Saturday, 18 April 2015 20:00

4. The format of companionship groups

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Philosophical ideas have a tremendous power to inspire us and awaken us, but they need a space in our hearts and minds. This is a space of listening and reflecting, where ideas would appear and breathe and whisper.

In order to create this space, it is necessary to have appropriate conditions. Not all conditions are equal. It is difficult to open an inner space in the middle of an opinionated discussion, but it is easier in a quiet and intimate reading group with a poetic text. It is therefore necessary to find a FORMAT – a setting, a structure of activities – that would help us open a space for philosophical ideas to speak in us.

Two main formats dominate the field of philosophical practice nowadays: First, philosophical counseling, in which a philosophical counselor speaks with a client about the client's life or problems. Second, discussion groups (Philosophical Cafés, Socratic Dialogue groups, etc.) in which participants discuss some general issue.

These two formats don't invite the power of ideas. A discussion group fills the mind with opinions, responses, criticisms, arguments. It makes us control and use ideas, rather than open our heart to their spontaneous flow. Likewise, counseling encourages counselees to immerse themselves in personal experiences, thoughts, problems. Therefore, if we want to open a space for the power of ideas, we must develop a new format for philosophical practice.

My colleagues and I are experimenting with a new format: companionship groups. A companionship is a small group of about two to six people, who are companions – in other words, they are WITH each other. They don't face each other and argue or discuss (as in a Philosophical Café), they don't talk ABOUT each other (as in philosophical counseling), but they are WITH each other. They walk together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the landscape of ideas. They are like jazz musicians who resonate to each other, making music in togetherness.

Furthermore, unlike discussion groups, companions do not talk ABOUT ideas. They resonate to ideas, they are WITH ideas, they respond to ideas as the saxophone may respond to the cello. The philosopher, the participants, and the ideas are all parts of one universe. This is the relationship of being-with, or what Buber calls I-You relationship.

How can participants create this special space and this special relationship?

One way to do so is with the help of certain "intentions." An example is the intention of "precious speaking." It means that the companions try ("intend") to speak with precise and concentrated words, treating every word like a precious diamond. Unlike everyday speech, where words are often redundant, repetitive, careless, automatic, in precious speaking every word is a gift to the group.

Speaking preciously may feel artificial – it's not our usual way of speaking. But it creates a powerful experience of inner focus and inner listening. It helps companions go out of their automatic speech, and be attentive and fully present. It opens a space of listening and reflecting together.

This is only one simple example. My colleagues and I continue to explore the format of companionship groups, experimenting with different settings, different "intentions," methods, contents. The companionship, I believe, is the format of the future – a true form of practical philosophy, which is a personal journey in the landscape of ideas.

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Ran Lahav

I am a philosophical practitioner, working with individuals and self-reflection groups. I received my PhD in philosophy and MA in psychology from the University of Michigan in 1989. I then started teaching philosophy at a university in Texas, but was not satisfied with academic philosophy. In 1992 I started practicing philosophical counseling, and a year later started giving at Haifa University (Israel) the first university course in the world about this field, and continued teaching it for 15 years. In 1994 I initiated the First International Conference on Philosophical Counseling, and co-organized it with Lou Marinoff. In 2014 I envisioned the Agora webpage, and launched it together with my friend and colleague Carmen Zavala from Peru.

I now live quietly in rural Vermont (northeast USA), where I write, walk in nature, and teach online at two universities. I also give workshops on philosophical practice around the world. My publications include two novels in Hebrew, an anthology on philosophical practice in English, two books on philosophical practice in Italian, and more than 30 professional articles.

My professional website is