Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom

Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom

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by Gregory Kramer

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Insight Dialogue is a way of bringing the tranquility and insight attained in meditation directly into your interactions with other people. It’s a practice that involves interacting with a partner in a retreat setting or on your own, as a way of accessing a profound kind of insight. Then, you take that insight on into the grind of everyday human


Insight Dialogue is a way of bringing the tranquility and insight attained in meditation directly into your interactions with other people. It’s a practice that involves interacting with a partner in a retreat setting or on your own, as a way of accessing a profound kind of insight. Then, you take that insight on into the grind of everyday human interactions. Gregory Kramer has been teaching the practice (which he originated) for more than a decade in retreats around the world. It’s something strikingly new in the world of Buddhist practice—yet it’s completely grounded in traditional Buddhist teaching.

Kramer begins with a detailed presentation of the central Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths seen through an interpersonal lens. Because dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness) is often most forcefully felt in our relations with others, interpersonal relationships are a wonderfully useful place to practice. He breaks the Noble Truths down into component parts to observe how they manifest particularly in relationship to others, using examples from his own life and practice, as well as from his students’. He then goes on to present the practice as it’s taught in his workshops and retreats. There are a few basic steps to the practice, deceptively simple to describe: (1) pause, (2) relax, (3) open, (4) trust emergence, (5) listen deeply, and (6) speak the truth.

The sequence begins following a period of meditation, and includes periods of speaking, listening, and mutual silence. Kramer includes numerous examples of people’s experience with the practice from his retreats, and shows how the insight gained from the techniques can be brought into real life. More than just testimonials for how well the practice “works,” the personal stories demonstrate the problems that arise, the different routes the practice can follow, and the sometimes surprising insights that are gained.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Lots of Buddhist books are using meditation to inspect the mind and watch its workings. The process works exceptionally well for monks and nuns, but the rest of the human race is busy householding, spends less time on the meditation cushion and could use a little help in applying Buddhist teachings to the messy world of relationships. This book by Buddhist meditation teacher Kramer fills that need somewhat unevenly. Kramer is a longtime student and teacher in the insight meditation tradition and has also studied Buddhist psychology. He has developed, and teaches, a practice that engages partners in a structured dialogue based on Buddhist practices and principles. Such dialogue, like meditation, yields insight. The book is at its best when the author explains and teaches this unique practice, offering real-world examples. Less successful, and far less novel, is a section that relates Buddhism's four noble truths to "interpersonal truths." This section is larded with sweeping psychological generalizations conveyed in fuzzy language ("All of these hungers rest on self-concept; they are the core around which the self constellates"). This book has potential as a text for advanced Buddhist practitioners interested in extending their practice into everyday life to illuminate and improve their relationships. (Sept. 11)

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Library Journal

Meditation is great; how much better to bring the tranquility that results into your relationships with others. From a longtime student of Buddhism who is also a scientist and a composer.

—Graham Christian
From the Publisher
"Meditation is great; how much better to bring the tranquility that results into your relationships with others. From a longtime student of Buddhism who is also a scientist and a composer."—Library Journal

"This book has potential as a text for advanced Buddhist practitioners interested in extending their practice into everyday life to illuminate and improve their relationships."—Publishers Weekly Religion Bookline

"Insight Dialogue is beautifully written and wonderfully practical. There is deep healing in these pages."—Christine Northrup, MD, author of Mother-Daughter Wisdom, and Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom

"In this pioneering work, Gregory Kramer breaks new ground in applying the Buddha's teachings to our lives, relationships, and meditative understandings. This book will be of tremendous benefit to all those seeking freedom in their daily lives."—Joseph Goldstein, author of Insight Meditation and One Dharma

"Beautifully written and elegantly structured, Insight Dialogue unpacks and enriches practices for extending and deepening our awareness of social interactions in all their complexity, with all their shadow, pain, and promise, in the service of authentic freedom and the humbling realization of deepest connection."—Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses and Arriving at Your Own Door

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Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 1: On the Path Together

The whole of our path of awakening, including the profound contributions of meditation, can be fully integrated with our lives with others. A great deal of our suffering in life is in relationship to other people. We cannot reasonably expect individualistic philosophies and solitary practices to directly address the pain and confusion that arise between two people or in society at large. Nor can we expect solo endeavors to yield a direct path to the rewards of relational ease and insight. What is required is a fundamentally interpersonal understanding of the path and a meditation practice explicitly evolved to take place in relationship with others. This book is about such an understanding and such a path.

We meditate alone but live our lives with other people; a gap is inevitable. If our path is to lead to less suffering, and much of our suffering is with other people, then perhaps we need to reexamine our sole commitment to these individual practices. Meditating alone reinforces an unreflected assumption: that the deep work of awakening is a private affair. From this assumption we build a sense of the path—its overall direction and its particulars—that favors solitary and internal endeavor. Meditating individually, we lack any practice that explicitly addresses the interpersonal realm. We may sense vaguely that something is awry but cannot see what is missing. We are not clear that the personal and interpersonal paths are profoundly connected, nor do we know how easily and even elegantly they can be interwoven. A wider vision is available to us. It is so simple.

All meditation helps us calm down, become more aware of what is going on within us, and meet difficulties with honesty and acceptance. Meditation involves both an explicit practice of tranquillity and reflection and a lifestyle of mindfulness and care.

When we meditate alone, we might be quiet for a few minutes or a few days, possibly attending to the breath or to some quality of the heart. We calm down; the mind clears and becomes still. In the stillness of individual meditation we perceive the suffering associated with our relationship to ourselves. We notice how easily we become lost in automatic thoughts and emotions. We notice bodily suffering, personal grasping and fear, and confusion. Against the backdrop of simple awareness, our longings and fears—our struggles to attain pleasure and to avoid pain—become starkly visible. Seeing the stress involved in satisfying our desires, we glimpse how we habitually fabricate many of our problems, and begin to release these habits. As individual practice deepens, it may yield true ease. We get a taste of freedom. But whether we practice meditation in seclusion or independently alongside other meditators at a meditation group or retreat, individual meditation approaches the confusion and pain of our relational lives only indirectly.

When we meditate together, as in Insight Dialogue, the same process unfolds—with two significant differences. Interpersonal meditation reveals the suffering associated with our relational lives, and in society as a whole, much more directly. It is exceptionally effective at revealing desires and fears about being seen, the dynamics of loneliness, and the powerful but hidden processes by which we construct a self-image. Interpersonal meditation also provides us with a more direct way to unbind the knots behind this relational suffering and confusion. Its dynamics are similar to those of traditional, personal meditation: we gradually cultivate mindfulness and tranquillity; these qualities allow us to apprehend the moment-tomoment nature of experience; what we then realize, frees us. But because interpersonal meditation works with the moment-to-moment experience of interacting with another, it brings the liberating dynamic of meditation into our interpersonal lives. From there it migrates to society as a whole.

In Insight Dialogue—whether on retreat or in a weekly group—a simple practice unfolds: after a period of silent sitting meditation, people are invited into pairs or larger groups to reflect together on a topic such as change, death, or doubt. Some basic instructions are offered about pausing to be mindful and relaxing in the face of reactivity. In Insight Dialogue, meditators encounter more stimulation to react or cling to than they would in silent practice. Along with this challenge, they discover the unique gift of mutual support for seeing things as they actually are. Because the guidelines, the practice, and the insights all address the dynamics of relating with other human beings, they follow us into our everyday lives easily and naturally. We spontaneously remember to relax in interaction with a coworker or notice how we are positioning ourselves in a conversation or see our own clinging with clarity and compassion. We also learn to recognize the spark of clear awareness present behind the clamor of human encounter. Each moment of human interaction becomes part of the path to awakening.

The group practice of Insight Dialogue is portable and accessible: a practice group may be formed anywhere. Insight Dialogue groups might meet once a week; typically, they begin with a review of the goals and methods of the practice. We meditate silently and individually for a time, releasing the whirling of our everyday lives. Then we are invited to find a partner and are given new instructions. We are offered a topic to reflect upon, usually a real-life issue considered in the light of wisdom drawn from an established spiritual tradition. We are invited to pause periodically during that reflection and release habitual stories and routine reactions, meeting the present moment of interpersonal contact with mindfulness. A bell is rung, and we step into interpersonal practice as mindfully as we are able.

Immediately, stories well up. We find our own stories, and those of our co-meditators, to be absorbing, sometimes touching. We form judgments about the stories, about the actors in them, about the way they are told. We are carried away by habits of speech; we find ourselves grasping at the emotions aroused by this encounter. A bell is rung, and everyone drops into silence. Stopped in our habitual spinning, we come home to mindfulness. We notice how our thoughts and emotions have proliferated. Mindfulness stabilizes a bit and we calm down, letting the mind settle on simple bodily awareness or the breath. When the bell is rung again, we reengage with our partner. Excitement and identification still arise easily, but soon we begin to pause on our own, without the bell’s reminder. We also have the support of each other’s practice: our partners also begin to pause on their own, bringing us back to the moment when our own mind wanders.

By the end of a single evening of practice we have paused many dozens of times. We carry back to our everyday lives an awareness of the possibility of pausing, of not identifying with the proliferations of our hearts. As we enter our everyday relationships, we sometimes find ourselves pausing spontaneously, meeting experience with acceptance and including others in our field of mindfulness. At work and at home, as well as in our weekly practice group, we find opportunities to cultivate flexibility of mind; we begin to move easily from internal mindfulness to mindfulness of others.

Meet the Author

Gregory Kramer, cofounder and president of the Metta Foundation in Portland, Oregon, has been teaching Insight Meditation since 1980. He developed the practice of Insight Dialogue and has been teaching it since 1995, offering retreats in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia.

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Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
ShawnSorensen43 More than 1 year ago
One of the biggest insights here is that we can achieve just as much calm, compassion and honesty - if not more - meditating with others as we can meditating alone. In fact, we can practice mindfulness in any situation. The compassion and patience we show ourselves reinforces the compassion and patience we show others. Then it comes back to us. Gregory Kramer's book wisely integrates the Buddhist emphasis on non-clinging, on our constant constructs to need things in our lives - pleasure, the desire to be seen and appreciated and the desire to be left alone. Just on the basis of writing style, the book does a nice job of avoiding difficult-to-pronounce, sometimes difficult-to-grasp foreign words and phrases. The seven basic steps of mindfulness described here - pause/relax/open, trust emergence and listen deeply/speak the truth - are therefore easy to understand, can be applied in order, on their own or joined with any other step as applicable to each different situation and person. The author's use of language is beautiful and his calls for honesty and being real to each moment struck a deep chord in my heart. I felt regret, pain, sadness and anger drift into the realm of compassion, to seeing myself in others and their suffering and happiness in me. I begin to feel a deep sense of freedom when the constraints of urgency and expectation don't crowd my thoughts, when my past experiences have less control over how I think or feel about a current moment, which will be more fruitful with spontaneity, humor and gentleness. I throw away images of what my friendships and relationship should be, what my work situation should be, and how the world should be, and see them more for how they actually are. In this acceptance of the world, I can accept my own mistakes, selfishness and fear, and embark on new endeavors. It's hard to not give a book this important five stars. The language is repetitive and many paragraphs too long. This took away a lot of directness and intimacy from reading the book, and would just seem to benefit the literary-type learner vs. someone who may learn from more charts, bullet points and pictures/diagrams. This issue came to a humorous head at the start of the chapter on Speak the Truth when the author writes " ...we don't say what is not useful. There is economy about our speech. We say what is appropriate, not more." Three sentences that say the same thing - be brief! The book also emphasizes the week-long Insight Dialogue retreats a little too much. These are incredibly important endeavors, but the author's incessant mention of them made the book feel a little too much like a commercial and also took valuable space away from having more complete and specific explanations of how to incorporate Insight Dialogue techniques into daily life. On the whole, these are minor complaints. As Gregory Kramer beautifully states in the last chapter, "Simply Human": "Truth is revealed at the kitchen table and in the meditation hall. Special practices, clear awareness, careful attention: these all contribute to our capacity to do our best. So does sharing a meal, asking our children how their day was, and listening to their answers with a heart that knows the world is harrowed with pain and aware that this moment of their reply is nevertheless unique."