Exercises for the Spirit

These dialogues are exercises for the spirit. The ideas have been around since human beings looked up and the night sky and wondered how they fitted in.  These posts are about those same wonderings. They aren’t breaking new ground.  That’s not their purpose.    What they do for me, and I hope for you, is to freshen up whatever’s on my mind when I get up in the morning, to intensify the moments we share as the post progresses.  I’m disrobing ordinary reality and teasing out extraordinary naked reality.  That’s what life really is, isn’t it?  As your mental dialogue  warms up, the sunlight reflecting off a coffee cup becomes extraordinary, cornflakes and milk and sugar are phenomenal.


I’m disrobing ordinary reality and teasing out extraordinary naked reality.

Higgs Boson doing its thing.

And it’s all going on in the heart of a great mystery, a mystery that can never be solved, As Goethe suggested, for me and I think for you,

A rich, manifold life brought close to our eye  without express tendency or purpose should enough. And is.

The Use of Dialogue

  I I recorded these dialogues at Steven Herrmann’s home in the Oakland Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. Steven is a Jungian psychotherapist and writer, A trail that winds through Joaquin Miller State Park is just outside his back gate. I would get there around eight and turn on my voice recorder, and we would sit in his living room with its panoramic view of the Bay down below and the Golden Gate in the distance, have coffee, and chat. An hour and a half later, I would say goodbye, Steven would get ready to go to his office, and I would drive home thinking about how good it feels to start out talking about shoes and ships and sealing wax and whether pigs have wings* and find yourself glimpsing the hidden life of things, feeling your spirit come alive as your vision of your daily comings and goings  intensifies.  It felt great to know those moments had been safely stored in the voice recorder in my pocket. Later, as I transcribed what had started out as chats and evolved into dialogues, those intense moments resurfaced line by line on my computer screen, and I felt that same pleasure bubbling up again.

*In Lewis Carrol’s “Jaberwocky” (Through the Looking Glass) Alice goes down through a rabbit hole, and everyone knows what happens then. Be ready to see how beautifully shoes and ships tie in with Steven’s Lascaux dream that he tells me about in the dialogue that follows.


Feeling your spirit come alive

As the transcriptions began to accumulate, we noticed that each dialogue would begin somewhat casually, as conversations do, but then they would penetrate more and more deeply into the heart of things. That was always the unspoken purpose of our getting together, much as it had been in the classes I had taught over the years at Diablo Valley College, where Steven had been a student of mine years earlier. My classes had been having a look, moment by moment, as Steven and I were doing now, at the great world and at our place among the galaxies. As Steven and I read over the transcripts, we realized how broadly these talks had ranged and the plethora of great minds we had visited. There is a story here, a plot, a setting (the cosmos, the quantum particle), background music (unheard melodies and the music of the spheres), scores and scores of characters and a mystery to be realized, experienced if not solved. It is indeed an absorbing story, full of wonder, joy, and love, in which each human being is the central character.

What’s for Breakfast?

So that’s what Steven and I were doing, but then it seemed to me that this process of moving from casual chit chat to focused reflection could be a method others could use deliberately for their own explorations. A friend who reviewed our manuscript said our conversations reminded him of theoretical physicist David Bohn’s development of dialogue back in the seventies as a way testing ideas and theories and for more general societal problems. [Lee Nichol edited some of his work in the 1996 book On Dialogue. (Bohm died in 1992.)]  One of the chapter titles, “Participatory Thought,”   seems like a  perfect metaphor — thinking together, thinking out loud with someone else– or lots of people. (As I will explain later, you can even have participatory thought with yourself.) I hadn’t thought about it while I was in the midst of teaching, but now I realized dialogue was exactly the word for what had made those classes over the several decades so engaging.  I had not analyzed the process that had been so engaging in my classes over several decades.  And here I was looking out Steven’s window engaged in the same process. It was participatory thought.

The only way to read these dialogues is to participate.

And this is where you come in.  The only way to read these dialogues is to participate, to join in the thought process as it goes along, to become part of the dialogue, to participate to begin introducing one’s own point of view or extending or adding things that were not touched on but may be vital to the overall exploration.

The knack of deliberate dialogue

Before we get going, we need to be clear on how participatory thought works and why so much of ordinary conversation doesn’t. Bohm developed a formal rationale for the use of dialogue and its application. Steven and I approached it informally. That’s how we did it in my classes. Shoes and ships and sealing wax – and then the fiery firmament!

Shoes and ships and sealing wax — and then the fiery firmament!

Students caught on right away. They saw there was not going to be much lecturing but lots of investigating, exploring, and synthesizing — and the pleasure of discovery, of finding things out. “I wonder what exciting is going to happen today,” was the first thing Piglet thought when he got up in the morning. For Pooh “What’s for breakfast?” was the same thing.

Over the years of my “teaching” I had been unselfconsciously developing dialogue, rather than argument, as a way to see what’s what — and not, as is common, between an authority and a group of ignorant students, but among people who treated each other as equals, who were seeing where thinking together might lead. But what we were doing, was listening to each other and building on that, and simply following the dialogue without a predetermined end. That’s vital.  In dialogue there can’t be a predetermined end. While we were doing that, we were illuminating the issue in question, and sometimes we saw through the mist, something “more of the depths,” as Robert Frost did in his poem “For once, Then Something.” That is what keeps us coming back, the pleasure of a more illumined view, equality of participants, no pre-determined point, an intention of simply taking a look, the drive of the spirit in all beings toward fulfillment.  That’s what we were trying to do in the classes and what Steven and I were doing years later.

Among other things, the dialogues in this book explore what’s going on in the cosmos — or what’s for breakfast, it’s the same thing. We’re reflecting on the great world, yes, but at the same time we’re looking at the effect of light and shadow on a porcelain bowl.

But these dialogues also demonstrate that process and provide plenty of opportunity to catch on and participate.

People do tend to slip into participatory thought if you make the waters welcoming.

[A bonus is that participatory thought can work even with when you get into aa conversation with someone who only wants to report, or wants to argue for something, or wants to persuade you of something. But If you are interested in seeing our world more clearly, in exploring or investigating or illuminating it, then you can develop the knack of the dialogue and apply it on purpose. That way, you can have participatory thought any time, even if the other person has other things in mind. It’s my experience, and I think it will be yours too, that people do tend to slip into participatory thought if you make the waters welcoming.]

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