David Bohm Dialogue: Doorstep Revolution. Hester Reeve. 14th Dec 2018

Hester Reeve Artist Dialogue Bohm
Hester Reeve

This is the text of the talk given by Hester Reeve at the first Autism Dialogue conference, Sheffield Quaker Meeting House, 14.12.18. Audio is here

David Bohm Dialogue: Doorstep Revolution

“I’ve called my presentation: “David Bohm Dialogue: The Door step Revolution.” Hence, I stand on a door mat to read this out and this photograph on my paint pallet is of David Bohm. Bohm is dead now, but he needs to be in the room with us somehow because people count – dead, alive, here and now, and also those people yet to come whose lives hang most precariously on the words of today.

So, let us start with David Bohm’s own words, protested here on my placard. These words are from his book ‘On Dialogue’ and indicate what he is trying to address through the practice:

‘You may ask, if we have such pressing problems why we should waste our time just talking. But I say that our problems originate because we can’t engage in this activity of just talking together, and when we try to deal with our serious problems, we find that we are not meeting.’

I have divided my talk into three sections:
1. Which aspects of Bohm’s philosophy of Dialogue make it radical (and so different to other forms of Dialogue)
2. Why do we need to do it (which is also why we don’t realise we need to do it) and
3. Why do I call it a door step revolution or why is radical so necessary in this case?

ONE: Some people have already described what a Bohm Dialogue group is; most people tend to use Bohm Dialogue in an applied sense in order to ensure effective outcomes or to meet certain needs of the participants or a situation. All of this is really important work which guarantees results, but it is the pure or generative Dialogue – the Dialogue set up by Bohm’s philosophy – that I want to stand up for here. This is where the radicality lies and as an artist and academic, I am interested in the core values for their own sake, in safe guarding them, a bit like an essential battery that other practitioners can re-visit for a re-charge when necessary. It isn’t often that we can put pure philosophies into practice – it simply isn’t very practical – but as an artist that is precisely what I attempt to do.[1]

So, in a pure Bohm Dialogue, there is a commitment by a group of people to meet together for quite a long period, often an entire day. Most importantly, whilst there may be many reasons bringing the group together, they meet with ‘no agenda,’ that is to say, with no rules, no pre-agreed topic of conversation, no requirement to start with or end up solving any problems i.e. we meet in a completely free space. This is not easy or comfortable. In order to really meet together the focus is on working to discover ‘what needs to be said’ at that time and that place with that group of people but this is not to make it personal; the group meeting together are as much a microcosm of society as they are a group of individuals. It is very tricky to pin down what I mean by ‘what needs to be said.’ Peter Garret (Dialogue Associates) makes it clear by explaining that it’s, ‘Having a quality conversation where people can say what really matters to them, and often it’s something they didn’t realise that they knew’ and I would add that this is just the starting point; as the group listens to what is arising as matters of individual concern between them, then the Dialogue starts to emerge as participants move to ‘group-think’ and discovering shared levels of significance and insights. From my experience, attempting to say what needs to be said (and I admit it is usually an attempt since it is very hard, we are not used to having to be so honest or to ‘let thinking gesture through us’) is what changes a discussion into a Bohm Dialogue. The other key to this gear change into Dialogic flow together is if the individuals in the group can manage to reflect on the problems inherent in the thought and language they are using (this can be inner reflection on one’s own thoughts or shared reflection upon what the group is saying together). Bohm would call this negotiating the un-negotiables set up by our culture and others call it meta-dialogue.

TWO: This problem with the nature of thought leads me directly on to my second section – why we need to do it (which is also why we don’t realise we need to do it). Whilst this might sound a little wordy or abstract, it links to David Bohm’s absolute concern to address the many problems facing societies today. He felt we need to examine the root problem behind these, the root problem being thought itself. Bohm reminds us that we have to attend to our thought:

[A]s a real movement that is going on, both inwardly and outwardly, with real effects of widespread and deep significance that interpenetrate and ultimately merge with the whole of the reality in which we live. We cannot do this if we go on with the prevailing tendency to concentrate almost exclusively on the problems which are the results of our thinking process, and thus fragment these results from their origin in the thought that automatically and habitually “copies” inappropriate patterns.
David Bohm, On Creativity, p. 65

Thought and language are not inherently bad things, indeed they are our primary ‘artistic’ tools (and in this broad sense, David Bohm believed that we are all artists). Our ancestors developed thought and language in order to communicate and refer to the very specific pieces of the universe that they could detect around them. Fabulous, the ‘story’ of creation begins. What goes wrong is when we lose intuition or openness to the fact that everything we can and are saying is ultimately part of this whole, part of a movement of reality that is far larger than our very particular human story but from which (and only from which) meaningful life -what philosophers have called the good life- draws its sustenance. This is what Bohm refers to above by ‘fragmentation from the origin,’ and the result is a cascading series of fragmentations that eventually show up in how we relate to the world and one another – all carried through thought, that is through language. And the nub of the problem, of course, is that ‘thought’ does not know that it is doing this.

So, it’s vital that we make a radical clearing right here in the midst of our lives – i.e. a Bohm Dialogue with no agenda – to realise not just new thought in action but to also understand where our thought is faulty or not doing what we really intended it to.  Otherwise, what was once a creation story becomes one of destruction and divisiveness and, worse, is that it actually hides the source of inspiration and potentiality from us. And this, for Bohm, is the problem behind all our problems, the root problem that first needs addressing.

So, for example, to help the ecological problem we face, Bohm stated that working with business or governments may be efficient in the here and now but it won’t fix the root problem that caused pollution in the first place, it is merely fixing one sort of large problem with a miniature version of itself and in the meantime, we stay out of balance with nature, we carry on deluded, causing other forms of pollution elsewhere and, of course, self-pollution. In a nut shell, to some degree, we are ALL suffering from living in a neurotypical culture.

The good news is that we are the ones with language, it’s ours. We are the ones who choose to voice language in order to create or destroy, we are the ones who can choose to meet together or not meet together. This brings me onto section THREE, my final section – Doorstep Revolution. If we do choose to meet via Bohm Dialogue, we have everything we need right here, right where we are living out our lives and in abundance. We need the intention to truly meet, a space to meet in, chairs to sit on, voices to speak with, bodies to listen with and above all freedom via no agenda – at least for the duration of the Dialogue; freedom from the cultural demand on us language users to be ‘rational’ and ‘efficient’ and freedom from the self-imposed demands of only saying what we think others want us to say or what makes us look like we know what we’re talking about rather than saying what needs to be said. To quote a fellow Dialogue practitioner, Caroline Pawluc, “Words are a precious resource, let’s not waste them!”

Well, Bohm Dialogue is a way of really exercising this precious resource, of becoming aware of what we are truly thinking and what blocks its flow. It is a way of working together in order to let ‘intelligence’ into our reality. For David Bohm this is not information or knowledge; intelligence arises through our thinking together in freedom without a fixed goal, and, as such, it is an adventure. Here’s some deep but exciting words from David Bohm again:

It cannot be too strongly emphasised that what is being suggested here is that intelligence does not thus arise primarily out of thought. Rather…the deep source of intelligence is the unknown and indefinable totality from which all perception originates.
On Creativity p. 61

The revolutionary bit about Bohm Dialogue is not just on account of it being a radical practice that can bring all sorts of new connections and ideas into play, but because it works. The change is never immediately measurable in the outside world, but something fundamental is shifting. As I’ve already said, it is a process open to any body. You don’t need any training, you don’t need to be a confident speaker and you certainly do not need to be neuro typical!

I would like to end by reading out a quotation from the philosopher Martin Heidegger because I think it really calls out just why we really should bother to commit ourselves to meeting in the arduous yet insightful way Bohm Dialogue makes possible:

“It is as though man had to make an effort to live properly with language. It is as though such a dwelling were especially prone to succumb to the danger of commonness…..this floundering in commonness is part of the high and dangerous game and gamble in which, by the nature of language, we are the stakes.”

What is Called Thinking? pp. 118-9

[1] I’d like to add that I often convene Dialogue groups alongside another Sheffield based artist, Helen Blejerman, who is here today.”

Autism Dialogue Conference talks: Hester Reeve. 14th Dec 2018

Hester Reeve at SHU webpage

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