What is the connection between meditation, dialogue and collective transformation?

Opdateret: 15. apr. 2019

This blog seeks to answer to why we both as individuals and as a collective seem to struggle immensely with one simple yet imperative ability. Namely the ability to see reality as it is, to see that a truth is not the truth, to realize that neither do we as individuals have to live from past emotions, nor do we as societies have to relive our collective stories and shared assumptions from the past. The ability to break free of those is a crucial asset for creating sustainable futures, and solving the massive problems facing the world of today. The question is, how do we deal with both the individual and the collective dimension? And how do we deal with our society and each other differently, when we start seeing that the pattern on both dimensions is similar?

On an individual level, the practice of meditation seems to contain a powerful ability to increase individual awareness and transformative power, while on a collective level, dialogue seems to builds on similar qualities and reinforces similar abilities for when we have to act and think not alone but together.

The trend of personal growth

Our modern Western world seems to be overly engaged with personal development in form of leadership and skill sets that helps the individual to navigate in times of complexity and ambiguity. Seen from the perspective that glorifies personal development, the goal for the modern human embarking on its development journey is basically to do two things: Number one is to find awareness. Harvest knowledge about ourselves by realizing what has shaped us, what is our virtue and our vision for life, and identify which behaviours and beliefs promote this vision as well as which undermine it. Get rid of those that undermines and keep the others. Number two is to command this awareness at all times, as a way of directly shaping and influencing our reality in the moment. The directive capacity is essentially about not only knowing, but being what you know, creating new realities (patterns) instead of conveying habits that do nothing more for us than reuniting us with the feeling of familiarity.

The two things make a pretty simple recipe, yet we are talking about something that is deeply challenging to most of us. The reason for that is that even when we know our vision, and we use all our capacity to keep focused on this vision, somehow out of nowhere “something” gets in the way. Often the harder we try the harder it gets. Often the faster we go the longer it takes. Very frequently we discover that the thing that gets in our way more often than not turns out to be ourselves.

Why do we get in our own way?

Part of being human is to live with some fundamental paradoxes ingrained in us and in the nature of how we think. They can be felt differently, but we all know them and experience their influence on us. As an example we want security for many different things, e.g love, and at the same time we want freedom from the very same things to also experience independence. We want to show love for others, be humble, be compassionate and kind, but we also want to show love for ourselves, and sometimes put ourselves first. Let us take the example of going on a diet. You begin, knowing strongly that a diet is what you want and desire for yourself. Still at some point you might fall back to an old habit, you might be pushed by “something” to eat something you did not want to eat. It is your own inner paradox at play: often, paradoxes stem from automatic reactions coming from the thoughts you have created and built over years about yourself, about food, about satisfaction, about your body.

In all of us there is a paradox of contradictory mechanisms, that on the one hand wishes one thing, but on the other hand is contrained to act opposite to this, according to our deeper belief system. If we do not understand what hunts us from the past (memories, beliefs, assumptions and truths) we will naturally start hunting something else, something innocent like food or something third. We can use anything to act out our shadows. In general those inner paradoxes have the power to trick us beyond our conscious understanding.

So what do we do about it?

Dr. Despenza is one of those dedicated researchers who has shown how the nature of our reality is inextricably in our own hands, and how it is scientifically proven that having power over our thoughts and awareness can even change our biology. He says that the way to get out of our own mess of paradoxes, and to use the power of the mind is to learn not to get stuck in our own perspective. We need to learn to see things and reality for what it is in the present moment, and not according to the past. It requires us to perceive reality from a place where we open ourselves up to the unknown. This is not easy because any form of insecurity, self doubt or unease makes us return to emotions and thoughts that we are used to, that we know, that are familiar to us, even if they are not true or no longer relevant. Dr. Despenza as well as many other scientists, thought leaders and life coaches believes that the answer to obtaining this ability lies in meditation.

What is meditation?

Meditation philosophy and practice derives from Buddhism, and has been practiced in many other ancient religions throughout. The idea of meditation is to learn to not ascribe immense importance to our emotions. We easily identify happiness with pleasant feelings, we easily identify suffering with unpleasant feelings. When the mind experience pleasant or unpleasant feeling, it is through meditation that mind learns to understand things as they are - simply pleasant or unpleasant feelings. And not connecting these feelings automatically to either happiness or unhappiness. If I experience sadness without craving that the sadness goes away, I continue to feel sadness but I do not suffer from it. In fact there can actually be richness in the sadness. Meditation therefore is a way to learn to just be with and experience our feelings without feeling bound to live the stories we have attached to them, without feeling bound to react to them or feeling bound to identifying with them.

So to sum up so far: On an individual level we struggle with paradoxes that works against us when we are not aware of them, we struggle to be present with our emotions and feelings without identifying with them and reacting to them, and we struggle to see reality for what it is and not get caught in our own perspective and our past experiences that has shaped our reality (and will keep shaping it if we allow it). Meditation is a practise that when we learn it helps us to perceive the present moment and create our own realities from a greater awareness.

And what does it mean when realising that it all repeats on a collective level?

Interestingly enough this combination of challenges repeat itself on the collective level. Just like the modern individual the modern society also has clear expectations of what it means to become more developed and what is mean to solve and overcome the long list of problems we got. We know what our problems are, we know where we want to go. But also on a collective level things often lead to similarly-rooted failures and contradictions that mirror the fall-backs and contradictions that an individual going on a diet might face. When we do not see that we are dealing with paradoxes rather than straightforward problems, the consequence will be that the more we try to solve our problems the more we seem to repeat them. Take an example of any company, whose management wishes to improve the working culture of the company by generating more trust, openness and dialogue amongst the employees. This aim is clear, but on the way to reach this goal the contradictions will show themselves. The very influence of the certainty of the goal, as well as hidden assumptions about the need of the goal, blindspots about past experiences in the company, all have the power to destroy results and bring out precariousness within the company instead of trust. Something got in the way, and this something might easily be placed on “someone” (lets say a manager or a facilitator). Where this kind of conclusion might help to place blame, is will not be sufficient to understand what is really going on.  

What is really going on is that we as a collective (just as the individual) got in our own way.

What gets in our way if our blind spots, that hinder us from seeing the wholeness of the paradoxes and seeing our own habits of thought acting out automatically, based on collective truths from the past.

If we are not aware of how the identification with those truths, narratives and assumptions shapes everything around us, we are bound to repeat them blindly. Just as the individual can use anything to act out his or her shadows from the past, we as a collective can do this too.

So if we want to create new realities and solutions. Ones that can truly deal with the problems we face today as well as reach the dreams and ideals we aspire towards. We as a society also have to break free from our stories, myths and truths.

“Our feelings and habits of thinking are part of a complex web that links us all together; it is our ecology of thought. This ecology is the living network of memory and awareness, one that is not limited to any single person but is in fact held collectively. It is the matrix that informs us the world is in a certain way and that problems can be solved in only a certain way” -  David Bohm (author of “On Dialogue”)

While meditation helps our mind to see and act in reality on an individual level, dialogue do the same for the collective mind on the collective level.

As explained above, individual who are caught in life’s paradoxes can benefits from the power of meditation. Learning to see reality for what it is, to realize that reality is not shaped like a story or a truth, no matter what the content of the story is and how much we believe in its content. If we want to harness similar benefits on a collective level, where we face paradoxes and we struggle to change our collective habits, what might then be the equivalent to the practise of meditation? I believe the answer is called dialogue.

Dialogue is basically meant as the practice of having a conversation as a group, that makes people connect differently to each other, to themselves and to the system. A conversation that goes deeper than any normal conversation, and where no-one knows exactly what will come out.

It is important to distinguish between dialogue and discussion. Discussion is without doubt needed for many of the problem finding situations and decision making situation we face today. We need the rational thinking and skill of analysing situations based on our knowledge, data and opinions, which we can find in discussion. Discussion is the dominant mode of interaction in most professional settings. However it tends to force people into an either/or thinking, into familiar habits of thoughts, into positions and an excessive focus on “winning” the exchange, which means to beat, convince or dominate the “other” view or side.

Dialogue is something completely different. Dialogue works from an assumed wholeness, from an awareness that entails the capacity to see the living process that underlie all things, right in the moment of their occurrence. Dialogue is a conversation that creates room for the kind of speaking and listening that is rooted in the reality of the present. Because of these qualities dialogue is a method that allows us as members of a system to see ourselves, to see reality, to see the patterns that exist, and to become aware of the truth and assumptions that exist between us. Dialogue is an ancient practice, that we all know deeply how to perform because we are human, carrying a deeply embedded memory of ancient fires and circles with us through evolution.

Imagine a group having a difficult problem about money. They enter into a real dialogue, and because the dialogue space is not about winning an argument or dominating an opinion related to the problem, the real feelings and attitudes around money and the problem can surface. Because the conversation is not controlled, it might feel a bit chaotic, but it allows the group members to listen and respond to what happen to them and to others from the present moment. While group members shared about their relationship, feelings, assumptions, and opinions other group members can simply allow themselves to notice what this does to them. Because dialogue takes place in a slower speed than we are used to in regular conversation, group members might start noticing underlying dynamics, dilemmas and polarities coming to the surface that the group have not been able to see before. This safe, fluent, open and participatory process about money can in the end change everyone involved including the perceived problem.

One of the savants of Dialogue practices William Issacs, describes true dialogue in this way:

The intention of dialogue is to reach new understandings, and in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act. In dialogue one not only solves problems, one dissolves them. (Dialogue: the art of thinking together)

Dialogue is a method for how we can learn to think and be not alone, but together, which actually seems to build on similar functions and premises that meditation offers the individual. This is because using dialogue in a group is a way of dealing with the thought process that takes place behind the past assumptions we all carry, we almost constantly listen with, and speak with, and that essentially creates any kind of fragmentation we experience between each other. Through dialogue when we actively engage in our truths, and we dare to let go of them, we work with the thought process. We actively create and change thought, and thereby our reality. Dialogue is about being in spaces where we can observe our thoughts without judgement and without identification (which means where the assumptions and truth can be played out without the need of reacting to them). In dialogue we can become aware of how opening our hearts and listening to someone with empathy changes us, and we can become aware of the new and powerful solutions we might find when we have the courage to stretch beyond what we know.

To summarise and conclude:

As explained above, insecurity and unawareness makes us return to emotions and thoughts that we are used to and familiar with as individuals and as a collective. Through meditation we as individuals can make our brains think and fire new habits of thought that help us to not identify with certain knowledge, ideas and assumptions about ourselves. Similarly in dialogue we are in conversation together and we create meaning together that builds on the same functions of letting go of our judgement, assumptions and truth by looking at them in an open and safe space.

Individually through meditation one can learn to:

  • Become aware that you are not your emotions nor your thoughts. It has to do with learning to feel your emotions but to not succumb to living the emotions. Let them exist, harness the power from them instead of suffering from them or being dependent on them.

  • Learn to understand the paradoxes you live with. (Since the disorder in man´s nature is the outcome of a paradox, no attempt to treat it as a problem can bring this disorder to an end. - David Bohm, On Dialogue)

Collectively through dialogue we can learn to:

  • See the impact and the reality of our collective truths and assumptions.

  • Understand how those will keep reproducing our past, unless we become aware of them and learn to face them together.

  • (In safe spaces) being with our frustration, tension, conflict, without suffering from it. Here we can learn to live in closer contact with the “heat”, the uncertainty and the ambiguities which have the power to separate us or bring us closer together.

  • Eliminate and/or change our collective thought patterns, in similar ways to the process by which meditation eliminates and changes an individual's thought pattern. This enables us to respond properly and more intelligently to societal paradoxes, because we learn to see reality in front of us while suspending our projections, judgement and impulses to react from the familiar place.

Personal development is important, and meditation can help a true and powerful inner journey and inquiry to manifest. From my perspective what we truly need is not powerful practices for the individual. What we truly need is powerful practices for the collective. What we need is not just people who know how to overcome his or her habits and act skillfully in the face of uncertainty, but instead to become collective magicians that know how to work on the creation of meaning and realities, together, in dialogue.

The basic premise of this blog is that the real root cause to all of the big problems we face today originates between our ears, in the quality of our thinking. The question is then how can we and when do we stay aware and actively shape the evolution of our thinking? Maybe through meditation or through dialogue? It seems like a complex test, and so is it something we leave the provenance of researchers and academics to figure out?

Why should we do that? I believe the need for Dialogue in our society is imperative and urgent. This urgency is not an academic revolt, it is a civic revolt and should begin from all parts of our society. We can and should start enacting in our communities a conversational spirit that has the power to penetrate and dissolve some of our most complex problems. We just need to get started with Dialogue and trust that cultivating these skills for dialogue is something we inherently already carry in us.  

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