The word ‘dialogue’ is so overused and misused that it’s become almost meaningless. I prefer the word ‘enquiry,’ since ‘inquiry’ means a formal legal investigation.
Enquiry is to the social dimension what meditation is to the solitary one. To my mind, the two most important things a human being can do are regularly initiate the movement of negation in meditation alone, and ignite shared insight with others through enquiry. Enquiry, like meditation, is a phenomenon, not an action or activity.
Consciousness is a single movement, albeit one with many currents, tides, eddies and levels. The notion of ‘my consciousness’ is absurd; there is no such animal. Conditioning never occurs in isolation, and below the surface levels, consciousness is a river in common.
I recall a meditative dialogue with about twenty people that took place around a campfire some years ago. We were a diverse group of strangers, there to hear an outdoor talk earlier that day. Someone began to question some of the things that were said by the speaker, and, in an unprompted way, others adopted the same spirit and kept the ball rolling.
The ball, in enquiry, is a mutual question, which moves and changes in response 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, answers or opinions, the questioning does not elicit answers, but further questions, which are pursued for their own sake.
It’s kind of like playfully pushing a light boulder up a slight incline, where the crest of the rise isn’t visible to anyone in the group. The intent isn’t to get to the top (not knowing where it is or whether you’ll reach it), but simply to start a self-sustaining process of questioning together.
In amicably questioning together however, a group of individuals often unexpectedly reach the top. Then the mutual questioning and insight really begin rolling.
Since humans are social creatures, and language is the universal medium of our species, communication at a meaningful level, as rare as it has become, is intrinsically rewarding for us. Sharing a moment of insight is evocative and even transformative for two people; when fifteen or twenty people truly question and awaken insight together at deep level, it affects consciousness as a whole.
Around the fire, we went beyond the habitual reactions of words and ideas. We crossed a threshold and our communication became a communion of meaning and insight. Questioning unfolded in the exploration of meaning, which opened the door to mutual insight.
We lost our separateness without losing our individuality as the barriers of selfhood melted away. For an hour or so, we shared a space of mutual insight.
As always happens in a group of people, some people talked more, some talked less. And there was one person didn’t speak at all. It was a fellow who seemed to be fully participating without saying a word. Being skeptical, 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. Did you feel fully part of the enquiry?” “Yes, I did,” he replied; “I didn’t didn’t have any urge to speak, but was listening deeply and sharing in the flow of the questioning and unfolding of the insights.”
“You could feel the quality of your listening; it significantly contributed to the enquiry,” I responded. He smiled, fittingly said nothing, and we went our different ways.
I’m sure every one of us was changed to some degree by the depth of communication that night.
Communion through enquiry has tremendous implications, both individually and socially.
Can enquiry be initiated with any group of self-aware and serious-minded people? I’m sure it can. Though rare, awakening shared insight through questioning together is no more ‘mystical’ than awakening meditation alone.
Enquiry isn’t in anyone’s control, but there’s no reason to fear things going out of control. So what are the basic ingredients that make the phenomenon of shared questioning and insight, which are always of present, possible?
The first thing is listening, holding a space for questioning. In that protected space each person follows the thread of a question as it unspools, rather than follows a leader or moderator directing the dialogue. Participants hold beliefs and opinions, as well as associations, knowledge and experiences in abeyance. That’s difficult, but not that difficult.
Most importantly, each person in a group approaches the questioning from the feeling of ‘I don’t know,’ rather than ‘I know.’