Dialogue and Freedom

By William van den Heuvel

"If dialogue were done properly it would lead to tremendous freedom" (David Bohm)



David Bohm once said "If dialogue were done properly it would lead to tremendous freedom". I was wondering if it were possible to develop a view that would show how this comes about.

We all know that dialogue can help people to understand each other better and that it can lead to consensus in a conflict situation, so there is no need for fighting and violence; it may also have a psychotherapeutic effect on someone, etc. All of that sounds very nice, and these "side effects" alone are good reasons for doing it. Nevertheless, if it leads to freedom, as David Bohm says, then there must be a deeper meaning to dialogue, that needs to be investigated.

David Bohm, as many will know, always used to bring in the idea of proprioception, during the dialogues. It seemed to be important to him. He also had the notion of there being three dimensions; the social, the individual and the cosmic. I would like to pick up these clues and try to complete the picture by putting the pieces together. It occurred to me that maybe we can put the dialogue into the social dimension, proprioception into the personal dimension and freedom into the cosmic dimension.

If it could be shown how the social, the personal and the cosmic dimensions are related then we may also have found the connection between dialogue and freedom. In order to make things fit into this scheme, I found it helpful to put a certain emphasis on one of the many aspects of dialogue and on the purpose of proprioception. It will also be necessary to introduce a new notion of passion, as you will see.

The social dimension

In this view, the primary purpose of a dialogue group is to create an opportunity where people from different cultures with different social backgrounds and different religious or political views can come together. These people would offer their views for consideration and they should consider views offered by others. It is important for these views to be controversial (or at least different from one's own). A homogeneous group, where people are harmoniously tuned to each other or a polite group of people pretending to be tolerant, is not suitable to get us nearer towards freedom. I will explain why.

Controversial views are most likely to stirr up emotional and intellectual reactions. The reactions indicate that something personally important has been touched. Possibly, something that one wasn't even aware of. The real value of the dialogue, however, lies not so much in the ideas being offered but in the emotional and intellectual reactions caused by those views. The views themselves may also be interesting but it is the reaction that counts.

Reactions can also come during moments of silence when tension builds up tremendously. It can also come from a feeling of disappointment about not getting anywhere and wasting one's time. There is a great potential in this sense of frustation because this is precisely the reaction that we need. Emotions occur on a deeper and personal level. So, by putting the emphasis on the reactions we naturally lead ourselves into the personal dimension.

The personal dimension

Dialogues are not the only way to get upset. People, who have no opportunity to participate in a dialogue group, need not feel deprived: Dealing with situations in daily life can equally well stirr up the emotions, as we probably all know. These reactions, irrespective of how they are aroused, can be sensed when one pays attention to them. The sensing of one's own reaction is called proprioception. David Bohm has mentioned the word proprioception quite often, so I will take for granted that everybody knows what he meant. Reactions are "food" for proprioception: Without reactions there is nothing to proprioceive. In this sense, the purpose of dialogue is to provide an opportunity for developing proprioception.

Participants, who do not usually say very much during the dialogue, can still be very active at the personal level: They may well be busy proprioceiving! If the group is too homogeneous for reactions to arise spontaneously, participants can help each other by deliberately provoking reactions in a friendly way. From the reactions one can learn. Just as one learns from playing with objects (developing awareness) one can also learn from "playing" with one's own reactions (developing self-awareness). So proprioception should result in increased self-awareness. That is what matters. The whole point of proprioception is to be able to develop self-awareness.

Self-awareness has many self-corrective effects and opens up new possibilities. One of them is that we could now go further to explore the nature of ones own identity. In my mind, the identity is an intellectual invention (what I think I am). The notion, that it is only an invention, should lead to an attitude of mind where one is willing to play with identity, just as one can play with any idea. We could even experiment with dropping it. Once we can end our identity, we are ready to "dissolve" into the cosmic dimension.

The cosmic dimension

The ending of identity, means that we are no longer being limited by the definitions that make up the identity. These definitions are the intellectual boundaries of oneself. The dissolution of our boundaries is the same as the ending of oneself, which implies we have become "nothing". Thus, we are now faced with being nobody. However, the absence of limits also imply that we are now unlimited (it's even logical). So being "nobody" is the same as being "unlimited". The unlimited is the cosmic dimension. If one is interested in being unlimited, one must be willing to give oneself up and be nobody.


It is not easy to give yourself up. The natural instinct of self-preservation wants to preserve the self. That's its job! So, there seems to be a problem here. The idea of giving oneself up goes against the instincts and produces an uncomfortable feeling. (True?) All unpleasant sensations are taken as an attack and that triggers the self-defense system. One of the possible defense-reactions could be to think that this is all nonsense or to find reasons for not doing it. We need a trick to prevent the instinct from protecting me. In this case, self-defense is not appropriate. I do not want the system to protect me because it is holding me back from entering the cosmic dimension. What can I do?


I would suggest exploring the possibilities of passion. The word "passion" is used here in its original sense as the opposite of "action" (just as passive is the opposite of active). Action means doing, passion means letting. Passion is the passivity of the emotio-intellectual system. That's what we need; passion in order not to react to the defense-reactions, otherwise we get a chain-reaction, which keeps us trapped in the personal dimension. Passion enables us to let go of our sense of importance. This may be contrary to what we usually want but it does have the side effect that there is nothing left that needs protecting!

The notion of passion is somewhat complex and needs to be developed much further. There is a bit more on this in a separate paper called "passion". But even at this stage, one can already see that it is necessary to bypass the self-defense system, so that it won't try to protect my boundaries.


The collapse of my boundaries also means the breakdown of intellectual fences and emotional walls. But this is freedom! So, there certainly is a path from dialogue through proprioception, self-awareness and passion towards freedom. The price to pay, however, is to give yourself up. You can't be somebody and be free at the same time. (If you react to this, please turn on your proprioception.) There is, however, still more to come.

Creativity and love

Beyond freedom lies creativity and love. The removal of intellectual restrictions enables the free operation of the natural intelligence, which is a prerequisite for creativity. Similarly, the absence of emotional barriers enables the free flow of natural feelings, which is a prerequisite for love. So, freedom leads to creativity and love.

Back to society

I feel, we have a social responsibility to become free (from ourselves) so that the unlimited intelligence can operate from beyond. Creativity and love will probably feed back into society. The society could be transformed this way (if it would stop resisting change). So we are back into the social dimension! The social, personal and cosmic aspects can now be perceived as phases of a complete cycle. The scope of dialogue should be extended to encompass this whole cycle. This gives a deeper significance to dialogue.Without this, no matter how interesting the dialogues may be, we would only be scratching around on the surface.

Copyright © 1996 by William van den heuvel. All rights reserved. w@david-bohm.net