and to listen FOR        5 m
    • What is being generated
  5. Discover by sharing what is emerging and building shared understanding          10 m
  6. Meditation on the ‘wisdom’ of this shared understanding                                      3 m
    • And commitment to the action it suggests
  1. Close by sharing our commitments                                                                                  5 m

 

 [1] Meditation format: 3 deep breaths + follow your breath + focus on: the moment (the place, oneself, others…) OR the connection (the empathy generated) OR your body OR the validity of the other’s perspective OR the differences and the triggers they create OR the tension between the differences OR the consciousness that is emerging OR the action that it suggests

Personal Practice

Clearly personal practice will contribute to our efforts at Meditation-Dialogue. In this case the emphasis will be on meditation while dialogue serves as the enhancing agent. The following is a template for what we might call Dialogue-Meditation that uses the stages of Dialogue as a framework (Connect, Explore, Discover) and incorporates the principles (openness, empathy, equality) and skills (listening, etc.) of Dialogue, as follows:

STEPS

  1. Connect to the moment: use your senses (hearing, smelling, etc.)                      3 m
  2. Explore the theme: read the poem, etc. and listen to what it elicits in you.      10 m
    • Pay particular attention to your body and senses.
  1. Explore further by noticing your thoughts AND simply letting them go:            7 m
    • Hold this tension by following your breath or using a mantra of your choice
  1. Discover what is being generated by listening FOR and                                            7 m
    • Savoring the moment
  1. Close by articulating a commitment, however small                                                   3 m

 

 

 

 

 

December, 2017

MEDITATION-DIALOGUE

I live my life in ever-widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Book of Hours,   RM. Rilke

 Overview

Meditation-Dialogue may seem like an oxymoron but is in fact a creative relationship between two practices for living more fully. Meditation, by definition, focuses on presence, while Dialogue focuses on interaction. Meditation, in terms of process, is silent, while Dialogue is obviously not. These differences, however, can serve a shared goal when they are brought together in a mutually enhancing way. This goal might be described as accessing and even participating in the emergence of deeper levels of meaning, or, as the poet puts it, ‘ever-widening circles..’

Dialogue

Dialogue is often conflated with related processes, especially debate and discussion, so it would be important to begin by defining what dialogue is not.

The Latin roots of the word ‘debate’ – de-battere means to ‘beat down’ – show that this interaction is about finding the best answer or solution to an issue through a competitive process that includes proving and winning. Sometimes, debate is the appropriate process for the resolution of differences, for example when minds are closed and when there is no alternative.

The Latin roots of the word ‘discussion’ – discutere means to ‘shake apart’ – show that this interaction is about pulling apart and examining in order to find the best resolution. One thinks of situations when analysis and comparison are appropriate and it is a question of finding the better solution.

The Greek roots of the word ‘dialogue’- dia-logos means ‘meaning coming through’ – suggest that this interaction is more about discovering than comparing or winning. While there are clearly places of overlap among all three words, the emphasis in the first two implies working with what is known, while the third implies working with what is not known. In times of change and uncertainty, dialogue would appear to be of critical importance as a way of thinking together. One might add that dialogue would be similarly critical in the context of existential issues that are usually the focus of spirituality and religion.

The Dialogue Process

My work with dialogue – researching, writing, presenting, training, consulting – has suggested that there are four basic elements involved in its practice: intention, attitudes, skills and stages.

Intention

This speaks to how one enters an interaction and implies a certain deliberateness at the outset of any interaction. In other words, what am I trying to achieve in this conversation or relationship? Is it to win – as in debate – or analyze and compare – as in discussion? Or is to discover something new? The intention of dialogue that means most to me is ‘to participate in the emergence of meaning.’ The reason is that this definition suggests deeper levels of meaning that already exist, and that can be accessed in a way that allows them to emerge for application and implementation. It is probably fair to say, that all of us have experienced something of this nature in various situations: in dancing when the music seems to take over; on a team when together we rise to new levels; in a creative process when we realize that we are more than the sum of the parts; in a good conversation when we can feel that something new (something more than any of the different positions) is trying to be said.

It would be important, therefore, to be clear about one’s intention upon entering an interaction. This applies in a special way when the odds are high and the differences great.

Attitudes

I have found that, in a true dialogue, there are three essential attitudes that are all reflections of certain values that serve the kind of intention I’ve just described. These are empathy, equality and openness.

Empathy is generated when hearts meet, which happens when personal stories are shared. For, when I hear your story, I am drawn toward you in a way that fosters a spontaneous trust. My inclination, then, is to reciprocate, which leads to a fundamental connection.

Equality comes into play when we are exploring perspectives that are often different and even threatening. Here the tendency is to defend oneself by judging, rejecting and even destroying, all of which are premised on the perceived inferiority of the other perspectives. However, to refrain from, or at least temper, this tendency demands that we cultivate an attitude of equality between the various participants. I say ‘between the various participants’ because there are clearly better or superior positions or ideas (in the sense of more informed and developed) in play. In other words, equality refers to an essential or ontological equality that can acknowledge and integrate multiple perspectives. The idea of hierarchy in a system offers an analogy with its ability to marry the essential equality of all the parts with a necessary functional hierarchy that enables the system to realize its purpose.

Openness is the focus of discovery: those ‘eureka’ moments when eyes are opened and something new emerges. While all three attitudes reflect the ideal intention described above, openness captures the spirit of dialogue in a special way because it invites a different kind of interaction: collective thinking in the sense of thinking together. This is not ‘group thinking’ where every participant thinks the same, rather this is more accurately ‘group discovery’ that emerges, first perhaps, in one individual and then is taken up by another, then added to by yet another, and so on. Jazz offers a good analogy here, when the individual musicians ‘compose’ something new together out of the interaction of their different instruments and the themes they have offered.

Skills

Ultimately, a dialogue is without skills, in the sense of craft or the application of steps with their implication of contrivance. Rather it is an art whereby skills and techniques simply fall away or are integrated into a process of creation. Dance provides a suitable analogy here, for most dancers would say that true dancing occurs when they are no longer simply following the steps or applying the skills but, instead, have become one with the music and have allowed something new to emerge through them.

Of course, the implication is that the skills are still present; they have simply been integrated. However, in order to get to that place, these skills and the techniques they apply have to be practiced and practiced until they become second nature.

The skills of dialogue can be described as forms of listening: listening to others, listening to oneself, listening to and for what is emerging. Listening to others can take the form of various kinds of active listening, that include integral or wholistic processes: listening with one’s ears, but also with one’s eyes, body, heart, mind…

Listening to oneself is a form of self-awareness that is assisted by noticing when one is ‘triggered’, as we say, which is a kind of being ‘challenged’ or threatened. This is, perhaps, the place where the foundations for something new are developed; the place where the feeling and thinking of natural selection can be let go in a way that makes room for something else. Noticing in this way can also – and more immediately – lead to better mutual understanding by generating inquiry. In other words, noticing that I am judging something or someone can enable me to ask a question: ‘Is that what you are doing? Is that what you mean? Why are you doing that?’

Finally listening to and for what is emerging is the skill that enables us to build something new together; something that is not simply the imposition of my or your position, but rather something new that has been generated out of our efforts to understand each other more and more deeply (through inquiry as I described). The reason for or cause of this something new is the tension created by our differences when they are held together by our intentional, value/attitude-driven, skill-reinforced listening.

What remains then is for us to give form to what has been generated by – or perhaps, more accurately, through – us. Such building together is the only foundation for shared understanding which is, in turn, the only foundation for true shared meaning and real accountability.

Stages

The stages, as I have noticed, that constitute every true dialogue are connecting, exploring, and discovering. In certain contexts – a strategic interaction – harvesting can be a fourth stage. The stages can offer a form – a template – and a method to the Dialogue process. These stages imply – and are founded on – prefatory work, including the refinement of appropriate intention, the cultivation of right attitudes and the practice of the various skills.

Connecting

Connecting, which I have suggested, happens most organically and effectively through the sharing of personal stories, requires (besides attention to intention, attitudes and skills) a measure of vulnerability. While vulnerability would itself require a separate treatment, here it might be sufficient to note that it is a form of true courage. It also offers an entry point for others into my world, as well as an inspiration to share their own worlds.

Connection is the first and essential foundation for a Dialogue. Insofar as connection happens, Dialogue is possible; without connection, there is little possibility of generating anything new. Put differently, when there has been a real connection, dialogue is already happening, for connection like this fosters empathy and an empathy-based trust.

A final thought on connecting is that it is essential as a first step, for, without it, little can happen in the way of deeper understanding and creativity. In a world that may see connecting in this way at the beginning of an interaction, it might be said that doing so allows for deeper and more efficient interaction. It is like going slow at first in order to go faster later.

Exploring

Exploring focuses on mutual understanding. It builds on the empathy-based trust that the initial connection fosters to create a deeper understanding-based trust. While listening was part of the connecting stage, here it becomes the central thread that holds differences together in a way that will generate new meaning in the form of an insight, a new awareness, an awakening.

Listening in this stage focuses on listening deliberately – actively, reflectively – to each other to ensure mutual understanding. Simple tools or techniques can assist this process, like what I have called ‘the 3 Rules’ of” going in sequence, no interrupting, and trying not to rehearse what I am going to say. The latter often elicits resistance because it seems almost impossible, until people experience that even attempting not to rehearse allows them to hear much more and to be more present to the other person and to the present moment.

Listening to oneself brings the process of mutual understanding to even deeper levels, the reason being that this kind of listening helps us be aware of the many ways in which we actually construct meaning by bringing our particular lens to bear on the data encountered:

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
Anaïs Nin

We all live in our own ‘prison of perception’ that is built of assumptions and beliefs that we have both inherited and affirmed through our own experience. Through this lens we select data, add meaning, draw conclusions, and reinforce beliefs, that in turn shape the data we select and the meaning we add, etc. Often, we find ourselves ‘defending noble certainties,’ with all the force that this description implies. The process is constant and continuous, and it is self-reinforcing. In the Buddhist context, it is the source of the illusions that cause suffering for ourselves and for the world. The only solution – the only means of escape from this prison – is awareness. Buddhism and other spiritual traditions teach mindfulness practices to enable this awareness.

In the Dialogue context, I have found a tool called The Ladder of Inference (LOI)[1] to be most helpful in this aspect of self-listening. Put simply, if reality can be represented by the ground, then the Ladder represents our interaction – specifically our internal process – with this reality. Thus we select data, etc., as I described, as our way of constructing reality for ourselves. Moreover, this is a constant and continuous process: we go up the Ladder as soon as we encounter anything, or as soon as are triggered, as we say. In situations where differences are big we go to the top of the ladder where we ‘defend our noble certainties.’ It is here where wars are fought.

However, the LOI can actually help us listen better, initially by simply making us aware when we are triggered. Even this level of awareness can enable us to pause and make space for something else – and not simply the predictable reactions – to happen. Moreover, when the LOI is better understood and integrated into our interactions, it can deepen mutual understanding by inspiring questions that are based on the particular rung I find myself standing on. For example, if I realize I am on the rung of selecting data, the obvious question would be about clarifying this data: ‘Is that what you said?’ Or if I find myself on the rung of adding meaning, I might ask, ‘Is that what you meant?” The further up the LOI I go, the deeper my reaction is likely to be, but the deeper also is the potential understanding that can be excavated. For example, if I am on the rung of reinforcing beliefs, my question will deal with assumptions that are usually unconscious but which are probably driving the interaction. Thus, a question that this rung might suggest would be something like: ‘My experience has been that this is how to do xxx: can you help me to understand why you would do this differently?’

A final thought on the LOI, is that, while its application is primarily for myself, it can be used to assist the other in coming to more awareness. In a sense, this involves helping another come down the LOI – there is no productive interaction when we are at the top of the LOI – to a place where they can better appreciate what is going on.

Obviously the LOI demands deeper exploration than I can give here, but even this much reflection can be useful in helping us make the space for something other than the predictable reaction to continue.

Discovering

One of the things that characterize this stage of Dialogue is the element of surprise, which, in a way, highlights the fact that what is discovered is not something I have contrived. Moreover, what emerges in this stage is truly shared understanding because it is something – an idea, an insight – that has been generated by our interaction, by the interaction of our differences actually. The exploration has deepened the understanding without necessarily taking away the differences; in fact, sometimes the process increases the tension between these differences. But it is a creative tension that might be compared to a violin string, which, when loose, produces only a dull sound and when tightened too much simply breaks. However, when the tension is increased to just the right pitch, the string can produce a sound that can become part of a piece of music.

The Jazz group analogy also serves here, for it is the interaction between the different instruments that involves listening to one another, responding in a way that confirms what has been heard, questioning in a way that challenges, holding the tension generated – the pause – and then listening for what is emerging and giving voice to it in a way that invites other responses that build on each other, until a new composition emerges that comes out of a deeper place that all have tapped into. It is a composition that is shared – owned – by all the players.

In the dialogue context, there are tools that can assist this listening FOR and building together: like David Kantor’s[2] four speech types – mover, oppose, follower, bystander – that can help us determine how best to contribute to this discovery-building stage.

A personal footnote is that I have come to see that dialogue is the way all life – throughout the universe – unfolds: through the interaction of differences. My work with dialogue, therefore, has taken a number of forms: from facilitation, training, and consulting in the organizational context to personal guidance and collective prayer in the spiritual context. I call the work Dialogue for Life.

Meditation

Meditation has been defined in many ways, though a general thread that runs through most definitions is perhaps presence, in the sense of attention or mindfulness. The goal of meditation is expanded awareness and enhanced consciousness that is sometimes described in terms of deeper levels of meaning.

There are many forms and techniques for meditation though all of them involve silence. The process includes removing – by letting go – what are considered illusions that are the product of feeling and thinking. The latter, some would suggest, are the instruments of the natural selection process, the purpose of which is the maintenance and the propagation of the species or group. While this process is clearly important in the context of survival, which was the context for everyone in earlier stages of human evolution, they require modification, at least, in a world that is more complex. In this more complex world, the feeling and thinking – and consequent behavior – that the natural selection process elicits is no longer appropriate and, in fact, can cause confusion. The Buddhist tradition sees this kind of response – the feeling and thinking impelled by the natural selection process – as the source of all suffering, both our own and that of others.

Meditation, then, is the practice of letting go of this impulse and the feeling and thinking it produces, in order to access a more fundamental level of one’s being. Thus, one moves from an ego-self that is defined and confined by (mostly) unconscious assumptions – what the Buddhists would call illusions – to an expanded self that, free from the illusions of separateness and specialness, etc. that feeling and thinking create, can experience a self that is connected to, related to, and interdependent with others; ultimately all others. Meditation, like this is a life-long process, the goal of which is the experience of a higher self that finally becomes one’s essential identity. It is what some call enlightenment and others call salvation or heaven.

Meditation-Dialogue

I have found that Meditation and Dialogue can serve each other in a mutually enhancing way. Meditation enables deeper levels of presence and the attention it fosters to the stages (and practices) of Dialogue. In a similar way, Dialogue enables awareness and understanding that can enrich a meditation process. I have often said that if we can raise the level of our listening only 5%, that this will not only improve our attempts to dialogue, but it will also enhance our efforts to meditate. I might add that, if we raise the level of our listening, like this, we will in fact change our lives and ultimately our world.

To demonstrate this mutually enhancing meditation-dialogue relationship I have developed a simple template or method (see Appendix 1)

Comments

I remember when I encountered Dialogue in formal way (a training with some MIT colleagues). However, it was only later that I realized that I had, in fact, encountered Dialogue-in-action years before when I lived in Kenya among people for whom it was part of their culture: the way they determined how to address a challenge. They connected naturally; in fact, a conversation did not really begin until people had connected by sharing a piece of their deeper self. They explored thoroughly, listening to everyone and every perspective, often in ways that frustrated someone like me from a more ‘impatient’ culture. Finally they seemed to know instinctively when it was time to discover by listening FOR what was emerging and building shared understanding together. Perhaps, in fact, dialogue like this is the natural way, and that it is only the impatience that a culture of illusory control that has removed it from our places of governance and learning.

I have tried to apply Dialogue to the world of public and community health, to education, to organizational development and leadership, and to community efforts to address climate change: all with some success. It is only recently that I have come full circle to what I would describe as the more creative – prayerful, perhaps – interactions that I experienced in Kenya all those years ago: Meditation-Dialogue. Clearly, this has value in a world that needs to be more connected and more creative. Perhaps it may provide the basis for a simple movement of fellow travelers who need each other more and more in order to navigate strange and exciting waters.

 

APPENDIX 1

MEDITATION-DIALOGUE

Overview

This is an attempt to bring together meditation and dialogue in a simple process intended to generate enhanced consciousness. Meditation is essentially about presence (through attention), dialogue is essentially about listening (through connecting, exploring and discovering). Together they can generate deeper consciousness. A deeper consciousness is the key to a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and others with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.

STEPS

  • Meditation[3] in order to be present to the moment, to oneself and others       3 m
  • Connect through a question that invites sharing from this presence                         10 m
    • What is going on for you? What is most important right now?
  • Meditation to savor the connection                                                                              2 m
  • State/Read theme (poem, reading, music, etc.)                                                             2 m
  • Meditation to notice what the theme says to you:                                                           3 m
    • Pay particular attention to where you feel this in your body
    • Remind yourself of the validity of every perspective:
  • Explore by sharing the different perspectives elicited by the theme                        10 m
  • Meditation to acknowledge the importance of differences AND                        2 m
    • To advert to my ‘triggers’
  • Explore our differences and deepen our understanding through inquiry              10 m
  • Meditation to hold the tension between our differences and to listen FOR       5 m
    • What is being generated
  • Discover by sharing what is emerging and building shared understanding         10 m
  • Meditation on the ‘wisdom’ of this shared understanding                                       3 m
    • And commitment to the action it suggests
  • Close by sharing our commitments                                                                                    5 m

 

Personal Practice

Clearly personal practice will contribute to our efforts at Meditation-Dialogue. In this case the emphasis will be on meditation while dialogue serves as the enhancing agent. The following is a template for what we might call Dialogue-Meditation that uses the stages of Dialogue as a framework (Connect, Explore, Discover) and incorporates the principles (openness, empathy, equality) and skills (listening, etc.) of Dialogue, as follows:

STEPS

Connect to the moment: use your senses (hearing, smelling, etc.)                      3 m

Explore the theme: read the poem, etc. and listen to what it elicits in you:        10 m

 Pay particular attention to your body and senses                               

Explore further by noticing your thoughts AND simply letting them go:             7 m

Hold this tension by following your breath or using a mantra of your choice

Discover what is being generated by listening FOR and savoring the moment     7 m

Close by articulating a commitment, however small                                                    3 m

 

[1] The Ladder of Inference was created by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and has been used widely in the field of organizational development.

[2] David Kantor, (b. 1927) is an American systems psychologist, organizational consultant, and clinical researcher.

[3] Meditation format: 3 deep breaths + follow your breath + focus on:

  • The moment (the place, oneself, others…) OR the connection (the empathy generated) OR your body OR the validity of the other’s perspective OR the differences and the triggers they create OR the tension between the differences OR the consciousness that is emerging OR the action that it suggests

 

 

 

 

 

November, 2015

THE PARISH OF THE EPIPHANY

CALLED TO CARE:

A Seminar Series on the Care of Our Planet and Each Other

PRESENTATION 1:   WHAT IS OUR ESSENTIAL MISSION?

Daniel Martin 

Thanks, etc.

This is the first of two presentations or, more accurately, conversations on mission. The word is one that we associate with church or the military or certainly with a deliberate project, like an expedition of some sort, but it also applies to the journey of our own lives. I thought it would make sense, therefore, to reflect first on what our essential mission is and then – next time – take a look at how we can serve it, what I would call ‘a spirituality for mission.’

So what is our essential mission? What are humans for, my old mentor, Thomas Berry, used to ask, meaning, I suppose, what do we contribute to the great work of life, which suggests that our mission is related to our sense of purpose.

Two thoughts: one is that this mission is both individual and collective; and two is that it is a work in progress, in the sense that it is evolving. It evolves through our expanding awareness, both individual and collective. Thus my sense of purpose and mission as a child isn’t exactly my sense of purpose as an adult (though it is hopefully consistent with it).

If you are a religious person there is usually a parallel mission which you have integrated or at least personalized: loving your neighbor, for example. This too has evolved, not only over your lifetime, but over the centuries, shaped by our expanding collective awareness. Thus, our sense of mission and purpose today as Christian people is beginning to include and integrate our growing empirically-based awareness of an infinitely interconnected world. And the reason that Pope Francis is touching so many people is that he is giving voice to this evolving sense of mission and purpose.

As a way of illustrating this but also as a way of engaging all of you in exploring your own sense of mission, I will share with you the story of how my sense of mission evolved from childhood to adulthood and from missionary priest to post-institutional priest and how that process reflected a parallel collective process in the world, including the world of religion. I’ll then invite you to do the same, beginning today but continuing between now and when I return in a couple of weeks.

So here is my story: I was born into a post World War II Belfast that was excited and energized by the gift of a new life but also still caught in a prison of old conflicts that we are all familiar with. I was the child of a mystic: my mother, who struggled all her life with difficult health, was in touch with other dimensions of life, and people came to her to help them make sense of painful experiences like the loss of a child or a depression.

My Celtic heritage added to my own sensitivity to an invisible inner continent. Even as a ten year old I would lie in the heather on the mountain behind our house and feel myself one with the birds and the animals who lived there. I was drawn to mass in our morning candle-lit church of St. Teresa by the same sense of an inner world. And once, when I was about thirteen, I had a profound experience of interconnectedness in a monastery I was visiting with my uncles that defined my first sense of mission and purpose as exploring this vast inner world, what I came to call ‘the infinite place’. Mary Oliver captures a little of this mission:

..It is what I was born for –

to look, to listen,

to lose myself

inside this soft world –

to instruct myself

over and over

in joy,

in acclamation…

My first challenge was to find a way to live this mission. In the defensive Catholic world of N. Ireland in the ‘60s some kind of religious life seemed like the only option: so I went to a seminary to become a missionary priest. The challenge then became, how to hold onto this personal somewhat animistic mission in the world of institutional religion with all its rules and structures. One rather humorous example of the many clashes I experienced throughout those seminary years happened when I had been in the seminary only a few weeks and we had been introduced to the regulated – monastery-like – world of formal prayer and structures: like ‘solemn silence’ which meant complete silence after night prayers until after breakfast the following day. I smoked in those days and so, one evening, after night prayer I went out to sit under an October moon with a prayer in my heart but also a cigarette in my hand. The following day I was called into my spiritual director’s office and asked why I was smoking during ‘solemn silence’ when I should have been praying. ‘I was praying,’ I said. ‘But how could you pray when you were smoking?’ asked the director. My response probably labeled me for years to come: ‘Well, sometimes I pray when I’m smoking; last night I was smoking when I was praying….what’s the difference?’

Not only did the exchange label me as ‘too independent’ but it began a new stage of my mission as preserving the independence of an inner life in the face of an intellectual journey – the eight years of the seminary – that challenged and often dismantled much of what I had taken for granted (in religion as well as everyday life). The saving grace was the Vatican Council in the ‘60s whose documents began to percolate down to our little Irish seminary world: documents that spoke of a new era, of a church of the people that would liberate the poor and challenge systems of injustice. It was these messages that allowed me to stay with the hope of a church that was changing and would eventually address the inconsistencies of righteous exceptionalism (‘outside the church there is no salvation,’ for example) that I had begun to find increasingly inappropriate, and make room for the many ways people had developed for making sense of the mystery of the ‘infinite place’.

This hope carried me to Africa as a young priest with a mission that I began to see as a dialogue between different experiences of life that would deepen our collective exploration of the ‘infinite place.’ In the drought and famine-ridden world where I worked in Eastern Kenya this mission translated into an attempt to integrate the Christian message into the culture of the people but also to integrate the beauty of their indigenous culture into Christian thinking and ritual. I vividly recall an amazing ‘harvest festival’ in the middle of a famine when people came together to express gratitude for the famine foods – the root crops like cassava and yams – that sustained them when the harvest failed as it often did in that world. There were many such examples of the sense of mission that these people had that sustained them in the face of life’s challenges. However, one powerful example of this dialogue-mission that impacted me deeply was my encounter with Martha.

Martha was an elderly lady who was a member of our remote parish of Kimangao. She came to mass every Sunday and during the week she would often drop by the house to say hello, especially if she heard music playing on our radio. Then she would dance, rolling her shoulders in a movement that caused her substantial breasts to rise and fall like waves on the sea. In fact, this was how Martha prayed when she was moved during mass, approaching the altar dancing in this wonderful way. And I, in my youthful exuberance, would come out from behind the altar and dance with her.

Martha was my friend, in other words, who taught this young missionary more than I ever taught her. One day, when I had been in the country about six months I experienced my first famine. Famine, I learned, was part of life in that region of Africa where crops failed often. People marked time by these famines, each of which had a name: Yua ya Mbua’ – the Famine of the Rains – was the famine that was remembered because of the ironic flooding that challenged famine relief efforts. In famine times, people simply tightened their belts and sent the stronger ones off to find work in neighboring regions where there was food in order to bring it back home. They were not the horrendous tragedies created by war and corruption that we came to know. Nonetheless, they were painful times for the people; they were also painful for me, for I found the exercise of distributing food to beautiful and intelligent people like these heart wrenching and depressing.

One day during this famine period I was out on my motor-cycle, heading somewhere through the bush when I saw a figure waving me down, and recognized Martha. The first thoughts that came into my mind were not thoughts that I’m proud to share with you: ‘I’m too busy to stop and chat…she’s going to talk about the famine…she’s probably looking for help…she feels she has an ‘in’ with me and can get special treatment…’ This theater was playing out in my mind as I pulled up alongside Martha, keeping the engine running to demonstrate my busyness. And, the conversation began as it always did in Africa with what I came to call a connecting ritual: ‘where are you coming from, where are you going; how is your family, how is the other priest; etc.’ Meanwhile I was feeling increasingly impatient as the conversation turned to the expected focus of the famine: ‘yes, the crops had failed and there was a shortage of everything; and my family is all grown and gone to the city and my husband is dead…’ And so on, as I waited for what I thought would be the inevitable request for a handout.

But just as I felt my patience could hold no longer, Martha reached out her hand. However, she didn’t reach it out the way I expected – with her palm upwards – but instead with her hand clenched facing downwards. Reflexively I put out my own hand and Martha put a Kenya shilling into it with the words, ’It is very hot today Danny; go and buy yourself a soda…’ I almost fell over with surprise and, probably because I was so shocked, I don’t remember the details of what happened next. What I do remember is that the encounter changed me at some fundamental level that I have never forgotten. It also changed – or more accurately – confirmed my evolving sense of mission as mutual exchange and learning: a dialogue that engaged and served both sides. Certainly, not the neo-colonial process, albeit well-intentioned, of traditional missionary efforts, but a true dialogue that generates new meaning that touches both sides, like the quality of mercy that blesses him that gives and him that receives.

The next stage of my evolving sense of mission and purpose was a period that supported but also threatened the direction I was taking. Partly because I was good at this dialogue-mission – though partly, perhaps, as a strategy to straighten out a rebellious soul – I was sent to Rome, the heart of the beast, to study what was going on in the world of mission. There, two things happened: one was meeting wonderful religious people from all over the world and seeing the amazing potential for enriching the lives of everyone on our planet home; the other was the election of a new pope who quickly emerged as an obstacle to the process of autonomy building and dialogue that I was fostering as my missionary method. In fact, when I returned to Africa after Rome I found there had been a sea-change in the world I had left a few short years before. I also began to realize that this was part of a reaction to the energies of change that the ‘60s had catalyzed that was happening all over the world in the person of leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. For me it meant another stage in my missionary evolution process.

I began to advocate for strategic withdrawal of missionaries, partly in order to highlight the way things were already changing – fewer new missionaries and the development of an inadequate western-like local church – and partly as a way of sparking a movement to foster a real transition to a local church that was not simply a replica of the western one. At the end of three years of making my case I made the strategic withdrawal myself and came to the U.S. to explore a new framework for mission.

It was here that my own deep transformation of personal mission occurred with a vengeance. For it was here that I went through my own dark night, caught between a world that did not want me to come here – my superiors had insisted I return to Rome to deepen my exploration – and a world (the U.S.) that was struggling with and reacting to change at multiple levels. I had protested that, in order for us missionaries to keep our mission relevant I/we had to go and learn where the world was addressing change more directly.

In the U.S. I found myself living in a parish world but studying and then working in the much bigger arena of ecology with Thomas Berry. With Berry I found language and form for my long-time awareness of the ‘infinite place’ but also an insight into how this comes together with religion in an ecological spirituality. I wrote a Ph.D dissertation entitled: ‘Emerging Theological Consciousness and a Spirituality for Mission’. The consciousness was of an infinitely interconnected universe – and earth – while the spirituality for mission was a dialogue between the multiple forms of this universe that would generate new meaning that would enrich all of us, Christian and non-Christian, human and non-human.

My sense of our essential mission then became: to be the self-reflective consciousness of the universe, since in us humans, the universe comes to awareness of itself. The universe has evolved to self-awareness in the form of human beings. As one poet puts it, through my eyes the stars look back on themselves in wonder.

In this framework, my missionary work took the form of developing an Environmental Sabbath project for the UN Environment Program in the late ‘80s, to engage the religious world in this mission; the creation of a non-profit organization to develop an explicitly spiritual Earth Charter for the UN Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, and the proclamation of this Charter as the new – expanded – Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include the rights of all forms of life and the particular responsibilities of humans as the self-reflective consciousness of the universe.

For obvious reasons, perhaps, I realized I had to make another strategic withdrawal: this time because the gap between my mission and the organization I was part of had grown too wide. Or, as I used to say when asked to explain why I stepped out of formal priesthood, ‘the suit had become too tight.’

However, I soon realized that, as in the world of traditional missionary work, it was not enough to proclaim truths, no matter how self-evident; the real work was about helping people to address the challenges they faced and to integrate the expanding consciousness that had produced the Earth Charter principles into their everyday lives. It was this realization that inspired me to explore the skill of Dialogue with some folks at MIT who were using it as a way to enhance the capacities of corporate boardrooms. I developed programs to bring the skill initially to State and County Health Departments through the Centers for Disease Control, later to human service agencies, and today to a wide range of efforts that are trying to live and do their work in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. These include hospitals, social service agencies, schools, and various non-profit groups. I also brought Dialogue to my local community in New York in the form of Conversations for Action about Climate Change. These dialogues resulted in a Climate Action Plan which has won many awards, and a non-profit organization (Bedford2020) which was formed to implement the Climate Action Plan which has also been adopted by the Town Board as a set of fundamental criteria for its work of governance.

I will speak more about the art of Dialogue as a spiritual practice – a spirituality for mission – for today’s complex world in the next session. Suffice to say today that my sense of mission has evolved but has also continued to maintain a basic theme – a thread if you like. The American poet, William Stafford, describes this thread:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

The thread is essentially awareness – the cultivation of awareness – on behalf of the world from which we have evolved.

So, I would close by suggesting that our essential mission is to participate, through the cultivation of awareness, in the continuous – infinite – emergence of meaning. I might even describe it as giving birth to God.

We cultivate this awareness in all kinds of ways – immersion in other worlds, meditation, research – but in a special way through dialogue: dialogue with each other – other humans of all persuasions – but also dialogue with all life – the earth and all its creatures. Our essential purpose and mission is to learn to work WITH things in what one poet calls, ‘the indescribable relationship.’ In this way – perhaps only in this way – we will survive as a species but hopefully also thrive. I believe that this is what Pope Francis is saying when he calls us to take care of our common home.

So, there you have my story – my (still evolving) sense of mission and purpose – that has evolved a lot from childhood through adulthood and from formal priesthood to what I do today which I believe is still consistent with the original impulses of childhood, and, perhaps, still priesthood. I would like to invite you to share your story or at least begin to, for sharing our stories with each other is the first step in any true dialogue. I realize that this takes more than the time we have now; so for two minutes each in pairs, let’s share one thing that struck you as I talked. It may serve as a catalyst for your story.

SHARE for 5-10 m

By way of linking today’s session with my next visit in two weeks, I would invite you to make a date with someone for a half hour over a coffee to share your stories of your evolving sense of mission and purpose: what you believed as a child, things that changed that, what you feel now which may not yet have developed into clear thoughts or concepts. When we come together next time we’ll integrate this into my second presentation which I’m calling Dialogue as a Spirituality for Mission.

 

 

November, 2015

THE PARISH OF THE EPIPHANY

CALLED TO CAREa Seminar Series on the Care of Our Planet and Each Other

PRESENTATION 2:   Dialogue as a Spirituality for Mission

Daniel Martin

The art of Dialogue as a way of living creatively in today’s complex world

Thanks and….

Last time, I suggested that we human beings are the self-reflective mode of the evolving universe, because in us the universe has evolved into self-reflective consciousness. Our essential mission, therefore, is to contribute to the emergence of life and meaning. Today I’m going to focus on HOW we do this, what I would call a spirituality for mission.

Your responses to my personal story of my own evolving sense of mission highlighted a number of important things, including the depths of the ordinary – what some have called the ‘within’ of things – that we can all access, and an understanding of mission as sharing these encounters of the ‘within’ of things in a two-way, mutually enhancing process rather than the, mostly well-intentioned, neo-colonial forms of fixing or imposing that characterize traditional mission.

There is a poem by a Polish poet called Czeslaw Milosz that captures both aspects of this human mission:

Love means to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills –

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

 

Then he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

One of your responses to my presentation last week stayed with me: one of you spoke of scattering milkweed seeds as a way of supporting the threatened existence of the monarch butterfly. This for me is clearly a response to our mission to participate in the emergence of life; as the poet says, to use ourselves and things ‘so that they stand in the glow of ripeness.’

However, intention is not enough to live our essential mission. First we have to cultivate and deepen our capacity to be conscious and aware by learning how to be present to the amazing mystery of an interconnected world. People who are present in this way tend to be grateful for the gift of the moment, and grateful people tend to be less fearful and therefore less violent, more secure and therefore more generous, more joyful and therefore more respectful of others. But we also have to learn how to bring the fruits of this presence to others in Dialogue so that together we can deepen our awareness of the ‘within’ of things and generate the creativity needed to address the complex issues, like Climate Change, that we face in today’s world.

The title of the poem is ‘Love’, suggesting that love, which we proclaim as our Christian mission, is much more complex than we think. For example, we were often told that we don’t have to like each other in order to love; that sometimes it is simply a matter or tolerating others. While there is some truth in this, I’d like to examine this assumption.

A colleague of mine just recently published a book entitled, Trust in a Complex Society, in which he suggested that modern society was founded on the principle of tolerance: letting be, agreeing to disagree, ensuring rights, etc. Not bad. In fact, such tolerance allowed modern society to achieve amazing things. Today, however, in a world that has become increasingly interdependent on every level, from the economic to the ecological, tolerance is not enough. Society today needs to be based on the social principle of understanding, for we need to understand each other across our differences in order to generate creative new ways of addressing our complex challenges. The skill of understanding each other, my colleague adds, needs to be taught in schools and in all our institutions. Today I want to focus on this fascinating idea by examining the art of dialogue. I will try to show that the skills of dialogue are the way to mutual understanding and therefore what we need to live out our essential mission: that dialogue, therefore, is the spirituality for our mission as human beings in the world today.

Let’s begin by defining the two critical terms I’m using: dialogue and spirituality. First ‘spirituality’ – which is perhaps the more complex of the two in the sense that it carries a lot of unexamined assumptions – tends to be understood by most people as a part of religion; or as the work of professional religious people like monks. Let me suggest, instead, that spirituality is rather a critical dimension of human life that addresses essential aspects like meaning and purpose – what’s going on and where we fit in – and things like practices and tools that help us in this fundamental area.

So we all already have a spirituality in this broad sense, even if we are agnostic about meaning and purpose, and football and beer are the practices that reflect this stance before life. However, most of us would agree that there is something more to the human venture than the distraction of sports and entertainment: things like family and kids, or even service of a cause. We might also agree that there is a self, deeper inside me, that is mostly hidden but that emerges in certain moments: a truer, more authentic self that a challenge or a crisis can bring out. We would probably not hesitate to jump into a river to save a drowning child even if we couldn’t swim ourselves. Edge-moments like this bring out something in all of us. In fact, we are probably our truest selves when we are on the edge, where there is no room for pretense. And we’ve all known what some call ‘crucible moments’ when life brought us to the edge of our capacity and we tasted something of this authentic self, even if only for a moment. My story, which I shared with you last time was essentially a personal history of this authentic self.

I would suggest, therefore, that spirituality is about cultivating this truer self. I would add that this truer self is related to what I called last time our sense of mission and purpose. Simply put, our purpose in life is to discover and live this authentic self, and in this way to make our unique contribution to the larger mission and purpose of the universe we all share. As someone succinctly put it:

The meaning of life is to find your gift

The purpose of life is to give it away.

I think this is what Pope Francis spoke about in his Encyclical – his recent teaching – and in his presentations to Congress and the UN and others on his visit to the U.S. I think the reason so many resonate with Francis and his words is that he is both speaking out of his own authentic self and speaking to our authentic self. He is simply calling all of us, whether Christians or not, to be more authentically human by breaking out of old assumptions and mental models that are actually the cause of the challenges we face, from poverty to climate change. It is because we have lost ourselves in a world that caters only to our more superficial self, that needs the illusion of control to allay its essential fears, and readily accepts the distraction of the many things that foster this illusion, that we have the problems we now face, from war to environmental decline; problems that now threaten our very survival. And it is because Pope Francis is able to speak to that deeper self that gets lost amidst these distractions that people are responding to him.

One of the reasons that Pope Francis is able to do this is because he himself has known both sides of the process of trying to live authentically. In his early years he was both conservative and authoritarian, which can also be a way of hiding from one’s authentic self. The fact that he evolved, as did his sense of mission and purpose, through an expanded awareness to a different way of being in the world, is what makes him so credible. And it is this personal experience of his authentic self – and his spiritual practices to cultivate and live it – that allows him to speak truth to power, but in a way that models a different approach that is both empathic and non- judgmental as well as creative and energizing.

I would say, in fact, that his spiritual practice – what he does to cultivate his authentic self which shapes his sense of mission and purpose – is what we were discussing last time: it is the practice of expanding our awareness through dialogue. Let me explain by doing a little exegesis of the word ‘dialogue’ and then demonstrating how Pope Francis applies and lives it, and calls us to do the same as a way of addressing the complex challenges we face today.

The context of Francis’ teaching and the focus or our reflections here is Climate Change which is our most immediate challenge, the most critical to our survival because it relativizes everything else from health to poverty and from environmental decline to injustice. We all know this intuitively even if some of us deny it, which is why Pope Francis’ Encyclical is so important: not simply because he reminds us of the challenge – which he does with good science; and not just because he points out the obvious causes, from individual habits to systemic processes, including unregulated markets; and not because he points the way – the only way – forward as ‘a change of heart’, an ecological conversion, a new – expanded awareness and actions that are informed by all of this. But even more important, I would say, he points to a simple but profound method for doing all this: Dialogue, which is a word he uses twenty five times in his Encyclical.

I’m sure he means something more the usual rhetoric that gets bandied about, more too than good intention that we all can subscribe to, and more even than good sharing of information. What he means, I believe, is genuine interaction that will generate new insights and creative responses; Dialogue that allow logos – meaning – to emerge – dia.

When we think of dialogue we tend to conflate the word with others, like discussion or debate. We also assume that we know how to do it, and, by extension, that all we have to do in order to address our problems is to bring people together. Let me examine these assumptions.

First let’s compare the forms of interaction that we tend to conflate into a general term but which are quite different: like debate, discussion and dialogue.

Debate comes from the Latin word debattere and it means to ‘beat down’. Debate can be useful sometimes but it tends to make winners and losers and even polarize the two more than they were before the exchange. Isn’t it true that often when you argue and are defeated or ‘beaten down’, you find yourself even more entrenched in your old position. Debate is the typical process of our public conversation, whether in Congress or on the streets.

Discussion comes from the Latin discudere which means to shake and break asunder. Discussion also has its uses when breaking down and comparing things but it seldom produces anything new.

Dialogue, however, is something else. The word comes from the Greek dia (through) and logos (meaning) and describes a process of interacting that generates new meaning; allows meaning to come through. This idea suggests that meaning is a work in progress, that no one has a monopoly on it.

For the ancient Greeks, logos had a sense of ultimate meaning which made dialogue for them a sacred act: a kind of giving birth to God, which was how I described our essential mission last time. The implications of seeing mission as Dialogue are amazingly apt for today’s world where we need new meaning, – where we need God (a new God perhaps) to be born – in order to make sense of and respond to the complex challenges we face.

Dialogue, you can see, is much more than a chat. Moreover, it is not something we really know how to do, despite the rhetoric about international or interfaith or cross-cultural dialogue that is bandied about. Dialogue is an art, which, like any art, requires the practice of skills over time. It begins with an intention, though good intention is never enough: the road to hell is paved with these. But it also requires skills that can enable us to interact in a way that is more than ‘beating down’ and ‘winning’; more than shaking apart and comparing. The skills of Dialogue which allow to us interact in a way that generates new meaning in the form of shared understanding, include connecting, exploring and discovering together. These skills enable us to bring our differences together and hold them together in a way that creates a tension but also – through this tension – generates new life and meaning.

Think of how electricity – which is already present in a general way – is generated (in the sense of being made present), through the tension between opposite forces that are held together. Think of how Jazz generates music that didn’t exist before by bringing together different instruments in a particular way: Jazz doesn’t happen just by bringing the different instruments together but by having them connect, explore and discover together.

We connect in a Dialogue context through the sharing of our stories: the way we connected with each other last time. Last time I also invited you to continue and deepen this connection by taking a half hour to connect with someone through sharing your story of your evolving/changing sense of mission and purpose since childhood as a way of experiencing this aspect of a Dialogue spirituality: What did you experience?

SHARE and DEBRIEF

Story-telling is the way cultures sustain and grow; it is how people have always addressed collective challenges. It’s what we still use today with great effect in healing processes like grieving or the 12 Step program. Story telling is the art of skilled vulnerability which means the courage and capacity to share one’s authentic self. William Stafford says it very simply:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

When we connect in this way, we create the foundation for something new to happen. It’s why we do the opposite in war when instead of connecting we demonize in order to justify treating other people the way we do in times of conflict.

When we connect like this, however, something new WILL always happen. But we can go much further. Stage two of Dialogue is Exploration of our differences through listening in order to understand. This stage is about creating the conditions for new life – logos – to come through – dia. The conditions are essentially a creative tension. We all know uncreative tension in its various forms of conflict. What makes tension creative is mutual understanding. You don’t have to agree with me, rather simply listen to and understand what I’m saying. Instead of dismissing or rejecting you because your opinion seems to negate mine and me along with it, I can ask questions that get behind your opinion to your concerns and values which I may even agree with. Exploring like this takes us beyond simply tolerating to understanding. When we can do this – and we have all tasted such moments of mutual understanding – then something new begins to happen: germination, pollination; energy, light, music, beauty…..

This is what impels us into the third stage of Dialogue – Discovery – when we listen FOR what is beginning to emerge out of this creative tension. We find ourselves using language like, ‘this may sound weird but…’ or ‘I never thought of it like this before but…’ or ‘what if we were to…’ This is the language of the collective, of an authentic self that has transcended its individual form and expanded to a new level of awareness of interdependence. Then begins a building process with words like, ‘I like this direction and would add..’ or ‘I wouldn’t go that far but…’ This is the language of participating in the emergence of meaning which is how I defined dialogue at the outset.

Pope Francis is advocating this ‘Dialogue Spirituality’ when he calls us to immerse ourselves in the lives of others – he is thinking particularly of the poor – in order to understand how they experience the decisions of our culture, but also to discover, through this exploration, insights and new ways that can benefit all of us. The poor he is talking about are more than the economically deprived but also the nation-deprived, like the millions of refugees today. The poor are also the trees and the plants and the many species who have no one to speak for them. We have to immerse ourselves in their worlds in order to empathize by connecting, understand by exploring, and generate creative responses to the challenges we all face out of the tension of our differences.

When we do this we can address anything. Most of us are aware of the words of Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

This was certainly my experience, with people in the semi deserts of Kenya, with a small interfaith group in the Earth Charter project, with the people of Bedford NY when we created a Climate Action Plan, and with the organizations I try to serve today. All of these experiences demonstrate the power of this simple but profound method or, more accurately spirituality.

Margaret Mead’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, has a new book coming out entitled Love Across Differences in which she says that love depends on the recognition of something we have in common but also the valuing of differences. I think this is what Pope Francis is also advocating in his Encyclical in which he uses the word dialogue twenty five times. I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing new about the concepts he presents which are essentially an expansion of Catholic social justice teaching. What is different – and what is grabbing the imagination of people everywhere – is the HOW: how we are to go about fostering this justice. The word justice by the way in Hebrew means ‘right relations’: HOW we interact with each other and with all things.

Finally, Dialogue is something we can all do, which is why Dialogue is the true spirituality for living creatively today. For spirituality is nothing more – or less – than a way of living that addresses in particular the essential questions that we otherwise will avoid for many reasons.

Dialogue is a spirituality for mission that enables us to live as the self-reflective conscious mode of the universe. Dialogue is therefore also the spirituality for Climate Change that Pope Francis calls for.

Let me finish by highlighting a couple of implications of Dialogue Spirituality:

  1. Not everyone will meditate but everyone talks in some form: so all we have to do to change the world – our world – is to raise the level of our conversations
  2. We can start the Dialogue right now with whoever is ready.
  3. We can add more and more perspectives as we proceed.
  4. The Dialogue will result in decisions and activities that are increasingly comprehensive, more genuinely owned by the stakeholders and, therefore, more likely to foster commitment and accountability among them.

I’ll give the last word to the poet William Stafford once again, this time to highlight the urgency of Pope Francis’ call to take care of our common home:

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line my discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

APPENDIX

Reflections on the Encyclical – LAUDATO SI

In the first place Pope Francis presents climate change not simply as a scientific issue or even an economic one, but as a moral issue. He speaks of the need for ‘an integral ecology’ that calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.’ (11). Thus, for example, he says that

‘…the urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development (13).

And here he introduces the word dialogue for the first time – I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet (14) – which becomes, as the Encyclical unfolds, the basic action he is calling for.

After that he lays out the evidence that we are already familiar with but which, in this context, takes on new meaning as the mission of our times, and certainly in keeping with how I have described our mission as participating in the unfolding of life and God. He strengthens his perspective by putting this evidence in the context of a broken human society where there is global inequality (43-52) and weak responses by the global community (53-59). It is here, he suggests that ‘the light offered by faith’ (63) can play an important role. Drawing on the Judeo-Christian scriptures he speaks of the mystery of the universe (76), the role that every creature plays (84), and a universal communion (89) with all its implications for sharing the ‘goods’ of the world.

He then demonstrates the human roots of our ecological crisis (101): the globalization of the technocratic paradigm (106), and the crisis of anthropocentrism (115). When he has done that he draws out the implications of a truly integral ecology: environmental, economic, social and cultural. In this context he speaks of the principle of the common good (156) and how doing harm to one part of our common body means doing harm to all of it, including the earth and future generations (159).

But it is in his final chapters with their focus on action that he emphasizes the critical nature of dialogue at every level, from the international community (164) to the national and the local (176). He also includes dialogue between religion and science (199). What he calls for ultimately is ‘an ecological conversion’ (216): a change in attitudes born of empathy and understanding that will lead to new shared understanding about how we need to live together with each other but also with the entire community of life. A radical dialogue, in other words.

He concludes with a reflection on Mary: ‘In her glorified body, together with the Risen Christ, part of creation has reached the fullness of its beauty.’ (241) I am reminded of the teaching on the Assumption of Mary, which Carl Jung saw as the integration of the feminine principle into the Godhead. And finally he speaks of ‘beyond the sun’ when we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God..’ (243). ‘He concludes:

‘In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast.’ (244)

I found myself moved in a particular way by what was a kind of postscript where Pope Francis states: ‘…at the conclusion of this lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling.’ (246) It is in keeping with his authentic approach, that he acknowledges the magnitude of the issue we are addressing and does not attempt to gloss over it with platitudes, like God will provide, etc.

 

Back to Top