Preparation for having a philosophical conversation

The following post is addressed to new conversation partners as well as to philosophical friends. This worksheet (if that is what it is) is the result of a few years of conversing with conversation partners and philosophical friends over Skype. It should be considered a work in progress. That is, it is open to adjustments, reconsiderations, and revisions from time to time.

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The Two Aims

There are two aims to preparing yourself for having a philosophical conversation with me. The first is to ‘bracket’ excitatory sights, sounds, smells, and touches. It is through perception that one may begin to remember past events, wonder about insignificant things, imagine certain other things, or anticipate certain desirable or undesirable future states of affairs. ‘Bracketing’ loud noises, bright colors, strong scents should therefore make it less likely that your attention will be drawn away from the inquiry at hand.

The second aim of this form of preparation is to put yourself into a frame of mind in which you are alert yet composed, ready without being overly eager, attentive without being stirred up. You should feel as if you are prepared for something significant to occur without knowing what that is, how it will happen, or when it will take place.

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Each of the following sections is meant to direct you to some aspect of your preparation.

The Contemplative Space

Consider the room in which you’ll dwell. Flashy colors aren’t especially good nor are big and bold works of art. The room should be spare, bare, minimal, not filled with too many items. A plant or two could be nice, plus a window looking out onto tranquil nature.

Being dimly lit is good. No harsh lights. Near darkness or soft, beautiful natural light is good.

How far is this room from anyone else? Is it quiet? There may be a couple of windows, which would be fine, but avoid a space that resembles a glass cube. We do not wish to be the “lovers of sights and sounds,” as Plato calls pleasure-seekers in The Republic.

Sitting on the floor is desirable (though not necessary) not just because it puts you into a state of humility (low to the ground rather than high above the world) but also because you are not indulging into slouching, curling, or slumping (e.g., on a plush couch or a comfy chair). You may find it helpful to sit on a meditation cushion as I do, or you may find a chair or stiff cushion that enables you to remain in an energetic, upright position. Some find that, provided that they can stay alert, that lying on their backs works. Feel free to experiment.

Now consider the temperature of the room. Not too hot (because heat can make you drowsy) and not too cold (because you’ll notice too often the feel of your skin and breath). I’ve found that a touch on the cool side is best. You want to be put yourself into a mode of alertness, sensing that you are alive just now.

Meditation

You’re welcome to meditate with me for 30 minutes in silence before our conversation. I believe it is good not to offer instructions apart from the invitation for you to close your eyes, be silent, and breathe. If you’re not yet ready to meditate, you needn’t feel so obliged.

You may try sitting in lotus or half-lotus pose; you can also try kneeling with a cushion underneath you or you can find a sturdy, wooden chair.

Electronic Devices

Turn all of these off beforehand. Make sure that they’re out of sight and, if possible, in another room.

Using Skype 

Here we need to be perceptive. We want to pare down Skype to its bare minimum. We want only the voice-to-voice, as if one voice were speaking directly into the ear of the other.

Here is how you change your settings. Do so at least a day before our conversation. Open Skype. Go into Preferences > Notifications. Change all notifications so that there are no sounds (except for an incoming call), no visual or auditory notifications, no sounds made during any messages sent or received. We’re looking for Skype to be a hands-free phone and effectively to “forget itself” as a piece of technology.

It would be good to use a headphones so that the noises outside are muffled and so that our voices come through clearly. We want to enter this subtle, otherwise soundless space together.

While we’re meditating, set your availability to Away or Do Not Disturb. I usually go with Away.

Moments before we speak, set your availability to Online so that I know that you are here. I will write you some brief messages (a ritual of a kind) before I call. I’ll tell you that I’m calling so that you’re not startled.

While we’re speaking,

  • Turn off the video feature on Skype.
  • If possible, set your computer off to the side (i.e., on the periphery, outside the center of your gaze).
  • Turn the brightness of the computer screen down to zero so that the screen is dark.
  • Throughout the conversation, you may wish to close your eyes.
  •  Avoid the temptation to have lots of things around you. You probably won’t need a notebook as I’ll be keeping notes in long calligraphic brushstrokes, and I’ll be sending you my notes afterward.
  • A small glass of water or a small mug of tea would be fine but no caffeine. (On the problem of attention in relation to caffeine, see here.)
  • After we begin, do not pay any attention to the clock. Make sure that there isn’t a clock around you except, perhaps, for a small watch or alarm you used in order to ensure that you concluded your meditation before we were set to begin.

The Unfolding of the Conversation

We begin each conversation at the exact starting time. This shows mutual respect as well as mutual reliability. However, we do not know how long the conversation will last or when it will end. The latter require humility, patience, and courage. 

Throughout the conversation, we listen for wherever the inquiry is leading us. Doing so demonstrates openness.

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