• the gift of presence

  • the gift of presence

Conversation as a spiritual practice

Through conversation as a spiritual practice we seek to attune to one another, rather than agree with, or win over, the other. 

As we attune to one another trust is cultivated.  In turn, trust leads towards an ever deepening experience of connection, even between individuals who hold disparate views.  In this way, conversation is not simply a matter of pooling together various ideas, opinions, and beliefs.  Rather, conversation becomes a spiritual practice through which we experience profound interpersonal connection as we nurture authentic community which is comprised of unity with diversity, within an environment of trust.  In this way, conversation as a spiritual practice cultivates peaceful relationships.

A conversation involves both listening (receiving) and responding. Sounds pretty self-explanatory doesn’t it!  However, we do not listen or respond objectively.  How we hear, and for that matter what we actually hear, is framed by a certain lens, or interpretive view.  Bernard Lonergan teaches:  “what does not fit into our interpretive view will not be heard, or if heard will be deemed irrelevant.”  For example: how often are we in the middle of a conversation with someone and we think to ourselves, “they are not listening to me.” Or, ” this is really important to me, and yet they don’t seem to care.” Or, “do we come from different planets?!! We seem to be speaking a different language!!”

It is not so much that we are speaking a different language in terms of the actual words. However, we may be speaking a different language in terms of what we mean when we speak, and what is understood or received by the other person/s.  Why?  Because our words are packed with meaning. As such our language is not simply words that we speak and hear. The words we use in conversation are loaded with meaning . . . our meaning.  And our meaning is informed by our current interpretive view.

Our interpretive view

To be human is to view ourselves-in-life through a particular interpretive framework or lens. Lonergan taught: “our interpretive lens filters all that we see, hear and know.”  Our interpretive view impacts our conversations, for how we interpret a word will determine our response.  However, as a general rule, we are not even aware that we are conversing through a particular filter.

How do we develop our particular interpretive lens?  A number of elements are involved such as: personality traits, family / local community / cultural / religious beliefs and norms, and ongoing life experience.  Are we trapped within a particular interpretive view?  Some people do become trapped.  However, if we remain open and receptive to the interplay between our life experience and our current interpretive view, it is possible to continue to expand, or when necessary transform, our current view.

Conversation as a spiritual practice

Within the light of the above understandings, the question could be posed: “is it ever possible to engage in conversation as a spiritual practice?”  The response to that question is, yes it is possible. Even though our conversations are shaped by our current view and our meanings, it is possible to attune to one another.  It is the quality of attuning to one another which generates an environment of trust. Through such an environment of trust we may experience profound interpersonal connection, even with people who hold disparate views.

when we attune to one another we cultivate trust, which in turn, generates profound interpersonal connection

We attune to one another via:  a contemplative orientation, a beginner’s mindset, and posing open-ended questions.

A contemplative orientation

A contemplative orientation is one where we let go the desire to control the experience and in the words of Thomas Merton:  “we surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.”  Within such an orientation we engage in conversation with an openness to where the creative action of love and grace may be drawing us.  Such a tender stance requires an attitude of curiosity and non-judgmental exploration. It also requires whole body listening, where we notice what is happening in our bodies as well as our thinking, in response to the conversation.

Surrendering to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts aligns somewhat with the term dialogical dialogue, referred to by McEntee and Bucko in their book, The New Monasticism. For them, dialogical dialogue:

“is a way of relating to one another, such that we allow ourselves to be changed in the light of the wisdom of the other. It is a dialogue that is always an exploration. Its philosophical roots stem from an understanding that the other is not really other, but participates in a shared reality of which we ourselves are a part. . . .The other is not the same as our self, but is not separate from our self either. Together, we both participate in a shared reality and we affect and change that reality through our interactions with one another.”

A beginner’s mindset

Within the Zen Buddhist tradition, Suzuki states that a beginner’s mind encompasses:  openness, curiosity, lack of preconceptions, comfortable with the unknown, a mind which is able to ‘be with’ the present moment.

In terms of engaging in conversation with a beginner’s mindset, Daniel Siegel’s teaching is extremely helpful.  He teaches that there are two ways in which we perceive and process information.  One way is through the constructor mind.  The constructor mind involves our: “top-down conceptualizations, where prior experience is activated, making it difficult to notice the unique and vibrant details of what is happening here and now.”  The second way we perceive and process information is through the conduit mind.  The conduit mind involves:  “bottom-up processing, leading to the circuitry in the brain beyond the top-down filters of prior experience.  Bottom-up perception is experienced as a conduit of sensory experience where we are seeing the unique aspects of what is in front of us.” So, if we intentionally unhook from the top-down constructor mind and drop into the bottom-up conduit mind of sensory experience, we are able to listen and respond from a beginner’s mindset.

Posing open-ended questions

Bernard Lonergan taught:  “we humans are created to wonder, to question and discover responses.”  As we do so, we are able to “transcend the limits of our current view.”  For Lonergan, open-ended questions are at the heart of self-transcendence.  Open-ended questions allow the light of transformative shifts to break through the limitations of our current view.  Open-ended questions emerge quite naturally from a beginner’s mindset.  When we pose open-ended questions in conversation we are creating space for each participant to remain open to transformative shifts in their view, if and when they emerge.

So, even when we are in conversation with individuals who hold disparate views, if we can remain in an contemplative orientation, with a beginner’s mindset, and pose open-ended questions, the conversation will allow each participant to attune to one another, or in the words of Parker Palmer: “to truly see and hear each other.”  In the act of truly seeing and hearing each other, we do not need to agree with each other, however we will be able to listen and respond in such a way that each participant will experience a kind of resonance, or what Siegal names as “feeling felt.”  Such an experience of feeling felt gives rise to an environment of trust.

In light of such understandings, the intention of conversation as a spiritual practice is more than a simple pooling of ideas, opinions and beliefs.  Rather, the intention of conversation as a spiritual practice to attune to one another and in so doing cultivate trust and connection, where there is, in the words of McEntee and Bucko, “an opening oneself to the other without fear of losing one’s own positions.”  The metaphor I find helpful for such an understanding is: standing in our own ground, openheartedly.

standing in our own ground, openheartedly

Signs that we are attuning to one another in conversation are:

  • listening without thinking of our response
  • allowing silences
  • holding an attitude of truly wanting to see and hear the other person/s truth
  • speaking from our truth even if it differs from the other person/s
  • allowing the conversation to affect us in its own terms

Signs that we are not attuning to one another in conversation are:

  • racing in to fix or rescue the other person/s
  • giving unwarranted advice
  • shrinking from who we are, or, defending our position
  • making assumptions about the other person/s motives
  • unwarranted fact gathering
  • seeking to control the experience

As we engage in conversation as a contemplative practice, we are nurturing authentic community which is comprised of unity with diversity, within an environment of trust.  As a result, we are cultivating peaceful relationships.


Parker J. Palmer, Hidden Wholeness: The Journey towards an Undivided Life: Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World

Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology

Daniel J. Siegel, MD, Mind:  A journey to the heart of being human

Rory McEntee & Adam Bucko, The New Monasticism:  An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Living