'What do you think dialogue is all about?'
'We think of all the bad things we have done and we share it!' comes a quick reply from a junior school child. 'It is about confessing,' offers another generously, much to the amusement of the adults who may have a fleeting comical vision of themselves sitting at the receiving end in a confessional box! These children are not entirely incorrect; sometimes the discussions are about actual incidents or 'wrongdoings'. However, they don't stop at the discussion of the incident and those involved. Be it young children, teenagers or young adults, the incidents may vary, but the themes that emerge are remarkably the same. Of course, these themes are relevant for us as adults as well.
The question, 'Why do we talk behind other people's backs?', raised by a middle school child, is as relevant for a nine-yearold as it is for a nineteen or a ninety-yearold. For the nine-year-old it may be grounded in a particular incident, with particular people. Finger pointing could be the starting point of the discussion. 'He did!'or 'She did!' Often, in the course of discussion this moves to reflection, at least for that moment, to 'I did too' or 'I also do'. For some children, that moment doesn't last very long, but for others, even at this age, it becomes a part of their way of processing the world. They may be able to look at their own role or emotions in a conflict. Sometimes, the comments can get quite philosophical! For instance, in a discussion about a peer who often got easily upset, an eight-year-old questions, 'How can you say you have made up your mind not to get upset when it is the same mind that is making you upset?'
As we move on to twelve to thirteen year- olds, it is remarkable that they are able to start turning the questions around to themselves on their own, in ways that the adults present may never have done at their age. There is the possibility of moving away from a particular incident to a more general inquiry with many questions: 'How does it make me feel when I gossip and why?', 'Why do I feel anger, jealousy, insecurity or a sense of division and what does it do to me?', 'Why am I restless or bored?', or 'Why do certain things make me feel happy and what does this do to me?' They sometimes share experiences candidly from their own lives, both personal and at school. At times, when questions like, 'Why do we have to keep asking why?' or 'Do we have to talk about fear again?' arise, the half-joking response by the adult may be, 'Well, if you have solved the issue of fear and aren't scared of anything anymore, we needn't talk about it!' The children roll their eyes in mock irritation and we move on—either to continue talking about fear, or to their (momentary) relief, to bring in a new theme of anyone's choice.
The senior school students may engage in a discussion on the link between their ways of thinking and the crises of the world, how their relationships operate from the images (positive or negative) they have of each other, whether they can be sceptical of the absolute truth of their feelings or emotions, and so on. Again, a frank sharing by both adults and students, an ability to look inward and an interest in carrying the discussion forward are essential.
Sometimes a student will ask, 'You have been doing this for twenty years and haven't come to any answers. Most others who are not interested in all this seem to be living just fine. So why must we ask all this of ourselves?' It is not always easy to respond to this. Firstly, the assumption that the 'others' they refer to are 'fine' is not apparent at all. Further, asking such questions of oneself and each other does not guarantee arriving at a state of happiness. We ask these questions because they seem important, shake us out of our comfort zone and hopefully inform our approach to life.
Discussions amongst the adult teacher group may continue along similar themes: Why and how are we creating divisions between ourselves and others? Even in very amicable relationships, our thoughts can be divisive and make us feel separate. It is not only when we feel threatened that this happens, but perhaps one leads to the other, sometimes in a vicious cycle. A sense of threat (to my ideas, job, family, values, beliefs—the list goes on) gives rise to divisive thoughts, placing myself 'against' another. This further feeds into that sense of threat. Perhaps it is the other way and we begin with divisive thoughts which then give rise to a sense of threat and lack of security, and so on. Do we recognize all this in ourselves? Sometimes it is very subtle. Is it only when we reach a moment of actual conflict with another that we reflect and realize this, or can we be aware of these thoughts as they appear?
Why am I focusing largely on what may be termed 'negative' emotions? After all, our lives also feature happiness, joy, elation and other 'positive' emotions or highs. And of course there are the moments of neutrality, of being neither high nor low. Personally, though I may at times wonder about the nature of happiness or what causes such feelings in me, I am not in any hurry to get rid of them! I want to cling to them, to compare them to my moments of sorrow or hurt, realizing how much more pleasurable these highs or times of neutrality are, and I don't want to let go. Considering all this, we revisit the point of how we process the world around us; can we see that the problems are not just 'out there' and separate from us? Do we acknowledge our role, our state of mind, our thoughts and emotions as part of the picture? How sceptical are we of our emotions and perceptions of the world around us, no matter where they lie on this spectrum of positive to negative?
Back to the school setting and after much discussion, sharing and some moments of insight, we often catch the children and ourselves indulging in behaviours and patterns which we may have just put under the scanner! And back to the drawing board we go! But there seems to be some learning in the process —the eight year-old-boy, who at the beginning of the year had thought dialogue was all about sharing the 'bad things' we do, now says, 'It is about what is on our mind.' Well, one hopes this is not limited to the 'bad things' we do!