Insight Dialogue

09 Sept ME

Most of us have experienced relaxed conversations that just seem to flow, perhaps in a setting where nature is on view like the one in the photo or around the kitchen table. Peace descends and we feel whole and seen.

Often, however, we lose track of that potential. Avoiding getting stuck cycling on issues that concern us can be difficult enough when we are on our own. Maintaining calm awareness while interacting with others can be particularly challenging.

Insight Dialogue provides support to bring tranquil awareness to the interpersonal domain. First one person speaks on a designated topic while the other listens silently without commenting and then the roles are reversed. There may be an additional timed period with no separate speaker and no separate listener. Pausing allows time to discern what would be beneficial to say as well as time to take in and gain new understanding from what is said.

The Insight Dialogue’s guidelines create the safety needed for evolving trust and authentic sharing from the heart: Pause, Relax, Open, Attune to Emergence, Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth. It becomes clear we are all vulnerable and that we also have great power to support each other just by how we listen.

This video of Phyllis Hicks facilitating an Insight Dialogue practice shows this supportive energy. You can see the openness, authenticity and caring connection in the responsive body language of the participants. More of Jeff Klein’s sensitive videography can be seen at his website.

Gregory Kramer developed Insight Dialogue. his website, InsightDialogue.org, includes information on each of the Insight Dialogue guidelines as well as opportunities to experience online drop-in sessions, and face-to-face practice.

The Insight Dialogue guidelines honor dignity; attentive listening meets disclosure for all participants. That makes it easier to truly show up and pay attention to what is said including by oneself. Participants are better able to perceive the preciousness of our sensitivity to each other and learn how to bring greater compassion to all interaction.

Because of the vulnerable investigation of experience, difficult emotions may arise at times. David Treleaven provides guidance for recognizing and addressing adverse reactions that can arise with any form of mindfulness practice.

In my experience, most of those who try Insight Dialogue appreciate the careful attending that goes well beyond the normal rushed and distracted quality of much everyday interaction. With practice, I found I could bring that same supportive energy to any conversation, and that brought a whole new ease to my life.

Living Intertwined

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I purchased this lovely two-inch pendant without knowing anything about it. A little online research informed me that it is a Taka. Taka are treasured heirlooms of the Ngadha from the beautiful Island of Flores in Indonesia.

Being Singular Plural explains: “to be Ngadha is to have a keen sense of being implicated in the existence of others. Being with others is a human concern, as people cannot exist in the singular. For Ngadha people, this is particularly explicit, so that individual independence is not a coveted state of being; rather being singular plural is the principal mode of existence.”

The author goes on to explain, “Ngadha practices of interdependence are reflected in the community economy, which privileges ancestor worship, community cohesion and group distribution of resources above the needs and desires of the individual…Interdependence is a dominant feature of everyday Ngadha life and organization. Ngadha people’s view of their own society involves a sense of self that questions the conceptual separation of self from others. Frequently, people alerted me to the ways in which everyone and everything is connected.”

When what we need (and often only what we mistakenly think we need) is bought and sold using money and we do not directly perceive how things are made or obtained, it is easier to forget how much we depend on each other. But scientists keep finding evidence for our fundamental interconnection with each other – that this ‘we’ sense of identify has validity.

In Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, Lieberman notes, “Just as social and physical pain share common neurocognitive processes, so…do physical and social rewards share common neurocognitive processes.” There is evidence that our brains synchronize during social activities, and recently it was found this is also true for bats. As Zhang explains, “The ‘magic’ here is social interaction. When we interact, our brains engage each other indirectly through our behaviors.”

in Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, John Cacioppo and William Patrick describe the many negative effects that result from feeling socially isolated (which has been found to be as bad for us as smoking). They describe how “the sensory experience of social connection, deeply woven into who we are, helps regulate our physiological and emotional equilibrium. The social environment affects the neural and hormonal signals that govern our behavior, and our behavior, in turn, affects the neural and hormonal processes.”

That Taka is a reminder that there are those living on this planet who understand and honor our inextricable interdependence. Perhaps the growing scientific evidence will help us remember how important to us our social superpowers really are.

Creating Welcome

Bringing in peace as you prepare for a gathering will affect you in ways that cannot help but benefit your guests – Pause, Relax, and Open, Attune to Emergence and Listen Deeply. Then Speak the Truth in creating an environment that conveys warmth and welcome. The Insight Dialogue guidelines work well in so many applications including this one.

Perhaps you will include a reminder of nature displayed in a place of honor with space around it. Using a light touch, see what happens. Relying on a heart connection without words can open us to wonderful small surprises and an understanding that with a little care, life can be lived more like a work of art.

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You can bring to it all the sensitivity and freshness used to create a tokonoma alcove arrangement for a tea ceremony. This one includes a collage by my tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya:

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You may also wish to keep in mind the Japanese tea ceremony values of harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. While it is important to ensure that what touches food or drink is scrupulously clean and that edibles are pure and safe, purity also dictates that anything not needed be eliminated. Care taken with objects and supplies implies respect for your guests.

Ideally, the result will be supportive of a sense of peace and wellbeing as well as openness. It takes a bit of effort, but this approach to preparing for guests is an important mindfulness practice in its own right.

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The Unending Sea of Blessings

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The below contemplation was used for several tea and dialogue sessions with an explanation that “The unending sea of blessings,” a phrase used on scrolls hung in Zen temples and during tea ceremonies is not a closed concept. It tells us what we can sense when we remove the obstacles we put in our own way. Wilson discusses it in The One Taste of Truth, Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea on page 135.

The ability to experience pain is necessary for biological beings. We need to recognize and avoid what is dangerous in order to survive. But humans can easily get stuck cycling in stressful worry and doubt. We can forget that compassion also comes naturally to us.

Compassion is. It matters as much to us as sensing pain. That understanding is common to spiritual traditions the world over. We are born with an instinct for compassion. Even babies too young to speak will pick up something that is dropped and hand it back to you.

Bringing in self-compassion when it is needed makes it easier to see the caring generosity from others and nature all around us. It shows us the unending sea of blessings. Research provides evidence that when we offer support to others, we benefit our own wellbeing, health and resilience.

We can open to the preciousness, the beauty of the transient tides we swim in. We dance the unending sea of blessings as much as it dances us. We have the capacity to do small acts of kindness as simple and important as a smile. We can recognize the light in each other that shines through our uniqueness.

We belong to the source of all waves
Colors never seen before
Floating and becoming and blinking out of existence
Only to well up again with
All the moldy, composted, and fertile mysteries
That make up our days
And the recognition when we see
Our own water light colors in others’ eyes
Facing waterfalls and the ocean, we recognize
The call in our sea salt blood ever coursing
We answer our cries for compassion
From no-thought belonging

Solitary Peace or Loneliness?

Nantucket

It is amazing to me how different the states of solitary peace and loneliness are. The gift of mindfulness is the ability to bring compassionate awareness to them both.

While moments of transcendent peace can show us our belonging with all that is, a study found that mindful wisdom can combat the common human experience of loneliness with all its devastating effects.

We face a global epidemic of loneliness. In a 2017 article in The Atlantic, loneliness expert John Cacioppo was reported to say, “When you look across studies, you get levels anywhere from 25 to 48%.” Loneliness is gaining attention in the media as research demonstrates its serious adverse health effects which have been found to be as bad as smoking.

But just as we do not intuitively grasp the health threat from loneliness, we tend to have no idea how much we have to give and receive by tapping into and drawing upon our fundamental interconnection.

Traditional farmers needed close social coordination to raise animals and grow crops. Large families meant more helping hands. Elders taught grandchildren important skills and wisdom while their parents were engaged in the demanding physical labor necessary for survival.

Now the majority of humans live in urban settings. Packages magically arrive at door steps. Many of us spend long hours working at computers. Family members can, and often do live far apart from each other.

The incredible popularity of social media demonstrates how much we long for connection. But a recent study found that negative comments on social media can lead to felt social isolation. But with no negative comments, social media did not increase participants’ sense of being connected with others.

Fortunately, we are not powerless in the face of the rising tide of loneliness. Caring interaction provides our species with vitality, resilience, joy, creativity and hope. Our brains provide neural rewards for generosity. Supporting others provides significant health benefits not only for the person receiving the support but the person giving it.

The Arlington, MA Council on Aging (COA) offers many opportunities for social connection. During my internship there while working on a Masters in Mindfulness Studies at Lesley University, I realized many elders are naturals at mindful connection. With time more precious, perfection and things matter less. What does matter is time spent together. They understand that deep listening and honesty support the kind of heartfelt aware connection that amplifies wellbeing.

As I learned, many of the 200(!) or so Arlington COA volunteers are elders themselves. When asked what they were most grateful for, a number of volunteers told me it was the opportunity to support others. I found that quite moving. That understanding is both rare and badly needed. It should not take a natural disaster or realizing there are few years left for us to understand we have the tools to honor each other’s dignity in ways that are mutually supporting.

My experience offering mindful tea and dialogue workshops to elders confirmed my sense that they might be well positioned to create and promote opportunities for the caring connection that is so badly needed in these increasingly lonely times. During these tea and dialogue sessions, I observed: (1) caring support, (2) appreciation that deep listening powerfully benefits both the speaker and the listener, (3) growing trust and openness, (4) delight in sharing natural objects and stories (5) playful and joyous creativity, and not least (5) satisfaction from being able to support each other in ways that truly matter.

A Cat Kindred Spirit

Jude needed a new home. When Shah Hadjebi told me she was a special cat, I knew I could believe him. As it turned out, that cat and I were kindred spirits. When I was home she was always with me. Unlike most cats, she liked to be carried. Since she loved looking out the large kitchen window, I began to carry her for daily walks in my garden. She could be playful and active at times, loved catnip, and when she wanted to go somewhere she let you know it.

I cuddled her under a blanket “cave” when I knew her days were numbered. I told her, “All we have is the present moment.” Cats understand that. They live their whole lives that way. A year after she died, I asked Shah to paint her portrait. He used the photo of her looking up at a blue jay through the kitchen window, a most fitting way to celebrate the life of a cat we both loved.

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Jude

Music of the Spheres and Your Brain

Could it be that our brains are singing meaning along with the universe? Because I am taking a course on meditation and the brain, I have been thinking about how miraculous our continually changing human brains really are. I try to remind myself that even though we have names for parts of the complex brain, … Continue reading “Music of the Spheres and Your Brain”

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Could it be that our brains are singing meaning along with the universe?

Because I am taking a course on meditation and the brain, I have been thinking about how miraculous our continually changing human brains really are. I try to remind myself that even though we have names for parts of the complex brain, that does not mean we understand all that is going on.

For example, articles make broad claims about the benefits of singing, and my experience would agree. But studies also make clear that a better understanding of specific aspects might lead to useful practical applications. I began to wonder about whether the rhythms and compositions I intuitively frame in my close-up photos make use of skills enhanced by neuronal connections formed during many years of singing. My ability to detect and relate to subtle nuances in tone of voice certainly grew over that time.

Recently while meditating, I had the feeling that the fact that everything is constantly changing is not just an annoyance. It seemed a fundamental building block of reality and, in fact, worthy of awe. I had the odd thought that when our sun consumes our planet, that transience will still be vitally “alive.” I found that oddly reassuring.

Toward the end of this talk on the brain, Keith Kendrick mentions that the time series of activity in the brain carries meaning, not just the structure or individual signals. This resonated with the musical quality that physicists seem to find at all scales including the probability waves at the heart of quantum theory.

Of all the problematic human undertakings, we can be proud of the music we make using our miraculous brains and bodies. As this article on modern physics and music describes: “Music resonates, it pulses, it leaps into our psyches. It offers a safe space for scientists and musicians alike to work through the paradoxes of modern physics.”

Noticing Stones

It is the rare child who does not like stones. Some of us never stop picking them up. It is not just the stones but the process – the adventures involved in finding them and the friendships.

These examples lined up above my monitor speak of the natural world with resonances appreciated by the Asian scholar.

Viewing stones on shelf

A close looks provides access to amazing colors, details and dreams:

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The Dragon on the Ceiling

Dragon ceiling

I know I could happily continue writing posts about various forms of radiant refuge while trying out blog features. I feel a strong pull in that direction. But it is time to pause and consider all is not joy and light. My research into whether blogging can be a skillful means for mindful communication is revealing serious risks. Because of how our minds work, potential for harm can hover outside our normal range of awareness, like that dragon on the ceiling in the image above.

This post considers how tendencies of our human minds contribute to the potential for causing and/or ignoring harm. Here are examples along with questions they raised for me regarding the implications for bloggers:

Cognitive psychologist Mariana Funes discusses how we tend to attribute good and bad behavior to personal traits – however as she notes, studies show we actually respond more to situational factors. What situations or technical affordances do bloggers encounter that might lead them to cause (or ignore) harm?

Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom stresses the priority we give to conforming with perceived social pressure given our desire for esteem even if that requires we inflict or suffer harm. Can bloggers natural desire for followers and standing with their imagined audience cause them to overlook or downplay harm?

Researchers Tappin and McKay confirmed we have a tendency for a deluded sense of moral superiority. Does this mean there is less motivation for bloggers to acknowledge and work to change harmful structures, norms or behavior?

Francesca Gino discusses research that demonstrates we often cause harm without knowing it. Given the amplified speed and reach of online communication, what should bloggers do and advocate that others do to stay on top of potential harm before it spreads?

Geoff Shullenberger discusses troubling implications of mimetic theory – that our tendency to mimic others in determining what we desire leads to harmful behavior online: “the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies toward envy, rivalry, hatred of the other that feed online violence.” (or offline violence) Yikes! I don’t want to agree with this theory even though our behavior appears to confirm it is true. I will keep that as a worthy one to consider. Even if mimetic behavior like that is an undeniable tendency of the human mind, that might make accessible radiant refuges like nature that support clear thinking and human wellbeing all the more important.

Our minds also make it easy to share personal information without considering the associated risks:

Scientific American presented the neuroscience behind why we find such great pleasure in talking about ourselves. Those with a stake in advertising revenue, have reason to encourage this tendency as well as our vulnerability to forming habits so we continue to contribute free labor that draws attention to advertisements.

Naiveté about these kinds of mind tendencies can be particularly dangerous when we interact with online technology. The recent Facebook scandal is a case in point.

Bloggers are not immune to issues that apply to social media. For example, platforms that offer blogs for free also depend on advertising revenue. Even independent bloggers who pay for the blogging services they use and do not seek income from their blogging need to consider the economic implications of their generous impulse (another mind tendency). Putting valuable information and art out there for free has serious implications for those trying to earn a living using their creative talents.

While we are distracted and stressed by information overload, our planet’s capacity to support us is being strained and we face serious problems that need our attention, wisdom and creativity. In the online environment, it is becoming all we can do to pay brief attention to the next thing that comes up while turning to what feels familiar for some sense of comfort, even when what feels familiar may be causing harm.

My personal commitment to mindfulness requires that I make a good faith effort to ensure that the benefits of my blogging outweigh the harm it might cause. That includes considering the level of effort and the time that requires. There are other communication options available. Since I hope to inspire my readers to actualize and protect the best of which they are capable, it is important that I not undermine my message by how I say it – the benefits of my blogging must outweigh the risks of its causing even indirect harm.

Regardless of any external controls that are put in place or the platform, those who share online will always be ultimately responsible for the content they place there. The tendency to take technological affordances for granted, to welcome new ones, and to be drawn in by the benefits of their use is another reason for considering the risks of using them. Making intentional choices while blogging requires insight into what we are capable of as we interact with technology-mediated forms of communication.

Addendum:

This blog post was originally titled “Issues and Downsides.” I decided to change that since the central point of this article is the importance of awareness of potentially harmful mind tendencies (that hovering dragon metaphor). The examples of research and writing about such mind tendencies have been updated for clarity, questions bloggers might want to consider, and the discussion of Schulenberger’s mimetic theory was added.

Voice Lessons

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Photo by Kathleen Fink

I met Joanna Porackova (left), several years ago when she was rehearsing for a concert. My choir director and talented composer, Jeffrey Brody (right), was accompanying her. The sanctuary where they practiced looked like a large overturned wooden boat with pews lined up under it. Sound bounced all around inside that space and musicians loved performing there.

I sat a few pews back. I was hoping for some feedback on a PR piece I had written for the local newspaper. When Joanna noticed me sitting there, she asked Jeffrey to start over again, so I could hear the piece they were rehearsing from the beginning. Joanna said, “She worked so hard on that article.” I was to learn that kind of thoughtfulness was typical of her. I do not take it for granted. I still feel honored that she did that.

Then the two of them performed just for me. Time stopped. Awe is no stranger to me. But the glorious sound of her voice took me over. They were in perfect accord about what the music should do. I knew at the time, I would never forget that experience.

When I came in early for choir rehearsal, I would sometimes see them in the sanctuary. At times, she was giving voice lessons to one of her students with Jeffrey accompanying. Other times, he would be coaching her on a new opera role, or a solo part in a major classical work. It was obvious they were good friends. Jeffrey is an expert on Wagner who coaches opera singers on Wagnerian roles, and Joanna’s voice is suited to that music. It was clear they both know the world of opera from the inside out, and enjoy talking about it.

Jeffrey suggested that I take a few voice lessons with Joanna. I did not take him up on the idea. I had been singing in one choir or another for much of my life. I loved choral singing, but I knew I was no soloist. However, when a choir friend suggested I join her for the warmup portion of her lesson with Joanna, I could not resist. That is how I started formal voice lessons in a limited kind of way, anyway, with a kind opera singer whose voice awed me.

The vocal warmups we did might look quite peculiar to someone observing us. We would position ourselves some distance apart on the strip of carpet in the center of the sanctuary. We held our heads up while lying on our stomachs in the Cobra position, practicing ever higher scales and coming back down again. We paid attention to filling our lower back with air in the Child Resting position. We ended by singing scales on various vowels while standing on one leg in the King of Dance and Tree positions. Then my friend would work on singing various pieces, and I would watch.

As I learned, early voice lessons are all about letting go of tension that shows up in the voice. Unlearning deeply ingrained habits can take time. Each person’s body, mind and experiences are different. It is the voice teacher’s job to figure out what would be most helpful. The routine she taught was how Joanna’s teacher taught her to do vocal practice. That made sense to me. Yoga is a way to free up energy in the body that works for many people. The sound I made was usually richer and stronger when I was in one of those odd positions, especially the arching ones that opened up the air way.

When I mentioned her kindness, Joanna told me she had intentionally chosen kindness as her way of coping in the world. She even used it during the unnerving auditions that all professional singers endure. To manage her fear, she uses her singing to send healing energy to those who are judging her. By her kindness, Joanna made herself totally trust worthy.

That kind of trust is useful for voice students since a high degree of exposed openness is involved in singing well with one’s whole heart. Before I started lessons, one of her professional students told me that all of her students love her. I have no doubt of that, even regarding any of her future students who have not met her yet.

My choir friend stopped taking voice lessons, so I began taking them on my own once a month. I explored a bit, discovering haunting Celtic songs that seemed a good match to my vocal quality, and my heritage.

For one of my lessons, Joanna asked if I minded if another person joined us for the warm up. I was happy to accommodate him. I sensed she wanted to help this young man in some way using the healing power of music. After the lesson, I said, “If you were not a professional singer, you could be a healer.” That was when she told me she had spent much of her career as a pediatric nurse.

Someone working in the hospital overheard Joanna singing to one of her young patients and suggested she contact a voice teacher he knew. By the time she had advanced to teaching nursing, her singing career was really taking off. She had a choice to make, and she chose music. She then performed opera roles and solos all around the world as well as appearing in radio programs and recordings.

She became known for her sense for the inner drama of the music and her wide vocal range. Those of us who know her well, however, would add kindness to her list of outstanding talents. Joanna told me that she still visits shut in senior clients in their homes and sings to and with them.

I stopped taking voice lessons when I became a graduate student in Lesley’s Mindfulness Studies program. I learned about many wonderful mindfulness practices and tried them all. Nonetheless, I consider singing one of my favorite mindfulness practices. I continue to sing with my choir friends. And I keep in touch with Joanna. I still wonder at the fact that I have a famous opera singer as a friend. But why not? She and I have many common interests including music, spirituality and healing.

Although I have not discussed the subject with her in detail, I am sure she would agree that singing is advanced mindfulness practice. While learning a new piece takes thought and voice lessons take effort, with singing itself, there is no time to stop and think about anything. One is aware of one’s breath, the nuances of the music, the words and their pronunciation, and the pitch and the quality of one’s sound, but it all flows. Letting go, over and over again like that is excellent mindfulness practice.

When a group of singers who like each other also like the music they are singing, a very strong communal awareness can arise. This sensitive and dynamic awareness is very much alive in its own right. The audience senses it when it is there in the sound. It is not guaranteed. Everything has to come together. I find singing in the midst of strong communal awareness to be a fundamental bottomed-out joy with freedom to it, a bit like taking flight.

Eventually we were able to find a slot of time when Joanna could join me in the tea hut I had installed in a mossy corner of my yard. I also invited a new friend who practices Tibetan Buddhism sensing that the two of them would like each other. I explained a little about Japanese tea ceremony and poured them bowls of tea in an informal version of the practice. Afterwards, we spoke of many things including the importance of making time to slow down and share like we were doing.

Joanna mentioned that she did not think she had told me she had learned to chant the Heart Sutra from a friend. My new Tibetan Buddhist friend asked if we could hear a bit of it. The three of us were standing in a triangle only three feet away from each other on the tatami mats in my small tea hut as she began. Time stopped.

Her vocal quality was entirely different from that time when I was first transfixed by her voice in the church sanctuary years earlier. There was an unexpected gruffness of tone that only enhanced the spiritual depth as she chanted the words. It was incredibly powerful. It was as if she were channeling an enlightened medieval monk.

It is not unusual for time to slow way down when I am in my tea hut sharing tea. But this was different. She told us there were tears in her eyes as she chanted because she knew that the two of us would understand.