Our modern lives are overflowing with white noise and chatter but sorely lacking authentic interaction. As we exist in a constant state of digital connectivity, we are ironically growing further apart from one another. In his new book, bestselling author of Running with the Mind of Meditation, Sakyong Mipham shows us how to re-learn speaking and listening from our hearts, using basic principles of the Shambhala tradition, including meditation. Here, he answers some of our most pressing questions about his new book The Lost Art of Good Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life.
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Books for Better Living (BBL): You equate conversation with engagement in mindfulness. Tell us a little more about how those two things connect. Many people probably don’t think of conversation (a social interaction) with meditation (a solitary act).
Sakyong Mipham: Meditation practice helps us cultivate mindfulness. When we meditate, we are often placing our attention on one point of focus: the cycle of breathing. When we return our attention again and again to the breath, despite distractions, we are practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness and meditation practice can help us become more present for others in our lives. Just as in meditation, when we direct our full attention to our conversation partners, we are showing them tremendous respect and dignity. We are showing up for them fully, in the present moment.
BBL: How are social media and the “anonymity” of many of our online interactions degrading our ability to connect in a truly meaningful way with people?
Sakyong Mipham: Though devices and constant connectivity often help us keep in touch with others, they sometimes diminish the magic that arises in face-to-face conversations. Conversation involves more than just words. Nonverbal communication can be just as powerful as spoken or written words. Think of how a smile, a frown, or simple eye contact can shift the feeling of an interaction. Often, these moments open a doorway that leads to deeper, true communication with another.
BBL: You talk about “artful” conversation. My grandmother believed wholeheartedly in the importance of good conversation. In fact, I recall her often designating things as “great conversation pieces.” Can you expand on that concept, on what is artful about conversation? What is the inherent difference between artful conversation and chitchat/small talk, and how does the former benefit us more (acknowledging that chitchat has its place)?
Sakyong Mipham: The art in conversation involves knowing exactly what the moment calls for, and then bringing that into your conversation. Artful conversationalists know when to speak and when to be silent. Often, what is most needed in conversation is actually listening—being “in tune” with others. I sometimes joke that listening is the price you pay if you want to be heard. However, when we listen fully to another person, we are actually offering them a tremendous gift: the gift of space.
BBL: You say that engaging in conversation is training in sensitivity—literally learning to use our senses. How is that so? And is it possible to do that online?
Sakyong Mipham: Our senses are the gateway to perception. When we speak and listen, we are engaging with sound, the environment around us, and others. That is not to say that online communication lacks sensitivity, but our senses are heightened when we are sitting across from our conversation partners because we are likely engaging on multiple levels, leading to a more enriching exchange and conversation. For example, imagine you are sitting in a cafe with a friend. Perhaps you notice the smell of coffee, or the way the breeze moves through your friend’s hair. Maybe you notice a tear roll down your friend’s cheek as he or she shares a difficult story with you. All of these elements become part of the interaction between two people.
BBL: How can we learn (or relearn, as the case may be) to initiate or engage in genuine conversation? Are there some simple steps to help people get started?
Sakyong Mipham: At the end of each chapter of my book, I share a reflection to help us practice the art of genuine conversation. Here is a reflection from Chapter 5: Every encounter is the beginning of a new conversation, even before language is shared. The secret is that we have to be present for it. Before you speak, breathe and find your own spot. What emotions are arising? Can you notice what is happening in your mind and then simply appreciate the space you share with the other person? The conversation has already begun.
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