Imago Dialogue as a spiritual path

Imago Couples Dialogue is a very practical tool for couples to connect and communicate.  Like may of my colleauges, however, I also view Imago Dialogue as a spiritual path – as a grassroots approach to healing and growth that can begin to heal some of the pain that permeates our world.  I was deeply moved recently by this post written by my colleague and mentor Dr. Sophie Slade (Canada and the UK) on the spiritual implications of Imago dialogue.  Please read on:

Like many, including Harville (Hendrix) and Helen (LaKelly Hunt), I have long believed that the Imago Dialogue is a Spiritual Practice.  I have described it as being akin to prayer or meditation, requiring the kind of focused attention that meditation requires.  I was therefore very interested to read the following comments of (Elizabeth Gilbert in her book “Eat Pray and Love”): “Meditation is both the anchor and the wings of Yoga.  Meditation is the way. There’s a difference between meditation and prayer, though both practices seek communion with the divine.  I’ve heard it said that prayer is the act of talking to God, while meditation is the act of listening.”  Reading this it suddenly struck me that Imago Dialogue is the union of prayer and meditation.  The roles of Sender and Receiver show us the way of communion with the divine, in ourselves and in our partner, through both talking and listening!  When we send it is like praying, when we receive it is like meditating. It is the both/and that combines the two most widely used spiritual practices of east and west.

Now I’m no expert on prayer, but it seems to me that when we Send, in a sense like when we pray, we have the responsibility to share ourselves with the other, to open our hearts honestly and let the other in – or more accurately let ourselves out – hiding nothing from ourselves (as Janis Ian sings “Ain’t no place for a face to hide from God and the FBI”).  In relation to God, if we are frustrated and hurting we often use prayer to ask for what we want.  I believe most of us avoid, even when angry, the type of grandiosity and symbiosis that I have at times been guilty of with (my husband) David, where I give him the message “It’s you that’s not OK and have to change” when I have a need that is not being met.  We ask God to grant to us whatever it is we want but with the proviso “They will, not mine, be done”.  Translating this into Imago, I think of the Behaviour Change Request Dialogue – a one-way send in which we share our frustration and hurt, take responsibility for it through linking it with our own story and our own desire, and then clearly and specifically ask for what we want.  The final step for the Sender is to hand it over to the will of the partner – the gift has to come from the willingness of the partner, from their free will.  As the supplicant (Oh hardest step of all!) I must then give up all efforts to force, bargain or coerce my partner into giving me what I want, whilst opening my heart to receive with gratitude if I get it.

I do also like to hold in my awareness the caution to “Beware what you ask for, you might get it”.  Gilbert tells of a friend of hers who prayed over and over for God to open his heart and ended up on the operating table having open heart surgery.  My version is that I shared with David a desire to have more music in my life.  We recently moved into a new apartment only to realize that it is right beside a Karaoke bar which stays open till 3 a.m.!   I think this teaches us to be very clear and specific in our requests, as we coach in the BCR Dialogue.  I think many prayers could well benefit from such specificity rather than the assumption that God knows without our having to tell him/her.

Receiving is more like the practice of meditating – not that I know much about that either!  The first commitment is to be present and available to listen to the Sender.  Gilbert writes “There’s a reason they call God a presence – because God is right here, right now.”  Receiving requires presence.  She goes on to say “But to stay in the present moment requires dedicated one-pointed focus…” Mantras are one way on helping to achieve this.  “Mantra has a dual function.  For one thing, it gives the mind something to do. … Whenever your attention gets pulled into a cross-current of thought, just return to the mantra, climb back into the boat and keep going.  The great Sanskrit mantras are said to contain unimaginable powers, the ability to row you, if you can stay with one, all the way to the shorelines of divinity.”  I see mirroring as having the function in Dialogue that the mantra has in solitary meditation.  It helps you stay focused on a single point – your partner.  It gives your mind something to do to keep it from jumping all over the place (what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind”).  Gilbert’s description of the use of the mantra to “climb back into the boat and keep going” reminds me so much of Harville’s article on Staying in the Canoe, recently shared on the Imago list serve, where he exhorts us to keep paddling when we are in reactivity, to get back in the canoe and start mirroring.  And I believe that like a Sanskrit mantra, presence combined with empathic, attuned mirroring with dedicated one-pointed focus has the ability to row you to the shorelines of divinity, where you get to live for increasing periods of time in the paradise of conscious relating.

I’m now just reading the part where Gilbert talks about Vipassana meditation – what she calls the “Extreme Sports version of transcendence”!  It is a very orthodox, intensive Buddhist meditation  technique that requires gruelling hours of just sitting without even a mantra.  What is resonating for me in this is her exploration of the concept of detachment – requiring both a being with one’s experience and a simultaneous detachment from it, being aware of one’s own discomfort but just being with it in stillness.  Of her own short experiment with Vipassana she says “… in my thirty-four years on earth I have never not slapped at a mosquito when it was biting me.  I’ve been a puppet to this and to millions of other small and large signals of pain or pleasure throughout my life.  Whenever something happens, I always react.  But here I was – disregarding the reflex.”  That kind of aware detachment, to not react reflexively but to be with our experience in stillness represents the kind of containment required in Receiving.  As the partner sends, like an onslaught of little mosquito bites, we have our own reactions, hurts, thoughts, etc.  Conscious receiving requires being able to be with those in stillness, detach, not reflexively react.  When I am able to achieve that, I have found that like Gilbert whose mosquito bites had diminished within half an hour, all the hurts and reactions go away, everything goes away – except the connection.   Dr. Sophie Slade, June 2007

Posted by Laura

Laura Marshall, LCSW, is the founder and director of the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy. Her experience spans thirty years of supporting couples and individuals to create healthy and meaningful lives and relationships. She is also adjunct faculty for the New Mexico Highlands School of Social Work. She lives with her husband Steve and five sons in Farmington, New Mexico.

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