Compassionate Communities – Time in our life – Socratic Dialogue

Saturday 28th May from 11 to 3, with a break for lunch.

An invitation to come to the Pear Tree to hold a conversation around the question: Why is so difficult to talk about death and dying?

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
by Damian Hirst.

All of us will die, and many of us have lived the experience of a friend or relation dying. Why is it so many of us have chosen the music for our funeral but not addressed our end of life? Why do we find death a tricky subject to talk about?


Socratic Dialogue Socratic Dialogue was born in opposition to dogmatism in ancient Athens, and more recently in Nazi Germany. It has relevance to today. It invites open investigation and tolerance, through the invitation to listen, to other people and oneself, and explore where our ideas come from. The Socratic Dialogue is an attempt to come to a common answer through systematic deliberation about a fundamental question. A question which derives from concrete experiences, accessible to all participants. Living philosophy if you like.

I trained as a facilitator with Dr Dieter Krohn, who himself trained with Gustav Heckmann, a student and follower of Leonard Nelson, the founder of the practice.

It takes its name and form from Socrates, Plato’s teacher. Socrates tried to bring people to a deeper understanding by asking questions, by inquiring about examples and analysing experiences. His idea behind this was that one does not gain understanding by getting it ‘dished up’, but only by thinking for oneself.

In the early twentieth century, the German philosopher, pedagogue and politician Leonard Nelson (1882 – 1927) developed the Socratic method theoretically and practically. Crucial to Nelson’s approach is the idea of ‘regressive abstraction’. This means that, starting from a concrete example, one traces back (regresses) to the presuppositions that lie at the foundation of the example. By inquiring into these presuppositions, which are of course necessary so as to come to the specific judgements in the example, one goes back to the foundations upon which these judgements are based. It is in this way that we develop a general understanding (abstraction).

The Socratic Form

A Socratic dialogue can last for many hours, or days, even in a small group. First one explores the theme and formulates the fundamental question. Then one collects different examples from the experiences of the participants. Next one selects one example and analyses this one so meticulously that one gains an understanding of the underlying presuppositions. These are 4 phases of a Socratic Dialogue:

  • Explanation of the Socratic Dialogue and question and search for suitable examples
  • Choice of one example, which is written up.
  • Investigation and interrogation of the specific example
  • Regressive Abstraction – from the concrete example, finding a general answer / definition for the question

Choosing the Example

Critical to independent and critical thinking in Socratic Dialogue practice is to draw on our own concrete experience. To take part in this exploration, you are invited to provide a concrete example, an example from your own life which illustrates the question. Here are some simple guidelines for finding an example:
Lived – an experience lived by you.
Simple – the simpler the example the better, the fewer the avenues the example goes down the more focused the central avenue is.
Interesting / Fruitful – an interesting example, challenging, fruitful for us to explore.
Relevant and Closed – relevant to the question, and the issues that it raised should be closed, so as not to be emotionally disturbing or distracting.

Collaboration Abstract Why is it so difficult to talk about death and dying?

All of us will die, many of us have lived experience of a friend of relation dying. Why is it so many of us have chosen the music for our funeral but not addressed our end of life?

Is it fear of our own death that makes us unwilling to make a Will?

Are we frightened? Anxious?

Why do we pretend it is not going to happen?

Where is our Achillies heal?

Tibetan practice of Chod and state of Bardo

Chöd is a spiritual practice found in particular Tibetan traditions, also known as “cutting through the ego,” to expound the ’emptiness’ of Buddhist philosophy. Emptiness is the ultimate wisdom of understanding that all things lack inherent existence. Chöd combines philosophy with specific meditation methods and tantric ritual. The chod practitioner seeks to tap the power of fear through activities such as rituals set in graveyards, and visualisation of offering their bodies in a tantric in order to put their understanding of emptiness to the ultimate test.

Traditionally Chod was practiced in charnel grounds and other fear inducing sites. In India/Tibet Charnel grounds in particular were regarded as frightful not only because one commonly found bodies in various states of decay and decomposition, but because wild scavenging animals were easily found feasting on human remains. They are excellent places to face your fears. In fact, it is said that the Buddha had instructed many of his students to go to charnel grounds in order to contemplate impermanence amidst the decaying bodies of other humans. An experience of practicing Chod in Brooklyn Greenwood cemetery from a western perspective is a manifestation of this practice today.

‘Bardo is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one’s previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals, the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality; for others, it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth

(In the Christian tradition, Bardo, could be interpreted to be the 3 days between Christ dying on the cross and resurrection) .