Reaction to Verbal Inquiry – Too Philosophical?

Jay: Dear R. I received your request to be removed from the mailing list. I realize that the meditative inquiry session you attended a couple weeks ago was your first with us. I’d be interested in any feedback you had on the session you attended. Did you find it unpleasant?

R: Jay, it was not that it felt unpleasant but more that I felt at a different place. The discussion was more philosophical than I am accustomed to and therefore felt hard for me to connect with. I affirm different strokes for different folks, and you had a sizable group there, so keep up the good work.

Jay: Thanks for the feedback. It is interesting for me. I understand what you are saying. People often experience the inquiry that happens in the group as “abstract”, theoretical, philosophical or “in the head”. I’ve noticed this in Springwater, where I go to retreats and in other places. I was concerned at first when people would say this about something I was saying and because of this, I’ve looked at this carefully.

Usually people feel this way in listening to other people talk together (as opposed to feeling this way about an inquiry they are participating in). When someone listening to a conversation has spoken up and said it sounds theoretical, a number of times I’ve checked in with the other person who was engaged in the discussion. Pretty much invariably that person reports that the conversation was very direct and right on with what they were inquiring about and not theoretical or philosophical at all.

I often feel, when I’m listening to others talk and I’m not involved in the discussion (I’m talking about this meditative discussion, not ordinary talking) exactly what you described, only maybe more judgmental. I may feel they are off track, that it’s not what I would say, that they are just being theoretical, saying things everybody has heard a million times, and quite often, simply that I cannot understand a thing they are saying or relate to it, which makes me feel frustrated and somewhat stupid. One time last year I was in a discussion at Springwater during retreat and I questioned the value of what someone had said, commenting that it just seemed like hollow advice. Someone else who I respect spoke up and said that they had found the person’s words quite helpful. I was surprised but accepted this at face value.

Many things such as this come up when discussion does not stick with the conventionally safe ways of talking. I’m not saying one has to “suffer” through this stuff for some purpose, but it is quite clear to me that when conversation stays with what is safe, the opportunity to hear each other and oneself deeply is lost. I like to encourage people to be patient with this open kind of discussion and to see if they can find their way with it, gradually and perhaps awkwardly.

There are several ways I’ve found to help keep the dialogue meaningful for myself (remembering that it might already be meaningful for others). One is to ask people questions to help clarify what they are talking about. Often the person who brings up a topic has not expressed it particularly clearly. It is not easy to do so and we don’t have many opportunities to learn this. People are usually very general and theoretical when they frame a question, so no wonder that it is hard to relate to.

Another way to keep it “real” for me is to raise concerns that are important to me. That is rather vulnerable, of course.

Another approach that I have found is simply to listen even if I can’t relate to what people are saying. I try to let the frustation drop and just listen. I sometimes feel “out of it” when I do that because I have no role whatsoever at those moments and I always like to have a role. Just listening, sometimes later on during the discussion or the next day something clicks and I realize what they were talking about in a way that does feel real and not philosophical.

It strikes me just now that a big part of the value of this verbal inquiry together is to uncover exactly these dynamics which very much dominate our relationships and communication with others. So what you experienced – that the conversation sounds theoretical and doesn’t touch where you are at – is a good thing to have had a chance to bring up together.

I’m personally very interested in what moves different people, what questions or spiritual searching moves you. If it is more comfortable to talk one on one in a setting where we can listen in a direct way to each other, I am always interested in doing that together.

One of the reasons why I try to maintain this group situation is because I have not found settings for verbal inquiry together locally. There are groups that have discussion but the ones I have participated in I have found to not be able to go beyond the “safe” rules of conversation. Of course the “safe” usually feels good to people. If you have a discussion where people agree with each other, you can feel like you have like-minded friends. It may not really be the case but it gives that impression. If there is a discussion in which people are emotionally supportive, one feels heartfelt affection but it never feels particularly real afterwards. When the safety net is dropped and we have to face the reality of how we communicate, it is more difficult and requires more patience but I find the affection and support that come out of that are ultimately more real.

Well, I just wanted to share these thoughts. Thanks for your honest comments.

R: Interesting. I will consider what you’ve said.

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