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What on Earth is Insight Dialogue?

When meditators ask me what I teach and I explain what Insight Dialogue is, there’s often a pause accompanied by a quizzical expression and sometimes some thinly veiled distaste. The idea of pairing up, and then speaking and listening to one another on a meditation retreat is hard to picture without it seeming clumsily interruptive of the depth and integrity of the retreat space.

I get it. I am a huge advocate for the power of silent retreat and have treasured deepening into quietude for months at a time. It was actually after many such months that I sought out relational dharma practices. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to integrate more of the deep learnings of my long months of retreat into my daily life. Re-entering the fray of ordinary life, and the speed at which it moves, I felt nauseous and ill-equipped to engage fully and to embody what I had experienced.

Insight Dialogue has been an invaluable bridge connecting the awareness developed in silent practice with the complexity of the relational world. And yet, this bridging is commonly viewed as a byproduct of Insight Dialogue. The main objective is to experience Dharma teachings and texts directly in the here and now.

Once settled in silence, we pair up and are invited to investigate a specific thread of the Dharma. We usually find that the presence of another person’s mindfulness serves to deepen and anchor our own awareness, as we listen and speak. The Dharma inquiry might be something as simple as whether clinging is present or absent, where it is noticed in the body, what kind of thoughts or images arise with clinging, how its release is felt, etc. We investigate and name our own immediate experience, and then listen deeply to the experience of our partner.

This brings about an intimate exploration and recognition of clinging in its presence and/or its absence. Having felt into it, named its characteristics, we are then more able to sense its arising and passing in the thick of our lives.

We also uncover our own particular relational habits. For instance, I’ve always had an unconscious inclination to place all my attention on the person I’m relating to and to abandon any internal awareness. Over many years of relational practice I’ve gradually developed my capacity to stay in touch with my internal experience as I engage with others.

There are countless layers and subtleties to this practice that are quite unexpected. I invite you to set aside any preconceptions and try it for yourself!