The word ‘dialogue’ is so overused and misused that it is no longer useful. Too many people mean too many things by the term. I prefer the word enquiry (‘inquiry’ being a formal legal investigation).
As I see it, enquiry is to the social dimension what meditation is to the solitary one. These are two prime actions of a human being —awakening meditation alone, and awakening insight with others through enquiry.
Enquiry, to my mind, is a phenomenon, not an activity. The first requirement for it to occur is realizing that consciousness is a single movement, albeit one with many currents, tides, eddies, and levels. The notion of ‘my consciousness’ is mistaken on the face of it; there is no such animal. Conditioning is collective, and consciousness is held in common at a fundamental level.
The potential of enquiry was brought home to me during a conversation with about twenty people that took place around a campfire some years ago. We were a diverse group, mostly strangers there to hear an outdoor talk earlier that day. Someone began to question some of the things that were said by the speaker previously, and others adopted the same spirit and kept the ball rolling.
The ball, in enquiry, is a question, which moves and changes relevant to the situation and the people involved. Enquiry begins when two or more people ask a question that they passionately share. Refraining from proffering conclusions, beliefs, or opinions, the right question prompts further questions, which are pursued for their own sake.
It’s kind of like playfully pushing a small boulder up a slight incline, where the crest of the rise isn’t visible to anyone in the group. The object isn’t to get to the top (not knowing ahead of time where it is or whether you’ll even reach it), but simply to start a self-sustaining process of questioning together for its own sake.
In amiably pushing a boulder up a slope together, a group of individuals often unexpectedly reaches the top. Then, as the boulder begins to move on its own, things really begin rolling with questioning and insight.
Since humans are social creatures, and language is the sine qua non of our species, communication at a meaningful level is intrinsically rewarding for human beings. Even so, communicating at the level of meaning, beyond words, is rare, even (and perhaps especially) for people who know each other well. So it’s a remarkable thing when twenty people can truly think together at a deep level.
At some point our communication crossed a threshold and became communion. We not only shared in the unfolding of questions and the exploration of meanings, but began to transcend prior ideas, and even words themselves. The barriers of separate selfhood melted away, without losing the sense of oneself as an individual human being. For an hour or so, we shared a space of mutual insight. Then it was over.
As always happens in a group of people, some people talk more, some talk less, and one or two don’t speak at all. There was one fellow I’d noticed who seemed to be participating without saying a word. Being a skeptical sort, with a penchant for checking my perceptions, I approached him as the group was breaking up.
‘I noticed that you didn’t say anything,’ I began, ‘and yet I felt that you were deeply participating nevertheless. Is that true?’ “Yes, that’s right,” he replied, “I didn’t feel like speaking, but felt fully included and part of the conversation.”
I’m sure each person was changed to some degree by the events of that night. Can enquiry be initiated with any group of self-aware and serious-minded people? I’m sure it can, since I’ve experienced it many times. Indeed, awakening shared insight through enquiry is no more ‘mystical’ than awakening meditative states alone.
Such communication has tremendous implications, both personally and politically. Enquiry isn’t under anyone’s control or direction, yet there is intelligence operating. Awakening that shared intelligence, which has nothing to do with groupthink, crucial for cooperation in the global society beyond the divisions of belief and the separations of language.
The most important ingredient for enquiry to take place is that each person in a group (which could be just two people) approaches the conversation from the feeling of ‘I don’t know,’ rather than the usual ‘I know.’ Also, that the people present have a passion to find out anew, and ask and follow the right question that resonates with everyone.
Enquiry awakens shared insight, and everything flows from that. Try it.