Voice Dialogue and Meditation: An Uncommon Alchemy
Updated: Jul 18, 2021
Voice Dialogue, a long refined parts work modality that has some similarities with Internal Family Systems, and Buddhist meditation both answer this question: what to do about all the persistent and unpleasant friction with persons- the person I call Me and all the many Not-Me’s outside ( and within) ? What to do about this persisting sense that being a person in the world could be more fun, elegantly danced, that identity could be more porous, more encompassing, more free? As far as approaches and practices to address this question with, there are many answers. Here I’m going to talk about these two answers that, because they come at the quandary of being a person from different angles, when they’re practiced together, are a holistic, potent compliment indeed.
Let’s start with Voice Dialogue and how it views and addresses the friction and quandary of Me and Not-me. Having roots in depth psychology, (the co-founder of Voice Dialogue Hal Stone was a Jungian analyst), the basic understanding in Voice Dialogue is that people are, in James Hillman’s words, polycentric. Rather than there being a singular ego that has conflicting, competing or contradictory drives, attitudes or impulses, there are many selves, sometimes called sub-personalities or parts, living through us, animating our bodies, hearts and minds with their outlooks, motives and desires, their ways of seeing, feeling and being. Consider The Critic, The One Who Knows and The Pleaser, to name a few.
Some of these selves have become primary, meaning that we and they have been convinced they need to be in control and centerstage, calling the shots and directing the show. This has developed to serve a vital function- these primary selves have arisen over time so we can survive and navigate the everyday challenges of being alive. One of the consequences of this is that they compensate for or compartmentalize away our vulnerable selves, often young and sensitive, marginalized because their way of being is not celebrated or valued with the cultures of family, society and work.
The curious will find interesting texture in each of the selves but it need be emphasized that Voice Dialogue is not about fascination with selves. Its about the freedom that arises when one can see a self as exactly that- a self, one band of the bandwidth of being, not the true self, the correct self, the authentic self, nor the best self. A self, not more and not less, meanwhile seeing that each brings perspective, energy and richness into the system. Without awareness, all of these selves will confidently make the claim they are you, and likewise, you the claim that you are them. This is how we feel, and accordingly act, if we don’t separate from them- knowing selves as selves.
This separation and the space it opens potentiates the Aware Ego Process. Nurturing this Aware Ego Process is what Voice Dialogue facilitation is fundamentally about. Through being facilitated, guided by someone trained in navigating this territory, we gradually birth a capacity to embrace and tend to the diverse span of our selves without getting stuck in only our primary parts. We also gain the ability to draw on the wisdom, sensitivities or energy of a selves we have separated from in a choiceful manner.
So from a Voice Dialogue perspective, the felt friction and sense of incompleteness in human being comes from having a limited relationship with and understanding of who and what one is. Over time, from being facilitated, our ‘system of selves’ is infused with understanding and acceptance. Vulnerable selves are re-discovered, embraced and appropriately tended to. Motives and desires living in us are clarified and gifts are revealed even in the parts of ourselves that other parts of ourself wish they could stuff away!
Sometimes people speak of relieving the tension of opposites or resolving inner conflict but one finds that is actually unnecessary- with Aware Ego Process there is breathing room for everything, tension included. In the flesh this looks like a person who takes themselves and others more lightly and with receptive amusement, who moves in and out of roles with fluidity, who shows up flexibly because not confined to only one or two selves and their one or two ways of responding to what the moment presents.
Buddhist meditation, thought of broadly as a direct awareness based approach to life, appreciates the self and relieving its frictions a little differently. The seasoned Buddhist practitioner experiences the world and its people, places and things as never having had and never taking more than a temporary form. If we look inside or outside and see anything more than patterns in ceaseless transformation, we’re invited to look more closely. Each thing and everyone is an expression, an event tangible yet transparent, a shape of now, pure process, ungraspable flow.
Thus, in Buddhist meditation, freedom is about experiencing personhood in the most fundamental and intimate way. ‘There’s a self? Two selves? Seven? Ok. But what is a self made of?' Through meditation practice, when attention is made steady and lucid and is brought to bear upon this self, whichever flavor is currently unfolding, what is directly seen? Looking closely and steadfastly at the sense of being somebody, looking looks through into a bright, ancient openness, questions and concepts of self fade in the silence of mystery, and a sacred, awake completeness, seamless with no parts, dawns as the deepest and realest thing.
But then you have to get up off your meditation cushion and pee. Maybe someone cuts you in line or leaves the toilet seat up and the part of you that judges, dream-like as it may be, rears up and you’re tied in knots with criticism and self-righteousness. You’re caught in a self. On an essential level, with the aforementioned deep seeing stabilized sufficiently, life is easeful, identity is optional and compassion has a clearer window to shine as it will. A profound freedom to be nobody in particular. That may result in separation and fluidly embodying various parts of oneself. It may not.
I’m of the opinion that, for the most part in Buddhist practice, the polycentricity of persons is off the map. These traditions took form in an Asia where the cultures firmly centered role consciousness and fidelity to those roles. Our Romantic concept of the individual was not existent- who one was was largely parametered by the role one played in the context of family, profession and society. And the roles were, by our modern standards, inflexible and narrowly defined. So it’s no wonder that spiritual traditions in these cultures plumbed and mastered the depths of how to make ego translucent and minimize self ( and selves) concerns. Yet these selves that vanish in the clear light of awareness are often living on in the shadows, pulling the strings and motivating actions without one’s understanding or control. Episodes out of character in the lives of spiritual teachers, Western and Asian, testify to the calamitous consequence of facets of oneself left a stranger in the dark.
We’re here in 2021 with many of us called to both of the transformations in perception and personality described above. And just as we find every self is limited by its point of view, point of view is by definition limitation, every consciousness practice or tradition is limited by its outlook and emphasis. Voice Dialogue and Buddhist meditation, emerging from very different contemplative heritages, have striking commonalities. Both celebrate and engender dis-identification from and amplified granularity of who one is in the moment. Both celebrate and midwife a new quality and intensity of awareness that flips one from being passively patterned and animated by habit to being an intelligent, awake openness within which habit patterns consciously arise.
The alchemy of cultivating the insights and capacities of both Voice Dialogue and Buddhist meditation is potent. I have observed that people with a meditation practice are often able to move into and out of selves with relative ease early in their engagement with Voice Dialogue. It may be that the muscle of falling into identification with the world of a self - it’s thoughts, outlook and emotions, and then snapping out of it, releasing them and coming back to clear wakefulness, is developed in meditation and is then carried into Voice Dialogue sessions. Also, the ability to stay present, the skill of concentration, serves in getting deeply saturated in the self that one is being facilitated in. In Voice Dialogue, when being facilitated in a particular self, voices other than the one being dialogued with come in and one is not encouraged to push them away. Sometimes it’s the right thing for another part in the self system to announce itself- the facilitator may pick up on that and intuit to shift the dialogue to the new visitor. However, with the power of presence developed, one is aided in immersing in the somatic, attitudinal, and mental experience of a self wholeheartedly, having an experience of its essence, its unique energetic signature in an undiluted way.
Of course there are significant differences between the two modalities. Mazeltov! We learn and grow from conflicting and contrasting relationship with an Other. To tease out these differences, I’ll give voice to exaggerated critiques each might make of the other.
“You meditation people are creating Zen Selves. You make an identity out of Being Spiritual. You want to meditate the wild and unruly spectrum of personality away but you actually can’t. We reject no part of ourselves!” the Voice Dialogue True Believer says. “These voice dialogue people are truly ‘self-centered’” the Authentic Buddhist thinks, “Selves and suffering attend one another like compost and flies.Your original face has no name, no narrative, no needs and no parts! I’ve got to go to my sitting cushion, I have no interest in filling my mind with the concepts and theories of all these hidden, imaginary friends you’re endeared with. Awareness alone is truly liberating!” “ In your fixation on emptiness you fail to accept even the energetic reality of your inner child or vulnerable parts so your equanimity is a maladaptation poorly compensating for their absence! And you never wear colorful scarves! What use is deepening consciousness without colorful scarves! “ the Voice Dialogue True Believer responds. So there are some differences in outlook. This is a problem for a self that needs there to be one right way to see, one truth. But it’s not a problem for awareness, which doesn’t need certainty or a right way.
Unconsciously being a somebody, not knowing it as a temporary, relationally arising role in the great drama, we make a particular kind of trouble, a private and public disturbance. A somebody who is good or bad, a somebody who is confident or meek, a somebody who’s a total klutzy nudnik, the unconscious being of any being a somebody is a felt friction, rubbing up against the way the universe is: creative, non-stop, interactive efflorescence. This friction gives off sparks we can see, sparks that start fires, sparks that burn. Consider for a moment all the sorrow, all the violence, all the pain that flares up from egos tightly wound in a rigidly limited self-understanding. Given that, these practices are a profound and meaningful undertaking- we are born into this crisis of identity, from the first time we say ‘me’ enacting confusion about what that means.
Yet there is vital nuance within all of this. Being somebody is a delight and an art when it is contexted in awareness, a conscious choice, consenting to playing the many characters of our lives, slipping in and out of selves like putting on and removing a coat. This is the joy and fruit of Voice Dialogue practice over time. The joy and fruit of long-term Buddhist meditation can be likened to emerging into a waking dream. The space that ‘I’ once occupied like a dictator is freed to resume it’s boundless nature, cut loose from a separate self. Then every thing we experience, inside and outside, people, plants, perspectives and places, is encountered as a momentary expression of the universe’s intimate and unknowable root.
These practices brought together open access to simple, blissful awareness, being nobody in particular, yet as the moment necessitates, embodying the whole span of ourselves. Being a person is a mystery we needn’t and thankfully can’t solve or master. But we can live into our personness as an endlessly compelling, enlivening, open question. Who am I? Who am I now? Who is this? How am I seeing? Who am I not seeing? Who else? Who is needed? What is it like to be? What’s it like not being me?
Bringing meditation and Voice Dialogue together is my specialty. You can find out more about working with me here.