Monthly Archives: August 2017

Dialogue and being in the present moment

The Power of Now is the title of the bestselling book by Eckhart Tolle in which he shows a way of being present that can be healing both spiritually and psychologically. But of course no matter how hard we practice in meditation or understand ourselves through psychotherapy the present moment can often prove to be elusive and sometimes unsettling.

With another person we can feel under pressure or as the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion described it ‘under fire’. In dialogue with another we may find ourselves in a position where we do not know what is going on, even if we know what we expected to happen by presuming things would follow a familiar course. Is it then possible to remain open to the present moment with another person when one is under pressure and feeling unsettled?

Inevitably – and I think this happens in ordinary interactions as well as at times in the consulting room or in spiritual direction – there may be a defensive move backwards into old opinions and earlier ways of thinking. After all as Bion wrote, ‘what does it mean if I don’t know?’ Old fears and old experiences may recur under the pressure to know what is going on, these can include a return to infancy when everything was mysterious and uncertain and we relied on and were dependent on others to know and reassure us. As adults this regression leads to anxiety and sometimes panic.

In spiritual life when we are open to encountering the Divine, I think it’s fair to say that it’s all unknown – I’m talking here about contemplation and away from the familiar ritual of liturgy or Bible reading. (Although it can sometimes happen that re reading/re hearing familiar words one can be jolted into a new awareness.) The only way to contemplate is to be present and open, and by definition in a state of not knowing or of ignorance.

It is true that sometimes in meditation we think a thought that feels authentic rather than a distraction and from that can often gain insight. Being in the present moment as we meditate or in dialogue with God is really about listening and waiting; it is not so much about being passive but I think being awake.

Being present – being in the moment is an insight from all religions and cultures. The practice of Zen is above all about completeness within each moment. For the past is seen as behind, the future lies ahead – all we can know is the present. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy is a way of opening up the past which gives us the realisation of how past patterns influence the present. The aim is then of unburdening ourselves or at least understanding why we have developed the way we have. When not so cluttered with the past or anxiously worrying about the future we can be present in the moment.

One aspect of Bion’s work was about the creative relationship – or the potential – between certainty and ignorance. Recognising that this might be an uncomfortable dynamic he understood why so often we give in to the familiar comfort of what we think we know.

I think this is often what happens in spiritual practice and indeed when we try to understand ourselves. In some family work there is the phrase used to describe a situation: ‘denial of awareness’, in other words some family members refusing to see what is actually going on in front of them. I think that can happen in any group or organisation including churches and can happen in dialogue with each other and within our own psyches.



Dialogue … and love

It has been said that in today’s world there is a great search, sometimes an anguished search, for human love and intimacy. It is a search for connection – for authentic dialogue with one another. It’s been predicted that whilst the last millennium was devoted to the theoretical exploration of cognition we could now be entering a phase which is devoted to the theoretical exploration of love.

Commenting on this William Johnston said that we will not understand human love until we probe deeply into the mystery of divine love, for the two are inextricably intertwined, and dialogue and connection lie at the heart of love.

Inevitably love and intimacy include suffering: ‘human love, divine love, any kind of love can be an open wound, albeit a joyful wound, that only the beloved it can heal.’ Johnston writes that the central theme of the Scriptures is marriage: the first is the covenant, which is the marriage between Yahweh and the people of Israel; and in the new Testament Jesus is the bridegroom while the Christian community as his bride – in the mystical tradition Jesus is the bridegroom while the individual human person, whether masculine or feminine, is his bride.

Alongside this there is human love, human marriage and human friendship no matter what sex or gender and all these relationships are symbols or signs of something divine. Johnston says that the influence of Freud is that we have tended to reverse the order of divine providence, saying that human sexual intercourse is the reality and that marriage with God is some dream.

It reminds me of a discussion many years ago at St Marylebone’s Healing and Counselling Centre (which I may have quoted before), about whether St Therese of Lisieux would have been better having some therapy, meeting someone and having children instead of hanging around the nunnery, becoming ill which eventually led to her early death. In other words that her spiritual marriage to Jesus Christ and the adoption of herself as the spiritual child of God and following the ‘little way’ were a sublimation of her frustrated sexual drives.

Many write of how intimacy with God leads to intimacy with others and authentic dialogue, because to love God is to love all reality in God. Contemplative prayer opens us to everything around us as we see how connected we all are and with all creation. As Thomas Merton thought, authentic love of others is rooted in truth and in a mutual relationship calls others to fulfil their true identities even as it loves them in their brokenness, ‘since love without truth is mere sentimentality.’

Famously in 1966 Merton fell in love with a student nurse following an operation. He wrote: ‘I have let love take hold of me in spite of all my fear and I have obeyed love … Our hearts really are in tune. Our depths really communicate. It is the real root and ground of everything and of this sexual love can only best be a sign.’ Struggling to remain faithful to his vows Merton admits that they are both terribly in love and it’s the kind of love that can tear you apart but it also exists on other levels. ‘I do so much want to love her as we began, spiritually.’

The discovery of dialogue 2

Dialogue is not about laying down one particular perspective. In terms of Christians living as William Johnston did in Japan it is no longer about preaching western culture and insisting on certain ways of doing things; rather he promotes a new context of inculturation which allows dialogue through mutual respect.

Johnston offers his thinking on the implications of such a dialogue characterised by sincerity, honesty, love of truth. He says that selecting pieces of the gospel to justify dominance or a particular perspective is not about truth; it’s the whole gospel that matters.

He says that alongside this there needs to be the belief that the spirit also speaks powerfully through Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews so that any dialogue involves listening rather than feeling threatened or unsure. ‘But if we persevere in our journey through the storms of dialogue we come to deep inner peace in the appreciation of what is essential in our own faith and what we can profitably learn from Buddhism. We strengthen our commitment to Jesus; we see that one who loves the gospel loves all religions and cultures.’

The dialogue is not then about pressurising or promising anything; it’s not about stern threats or charming enticements. Johnson says it doesn’t involve malicious bribes or backstairs politics. So this means a certain detachment. In other words the dialogue is not about persuading someone to be a certain way or think along a certain line rather it’s about purity of intention.

Here Johnston reminds me very much of the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. He advocated starting every analytic session ‘without memory, desire or understanding’. He didn’t want intrusive thoughts to stand in the way of what was happening in the present moment.

The task for the analyst or psychotherapist is rather to be present to and become aware of whatever ‘thought’ the patient hopes to communicate in their time together, whether through a memory or the account of a recent event, or through silence or just a particular way of being that day. For Bion it was about how to be truly present rather than overloaded with theories or propaganda about how the person should be feeling. He was very aware of the potential for theory to be used defensively: ‘We learn these theories – Freud’s, Jung’s, Klein’s – and try to get them absolutely rigid so as to avoid having to do any more thinking.’

Towards the end of his life at a talk in the US he said, ‘Discard your memory; discard the future tense of your desire; forget them both, both what you knew and what you want’ – and the reason, he suggests, is ‘to leave space for a new idea.’

Both Bion and Johnston are talking about disinterested love where there are no desires for results whether Christian ‘conversion’ or psychoanalytic ‘cure’. There is detachment from the fruit of our labour; the spirituality of conquest is to be replaced by service. ‘The East loves the perfection of action – the purity of one who does things because he does them, not from fear of punishment or hope of reward.’

The discovery of dialogue

William Johnston was an advocate for the new mysticism and alongside this for what he called one of the great discoveries of the modern world – dialogue. He thought dialogue was one way to live the gospel and that it was an authentic way.

It may seem obvious to those of us who have been involved or are still involved in the talking cure of psychotherapy and therapeutic counselling that talking and listening and working things out in an enabling atmosphere is the best way to solve problems.

Many world leaders – (especially those who want total power) – seem to still think that violence or bloodshed and altercation is a better way to do it; but they are inevitably proved wrong. As is generally acknowledged it is only when countries are sick of war, weary with bloodletting, or when everything that’s worth anything has been destroyed that the leaders start to talk about peace through dialogue… Then they get round the table and negotiations begin.

Violence and war clearly allows for universal primitive emotions of murderous rage to be expressed; but there are other ways of trying to process such emotions including turning them into feelings that can be shared. Perhaps it seems as if violence and war is the ‘manly’ way of sorting things out, perhaps dialogue sounds as if it would be too easy or too soft in some way, but as Johnston reminds us authentic dialogue is very demanding.

This is why people find therapy such hard work – and that’s just the therapist, for the patient/client it can be an exhausting process. Why? Because we are asked to be completely honest and frank, and to respect human dignity (even the dignity of those who may have hurt us most), to listen and respond, to discuss and explore, and if necessary to compromise and to separate ourselves from our most cherished viewpoint. Johnston writes, ‘dialogue at its higher point asks for what is most painful to human nature: disinterested love. And what could be more in keeping with the gospel?’

Like nonviolence, dialogue is an obvious aspect of the gospel and it needs to happen quickly both inside and outside the church. But why did it go so wrong? The viewpoint of many in the church and especially early missionaries was – and occasionally still is – not to be open to dialogue. For example, the early missionaries believed that the unbaptised were on the path to destruction and that their task was to rescue souls from error and eternal fire. In that case why would you listen to what might be Satan? The church in its recent dealings with victims of child sexual abuse chose to turn away and not to listen; to shut their minds and hearts to any and all dialogue and to hold fast above all else to the reputation of the institution. Why would you listen to people who you thought were undermining that reputation?

In the gospel – those who have no status are invited by Jesus to speak, and we hear their voices. The gospel is full of dialogue: talking and listening. It offers the talking cure.