Dialogue Guidelines to Deepen Awareness (Part 1)

This is the first of three posts in which I share some remarkable guidelines for expanding individual and group consciousness through particular ways of focusing attention during dialogue exercises. They were developed by the leader of a weekly dialogue group I joined for about thirty months more than two decades ago. Those meetings changed my life – deeply informing my co-intelligence explorations – and these guidelines were central to their transformational power. They are now available for anyone to learn from and use.

Back in the early 1990s I participated in a two-and-a-half year adventure in the world of dialogue-catalyzed collective consciousness. We were a small group of 3-6 participants meeting every Wednesday night. As one of many diverse “Bohm Dialogue” groups that sprouted back then, we experimented with approaches to eroding our assumptions of separateness, interacting as a whole without losing the gifts of our individuality and uniqueness. We were like fingers in search of hand-consciousness, or waves seeking our oceanic identity.

Our fundamental assumption was that our learningful interactivity as a group was a potentially powerful augmentation to – or, for some of us, even a replacement for – individual meditation. We learned that a group – under the right conditions – can open up more of reality or different dimensions of reality – even “internal” reality – than personal introspection and focused awareness.

We did many dialogic and group experiments. These, combined with former and subsequent exercises and experiences, inspired me to envision CASPER groups – Communication Awareness Seminar / Process Experience Ritual groups – in September of 2000 – which I describe on my website, including eight specific group exercises. I never manifested that vision, but its possibilities still intrigue me. They may intrigue you, in which case the CASPER web page provides everything you need to get started.

But what I most want to share in the next few messages to you is the remarkable and timeless set of group awareness guidelines created and articulated by our Bohm Dialogue group leader, Jeff Groethe. They profoundly influenced my thinking…. and they can be used by anyone interested in consciousness-centered approaches to dialogue. Expect interesting results. 🙂



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by Jeff Groethe and Tom Atlee

Bohm Dialogue (a.k.a. Dialogue) is a form of conversational practice proposed by quantum physicist David Bohm (and influenced by his friend and philosophical colleague Jiddu Krishnamurti) as a method whereby groups could deepen into more coherent consciousness and become more aware of the flow of meaning within and among them – awareness which Bohm believed could help heal and transform the world.

The material below was originally developed and provided by coach Jeff Groethe who brought Eastern spiritual understandings and exercises to a Bohm Dialogue group he hosted that met every Wednesday night in Berkeley California for two and a half years in the early mid-1990s. A former member of that group, Tom Atlee, transcribed, edited, and modified several versions of Groethe’s original essay into its current form in mid-2016, more than 80% of which is identical to the originals. It is offered for open use and further modification by anyone interested, with no limitations or permissions required. – Tom Atlee

Jeff recalls

What we had attempted to do in our group was to attend simultaneously to two levels of what was happening in our dialog: content and process. Putting our attention on the process level helped us to see the system level of our meaning making, a major theme of Bohm’s. An ‘indicator’ was simply something we used as a signal to shift our attention from content to process. Identifying indicators provided a general framework of process and content levels of attention during a dialog that turned the group interaction into a type of social meditation. This brought reflective awareness into play, and with reflective awareness we have a potentially valuable practice for supporting personal and social evolution.


Several interrelated principles remind us of attitudes we want to sustain in Dialogue:

• Learning
• Presence
• Respect
• Responsibility for experience
• Shared inquiry
• Non-efforting
• Wholeness

The guidelines provided below under each of these principles give us ways to challenge ourselves to understand and live the principle more fully, especially in formal Dialogue practice. They give shape to our aspiration for mindful, present, authentic shared awareness and communication.

In Dialogue group practice, members of the group can indicate when they see any of these principles or guidelines being exemplified or violated, not to judge each other, but to invite group mindfulness of how these dynamics play out among them. One Dialogue group invited anyone to say “ding!” (imitating a mindfulness bell) whenever they noticed a departure from pure Dialogue. It was considered a gift, rather than a correction (although the group needed to learn to experience the “ding” in that positive way!!).

Principle One


We could define Dialogue as “mutual learning” or learning together. Contrast this attitude with the “know-it-all” attitudes of self-righteousness, authority and ego. When we keep ourselves open to learning, our experience feels more interesting, vital and alive. We can do this in many ways:

1) Appreciating ambiguity and uncertainty; valuing the unknown

New learning usually begins with ambiguity or uncertainty. These often disturb us, unsettling our comfortable certainties. We try to get rid of them as soon as we can, by denying them or “jumping to conclusions.” When we short-circuit our learning like this, we prevent fresh insights,

Too often, we try to know something prematurely by forcing it to fit our current assumptions and understandings. But we don’t have to fight ambiguity and uncertainty. Instead, we can allow discoveries to emerge naturally as we explore. Meaning can self-organize or “disambiguate” at its own pace. The most patient learners usually harvest the richest understanding.

We can value ambiguity and uncertainty as indicators that, if we pay good attention, we’ll probably learn something new. Beyond that, we can actively seek the unknown in what we and others consider known. That places us at the growing edge of discovery.

2) Classifying things tentatively

Usually we take our experience and try to “nail it down” into classification, names, categories. As soon as we see a tree, we place it in the category “tree.” That category then replaces our primary experience of the unique tree before us. We cease to really SEE the actual tree.

Although classification can give us useful understandings for engaging with the world, we should not make our categories, names and ideas more real than the experience from which they arise. Instead of “nailing down” our understandings, we can keep them flexible and open to change. This way they can adjust to “reality” as time goes on,

Too often, we assume that the names we give things reveal their true nature. We end up living in a world of abstraction. If we want to learn, though, we need to appreciate how much more there is to reality than what we think about it. (We can sense in ourselves how our full, unique individuality is hidden by labels like “person” or “consumer” or our names.) Instead of revealing the true nature of reality, categories simply serve as temporarily useful models. Realizing this, we can learn to feel the unknown peeking from behind our categories and certainties. This can make us more sensitive to the fullness of experience and to ongoing opportunities for new learning.

The more tentatively we classify things, the more readily we can learn.

3) Staying engaged with questions

Usually when we ask a question, we either wait for an answer or actively search for it. In either case we focus on the prospective answer. In doing so, we discard our attitude of learning in favor of satisfying our answer-hunger. When our question is finally “answered” our learning comes to an abrupt halt and the question evaporates.

In Dialogue we have another approach. We often use questions differently. We learn to shift our focus from answers back to the questions themselves. Instead of something to answer, we view questions as our companions, as guides in a continuing adventure of exploration, discovery and learning. We call such a question an “inquiry.” Our, intention shifts from finding an answer to deepening our inquiry so it can generate continuing insight. (Some people compare an inquiry to a fruit tree which continually generates nourishment if we attend to it.)

We come to see an answer as an “agent of certainty” – something to end the discomfort of not knowing. Conclusions, authorities, and beliefs also act as agents of certainty. Hidden behind all these – and behind the questions or problems which inspire them – we always find assumptions. These assumptions limit our thinking. We can transcend such limits as we deepen our inquiries. This can involve questioning any authority (including ourselves) that claims to have answered a question. It usually involves bringing hidden assumptions to the surface and examining them. It can also involve trying out different ways of forming a question or problem or looking at it from different perspectives.

The longer we sustain our attention on an inquiry without “wrapping it up” or nailing it down,” the more we can learn from it.

4) Listening while speaking

Musicians hear their music at the same moment the audience does. We can practice a similar awareness in Dialogue. If we truly listen (to our words, our hearts, our inquiry) while we speak, we can stay in a learning mode instead of lecturing or simply reporting on old experience. (David Bohm makes a distinction between (a) present-time thinking and feeling that is new and immediate and (b) stating in the present certain “thoughts and felts” that we’ve had or said in the past, as if they are new. Dialogue practice can help us ground into the real present.)

Listening and learning as we speak usually involves slowing down considerably from our habitual fast pace of communications. It also requires actively embracing the unknown rather than slouching into the comfort of seemingly conclusive past experiences.

When we speak fully in the present, and keep our attention fully present while we speak, we can learn from ourselves as much as from others.

5) Letting new information change us

In our current model of education we simply add on new information and remain largely unaffected by it. For greater learning, however, we can engage in an inquiry WITH the new information. We can, for example, explore the implications of the new information. We may find that our whole structure of meaning needs to shift to fully honor those implications. In this way learning helps us grow instead of stuffing us or plastering us with information.

We could almost say that, in real learning, meaning digests us, rather than the other way around.

The more we encourage information to change us, the more learning we get from each piece of data.

6) Learning from unwanted patterns

Unchanging, unwanted patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior – in our own lives or in the world around us – point to areas ripe for new learning. This insight embraces some of the most mundane and profound issues in life.

Among the most powerful dysfunctional patterns in our lives is how we push away death. We can explore this realm by asking: How might accommodating to the knowledge of our eventual death effect our actions and intentions? How can we learn to die as static self-images without physically dying?

Likewise, we can confront systemic dynamics in our society, our politics, our economics, and the roles we play in those, and how those roles and dynamics shape our lives.

Learning implies change. So we can look for such patterns and ask what we need to learn in those areas. Then we can gauge our learning by how the patterns change.

In Dialogue we can often discover or help each other see unwanted patterns and learn together as we overcome them.

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In the next post in this series we will explore the indicators for
• Presence
• Respect and
• Responsibility for experience

In the third and last post we will explore the indicators for
• Shared inquiry
• Non-efforting and
• Wholeness

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Let us put our heads together and see what life we will make for our children.

—  Tatanka Iotanka – Sitting Bull, Lakota Leader

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
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