Bohmian Dialogue

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Explanation by Bruce Adlerman at :

"David Bohm is well known for several reasons: his brilliant but controversial work as a physicist, his extensive dialogues with J. Krishnamurti (recorded in video and book form), and his work with Donald Factor and Peter Garrett in creating a new practice of mindful dialogue. Ken Wilber is rather famously dismissive of many of Bohm's theories – including his method of dialogical inquiry. At a meet-up several years ago at Wilber's house, for instance, I recall Wilber remarking that it is silly to think that people will come to any radical insight or transformation simply by sitting around and talking. But Bohmian dialogue involves more than just sitting around and talking, and I believe the theory behind it is sound, even from an Integral perspective. I cannot spend a great deal of time on it here, but I will explain why I think it is effective and why I would recommend it as a powerful component of Integral Life Practice.

Bohm's approach to dialogue is inspired by his understanding of the nature of thought, its limitations, and the role it plays in human conflict and disorder. If you are interested in exploring Bohm's ideas in this area, I recommend starting with his posthumously published book, Thought as a System. In Integral terms, Bohm sees thought not simply as an UL (subjective) phenomenon, but as something which manifests in all quadrants simultaneously, in a complex, evolving system of meaning and form. By thought, Bohm doesn't simply mean the flow of inner dialogue that we might become aware of in meditation: he includes the self, memory, recollected feelings and emotional imprints (felts), the physical (neurological, chemical) correlates of thought, the network of sensations and contractions that manifest in the body as we think and react, the nonverbal “conditioning” that allows us to function in the world (say, learning to drive a car), the collective fields of meaning that thought generates (cultural presuppositions, myths, and narratives), the external systems and artifacts that thought generates (laws, national boundaries, even physical objects), and even the external networks which allow for the dissemination of thought (radio, TV, the Internet). Bohm argues that all of these things may be understood as the undivided movement of thought, a movement which profoundly shapes and constrains human behavior, often unconsciously.

One of Bohm's central aims, therefore, is creating and stabilizing what he calls the proprioception of thought. Proprioception describes the body's ability to be immediately aware of its activity and movement: when we raise an arm, we know not only where the arm is, we also know that we are the ones raising it. But thought often moves outside of conscious awareness: psychological imprints condition and color our perceptions and reactions to a great degree; the structures of thought, and the influence of particular structures on what we take to be “given” in reality, are rather opaque to us, leading to pervasive incoherence in the field of human relationship. To help make these patterns more apparent, Bohm recommends the regular practice of mindful dialogue in addition to individual contemplative practice.

In Bohmian dialogue, one strives to be mindful of the movement of thought in several dimensions simultaneously: as the subjective thoughts and “felts” that arise at any given moment; as the objective manifestation of sensations and contractions in the body; as the gestures and body language of members in the group; as the particular content of the discussion at hand; as the patterns of interaction and conflict that emerge over time (not only in one session, but over multiple sessions); as the conventions and rules which may inhibit the flow of dialogue; and so on. In the beginning, this is a rather difficult practice. But one approaches it simply: starting from a position of open listening and letting dialogue unfold in the space of awareness that the group establishes. Certain deeply held beliefs, presuppositions, “unwritten rules,” fears and insecurities, and so on, will gradually make themselves manifest through this process, as perceptions of individuals in the group fail to line up and various conflicts emerge. These implicit beliefs, these forms of psychological and cultural conditioning, are not readily apparent in the practice of solitary meditation; but in Bohmian contemplative dialogue, particularly if it is sustained over a period of days or weeks, these patterns will emerge over time in the intersubjective field and can be cognized and processed by the group as a whole (or privately by individuals after a particular session has concluded).

Bohm contends (and I can confirm) that sustained practice of this form of dialogue, particularly if certain ground rules are followed, can lead not only to the emergence of insight for individuals in the group, but to a sort of collective intelligence that manifests in between participants - a creative flow of awareness and inspiration that can guide the group to deeper and deeper levels of understanding and communion. The unconscious conventions and habits of thought, the conditioning which usually drives our reactions and our social negotiations, opens onto a living field of responsive intelligence - in Bohm's terms, the birth of group intelligence out of the largely unconscious field of “group think.”

I do not have the space in this entry to outline the ground rules of Bohmian dialogue, but if you are interested, you can read a summary of them here. If you are knowledgeable of Integral Theory, I believe you will recognize in Bohmian dialogue an all-quadrant range of awareness and a contemplative practice which has the potential to allow participants to explore dimensions of human experience which are opaque to traditional UL modes of individual inquiry. One of Wilber's concerns, as I understand it, is that this process of dialogue is not capable of disclosing the “altitude” of participants, and may be compromised by the incommensurability of perspectives between altitudes. However, this is no reason to disregard the value of this practice. Awareness of “altitude,” of v-Memetic, moral, and cognitive levels of development, can enhance the process - both in the establishment of dialogue groups, and in the conduct of dialogue itself." (