Slowing Things Down:

Gelassenheit and the Somatics of Dialogue

Jack Wikse,Ph.D.


We feel often these days that things are speeding up. When asked "How are things?" we donít respond to this question with an account of the condition of any material objects, but of our feelings about what we are doing. We might say "Well, that thing about George losing his job is really getting to me." Emerson wrote that "things are in the saddle and ride mankind." Things appear to possess agency and emotional valence. But things are as they are thought and felt.

Martin Heideggerís Conversation on a Country Path invites us to slow things down in order to understand the nature of thinking. Like Platoís Phaedrus, Heideggerís dialogue between a scholar, a scientist and a teacher takes place "far from human habitation", and this disorients us from familiar assumptions. Night has set in, the scientist notes. This compels (but does not force) concentration. The scholar observes that this leaves them time "for meditating by slowing down our pace." The idea under consideration--that the nature of thinking is to be found by "looking away from thinking"--is a "mystery" to the scientist. And to the teacher as well.

What does it mean to look away from thinking? The "traditional" way of thinking about thinking (which Heidegger calls "re-presenting") is a kind of willing. Heidegger associates this with Kantís teleological, purposeful, goal-oriented reason. The idea that in thinking a "subject" wills to bring to mind (makes present again, or "re-presents") an "object" is being questioned. When we look AT thinking, we find it inseparable from willing. If the nature of thinking is something other than thinking, then to look away from thinking must be to explore "non-willing." This "weaning ourselves from will" awakens gelassenheit ("releasment") which is, the scientist concludes, beyond the distinction between activity and passivity, and as the teacher says, involves "a letting-be", simply waiting, not waiting FOR something. Heidegger expresses this elsewhere as "releasement toward things".

The scholar is not very happy about all this. The scientist starts to wonder what they're talking about. He hardly knows anymore who and where he is. The scholar has been clarifying what things mean, and the scientist has been observing what's going on. The teacher wants to suspend or disorient the familiar expectations (intentions, purposes) of these two "voices" used to actively searching for knowledge and meaning. The teacher suggests that looking away from thinking will involve "forgetting", but the scientist asks "What are we still to think ABOUT." He asks this within the familiar subject/object horizon. The scientist is feeling disoriented. The scholar notes that whatever gelassenheit means, "we cannot place it properly," it does not fit into our usual habits of thought. It cannot be categorized.

The subject-object relationship frames the normal psychological gestalt in which objects stand out against a horizon. But what lets the horizon be? Waiting (not "awaiting"--that would imply an intent and an object) "releases itself into openness," into the "nearness of distance." This paradoxical formulation is the first reference to the single Greek word (alchibadie)from Heraclitus that Heidegger translates as "moving into nearness." This might also translate the Sanskrit word "Upanisad." from "sad," to sit or approach and "upa," near. The scientist is able to discover this paradoxical openness because they all have become "more waitful." This insight could come to the scientist as long as no one attempted to pin him down to particular words, but allowed the free play of expressibility to unfold.

It was the course of the conversation itself that led the scientist to this conclusion. Genuine dialogue works this way according to Heidegger. The teacher often points to "what moves our conversation." He encourages trusting the logos, "that-which-regions," the "inconspicuous guide" that leads them in their conversation, if they can only keep awake and listen and rest in the openness. Attending to the flow of the dialogue slows down the will to "figure it out." In waiting, a fuller logos emerges, and thinking changes.

Dialogue, from Plato on, has carried this sense that the logos moves through people. David Bohm emphasized that "dia-" means "through," and that dialogue is not discussion, which like percussion implies a restless to and fro, not a moving through. Steve Rosen will develop Bohmís concept of dialogue in his presentation. Waiting involves listening to the conversation as a whole, a sort of "peripheral vision" in which no particular dominates focus. This describes the experience of meditative thinking where "something just happens," something "comes" to the thinker that is not willed, comes from the paradoxical willing not to will, suspending intent and the teleological, problem-solving analytical reasoning process--just "resting in itself." This is like the rather common experience of remembering something when you give up trying to remember.

But it can also become a practice. Toward the end of his life, Heidegger was working on a translation of the Tao Te Ching, one of the foundations for meditative practice in the Taoist tradition of ancient China. Thus he continued to explore what he called, a "curious emptiness."

To slow down the "voices" of the scientist and the scholar in order to enter this emptiness we must suspend our agendas. Re-presentational thought is agenda-driven. To suspend the will (to will not to will) is to bracket our agendas, to stop trying to ask what it means and what is to be done. Such questions move us projectively and retrospectively out of our "body-mindfulness," as Adair1 has called it, away from what is nearest--our attentive being here. In meditative thinking such questions are suspended. Itís not that they are not asked; rather they are observed. They no longer drive the intra- or inter-personal dialogues.

In Taoist practice the suspending of oneís agenda is a somatic discipline that opens an experiential, physiological psychology of the awareness and feeling of moving into nearness. The slowing down of the scientist and the scholar in us can be expressed somatically in the practice of "holding oneís tongue" at the roof of the mouth and softening oneís gaze. In yoga psychology such practices are called "mudras." Somatically, science is a knife-like consciousness that wishes to distinguish this from that--establishing our horizons of knowledge. This is reflected in the etymological root of the word science, "scio," which means "knife" or "to cut" in Sanscrit. As Lao Tsu says, the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao because it cuts through the silence. Somatically, the scholar in us expresses our vision, our historical, theoretical frameworks--our horizons of meaning. Our word "theory" derives from the Greek "theoreo," to look at. Slowing down the scientist and the scholar does not denigrate these modes of consciousness. But only when they are suspended is it possible, for example, for the scientist to distinguish between dialogue and discussion or debate, and for the scholar to see the openness beyond the horizon. Such practices can transform our relation to language. This will be the subject of Lloyd Gildenís presentation2.

We can follow these somatic practices in The Tao Te Ching (#52) which expresses the suspension of our agendas in these terms:

Block the openings

Shut the doors.

Blunt the sharpness

Untangle the knots

Soften the glare.


Joan Stambaugh suggests that the Taoist equivalent of gelassenheit is "wu-wei"--non-interference. The most ancient Taoist text, the I-Ching, expresses the condition of meditation in the image of "The Mountain"--hexagram #52, "Ken" (Keeping Still). The mountain doesnít move.

There are two simple postures that Iíd like to demonstrate through which it is possible to embody these ideas. The first is a Taoist posture that expresses the eco-somatic boundary of our coming into nearness. The second is the yoga asana, the mountain. Please feel free to join me in these postures if you so wish.



1. See Adair Nagataís paper in the section of this website entitled "Papers presented by members of The Lifwynn Foundation at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Society of Phenomenology and the Human Sciences."

2. Lloyd Gildenís paper is also included in the same section of the website.