Commentary on “Practicing Proprioceptive Dialogue” (Mitch Hall)

[Note: The introductory text for this "Practicing PD" web page was recently posted on DIALOGUES, a listerv of philosophers and psychologists.  The following commentary is a response to that posting.]

Steven M. Rosen’s recent posting on “Practicing Proprioceptive Dialogue (PD),”  as derived from David Bohm’s work, stimulated reflections on other initiatives that have sought to bring more authenticity, depth and candor, which Rosen calls “radical honesty,” into interpersonal communications. Here are a few of the associations that come to mind. They are offered in recognition that PD has parallels and cultural antecedents.

Carl Rogers contributed an emphasis on genuineness, along with empathy and unconditional positive regard, to humanistic psychology and counseling. Some of the graduate students who had studied with Rogers went on to expand on his work. For one, Eugene Gendlin noted that clients who tended to get better in therapy practiced, often on their own spontaneous initiative, the kind of proprioceptive awareness that Rosen described in his posting. Therefore, Gendlin developed the practice he called focusing in which the therapist or peer counselor guided a client or peer to process consciously the bodily felt sense of the issues with which he or she was dealing. Others among Rogers’ former students, such as Robert R. Carkhuff and his associates, found that along with what Rogers had called genuineness, other helping skills were needed for effective counseling and good human relations. One of these was called immediacy, which involved communication based on the kind of awareness of feelings and bodily sensations that is central to proprioceptive dialogue.

In the realm of philosophy, several contributions have been made that parallel and often precede Bohm’s work. The phenomenological tradition, begun by Husserl, invites first-person exploration of the structures and phenomena of consciousness, and Merleau-Ponty emphasized the embodied nature of consciousness.

The philosophers Martin Buber and Karl Jaspers both recognized the problematics of interpersonal communication and creatively explored in depth and at length the dimensions and expressions of genuine dialogue, which, similarly to Bohm, they saw as essential if humans were to move beyond the destructive misery of our times.

Throughout the psychotherapeutic enterprise, beginning with Freud, awareness of the defense mechanisms, such as transference, counter-transference, denial, projective identification, and repression, among others, has been developed through research and clinical experience and has certainly contributed to Bohm’s project.

In popular psychology circles, writers such as Brad Blanton and Susan Campbell have promoted “radical honesty.” The latter convenes “honesty salons” that may have parallels to the Bohm-inspired groups.

The central relevance of somatic, proprioceptive awareness to cultural history was brilliantly interpreted by the historian Morris Berman in Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West, the second volume of his trilogy on the history of consciousness. The “confiscation” of embodied awareness of genuine feelings in early childhood through particular cultural practices is seen as a source of much collective, as well as individual, misery. Berman’s work may provide a wider context of historical and cultural understanding for practitioners of proprioceptive dialogue.

The 20th century saw the development of many initiatives in the field of somatics to help restore embodied awareness to the alienated, abstracted consciousness of all-too-many of us. These included the school of Ilse Gindler in Germany, which led to Charlotte Selver’s sensory awareness work brought to the US, and Gerda Alexander’s school of eutony, developed in Denmark, to name only a few of a plethora of approaches.

In the long-standing Buddhist practice of mindfulness, awareness of the body, sensations, feelings, and  mind, both of oneself and of others, is cultivated through meditation practice, as in vipassana. Of note here, is that the mindfulness as practiced in Buddhist tradition involves not only “going proprioceptively back into myself,” but also intrinsically involves what psychologists now refer to as a theory of mind, that is, awareness of the complex subjectivity of others, along with empathy and compassion.

Rosen’s posting on PD leaves me wondering about several matters. For one, how do 20 to 40 people who persevere as a group in ongoing meetings, with the primary concern of each to explore their own “hidden agendas,” attend and respond to one another?  Such a group sounds surprisingly large for the purpose of dialogue in which each expresses his or her voice. In a hunter-gatherer band of that size, the purpose of community and sharing has to do with the very mundane activities that foster the survival and thriving of the individuals and the group, not just the function, although an important one, of communicating verbally. I also wonder how such phenomena as coalitions, dominance and submission, and unconsciously shared hidden agendas that remain hidden might play out in PD groups. Can individuals engaged primarily in group dialogues with one another cultivate refined levels of introspective, proprioceptive skills  without the benefit of also engaging in primarily nonverbal, somatic practices, whether vipassana, yoga, sensory awareness, or qigong, for example? Could the use of poetic imagery, as  explored by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, with its evocation of sensory experience, bodily sensations, and the primal elements of nature, facilitate proprioceptive awareness and  on the part of dialogue group participants? How does participating in such a group affect participants’ relations outside the group?  Empirical research could certainly explore many questions here.