Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Paul, by N.T. Wright

Chapter 2

1. The historian and biographer can study, and should study so far as possible, the levels of motivation that are available, not least the implicit narratives that run through a culture or through the mind of a political leader or an isolated individual. Something like that was attempted before the buildup to the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces and their allies in 2003. Two enterprising American writers produced a survey of the popular cultural figures (in movies, TV shows, and comic strips) listed as favorites by presidents over the previous century.2 Again and again the presidents favored Captain America, the Lone Ranger, and similar characters’ scripts, in which heroes act outside the law to restore peace to beleaguered communities. The narrative seemed worryingly familiar. That wasn’t psychoanalysis, but it was a study of motivation. We can in principle inspect the implicit narratives that drive people to particular actions.

- Where have you witnessed such “narratives in action” of late?

2. If I say that Saul of Tarsus was brought up in a world of hope, many readers may misunderstand me. “Hope” and “optimism” are not the same thing. The optimist looks at the world and feels good about the way it’s going. Things are looking up! Everything is going to be all right! But hope, at least as conceived within the Jewish and then the early Christian world, was quite different. Hope could be, and often was, a dogged and deliberate choice when the world seemed dark. It depended not on a feeling about the way things were or the way they were moving, but on faith, faith in the One God. This God had made the world. This God had called Israel to be his people. The scriptures, not least the Psalms, had made it clear that this God could be trusted to sort things out in the end, to be true to his promises, to vindicate his people at last, even if it had to be on the other side of terrible suffering.

- Where, in your life, are you optimistic and where are you hopeful?

3. “Hope” in this sense is not a feeling. It is a virtue. You have to practice it, like a difficult piece on the violin or a tricky shot at tennis. You practice the virtue of hope through worship and prayer, through invoking the One God, through reading and reimagining the scriptural story, and through consciously holding the unknown future within the unshakable divine promises. Saul had learned to do this. Paul the Apostle, much later, would have to learn the same lesson all over again.

- Where are you currently practicing hope in your life? Why?

4. When the One God finally puts away the idolatry and wickedness that caused his people to be exiled in the first place, then his people will be free at last, Passover people with a difference. That was the ancient hope, cherished not only by Saul of Tarsus but by thousands of his fellow Jews. By no means were all of them as “zealous” as Saul was. Few, perhaps, had his intellectual gifts. But they were mostly aware, through scripture and liturgy, of the ancient divine promises and of the tension between those promises and the present realities. One way or another, it was a culture suffused with hope. Hope long deferred, but hope nonetheless. That is the great story in which Saul and his contemporaries were living. That is the narrative they had in their heads and their hearts. That story gave shape and energy, in a thousand different ways, to their aspirations and motivations. It explains both hope and action. This is not psychoanalysis. It is history.

How has this biblical ancient hope shaped your hope in Jesus?

5. To explain what this meant in the language of psychology would be like trying to copy a Titian with a child’s crayons. To understand the explosion that resulted, we need history, we need theology, we need a strong sense of the inner tensions of the first-century Jewish world and the zealous propagators of Jewish culture. This moment shattered Saul’s wildest dreams and, at the same split second, fulfilled them. This was—he saw it in that instant—the fulfillment of Israel’s ancient scriptures, but also the utter denial of the way he had been reading them up to that point. God the Creator had raised Jesus from the dead, declaring not only that he really was Israel’s Messiah, but that he had done what the One God had promised to do himself, in person. Saul had been absolutely right in his devotion to the One God, but absolutely wrong in his understanding of who that One God was and how his purposes would be fulfilled. He had been absolutely right in his devotion to Israel and the Torah, but absolutely wrong in his view of Israel’s vocation and identity and even in the meaning of the Torah itself. His lifelong loyalty was utterly right, but utterly misdirected. He had a zeal for God, but had not understood what the One God was up to. Everything was now focused on the figure from whom there streamed a blinding light, the figure who now addressed Saul as a master addresses a slave, the figure he recognized as the crucified Jesus of Nazareth. Heaven and earth came together in this figure, and he was commanding Saul to acknowledge this fact and to reorient his entire life accordingly.

- What do you imagine went through Saul’s mind at this moment?

6. So when Christian tradition speaks of the “conversion” of Saul, we need to pause. In our world, as we saw earlier, we normally apply that term to someone who “converts” from one “religion” to another. That was not the point. Not for one second did Saul cease to believe in the One God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was just that...well, what had happened was...how could he put it? Twenty years or so later he would write of glimpsing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah.” That was one way of putting it. There would be other ways too. This wasn’t about “religion,” whether in the ancient or the (very different) modern sense. It was about Jesus. About Jesus as the point at which—exactly as the martyr Stephen had claimed—heaven and earth were now held together, fused together; it was about Jesus as being, in person, the reality toward which the Temple itself had pointed.

- What is the difference between being religious and following Jesus?

7. Jesus himself had used the image of baptism to speak of his approaching death. Paul would later make it clear that this dramatic plunging into water and coming up again spoke in powerful and effective symbolic language about the dying and rising of Jesus and about the new world that had come to birth through those events. To be baptized was therefore to die and rise with Jesus, to leave behind the old life and to be reborn into the new one. Insofar as it marked out members of the family, it functioned somewhat like circumcision for a Jew, except of course that women were included as well. Equally, it was a bit like a slave being branded (so that the slave was now under a new master), though of course slaves and free alike were baptized. The important thing was that, having been baptized, one now belonged to the Messiah. Saul was now a “Messiah man,” shaped in the pattern of the Jesus who had summed up the divine purposes for Israel.

- How does your baptism into Christ shape your present and future?

8. Something else happened at the same time: Saul received Jesus’s own spirit. The fourth and last point of immense significance in Ananias’s visit to Straight Street is that Saul was promised the gift of the spirit, and everything in his subsequent life and writings indicates that he believed this had happened then and there. The story in Acts doesn’t say that Saul spoke in tongues or prophesied. The idea that things like that had to happen for the spirit’s gift to be genuine is a much later fiction. What Acts offers instead is the remarkable statement that Saul went at once to the synagogue in Damascus and announced that Jesus was the son of God (a theme to which we shall return in due course). There was a new power coupled with a new sense of direction.

- How does your faith in Jesus provide a new sense of direction?

9. But what happens when half the people in the town don’t want this new king? Saul discovered the answer to that all too soon, not that he would have been particularly surprised. The local Jewish community in Damascus was shocked at the sudden turnaround of this hotheaded young man, transformed from persecutor to proclaimer. Not just shocked; they were deeply offended (as of course Saul himself had been) at the suggestion that Israel’s history would reach its climax in a crucified messiah. Not all Jews in this period, so far as we can tell, believed in a coming messiah in the first place. Those who did hope for such a figure envisaged the messiah as a warrior hero. He would be a new David; he would overthrow the wicked pagans, restore the Temple to make it fit for Israel’s God to come back to at last, and establish a worldwide rule of justice and peace. Jesus of Nazareth, as everybody knew, had done none of those things. Saul of Tarsus could produce all the scriptural “proofs” he liked from his long years of study. But the synagogue in Damascus was not going to be convinced.

- Where do you and other Christians today face such opposition?

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Paul, by N.T. Wright

(See Chapter 1 Discussion Questions Below)

Meeting/Reading Schedule

January10 – Chapter 1
January 17 – Chapter 2
January 24 – Chapter 3
January 31 – Chapter 4

February 7– No Class 
February 14 – Chapter 5
February 21 – Chapter 6
February 28 – Chapter 7

March 7– No Class 
March 14 – Chapter 8
March 21 – Chapter 9
March 28 – Chapter 10

April 4 –No Class
April 11 – Chapter 11
April 18 – No Class
April 25 – Chapter 12

May 2– No Class
May 9 – Chapter 13
Mary 16 – Chapter 14
May 23 – Chapter 15

Paul, by N.T. Wright

Chapter 1

1. Saul drinks it all in. This is his story, the story he will make his own. It will happen again: a new, second Exodus, bringing full and final freedom. He will play his part in the long-running drama. The trouble was, of course, that God’s people seemed bent on wandering off in their own direction, again and again. That’s where the sex and the violence came in. It always seemed to go that way. They wanted to be like the goyim, the nations, instead of being distinct, as they had been summoned to be. And that is why some Jews, and he among them—one of the first solid things we know about young Saul—followed the ancient tradition of “zeal.” Violence would be necessary to root out wickedness from Israel.

- Where do you recall history repeating this cycle of violent zeal in the name of holy war?  Why does it appeal so strongly to Saul?

2. These stories would have resonated powerfully in Saul’s devout Jewish home. The Jewish communities in Turkey and in many other parts of the Roman Empire lived relatively peacefully alongside their goyischeneighbors. But they could never tell when the goyimwould try it again or what diabolical means they might find to undermine the covenant loyalty the Jews owed to the One God. They had to be ready. Saul came from a family who knew what that meant. It meant Ioudaïsmos: as we saw, not a “religion” called “Judaism” in the modern Western sense, a system of piety and morality, but the active propagation of the ancestral way of life, defending it against external attacks and internal corruption and urging the traditions of the Torah upon other Jews, especially when they seemed to be compromising.

- In what ways might you identify with the efforts of Saul’s family to preserve their way of life in the midst of corruptive secular influences?

3. I thought of the young Saul of Tarsus in November 1995, when the then prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a student called Yigal Amir. Rabin had taken part in the Oslo Accords, working out agreements toward peace with the Palestinian leadership. In 1994 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his political rival Shimon Peres and with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He also signed a peace treaty with Jordan. All this was too much for hard-line Israelis, who saw his actions as hopelessly compromising national identity and security. The news media described the assassin as a “law student,” but in Europe and America that phrase carries a meaning different from the one it has in Israel today and the one it would have had in the days of Saul of Tarsus. Amir was not studying to be an attorney in a Western-style court. He was a zealous Torah student. His action on November 4, 1995, was, so he claimed at his trial, in accordance with Jewish law. He is still serving his life sentence and has never expressed regret for his actions. The late twentieth century is obviously very different from the early first century, but “zeal” has remained a constant.

- What do you remember of this tragic event?  
- Where have you since seen similar acts of violent zeal and what rationales were claimed?

4. As I watched the television broadcasts that November afternoon, my mind shuttled back and forth between modern Jerusalem and the Jerusalem of Saul’s day. In that earlier Jerusalem a young man called Stephen had been stoned to death—illegally, since under Roman rule only the Romans could carry out the death penalty. Saul of Tarsus, a zealous young Torah student, had been there, watching, taking it all in, looking after the coats of the men throwing rocks, who were ceremonially cleansing the city of the poison that Stephen had been uttering.

As N.T. Wrights asks, “What was that poison?”

5. Saul approved. This was the kind of action the Torah required. This was what “zeal” was supposed to look like. From that moment, the young man saw what had to be done.Saul therefore set off as a new Phinehas, a new Elijah. The scriptural models were clear. Torah and Temple—the One God himself—were under attack from this new movement. With his Bible in his head, zeal in his heart, and official documents of authority from the chief priests in his bag, young Saul set off in the firm hope that he too would be recognized as a true covenant member. “It was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Phinehas then; Saul now.

- How does this description of Saul’s background provide a better appreciation and understanding of his extraordinary conversion and subsequent mission work in obedience to Jesus?

Monday, December 17, 2018

12 Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson

Chapter 12

1. I am describing my dog instead of writing directly about cats because I don’t wish to run afoul of a phenomenon known as “minimal group identification,” discovered by the social psychologist Henri Tajfel. Tajfel found that his subjects displayed a marked preference for their own group members, rejecting an egalitarian distribution strategy and disproportionately rewarding those with whom they now identified. Tajfel’s studies demonstrated two things: first, that people are social; second, that people are antisocial. People are socialbecause they like the members of their own group. People are antisocialbecause they don’t like the members of other groups. Exactly why this is so has been the subject of continual debate. I think it might be a solution to a complex problem of optimization.

What factors contribute to your patterns of social/antisocial behavior?

2. The idea that life is suffering is a tenet, in one form or another, of every major religious doctrine, as we have already discussed. Buddhists state it directly. Christians illustrate it with the cross. Jews commemorate the suffering endured over centuries. Such reasoning universally characterizes the great creeds, because human beings are intrinsically fragile. We can be damaged, even broken, emotionally and physically, and we are all subject to the depredations of aging and loss. This is a dismal set of facts, and it is reasonable to wonder how we can expect to thrive and be happy (or even to want to exist, sometimes) under such conditions.

How do you interpret & manage suffering – for yourself & others? 
3. Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations— in the depths— it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticingthis: when you love someone, it’s not despitetheir limitations. It’s becauseof their limitations. Of course, it’s complicated. You don’t have to be in love with every shortcoming, and merely accept. You shouldn’t stop trying to make life better or let suffering just be. 
But there appear to be limits on the path to improvement beyond which we might not want to go, lest we sacrifice our humanity itself. 

What have you noticed of late regarding your own limits?

4. During much of this period (with Mikhaila), we were overwhelmed. The demands of everyday life don’t stop, just because you have been laid low by a catastrophe. Everything that you always do still has to be done. So how do you manage? Here are some things we learned:Set aside some time to talk and to think about the illness or other crisis and how it should be managed every day. Do not talk or think about it otherwise. If you do not limit its effect, you will become exhausted, and everything will spiral into the ground. This is not helpful. Conserve your strength. You’re in a war, not a battle, and a war is composed of many battles. You must stay functional through all of them. When worries associated with the crisis arise at other times, remind yourself that you will think them through, during the scheduled period. This usually works. The parts of your brain that generate anxiety are more interested in the fact that there is a plan than in the details of the plan.

Does this approach work for you?  Do you have a different method?

5. If you pay careful attention, even on a bad day, you may be fortunate enough to be confronted with small opportunities of just that sort. Maybe you will see a little girl dancing on the street because she is all dressed up in a ballet costume. Maybe you will have a particularly good cup of coffee in a café that cares about their customers. Maybe you can steal ten or twenty minutes to do some little ridiculous thing that distracts you or reminds you that you can laugh at the absurdity of existence. Personally, I like to watch a Simpsonsepisode at 1.5 times regular speed: all the laughs; two-thirds the time. And maybe when you are going for a walk and your head is spinning a cat will show up and if you pay attention to it then you will get a reminder for just fifteen seconds that the wonder of Being might make up for the ineradicable suffering that accompanies it. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

How does “paying attention” to the serendipitous things around you offer a brief respite from the challenges before you?  Examples?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

12 Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson

Chapter 11

1. I say “sufficiently safe” about the demolished playgrounds because when playgrounds are made too safe, kids either stop playing in them or start playing in unintended ways. Kids need playgrounds dangerous enough to remain challenging. People, including children (who are people too, after all) don’t seek to minimize risk. They seek to optimize it. They drive and walk and love and play so that they achieve what they desire, but they push themselves a bit at the same time, too, so they continue to develop. Thus, if things are made too safe, people (including children) start to figure out ways to make them dangerous again.

- Share examples from your past where attitudes toward risk vs. safety have shifted dramatically.

2. Boys are suffering, in the modern world. They are more disobedient— negatively— or more independent— positively— than girls, and they suffer for this, throughout their pre-university educational career. They are less agreeable (agreeableness being a personality trait associated with compassion, empathy and avoidance of conflict) and less susceptible to anxiety and depression, at least after both sexes hit puberty. Boys’ interests tilt towards things; girls’ interests tilt towards people.Strikingly, these differences, strongly influenced by biological factors, are most pronounced in the Scandinavian societies where gender-equality has been pushed hardest: this is the opposite of what would be expected by those who insist, ever more loudly, that gender is a social construct. It isn’t. This isn’t a debate. The data are in.

- What are your observations of the distinctions between boys/girls?
3. The increasingly short supply of university-educated men poses a problem of increasing severity for women who want to marry, as well as date. First, women have a strong proclivity to marry across or up the economic dominance hierarchy. They prefer a partner of equal or greater status. This holds true cross-culturally. The same does not hold, by the way, for men, who are perfectly willing to marry across or down (as the Pew data indicate), although they show a preference for somewhat younger mates. The recent trend towards the hollowing-out of the middle class has also been increasing as resource-rich women tend more and more to partner with resource-rich men. Because of this, and because of the decline in high-paying manufacturing jobs for men (one of six men of employable age is currently without work in the US), marriage is now something increasingly reserved for the rich. I can’t help finding that amusing, in a blackly ironic manner. The oppressive patriarchal institution of marriage has now become a luxury. Why would the rich tyrannize themselves?

- Where have you noticed this shift among family & friends?

4. Here’s an alternative theory: throughout history, men and women both struggled terribly for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity. Women were often at a disadvantage during that struggle, as they had all the vulnerabilities of men, with the extra reproductive burden, and less physical strength. In addition to the filth, misery, disease, starvation, cruelty and ignorance that characterized the lives of both sexes, back before the twentieth century (when even people in the Western world typically existed on less than a dollar a day in today’s money) women also had to put up with the serious practical inconvenience of menstruation, the high probability of unwanted pregnancy, the chance of death or serious damage during childbirth, and the burden of too many young children. Perhaps that is sufficient reason for the different legal and practical treatment of men and women that characterized most societies prior to the recent technological revolutions, including the invention of the birth control pill. At least such things might be taken into account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women is accepted as a truism.

- How did your known ancestors survive in their time and place?

5. You must also know clearly what you want out of the situation, and be prepared to clearly articulate your desire. It’s a good idea to tell the person you are confronting exactly what you would like them to do instead of what they have done or currently are doing. You might think, “if they loved me, they would know what to do.” That’s the voice of resentment. Assume ignorance before malevolence. No one has a direct pipeline to your wants and needs— not even you. If you try to determine exactly what you want, you might find that it is more difficult than you think. The person oppressing you is likely no wiser than you, especially about you. Tell them directly what would be preferable, instead, after you have sorted it out. Make your request as small and reasonable as possible— but ensure that its fulfillment would satisfy you. In that manner, you come to the discussion with a solution, instead of just a problem.

Great advice. What complications are involved with implementation?

6. Men enforce a code of behaviour on each other, when working together. Do your work. Pull your weight. Stay awake and pay attention. Don’t whine or be touchy. Stand up for your friends. Don’t suck up and don’t snitch. Don’t be a slave to stupid rules. Don’t, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, be a girlie man. Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period. The harassment that is part of acceptance on a working crew is a test: are you tough, entertaining, competent and reliable? If not, go away. Simple as that. We don’t need to feel sorry for you. We don’t want to put up with your narcissism, and we don’t want to do your work.

Where have you seen this behavior displayed by men (or women)?

7. Men have to toughen up. Men demand it, and women want it, even though they may not approve of the harsh and contemptuous attitude that is part and parcel of the socially demanding process that fosters and then enforces that toughness. Some women don’t like losing their baby boys, so they keep them forever. Some women don’t like men, and would rather have a submissive mate, even if he is useless. This also provides them with plenty to feel sorry for themselves about, as well. The pleasures of such self-pity should not be underestimated.

- What kind of “toughness” are men & women seeking today?

8. If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men. They want someone to contend with; someone to grapple with. If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter. They desire someone who brings to the table something they can’t already provide. This often makes it hard for tough, smart, attractive women to find mates: there just aren’t that many men around who can outclass them enough to be considered desirable (who are higher, as one research publication put it, in “income, education, self-confidence, intelligence, dominance and social position”). The spirit that interferes when boys are trying to become men is, therefore, no more friend to woman than it is to man. It will object, just as vociferously and self-righteously (“you can’t do it, it’s too dangerous”) when little girls try to stand on their own two feet. It negates consciousness. It’s antihuman, desirous of failure, jealous, resentful and destructive. No one truly on the side of humanity would ally him or herself with such a thing. No one aiming at moving up would allow him or herself to become possessed by such a thing. And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of. 

Leave children alone when they are skateboarding.

- Is this really what women want from men?  Explain.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

12 Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson

Chapter 10

1. When we look at the world, we perceive only what is enough for our plans and actions to work and for us to get by. What we inhabit, then, is this “enough.” That is a radical, functional, unconscious simplification of the world— and it’s almost impossible for us not to mistake it for the world itself. But the objects we see are not simply there, in the world, for our simple, direct perceiving. They exist in a complex, multi-dimensional relationship to one another, not as self-evidently separate, bounded, independent objects. We perceive not them, but their functional utility and, in doing so, we make them sufficiently simple for sufficient understanding. It is for this reason that we must be precise in our aim. Absent that, we drown in the complexity of the world.

- How do your perceptions align or deviate from this description?

2. When things collapse around us our perception disappears, and we act. Ancient reflexive responses, rendered automatic and efficient over hundreds of millions of years, protect us in those dire moments when not only thought but perception itself fails. Under such circumstances, our bodies ready themselves for all possible eventualities. First, we freeze. The reflexes of the body then shade into emotion, the next stage of perception. Is this something scary? Something useful? Something that must be fought? Something that can be ignored? How will we determine this— and when? We don’t know. Now we are in a costly and demanding state of readiness. Our bodies are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. Our hearts beat faster. Our breath quickens. We realize, painfully, that our sense of competence and completeness is gone; it was just a dream. We draw on physical and psychological resources saved carefully for just this moment. We prepare for the worst— or the best. We push the gas pedal furiously to the floor, and slam on the brakes at the same time. We scream or laugh. We look disgusted, or terrified. We cry. And then we begin to parse apart the chaos.

- Please describe a time when your perception of something was shattered.
3. Chaos emerges in a household, bit by bit. Mutual unhappiness and resentment pile up. Everything untidy is swept under the rug, where the dragon feasts on the crumbs. But no one says anything, as the shared society and negotiated order of the household reveals itself as inadequate, or disintegrates, in the face of the unexpected and threatening. Everybody whistles in the dark, instead. Communication would require admission of terrible emotions: resentment, terror, loneliness, despair, jealousy, frustration, hatred, boredom. Moment by moment, it’s easier to keep the peace. But in the background, the dragon grows. One day it bursts forth, in a form that no one can ignore. It lifts the very household from its foundations. Every one of the three hundred thousand unrevealed issues, which have been lied about, avoided, rationalized away, hidden like an army of skeletons in some great horrific closet, bursts forth like Noah’s flood, drowning everything. There’s no ark…even though everyone felt the storm gathering.

- How does this portrayal of chaos ring true in your life?

4. Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists. Because to specify the problem is to allow yourself to know what you want, say, from friend or lover— and then you will know, precisely and cleanly, when you don’t get it, and that will hurt, sharply and specifically. But you will learn something from that and use what you learn in the future— and the alternative to that single sharp pain is the dull ache of continued hopelessness and vague failure and the sense that time, precious time, is slipping by.

- Where have you been most successful and unsuccessful at specifying?

5. Be careful with what you tell yourself and others about what you have done, what you are doing, and where you are going. Search for the correct words. Organize those words into the correct sentences, and those sentences into the correct paragraphs. The past can be redeemed, when reduced by precise language to its essence. The present can flow by without robbing the future if its realities are spoken out clearly. With careful thought and language, the singular, stellar destiny that justifies existence can be extracted from the multitude of murky and unpleasant futures that are far more likely to manifest themselves of their own accord. This is how the Eye and the Word make habitable order.

Where are “careful thought and language” most needed in your life?

6. Say what you mean, so that you can find out what you mean. Act out what you say, so you can find out what happens. Then pay attention. Note your errors. Articulate them. Strive to correct them. That is how you discover the meaning of your life. That will protect you from the tragedy of your life. How could it be otherwise? Confront the chaos of Being. Take aim against a sea of troubles. Specify your destination and chart your course. Admit to what you want. Tell those around you who you are. Narrow, and gaze attentively, and move forward, forthrightly. Be precise in your speech.

Great strategy! How’s it working out for you so far?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

12 Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson

Chapter 9

1. PSYCHOTHERAPY IS NOT ADVICE. Psychotherapy is genuine conversation. Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategizing. When you’re involved in a genuine conversation, you’re listening, and talking— but mostly listening. Listening is paying attention. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen.

- What’s the difference between advice and conversation?
- Which do you tend to receive the most from others?

2. When you are remembering the past, as well, you remember some parts of it and forget others. You have clear memories of some things that happened, but not others, of potentially equal import— just as in the present you are aware of some aspects of your surroundings and unconscious of others. You categorize your experience, grouping some elements together, and separating them from the rest. There is a mysterious arbitrariness about all of this. You don’t form a comprehensive, objective record. You can’t. You just don’t know enough. You just can’t perceive enough. You’re not objective, either. You’re alive. You’re subjective. You have vested interests— at least in yourself, at least usually. 

- How would you describe the limits & subjective-ness of your memories?

3. The people I listen to need to talk, because that’s how people think. People need to think. Otherwise they wander blindly into pits. When people think, they simulate the world, and plan how to act in it. If they do a good job of simulating, they can figure out what stupid things they shouldn’t do. Then they can not do them. Then they don’t have to suffer the consequences. That’s the purpose of thinking. But we can’t do it alone. We simulate the world, and plan our actions in it. 

- How does talking with another person help order your thoughts & actions?

4. True thinking is complex and demanding. It requires you to be an articulate speaker and careful, judicious listener, at the same time. It involves conflict. So, you have to tolerate conflict. Conflict involves negotiation and compromise. So, you have to learn to give and take and to modify your premises and adjust your thoughts— even your perceptions of the world. In consequence, thinking is emotionally painful, as well as physiologically demanding; more so than anything else— except not thinking. But you have to be very articulate and sophisticated to have all of this occur inside your own head. What are you to do, then, if you aren’t very good at thinking, at being two people at one time? That’s easy. You talk. But you need someone to listen. A listening person is your collaborator and your opponent.

- Where do you typically accomplish your best thinking...in your own head or by talking to a “listening person?”  How do you account for this pattern?

5. Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s great psychotherapists, knew something about listening. He wrote, “The great majority of us cannot listen; we find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening is too dangerous. The first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it.” He knew that listening could transform people. If you really understand a person in this way, if you are willing to enter his private world and see the way life appears to him, you run the risk of being changed yourself. You might see it his way, you might find yourself influenced in your attitudes or personality. This risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects most of us can face.” More salutary words have rarely been written.

- How does this explanation of poor listening play out in our personal, professional, political, and cultural lives?  Please examine each.

6.  Not all talking is thinking. Nor does all listening foster transformation. There are other motives for both, some of which produce much less valuable, counterproductive and even dangerous outcomes. There is the conversation, for example, where one participant is speaking merely to establish or confirm his place in the dominance hierarchy. There is another, closely allied form of conversation, where neither speaker is listening in the least to the other. Instead, each is using the time occupied by the current speaker to conjure up what he or she will say next, which will often be something off-topic, because the person anxiously waiting to speak has not been listening. Then there is the conversationwhere one participant is trying to attain victory for his point of view. This is yet another variant of the dominance-hierarchy conversation. During such a conversation, which often tends toward the ideological, the speaker endeavours to (1) denigrate or ridicule the viewpoint of anyone holding a contrary position, (2) use selective evidence while doing so and, finally, (3) impress the listeners...with the validity of his assertions. The goal is to gain support for a comprehensive, unitary, oversimplified world-view. Thus, the purpose of the conversation is to make the case that notthinkingis the correct tack. 

What is your experience with each of these, both as talker and listener?

7. These conversations are very different from the listening type. When a genuine listening conversation is taking place, one person at a time has the floor, and everyone else is listening. The person speaking is granted the opportunity to seriously discuss some event, usually unhappy or even tragic. Everyone else responds sympathetically. These conversations are important because the speaker is organizing the troublesome event in his or her mind, while recounting the story. The fact is important enough to bear repeating: people organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds. Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves. The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. Put another way: It takes a village to organize a mind.

-  Does our Panera group practice “genuine listening conversation?”
- Where might this type of listening occur elsewhere for you?

8. The final type of conversation, akin to listening, is a form of mutual exploration. It requires true reciprocity on the part of those listening and speaking. It allows all participants to express and organize their thoughts. A conversation of mutual exploration has a topic, generally complex, of genuine interest to the participants. Everyone participating is trying to solve a problem, instead of insisting on the a priorivalidity of their own positions. All are acting on the premise that they have something to learn. This kind of conversation constitutes active philosophy, the highest form of thought, and the best preparation for proper living. Other conversational types— except for the listening type— all attempt to buttress some existing order. The conversation of mutual exploration, by contrast, requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known.

- Where do you find such mutual conversation possible or available?

9. You already know what you know, after all— and, unless your life is perfect, what you know is not enough. You remain threatened by disease, and self-deception, and unhappiness, and malevolence, and betrayal, and corruption, and pain, and limitation. You are subject to all these things, in the final analysis, because you are just too ignorant to protect yourself. If you just knew enough, you could be healthier and more honest. You would suffer less. You could recognize, resist and even triumph over malevolence and evil. You would neither betray a friend, nor deal falsely and deceitfully in business, politics or love. However, your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe. So, it is insufficient, by definition— radically, fatally insufficient. 

You must accept this before you can converse philosophically, instead of convincing, oppressing, dominating or even amusing. You must accept this before you can tolerate a conversation where the Word that eternally mediates between order and chaos is operating, psychologically speaking. To have this kind of conversation, it is necessary to respect the personal experience of your conversational partners. You must assume that they have reached careful, thoughtful, genuine conclusions. You must meditate, too, instead of strategizing towards victory. If you fail, or refuse, to do so, then you merely and automatically repeat what you already believe, seeking its validation and insisting on its rightness. But if you are meditating as you converse, then you listen to the other person, and say the new and original things that can rise from deep within of their own accord.

- What role does respect play in achieving such levels of listening?

10. It’s as if you are listening to yourself during such a conversation, just as you are listening to the other person. You are describing how you are responding to the new information imparted by the speaker. You are reporting what that information has done to you— what new things it made appear within you, how it has changed your presuppositions, how it has made you think of new questions. You tell the speaker these things, directly. Then they have the same effect on him. In this manner, you both move towards somewhere newer and broader and better. You both change as you let your old presuppositions die— as you shed your skins and emerge renewed. 

A conversation such as this is one where it is the desire for truth itself— on the part of both participants— that is truly listening and speaking. That’s why it’s engaging, vital, interesting and meaningful. That sense of meaning is a signal from the deep, ancient parts of your Being. You’re where you should be, with one foot in order, and the other tentatively extended into chaos and the unknown. You’re immersed in the Tao, following the great Way of Life. There, you’re stable enough to be secure, but flexible enough to transform. There, you’re allowing new information to inform you— to permeate your stability, to repair and improve its structure, and expand its domain. There the constituent elements of your Being can find their more elegant formation. A conversation like that places you in the same place that listening to great music places you, and for much the same reason. A conversation like that puts you in the realm where souls connect, and that’s a real place. It leaves you thinking, “That was really worthwhile. We really got to know each other.” The masks came off, and the searchers were revealed.

- Recall and share a conversation where such results became evident.