Note: This post was commissioned. It is possible, and not even all that difficult, to commission Agenty Duck blog posts!
I want to tell you about “social meditation”, because it’s super cool and people keep asking me about it. Unfortunately, that requires a fair bit of conceptual vocabulary that’s scattered across several of my blog posts, some of which I haven’t written yet.
Let’s see if I can convey all of it right here in fewer than 2,000 words.
To do social meditation well, you’re going to need at least three-ish skills: Reflective attention, feeling clearly, and social reflection.
Before I started writing this paragraph, my attention was moving back and forth between “what I want to write” and “the vine that’s growing on the bush outside”.
I imagine my attention as a spotlight. As soon as I began the previous paragraph, the spotlight turned to shine on “what my attention is doing” and “my short-term memories of what it was doing moments ago”, so that I could report to you on what my attention was doing.
If you ask yourself, “What am I experiencing right now?” the movement your mind (probably) makes as it begins to answer that question is what I call “reflection”.
“Reflective attention” is being aware of what you’re experiencing as you experience it.
Here are a few things I’m aware of being aware of right now:
- the condensation on my iced coffee and my imagining that it would be cold if I touched it
- the low buzzing of a cello
- the sensations of reflection and seeking as I look for easily articulable experiences I’m having
You can also be reflectively aware of limited categories of experience. If I try to notice all the red things in the room, I’m “seeking redness”, and I’m reflectively aware of the “redness” category in particular.
I can be reflectively aware of a more abstract category like “experiences involving emotions” as well. Right now I find (among other things)
- slight annoyance and distraction related to the sounds in my environment
- irritation at sensations of hunger
- realization that I forgot to eat breakfast, immediately followed by amusement and relief at the feeling of certainty that my discomfort will evaporate if I eat something.
“Feeling clearly” means reflective attention to whatever happens in your mind when you think a specific thought. I think of it as an epistemically judicious form of introspection, and use it when I want explicit knowledge of how I feel about something.
Here’s some of what happens when I try feeling clearly about “finding new friends” (which is just what I happen to be thinking about):
- A warm swelling of the sort of fear-and-wanting emotion I might get if I were about to go skydiving
- Slight anxiety directed at the possibility of initiating a lot of friendships I don’t really want in order to find ones I do (accompanied by imagery of various people), dissonance and an urge to re-interpret the anxious sensation as “concern” [to better fit my self narrative], worry that I’m losing reader trust, recognition that I’m moving away from the object of meditation
- Happiness cast on recent memories of getting to know new friends
- Curiosity passively open to what friends are, what makes good friendships, how my preferences about social relationships differ from the preferences of others, then an urge to return to my ongoing project of modeling friendship in detail
- Amusement cast on images of Twilight Sparkle and the thought that correctly designed My Little Pony fanfiction might substantially improve socialization in the rationalist community
I end a line (or a line of thought) either when that thought feels done, or when I begin to feel that the experiences I’m aware of are more a result of unrelated thoughts than of my object of meditation. For example, I ended the second bullet point when I felt myself beginning to respond to beliefs about the perceptions of my readers, which has little to do with friendship.
When I begin a new bullet point or line, I re-focus my attention on the original thought (here “finding new friends”). It feels as though I’m plucking a pebble from a fountain and tossing it back in again. Then I observe whatever ripples result that time around.
Drop the pebble in over and over, and watch the ripples till they die out. That’s feeling clearly.
Feeling clearly does not require that you write things down, but I usually find it’s more productive this way, at least for me.
(The product of writing down your phenomenology is a phenomenolog. The process of composing a phenomenolog is phenomenologging. A person who phenomenologs is a phenomenologgist. This is neither here nor there, but I got to use “phenomenologgist” in a sentence, and that’s what matters.)
In the same way that I can seek experiences of red things, I can seek experiences of people. This practice was one of my first steps in learning empathy; seeking curiosity about people was especially important to getting the hang of it.
Here’s a phenomenolog of my perceptions of the people in this coffee shop.
- [A visual and auditory scan of the space]
- [People’s clothing and appearances]
- An urge to focus my attention on an individual person
- The guy in the red and blue striped shirt
- Imagining him on a surfboard, wondering if he surfs, probably not
- His earbuds, curiosity about what he’s listening to
- His laptop and the clicking of his keyboard, curiosity about what he’s working on, it’s a Mac, I wonder if he’s part of The Apple Tribe, memories of Scott’s recent post about tribes, re-focusing on the guy
- Curiosity: What is he working on? Does he enjoy his work?
- Curiosity, speculation: Are his clothing choices more performative or more indicative of what makes him physically comfortable in this weather? If they’re performative, who does he want to tell me he is? Automatic associations: carefree, laid back, playful, happy, sunshine frizbees, beaches, studying in the sun, cold beer, unhurried, meandering, spontaneous
- Hope that he feels those things. Positive valence feelings about those things, positive valence about him feeling them.
- Craving to know (this is mostly a forward kinesthetic sensation): What is he actually experiencing right now? (Recognition: Ah, here is empathy.) I imagine being in his body, making the face he’s making, adopting his posture and other body language. In response, I simulate feeling stressed and tired, sleep deprived, worried, sad. Sadness in response to that. Seems a likely hypothesis.
- He’s getting up to go, desire for him to go home and rest and feel better, want his effort to pay off for whatever he’s working on.
And then of course I could move on to other people. Or I could look for my perceptions of the social atmosphere of the room in general. Or I could pay attention to a specific interaction between people.
So social reflection is just reflective attention to people in particular, but the fact that it involves modeling other minds makes it feel like a distinct thing to me.
Maintaining reflective attention to my experience of another person is invariably fascinating to me, even when it’s a stranger. When it’s someone I know and am interacting with, it’s not only fascinating but also useful and rewarding.
When I take this as far as it goes, things get super interesting.
Which brings us to social meditation.
If you have multiple people who are skilled in reflection, you can maintain reflective attention to your experience of another person while they maintain reflective attention to their experience of you. Do this with a small group of people who trust each other, while sharing your experiences verbally, and you get what I’ve been calling “social meditation”.
What does social meditation feel like?
One person responded, “In general I found myself in a state of heightened awareness of my own thoughts, as well as having quite intense models of the people around me.”
They also said they were surprised by how often, after stating their perception of someone’s internal state, the person corrected them. They kept discovering they were wrong about what other people were thinking and feeling. This is my favorite result.
Another person said, “I don't get to exercise those interpersonal/introspective muscles for that long with that intensity very often, and it feels awesome.” I’ve felt similarly.
But what results?
In my experience, people seem to learn a great deal about what it’s like to be each other during social meditation.
When I did this with a few people who’d been on the periphery of my social group for a long time, they “became people” to me. Faced with loads of strong concrete evidence about their moment-to-moment experiences, my brain began alieving that they had phenomenology, with specific properties.
I also became aware of some of my persistent attitudes/thought patterns about the people in the group. It led me to question and modify those patterns. I gained curiosity about the other people, which in some cases stuck around after meditation was over, leading to more and better interaction in the future.
And people learn how other people feel about them. This is where a huge share of the potential value comes from, but also the danger. It is much of why I think you should consider doing this with people who all trust each other, at least at first, and preferably with especially resilient and compassionate people who trust each other.
And what will go wrong?
The easiest way to fail at social meditation is to fail at feeling clearly. You need to be able to notice when your thoughts are drifting away from the object of meditation, and you need to be able to pick up that pebble and toss it back in: “What is my experience of the people around me?”
Otherwise you just have an ordinary conversation. It might be a good conversation, but it isn’t social meditation.
Some concrete pointers:
- Practice noticing your attention drifting away from your perceptions of specific things by trying feeling clearly on your own first.
- Install a cognitive trigger-action plan at the beginning of the session that goes, “If I notice my attention drifting away from my perceptions of other people, then I will seek out those perceptions.”
- Open with a few minutes of simple reflective attention. Just be aware of what your attention is doing, regardless of what that might be, without trying to focus it on anything.
- Then, do a few minutes of silent social reflection before people start communicating.
- It's good to redirect the group’s attention if the conversation indicates it’s straying: "I notice we're exploring thread X a lot. I think it'd be more valuable if we did Y. How do the rest of you feel about that?"
- If someone asks you a question, it's ok if the answer is "I don't know" or "pass" or "squid!". (”Squid” is really useful, it turns out.) Make sure everyone knows this.
- Silence is ok. Discomfort is ok. This isn’t a normal conversation with normal implicit social rules. Do whatever you need to to convince yourself and everyone else of that. Light a candle that means “we’re doing social meditation now” if it helps.
All right, I hope that’s enough to get you started.
As always: If you try this, I’d love to hear how it goes.