In late 2012, I was exceptionally lonely. I lived alone, ate all my meals alone, and worked from my studio apartment completely isolated.
Surprisingly, what got me through this incredibly isolating period was listening to the voices of strangers on the Internet. Somewhere between craving more NPR outside of my car and not having a TV I discovered podcasts on my iPhone. Suddenly I couldn’t fold laundry, drive, chop vegetables, or put on my makeup without filling my mind with new information or listening to funny people banter.
In my solitude, I became obsessed with spirituality, increasing my self-awareness, and becoming more present while simultaneously distracting myself from my loneliness as much as I could… with as much audio content as possible.
Initially this was simply a spiritual bypass — a way for me to distract myself by filling my mind with the dialog of other people so I wouldn’t have to hear my own inner commentary. But eventually, listening to other people’s intimate conversations became a way for me to see and examine my own inner workings.
The mindfulness and presence I was seeking wasn’t on my yoga mat or meditation cushion but in my headphones and car speaker. Eventually, I realized I was so starved for conversation intimacy that I’d settled on listening to the intimate conversations of others to get a hit of the intimacy I so craved. There would be days I’d barely speak to anyone, and when I did, they were shallow conversations with familiar strangers consisting of the normal, socially acceptable pleasantries. “How are you?” they’d ask, and I’d respond, “Good, and you?” almost as if we were reading from a socially acceptable script. By ‘good’ I meant depressed and yearning to be see and heard, but this wasn’t the time or place to unload that information, and luckily I had enough emotional intelligence to know that.
While I didn’t unload to the barista, after listening to hours of long-form deep conversations in a diverse rotation of podcasts something shifted in me where I finally felt comfortable sharing raw intimate details of my life with friends and even strangers. I noticed a new curiosity and empathy emerge within me as I asked questions I previously would have steered clear of in an attempt to avoid awkwardness. While at first I felt like I was mimicking the types of conversations I was hearing in the podcasts I was listening to, eventually my chatting training wheels came off and I was able to uncomfortably devolve information about myself and ask intimate details about others even though I was unsure how they’d respond.
This mystery and letting go of control both terrified and excited me, but above all it forced me into presence.
I began to question the effectiveness of my traditional meditative practices. Alone on my yoga mat and meditation cushion, I set myself up to face myself head on when I usually had spent that time in my head making lists and worrying.
And then I started recording my conversations, and it was here where I really started to experience mindful presence and true self-awareness.
Not every conversation got me to euphonic bliss — not even close — but the more conversations I had increased the likelihood of having a gem of a discussion where I felt seen, heard, and accepted for my true self.
In early March 2013, I became so fascinated by the art of conversation I decided to create a podcast. The episodes kept getting longer and longer — sometimes close to three hours where the guest and I were completely present with each other. Unlike my non-recorded conversations in busy cafes or at home surrounded by a plethora of distractions, during these recordings our phones are on airplane mode and we are completely free from distractions. Often, during recording we’d fall into a magical effortless volley were we’d flow from topic to topic. It felt more to me like a mindfulness activity than anything on my yoga mat ever did. If I started to see my mind wander to the past or future I’d instantly bring it back to listening to what they were saying, because a distraction would result in losing the conversation thread I’d vowed to keep as the host.
None of this is groundbreaking or revolutionary. In fact, there’s nothing more timeless than storytelling and human connection. Conversation has been around forever and will always be a cornerstone of society and culture. People have spoken at length about the power of connection and intimacy in individual self-discovery, including the power of sex to find full presence, or how group meditations feel more powerful than mediating alone.
I think conversation itself is perhaps the most simple and underrated practice for self-discovery and presence. Long-form distraction-less conversation is an art, and, unfortunately a rarity for many of us outside of therapy. We become so accustomed to small talk that we are starved for conversation intimacy where we can actually feel seen and heard as our authentic selves.
I believe this directly relates to the popularity of podcasts. Instead of having our own deep conversations we’ve settled to eavesdrop on other people sharing their feelings and opinions. Starting my own podcast became my weekly exercise in presence — in that hour-and-a-half I wasn’t on my phone, zoning out, or interrupting, but instead I was calm, focused, and listening.
Conversation became my art, my meditation, and my networking.
By the end of my year of solitude in late 2013, I’d recorded 50 conversations with people I’d never met before. This gave me the confidence to speak to anyone. My solitude lessened, I rejoined the world — started dating, making friends, and moved in with another person. My extreme social anxiety remained… however, whenever it crept in I’d simply ask whoever I was with a question and listen without the intent of responding. My line, when I felt like it should be my turn to talk, simply became, “Tell me more about that” — which took the pressure off me to instantly respond with the ideal witty related antidote.
Podcasting didn’t cure my anxious nature, but surprisingly, it became my route to achieve the mindfulness and self-awareness I craved. Throughout all the podcasts I listened to and the now over 250 episodes that I’ve recorded, I was introduced to people and ideas I may never have known.
I’ve grown up in the archive of my podcast, but the through line has been my ability to surrender to the conversation and let go of control.
The more I’ve let go in my podcast the more I’ve found myself falling into magically deep conversations with a friend or stranger. Nothing snaps me into presence more frequently than the simple act of truly listening and openly sharing with another human being in real time.
Katie Dalebout is a writer, podcast host, and founder of Let [a podcast] Out a workshop that helps people DYI podcast. Since 2013, she has interviewed over 250 people on her long-form interview show, Let It Out. Her first book, Let It Out: A Journey Through Journaling (Hay House 2016) is a collection of personal essays and journaling prompts. Katie and all of her plants live together in Manhattan.