Notes on “On Dialogue” and in Relation to the Block Size Discussion (Dialogue)

We will begin with that rather than with trying actually to have a dialogue, since if you try to begin that way, everybody will wonder what is a dialogue and whether we are having one actually. Therefore we will be going off the point. So we will discuss dialogue for a while-what is its nature?
In a dialogue, however, nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins. There is a different sort of spirit to it. In a dialogue, there is no attempt to gain points, or to make your particular view prevail. Rather, whenever any mistake is discovered on the part of anybody, everybody gains. It’s a situation called win-win, in which we are not playing a game against each other but with each other. In a dialogue, everybody wins.
Now, why do we need dialogue? People have difficulty communicating even in small groups. But in a group like this of thirty or forty, many may find it very hard to communicate unless there is a set purpose, or unless somebody is leading it. Why is that? For one thing, everybody has different assumptions and opinions. They are basic assumptions, not merely superficial assumptions-such as assumptions about the meaning of life; about your own self-interest, your country’s interest, or your religious interest; about what you really think is important. And these assumptions are defended when they are challenged.
Scientists also get into the same situation. Each one may hold to a different view of the truth, so they can’t get together. Or they may have different self-interests. A scientist who is working for a company that produces pollution may have a certain self-interest in proving that the pollution is not dangerous. and somebody else might have self-interest in proving that it is dangerous. And perhaps then somewhere there is an unbiased scientist who tries to judge it all. Science is supposed to be dedicated to truth and fact, and religion is supposed to be dedicated to another kind of truth and to love. But people’s self-interest and assumptions take over.
There are various roles that people adopt. Some people adopt the dominant role, some adopt the role of the weak powerless person who can be dominated. They sort of work together, with each other. Those ‘roles’, which are really based on assumptions and opinions, will also interfere with the operation of dialogue. So a person has built some assumptions about himself, whether it’s one way or the other.
So when you raise the number to about twenty, something different begins to happen. And forty people is about as many as you can conveniently arrange in a circle-or you might put two circles concentrically. In that size group, you begin to get what may be called a ‘microculture’.
The power of the group goes up much faster than the number of people. I’ve said elsewhere that it could be compared to a laser. Ordinary light is called ‘incoherent’, which means that it is going in all sorts of directions, and the light waves are not in phase with each other so they don’t build up. But a laser produces a very intense beam which is coherent. The light waves build up strength because they are all going in thesame direction. This beam can do all sorts of things that ordinary light cannot.
Now, you cold say that our ordinary thought in society is incoherent-it is going in all sorts of directions, with thoughts conflicting and cancelling each other out. But if people were to think together in a coherent way, it would have tremendous power.
‘Tacit’ means that which is unspoken, which cannot be described-like the tacit knowledge required to ride a bicycle. It is the actual knowledge, and it may be coherent or not. I am proposing that thought-to think-is actually a subtle tacit process.
The tacit process is common. It is shared. The sharing is not merely the explicit communication and the body language and all that, which are part of it, but there is also a deeper tacit process which is common. I think the whole human race knew this for a million years; and then in five thousand years of civilisation we have lost it, because our societies got too big to carry it out.
In the beginning, people won’t trust each other. But I think that if they see the importance of the dialogue, they will work with it.
A basic notion for a dialogue would be for people to sit in a circle. Such a geometric arrangement doesn’t favour anybody; it allows for direct communication.
The hunter-gatherers have typically lived in groups of twenty to forty. Agricultural group units are much larger. Now, from time to time that tribe met like this in a circle. They just talked and talked and talked, apparently to no purpose. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate. There may have been wise men or wise women who were listened to a bit more-the older ones-but everybody could talk. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other so well. Then they could get together in smaller groups and do something or decide things.
The object of a dialogue is not to analyse things, or to win an argument, of to exchange opinions. Rather, it is to suspend your opinions and to look at the opinions-to listen to everybody’s opinions, to suspend them, and to see what all that means.
If we could all share a common meaning, we would be participating together. We would be partaking of the common meaning-just as people partake of food together. We will be taking part and communicating and creating a common meaning. That would be participation, which means both ‘to partake of’ and ‘to take part in’. It would mean that in this participation a common mind would arise, which nonetheless would not exclude the individual. The individual might hold a separate opinion, but that opinion would then be absorbed into the group, too. He might or might not keep his opinion, but his meaning would be seen. However, insofar as people have opinions that they defend, or assumptions that they defend, there is something that interferes with creativity. If you are defending an assumption, you are pushing out whatever is new.
Thus everybody is quite free. It’s not like a mob where the collective mind takes over-not at all. It is something between the individual and the collective. It can move between them. It’s a harmony of the individual and the collective,in which the whole constantly moves toward coherence. So there is both a collective mind and an individual mind, and like a stream, the flow moves between them. The opinions, therefore, don’t matter so much. Eventually we may be somewhere between all these opinions, and we start to move beyond them in another direction-a tangential direction-into something new and creative.
Now, that would be the ideal situation. I’ve painted the ideal picture.
I am saying society is based on shared meanings, which constitute the culture. If we don’t share coherent meaning, we do not make much of a society. And at present, the society at large has a very incoherent set of meanings.
A society is a link of relationships that are set by people in order to work and live together: rules, laws, institutions, and various things. It is done by thinking and agreeing that we are going to have them, and then we do it. And behind that is a culture, which is shared meaning.
The important thing is that we will never come to truth unless the overall meaning is coherent. All the meanings of the past and the present are together. We first have to apprehend them, and just let them be; and this will bring about a certain order.
And we have to begin here at the grass roots, as it were, not to begin at the top of the heap with the United Nations or with the President-although even the President and Gorbachev are now going to have a talk in which they have no agenda and are coming to no conclusions, so the idea must have percolated to that level, too; I don’t think that they have thought it out for themselves. The idea of no agenda and no conclusion has probably been circulating among the lower echelon-which shows how these ideas do percolate and may even reach the highest levels.
That they are meeting is a very healthy development. It is a really good sign if they are going to do it. I know that there are people in the State Department who are familiar with this idea of dialogue-it could have reached them that way. This indicates that things can communicate very fast in this modern world-though that may look very insignificant at first. In three to five steps it might reach all sorts of levels. Just as the destructive things communicate, so this idea of dialogue could communicate, too.
We once had a dialogue in Sweden, in which the group seemed to divide itself into two factions. There were a lot of ‘New Age’ people, and from the beginning they began to talk about the virtues of love and the fact that the place was full of love all around, that it was all love everywhere. Part of the group remained silent for a while, but in the next hour they started to talk. They intimated that the love talk was all sentimental nonsense and didn’t mean anything. Then one fellow got so excited that he couldn’t stand it, and he walked out. He eventually came back, and they finally got together again. Polarisation had taken place, which is a typical difficulty that can arise. Someone noticed the polarisation happening and said with a bit of good humour, “There are two groups here-the love group and the hate group.” That broke the tension a little, and the two sides could then begin to talk. They didn’t necessarily convince each other, but each was able to see the meaning of the other side’s position, and the two polarised groups were able to talk to each other.
It is important to understand that a dialogue group is not a therapy group of some kind. We are not trying to cure anybody here, though it may happen as a by-product. But that’s not our purpose.
An essential feature of the dialogue group is that it is able to reveal assumptions. These assumptions are actually making us ill. And in that sense, it is therapy to reveal them. The content here, then, is more in that direction and eventually moving toward being free of those assumptions, and exploring something new beyond the assumptions.
The point is not to establish a fixed dialogue group forever, but rather one that lasts long enough to make a change. If you keep holding it for too long, it may become caught up in habits again. But you have to keep it up for awhile, or else it won’t work. It may be valuable to keep the dialogue going for a year or two, as we said, and it is important to sustain it regularly.
I’m saying that it is necessary to share meaning. A society is a link of relationships among people and instituti-ons, so that we can live together. But it only works if we have a culture-which implies that we share meaning; i.e., significance, purpose and value. Otherwise it falls apart I know some university professors who are interested in applying the principles of dialogue to corporate problems.
Very often people get into problems where they don’t really know what the other person’s assumption is, and they react according to what they think it is. That person then gets very puzzled and wonders: what is he doing? He reacts, and all gets very muddled. So it is valuable if they can at least get to realise each other’s assumptions.
Now, if the company is to work efficiently, there must be a mutual agreement that they are not going to give a person a higher position just to alleviate a psychological problem between people. That’s not a right way to proceed. Everybody should understand that that is not the right way of working, otherwise the company won’t succeed. Therefore, a dialogue was needed so that they could really begin talking with each other in order to come to see clearly the salient points: that’s the way we are thinking, that’s where the problems are coming from, and that’s the way we have to go. So within the framework of assuming that the company has to survive, there was a limited kind of dialogue-not the kind we ultimately want to have here, but still it was good in some way.
Now, I am suggesting that the human race has got to do that. We could say that the human race is failing for the same sort of reason that the company was failing.
The facilitator may come in from time to time and comment on what is going on or what it all means. In a more general group he should eventually be able to be just a participant. Probably in the company group this wouldn’t work, though; he couldn’t become just a participant-such a group has too limited an objective.
Some people feel that that type of corporate dialogue is only furthering a corrupt system. However, there is a germ of something different. I think that if you go into society, you will find that almost everything is involved in this corrupt game. So it doesn’t accomplish anything to dismiss it all. The executives have got to make the company work; and in fact, if all these companies would work more efficiently we would all be a lot better off. It’s partly because they are in such a mess that we are in trouble, that society is inefficient, that the whole thing is falling apart. If the government and the companies could all work efficiently, we wouldn’t be so waste ful, even though that by it self wouldn’t solve all the problems. You can say that Bush
and Gorbachev are not likely to have the kind of dialogue that we are talking about. But if they will have any kind at all, if they’ll begin to accept this principle, it’s a step.
There may be no pat political ‘answer’ to the world’s problems. However, the important point is not the answer-just as in a dialogue, the important point is not the particular opinions-but rather the softening up, the opening up, of the mind, and looking at all the opinions. If there is some sort of spread of that attitude, I think it can slow down the destruction.
So we’ve said that it is crucial to be able to share our judgement, to share our assumptions and listen to each other’s assumption.
Therefore, this is crucial both individually and collectively; and dialogue is the collective way of opening up judgements and assumptions.
And it’s very important that it happen together, because if one individual changes it will have very little general effect. But if it happens collectively, it means a lot more. If some of us come to the ‘truth’, so-called, while a lot of people are left out, it’s not going to solve the problem.
The collective dimension of the human being, where we have a considerable number of people, has a qualitatively new feature: it has great power-potentially, or even actually. And in dialogue we discuss how to bring that to some sort of coherence and order. The question is really: do you see the necessity of this process? That’s the key question. If you see that it is absolutely necessary, then you have to do something.
And perhaps in dialogue, when we have this very high energy of coherence, it might bring us beyond just being a group that could solve social problems. Possibly it could make a new change in the individual and a change in the relation to the cosmic. Such an energy has been called ‘communication’. It is a kind of participation. The early Christians had a Greek word koinonia, the root of which means ‘to participate’-the idea of partaking of the whole and taking part in it; not merely the whole group, but the whole.
This, then, is more or less an outline of what I mean by ‘dialogue’.
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