The first Dialogue Nights of 2022 was held on March 4th, nearly two years to the day after businesses, restaurants, and institutions of all sorts started shutting down because of the rapidly-spreading COVID virus.
At this point, very few of us aren’t exhausted on some level by the whole thing, which is why, said Center Program Manager Lillian I, the planning team chose to address this reality head on during the evening’s conversation. Called “Countering Burnout with the Power of Connection,” the virtual gathering was the 20th Dialogue Nights since the inception of the series in 2017.
During her welcoming remarks, Lillian recalled how the inspiration for Dialogue Nights originated with Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s conviction that people possess “rich reserves of goodness” and that ” if we base ourselves on the kind of dialogue that awakens and brings forth that inherent goodness, mutual understanding is possible and a path toward a resolution of the most challenging issues can be found.” In practice, said Lillian, what this meant was creating a place where people “talk openly and from the heart with one another.”
How does connection play into this? Lillian explained that as the Ikeda Center youth committee began meeting to plan the event, with discussions focusing on burnout, they soon noticed that “every time we connected with each other we felt refreshed and hopeful.” Thus, inspired, they decided to organize this Dialogue Nights around this topic. Then, as the event neared, and people were “confronted with the devastating war in Ukraine,” Lillian shared how the team encountered this quote from Mr. Ikeda, which sparked renewed commitment to the Dialogue Nights theme:
…dwelling on our own pain or discontent and hopelessness only causes our life force to wane even further. It is at such times that we need to rekindle our connections with others, to be concerned for their struggles. In doing so we discover a renewed strength and the will to live.
After Lillian’s welcome, the Center’s Anri Tanabe led the participants in two ice-breaker activities. The first was a “word cloud” activity centering on the question: What does burnout look like for you? As participants entered their descriptions into the online program some key words began to emerge: exhausted; frustrated; anxious; fatigue; overwhelmed. With their feelings and impressions thus activated, Anri then invited everyone to break into small groups to discuss two questions: What do you think are the causes of burnout? What are some of the ways you are currently trying to counter burnout? After a ten minute discussion, participants returned and shared some impressions. Most of them centered around the value of doing small things on a daily basis that bring calm and a sense of being refreshed, even activities as simply as making tea and having a cookie. One person would take long walks with her dog each day. Others would always find way to get outside for fresh air and to see other people. Another practiced journaling. One person recommended making a plan each evening for the following day, so that feeling of impending chaos can be avoided. Another advised finding a way to connect your soul to everything you do.
Before moving on to the evening’s main dialogue activity, Lillian introduced youth steering committee member Giulia Pellizzato who lead everyone in a grounding activity, premised on the idea that connecting with yourself, body and mind, is an important first step in connecting with others. For several minutes Giulia guided everyone in a mediational process of becoming fully aware of their breath and how to be truly present in their bodies.
With everyone now grounded and fully present, Lillian introduced the main dialogue activity, saying that the purpose is “to really make deeper connections with each other.” To aid in this process she shared the Center’s four “dialogue commitments”: avoid pre-judging and categorizing people; strive to bring out the best in oneself and others; listen to and learn from each other; and remember that change begins with us. She also shared that everyone should feel free to discuss whatever they wish to, but if that feels too open-ended, they might also consider some questions provided by the Center: If there is one place in the world you could be right now, where would that be and why? As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Is there something that has made you smile recently? What is something you find difficult to talk about? When do you feel the most connected to others and why?
As participants began to regroup after their small group discussions, many posted messages to the Zoom chat room. Beautiful conversation, said one. Another added, I wanted to stay in there forever! Then, in Dialogue Nights tradition, the Center’s Preandra Noel led everyone in an “open mic” session to gather people’s insights and impressions. The first person to speak said that even though everyone in his group had different interests and “human tendencies,” each was in the process of realizing their childhood dreams. What they shared, he said, was “the joy of completion” and the “action of being.” The next to share said he was surprised at how much his group had in common, even though they were “five random people.” One thing they really connected on was that in response to the question of where in the world each would want to be right now, they all agreed that “we wanted to be in the country where our family is.” Another person, joining from Japan, said she has been burned out and frustrated over the last couple of years because of lost opportunities to study abroad. But this session has made her feel “energized” and better prepared to be “a little more productive” during her day to come.
Preandra then led everyone in a takeaway activity that, like Giulia’s grounding exercise earlier, invited participants to join the verbal with the physical. To start, she asked everyone to write down on a sheet of paper what they initially shared about the causes of burnout. Then she asked them to … rip it up! Once this “therapeutic” act of “letting go” was completed, Preandra then said that since “the majority of the program was about really about exploring connection,” she asked everyone “to think about someone you’ve been wanting to connect with more deeply,” adding “it could be your mother, it could be a friend, it could be a colleague.” Then she asked them to write the name down for contacting them later in a letter or a call, or to go ahead and shoot them a text right now. To close, Preandra said that as the recipient already of a couple of the messages, “I’m already feeling the power of this!” She added that “whoever you reached out to will be so excited to connect.” As evidenced by posts to the chat room, many parents, friends, and siblings would soon be feeling the power of connection.
To wrap up the evening, Ikeda Center Executive Director Kevin Maher shared a few thoughts on the dialogue’s theme. The first was that burnout is everywhere these days. When he and the planning team first started researching, said Maher, they “came across countless articles, videos, and podcasts on the theme,” adding that “our endlessly fast-paced culture seems forever fostering mental and physical fatigue.” Instead of looking to all of that online information for inspiration, the team looked at why Dialogue Nights was created in the first place and what they have learned from that experience. Building on Daisaku Ikeda’s conviction that “life-to-life connection” can “revitalize and refresh us at our core,” and echoing Lillian’s introduction, Maher said that Dialogue Nights put Ikeda’s “vision into practice through creating a space where genuine, heart to heart dialogue/connections could happen.” Now, “20 events later,” the main lesson is that “at a time when we are all so busy and stretched beyond capacity, making time to share stories and deeply listen to others is not an extra task, but rather it becomes the essential human need for kinship.” And the result if we expand and deepen this practice? “The more that we can create spaces like this where we are able to find mutual understanding and affirm our common humanity,” insisted Maher, “the more we will be able to shift our culture from one of isolation to one of interconnection.”