Conversation that Means Something


 Verna was a woman in her 90’s who, bless her, attended several years of philosophy classes. She apparently showed up regularly as a motivated and earnest inquirer, even as she suffered the gradual loss of her eyesight.

 She used to fire questions at the Professor who did his best to answer. But nothing he said in response landed. No response apparently was good enough. Nothing hit the spot. Nothing got through.  

 Even if the answers were spot on, as I imagine they were, since the teacher was Dr. Jacob Needleman, it didn’t matter, for Verna was unable to take them in. Her skepticism held fast.

 Yet I don’t think that the 90 year old Verna was some kind of unusual case by being someone who had parked her sense of identity in the mind alone. 

 My sense is that to be holed up in the mind exclusively is the common state of anyone prior to a breakthrough in understanding. 

 In such an ordinary state, no friendship has been made with the greater and deeper regions of oneself. 

 Thus, Verna's case is par for the course - another case of someone who, though perhaps asking questions earnestly, remains unmoved and unaltered  by the answers given. 

 Questions are being asked, but a certain resistance remains. One’s mind remains locked in place, fearing perhaps to be dislodged and relocated from a restlessness which, as it is, cannot assimilate the truth.  

 So, Verna lived in a hard crust of unyielding skepticism. This was the restricting zone she inhabited. She lived in that natural state of the mind which by its nature is 'atheistic.' 

 I have many times despaired to behold exchanges of this kind that similarly never seem to go anywhere. Questions are fired. Answers are given. But nothing changes. The conversation falls flat.

 It’s discouraging to witness that, even though nobody is getting through to anybody, the arguing goes on anyway! 

 Something’s missing in the heated exchanges. Some critical element.

 The missing dimension is, I think, a certain energy or warmth that is created when hearts open. Without that essential transforming energy, no real learning will take place.

 As long as the debating is but surface to surface, or head to head, it will be futile. The conversation has to enter another dimension where the communication rises to the level of heart to heart and depth to depth

 Otherwise no real understanding will be obtained. Rather, at the end of the altercations, implacability will remain: ‘I’m right and you are wrong,’ or, ‘We’re right and they are wrong.’ or, 'We have it and they don’t.' That kind of thing.

 Well, after five years of unavailing exchanges between student and teacher, in that philosophy class, Verna, remained in a state of unbelief. 

 And yet a change was about to occur. It happened on the day when in response to yet another skeptical question, Professor Needleman decided not to answer Verna directly, but chose instead to be quiet in response, and to go into himself.

 It is apparent that Dr. Needleman entered what might be described as a state of prayer, a contemplative state. (Jacob Needleman, What is God? p. 147)

 Now the room was quiet. Which of course made everyone a little nervous. The silence in the classroom was hard to take! Nevertheless, a new atmosphere was emerging that was now going to make all the difference.

 When finally the Professor spoke, he found himself communicating not so much as an answer giver, but as someone whose state of prayer was encouraging a spirit of shared openness and inquiry. 

 I believe that what Jacob Needleman found within himself enabled Verna to find the same in herself. By virtue of being in a state of prayer, Jacob was able to draw out "the Verna behind Verna.” That is, in a state of contemplation, he was able to address that dimension of depth within Verna which St. Paul called “the inner self.” 

The Apostle, Paul, aware that human beings are more than one-dimensional wrote: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” (2Cors 4:16)

 It is quite the art, I believe, to have the ability to get past someone’s outer shell or crust to speak to her inner self, to a greater depth, or capacity within her.

 The art of great conversation is the ability to find a way to access, to address and bring out that hidden depth in another.

 With this creative dynamic now in play in the classroom, the real version of Verna peeked out from behind the skepticism and began to shine through.

 Professor Needleman described the transformation in this way: “Verna’s eyes widened. Her face became still, quiet, intensely, dynamically alive. Her old body began to straighten.” 

 "She looked at me - through me - with a look of a kind that I had seen countless times in my young students, but in her, in this woman of many years, that same look went deep, deep into herself - or should I say came from deep, deep in her self, breaking through who knows how many years and decades of imprisonment, and therefore all the more powerful and penetrating than in the face of a younger person.” 

 Needleman himself had been addressed in this kind of prayerful, contemplative way years before when he met the Eastern Orthodox priest, Father Anthony Bloom. 

 In fact, the encounter between the two men was so powerful that Jacob could barely recollect what had happened. It took a second visit to put together a coherent transcript of their conversation.

 In that situation, too, as in the philosophy classroom, the critical factor wasn’t so much about words shared, but about the power of presence - in this case, Fr Bloom’s ability to be so fully attentive so as to be disorientating and yet inspiring at the same time. (Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity, p.19)

 Well, there is an art to creating this quality of conversation - to creating a level of conversation that means something - and I think it looks a lot like what was experienced between Bloom and Needleman and then what Professor Needleman was able to achieve in his own philosophy class. 

 Such a conversation comes into being because of a shared shift from one domain to another.

 When there is this kind of felt shift, arguments cease and even casual meetings can turn into healing encounters.

 It therefore seems to me that someone who lives in a state of prayer will consciously reject that approach, antithetical to the spirit of real philosophy, that "sets out simply to show one's adversary as a dunce or a dullard.” (D.N. Robinson) 

 Instead of showing someone up, to find him wanting in some way, a skillful communicator will attempt to engage in a level of dialogue such that the conversation becomes two people talking each other into the realm of the soul.

 Which is to encourage a kind of contemplative discourse within the soul itself, so that when, for instance, someone says, as she puts herself down, 'Oh don’t mind me. I’m just muttering on again,’ we might say in response: 'No, you’re not. What you say matters, and what’s going on inside of you matters.'

 Which is a way of encouraging one's friend to become very good at the art of befriending her own inner life - that contemplative discourse within her own soul. (Stephen C. Rowe, Rediscovering the West, An Inquiry into Nothingness and Relatedness p. 138 of 550)

 Another way of putting it is to say that in a conversation that means something the persons engaged are participating in a shared way of knowing, which "consists not in the mastery of doctrine or formulation, not in the knowing of particular things, but rather in the actualization of a power or capacity.” (S.C. Rowe)

 A power greater than themselves is felt and becomes the dominant factor in the conversation.

 In the midst of his encounters with others, Socrates, for example, practiced the "suspension of his lower forms of knowing, in such a way as to become transparent to Truth.”

 Which means simply that he thought that the goal of a good communicator is to get out of the way so that spiritual power can shine on through!

 When we become transparent to vital spiritual power, we may find as a consequence that those we share time with will want to allow their inner selves to awaken.

 I listened to someone recently and tried to practice this idea of getting out of the way, so that something deeper could break through between us.

 In the conversation I said almost nothing.

 Thoughts occurred to me, but I kept letting them go. I thought: 'I’m going to be nothing here.' 

 Well, I don’t think my new friend was offended by my approach. I think in fact that he may have been surprised to have been listened to so carefully! 

 And I was left feeling delighted that he seemed so delighted!

 I think I should be nothing more often.

 The right sort of conversationalist, I am saying, must become an acute listener, as opposed to presenting as some kind of windbag, full of one’s certitudes, declarations and denunciations.

 It was Father Anthony Bloom who in his conversation with Jacob Needleman spoke about putting oneself in a state of prayer as a way of life and a way of being! 

 Father Bloom said that the chief characteristic of being in a state of prayer is to be vulnerable.

 Well, just what kind of difference might vulnerability make in the creation of meaningful conversations? Perhaps all the difference in the world.

 If I am in a state of prayer, and thus vulnerable, I am better able to allow another person to share her thoughts without immediately intercepting her with my own thoughts and interpretations.

 To be therefore in a state of prayer, vulnerable, open and listening, is the way to go if it’s my wish to engage in a conversation that mean something.