Tasting collective intelligence. Or no more Vogon Poetry Torture thank you!

Do you ever feel tortured by people talking at you.  Not talking with you, but at you.                                                        Maybe you listen and then you just pretend to listen.  Or you practice being fake-nice simply because you’re unclear how to stop the torture.  Perhaps you doubt the possibility of an authentic conversation, or simply don’t know how to turn toward that possibility.

Conversation comes from Latin con + versare, i.e., to turn together.  We wonder  how are to escape conversational torture?

Serge Prengel refers to it as “Vogon poetry torture,” in honor of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe.


“On no account draw a Vogon to read poetry at you” advises Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe. “Vogon poetry is of course, the third worst in the universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria.”

Those of us who are professors may cringe. Have we performed too much “Vogon poetry torture” at our students?! Mansplainers ought to cringe too.  (Not all of whom are men.)  As advanced a species as we are (newsflash, we’ve managed to leave trash on Mars, yay!), we are so far from mastering conversational processes in support of our collective intelligence. It’s 2022 and yet we (often?!) torture one another. Worse, we can’t figure out how to stop it even when we know better. Some of us care about knowledge and see collaborative knowledge creation as an asset…we really ought to try harder! A taste of collective intelligence awaits as a possibility. 

A search for collective intelligence prompted Quantum physicist David Bohm to invent Bohmian Dialogue. He was inspired in conversation with Sri Aurobindo to beyond writing equations. With enough collective intelligence we might not trash Planet Earth! For the same reason, we practice at AR+ with relational meditation. In Serge’s terms, we practice so we suffer less Vogon poetry. And, if we’re lucky, we get to experience more Dōgen.

Dōgen was a 13th Century Japanese philosopher & Zen master. Imagine a combination of brilliant conceptual smarts with wisdom enough to enact, not just write about it. Heidegger-Dalai Lama combo perhaps? Dōgen founded a Zen community that thrives to this day. 

Dōgen’s famous advice: “To study life is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self and to be enlightened by the 10,000 things.” 

Dōgen’s whole endeavor was to drop dogmatic thinking and instead encounter life’s surprising beauty. He taught a type of meditation quite the opposite of inflicting – or suffering – Vogon poetry torture.

The phrase “10,000 things” is a Japanese way of referring to life, that is to the many components of life at any moment.  It’s what William James referred to as the great “booming, buzzing, confusion…” This “confusion” we now understand is also the basis of experiential learning. But we can’t learn if we don’t make space for first noticing and inviting what may be unfamiliar. We might even become aware of a new word, a bird’s chirp, warm breeze … you get it. We might pay attention to the one we’re with. We might become interested in what’s possible between us.

Collective Mind: Practice of Relational Meditation.

Serge and I look forward to our weekly sessions of relational meditation in large part because the simple “trick” in this coLAB is to reduce the quantity of words we’d normally use by some 50-90%. With this newly acquired “emptiness” arrives shared silence and space for creativity. This is helped a lot by the short set of agreements we call  “protainer learning enablers.” We open all our relational meditation coLAB spaces, ritually, with a brief reminder to be aware that we’re in a confidential space in which we honor silence.

After shared silence Hilary asked Serge “what is our inquiry?”  This was a bit of a slip of the tongue as the format calls for “what is your inquiry.” Serge replied:

“A hummingbird has just appeared as an image in my mind.”

Hilary piggybacked “Hummingbirds here look exotic yet are native where I live. They mix beauty with aggression.”

Serge “Hummingbird reaches a still point midair. They bring Spaciousness.”

The surprising arrival of Hummingbird opened a door to what really wanted to be shared. So different from suffering Vogon Poetry torture! Our inquiry became a conversare, turn-taking dance. 

Then out of the blue Serge continued, in reference to the painting of the Annunciation by Simone Martini in the 14th century.

“In the painting The Annunciation there’s a small bird, like a Hummingbird, whispering to Mary the Mother-to-be. What’s really going on?

We look. We see there is a line of text faintly visible between the faces, the Ave Maria of the Archangel, saluting Mary, giving her the news that she’s been selected to be the Mother of Jesus. And in the space between, is hummingbird. The traditional Ave Maria means I salute thee, Mary. These are the words of the Archangel.

Serge says: Look at the body language. He is serene, yes, what else would you expect from an Archangel. But also leaning forward, confident that in the rightness of what he says, he is bestowing an honor on a teenage Mary.

We look again at Mary. We look at the folds in her garments and in her body. She’s twisting away from the Archangel and his message.

Serge wonders If you’re the Archangel, is this a view from the point of view of a man convinced of the unerring wisdom of God? Do you see her twisting away as a mark of humility. How becoming of her to wonder whether she is worthy of such a great honor!

If you think of Mary as a very young woman who is being asked to step into a role that is beyond human, it feels like she may be shuddering. Me? Why me?! It’s not so much a sense of shyness or humility. But the realization that she’s being pushed into a role she didn’t choose and perhaps can’t refuse. She’s been drafted into a role where she loses her right to an ordinary life. She’s being turned, from an embodied human being, into a spirit, a Goddess.

Hilary asks of Serge: Why does this resonate with you? You’re not of Catholic descent, right? And by the way Mary is not really a Divine Goddess. There’s such a tortured explanation to do with virginity.  Women’s bodies, beware!

Serge reflects: It has to do with my empathy for women, as well as all the oppressed groups which society silences through a cultural context that doesn’t acknowledge their perspectives, and dehumanizes them. It also resonates with the internalized pressure I have often felt to perform and achieve goals at the cost of overriding my felt sense of what was right for me. Mary’s twisting body is my body and mind sadly asking “what about me?” as I push us to pursue my visions of what I need to do at the expense of feeling in harmony with my limitations.


Can we safely say Vogon torture is bad.  And that we vow to give it up! Can we also acknowledge that it hard to circumvent it.  This topic is worthy of more blogposts. But the basic idea is that we practice far from talking endlessly at one another (Vogon poetry torture). We practice a little more in the style of Dogen. We practice in attuning to the person before us. We practice in becoming interested, rather than being concerned with being interesting. It requires pausing. And in our practice we also repeat what the other person is saying so we can slow things down and see if we want to piggyback. In so doing, we co-discover a surprise. 

And outside this slow conversation practice we fall more easily into noticing the “in between spaces” of our life. We feel and begin to trust that relational spaces nourish the personal and call us not to deeper encounter with life, its politics, its problems and its possibilities. And we do so together.

Feel invited to this practice together with us too! Maybe we each get a sticker like this one 🙂