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The Deeper Meaning of Authentic Dialogue

July 03, 2019DMT.NEWS

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It has now been two years since my article “The Crisis of Meaning,” which introduced and drew upon the wisdom of the world-renowned psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl, author of the classic bestseller, Man’s Search for Meaning,1 was published on this site. To be sure, the various symptoms of this crisis — among individuals, organizations, and societies — continue to persist and humanity’s call for meaning can still be heard loud and clear. So what can we, individually and collectively, do to answer the call?

Besides serving as a conceptual starting point, I propose that the process of authentic dialogue offers an antidote to this existential crisis. In this regard, the ancient Greeks advanced what they referred to as a common education “to heal disunion and division of spirit,” and, importantly, viewed dialogue as a way to build a spiritual community (not to be confused with church and religion). In turn, this kind of meaningful connection between citizens, especially between the governed and the governors, increased the likelihood of identifying and achieving aims that best served the common good.

Now fast forward to today’s highly polarized world. I suspect that most readers would agree that humanity would benefit from a similar approach as that espoused and practiced by the ancient Greeks, one that provided a “common education” and leveraged the process of authentic dialogue to heal the disunion and division of spirit that currently exist!

These days we frequently hear people throwing out phrases like “let’s dialogue,” “let’s have an authentic conversation,” “let’s have a ‘convo’,” “let’s talk,” etc., which may, intended or not, leave the impression that actual dialogue is going to take place. While this kind of invitation to engage with others is commendable and, to be sure, is much needed in the contemporary era, even the very best of intentions is not enough to make it happen. We need to dig deeper in order to understand why the process of engaging in authentic dialogue is easier said than done, as well as uncover what this particular kind of meaningful engagement between people actually means and implies.

Let’s begin to address this challenge by first seeking to understand the meaning of the word dialogue at its “root” level.

The word dialogue actually comes from two Greek words — dia, meaning “through,” and logos, most frequently but only roughly translated in English as “the meaning.” Upon closer examination, the various translations of the word logos, a common Greek word (λόγος), reveal that it has deep spiritual roots. In fact, the concept of logos can be found in most of the great works describing the history of Christianity, as well as throughout the literature on religion and Western philosophy.

In this regard, one of the first references to logos as “spirit” came from the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, around 500 BC. The logos of Heraclitus has been interpreted in various ways, as the “logical,” as “meaning,” and as “reason”; but, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger has pointed out, “What can logic ... do if we never begin to pay heed to the logos and follow its initial unfolding?” To Heraclitus, this “initial unfolding” viewed the logos as responsible for the harmonic order of the universe, as a cosmic law, which declared that “One is All and Everything is One.”

The doctrine of the logos was the linchpin of the religious thinking by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, who, while not always consistent in his use of the term, clearly established it as belonging only to the “spiritual” realm. Indeed, Philo sometimes suggested that the logos is the “highest idea of God that human beings can attain ... higher than a way of thinking, more precious than anything that is merely thought.” For Philo, the logos was Divine, it was the source of energy from which the human soul became manifest. Consistent with the logocentric character of Philo’s thought, “it is through the Logos and the Logos alone that man is capable of participating in the Divine.”

Moreover, Philo’s confidence in the human mind rests on the self-assurance that the human intellect is ultimately related to the divine Logos, “ ... being an imprint, or fragment or effulgence of that blessed nature, or ... being a portion of the divine ether.” To Philo, the origins of logos as “spirit” were clearly well documented in the writings of the early Greek philosophers and the theologians of his era. This kind of interpretation of logos also received attention more recently in Karen Armstrong's bestseller, A History of God, in which she notes that St. John had made it clear that Jesus was the Logos and, moreover, that the Logos was God.

Herein, however, lies the difficulty associated with engaging people in “authentic” dialogue — it cannot and will not happen if we are “prisoners of our thoughts.”2 In this connection, I learned a long time ago that you can never connect meaningfully with others if you believe that you have a monopoly on truth. True dialogue will only occur if the participating stakeholders are willing to enter the spiritual realm of the logos and “converse,” if you will, on this deeper level. Cognitive, so-called “knowledge-based,” interactions, which can be described as discussions or ordinary conversations, are not enough for authentic dialogue to occur. One must be open and willing to entertain a diversity of thought and discover a common ground by going to a higher ground.

It is time to return to the literal meaning of psychology — the study of the soul — and apply it to all aspects of life, work, and society.

Interpreting logos in this way, that is, viewing it as a manifestation of spirit or soul, carries with it significant implications, both conceptual and practical.3 Authentic dialogue, as a concept, takes on a new and deeper meaning when it is perceived as a group’s accessing a larger pool of common spirit through a distinctly spiritual connection between the members. This suggests more than just collective thinking, although dialogue certainly is a determinant of such a holistic process. Spirit flowing through and resonating among the participants in true dialogue leads to collective thinking which, in turn, facilitates a common understanding thereby resulting ideally in what we now refer to as collective learning.

Authentic dialogue enables individuals to acknowledge that they each are part of a greater whole, that they naturally resonate with others within this whole, and that the whole is, indeed, greater than the sum of its various parts. As participants in such a holistic process, together they can produce greater results than they would just as individuals without this meaningful connection.

Self-Help
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Communication on a spiritual plane.
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The Meaningful Life
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The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
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1. Frankl, Viktor E. (1984). Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster/Pocket Books.

2. Pattakos, Alex and Dundon, Elaine (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd ed. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

3. It is interesting to note that Viktor Frankl shared this interpretation of the common Greek word logos, which he told me was the basis for calling his unique system of psychotherapy, “Logotherapy.” Moreover, in Dr. Frankl’s book, The Doctor and the Soul, he wrote the following: “A psychotherapy which not only recognizes man’s spirit, but actually starts from it may be termed logotherapy. In this connection, logos is intended to signify ‘the spiritual’ and, beyond that, ‘the meaning.’” It should also not come as a surprise that one of the main techniques used in Frankl's System of Logotherapy is Socratic Dialogue.

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