The Healing Power of Dialogue

By Masao Yokota

Mr. Yokota was president of the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (renamed the Ikeda Center in 2009) from its founding in 1993 to 2009. In this 2002 essay he distills the essence of dialogue, the practice of which lies at the heart of the Center's work.

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Before we talk about “the healing power of dialogue,” we have to carefully define the meaning of “healing” and of “dialogue.” For me, healing in this context means healing the wounds of separation inherent in modern society. We are separate from nature and animals. We are separate from society and other people. We have misunderstood the real meaning of individualism by creating lives of isolation.

When Daisaku Ikeda founded the Center in 1993, he gave a talk at Harvard University in which he encouraged everyone to engage in dialogue with an open mind. He also said that dialogue is open-ended and he reminded us that the essence of dialogue is listening. We always keep these points in mind when we conduct our programs at the Center.

Clearly, dialogue is more than an ordinary conversation. The purpose of dialogue is to understand others — not just to share our independent views. That would limit our exchange to information and dialogue is not just about information. In a dialogue, we have a responsibility to be present and enrich each other. We should always remember that the words “respond” and “responsibility” comes from the same Latin word, respondere, which means “promise.”

This kind of communication is not natural for human beings because humans are basically selfish and self-centered. This reality makes it especially difficult to conduct dialogue in a talking and teaching culture; communication is easier in a listening and learning culture. So, sometimes we must develop our skills in order to be capable of dialogue. Patience is needed but that is not the most difficult thing; what can be more difficult is developing an appropriate attitude, a deep awareness of others. This is what allows us to create real harmony.

In her book entitled Educating Moral People (Teachers College Press, 2001), Nel Noddings says, “Dialogue is the most fundamental concept of the care model.” This statement points to the close connection between dialogue and caring, between dialogue and our ability to understand others which comes, primarily, from listening. Nel Noddings is deeply aware of the human sensitivity involved in dialogue, and she is deeply aware of the power of that sensitivity to heal wounds.

But listening and caring are not enough. Sometimes we give food or money to suffering people. But this does not necessarily mean we understand other people’s feelings. It means I understand my feelings: I feel sorry, I care, I want to do something about it. Before you can really care, you must understand other people’s feelings so that we understand them and see ourselves as we see them.

We should also listen to nature. We can learn from nature in many ways and this knowledge allows us to restore life force and harmony. I think this is something that Western culture may have to learn from Eastern culture, this sense of oneness with nature. This awareness comes from a kind of communication with nature.

Internal dialogue is also important because sometimes we are also separated from ourselves. When we engage in self-reflection, we think of our past self, of the present self, and of the future self. We should never be satisfied with the self that exists at this moment. It is better to reflect and ask questions: Are my current thoughts correct or is there deeper meaning to draw out of this? Am I growing? Am I contributing enough? Comparing ourselves with our past selves and our ideal selves, rather than with others, helps us grow. When we understand ourselves, we are in a good position to listen to and understand others.

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