At Practice Circle, we’ll be working with an interactive mindfulness practice developed by Gregory Kramer called Insight Dialogue. In this practice, we work with a partner, and take turns speaking and listening to one another on a theme chosen to help us share on a deep level. Although we are conversing, Insight Dialogue isn’t chatting; it’s about bringing mindfulness skills to the act of communicating with another person. In my experience, it’s even more challenging than sitting in silence, because it tends to trigger all of our habitual ways of presenting ourselves to others when we’re talking, and of judging, planning a response, or even becoming completely distracted when we’re supposed to be listening. In this way, Insight Dialogue introduces us to aspects of our mental reactivity we may not have a chance to notice in sitting meditation. It also gives us practical experience bringing the skills of mindfulness into our lives off the cushion.
Insight Dialogue is built around six very simple instructions: Pause, Relax, Open, Trust Emergence, Listen Deeply, and Speak the Truth. The meaning of most of these instructions is more or less intuitively obvious. But from the time I was first trained in Insight Dialogue, it seemed to me that Trust Emergence encapsulates not only the whole of Insight Dialogue practice, but is also the key to living a mindful life.
Here’s how Kramer explains Trust Emergence:
To Trust Emergence is to enter practice without the bias of a goal. This does not mean we do not hope for better communication, wise relationships, or the emergence of collective intelligence, compassion, or peace. Rather, we recognize that we don’t know what these things really are or how they can be attained, and we give our full and energetic commitment only to this moment of experience. The images and judgments that hinder clear and fluid awareness are set aside, freeing our natural intelligence. We recall that Insight Dialogue, like personal meditation, can point us toward clear understanding, and we commit to awareness. Good things like personal freedom and interpersonal harmony will emerge; we need not pursue them.
How different this is than our typical orientation to the world! There are things we want, and things we want to avoid, and we think we can calculate how to achieve our ends. As a result, we are in continual anxiety about how our schemes are proceeding, and fearful of what will happen to us if they fail. This is no more true than when we are in relationship with other people, who we tend to see either as objects of desire, tools to be manipulated, or obstacles to overcome.
Gotama taught that the root of our continual anxiety is our inability to understand that everything in our experience is temporary, confusing, and unsatisfactory. Our own egos, and the identities of the people and things we seek to gratify them with, are illusory; everything we experience arises within a matrix of ever changing conditions, the contours of which are difficult for us to perceive, much less predict. So we struggle fruitlessly to get what we can seldom have, and which, even when we succeed, will not satisfy us.
Freedom lies in equanimity, and that in turn lies in our ability to recognize and allow our dependently originated experience to unfold just the way it will. To recognize that we don’t know what is going to happen, and to release our attachment to controlling our experience so we get the outcomes we crave. This is where the trust in Trust Emergence comes in. Our trust is not in our own competence, nor in some providential ordering of events, but in our own capacity to be with whatever happens without craving for it to be something it’s not.
Talking to someone is a perfect opportunity to observe how little trust we usually place in our emerging experience. We want to be seen as smart, funny, friendly, respectable, having our act together. But we know that the act of conversation presents a myriad of threats to that self-image: we stop paying attention, we mis-hear, and suddenly we don’t even know what the other person is saying. We don’t understand, and are clueless about how to respond. We don’t know what to say, or we launch ourselves on some strategic presentation that is inappropriate or falls flat. We make a joke that misfires, or miss our partner’s attempt at humor. Or we think we understand what we’re doing, only to offend without meaning to. Any of these missteps, and a thousand more, can leave us stymied, embarrassed and frustrated.
But what if we were to pause and recognize our ego’s habitual drive to control the outcome of our encounter? What if we relax the body and mind as best we can? What if, instead of being knotted in our own striving, we allow ourselves to truly see and hear the person in front of us, letting them be whomever they are? What if we bring the same open, relaxed awareness to another’s speech that we try to bring to our seated meditation? And what if we can allow our heart to express itself artlessly and fearlessly? To do these things, we have to trust that we can meet whatever consequences unfold with an accepting mind and an open heart. We have to Trust Emergence.
Trust Emergence is the heart of Insight Dialogue, and I think it is also the heart of living mindfully. Imagine the freedom of being able to relax and allow life to come to us without the frantic striving to shape the world in our own image; the peace and well-being of living with an open mind and an open heart. To Trust Emergence is to soften the ego’s boundaries and imperatives. And as I have practiced it over the years, I have seen that it is also a doorway to recognizing that we all share the same desires, the same fears, the same suffering and the same joy. To Trust Emergence is to observe one’s natural heart connection to everyone become effortlessly apparent.
As I reread this essay five years after I wrote it, I realize that it may seem naively quietist in the summer of 2020. There are people who live their whole lives under the threat of violence — how can we expect them to “trust emergence?” I don’t think I have a complete answer to that question. There are real dangers in the world. We have a right to protect ourselves, and compassion demands that we protect one another. As we do so, we will always be called upon to influence people and factors beyond our control. Anger, frustration, and even fear, are emotions that can enable us to engage with danger and injustice.
For all that, I believe that an appropriate response, even to a threat of violence, relies on clear seeing. And understanding that we are not the isolated, vulnerable selves we often see ourselves to be is the key to experiencing our intimate connection to other people. Insight Dialogue enables us to experience the intersubjective resonance that helps us know that connection. If we are to see each other in the fullness of our humanity, and treat each other with the fairness and kindness we each deserve as brothers and sisters, that connection has to become foremost in our minds and hearts.
I hope you’ll come practice Insight Dialogue with us this Sunday! Since 2012, the SBA has offered Practice Circle, our online practice community. We meet on the second and fourth Sundays of every month at 8 p.m. Central. It’s free, and everyone is welcome. Just click on this link Sunday evening to attend.