A Dialogue With My Son?
Prasad Kaipa, The Mithya Institute for Learning
"Dad, what is a dialogue?" my, then, seven year old son, Pravin asked just as he was getting ready to bed. I know I use the word "dialogue" a lot, but what triggered his interest in dialogue now, I wondered.
I wanted to tell Pravin that dialogue is talking. If I do that, however, I also know what his next question would be: "Why do you call it a dialogue, if it is just talking?" Maybe I should say, dialogue is a special kind of a talk. Or, is it? Is it possible to not talk and still have a dialogue?
On reflection, silence is a powerful part of any meaningful dialogue. So dialogue is a meaningful conversation. that may include talking, listening, and silence. I paused: Isn't that what defines any conversation? I began to wonder whether I know what a dialogue is. I David Bohm's words rang in my mind: "[Dialogue is] a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us."
"Wake up, Dad" Pravin called thinking that I dozed off, "Would you tell me what a dialogue is?"
"Pravin, dialogue has something to do with meaningful conversation. Con-verse has something to do with roughly -creating verse together. If I am right, verse is poetry (I learned later that verse meant being in line and not poetry) and the difference between poetry and prose is that prose communicates content; whereas poetry communicates feeling---heart's meaning. In that respect, when we truly converse, or dialogue, we are making poetry and communicating with the heart and sharing meaning," I told him.
Pravin said that conversation is talking together. He further explained that talking together is not his father, giving lectures to him just because I happen to be older and can dominate the conversation. Talking together, he explained, is actually listening together.
I asked him what he meant by listening together. Pravin replied, "When I told you this afternoon about trading my new markers for these Ninja Turtle cards, you didn't like it. But then, you told me that if I feel these cards are more important to me than my markers, then I should keep them. But, I am going to trade them back because I realize that these cards are not important any more. I just wanted to read what was on them. That's all."
I was quite surprised. While I thought that Pravin may be trying to please me by trading back his new cards for "old" markers, I let it pass. The conversation was just getting interesting.
"Is talking together a dialogue, Dad?" Pravin was at it again. It is amazing to see how children persist and have single-minded focus on what catches their attention. "Do you really know what a dialogue is?"
A thought flashed immediately in my mind: Is Pravin trying to find out whether I know what I am talking about/?
I began to laugh at myself as I noted my own feeling of insecurity. Could I stop feeling the way I feel, if I choose to?
We all want simple answers. While answers are important, they are addictive and they silence questions. And if the questions disappear, where does the inquiry live?
"I really don't know what a dialogue is and there is no single answer to the question what is a dialogue. I do know that dialogue can be a source of creativity. It awakens what is dormant and brings freshness to conversation. It is a special kind of conversation, or being with each other in such a way that language is no longer the only means of communicating."
"What do you mean language is no longer the only means to communicate? How do you communicate without words? With a sign language?" asked Pravin.
Sign language is words of a different kind. Most language is limiting because mostly language is conceptual. It points at something. While the syntax and semantics are structural and procedural dimensions of language, words are mostly representative and rarely generative. A true dialogue is generative in nature. It is learning to look, listen, and pay attention. It is not about what to look at or how to look but about engaging in looking.
How do I learn to just generate instead of all the other stuff? How do I look beyond my thoughts and feelings? I reflected for quite a while. The more I thought, the more I got into trouble. Interesting that thoughts go round and round but new thinking rarely happens. Do we need to unthink before we can truly participate in a dialogue?
It was all beginning to make sense. As long as I am speaking from my body of knowledge, my assumptions and beliefs, no thinking is possible. As long as I think, I continue to work from my frozen thoughts. My thoughts and feelings come with the package: you can call it conditioning, or culture or belief system. I am perpetuating my belief system and acting out of it until I begin to see it from outside, as an observer. "You really can't see anything outside of the body of knowledge that you already know, unless you learn to see all over again," I told myself. Any data that doesn't fit my existing patterns, I reject outright. I am imprisoned by my own knowledge. Exit doors in mental prisons are hard to find, unless I especially look for them and acknowledge that I am imprisoned.
Dialogue is such an exit door. "You have to listen from a place that you have never listened from. You have to unthink and may be, even unlearn. When you begin to see what you have not seen before, your seeing may be totally altered. When you begin to listen to/for what you have never listened to before, your conversations may get altered," I heard myself say.
I was on a roll and it was very energetic to have that conversation with myself. I thought, "If I am listening, who is speaking? If I am speaking, who is listening?" My inner dialogue continued.
Dialogue has less to do with form than with energy. With energy, conversation sparkles. Words may come from different speakers, but the spirit unfolds as a whole. Dialogue is a process of joining the past with the future. It is not about getting some place, but about discovering and exploring some place. Conversation flows and time stops as the dialogue unfolds. Dialogue is a conversation in which communion occurs.
My inner dialogue stopped suddenly, when I noticed Pravin fast asleep. Did my son stay awake long enough to inspire me and then quietly go to sleep thinking that his work was done? Was I caught up in my own thoughts again and missed another opportunity to dialogue with my son? I'll never know.
My head was clear and energy was high. It was a long while before I could calm down and go to sleep that night.
Prasad thanks Ravi Sahay, Rose Saperstein, Steve Myers, Russ Volckmann, Bernie DeKoven, Sylvia Welner and Kathryn Alexander for their comments and suggestions and conversations.
Copyright 1998, 1999, The Mithya Institute for Learning. All rights reserved.