Final Virtual Dialogue Nights Explores the Path of Dialogue

By Mitch Bogen

On May 27, the Ikeda Center hosted its sixth and final “virtual” Dialogue Nights, with the plan being to return to in-person events this summer, more than two years after they were suspended in 2020 because of the pandemic. The evening’s topic, “The Path of Dialogue: Paving The Way to a Hopeful Future,” was chosen, said Center Program Manager Lillian I, as a way of “exploring the heart of all our events: dialogue.” She also remarked on the “bittersweet” nature of the gathering, saying, “Thank you so much for all of you who have joined us over the past year and for your wonderful contributions at each event. We are so grateful to share this space with all of you here one last time.”

She also offered thoughts on the  “heartbreaking” shootings plaguing the United States during the preceding days and weeks, including those in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas. Admitting that it’s unclear the extent to which “policies” might “change the suffering and hatred in people’s hearts,” Lillian said that Daisaku Ikeda’s conviction is that, first of all, we must resist pessimism of the sort that says that “it is ingrained in our nature to hate and kill each other.” This is a phony sort of “realism” that as Ikeda emphasizes, denies our “limitless possibilities.” Ikeda also reminds us, she said, that “Every war has started in the human heart. And so has every great act that has changed the world for the better.” With that, she turned the stage over to Center Outreach Manager Anri Tanabe for the evening’s icebreaker activities.

In the age of virtual events, some new activities have appeared as fun ways to, as Anri phrased it, “get a feel for who is in the room and what we share with one another.” The first activity asked participants to respond with emoji reactions if the statement fit their recent experiences. Some examples: This is your first virtual DN. You’ve reached out to a friend for support this week. You have found yourself judging someone before you even met them. You have questions about the power of dialogue. Another online staple for warm up activities is to create a “word cloud” using the interactive online presentation tool, Mentimeter. This time, Anri asked attendees: For you, what are the necessary ingredients for having genuine dialogue? Some of the top responses included: Compassion. Trust. Courage. Openness. The activity wrapped up with participants sharing some thoughts on which qualities they would put into their top three.

word cloud

What it Means to be on the Path of Dialogue

After the icebreakers, Ikeda Center Youth Committee member Sasha Ndam shared reflections on the practice and importance of dialogue, also based on the idea of the three core ingredients. For Sasha, the most crucial ones were self-acceptance, courage, and hope, which for her means “the ability to view your current actions as a way to set the tone for future dialogues and conversations.” Crucially, explained Sasha, these are the same practices that have helped her cope with the death of her mother, nearly a year ago now. Her death, explained Sasha, coincided with her own transition out of college into the world of work and independence. Without her mother there to consult with, she literally feared she “would make one wrong decision and end up living out on the street.” The thing that got her through was, in a sense, simple: “connecting with other people and making conversations about life.” But it was also difficult, as it meant not denying her feelings. Fearing she would push people away with her sadness, but she “stopped worrying about making other people sad because the reality was I was sad and needed to talk about this process anyway.” What she found, however, was that other people would share their experiences with her, and “this was very healing for me.”

Then she shared some thoughts on how in particular her “three ingredients” helped her get by and even grow during these difficult months. Self-acceptance came into play when she received criticism from a family member who felt she had “changed in a negative way” since her mother’s death. Though this hurt, she realized that all she could do was to be authentic about her feelings, since she was truly “doing the best I can.” She found that it is “so valuable to accept yourself and your own circumstances.” Courage was intimately involved with this self-acceptance, she said, since it was this quality that enabled her “to be myself unapologetically.” Finally, her third ingredient enters in with her hope that her family member “will one day understand that when a person is experiencing grief or in a difficult situation, understanding and encouragement will be the only way to help a person in need.” She observed saying that though others may have chosen other ingredients, these have been undeniably “therapeutic” for her. With that, she sincerely thanked everyone for the opportunity to share.

The Center’s Program and Office Assistant Preandra Noel then took the stage to introduce the small group discussion activity. First, she called for “another round of applause for Sasha,” noting that in this time, when grief is “prevalent,” the courage she showed in sharing her “authenticity and vulnerability” was truly inspirational. To set the stage, Preandra then shared a quote from Daisaku Ikeda to inspire the discussions. It opened with these insights: “In this time of severe trial, humanity must take the first step on the path of courageous dialogue, which will connect people heart-to-heart and pool their wisdom.Open dialogue is the only way peaceful coexistence will occur; it will transform prejudice to understanding, mistrust to empathy, and conflict to harmony.” [Read full quote here.] Preandra then introduced the topics for their discussions, noting there would be time for full group dialogue to happen afterward.

  • What does it look like to have courage in dialogue? Can you share an experience where you had a courageous dialogue and the impact it had on your life?
  • If we all engaged in courageous dialogue in our daily interactions, how would our families, societies, and world change?

After 20 minutes, Preandra welcomed everyone back to what she called “the party space,” asking if anyone had any insights or “a ha moments” from their discussions they wanted to share. Here are some highlights, in participants’ own words:

  • It takes a lot of courage to be able to attend the [event,] no matter how exhausted you are. [But] it gives you so much enthusiasm and inspiration by just being in dialogue and listening to other people’s stories.
  • We came into awareness that in order to have courageous dialogues we need to be vulnerable [and] to share with an open heart and mind. . . . Sometimes people will disagree but that is also okay. We also said that the idea of “fake it until you make it” really hurts society, it blocks courageous dialogue.
  • We also talked about the willingness to listen . . . and how it can be humbling to listen to someone and not center the self, but have inner and outer dialogue, and [also] how it is a way to unify relationships.
  • My take away is not worrying about being perfect. . . . A lot of times I carry these very perfectionist tendencies to conversations with people. . . . I come with this agenda where I feel like I need to act a certain way and I would have all these points. . . . I would come to this dialogue and that person wouldn’t agree with me and then I would leave feeling defeated. As I had more dialogues with people . . . and read and reflected more [on] Daisaku Ikeda’s dialogues . . . [it] kickstarted me to want to have more respectful compassionate dialogues . . . coming from a place of empathy and not judgment and ego. I don’t have to agree with the person and I don’t have to be perfect. I can just be my authentic self. Being your authentic self . . . takes courage. I really loved having these Dialogue Nights. I’m sad this will be the last one. . . . I really appreciate having this space of warmth and caring and compassion. 

The evening’s final activity, said Lillian, was inspired by the planning team engaging in an inquiry into “the kind of dialogue that is needed in our society right now.” At the core of their thinking was this quote from Daisaku Ikeda: “Dialogue is more, however, than two people speaking face-to-face. The kind of dialogue that can truly contribute to peace must begin with an open and earnest ‘inner dialogue.’ By this I mean the ability to examine, carefully and honestly, our own attitudes.” Such inner awareness, said Lillian, is the prerequisite for each of us if we are “to grow into the kind of person who is capable of truly respecting others.” With these thoughts in mind, she introduced the final dialogue activity of the evening. For this, each participant should a) think of a person you can’t imagine having a dialogue with; b) with Ikeda’s thoughts in mind, consider why you can’t have a dialogue with this person and what sort of inner dialogue you would need to have for dialogue to happen; and c) if you actually had the opportunity to have a dialogue with this person what kind of impact would it have and how might it affect your life?

One interesting finding during share back was that everyone chose a family member or friend as the person it would be difficult for them to dialogue with. Examples of helpful inner dialogue included: developing self-acceptance and a consideration of what the other has said about you; considering one’s own part in a friendship ending and whether the problem is truly unfixable; and, looking not at my own hurt but how I may have hurt another, also asking how I can create value from this and rebuild the heart connection with the other. In terms of the impact it might have, one participant said that “it would be an opportunity for me to connect with my one remaining parent.” Another said it would strengthen both their “conviction that the power of dialogue can transform any negative experience” and “trust in ourself and others.”

Concluding Thoughts

As is customary with the Center’s virtual dialogue events, Center Executive Director Kevin Maher opened his concluding remarks with a “good evening and good morning!” to the attendees gathering across the world’s time zones. He also thanked Sasha, saying he could feel “the courage and strength coming from your life as you shared.” And he thanked all of the participants for their “honest and wonderful reflections,” adding that it felt just like the in-person dialogues held at the Center.

Like everyone participating tonight, Kevin said that he and all the event planning team had been shaken by the horrific shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde that had transpired in the days leading up to Dialogue Nights. Together, they wondered: “Does dialogue have any power to transform this seemingly endless cycle of violence and suffering?” With this concern in mind, they looked to Daisaku Ikeda’s writings in response to September 11, and this passage in particular.

It is impossible not to be outraged at the senseless loss of so many lives….Every single person lost was irreplaceable and immensely precious--a much-loved sister, father, son, mother or friend. Each individual's life contained infinite possibilities waiting to be realized. In the most terrible manner imaginable, we have been reminded of the immense value of human life.

I am utterly convinced that we were not born into this world to hate and destroy each other. We must restore and renew our faith in humanity and in each other. We must never lose sight of the fact that we can still make the twenty-first century an era free from the flames of war and violence--an era in which all people may live in peace. To this end, we must strive to make a profound reverence for life the prevailing spirit of our times and our planet. I believe that this is the greatest and most enduring way to honor the memory of the victims of this enormous tragedy.

To conclude, Kevin reflected on the challenges and successes of moving Dialogue Nights online. When live gatherings shut down in the spring of 2020, the feeling was that things would be back up and running in a few months. So the consensus was to just put Dialogue Nights on hold, since the magic of in-person interactions seemed a defining factor of the events. But when it was clear that the pandemic wasn’t ending, the Dialogue Nights team decided to take it virtual. What they found “over the course of six virtual Dialogue Nights,” said Kevin, was that much unique value was created. Many new collaborators and other friends joined not only from outside of Boston but from around the world. His takeaway? “You have shown us that authentic dialogue and connection can happen across time zones and through zoom,” he said. “We are grateful to each and every one of you whether this is your first or your 20thevent, you are a part of this community we call Dialogue Nights.”

 

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