Archive for the ‘Definitions’ Category

Silent Prayer Made Easy (Sort Of)

Quick: what does contemplation mean? (No fair peeking at this post.)

If you’re drawing a blank, don’t worry. It took me forever to understand it even a little—and I’m trying to live it. Contemplation doesn’t come up in everyday conversation. But as the focus of this blog, it’s worth trying to describe.

Today, let’s look at a central practice of the contemplative life: silent prayer.

Silent prayer may sound like an oxymoron to some folks, who think of prayer as talking to God. That’s one form of prayer, but there are many others. In silent prayer, we make a wordless connection to God.* How, exactly? Whole books have been written on the topic, but I think it comes down to this:

You sit and gaze at God.

God sits and gazes at you.

That’s it.

Allow me to unpack that a little. The word gaze is intentional: not look, not glance, but gaze—“to look steadily and intently, as with great curiosity, interest, pleasure, or wonder,” says It implies a sustained, relaxed attention. Ever just stare at a breathtaking sunset, or vista, or painting, for minutes on end? It’s like that.

I could have added some elements to the “instructions” above: God and you gaze at each other with hearts wide open, or with boundless love. But for one thing, God’s heart is always open, and God’s love is always boundless. For another, if you gaze at God long enough, your heart will open too. It comes with the territory.

Now, to get at the essence of silent prayer, I’ve made it sound simple. In one way it is. Practicing it is not.

One big thing: distractions. Our active, annoying minds glom onto whatever thought happens to pass by. It takes a while to learn not to suppress the thoughts, not to feel guilty and promise God you’ll do better, but simply to notice the thoughts and let them pass. It helps me to know that God will make something fruitful of our time together no matter what, even if my mind is focused on the pie in the refrigerator the whole time.

Over the years, people have developed techniques to support silent prayer, and they’re both fruitful and beautiful. Centering prayer. Gazing at icons. I’ve found that silently saying the Rosary gives one part of my brain something to occupy itself—the words of the prayers, the feel of the beads—while the rest of my head enters into contemplative silence. Zazen hones the mind’s ability to focus while approaching the Ultimate from an entirely different path.

These days, more often than not, I just sit in my favorite spot and gaze out a high window at the maples beyond. Over the years I’ve watched those maples sprout leaves and lose them again, explode in color and stand stark against the brilliant winter sun. The cycle of the seasons seems to fit well with silent prayer.

If this intrigues you, give it a whirl. Try different practices, icons, what have you. Or sit in your favorite spot and gaze at God.

When you sense God gazing back—well, that is a moment like no other.

*An aside: the one I call God you may call Reality, the One, the Ultimate, Brahman, even (kind of) Buddha-nature. They are all names for what, or who, is behind and beyond all things. I use the word God here for simplicity’s sake, and because it’s part of my home tradition. But feel free to insert your preferred term as you read.

Dialogue in Case of Emergency

I was fast asleep when the phone rang. It was a close friend, hundreds of miles away, having a heart attack.

Or so she feared. Given her health history, a panic attack was as likely as heart trouble. Why didn’t she just call 911? Because she has no insurance and almost no savings. Any medical expense could sink her.

I am no healthcare expert, so I did what I could. I asked her to describe her symptoms while I booted up WebMD on my laptop. I read her the symptoms of heart attack and panic attack. We finally agreed she should at least try 911 and make it clear she could not pay for the service.

It turned out well. The 911 dispatcher was a model of calm and compassion. He told her that, while an ambulance ride would cost her, a visit from the EMTs was free. They came, ran some tests, and determined that it was indeed a panic attack. They got her calmed down. Crisis over.

I don’t think of dialogue in the context of emergencies. You don’t want your EMTs thoughtfully exchanging views on heart function when yours is in full crisis mode. Yet the more I pondered this incident, the more I saw the elements of dialogue in it.

Consider the challenges involved here. The conversation with my friend required my full attention. I had to listen carefully and precisely to what she said: not just the words, but the feeling and thinking behind them. Together, we had to talk through—as calmly as possible—what was happening and the options for action. All of this needed to come from a place of calm within me, so I didn’t add to her stress.

Listening. Attention to the moment. A full focus on the other person. Thinking together toward a course of action. Respect and calm to avoid inflammatory language. All coming from a peace of soul that we have cultivated within us, and with God. Key elements of dialogue as we’ve discussed it here in the past two years.

That messes with my mental categories a bit. Way back when I started writing about dialogue, I worked through a preliminary definition. I think it still makes sense, as far as it goes. But behind the words, I hear a sense of dialogue as something formal, something we intentionally sit down and have. Many practitioners of dialogue think in the same terms: dialogue involves group processes, intentionally convened groups, specific agendas.

All of that is assuredly part of dialogue. But I wonder whether the word dialogue shouldn’t encompass a much broader scope as well. Perhaps it’s less a way of meeting and talking than a way of being—an orientation that equips us to respond in a dialogic way regardless of the situation.

Perhaps, in other words, dialogue isn’t something we do only to determine public policy, or understand other faith traditions, or work out differences with our loved ones, as important as those aims are. Perhaps dialogue is something we live whenever, wherever the situation requires it. Even in emergencies.

What do you think? Is dialogue a set of processes, a formal event, or a way of being as well?

Keeping Dialogue Dialogue

We had set up the parameters for a robust dialogue. Jane would lay out her view of the issue (the George W. Bush presidency; she was pro). Then I would share my (con) perspective. Neither of us could interrupt the other. There would be plenty of time for thoughtful questions later. We grabbed the Cheez-It® crackers, settled into comfy chairs, and got started.

It went well for a while. I was learning things about the conservative perspective I had never appreciated before. I could see Jane’s point (though I still disagreed with her assessment). This was progress.

Then other people joined us. And the dialogue became something else.

These folks did nothing wrong. They simply weren’t privy to what we were trying to do. So rather than listen in silence, they did what people often do: inject opinions, argue points, present counterarguments. Our dialogue became conversation, in which (according to Robert Apatow) “people express different views on a range of subjects without concern for where the conversation goes.”

So what? Here’s so what: We have deeply ingrained patterns that drive the way we discuss sensitive issues, especially politics. We know how to react with anger, defensiveness, and generalizations about the “other side.” So reacting in another way—especially an “opposite” way that tries to hear and connect with others—requires great care, deliberate planning, and attentive execution. Dialogue facilitators, like those who belong to NCDD, have spent careers doing just that.

In other words: Dialogue must be intentional.

Jane, bless her, was all about being intentional. Soon after the first people drifted in, she explained exactly what we were about and, in the process, invited others into the dialogue. We got back on track. But if she hadn’t intervened, we would have lost the ensuing dialogue and all the lessons held therein.

There’s nothing wrong with conversation. It’s one of life’s great treasures. But it is not dialogue. And we need dialogue in the continuing effort to reach across divides.

Dialogue Every Day, Dialogue Everywhere

Dialogue professionals think of dialogue as a process, and to a large extent they’re right. Process plays a big role in bringing people together and helping them reach across divides.

Still, I tend to define dialogue more broadly. Besides the scheduled conversations and formal meetings, dialogue is something that can happen anytime, anywhere, even without warning—a spontaneous event and a response from the heart.

Earlier this week I wrote something for a CEO. I knew I hadn’t nailed it: his ideas were all there, but his voice didn’t come through as it should—even though the text was nearly verbatim from my last interview with him. I was at a dead end, so I sent it to my contact at the CEO’s company for her feedback.

She saw the problem too, and responded with input that I never would have come up with. Her specific edits may or may not make the final piece, but in some ways it doesn’t matter (just as it doesn’t matter whether my bon mots make the cut). More important, her insights sparked a new point of view that helped me get back on track.

To make the final text the best it could be, I needed her.

That, to me, is dialogue, just as much as processes like Open Space or World Café or Appreciative Inquiry. The give-and-take lifted me out of my own one-person’s perspective—one perspective among billions—and helped me see things in a different light. 

And this is why I believe dialogue as a habit of the heart is so essential. If we cultivate the inner attitudes that facilitate dialogue—openness, humility, a passion for truth seeking, a willingness to risk—we will be ready for these chance encounters. We will naturally respond with an open spirit and a listening ear, no matter what comes our way.

This is even more important when it comes to our adversaries, because they set off the automatic fight-or-flight response within us. As we cultivate “the spirit of dialogue” within ourselves, we will notice that response replaced with something else: curiosity. “How dare you believe that?” is replaced with “How did you come to that?” “I don’t want to discuss it” yields to “Tell me your thinking.”

When was the last time you experienced everyday dialogue like this? What did you learn? How did it make you feel? Feel free to share your thoughts.

The Key to Dialogue?

Humble. Humbled. Humility. The words don’t even sound pretty. They’ve come to denote some very unpleasant feelings.

I am convinced that they hold the key to dialogue.

Few words generate greater misunderstanding than humility. In the minds of many, it signifies humiliation, self-denigration, low self-esteem. Even the dictionary enshrines such definitions: Google humble and definition and see what you get. Eating humble pie is something no one wants to do. Being of humble means is something no one wants to be.

But there’s a better way to think about humility, and it can release all kinds of potential within us. Rightly understood, humility is complete clarity about our individual selves and our place in the universe. As the Holy Cross Associates’ Rule puts it, “Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else.”

So what does this have to do with dialogue? To find the answer, let’s think about “our individual selves and our place in the universe.” I reduce this to two basic claims: 

  1. I’m only one person.
  2. I am one person.

Take the first claim. I am only one person among billions. My perspective, therefore, is one among billions: I see only a small sliver of reality as it is. It stands to reason, then, that others’ perspectives on reality might hold as much truth as my own. If I am curious about the cosmos, I want to hear these perspectives. If I care about the monumental challenges of our age—challenges far, far beyond my reach to solve—I want to hear the ideas and solutions of others. Our collective wisdom is our best chance to see all sides of each challenge and, perhaps, arrive at effective solutions.

Now for the second claim. If my perspective is one among billions, it’s also the only one of its kind. I don’t know whether it might hold the key to solving a problem, or blessing another person, or stimulating a discussion that needs to happen. So it’s important that I share it—tempered with the realization of its place as one perspective.

By cultivating this type of humility, we see what we know—and how much we don’t. We can appreciate just how unfathomable a mystery the universe, and the Divine, truly are. With those realizations, we see the value of sharing and listening.

In other words, the value of dialogue.

This is dense stuff. So an example or two is well worth exploring. Let’s look at one next week.

Dialogue Defined

Lately, in scheduled meetings and casual conversations alike, I’ve found myself asking people to define their terms. Often the term is quite common, and we all think we understand it the same way—but then a certain turn of phrase tells me we don’t.

So before we get too far into this “dialogue about dialogue,” perhaps we should define our terms.

In Why Can’t We Talk? I spend a good deal of Chapter 1 wending my way toward a definition of dialogue. Here’s what I have so far:

Dialogue: an intentional, shared exploration of an issue, whose purpose is to deepen mutual understanding if not move closer to the reality of the issue, and whose structure requires participants to lay aside their preconceived notions and participate with a clear mind and a listening heart.

Let’s unpack this a little:

  • Dialogue is intentional. In this sense, it’s not quite the same as conversation. While conversations can dwell on a particular topic for a while, there is no agreed-upon focus and no specific goal in mind. As a result, they can meander from topic to topic. Is that good and healthy for the human spirit? Absolutely. But it’s not dialogue, which has a set purpose, i.e.:
  • Dialogue is a shared exploration. In this sense, it’s also not persuasion, or proselytizing, or anything similar. Unlike those modes of communication, dialogue requires us to assume that we don’t have the answer—and that we can work with our fellow dialogists to get closer to it. However…
  • Dialogue doesn’t always help us move closer to the reality of the issue. It certainly can, of course. But even the dialogues that appear to get us nowhere can hold inestimable value: drawing us into mutual acceptance, clearing away old stereotypes, and even assuaging the loneliness that is part and parcel of the human condition.
  • Dialogue requires a clear mind and a listening heart. This is where spirituality plays its indispensable role. By allowing the Divine to shape us through spiritual practices (like regular prayer and meditation), we become more like the Divine: more compassionate, more self-giving, more aware of ultimate reality and our place in it. Our sacred cows and vested interests melt away. Our inner transformation makes us not only larger in spirit, but better able to hear and share in dialogue.

Each of these points, of course, could take up a book in itself. For now, though, let me stop talking and instead listen to you. This is a working definition, and you likely have insights I’ve never considered. Please use the Comments function to share them, or drop me a note with your thoughts.