New Directions in Buddhist Practice "Insight Dialogue"

Gregory Kramer’s book Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom (Shambhala, 2007) offers on the front cover “A Buddhist practice for cultivating wisdom and compassion through meditation in dialogue” The book is significant as a further contribution to a variety of new directions in traditional Buddhist practice which have made their appearance over recent decades.

To the traditional silent meditation retreat, where participants each practice in isolation, Insight Dialogue adds interpersonal episodes in pairs and small groups. Interestingly, Kramer advocates self selected groups (a process which he believes can be valuable in itself). However, randomly selected groups and, particularly gendered groups are also worth trying, in my view.

Within these groups usually (but not necessarily) a topic -- a “contemplation” -- is offered for a non-discursive sharing of feelings. These topics are existential and potentially emotionally charged. Kramer cites as examples a whole gamut of “traditional Buddhist contemplations”, from emptiness to aging-disease-death (p190). To these he adds “other contemplations” even wider in scope (like the body, gender, roles, self, community, nature, freedom, and hierarchy).

The teacher or facilitator pushes the boat out with an introductory talk. ”We are offered a topic to reflect upon, usually a real-life issue, considered in the light of wisdom drawn from an established spiritual tradition. We are invited to pause periodically during that reflection, and release habitual stories and routine reactions, meeting the present moment of interpersonal contact with mindfulness” (p.5). Presumably this is carefully angled to ensure that the interaction does not become discursive and superficial. However, in my experience much can be gained by shifting the main teacher role to the third stage of the exercise: the retreatants evaluation of it, assisted by the teacher. Learning is much stronger where the learners make their own discoveries without first being told what to look for. Here the teacher’s role is to draw out from the retreatants’ experiences the fundamental Dharmic truths which underlie them. This interweaving, however, requires considerable skill.

The topics are phrased much more openly than those of A.H. Almaas, in his The Unfolding Now, a book which is also dedicated to bringing interpersonal work into the traditional retreat format (as also advocated by veteran Zen teacher Norman Fischer (in his Sailing Home, p43).

As to the process, the “scaffolding”, for Insight Dialogue, six basic guidelines are offered (p183). Each can be called to mind, as facets of emotional awareness, to remedy specific difficulties:

Pause when you feel yourself being carried away in the heat of the interaction or when on your high horse.

Relax in moments of stress and when facing challenging truths.

Open when you become self absorbed, retreating from the interaction, or claiming a selfish place in the process. After this “P.R.O.” Kramer adds:

Trust Emergence when feeling stuck or blocked: open to latent possibilities, rather than tightly structuring what you have to offer.

Listen deeply “to increase receptivity, to heighten enquiry, and to extend the heart”.

Speak the truth when feeling inhibited and to increase meditative interaction.

Kramer has the facilitator periodically ring the mindfulness bell, but appears unaware of the speaking stone, which I have found more effective.

The book usefully identifies half a dozen “diversions in practice” (though evasions would be a better description) and how to shift the group out of each of them. The first is getting stuck in emotionality, where the group members never get beyond emotional sharing and support and evade uncovering the underlying impulsions of the hungry self. The second, similarly, confines itself to superficial niceties, shying clear of anything overtly expressive or challenging as being unspiritual. The third type of evasion is a preoccupation with discussion and the play of ideas. Then there is the group where one or more of its members take a didactic line, aimed at remedying the “problems” appearing in the group, rather than sharing in a heartfelt opening to them. Fifthly some members of the group want an atmosphere of peaceful reflection and shy away from strong interpersonal engagement, Finally there are those whose preoccupation with their search for “spiritual experience” and greed for insight can seriously derail a group. Of course, to know what’s happening the facilitator has to somehow monitor the process of each group, and in my experience this can sometimes distort or inhibit the group’s behaviour.

So much for the essentials of Insight Dialogue, which is strongly coloured by Kramer’s Theravadin/Vipassana background. I see it as an interesting contribution to the wider debate around an “everyday Buddhism” beyond our traditional monastic model. My own teaching is based on the following four concerns.

First, to promote a strong and confident practice based on the vicissitudes of everyday life, with periods of retreat and traditional meditation as essential supports of that practice, rather than being its dominant feature.

Secondly, to make this everyday practice primarily a practice of emotional awareness-in-the-body.

Thirdly, to direct that awareness to enquiry about the self. The Buddha did, of course, preach belief in a separate self as the cause of dukkha, and for Dogen “to study Buddhism is to study the self”.

Fourthly, to base the learning not only on the traditional agenda of solitary meditation, talks, clarifying questions, and personal interviews but to insert also interpersonal episodes, variously in pairs perhaps modelled on the “Western Zen” dyads), groups of four or five using the speaking stone, and sometimes a retreat plenum. At first I was motivated to do this as a means of raising energy in the face of the staleness and pseudo-fatigue which a heavy meditation programme can induce. However, Almaas, Kramer and Fischer, and above all, the testimony of my own retreatants, have convinced me of the deeper and more varied benefits of introducing this practice of interpersonal meditation (as I prefer to call it) as a major feature of retreats.

First, experiencing the heartfelt pain and discomfiture of others within a supportive group arouses strong feelings of compassion or, at the least, the encouraging discovery that “we’re all in the same boat”.

Secondly. insights and understandings about the topic can emerge from a group interaction which for some retreatants were not accessible when reflecting on their own.

Thirdly, and more significantly, the experience of emotionally charged interaction with others can itself nurture insight and deepening understanding about the powerful but hidden process by which we construct a self-image.

Fourthly, to quote Kramer:-

The dynamics of interpersonal meditation are similar to those of traditional, personal meditation: we gradually cultivate mindfulness and tranquillity; these qualities allow us to apprehend the moment-to-moment nature of experience; what we then realise, frees us. But because interpersonal meditation works with the moment-to moment experience of interacting with another, it brings the liberating dynamic of meditation into our everyday lives easily and naturally (p.4)

He adds later that “many people find that the wakefulness, ease and even love they feel while in formal meditation does not integrate well into their lives These formal practices can be quite pristine, and therefore distinct from our very busy everyday lives. There is no clear path for blending formal practice with everyday living, and for many the act of integrating the benefits of meditation is sort of pasted on after the fact. That is, we meditate alone and in silence, and then try to map the same mindfulness and non- clinging to speaking with others (p.265).

Perhaps the most eloquent argument for interpersonal meditation is this from Norman Fischer: “Expression is healing. It opens us, propelling us forth into our lives. It’s not so much a matter of ideas, even of feelings, for expression is more than a cognitive or an emotional act. Yet somehow the simple act of speaking truly, out loud and to others, inspires us finally to point our prow out to sea as we set forth onward for the journey” (Sailing Home, Free Press, 2008, p43)