(In Pursuit Of) Presence & Flow, Pt. 1

Dialogue is something I had previously perceived as “discussion”, oftentimes neither constructive nor generative, but just talk. Theoretical physicist David Bohm’s description (below) altered my perception regarding dialogue’s potential, the dynamics of which I subsequently began to register more attentively through personal reflective/meditative practice, in professional encounters, and even during brief, random interactions with strangers – which on occasion can be surprisingly meaningful.

Here’s what Bohm had to say:

“I give a meaning to the word ‘dialogue’ that is somewhat different from what is commonly used. The derivations of words often help to suggest a deeper meaning. ‘Dialogue’ comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means ‘the word’ or in our case we would think of the ‘meaning of the word’. And dia means ‘through’ – it doesn’t mean two. A dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of the dialogue is present. The picture of image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ that holds people and societies together.” – David Bohm, “On Dialogue” (1996)

Of particular interest are the dynamic attributes of Dialogue which are observable in the context of improvisational jazz performance, indicating a richness of nuance worth modeling in non-musical contexts. Within a musical context, the concept of “a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which will emerge some new understanding” rings true in particular, in the sense that music holds meaning for both performing musicians as well as their audience, and is indeed “the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ that binds the whole, i.e. performers and listeners, together. In this space of shared meaning and sense of “wholeness”, there is creative potential. William Isaacs, co-founder of the Organizational Learning Center at MIT, introduces this definition of what he calls “Dialogic Leadership”:

” ‘Dialogic leadership’ is the term I have given to a way of leading that consistently uncovers, through conversation, the hidden creative potential in any situation. Four distinct qualities support this process: the abilities (1) to evoke people’s genuine voices, (2) to listen deeply, (3) to hold space for and respect as legitimate other people’s views, and (4) to broaden awareness and perspective.”
– William N. Isaacs, “Dialogic Leadership”

The four distinct qualities of dialogic leadership listed by Isaacs are characteristics inherent to the art of ensemble performance in jazz music. John Coltrane’s classic quartet comes to mind. This iconic jazz quartet consistently tapped into hidden creative potential, evoking some of the most genuine voices in jazz history: John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison. The aspect of listening deeply, or “deep listening” in particular, is a key component of ensemble interplay, enabling discovery of creative potential, moment for moment.

The improvisational journeys of Coltrane’s classic quartet are widely documented in recordings. Even to the novice ear, the energy threshold of present moment meeting emerging future is clear. At that threshold, the essence of open mind, open heart, and open will is crystallized in a container of respect for the self-expression of each musician, for how can one judge what one doesn’t know or hasn’t heard, that which has yet to emerge? In this non-judgmental container, there is an absence of fear and a forgiveness for human shortcomings which allows each individual to commit fully to the moment. In the case of Coltrane’s classic quartet, the resulting co-creation, at its best, broadened contemporary awareness and perspective of what a jazz performance could be, to a degree that some perceive as spiritual.

Finally, via Otto Scharmer – almost as if he were providing commentary on such a collaborative, co-creative performance:

“What I see rising is a new form of presence and power that starts to grow spontaneously from and through small groups and networks of people. It’s a different quality of connection, a different way of being present with one another and with what wants to emerge. When groups begin to operate from a real future possibility, they start to tap into a different social field from the one they normally experience. It manifests through a shift in the quality of thinking, conversing, and collective action. When that shift happens, people can connect with a deeper source of creativity and knowing and move beyond the patterns of the past. They step into their real power, the power of their authentic self … I have been often struck by how creators and master practitioners operate from a deeper process, one I call the “U Process.” This process pulls us into an emerging possibility and allows us to operate from that altered state rather than simply reflecting on and reacting to past experiences.”
– C. Otto Scharmer, “Theory U: Learning From The Future As It Emerges”

Via Scharmer’s theoretical perspective entitled “Theory U”, the concept of “presence”, or “presencing”, a blend of the words “presence” and “sensing,” refers to the ability to sense and bring into the present one’s highest future potential – as an individual and as a group. Observing Theory U in play within the context of an improvisational jazz ensemble seems to indicate a potential for deeper dynamic nuance and intricacy, than described in the original theoretical framework.

My reflection on “Deep Listening”, begins to explore the significance of the act itself, the generative, dialogic nature of collective, co-creative, jazz improvisation, and the value we can extract from this musical context as a model to expand presence-based dialogue.