I’m sitting knee-almost-touching-knee with Ted, a chubby and towering sixty-something-year-old with a few days’ gray stubble, bushy eyebrows, and nose hairs calling for a trim. We met just fifteen minutes ago, and tears are running down his face. Ted’s breathing is labored, and I can smell his sour breath, yet I feel content. I comfort him—not so much with words but simply by being present, by gently meeting his gaze and accepting him and the moment. During our hour together, I work at remaining openhearted and mindful, and it seems to help Ted regain his balance. When our hour together is over, he’s much calmer, maybe even happy.

Normally, a distraught, unkempt stranger would likely cause me to create some imaginary distance between him and me. But this happened toward the end of my first seven-day Insight Dialogue retreat. I’d spent most of the week meditating and meeting with various partners or in small groups while focusing on staying mindful. By the end of the week, I was feeling as kind, present, and relaxed with others as I have ever felt.

Odds are, you’ve never heard of Insight Dialogue. “I have somewhere between little and no instinct for promotion,” said Gregory Kramer, the retreat leader and co-creator of Insight Dialogue. A Vipassana meditation teacher since 1980, Kramer began teaching Insight Dialogue in 1995. Since then, he has taught this gentle yet powerful Buddhism-informed, relationship-based practice to thousands of students. Yet, even in Buddhist circles, his methods are still largely unknown.

Part of why Insight Dialogue is so low-profile is that it’s hard to explain. Before I headed off to the Insight Dialogue retreat, my exceedingly practical 78-year-old dad asked, “What makes this one different?” I hemmed and hawed, then mumbled something about listening better—which is true enough, but it is only part of the practice. You also work on speaking from your heart, as well as simply observing how you interact, ideally finding a calm concentration in the midst of conversation. Kramer’s retreats include a variety of activities: seated meditation, dharma talks, dharma walks, dharma contemplation, some movement exercises, group conversation, and—what I consider the heart of the practice—student-to-student dialogues.

© Cynthia Abbott
© Cynthia Abbott

Typically, relationship skills have been the domain of psychotherapists and pop psychologists. During a recent visit to Manhattan’s East West Living bookstore, I noticed a big stack of Kramer’s new book, Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, prominently displayed in the “Relationships” section under “Love.” When I told Kramer this, he was clearly disappointed—not because he’s dismissive of romantic relationships, but because he takes his dharma intentions and roots very seriously. From his point of view, Insight Dialogue turns the challenge of relationships into a potent spiritual opportunity.

While Kramer is confident that Insight Dialogue directs us toward the heart of the Buddha’s teaching on ultimate freedom, I suspect most practitioners are drawn to it (as I was) as a practice for developing skillful speech and open listening. This may sound like a goal only a bit larger than improving romantic relationships, but it’s much bigger than that. Mindful speech and the ability to really listen are at the heart of all relationships. And thoughtful, kind, and effective interactions are at the center of our ethical core, the foundation of any spiritual practice.

Related: Skillful Speech

For most of us, the hardest precept to honor is to speak the truth. I’m not talking about staying clear of bald-faced whoppers that cover up sordid affairs or some headline-grabbing misdeeds, but about our everyday exaggerations, self-aggrandizements, and self-image facelifts. In other words, what usually happens when we talk uninterrupted for more than a few minutes. Besides, even when we do speak the truth, are we able to listen to whoever is talking without an agenda or obsessing about what we’re going to say next? And how comfortable are we if there is nothing to say?

Like surfing, staying present is always a challenge, but doing it while interacting with others tends to be like managing in choppy, cross-current seas. We have not only our own thoughts and impulses to contend with but also those of our conversational partners. So if we can stay present and compassionate when, say, a coworker is kvetching, odds are we can do it anytime.

KRAMER IDENTIFIES the six “instructions” that provide the scaffolding for Insight Dialogue: Pause; Relax; Open; Trust Emergence; Listen Deeply; Speak the Truth. “These guidelines remain the same whether Insight Dialogue is undertaken as a formal meditation practice or is embraced as a path for wise living.… Taken together, these guidelines offer essential support for awakening amid the rich challenges of interpersonal encounter,” Kramer writes. “Each guideline calls forth different qualities, and all of them are complementary. In brief, Pause calls forth mindfulness; Relax, tranquility and acceptance; Open, relational availability and spaciousness; Trust Emergence, flexibility and letting go; Listen Deeply, receptivity and attunement; and Speak the Truth, integrity and care.”

The mainstays of an Insight Dialogue practice are “dharma contemplations” and the dialogue format. The contemplations are the content or topic of conversation, and the dialogue format is the semi-structured student-to-student exchange. For instance, while we work on “relax,” Kramer suggests discussing a past incident that still feels unresolved. I talk about getting yelled at by a spiritual teacher, and my partner speaks about a fight with his sister. These are loaded incidents for each of us. Talking about them could easily turn into a kind of charged support group or mutual therapy session, and at times it veers in that direction. Yet the guidelines Kramer gives before each conversation, and the ongoing suggestions he provides when everyone is meeting, help keep practitioners focused on process, on our awareness in the moment. More important than the why and how of our unresolved stories is the effort to relax and maintain a mental spaciousness while telling it; likewise, as a listener your effort goes not toward offering solutions but toward remaining receptive. After we all split off into groups or pairs, Kramer wanders through the room, his measured steps acting as a subtle reminder to be mindful. At times he interrupts to make general comments; other times he rings a chime that invites you to silence.

The intensity of meeting with others in this format helps grab and keep your attention. When meditating, it’s easy to space out; after all, no one else will really notice. But when you’re eyeball-to-eyeball with someone you’ve never met (with each new set of dialogues, you work with someone new), you naturally pay attention. Not surprisingly, sometimes this intensity can be uncomfortable. The challenge then is trying to relax into staying present and open even amid that discomfort.

After the introductory sessions, the topics you dialogue about explore explicit Buddhist themes, typically in an interpersonal context. Take, for instance, the Buddha’s teaching on the Second Noble Truth—that the origin of suffering is craving, that the mind tends to grasp at something or push it away. Kramer points out that the social manifestation of this is our desire to be seen on the one hand and the urge to hide on the other.

When exploring our tendency to either want recognition or to disappear, I happened to be partnered with Kathy. Before the retreat began, I had noticed Kathy as she made her way through the dining hall as if peering out from under a blanket. She was in her mid-forties, small and skinny. I’m far from a fashion buff, but her vaguely goth outfit didn’t match her little-girl haircut. The first time our eyes met across the salad table, I smiled at her; in return, she flashed a pained grin. Involuntarily, I said to myself: “Avoid her.” After the retreat started, however, I noted Kathy often had something interesting to say at group comment times. I decided I had wrongly prejudged her and sought her out for a partnership.

Our encounter began with Kathy rambling, bouncing between quoting sayings of a previous spiritual teacher and interpreting what Gregory meant by his social framing of the Second Noble Truth. She looked very uncomfortable, and I didn’t say much. Hoping to put her at ease, I let her know that I had wanted to partner with her because I found her group comments interesting. But the truth was I was feeling a bit smug. Her tension made me feel like I was the most relaxed person around, kind of the way someone else’s fear of the dark can make one feel more bold and dismissive of anything lurking in the night. Clearly, I told myself, my years of meditating have paid off.

© 1998 Mark Standen
© 1998 Mark Standen

Hoping to steer Kathy’s philosophizing to a more present-moment exchange, I said I thought she seemed uncomfortable. Not only did this not help but it also made her more uncomfortable and our interaction more awkward. At first she blamed her uneasiness on my height (at six-foot-three, even while we were both sitting, I loomed over her). Eventually, though, through a halting, disjointed back-and-forth, she said that she found it offensive that I had said she seemed uncomfortable. “That’s no way to put someone at ease,” she said, adding, “I bet you would have never said that to a man.” Hmm. So much for my kind and comfortable Buddhist self-image. I tried to remain relaxed and accepting, but I was starting to feel tense and misunderstood—especially about her claim that I would have treated a man differently. I told her that I’d been raised by a powerful woman, that I was comfortable with strong women, including my wife, and that we’d raised our daughters as feminists. Though I kept it to myself, I was concluding that Kathy was a bit crazy.

Then Kramer rang his bell. “Take a break,” he said in his way that hinted at the “relax” piece of the dialoguing instructions. “Go for a little walk. Don’t consciously think of what you’ve just been talking about. Simply walk mindfully and return in ten minutes; come back together with your same partner.” It was a beautiful fall day, and I tried to notice the leaves crunching underfoot, but my mind kept going back to my conversation with Kathy.

Throughout the week, Kramer often stopped us mid-conversation for ten-minute walks. These were extended versions of the “pause” instruction, and I came to see them as a wonderful part of the practice, invariably giving me a fresh and helpful perspective. Imagine how much better off we’d all be if before every difficult conversation, we agreed to set a timer and, unless things were going swimmingly, take a ten-minute break when it rang. This would put a built-in release valve into any heated exchange. This little pause alone could probably do more to promote world peace than armies of meditators dispatched across the globe.

Before returning to Kathy, I came to see I’d been posturing as Mr. At-Ease and that she was right: I probably wouldn’t have asked a man, especially a big guy, if he was feeling uncomfortable. After I told Kathy she was probably right and that I hoped she could forgive me, she melted. She thanked me for my honesty and got teary-eyed. We talked some more and held hands for a few moments. Soon after, though, she was waxing philosophical again and talking about some personal history in yet another flight from the present. This time, I didn’t feel superior to her, but I wanted to try to keep the exchange in the moment. I wanted to avoid my usual pattern of asking questions that kept the other person talking while I would disengage. Having gained some trust from weathering our “crisis,” I felt we had a good opportunity to genuinely meet together again, so I told her that I was disappearing, that I didn’t know what I wanted to talk about but hoped to be more involved. I said something to the effect of “Will you play with me?” Recounting it now, I realize that might sound goofy, but it came from a light and engaged heart. Yet it went over like the proverbial lead balloon. Kathy was put off; she felt I was being egotistical, domineering, and manipulative, trying to steer the conversation to be about me. We limped to the end of the session, but I still felt grateful for the exchange. Even if I was misunderstood, I’d been able to open to this person that I had once dismissed, and I had used the opportunity to speak honestly and kindly even after I was rejected.

My meeting with Kathy made me wonder if the dialogue encounters sometimes go seriously awry. “Of course difficult situations do come up,” Kramer told me. “In some sense, if there are no difficult conversations people aren’t doing the work—just as in meditation practice, you often have to experience the hard stuff to learn something new. Over the years we’ve had maybe half a dozen people leave a retreat of their own accord,” he said. “But I’ve never had to ask someone to leave or mediate a fight or console someone for love gone bad. The atmosphere and awareness of the group tends to work as a container, even when difficult emotions arise.”

Perhaps what helps account for this impressive track record is the requirement that before signing up for one of the longer Insight Dialogue retreats, you must have attended at least one seven-day meditation course. At my retreat, almost everyone I spoke with was a longtime meditator. And the practice itself creates an atmosphere that is conducive to a loving awareness. We were all sitting for many hours a day, and we got to know each other, one by one, in intimate conversations.

ALTHOUGH I DIDN’T have any “breakthrough” insights that I’ve heard other Insight Dialogue practitioners describe, I felt quite content with many small epiphanies and the general increase in compassion I experienced over the course of the retreat. At one point, I welled up from the sympathetic joy of witnessing another pair’s deep connection. I hardly knew either of them, but this spontaneous spouting of happiness for others’ happiness seemed significant. And it wasn’t just me. A palpable sense of goodwill settled throughout the center. For everyone, except maybe Kathy and me.

After our dialogue ended, I consciously tried to wish Kathy well whenever I bumped into her. When our paths crossed, I’d smile at her or in some silent way try to indicate friendliness, but she didn’t respond in kind. She didn’t exactly indicate that she was miffed, but she definitely didn’t return any warmth. After a while, this started to wear me down and near the end of the retreat, I realized I was feeling some animosity toward her. My unconscious “reasoning” was: “If you don’t like me, I’m not going to like you.” So I decided to make a strong effort to send her wishes of lovingkindness. After doing this in a focused way for five or ten minutes, I found myself and Kathy alone together in the dining room, standing near the coffee machine. Breaking the silence that was observed throughout the center except when in formal dialogues, she asked in a small, tentative voice, “How are you?”

“I’m good,” I said, “except I’m concerned you’re mad at me, and yet I have feelings of goodwill toward you.”

“I’m not mad at you,” she said, and opened her arms. We hugged.

It wasn’t exactly a coming together of the Hatfields and the McCoys, but I got choked up, partly from relief that I hadn’t hurt her feelings, but even more because I was moved by her courage. This happening on the last day of the retreat seemed like an exclamation point for the positive effect the practice could have.

Since the retreat has ended, I have yet to follow up on my intention to join an Insight Dialogue group and formally practice it year round. Yet now, many months later, I still feel the benefits. It’s as though I’ve developed a new muscle. I spontaneously find myself truly hearing what people are saying. As Kramer might put it, I’m learning to “trust emergence,” simply listening while someone is speaking without any expectations or nervousness about what comes next. In fact, I now have such confidence in “simply listening” that it’s become like a life preserver; when I’m feeling uncomfortable in a conversation, that’s what I reach for. At times, I find a deep calm and openness in the midst of conversation similar to states of meditation. And at the same time, “simply listening” seems to be better for whomever I’m talking with. They feel fully heard without being judged. Better connections tend to flow naturally. The irony is, when we don’t need things to be better than they are, they tend to end up that way.

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