2012-08-27

Attention, Everyone

A dialog group is like the back porch scenario in not having a purpose defined in advance, but it needs to be a larger group of people. It needs to be, according to David Bohm, more than twenty. Why? Because smaller group don’t have enough conflict. In a smaller group we can all adjust to each other.
“If five or six people get together, they can usually adjust to each other so that they don’t say the things that upset each other – they get a ‘cozy adjustment.’
People can easily be very polite to each other and avoid the issues that may cause trouble....In a larger group...the politeness falls away pretty soon.” (Bohm, On Dialogue)
In that very conflict comes the unsettling – for, as Emerson said, it is only when we are unsettled that there is any hope for us.

Irony. In the conflict lies the possibility of wholeness that we can never have on our own.

Dialogue is not discussion. An individual’s thought is inherently fragmentary, and in discussion it stays fragmentary.
“Discussion is like “a ping-pong game where people are batting the ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points.” (Bohm, On Dialogue)
“In the dialogue, a very considerable degree of attention is required to keep track of the subtle implications of one’s own assumptive/reactive tendencies, while also sensing similar patterns in the group as a whole. Bohm emphasized that such attention, or awareness, is not a matter of accumulated knowledge or technique, nor does it have the goal of ‘correcting’ what may emerge in the dialogue. Rather, it is more of the nature of relaxed, nonjudgmental curiosity, its primary activity being to see things as freshly and clearly as possible. The nurturing of such attention, often bypassed in more utilitarian versions of dialogue, is a central element in Bohm’s approach to the process.” (from "Foreword" by Lee Nichol to David Bohm, On Dialogue
In Dialogue, each individual agrees to suspend judgment in the conversation. “Suspend” doesn’t mean you don’t have the judgment. It just means you don’t live there.
"...people in any group will bring to it assumptions, and as the group continues meeting, those assumptions will come up. What is called for is to suspend those assumptions, so that you neither carry them out nor suppress them. You don't believe them, nor do you disbelieve them.”
“For example, if you feel that someone is an idiot, to suspend you would (a) refrain from saying so outwardly and (b) refrain from telling yourself you should not think such things.”
You don’t suppress the thought, nor do you indulge it. You “suspend” it – as if it were hanging in the air in front of you, and you just look at it, watch it. And you watch what the effects of the thought are. The thought “you are an idiot,” is going to be attended by feelings: agitation, anger, resentment. Don’t suppress those either. And don’t indulge them either. Watch the feelings as they run their course. See them without identifying with them. Suspending an assumption or reaction means neither pushing it out of your mind nor following through on it, but fully attending to it. Dialogue, ultimately, is about attention.

It is fascinating to me that a theoretical quantum physicist – just by watching his own thought process as he tackled the problems of physics by himself and in groups – came up with just what the great spiritual traditions teach. You may have heard the Japanese story of the student who came to visit a renowned spiritual teacher, and found the master absorbed in calligraphy:

Japanese Kanji for "Chuumoku" (Attention)
The student asked, “Please, master, write for me something of great wisdom."
The master pulled over a clean sheet and his brush quickly wrote the word: "Attention."
The student said, "Is that all?"
The master wrote, "Attention. Attention."
The student became irritable.
"That doesn't seem profound or subtle to me."
So the master wrote, "Attention. Attention. Attention."
In frustration, the student demanded, "What does this word 'attention' mean?"
The master looked up, and for the first time spoke: "Attention means attention."

You might, like the student in the story, find this disappointing: dry and uninteresting. We would like the prospect of spiritual development to be exciting. Attention is pretty boring.

If you’re feeling boredom, that’s OK. Pay attention to the boredom, too.

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This is Part 3 of 4 of "Holy Dialog"

Next: Part 4: "'To Arrive Where We Started'"
Previous: Part 2: "Remember That We Are Insane"
Beginning: Part 1: "Dialog"