When people outside of Asia think of Buddhism, they tend to think about just philosophy and meditation. Buddhists are often said not to have gods, wars or empires. Their religion isn’t about ritual or belief, but a dedicated exploration into what causes suffering and how to end it through meditation and compassion. Although there’s some basis for this image, Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism have been at pains for decades to show that it’s largely untrue, or at least very partial. The Buddhism that non-Buddhists know today is less an accurate vision of its history than a creation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In that time period, Buddhists and their sympathisers created this modernised Buddhism. They discarded from it the elements of Buddhist history that didn’t fit the rational, scientific worldview that accompanied colonisation and modernisation. In a remarkable feat of historical reinvention, Buddhism went from degraded other to uplifted saviour in a matter of decades.
While there’s much wrong with colonisation forcing such changes, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Indigenous thinkers recreating their religions. Religions reinvent themselves all the time in response to changes both internal and external. What Buddhists such as D T Suzuki did wasn’t particularly different from what Martin Buber did for Judaism, Paul Tillich for Christianity, Muhammad Iqbal for Islam, or Swami Vivekananda for Hinduism. All of these thinkers returned to elements of their traditions to create a version of their religion that spoke better to the modern world. They also effectively rebutted claims from outsiders about their inferiority. Buddhists, here, were extremely successful, especially in the eyes of non-Buddhists, for whom Buddhism became the modern, rational religion par excellence. Indeed, they were so successful that Buddhism is often said to be just a philosophy that one can embody, regardless of one’s religious affiliation.
This success, however, has come with costs. At the very least, it has turned outsiders’ understandings of Buddhism into a set of rather unfortunate stereotypes, such as when the Tibetan studies scholar Robert Thurman spoke of Tibetans as ‘the baby seals of the human rights movement’. At worst, it has provided cover for atrocities committed by Buddhists in countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It has also had potentially negative effects on those who engage with modern Buddhism. Critics today write of ‘McMindfulness’, a pop version of mindfulness that, rather than overcoming suffering and delusion, in fact makes them worse by letting people believe that they can do whatever harm they want, so long as they meditate once a day. According to the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, this means that Buddhism’s advice to ‘let things go’ and focus on your breathing equates to letting go of fighting against all the cruelty and injustice in the world. By focusing on the presentness of your own breath or body posture, you might very well come to feel at ease in a world that’s full of disease and devastation.
People who want to really understand Buddhism in all of its complexity should spend time in Buddhist countries (not just at monasteries), learn ancient and modern languages, and study the works of scholars around the world who offer a more detailed history of Buddhism and Buddhists. But for those who are interested only in the modern, cleaned-up version of Buddhism, yet want to avoid the problems of modern Buddhism – both in terms of its ignorance of history and its politics of the present – I would offer this advice: take reincarnation seriously.
That probably doesn’t sound right. Reincarnation (also called transmigration or rebirth) is the idea that some part of consciousness lives on after death, and keeps returning to this or other realms of existence until liberated by Buddhist practice. And it seems like exactly the kind of thing that modern, secular Buddhists would reject, often with good reason. After all, reincarnation has often been used to justify why some people deserve good or bad things, based on the actions that they supposedly made in their past lives. But when I say that people should take reincarnation seriously, I don’t mean that they should embrace every detail of the classical doctrine. Whether or not one does is a question for practising Buddhists and others – a question about which I have neither the right nor the capacity to speak. What I mean, rather, is that we should seriously consider what a contemporary version of the idea of reincarnation would look like.
Thinking about reincarnation today is, first of all, a reminder of the complexity of Buddhism, and the fact that individual practices can’t be neatly separated from broader institutional histories. Any change in our personal lives is inseparable from change in the world around us. Second, reincarnation offers a way of thinking about the present as connected to the deep past and to any potential futures as well. We needn’t think of the specifics of the reincarnation doctrine to realise that we’re all the inheritors of a past that we didn’t create and the bequeathers of a future we won’t live to see. Third, this temporal relation is also an ethical one, because it suggests that we’re the products of other lives and the creators of other futures, and thus share a global and temporal interdependence. And fourth, it follows that part of our task as humans is to be aware of what we might accidentally replicate from our past and thus unknowingly recreate in the future.
The Buddhist ideal of ending the cycle of reincarnation has a secular corollary in the ideal of removing all traces of our past mistakes – truly living in a society without patriarchy or poverty or violence. If we take reincarnation seriously, then we can move past injunctions to just ‘be more in the present moment’ and understand how real presence means being connected to much more than our breathing. It forces us to come to terms with the possibility that we’re connected to many more lives and beings – across both time and space – than we can ever realise.
In Tibet, the doctrine of rebirth was used to identify the consciousness of a deceased monk in a newborn child
Rethinking reincarnation isn’t unprecedented. As with other elements of Buddhism, the concept has changed over time. And it’s worth recalling that part of the origin of Buddhism was to challenge prevailing theories of reincarnation in the place where Siddhartha Gautama was born – in what is now the India-Nepal border, around the 5th century BCE. In these belief systems, some part of the person (which part is interpreted differently both across and within religious movements) would live on in a cycle of rebirth called samsara. There’s also diversity of thought about the meaning of this cycle, but Gautama and his followers criticised a variety of their contemporaries’ ideas. One was the notion that only a few were able to leave this cycle and become part of the divine. Another was that the aim was, indeed, to become part of something. According to Gautama, everyone, regardless of their place of birth, is capable of exiting the cycle of reincarnation. And to do so doesn’t mean joining with something; it means disjoining entirely, or ‘extinguishing’ the fire of life. In one image, consciousness is like a flame being passed from candle to candle. After enlightenment, no more candles will be lit.
Buddhism, then, began in part as a new set of views about reincarnation. And throughout its history, Buddhists have debated and expanded the potential for what reincarnation entails. For example, in Tibet, probably beginning in the 13th century, the doctrine of rebirth took a significant twist: it was used to identify the consciousness of a deceased monk in a newborn child, and thus grant to that child the religious and political title of the previous monk. This is the background for what became the tradition of the Dalai Lamas. Although this was based on the existing doctrine that someone who had achieved nirvana could ‘emanate’ their consciousness on Earth in order to guide humans to liberation, it took on a whole new meaning and history in Tibet.
More recently, Buddhists, as well as outsiders seeking to modernise Buddhism, have continued to reinterpret the doctrine of reincarnation for their own times. From the mid-19th century, as the theory of evolution developed, thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson began to suggest that the doctrine of transmigration was an intimation of the understanding of the transmutation of species. As he put it: ‘The transmigration of souls is no fable. I would it were; but men and women are only half human.’ This kind of assimilation was also advocated by Buddhists such as the Chinese reformer Taixu, who spoke of evolution as describing ‘an infinite number of souls who have evolved through endless reincarnations’. And contemporary, ecologically minded Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh have extended this to the whole of the planet: ‘I know that in the past I have been a cloud, a river, and the air. And I was a rock. I was the minerals in the water … gas, sunshine, water, fungi, and plants.’ This fits within the contemporary understanding that the components of a human body pre-existed that body in the natural world. It also expresses a genuine sense of interdependence between humans and their environment.
Reincarnation has also been used to think about politics. In his essay ‘The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852), Karl Marx wrote:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
I’m not sure what Marx might have known of Indian doctrines of reincarnation. He more likely had in mind the ideas of transmigration that one can find in Pythagoras and Plato. But he was closer to the Buddhist critique of Brahmanism than anything else, because the Platonic system – like the Brahmanic one – had no particular end: people could reincarnate forever. Marx’s point wasn’t that reincarnation went on forever, but that we needed to take concrete steps to end it: we should awaken to something new, beyond the nightmare of histories of oppression.
But taking reincarnation seriously doesn’t just mean thinking about the ecological or political potential of its doctrines. It also means thinking seriously about the failure of any doctrine to realise its mission. This is another reason why we shouldn’t excise reincarnation from the modern understanding of Buddhism. Consider, as an example, the work of the writer and scholar Robert Wright and his popular bookWhy Buddhism Is True (2017). According to Wright, Buddhism is true because it understands something very specific about the effect of natural selection on the human condition. Namely, that evolution is driven by fleeting pleasure. Humans seek satisfaction through eating and copulating, only to find that the pleasure from these activities is remarkably evanescent. And yet, nevertheless, we get up and try to find satisfaction through them every day. Wright says that this is a neat trick of natural selection, which is driven simply by the blind will of the species to continue. If we were completely sated by our meals or sexual encounters, we wouldn’t have the same urge to keep doing them. So evolution tricks us into thinking that we’ll achieve satisfaction, when we never will. The trouble is that this cycle of pleasure, satisfaction and dissatisfaction is, well, rather unsatisfying. And this is what Buddhism understands and what mindfulness meditation can help cure. To perpetually pursue satisfaction is suffering. To become aware of this process and gain distance from it through mindfulness provides relief.
Early in his book, Wright makes a qualification about what he thinks is true in Buddhism. He writes: ‘I’m not talking about the “supernatural” or more exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – reincarnation, for example.’ But if we look at the story that he’s told us about the truth of Buddhism, we will actually see reincarnation at work. First, in the sense that every human bears traces of historical processes that happened long before any of us were alive. Second, in that humans are driven by a fundamental process of the endless reincarnation of pleasure. Third, that when we think we’re moving past a problem, we’re often just creating a new version of it. Thus evolution, for example, solved the problem of how to keep the species going by creating other problems of survival for that very species – whether through epidemics of obesity or the greed for pleasure that leads people to pillage and destroy others. This tendency to recreate failures was Marx’s point in his essay about the failure of revolutionaries in France. And it would later become the devastating problem of many who followed Marx himself.
To take reincarnation seriously isn’t only to develop a more sophisticated understanding of where we come from and what we owe to what comes after us, but also to face up to our tendency to bring screaming into the future the mistakes that we’ve made in the past. The hope of this reckoning is that we might better understand these conditions and awake from these nightmares. This is the point at which Gautama and Marx and many others agree: for there to be progress in ending suffering, some elements of the world – poverty, racism, hatred – simply must cease to be reincarnated.
The politics of reincarnation refuses to see the world as broken up into friends and enemies, victors and losers
The political demands to end negative reincarnations are, in part, made possible by the ethical view of human interdependence that reincarnation affords us. One of the ideas that we learn in the classical doctrine is that reincarnation links many of us across the histories of our being. In the words of Steven Collins, one of the most important Anglophone interpreters of the doctrine, stories of reincarnation are ‘narrative ways of connecting identities one to another’. Someone whom we don’t know, and might never know, could very well be part of our chain of existence. Indeed, one of the most intriguing elements of the classical view is that not everything or everyone is actually connected. Some other humans and elements are connected to us as individuals, in that we’re linked across time through our past or future selves. But some people and things always remain separate. Collins points out that, except for the enlightened few, most of us never know whether or how we’re related to others. The ethics here is thus not one in which I act kindly to others because I know that I am related to them, but rather precisely because I don’t know.
Reincarnation, then, isn’t about providing certainty, but a means of developing ethics within conditions of uncertainty. We might think of it as a kind of Pascalian wager. That is, just as the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal wagered that it would be better, after this life has ended, to have believed in God, just in case God is real, the ethics of reincarnation suggests that we’re better off believing in our interconnectedness to any given person or animal or plant – whether we ever meet them or not – just in case we are. The immediate payoff of the wager is this: because I don’t know how I’m connected to the Universe, and the people, plants, animals and bacteria that I share it with, it’s best that I act kindly and calmly toward everything and everyone.
There are analogies in other traditions. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus said that all who fed or clothed or cared for him, when he was downtrodden, would go to heaven. When someone asked how they could do this for him, he replied: ‘[J]ust as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ There’s also a Jewish tradition that speaks of 36 hidden, just people who maintain the stability of the world. The scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem argued in 1971 that this myth led to ‘a somewhat anarchic morality: your neighbour may be one of the hidden just men.’ The version of reincarnation that I’m advocating for here adds to these traditions by urging us to extend this ethics beyond how we treat our neighbours or those we meet. Our lack of knowledge about our specific connections to the world should make us behave ethically toward the whole world. The politics of reincarnation that one can develop from this ethics refuses to see the world as broken up into friends and enemies, victors and losers. It suggests that we’re all patchworks of each other, bound together on a wheel of time. Our task in such a world can’t be to defeat each other, for there’s no one who is an other.
Of course, there are ways to arrive at all of these thoughts without engaging reincarnation. The basic ideas can be formulated through any number of traditions. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the doctrine of reincarnation has its own potential downsides, especially when it’s used to justify people’s positions within a social order. But the value of taking reincarnation seriously is that it might lead us to grasp more readily where and how we’re recreating such troubled social formations. Perhaps we see this in today’s supposed meritocracies, which create new, caste-like justifications for hierarchy and inequality, as several recent critics have suggested. Or perhaps we see it in some modern Buddhist monasteries in the West, where histories of sexual harassment keep recurring. To take reincarnation seriously is to think about how we can end these histories of suffering. This means working not just on a personal or even national scale, but through a global ethics based on our interdependence to all creatures and the natural world. It’s hard to think of anything less ‘McMindful’ than that.
Tim Wu: Neither a nationalist or fascist leader really wants accountability. The one doesn’t want competition and the other doesn’t want voters. But they are in some sense similar. The danger of a return to fascism is the fear that the monopolies and the leader realize that their interests are in common. That’s what happened in Germany, Japan, and Spain pre-WWII, and that’s what we need to watch for. Antitrust law is like a safeguard. It has an incredibly important constitutional role of limiting private power.
Tim Wu is a policy advocate, a professor at Columbia Law School and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. He is best known for coining the phrase net neutrality. He worked on competition policy in the Obama White House and the Federal Trade Commission, served as senior enforcement counsel at the New York Office of the Attorney General, and worked at the Supreme Court for Justice Stephen Breyer. His previous books are The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires and The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside our Heads.
Roxanne Coady is owner of R.J. Julia, one of the leading independent booksellers in the United States, which—since 1990—has been a community resource not only for books, but for the exchange of ideas. In 1998, Coady founded Read To Grow, which provides books for newborns and children and encourages parents to read to their children from birth. RTG has distributed over 1.5 million books.
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
This week on First Draft, Viet Thanh Nguyen joins Mitzi to discuss his new novel, The Committed, out now from Grove Press.
From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: One of the driving questions of TheCommitted, in my reading, was the question of how do you forgive the unforgivable?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That is a very important question for the novel, for our narrator, for me. When I first came across it—and this is philosophy in Jacques Derrida’s book On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness—I thought, wow, Derrida is full of crap. Because Derrida, the philosopher, was saying the only thing worth forgiving is the unforgivable. And I thought, wow, that just doesn’t make any sense. How can you do that?
But I think he actually put his finger right on the problem, you know what I mean? If something is forgivable, and we forgive, is that really worth that much? And, while whatever constitutes the unforgivable is very subjective for each of us, if we cannot forgive the unforgivable, then maybe we’re not really truly capable of forgiveness. That’s the crux of the spiritual and philosophical matter that Derrida wants to get to.
I never mentioned Derrida’s name in the book, although I mentioned him in the acknowledgments. That is the problem that ultimately haunts our narrator: he’s done unforgivable things, he’s done things that other people would find unforgivable, he’s done things that he himself finds unforgivable. And he is trying to figure out a way to live with himself in these books, in these confessions. One of those crucial things is to try to figure out if he himself is forgivable. And that is contrasted with other crimes that are being done in the book, but also with historical crimes.
One of the historical crimes that is brought up is the Cambodian genocide that has just taken place a couple of years before the start of this novel and is just being revealed in newspaper reports. People are literally finding out about this around the world in the early 1980s. And that Cambodian genocide is directly connected to the Vietnamese Revolution and the French Revolution. The Cambodian revolutionaries, Pol Pot and his major allies, were all French educated in Paris. How do we hold the French responsible for that, but also hold the Khmer Rouge responsible for that? That seems really unforgivable. It seems unforgivable what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia, but is it any more unforgivable than what the French did in colonizing Indochina? And so, against the backdrop of these big historical political issues and questions, we have this foregrounding of our narrator and his own wrestling with his unforgivable deeds.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The sequel to this novel is The Committed and his short story collection is called The Refugees. His other books are Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction) and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is a University Professor, the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.
Spontaneity through Conversation 2.0 is coming up on July 18th
The below is not required reading for the next meeting,
but is encouraged for many reasons.
Beyond that, it’s very interesting and applies to all kinds
of conversations, including those you have every day.
Details for this free Zoom meeting coming soon.
–Ben Gilberti, H.W., M.
April 28, 2021 (aeon.co)
Be brave enough to share, kind enough to listen, and you can escape the shallows of small talk to dive deep with another
by Lucy Foulkes Photo by Richard Baker/In Pictures/Getty
Lucy Foulkesis a psychologist and honorary lecturer at University College London. A former associate editor at Aeon+Psyche, she is the author of Losing Our Minds (2021). She lives in London.
Edited by Christian Jarrett
Need to know
Have you ever had a decent conversation in a lift? If not, join the club – being in a lift with a stranger is a universally awkward experience. One reason is the typical duration of a lift journey – long enough to feel the social pressure to say something, anything, but never long enough to say something worthwhile. The world over, lifts are a microcosm of that most pained aspect of social interaction – small talk.
The psychologist Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona studies conversations, and he defines small talk on the basis of how much information is exchanged. ‘If afterwards I know nothing more about you than I knew before,’ he tells me, ‘then that will be small talk.’
The vacuousness of small talk helps to explain why it’s often so boring, but it can be worse than that. Thanks to more lift journeys than I care to remember, I can vouch that some small talk is, unfortunately, both boring and awkward. And it’s not just in lifts: whether we’re at the hairdresser’s, in a taxi, or even with our best friend, sometimes it can be painful to figure out what to say, how exactly to hit upon a topic to fill the silent, stale air between us. Many of us are crying out for help with small talk, and the internet has answered with countless articles suggesting solutions and offering advice.
Much of this guidance aims to elevate bad small talk to enjoyable small talk, for example by commenting on a shared experience or asking open-ended questions. In fact, when it goes well, small talk can be not only pleasurable, but beneficial. There’s a body of research that focuses on how relatively fleeting social interactions with people – even strangers – can boost our mood and even our beliefs about humankind. For example, for a recent, not-yet-published study during the pandemic, Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, paired up strangers to have chats together on Zoom about whatever they liked. Compared with how they felt before, she says that, after the call, her participants ‘reported feeling a greater sense of trust in other people and feeling like people in general are benevolent – that they’re good and kind and fair’.
But while it’s important to recognise the value of small talk and that it needn’t be painful, it still falls well short of what many of us are really craving: meaningful conversation. By this, I mean conversation where we leave behind the shallows of small talk – however pleasant they might be – and dive deeper. For Mehl, who refers to these kinds of conversations as ‘substantive’, the key feature of deeper conversations is that you learn something. ‘If people start discussing information,’ he says, ‘then it becomes substantive … the most important point is that you get absorbed in the conversation, there’s information, there’s learning.’
Of course, you can learn something from a conversation with an electrician who comes to your house, or during a doctor’s appointment. To count as truly meaningful, the nature of what you learn matters. When a conversation allows you to better understand something important about yourself, the other person or the world – then it really becomes meaningful.
We derive meaning from understanding ourselves because of the deep human need for self-expression. The social psychologist Kirsty Gardiner at the University of East London studies social interactions, and she identifies self-expression – ‘sharing key aspects of who you are as a person’ – as the first of three components that can make conversations really valuable. Most of us are hungry for an opportunity to share what we’re thinking, to clarify and explore things that matter to us. So having the chance to formulate these abstract thoughts into words, and to share them with an interested listener who validates those thoughts, helps us feel understood.
In meaningful exchanges, the role of the listener is vital (which is why a meaningful conversation can be so much more rewarding than simply writing down our thoughts, or talking to ourselves when we’re home alone). An effective listener enables us to get feedback about who we are through their eyes. And this, according to Gardiner, is the second critical part of a meaningful conversation – it enables us to better understand ourselves. ‘We often do that by having ourselves reflected back from other people,’ she says. This process of speaking, being heard, and better understanding ourselves helps to facilitate a sense of connection, which Gardiner identifies as the final step in meaningful conversations. Ultimately, such conversations make us feel connected to other people, thus satisfying a well-established, fundamental human motivation.
Of course, in a two-way conversation, we take turns at being the speaker and the listener. The other party will also speak about themselves and share what they know and think, and this provides us with an opportunity for learning something important and valuable about them. Meaningful conversations, in short, allow us to learn something important about ourselves, about the other person, or about the world – and, when this happens, we come away feeling better understood and connected with those around us.
This sense of understanding and connection feels good and is important to our wellbeing. In one study, Mehl and his colleagues asked volunteers to complete some questionnaires and then wear a recording device for several days, which allowed them to analyse the quality of their conversations. The researchers found that the more substantive their volunteers’ conversations, the higher their sense of life satisfaction. Of course, it’s possible that the happier people simply had a tendency for more substantive conversations, rather than the conversations playing a causal role. But other evidence hints at the power of meaningful conversation – for instance, research conducted in the 1990s by the American psychologist Arthur Aron found that encouraging pairs of people to talk about deeper, more personally meaningful topics, led them to feel closer to each other.
If meaningful conversations are so rewarding and beneficial, how can we have more of them? For many of us, considering the amount of time we spend around other people, these quality conversations are frustratingly rare and elusive. But the good news is, with a little effort and a few new approaches, we can find ways to enjoy them more often.NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS
What to do
Recognise small talk as a necessary first step
To improve your conversations, don’t dismiss small talk altogether. It’s long been recognised as a universal way to set the scene and establish rapport. As the pioneering anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski put it in an essay published in 1923, these initial conversational exchanges, while they are ‘neither the result of intellectual reflection, nor do they necessarily arouse reflection in the listener’, nonetheless ‘fulfil a social function’. Through small talk, ‘ties of union are created’, he wrote.
‘I think of small talk as an inactive ingredient in a medicine,’ Mehl tells me. ‘The inactive ingredient is necessary to hold the pill together. Small talk does exactly that … you need to use small talk in order to get hopefully to the more substantive conversations.’
In other words, it’s worth tolerating a bit of small talk because it lays the foundations for something richer. Maybe when you first meet up with someone, you’ll have to talk about your journey – the traffic levels and the motorway route you chose – but you don’t have to stay there forever, and, thankfully, there are lots of things you can do to get to the meaningful stuff faster.
Ask better questions
For obvious reasons, lots of us like to talk about the topics in which we’re personally interested. But a key way to have better conversations is to step out of your head for a moment and think more about the other person. And that means asking questions. The American journalist and author Celeste Headlee, whose 2015 TED talk on ways to have better conversations has been viewed more than 23 million times, recommends using open-ended questions in the style of a journalist, starting with who, what, when, where, why or how. ‘Try asking [the other person] things like “What was that like?” “How did that feel?”,’ she tells me. ‘Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.’
For more inspiration, you could check out the list of 36 questions compiled by Aron and his colleagues in the 1990s, and known today as the ‘Fast Friends Procedure’. The list was later popularised in the New York Times article ‘To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This’ (2015) but it was originally designed for a non-romantic context to see if any two strangers going through the questions would end up feeling close to each other after just 45 minutes. There are three sets of questions, each becoming more personal, culminating in questions such as: ‘If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?’ In the original study, Aron’s team found that two strangers felt closer to each other after going through the 36 questions than pairs who answered a list of ‘small talk’ questions such as ‘How often do you get your hair cut?’
Such lists don’t always provide a simple shortcut though. Asking the right questions involves judgment about your conversation partner and the context you’re in. ‘I don’t know what research article I could show you that says Here, here is how you ask the right questions,’ Mehl says. ‘That’s kind of a soft skill that people have.’ In 2013, Aron also advised caution, telling TheWall Street Journal: ‘You want to be slow and reciprocal.’ Whatever you ask, be encouraged that it’s likely to be appreciated: a study in 2017 by psychologists at Harvard University found that people who ask questions tend to be better liked by their conversation partners. And that’s no surprise really – when you ask questions, you’re giving the other person a chance to express themselves and share their opinion, which nearly all of us enjoy doing.
Listen to the answers
Asking questions is just the start. What comes up again and again on the topic of good conversations is the importance of really listening, and how rarely people do it. In his classic self-help bookThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Stephen Covey writes: ‘Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.’ To correct this instinct, as well as asking good questions, you need to make a concerted effort to really listen to the response.
This effort needn’t be a chore. In fact, Sandstrom believes that part of the pleasure of better-quality conversations comes from tapping into your curiosity. ‘[Conversation] probably goes better if you’re focused on the other person and trying to learn about them,’ she says.
If you struggle to find the motivation to ask questions and listen to others, it might be useful to think again about how much the other person will appreciate it. ‘[Asking follow-up questions] makes people feel like they’re being heard and listened to,’ Sandstrom says. It’s notable too that the Harvard study showing how much we like question-asking people also found that we particularly value follow-up questions. ‘Sometimes, I need to remind myself that [asking questions] is a prosocial act, like an act of kindness, so I can trick myself into working up the nerve to talk to someone,’ Sandstrom says. Remember that meaningful conversations are good for you and for your partner – it’s a win-win experience that’s worth the extra effort.
Be willing to share something about yourself
There’s a critical moment of transition in the development of all relationships – whether it’s the shift from acquaintance to love interest, from colleague to confidante, from neighbour to friend. It’s the moment when you decide to share something more personal about yourself. Psychologists call this self-disclosure, and it’s a key step in developing intimacy. The communication experts Amanda Carpenter and Kathryn Greene at Rutgers University in New Jersey liken the act of self-disclosure to the peeling of an onion. Each time an individual shares something important about themselves, a layer is peeled back, exposing something deeper and more important, until eventually they reach the core. ‘It takes time to reach another’s “core self”, the most intimate details about another person,’ they wrote in 2016. ‘The core personality includes the most private information about a person.’
Exposing a part of your inner self – even just the first layer – can help lead to better, more meaningful conversations. And it will encourage your partner to open up too, thanks to the so-called ‘norm of reciprocity’. This is a strong unspoken social rule that says that, when one person shares something personal, the other will feel compelled to do the same in return – in order to maintain a sense of equity and balance. ‘Self-disclosure is a big thing that helps people feel close to each other,’ Sandstrom says. ‘When you disclose to someone else, it encourages the other person to disclose with you, and that mutual, escalating self-disclosure is what leads to the sense of closeness.’
If this seems a little daunting, remember that you don’t have to jump to the core of the onion right away – or ever. Self-disclosure can involve sharing a fairly small part of yourself. It might also help to recognise that it’s a brave gesture. ‘I would say, dare to go to the next level in a conversation,’ Mehl says. Gardiner agrees: ‘Maybe the simplest thing to focus on, in your existing relationships, is to be brave and share something about yourself … It could be a fear, it could be a goal, it could be a value or belief. It could be something that happened to you in the past that you haven’t told them. I think that is going to facilitate something.’
Come ready to learn
If you know in advance that you’re going to be meeting a particular person or group of people, then, to raise the chances of a more meaningful encounter, it can also be useful to adopt a learning frame of mind. This is especially germane to meaningful conversations in a work or educational context, where meaning is likely to be derived not so much from an exchange of personal information, but from having a substantive, satisfying conversation about an interesting or important topic or issue. This might involve a little preparation (eg, reading up a little on someone else’s interests or their professional background, or reading up on the topic of the planned conversation) and bringing a willingness to contribute. It also requires a touch of humility and open-mindedness – being prepared to admit what you don’t know, and being ready to learn. This attitude can provide a rich and fertile setting for you to learn about something new, which can ultimately bring you meaning.
Be prepared to give and take
The heart of good conversation is reciprocity. The magic is more likely to happen when you and the other party abide by a simple rule: I will give you the space to speak, and I will properly listen to what you have to say. ‘You engage this reciprocity principle,’ Mehl says. ‘You show interest in the other person, therefore the other person shows interest in you. And then you produce a sense of belonging through reciprocal interactions.’ In this way, meaningful conversations are a dynamic and intricate dance, a giving and taking, a constant monitoring of what the other person is saying, what you’re saying and how the other person is responding. None of this is particularly easy and it might not come naturally, which is perhaps why great conversations are so rare. But if we remember the importance of give and take, and come prepared to make an effort, there’s no reason why all of us can’t find more opportunities to enjoy more meaningful conversations.
Many social exchanges involve only small talk, in which limited information is exchanged, and they can often feel frustrating and awkward.
More desirable is meaningful conversation, in which you learn something interesting about yourself, your conversation partner or the world around you.
To have more meaningful conversations, it’s useful to see small talk as a warm-up, a necessary stepping-stone.
To move into better conversations more quickly, ask your partner open questions and follow-up questions, and really listen to their answers.
At the same time, dare to share more about yourself. It doesn’t have to be something really private – any level of self-disclosure can be a powerful way to feel closer to someone.
Be prepared to learn from your partner. In educational or work settings, this might involve a bit of advanced preparation, or simply an open mindset.
The magic of good conversations lies in the ‘reciprocity principle’, the give and take. Share with your partner and listen to them, and then they will do the same for you.
Meaningful conversations can happen with anyone. Pluck up the courage to talk to strangers – you might get more out of it than you think.
If you’re craving more meaningful conversations, you need someone to have them with. You might be thinking that you can really have them only with people you know well, but the good news is that this isn’t strictly true.
Sandstrom is interested in the power of conversation with what the American sociologist Mark Granovetter in 1973 called the ‘weak ties’ in our lives. She gives the example of ‘the person that you see in your yoga class, or the dog walker that you always see at the park, or a colleague.’ This person is, she says, ‘someone that you know, someone who knows you, but someone you don’t necessarily feel close to, and wouldn’t by default think about confiding in.’ In other words, these people aren’t quite strangers, but they’re not yet friends either.
Crucially, if you’re looking for people with whom to have more meaningful conversations, Sandstrom believes that these weak ties can play an important role. Of course, you’re unlikely to be able to jump straight into a deep conversation from the outset, but her research suggests that even fleeting encounters with our weak ties can be beneficial to our psychological wellbeing. And the more times you make the initial effort to engage, the more chance you have of the conversation developing into something more meaningful.
What often holds people back is confidence. ‘I think people worry about awkward silences,’ Sandstrom told me. ‘The word “awkward” comes up a lot for those who study conversation.’ So, again, this is partly about being brave, but it’s also about being curious about other people. And it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve that will maximise the chances of small talk with a weak tie developing into something more.
To break the ice with a stranger or weak tie, Sandstrom suggests one option is to ‘comment on your shared situation’. This might be about why you’re both waiting for the bus, or commenting on the conference talk you’ve both just listened to, but it could also be ‘the old classics’ such as traffic or the weather. If the prospect of these initial superficial exchanges makes you cringe, remember that they can be a necessary stepping-stone to get to the good stuff. Alternatively, try giving a compliment, or use your observational skills and curiosity to ask the other person something about themselves. ‘Often I combine observation with humour,’ Sandstrom says. ‘I once commented on a young man’s “breakfast of champions” (a packet of biscuits), and I asked two Freemasons wearing matching striped trousers if they had consulted each other on their wardrobe choices that morning.’
To take things further once the conversation begins to flow, draw on your and the other person’s shared experiences and your curiosity-driven observations. Be patient, and remember that most people will like it if you ask them questions, and especially if you really listen to their answers. Of course, you won’t hit it off with everyone. Not all strangers or weak ties will want to have a deep conversation, and that’s fine. But make a habit of getting the ball rolling, and you might find that conversations with weak ties can lead to all kinds of enriching opportunities and ideas. The next time you’re at a work event, or a party, perhaps do as Sandstrom does, and try to make yourself talk to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to. As she says: ‘That’s where the magic happens, right?’
Whoever you end up speaking to, remember that – as with so much in life – conversations can be good or bad, and everything in between. But when they’re good, they can be great, because they’re stimulating and can satisfy our fundamental human need to engage and learn. Good, deep, meaningful conversations allow us to share something about ourselves, to explore and understand who we are, and to connect with and learn from others. When we get them right, conversations are a fundamental source of pleasure. We just need to try to have them more frequently.NEED TO KNOWWHAT TO DOKEY POINTSLEARN MORELINKS & BOOKS
Links & books
Celeste Headlee’s TED talk ‘10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation’ (2015) offers plenty of easy, engaging advice.
The Art of Manliness website published the excellent article ‘How To Make Small Talk’ (updated in 2020). It provides detailed tips with sample dialogue scripts, including the ARE method (‘Anchor, Reveal, Encourage’) developed by the American communications expert Carol Fleming.
The full list of 36 questions from the Fast Friends paradigm is available for free online – this is the list that supposedly helps you to fall in love or, at the very least, helps you feel closer to someone.
The School of Life sells sets of cards containing thought-provoking questions to help get conversations started. For example, there’s the original 100 Questionskit and the 100 Questions: Love Editionset about love and relationships. For the more adventurous, there’s Pillow Talk: Cards for Intimate Conversations, a set of 60 cards to encourage people to explore sex ‘with intimacy, playfulness and intellectual curiosity’.
Useful books to help you have more meaningful conversations include It’s Not All About ‘Me’: The Top 10 Techniques for Building Rapport with Anyone (2011) by the retired FBI special agent Robin Dreeke, and Headlee’s bookWe Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter (2018).
Julian of Norwich is a medieval English mystic who celebrated “Mother Jesus.” Her feast day, May 8, always falls near Mother’s Day.
It’s not known if Julian herself was queer, but some of her ideas were. Julian is often listed with LGBTQ saints because of her genderbending visions of Jesus and God. She wrote, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”
Her discussions of Jesus as a mother sound radical even now, more than 600 years later. Her omnigendered vision of the Trinity fits with contemporary feminist and queer theology.
Mother’s Day is also a great time to honor mothers whose love for their LGBTQ children helped launch organizations such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), founded by Jeanne Manford and Adele Starr.
Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416) is the first woman to write a book in English. The book, “Revelations of Divine Love,” recounts a series of 16 visions that she experienced from May 8-13, 1373 during a severe illness when she was 30 years old. The book includes Julian’s most famous saying, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” — words spoken to her by God in one of Julian’s visions.
She appears with this quote and her cat companion in the icon at the top of this post. It comes from Holy Spirit Art at Etsy and is available for purchase as a wooden icon plaque.
A mug shows Julian with her cat and her best-loved quote: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” Available from the Drinklings Coffee Mugs Etsy shop.
Later Julian went on to become an anchoress, a type of recluse who lives in a cell attached to a church and does contemplative prayer. Her hermit’s cell was at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich. The cell had two windows, one opening to the church and the other opening to the street. She became known throughout England for the spiritual counseling that she gave there.
The queer side of Julian is explored in the chapter “Queer Touch Between Holy Women: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Birgitta of Sweden, and the Visitation” by Laura Saetveit Miles of the University of Bergen, Norway, in the 2019 scholarly book “Touching, Devotional Practices, and Visionary Experience in the Late Middle Ages.” It “takes a new approach to the well-known meeting between two late-medieval English visionary women, Margery Kempe and the anchoress Julian of Norwich,” thereby revealing “the full transgressive effect of queer touch between women—or even its unspoken possibility,” according to the chapter summary.
Julian wrote of God as mother
Julian is considered the first Catholic to write at length about God as mother. Her profound ideas speak powerfully today to women and queer people of faith.
Here are a few short quotes from Julian’s extensive writings about “Mother Jesus”:“So Jesus Christ who sets good against evil is our real Mother. We owe our being to him–and this is the essence of motherhood! –and all the delightful, loving protection which ever follows. God is as really our Mother as he is our Father.“ (Chapter 59)“So Jesus is our true Mother by nature at our first creation, and he is our true Mother in grace by taking on our created nature.” (Chapter 59)“A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most courteously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament, which is the precious food of life itself… The mother can lay the child tenderly to her breast, but our tender mother Jesus, he can familiarly lead us to his blessed breast through his sweet open side….” (Chapter 60)
The sacred feminine is just one of the many revelations that have endeared Julian to the public. She also uses objects from ordinary life to illustrate God’s loving, forgiving nature. For example, in one vision God shows Julian a small object like a hazel-nut in the palm of her hand. Julian writes:“I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God’.” (Chapter 5)
A longstanding legend tells of Julian’s friendship with her cat companion, depicted in the painting at the top of this post. As an anchoress, Julian probably lived alone. It is said that the only other being to share her room was a cat — officially for the practical purpose of keeping it free from rats and mice.
New York painter Douglas Blanchard shows the saint with the artist’s own cat Betty in a drawing done as a memorial tribute to a beloved feline companion who died in 2013. He includes a favorite quote from Julian:
“He that made all things for love, by that same love keepeth them, and shall keep them without end.”
Blanchard is best known for his epic series “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision,” which is now available as a book. He teaches art and art history at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.
Another icon of Julian and her cat was created by Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar based in New York. Known for his innovative icons, he was rebuked by the church for painting LGBTQ saints and God as female.
An elderly “Julian of Norwich” was sketched against a lavender background by Tobias Haller, an iconographer, author, composer, and vicar of Saint James Episcopal Church in the Bronx. He is the author of “Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality.” Haller enjoys expanding the diversity of icons available by creating icons of LGBTQ people and other progressive holy figures as well as traditional saints. He and his spouse were united in a church wedding more than 30 years ago and a civil ceremony after same-sex marriage became legal in New York.
Julian lived a long life. The date of her death is unknown, but records show that she was still alive at age 73 to receive an inheritance. She was never formally canonized, but Julian is considered a saint by popular devotion. The Episcopal and Lutheran Churches keep her feast day on May 8.
Many important writers have been influenced by Julian, including 20th-century British poet T.S. Eliot. He quotes her in his masterpiece “Four Quartets,” which led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.
Julian of Norwich in song and prayer
“Julian of Norwich, pray for gender fluidity” by Avery Smith of Sapphic Stiches
Various prayers related to Julian of Norwich are in circulation, including “Julian of Norwich, pray for gender fluidity.” The prayer was hand-sewn onto embroidered patch by artist Avery Smith of Louisville, Kentucky. Smith runs an Etsy shop called Sapphic Stitches that offers a variety of patches on LGBTA+ Christian and other themes.
“LGBTA+ Christians who choose to pray for the intercession of Saints deserve to have patrons whom they trust understand and support them,’ Smith affirms. “Whatever Saint or paired-Saint couple resonates with you as an LGBTA+ Christian can be made into a customizable patch.”
A longer quotation from Julian, again including “All will be well,” was set to music by 20th-century Welsh composer William Matthias in his piece “As Truly as God is Our Father.” it is sung on video by Plymouth Choir of First Plymouth Church, Lincoln Nebraska.
___ Top image credit: Julian of Norwich icon from Holy Spirit Art at Etsy. Available for purchase as a wooden icon plaque.
___ This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
This article was originally published on Q Spirit in May 2017 and was updated for accuracy and expanded with new material on May 4,2021.
FollowKittredge CherryFounder at Q SpiritKittredge Cherry is a lesbian Christian author who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality.She holds degrees in religion, journalism and art history.She was ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches and served as its national ecumenical officer, advocating for LGBTQ rights at the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches.
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