[Caveat - I'm going to say some negative things about my HAI experience, but most of the negative reactions I had are due to peculiarities of my mind that I'm confident are shared by less than 1 percent of the human race, and may be unusual enough that I'm the first HAI participant to experience them. Most people who suspect they might enjoy HAI will enjoy it. Also, HAI required a nondisclosure agreement which limits me to some rather cryptic mentions of the better parts where surprise may enhance the value of the experience. ]
I mid-January, choiceful suggested that I use lj to search for interesting people. I had made an attempt to do that earlier but hadn't found the directory search page. Once choiceful convinced me to track down that page, I did a bunch of searches.
A search for transhumanism led me to metawade. I found his writing somewhat addictive and read 20+ posts of his in about ten days.
Around Monday (January 26) I got to his discussions of The Human Awareness Institute (HAI) (here, here and here). I had attended a HAI introductory evening around 1996 and had a vaguely favorable impression, but it hadn't struck me as particularly valuable. And back then I was devoting most of my energy to my job and to my making my stock market hobby profitable. Since then I have been gradually shifting my energy away from financial goals and toward social goals.
metawade's discussions gave me a much different perspective on what value I might get out of HAI, for reasons such as his introspective approach and his attention to issues that I'd previously not thought clearly about, such as how uncertainty about other peoples' boundaries make us too cautious. As a result, I rethought my attitude toward HAI and noticed that there was a HAI level 1 workshop on the upcoming weekend, and that I had nothing special planned for the weekend. Apparently it's rare that men can sign up so close to the workshop date due to gender balance issues, but I was able to sign up on Wednesday. Possibly the Superbowl altered the gender balance.
At the workshop
Late Friday evening I noticed someone being introduced to the group as Wade and realized he resembled the photo of metawade that I'd been seeing a lot recently. The next morning, after some disorienting periods of time spent reassuring myself that I wasn't imagining the resemblance, I found a chance to meet him and briefly mention how I knew him. It felt strange that I knew him rather well and he had presumably been unaware of me, and we didn't have time to do much about that over the weekend. So I've only made moderate changes to my original plan to contact him online after describing my experience at HAI.
I found many aspects of the workshop that challenged the typical participant easy for me, but I was exhausted and overwhelmed by the total amount of verbal communication and eye contact. Those are hard for me, probably for reasons related to Asperger's. The eye contact I maintained on Saturday seemed five times as intense as any prior day's worth of eye contact. I expect it's hard for most people to understand, but it takes a good deal of mental effort for me to pay enough attention to observing and controlling where my eyes are focused (there may be more involved that I don't understand).
I also seem to use a lot more energy than most people when I engage in non-routine verbal interactions. If the workshop had been spread out over an additional day with lots more breaks where I could drop out of conversation and eye contact. As it was, I wish in hindsight that I'd picked two or three exercises at random and skipped them. Then I might have enjoyed most of the weekend rather than just small parts, and I would have been a good deal friendlier (I was often partially shutting others out of my awareness to cut down on the total amount of information I was trying to process).
There was one brief exercise where three people talked to me simultaneously at close range for a minute. The intent behind that backfired unpleasantly on me. I have trouble comprehending speech under some circumstances that involve several people talking near me. For reasons that may involve Sensory Integration Dysfunction or Auditory Processing Disorder, my ability to convert sounds to awareness of words and meanings broke down to the extent that they might as well have been speaking Greek. That exercise probably had other problems as well, but without having understood what people were attempting to tell me, it's hard for me to say how serious those other problems were.
HAI does a good job of promoting some important kinds of honesty and openness. It's hard to tell how much of this is due to changing peoples' attitudes and how much is due to scaring away people who need to present a deceptively good image of themselves and/or to compete for status by making others look inferior.
The written material we took home includes the advice "Be vulnerable; tell the truth at deeper and deeper levels". That almost captures an important part of HAI, but I'm disappointed that they imply we will end up more vulnerable. I would phrase it "take a risk and find out whether it makes you more vulnerable; you may find out that the vulnerability is an illusion".
But HAI doesn't seem consistent about promoting honesty. I felt some pressure to say good things to others even when I didn't have enough of an opinion about them to believe the good things I was encouraged to convey. Not strong pressure - I think if I had refused, people would have reacted by being puzzled. Maybe I should have encouraged that kind of puzzlement, in order to provoke more interesting questions. But some of the time I was too overwhelmed by the amount of sensory input to handle questions.
That and the related encouragement to be non-judgmental cheapened many of the things that were said. Praise from a person who is comfortable judging me and expressing negative judgments to me is much more valuable and satisfying to me than what HAI promotes.
At one point I asked people to email me feedback, including criticism, and I was disappointed when a leader encouraged me to amend that to "constructive criticism". Asking a potential speaker to figure out whether a criticism is constructive places a burden on the speaker to make a decision that sometimes requires more information than the speaker can have. Placing such a burden on potential speakers reduces the amount of criticism. There was one instance on Saturday when I got criticism as a result of how an exercise was designed. The person who gave me the criticism probably thought it was not constructive and wanted it to be only a description of how she felt about me rather than a criticism (it was about how she perceived my eye contact). She couldn't have figured out whether it was constructive because it's sufficiently non-obvious that I am still having trouble deciding whether it was constructive.
I wasn't listening as well as I would like. There's a big difference in how I listen in the most precious conversation of my week compared to how I listen to a conversation that I value the same as a dozen other conversations I'm having within a few hours. That also limited my enthusiasm for talking to others during the times when they were supposed to be just listening. If some were reacting the way I was, I had reasons to wonder whether I was heard in the ways that I want to be heard. I don't want to go to the effort of expressing myself just for the sake of expressing experiences (thinking those thoughts to myself is easier and about as effective).
I had been hoping that the workshop would help me make my conversations interesting enough that they don't typically wind down after 5 to 15 minutes due to diminishing desire to communicate further. But the format of the workshop typically involved one-way communication - one person talking and one or more people listening and merely expressing understanding. I had little energy left over for the kind of two-way communications I'd hoped to practice. So I didn't see much change in how I communicate during the workshop, although it may have had interesting effects on what I say here.
Much of the workshop was devoted to overcoming fears of negative interactions that prevent intimacy. It's unclear whether I'm being held back by such fear - I don't seem to have many of the common ones. What I want to work on more I my expectation that I'll find most people boring, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A couple of exercises that I found very good helped me be a bit more comfortable communicating via body language (these didn't focus on eye contact or faces). One of them brought out child-like playfulness in many of us (see a mention of "giggling" below).
I'm not satisfied with the suggestions made at the workshop about what to do when I'm uncertain whether a person is open to a kind of interaction I want to engage in. The rule "when in doubt, ask" probably helps in more cases than I actually use it. But if I follow this to its logical conclusion, I get silly rules such as those at Antioch College. HAI has plenty of common sense to avoid that kind of absurdity. One exercise where the rules prevented such verbal requests was one of the most positive experiences I've had in years (and the widespread giggling suggested others agreed). The deliberate absence of verbal communication (which meant no verbal requests for interactions, some of which were unusual) seemed to be an important part of why that exercise worked. So I'm left with uncertainty about when to use my unreliable common sense and reading of body language, and when to use the "when in doubt, ask" rule that would show I lack common sense if I'm too eager to use it.
There was some guilt over sexual orientation. As far as I could tell, it was coming only from heterosexual men. I, and I suspect most others there who are far from heterosexual, were no more disturbed by those who felt some discomfort with same-sex intimacy than those of us who are comfortable being nude were bothered by those who were nervous about taking their clothes off. The workshop was very effective at creating an atmosphere where just going with the flow without much conscious attention to those issues would help people get over those two types of discomfort.
HAI is a bit too eager to get people to express negative emotions about past experiences (e.g. instances where someone has treated us unfairly). It has been more healthy for me to forget about such experiences and focus on more positive parts of my life or on things that I can change (see Seligman's book Authentic Happiness for more on this subject). One workshop exercise got me to remember something I know I want to stop paying attention to (some unpleasant treatment by someone whose actions I can explain, if I try hard enough, as the result of some ordinary shortcomings, some of which I've been guilty of in the past, so I shouldn't blame him very much) (the exercise that led here was intended to deal with mistreatment very different from anything I've experienced; I'm unsure how relevant that is).
HAI could do more to discourage people from blaming others. As Bryan Caplan says:
If and who you blame for bad events matters too. In one study, "[V]ictims of severe accidents who blamed themselves for the accident were coping more successfully eight to twelve months afterward than those who did not, and... victims who blamed other people (as opposed to some nonspecific external cause) displayed especially low coping scores." This rings so true to me that my head is still spinning. Have I ever felt unhappy for long about something without blaming another person? I'm drawing a blank.
Hmmm. This post seems long enough that I fear metawade's style is contagious.