Insight Dialogue And What Is Most Important To Us

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 Lotus © Joan Z. Rough

Lotus © Joan Z. Rough

This past Saturday I returned to the annual, Insight Dialogue Retreat, that one of my favorite people and teachers, Sharon Beckman-Brindley, teaches here in Charlottesville, as an offering of the Insight Meditation Community of Charlottesville.

These retreats have been scheduled every January for the past several years, and it’s a magical way to start the New Year. By the end of the day, one participant wanted to know, why we all had to go home. “Couldn’t we just keep going?” My feelings exactly, except I really did need a break to go home, eat dinner, and have a good night’s sleep. But had the retreat been scheduled to continue on Sunday, I would have been there in a heart beat.

Insight Dialogue, is the practice of working with a partner to whom we speak and listen to, as we contemplate a series of questions on a given theme. This year’s theme was about intentions and what is important to us as we navigate through our lives. As we slowly walked around the room, we were stopped by the instructor and told to engage a partner for the first contemplation, find seats across from each other, and decide who would be the first speaker.

Our first contemplation was, “What are the intentions you wish to carry with you throughout your life?” We were all encouraged to relax and pause if the speaker needed time to pull his or her thoughts together, or the listener needed time to banish intrusive thoughts. Each pause provided stillness in which new thoughts and insights arose and could be added to the conversation.

The speakers were then directed to talk about a difficulty in their lives and how they might use their intentions to make the situation less difficult. Other questions followed, with the speaker addressing what was true for them, always pausing to reflect on new insights.  The listener then had a chance to respond to the speaker and  talk about how the speaker’s words affected them.

Exchanging roles from speaker to listener and listener to speaker, the process began again, with the new speaker answering the same or similar questions. We were continuously reminded to relax, pause, close our eyes, and take a deep breath when necessary.

Except for the time that dialogue was taking place, we spent the rest of our time in silence, even during breaks and while having lunch, allowing more time for us to continue our own contemplations of our intentions.

Continuing on into the afternoon, additional questions with new partners were contemplated, each taking a turn at addressing the questions being asked. By the end of the afternoon we had each shared contemplations with three other people.

It’s always an amazing and cleansing activity for me, as I dig deep to find my truth, and practice being an intent listener. It becomes very clear that insights arise during our brief pauses, when we are in the moment.

The first time I went to one of these retreats, I had no idea what to expect and was very nervous about speaking so openly and intimately about myself and my inner world. But it’s become a yearly ritual for me and each time I come away with new insights about myself and inspiration from those I sit and speak with.  Often long lasting friendships are forged.

This time around I discovered that I’ve always kept the good things I feel about myself under wraps. Saturday afternoon, while discussing the good things that we do as we move through our lives, I realized, I’d been taught as a young girl that it was incorrect to talk about my goodness. Good little girls were not supposed to speak about how nice we were. It was a form of bragging and always seemed to bring on the same response to the silly questions I often asked … silence.

As a result, I was led to believe that the good things I did were unimportant. Only the bad things, like doing something stupid, talking back to my parents, or disobeying them, counted in any description of who I was at the time, both in my mother and father’s minds, as well as my own.

I also learned that I’d already used one of my intentions for this new year. I DARED to post a somewhat controversial, political essay last week here on my blog. I don’t normally like to do that. I like to be positive at all times, and dislike confrontation and disagreement. I’d learned early on to keep my mouth shut about things like that. Although no one needs to agree with what I wrote, I’m rather proud of myself for standing up and speaking out about an issue that was of great concern to me.

Setting intentions for a day, a year, or a lifetime are always good things to do.  If you have intentions for the next ten minutes, this coming year, or for the rest of your life, what are they and how do see yourself manifesting them?


  1. So glad you are breaking free of your good girl Joan 🙂
    It sounds like a wonderful nurturing experience. I too have experienced dialogues and listening like this on retreat. I have found them to be heart opening and a place of acceptance and peace. 🙂
    My intention for my life – my inner calling or dharma – is to learn grow and share. This is how I have always been and will continue to be.
    My growing edge intention is keeping my heart open!

  2. Open heart, growth, and sharing! What could be better!? Thanks for sharing, Val.

  3. Joan, thank you very much for sharing your experience. I was right there with you in that conference. I could use something like that right now as I struggle with which path to follow at this juncture in my life. In the meantime, I listen to the silence around me in the solitude of my home and to the song “Be Thou My Vision.” I trust eventually it will be revealed to me what my next step is.

    I am struggling with exactly what you described above. Except that I’ve been writing controversial stuff for a while, and now I’m wanting a break from it. I’ve written enough controversial stuff to last a lifetime. I want to write something “feel-good,” like a cookbook with vignettes. But alas, my muse is not cooperating. I know eventually I will need to go back to writing about my relationship with my mother. Writing my truth about that will be like fighting my way through the brambles. Writing the cookbook would be like enjoying a stroll along a garden path.

    This I do know. I need to write. And I need to remain true to my authentic self, difficult as it may be to do so.

    There was a beautiful article in “Poets and Writers” magazine a few years ago by Nikky Finney. She describes how her grandmother made a stunning, fervent request after reading one of Finney’s books — she asked that it be her last. Finney wrote: “I would’ve promised to sail the seven seas in five days if I could have, for my grandmother. She meant that much to me. ‘Promise’ she said. But I couldn’t. Even for her, I couldn’t.”

    My mother once asked me to “not write anything bad about Joe or me.” (Joe is my older brother). I couldn’t promise Mem any more than Nikky could promise her grandmother.

    Finney also addressed the issue of forgiveness. She wrote: “I too forgive, but I don’t forget. In the forgetting we miss something important about the climb, the loss of life, the loss of dreams. My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away.”

    I cried when I read these words. It was just before my first book came out, and I felt Finney had just expressed in words what I couldn’t have at that time.

    I had no idea all this was hiding inside. All it took is for you to ask the question.

    • Saloma,
      I’m honored that my post has brought you to reveal what has been hidden. I know that soon you’ll be back on track with your writing.

      Your words, “This I do know. I need to write. And I need to remain true to my authentic self, difficult as it may be to do so.” That’s all it takes. Keep on writing.

  4. Joan, thank you for sharing your retreat with us. It reinforces the power of our stories and the importance of breaking that “good little girl” mold to tap into our own inner strength and power. For years I kept a secret I didn’t know I had until I started writing my memoir..I was an abused woman. Writing helped me break my own silence and the sentence of guilt and shame I had carried around with me for 25 years. Facing ourselves and the pain is the only way to get on the other side of it. Bravo, Joan for exploring and digging deep to find your strength within. That “good little girl: has become a strong woman!

    • Kathy,
      You speak such truth. Wading through the muck is what helps to create authentic living and freedom from uneccesary pain. Thank you for your kind comments.

      Watch out! This little girl has grown up.

  5. How fortunate that you could attend a retreat that honors listening and silences. It occurs to me that listen and silent form an anagram, a pair of virtues that sound like the backbone of this group.

    Great choice of graphic too: You probably know the lotus, a symbol of rebirth, grows in muddy water. Just so, your post challenges me to rise above murky thoughts to find the pure, the virtuous. Thank you for this inspiring post, Joan, and Saloma, for reminding me of the timely message of “Be Thou My Vision.” Right now that vision is to get to work on memoir writing.

    • Thank you so much for your wonderful words, Marian. It was a wonderful retreat. To be in silence in a group of thirty people, all seeking the same answers, brings light even to the darkest stories. At lunch many of us walked outside in the sun, and as we passed we’d smile at each other with open hearts. It was blissful.

  6. Joan — This post has touched my heart. Thank you so much for sharing this oh-so-inspiring retreat with your readers. I am grateful to know you.

    • Oh my goodness, Laurie, your words make me blush. Thank you. I’m very grateful to know you, too. This internet world of friends far and wide can be delightful!

  7. Joan, I am grateful to you for your intimate picture of a deep listening and reflecting practice — just across the mountain from me! I will be looking for information about next year’s retreat.

    So glad your good girl has grown up and is now able to claim her goodness as well as her shadow.

    • Shirley, I’ll certainly let you know when the next one happens. They usually post the date in late December or early January. I think you’d really love it!

      Oh yes, one must always claim their goodness along with their shadow. Otherwise our life has no dimension.

      Looking forward to seeing you very soon.

  8. What an interesting experience those retreats are , Joan! I would have to pause and think for a long time before I could begin to answer any of those types of questions. Bravo to you for digging deep and speaking out!

    • Thank you, Valerie. I would have thought the same thing, too. But it’s amazing how the silence and the open hearts of everyone there can open our eyes so we can speak our truth.

  9. Thank you, Joan, for another valuable post. I envy you your proximity to such a resource. My weekends in Cleveland are something similar, but 12 hours away (unless I fly during a snow storm like the last one, in which case they are 37 hours away).

    And, you helped me remember the day I first got in touch with and made friends with my “inner bitch” as I like to call her. That good little girl inside grew up. Great post!

  10. Joan, enjoyed hearing about your retreat. My writing instructor starts each first session of a class similarly. At first I was uncomfortable talking about myself, especially anything that represented goodness, for the same reason as you. Thanks so much for sharing your weekend as well as a memory of that nice little girl who has never talked about herself!

  11. Joan Rough says:

    Thanks, Sherrey. Sharing things about ourselves takes courage, but it’s worth it in the long run.