A conversation with Daniel Thorson, creator of the Emerge: Making Sense of What's Next Podcast

A conversation with Daniel Thorson about the power and potential of good conversation, how we should face the possibility of climate collapse and why the Occupy Wall Street movement failed.

Daniel Thorson is the creator of the Emerge: Making Sense of What's Next podcast and a monastic at the Monastic Academy, Vermont. Last month, we announced our cooperation with Daniel and his podcast. This month we Skyped with Daniel to talk about generative conversations, Occupy Wall Street, Extinction Rebellion and his journey to make sense of what's next.

Tarn: What is the genesis of Emerge, and why did you choose podcasting as your medium?

Daniel: I worked for a while at a podcast called Buddhist Geeks and saw how podcasts can catalyse cultural transformation. In general I'm extremely fascinated with the art of conversation - how to have beautiful, I would say skilful conversation. I started Emerge partly because there were many conversations which I was just waiting for somebody else to have, and eventually I realised that maybe I could have them.

Tarn: This phrase ‘the art of conversation' has this almost antiquated association for me because I remember learning that it used to be considered a necessary skill for a gentleman, or an ‘educated lady’, to have. It’s a bit of a generic thing to say that ‘we’ve lost that’ but I definitely don’t think conversation is thought of as a skill in the same way anymore, especially when such a large portion of conversations are carried out online these days. 

Daniel: Even if you know a lot about a particular topic, there’s so much that you don’t know until you enter into a conversational space with someone. You’re kind of entering this unpredictable, synergistic space together where things are emerging as the conversation unfolds. It’s one of the most fulfilling things of my life. It used to be that I would occasionally have a really beautiful conversation with someone but I would have no idea why, but over time I’ve become more capable of facilitating that, because I’ve practised and desired it. 
One of the things that has enabled me to have such diverse conversations is that I feel a strong resistance to unifying narratives.
Tarn: With the people that you’ve interviewed have you developed, or started to develop, a cumulative vision of what is emerging?

Daniel: I can look into the body of conversations I’ve had and name certain themes, but really one of the things that has enabled me to have such diverse conversations is that I feel a strong resistance to unifying narratives. If there’s any kind of unifying narrative it’s an appreciation of the radical emergence that’s happening on the planet right now. There is also a quality of appreciative enquiry, I am not there to challenge, or have what people might consider to be ‘a difficult conversation’. It's more like really attempting to understand a different perspective and then adding texture to it by reflecting it through the conversational process. In some ways my responsibility is purely that of curation, because I don’t want to do that kind of appreciative enquiry with people who hold views that I would consider to be deeply problematic.

Tarn: What kind of views would you consider to be deeply problematic?

Daniel: Anything that smells even a little bit like fundamentalism, or some kind of totalising perspective of humanity which states humans are this or that way, or that this or that way is the right way. Humans have a tendency to create closure around perspectives and I don’t want to amplify those kind of perspectives because they get plenty of air time already.

Tarn: So what are some of your major areas of concern or interest in regards to what's emerging right now?

Daniel: One topic I’ve been exploring recently is this question of human extinction, or the possibility of climate collapse. It’s probably the most important thing that we can talk about and really grapple with right now. Pragmatically I think it could be the kind of rallying cry of an emergent movement of people who want to facilitate a transformation of the kind of systems that make up our world. There is also an urgency to learn to have what are sometimes called ‘generative conversations’, conversations where people are committed to exploring ideas in their totality and understanding each other’s perspective. There are things that need to happen before being able to participate in these kinds of conversations, things like healing trauma, learning to be empathetic with others, letting go of your own perspective and seeing the world from the perspective of others. Those are two things that I see as being of central importance right now.
What does collapse mean for me? It means that whatever story I've been telling about my future is also collapsing.
Tarn: It’s funny, coming back to what we were just talking about about the art of conversation, I just found that as you were speaking I was listening, but at the same time I started to think about this article and how I will structure it, and then it stopped me from being in the moment or flow of the conversation. I was listening but I was also not fully engaged because I was thinking about my own challenges.

Daniel: That’s exactly what I think is so important - to notice that, and even name it. You telling me that you noticed that means that I now trust you a little more because you’re willing to reveal yourself honestly to me. And that’s the core of it. This thing about having two concurrent lines of thinking going on at one time is also something that plays into the whole collapse and extinction thing. On one hand, there’s this huge narrative of the planet, but on the other, there's this question of what does collapse mean for me? It means that whatever story I've been telling about my future is also collapsing. This means I'm invited to reconsider everything that I think I know about what the purpose of my life is and what is mine to do. It's all about noticing the ways that these thought processes are entangled.

Tarn: I think considering the impending climate collapse there’s even more reason to engage in conversations with other people with full attention and honesty, maybe because you can't be so invested in this future perception of yourself and these questions of ‘who am I’, ‘where am I going’ and ‘what am I doing?’ There’s more reason just to focus on and enjoy the present.

Daniel: Right. One conversation I had just yesterday was that we probably should already know or have been taught the art of generative conversation, but unfortunately we don't or we haven’t. That means that it can be really uncomfortable to enter into spaces where you don’t know what’s going to emerge, or where you’re not acting according to set social scripts. It may be the case that the possibility of human extinction is the motivation we need to actually do the work that needs to be done, to become the kind of people who can have the kinds of conversations that are needed because of impending collapse. 

Tarn: I think it's Indra Adnan that said that as a species we've subconsciously driven ourselves towards destruction so that we can engage with each other in a more real kind of a way. As someone who has spent a lot of time talking and thinking about climate collapse, do you have a hopeful vision of the of the future?

Daniel: Well, yeah, I do actually. I am not pessimistic about the future, which might be surprising. I think my optimistic vision for the future is similar to what we were just discussing, in that this position we have put ourselves in will function as a kind of wakeup call, forcing us to reconsider all the ways that we’ve designed our world, and that that will create an opening for us to do the work that needs to be done to create a sustainable future for all life on Earth. That’s the hopeful vision. Then I also think there will be local futures that are really beautiful too, and so that's kind of where I find my hope.
With regards to the climate conversation there’s such a tendency to totalise, either we’re doomed, or we’re going to be OK.
Tarn: I personally often feel quite pessimistic about the future and find myself coming up with ways to cope with that, at least on a personal level. At an Emerge event we had recently one of the questions someone asked was ‘who here feels hopeful about the possibility that we will redesign systems to save ourselves?’ I couldn't put my hand up.

Daniel: Coming back to that idea of totalising perspectives, with regards to the climate conversation there’s such a tendency to totalise, either we’re doomed, or we’re going to be OK. It’s actually important to hold that middle space, familiarising yourself with both ‘we’re doomed’ and ‘we’re going to be ok’. Something really cool happens in that space.

Tarn: Yes, even with all the science we have no one can really predict the future. Regardless of your position it shouldn’t stop you from taking action in the present to prepare for both eventualities. Many people seem to get so wrapped up in this idea of ‘we are’ or ‘we aren’t’, it’s this simplistic, Brexit ‘in’ or ‘out’ kind of binary thinking with no space for complexity. It means everyone ends up arguing about who's right or who’s wrong.

Daniel: It’s totally disempowering.

Tarn: Have you listened to the This American Life podcast called S-Town? I was thinking the other day how the guy in that would really have appreciated your podcast. I think it’s really helpful for people to know that others are noticing what's going on in our society today.

Daniel: Thank you so much! I think podcasts are an interesting medium. It’s oddly very personal because you’re listening to a conversation between two individuals, but everyone listening is also part of that conversation. The ideas are part of a community, an ecosystem of thought, that’s the amazing thing about digital communication technology.
Part of what I think enables me to have these kind of conversations is that I spend so much time in silence.
Tarn: You live at the Monastic Academy in Vermont. I guess I have a bit of a Disney-fied perception of what a monastery is... is it all men? 

Daniel: No it’s co-ed, and we are also not religious in the traditional sense of the word, or at least your personal beliefs are your business. It used to be that monasteries played a major role in many cultures, they were places where you would go to learn how to read and write, get married, or settle disputes. Lots of Monasteries were actually very early pioneers of various communication technologies. So I guess what we are doing with the Monastic Academy is reimagining the monastery as a relevant cultural institution for our time. The climate crisis is sort of calling us forth to think in new ways about what our role and purpose is here on Earth, so something I’m working on right now is developing a new curriculum to help people to think about contemplative practice in a way that contextualises it against this backdrop. 

Tarn: At the Monastic Academy you spend one week a month in retreat, does that help you to integrate the conversations you’ve had?

Daniel: Part of what I think enables me to have these kind of conversations is that I spend so much time in silence. With many people who are running podcasts it’s just one more prolonged speech act in a day of speech acts, but I’ve found that the quieter your mind is the more space there is for the emergence of something new and unexpected to happen. 

Tarn: Often when I’m about to interview someone my anxious brain will be telling me that I need to do more research, cram it in, often just before the interview starts. 
If you’re listening to a conversation on a podcast, to some degree you are resonating with the consciousness of whoever is participating in it.
Daniel: When I was at Buddhist Geeks there was this open debate as to what degree you can teach meditation over the internet because a part of meditation is this element of transmission, where you’re kind of somehow non-verbally transmitting your consciousness to the other person and inviting them into that state of mind. The conclusion of that debate, from my perspective, was it’s 70% as good to do it through recording. 70% is still pretty good and what that means is if you’re listening to a conversation on a podcast, to some degree you are resonating with the consciousness of whoever is participating in it. I feel a responsibility to try to create media that comes from a place of spaciousness and not anxiety, or whatever it is media is so often infected with.

Tarn: Or stress, good ‘ol fashioned stress. I get very exhausted sometimes, feeling like even in this so called ‘conscious' community everyone's on their own pedestal, in a rush, trying to sell spaces on their coaching course, or promoting their book, or their Twitter or whatever. 

Daniel: Part of what makes it hard to have these generative conversations that we mentioned earlier is capitalism. Everyone has a product to sell. Why? Because if they don’t, they don’t eat. There’s all these incentives woven into our structure that obstruct us from participating in a collaborative way. 

Tarn: Capitalism gets written into your personality... Speaking of, I also wanted to ask you about your involvement with Occupy Wall Street?

Daniel: I got involved with Occupy coming right out of a 20 day silent retreat. At the time I was living at a meditation center in Canada, and the retreat ended just before the Brooklyn Bridge arrests in New York. Because I had just sat in a 20 day retreat I could see very clearly that I just had to get there. I spent the first few days just sitting on the bridge, meditating around the space, that’s how I got into it.
I see things like Extinction Rebellion as having actually hit the nail on the head as far as the fundamental energetics go in creating a sustainable social movement.
Tarn: I can’t imagine there were many other people meditating in the middle of the protest.
Daniel: There were a few of us, but most people did not have that background.

Tarn: Bayo Akomolafe says that the problem with a lot of well-meaning activism is that it approaches the problem with the same attitude that created the problem.

Daniel: Even in the slogan, the 99%. It’s almost there, but there’s 1% missing who are being totally demonised. Who’s to say that the bankers are really in a better position? They’re trapped by the system to an extent that most of the folks at Occupy wouldn’t even be able to conceive. I would much prefer to be able to show up at a protest than wear a suit everyday, destroy the planet by extracting all of its resources and still feel like my life is meaningless. Where’s the compassion for them!

Tarn: How do you feel about that movement now?

Daniel: It was a wonderful learning experience for me, for everyone involved. I think that what we were just talking about was a critical division within Occupy which I’ve only really seen clearly in retrospect. It was based on a politics of division, fear and retribution, vs. a politics of love, compassion and real inclusivity - and by that I mean all life inclusivity. I’m much more interested in that latter form, I see things like Extinction Rebellion as having actually hit the nail on the head as far as the fundamental energetics go in creating a sustainable social movement. 

Tarn: You mentioned Extinction Rebellion, what else are you excited about right now?

Daniel: I’m exploring this topic of healing trauma through connection, how to be together in groups in ways which allow for our triggers and patterns to emerge and be metabolised by the collective. Another thing I’m interested in is what I heard one person refer to as ‘social experiments in the future of living,’ intentional communities that are really discovering ways of living together that make more sense in today’s world, how that can be scaled and made available to more people. I’m also really excited about cryptocurrencies and how that can facilitate the emergence of truly beneficial distributed organisations that can organise human beings on behalf of beautiful purposes.

Tarn: What do you want people to take away from the podcast?

Daniel: A guiding principle of my life has been to resist that tendency that the world has to try and get us to compromise our integrity. I think the message I would like people to get is something like ‘do not give up on living a meaningful life.’ 
Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the Lead Editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.