#5: Experiments in Conversation

Reflections on a personal project, and a meditation on self-compassion.

👋 Hi! I’m Kasra. This is where I share my thoughts about life, learning, and finding joy in the everyday. Subscribe here:


This post is a series of scattered thoughts on a recent personal project: organizing salon conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers.

origins of this project

This idea came to me late into 2020, when I realized I had no venue to discuss with others what I was learning and thinking about. I'm friends with plenty of curious people, but it somehow felt hard to find the time for certain discussions: I was hesitant to jump into a debate about epistemology or metaphysics on a catch-up call (which did happen once and it did not go well) or to talk about the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics over dinner (which also happened and it did go well!).

I wanted to create a space specifically for tackling these questions. The topic would be decided ahead of time and any of my friends who were interested could join.

I was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm this garnered. It turns out many people want more opportunities to have meaningful conversations with each other. There was this sentiment of man, I've been wanting someone to organize something like this! and I was glad to be that person for others.

My sense is that we live in one of the most open cultures to ever exist in the history of humanity, and that this openness will slowly increase over time. But unfortunately, there are still a whole lot of topics most people don't get the chance to discuss in ordinary conversation, perhaps because the topic is taboo, or perhaps because of a lack of time and energy. There's whole lot to gain from making the space to get into these topics together.

things we've talked about

Here are some of the questions we've discussed:

  • Careers. What does it mean to "find your passion"? Should your career be something you're deeply passionate about?

  • Ethics. What is "the good"? Is morality objective or subjective?

  • Friendship. What makes for a good friendship? How do we maintain our friendships over time?

  • Romance. What does love feel like? How does romantic love differ from platonic love?

  • Parents. How do we develop a better relationship with our parents?

  • Regret. What causes regret? How do we avoid regret, and how do we overcome it if we've been afflicted by it?

  • Agreeableness. Are we too conflict-avoidant? How do we express disagreement or give constructive feedback to each other with love?

My favorite conversations so far have been the ones about parents and agreeableness:

  • The parents conversation was especially personal and vulnerable, and we got to discuss things that we almost never talk about in everyday conversation. We explored what we should expect of our parents and what they should expect of us; we shared about experiences with immigration, divorce, generational differences, and the parent-child power dynamic.

  • The agreeableness conversation was the most fun, because people had very different experiences and views going into it. Some of us were wildly agreeable, some of us were firmly not agreeable, and some of us were too agreeable to stake a strong stance on our agreeableness. The discussion was very animated but kind and lighthearted, and it was hilariously meta to be disagreeing and agreeing about agreeableness.

other versions of this

After the first few salons a friend introduced me to Interintellect, which is a more fleshed out version of this with paid tickets, longer sessions (3 hours!), and very cool hosts and participants. The Interintellect salons I've attended have been just as fun as the ones I've hosted personally, and the people I've met have been incredibly warm and thoughtful.

I also assume there are many such conversations happening on Clubhouse, which is an invite-only audio-chat app that's been all the rage among techies for the past few months, and which I'm unable to join because I don't have an iPhone. 🙃

things I've learned

Here are some thoughts and insights sparked by working on this project.

#1 Your best filter for information is still other people.

Google has gotten quite good at giving us the answer to "what's the weather today" or "is Justin Bieber younger than me", but it's not so good for questions like "how do I become happier" or "what is the basis of moral value.”

Books are better for these questions, but there's also something missing in books. You can't ask a book to tell you the exact bits of information that are most relevant to you based on what you want to know and what you already know, and you can't ask a book follow-up questions. The same applies for podcasts, newsletters, essays, and so on. The only entity that can serve this purpose for us today is other people.

#2 This is a great way to catch up with friends.

Suppose you haven't talked to someone in eight months. What's the best way to get context and connection with them? One approach is to get on a 1:1 call and hash out for each other what's been going on in your respective lives for the past while.

Alternatively, you can get on a salon call with them. You can watch them share their thoughts in conversation with others, hear their vulnerable and personal views on jealousy, regret, social media, parenthood, and other things that you wouldn't have discussed with them otherwise. I do enjoy unstructured 1:1 catch-up calls, but I find the salons to be a wonderful complement for connecting with old friends.

#3 Everyone can engage in science and philosophy and knowledge-building.

Actually, this wasn't an insight from this project, it's something I've believed for a while.

I'm wary of the idea that science and philosophy is exclusively for the scientists and philosophers to do, and the rest of us just have to sit and defer to them. No! To the extent that we have the time and interest we should look at the ideas and arguments and findings ourselves, understand them well enough to critique and improve upon them, and figure out what does and doesn't make sense.

(Of course, you should only do this if you have the time and you find it to be fun! Otherwise you can defer to the experts.)

#4 Miscellaneous Zoom learnings.

It turns out 8-12 people is a reasonable size for a conversation, and it's surprisingly easy to connect with people you've never spoken to before (or haven't spoken to in a very long time).

Also, it's fun to let different groups of friends intermingle! That's been one of the most enjoyable parts of this project – getting to see friends from all circles of my life interact with each other and meet new people.

#5 There are two purposes to conversation.

(1) To learn new things, and (2) to be seen by others.

You can have just one or the other, but the best conversations have both.

#6 Talking to people is hard!

Especially when you haven't interacted with more than a handful of people for thirteen months.

I remain astounded at just how nervous I get before every one of these calls. It feels like a watered-down form of public speaking. But usually the ice gets broken pretty quickly, and after the first few minutes I feel increasingly comfortable sharing.

on being a builder

I've always struggled to consider myself a "builder" (here's my "I shouldn't be a programmer" voice speaking again). I have never been someone who will voluntarily spend entire weekends hacking away at a coding challenge just for fun. I have built apps and websites and continue to do so for a living, but I've always identified more with the label of learner or thinker or discoverer than builder.

This project has shown me that the label of "builder" doesn't have to apply to programming projects, or even to any tangible product. Being a builder is ultimately about being willing to follow your curiosity and create the things you think are lacking in the world and in your life. The thing you are creating can be as intangible as a conversation, or an idea that you share with others, but the crucial part is that you bring at least one other person into contact with the thing you're creating.

There's a lot of chatter on the internet now about how you should learn in public, build in public, write in public, think in public. But doing things in public is hard and scary. I don't know if it's so much that everyone should be doing things in public as much as just sharing more of themselves with others. Sharing the thoughts and questions you have about what friendships should look like, about why it's hard to express love to your parents, about the role that philosophy and religion play in your life.

On the topic of "building" better venues for social interaction, here are other random ideas I've been wanting to experiment with:

  • 📝 A rotating journal hub among friends.

    Do you find yourself journaling a lot? Wouldn't it be cool to be part of a circle where every few weeks, someone in the circle writes a little letter or "journal post" talking about their life, and the others people can comment and give affirmations, and then it rotates and someone else writes?

  • 🫂 Friend therapy circles. (Similar to 👆.)

    One friend in a group writes up a document about a problem they're facing in their life. It could be a personal struggle, a relationship difficulty, a tough decision, whatever else. They share this document with a few friends and then take part in a little "therapy session" in which the friends can offer love and support and advice (if desired) and they try to work on the problem together.

  • 👩‍🏫 Friendship coaching.

    Coaches are expensive. What if you could pick a friend to be your "coach" for some area of your life, who can support you and be an accountability partner over the course of 6 months? (Probably in an area that they have some expertise in.) In return you can offer coaching in a different area you're well-versed in. Or maybe there can be a whole linked list of coaching interactions for a group of 5-6 people.

A whole world of possibilities opens up if we begin to explore new ways of interacting with each other. Innovations in technology and software help, but they're not even necessary. All you need is a willingness to play, and just enough boldness to ask others to try something new.


🌺 Meditation: Clearing the forest

I’ve been reading Tara Brach’s Radical Compassion lately, and was gripped by this opening passage:

We all get lost in the dense forest of our lives, entangled in incessant worry and planning, in judgments of others, and in our busy striving to meet demands and solve problems. When we're caught in that thicket, it's easy to lose sight of what matters most. We forget how much we long to be kind and openhearted. We forget our ties to this sacred earth and to all living beings. And in a deep way, we forget who we are.

This forgetting is a part of being in trance—a partially unconscious state that, like a dream, is disconnected from the whole of reality. When we're in trance, our minds are narrowed, fixated, and usually immersed in thought. Our hearts are often defended, anxious, or numb. Once you recognize the signs of trance, you will begin to see it everywhere, in yourself and others. You are in trance when you are living on autopilot, when you feel walled off and separate from those around you, when you are caught up in feeling fearful, angry, victimized, or deficient.

The good news is that we all have the capacity to free ourselves.

When we are lost in the forest, we can create a clearing simply by pausing and turning from our clamoring thoughts to become aware of our moment-to-moment experience. I call this wakeful and immediate awareness "presence." It is also referred to as consciousness, spirit, Buddha nature, true nature, the awakened heartmind, and many other names. When we've reconnected fully to presence, we can open to what is going on inside us—the changing flow of sensations, feelings, and thoughts without any resistance. This allows us to live our life moments with clarity and compassion. The shift from being lost in unconscious mental and emotional reactivity to inhabiting our full presence is an awakening from trance.

Brach teaches a meditation practice called RAIN, which involves the following four steps:

  1. Recognize (What am I feeling right now?)

  2. Allow (Can I be with this?)

  3. Investigate (What does this really feel like, in my body?)

  4. Nurture (What would the wisest version of me, or a trusted friend or mentor, have to say to me right now?)

I’ll share more about her practice later, but if you’re intrigued I recommend her book.

See you next time,

Kasra

PS: h/t to Padmini, Amber, David, and Dan for feedback on this piece.