Mindful dialogue has become a regular element of our Practice Circle exercises. After we introduce our topic for the evening, we break up into dyads and take turns mindfully listening to our partner, and to our own minds and hearts as we try to speak what is true for us in the moment. Mindful dialogue provides an extra element of interactivity to Practice Circle; on one hand, everyone has the opportunity to speak, and everyone knows they have been listened to deeply. On the other, there’s no place to hide in mindful dialogue, no sitting back and passively consuming an experience. Even if you are sitting in silence, it’s a silence we share.
Because we engage in this practice so frequently, I thought it would be good to review a few basic points about mindful dialogue. Like many other mindfulness practices, it is simple to learn, but deeply demanding to put into action.
The first thing to remember is that mindful dialogue is a mindfulness practice, a form of meditation designed to help us discover how our minds work. We may be talking and listening to another person, but mindful dialogue isn’t a conversation as we usually think of it. We should approach it with the same spirit of curiosity and diligent investigation we bring to any other formal meditation practice.
When we listen, we just listen. The challenge is to be fully present for the other person, and this will naturally bring us into contact with our own mind’s efforts to impose itself on the act of listening. When we speak, we also listen carefully to our own hearts and minds, and observe when our intention veers from speaking only the truth that needs to be spoken.
Mindful awareness is challenging enough when we sit in silence with our eyes closed. When we engage in dialogue, we notice how all of our programmed patterns of thought and speech come rushing forward: our tendency to judge and jump to conclusions about what the other person is saying; our impatience to respond, and our habit of rehearsing what we will say even while our partner is still speaking; all of the habits of speech we use to entertain, to seek approval, to qualify and soften our meaning.
With all of this stuff going on, the most important gesture of mindful dialogue is to pause, to stop and bring yourself back from mental and verbal reactivity to full presence in the moment. This can be a literal pause, taking as much time as you need to speak, stopping whenever you need to reconnect with what’s happening. Learning to recognize and let go of our discomfort at silence, and recognizing too the rich experience of sharing the space of silence with another. As we pause, it can be useful to notice the contact of the body against the chair, or to take two or three mindful breaths. The pause can also be an interior one, noticing when we’re lost in reaction and mentally stepping back and beginning again.
Part of that pause is remembering to relax. Noticing when we are leaning forward into the next moment, into anticipating what we will hear and say. Taking that opportunity to take a full breath, do a quick scan of the body, and invite any areas of tension and holding to soften and let go.
Perhaps the biggest difference between mindful dialogue and solitary meditation is the vulnerability that can come with practicing with another person. What will we say? Will we sound silly or dumb? How will our partner judge us? Will silence be perceived as awkward and embarrassing? Mindful dialogue calls us to practice acceptance and trust, acceptance of ourselves and each other just as we are, and trust that we can speak our truth and respond mindfully and compassionately to our partner. Trusting that, beneath the ego-driven fears that make us feel vulnerable, the natural interconnection of heart and mind that we share with all people will tend to prevail.
The rewards of this effort and trust are great. As we practice mindful dialogue, we may increasingly experience a reciprocity of compassionate awareness, a deep acceptance based on the recognition of our shared humanity. We witness the walls of the self and of our defenses and preconceptions begin to soften as we share in the co-creation of the space of awareness. And we learn skills we can take outside of our formal mindful dialogue practice and use in our daily communication with everyone we meet.