Speaking of Faith

Rising to the Virtue of Compassion

“Our culture is obsessed with perfection and with hiding problems. But what a liberating thing to realize that our problems, in fact, are probably our richest sources for rising to this ultimate virtue of compassion. Towards bringing compassion towards the joys and sufferings of others…Compassion can’t be reduced to sainthood any more than it can be reduced to pity…Compassion is equally at home in the secular as well as in the religious. So I will paraphrase Einstein and say that the future of humanity needs [the technology of compassion] as much as it needs all the others that have now connected us and set before us the terrifying and wondrous possibility of actually becoming one human race.”

~ Krista Tippett, from “Reconnecting with Compassion,” TED, Nov. 2010 

A Crash of Territorial Cultures

Excerpts from “Demonstrations, Hopes, and Dreams,” Being, Feb. 10, 2011:

Dr. Scott Atran: If you take these polls like the Gallup and Pew polls, you find that about 7 percent of the Muslim world has some sympathy for bin Laden. That's about 100 million people out of 1.3 or 1.4 billion Muslims in the world. But then if you look who actually is willing to do something violent, you find that it's an extremely, extremely small number of people. But when you look at of those thousands out of the 100 million who actually do anything, you find that the greatest predictor has nothing to do with religion.

The greatest predictor is whether they belong to a soccer club or some action-oriented group of friends. In fact, almost none of them had any religious education whatsoever. They're all born again, sort of between the ages of 18 and 22. So if it's not religious inculcation, if it's not religious training, if it's not even religious tradition, what could it possibly be? And again, it's first of all who your friends are. That's the greatest predictor of everything. Then there's a sort of geopolitical aspect to it. I mean, people talk about a clash of civilizations. I think that's dead wrong. There's a crash of territorial cultures across the world.

Krista Tippett: Yeah. I want you to talk about that. I think that's a very intriguing distinction you draw that it's not a clash of civilizations, but you've also said a crash of civilizations. So tell me what you're describing there.

Dr. Atran: Well, globalization, of course, has provided access to large masses of humanity to a better standard of living, better health, better education. But it has also left in its wake many traditional societies that are falling apart, that just can't compete. So what you have is young people especially sort of flailing around looking for a sense of social identity. These traditional territorial cultures and their influence disappears and it's happening across all of this sort of middle attitudes of Eurasia and they're trying to hook up with one another peer to peer.

And this is paralleling another new development in history of humanity and that is this massive media-driven global political awakening where, again, for the first time in human history, you've got someone in New Guinea who can see the same images as someone in the middle of the Amazon. And so you've got these young people paradoxically focusing in on a smaller and smaller bandwidth in this sort of global media trying to hook up with one another and make friends and give themselves a sense of significance. And the Jihad comes along.

I mean, the Jihad — you know, I interviewed this guy in prison in France who wanted to blow up the American Embassy and I asked him, "Why did you want to do this?" and he says to me, "Well, I was walking along the street one day and someone spit at my sister and called her sale Arabe, a dirty Arab, and I just couldn't take it anymore and I realized that this injustice would never leave French society or Western society, so I joined the Jihad." I said, "Yeah, but that has been going on for years." And he goes, "Yes, but there was no Jihad before."

So it's a sort of receptacle. You find it's especially appealing to young people in transitional stages in their lives — immigrants, students, people in search of jobs or mates and between jobs and mates, and it gives a sense of empowerment that their own societies certainly don't. I mean, the message of the Jihad is, look, you, any of you, any of you out there, you too can cut off the head of Goliath with a paper cutter. That's what we did. We changed the world with paper cutters. That's all you need. All you need is will and truth and meaning, and you will correct injustice in the world and you'll be heroic and you'll have the greatest adventure of your lives. That's surely powerful.

*     *     *     *     *

Ms. Tippett: You know, at the beginning of your book, which is called Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists, right before the table of contents, you have this absolutely beautiful picture of children. It looks like they're either coming out of school or going to school. They're beautiful children. It's kind of a heartbreaking picture in a lovely way.

Then I read underneath that it's a school that you mentioned early on. You say, school's out at this school in Morocco from which five of the seven plotters of the Madrid train bombing who blew themselves up attended, as did several volunteers for martyrdom in Iraq. Tell me why you put that picture at the beginning of your book and what you would like a reader or someone coming to these ideas to see in that picture.

Dr. Atran: Because those are the terrorists. Those are those who would be terrorists or would be us or our friends. And it is up to us and how we deal with the political world and the hopes and dreams that emerge in their own societies that will decide whether they go one way or the other. It's not, again, the fact that there are good or bad ideologies out there. It's not the fact of lack of presence of economic opportunities per se. It's whether there are paths in life that can lead them to something that's more congenial to the way we live in the world. I think we have many things to offer, but not in the way we're doing it.

I mean, I'm reminded very much of Maximilien Robespierre's statement to the Jacobin Club in the French Revolution, a statement he promptly forgot, which was, "No one loves armed missionaries." No one loves armed missionaries. No one loves the fact that we have troops out there in the world trying to preserve or push democracy or whatever. As Jefferson said, "The way we're going to change the world is by our example. Never, never can it be by the sword." Now sometimes you have to fight things. When people want to kill you, when people want to blow you up, then you have to fight them. There may be at the time no opportunity.

But that's not the case with the vast majority of people who could possibly become tomorrow's terrorists. That's where the fight for the world will be. It will be in the next generation of these young people, the ones caught between should we go the path of happiness as martyrdom or should we go to the path of yes, we can. They're both very enticing paths. I think one has a lot more to offer, but we have to show them it has more to offer, and we have to show them now. And that's what they're asking for right now.

Listen to the entire conversation on Being…

How are We Going to Be Able to Live Together?

Excerpts from “Restoring Political Civility,” a conversation between Krista Tippet and Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics and author or Uncommon Decency), Being, October 14, 2010:

Richard Mouw: …to be civil comes from civitas and it means learning how to live in the city. The origin with a guy like Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said early on, as little children, we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are blood relatives, my mother, my father, sisters and brothers, cousins and the like. And then as we grow up, we have some of those same positive feelings that develop toward friends. So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn't just based on blood relative stuff.

But he said to really grow up, to be a mature human being, is to learn in the public square to have that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, people who are very different than yourself. And that's not just toleration, but is a sense that what I owe to my mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to my friends because of shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they're human like me and I got to begin to think of humanness as such as a kind of bonding relationship

Krista Tippett: So here's another statement from you about just an essential Christian truth, which is, "In affirming the stranger, we are honoring the image of God."

Richard Mouw: Oh, yeah. That's right. Going back to that Aristotle idea that, you know, we all understand kinship and then we understand friendship, but then there's this person who is neither kin nor friend, but we have encountered them. And what is it that links me to them if it isn't just a lot of good feelings that I have about people like that? What the Bible teaches is that every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is — you know, this is where I've been thinking more about this lately — is a work of art.

Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn't just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person. And it doesn't come easy. I'm kind of aesthetically deprived, so I have to work at it, but it's a very important exercise to engage in.

Krista Tippett: You have been very clear and open across the years, for example, about your theological opposition to gay marriage. I could imagine that someone who is homosexual might hear what you just said and feel that in fact that doesn't find expression when you look at them.

Richard Mouw: Well, and — and it should. I have really tried to emphasize the fact that even in expressing our disagreements — and this is a very complicated thing — but that we're dealing with people who are precious works of divine art. You know, I have argued on a number of occasions and actually gotten some very positive response from folks in the gay-lesbian community that maybe — I even wrote a Newsweek piece on this.

You know, maybe it's time to stop yelling at each other and accusing each other in public and maybe we ought to just sit down and turn the agenda into something like this where I would ask my gay and lesbian activist friends, "what is it about people like me that scare you so much? And that you in turn would listen to me when I say, what is it about what you are advocating that worries me so much about the future of our culture and the world in which my grandchildren are being raised? And that we talk about hopes and fears rather than angrily denouncing each other as homophobes or as people who are engaged in, you know, despicable behavior, but could that shape a very different kind of discussion." As we move toward — the really important question is how are we going to be able to live together in this pluralistic society with at least some better understanding of what motivates us beneath the angry denunciations and things?

Measuring Non-Standard Forms of Intelligence

Measuring Non-Standard Forms of Intelligence

"It's like we have a ruler that is very precise for half of its width or length. Right? I'm interested in those folks that don't do well on those kinds of tests, that don't do well on the standard IQ test or don't do so well on the SAT test, let's say. What I want to know is what they know that's not being reflected in that test. Or another angle on it is, I want to find out more about what didn't happen in their educations that made them do poorly on that test or in their life experience." ~ Mike Rose

Open Up to What is Normally Invisible

Excerpt from “Holding Life Consciously,” a Speaking of Faith conversation with Arthur Zajonc, Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and Professor of Physics, Amherst College (June 24, 2010):

So the contemplative becomes an avenue not only into a kind of interiority for ourselves, you know, our own moral and, say, lives of purpose and meaning and so forth that we may brood over, which is something different than meditating. But also there's an objective character to the contemplative inquiry, the kind that [Rudolph] Steiner is interested in where one is oriented towards the other, towards the world around us, towards nature.

And one comes to know the interior of the exterior. One comes to know the inside of every outside. It's not only human beings that have an interior or an inside, but Bell Sound Meditationthat the world around us as well can be known inwardly. Strike a bell and you can listen to the sound, but you can also move towards the qualities that are more aesthetic and even moral in nature that deal with the sounding bell or the particular color or that painting that's there or the music that you're hearing.

So life is dense with those levels of experience, but we need to calm ourselves, get clear, get quiet, direct attention, sustain the attention, open up to what is normally invisible, and certain things begin to show themselves. Maybe gently to begin with, but nonetheless it deepens and enriches our lives. If we are committed to knowledge, then we ought to be committed also to exploring the world with these lenses, with this method in mind and heart.

You know, otherwise we're kind of doing it halfway. And then when we go to solve the problems of our world, whether they're educational or environmental, we're bringing only half of our intelligence to bear; we've left the other half idle or relegated it to religious philosophers. But if we're going to be integral ourselves, you know, have a perspective which is whole, then we need to bring all of our capacities to the issues that we confront, spiritual capacities as well as more conventional sensory-based intellects and the like.

 

Finding Words

Mai's Quiet Zone, 2004

Dr. Alan Dienstag from “Alzhiemer’s, Memory, and Meaning,” in conversation with Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith, March 26, 2009:

I was working with a woman who actually first brought her sister to see me. Her name was Ann, and she wanted, her sister to join one of the writing groups [for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s], but her sister wasn't right for it. About two years later, she came back, and she [herself] had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. And so I started to work with her, and she joined one of my support groups.

She was in the group for a long time, and then it just became impossible for her to participate. The conversation was moving too fast. She just didn't have the language. She couldn't string together more than a sentence or two, and it just wasn't working. And so she had to leave the group.

Her husband, who was just extraordinarily devoted to her, really wanted her to maintain her connection with me. It was very helpful that I had known her before. And she would bring photo albums in. She would do a little tchotchke tour of my office. You know, when it wasn't really possible to talk about things, she would kind of walk around and we would look at objects. She was very taken by the birds outside the window. I mean, that was the kind of time that we spent together.

And then even that became difficult. She was one of those people who started to kind of retreat into almost a mask-like blankness. It was harder and harder to access her. And so we were reaching the end of that time, and I was talking to her husband, telling him that I just didn't think that it was a really fruitful way for her to spend her time and so on.

So it was around that time, and I was going on vacation, and she loved the beach and I loved the beach and this was something that we used to connect about.

As I was leaving I said, "Ann, I'm going to the beach. I'm going to be away for a while." And she smiled and her face kind of lit up.

I said, "What do you love about the beach?"

She kind of drifted away, as she did, and she got very quiet. And again I waited and I thought, well, you know, she can't really answer that question.

And she turned to me and she said, "There's some kind of music that lives there."

Like a Picture That’s Fading

Excerpt from Lessons from the Lifelines Writing Group for People in the Early Stages of Alzheimer's Disease: Forgetting That We Don't Remember by Alan Dienstag:

The challenge of putting Don DeLillo's observation about writing and memory to work for people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease brought to light aspects of memory and the psychology of people experiencing memory loss that I knew about but had failed to put to any therapeutic use. I would summarize the most important of these aspects as follows: Writing is a form of memory. As a form of memory, its characteristics create some unique therapeutic possibilities for people with Alzheimer's disease. Because it presents another way of remembering, it provides an individual with additional experiences of being a remembering person and access to different kinds of memories. Perhaps most important, it returns to those whose memories are failing the opportunity to experience and share the memories they have. In this respect, the writing group transformed a weakness into a strength.

What was true of the writing was also true of the reading. In reading the written work, the insecurity of unprompted verbal recall (a factor that over time tends to discourage talking in this population) was replaced with something that is not only tangible and therefore more secure but also lasting. The group format seemed to extend and intensify these effects as well as to provide therapeutic benefit in more traditional ways. In a remark that beautifully encapsulated the acceptance, recognition, and sense of belonging found in the group, one of our members put it this way: "We may not remember everything, but we remember each other and I'm a part of everyone here."

A patient of mine in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease once said, "I feel like a picture that's fading; every time I look, there is less of me here. I almost don't recognize myself." Watching the group members in their struggle to remember, write, and read their work is a moving experience on many levels. One of these is surely our awareness that the picture is fading along with the sparks of recognition. This awareness lends a poignancy and triumph to the work with which one can identify. In this identification there is also a healing of the breach that separates us from people with Alzheimer's. We all know what fading is like, and we all know that our fate is not so different from theirs. The triumph is temporary; it is of this moment, but it is the triumph of life over death. If we do need stories to live, then these are truly lifelines, acts of writing that are life preserving.

Listen to “Alzhiemer’s, Memory, and Meaning,” Dr. Dienstag’s conversation with Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith, March 26, 2009]

Narcissi in process is a series of self-portraits by Colombian artist Oscar Munoz in which he explores "the graphic and poetic possibilities of water." (Philagrafika)

Seeing Beyond Superficial Differences

Michael McCullough from “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness,” a conversation with Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, March 25, 2010:

Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct “I think one of the best things we can do with religious faith is give people an appetite for difference. And the major world religions all have the resources for doing this, for getting people excited about people who are different from them.

It's not every brand, right, that exercises that prerogative, but in the scriptures and traditions of every world religion that has been successful on a grand scale, there is a story there about the love of difference.

Compassion toward difference. Caring for the strangers in your midst. Being able to see beyond superficial differences toward the essential commonalities.

Religion is also good at appealing to people's meaner sides and the more brutish side and the resources are there for both. So it's really up to those people who have a passion for reconciliation in their own faiths to make sure that the right tones are struck and the others are a little bit more muted.

…I wish we could come up with a completely new word for what this human trait is or maybe find some new way to talk about it so that we could unload a little bit of the baggage from the past, because some of the baggage is that it's sort of a namby-pamby thing that doormats do or wimps do.

You know, only sort of milquetoast types of people are interested in. But from everything I've managed to read and see and understand in my own work it's that forgiveness is a brawny muscular exercise that I kind of imagine someone with a great passion for life and a great hardy sort of disposition being able to take on.”

How Endless is this Whiteness

Buddha Weeping in Winter
by E. Ethelbert Miller, from Buddha Weeping in Winter

snow falling on prayers
covering the path
made by your footprints

I wait for spring
and the return of love

how endless
is this whiteness
like letters
without envelopes

LIsten to E. Ethelbert Miller reading from more of his work at “Black & Universal,” Speaking of Faith, February 11, 2010

Giving Happiness, Receiving Happiness

Cognitive develpmental neuroscientist Adele Diamond, speaking with Krista Tippett from “Learning, Doing, Being: A New Science of Education,” Speaking of Faith, November 19, 2009:

My husband who came with me to Dharamsala said, "If you're going to give [the Dalai Lama] a present, I want to give him a present, too." He wanted to give him a kite because he didn't think the Dalai Lama got to spend enough time playing.

And so then he found online that he could get a package of ten plain, undecorated kites very inexpensively. Vancouver kids with kitesHe asked me if I could find classes of school children to decorate them. I contacted a colleague, Kim Schonert-Reichl, and she helped me find a class of children with developmental disorders, many of them ADHD, who were either not on medication or on reduced medication because they were doing mindfulness.

They had heard of the Dalai Lama, and they were very excited to be decorating these kites. And there were two children per kite. On one side, they did self portraits, so it looked like a Picasso because half of the kite is one child's face and half of the kite is the other child's face.

My husband brings all these to Dharamsala and we get a private audience with His Holiness Adele Diamond, her husband, and Dalai Lama with kite pictureand we had the wisdom not to bring all the kites with us to the audience because the Dalai Lama said thank you but it was very clear he wasn't going to fly any kites; he's was going to put them in a drawer.

After that we went to visit Matthieu Ricard at Katmandu, where he has a Tibetan monastery. And he has many humanitarian projects in connection with that and one of them are schools for poor children. Any background, doesn't matter, religious or ethnic. They call it Bamboo Schools because the buildings are all made out of bamboo. So we went to these bamboo schools and we brought the rest of the kites and we gave them to the children there.

They had never flown kites before, and they were so happy to be flying these kites. And Matthieu was so happy to see the children so happy. And we took photos and videos and I brought them back to the class in Vancouver to the children who had been studying mindfulness and I showed them the pictures and they were so happy to see how happy they had made the other children.

SoundSeen: Flying Kites for the First Time from On Being on Vimeo.

 

Previous posts related to other topics from this interview:

 

Resources to Deal with the Ups and Downs

Matthieu Ricard “I think we should clearly see what are the inner conditions that foster a genuine sense of flourishing, of fulfillment, that the quality of every instant of your life has a certain quality that you appreciate fully. So, you see, it's very different from imagining that constant happiness will be a kind of euphoria or endless succession of pleasant experiences. That's more like a recipe for exhaustion than happiness...

Pleasure depends very much on circumstances, on what triggers it. Then it's a sensation in a way. So, sensation changes from pleasurable to neutral and to unpleasurable...you can experience pleasure at the cost of other's suffering. So it's very vulnerable to the change of other circumstances. It doesn't help you to face the other circumstances better.

[But we can] think of happiness as a way of being that gives you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life, that pervades all the emotional states, including sadness.”

~ Matthieu Ricard, from “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” Speaking of Faith, November 12, 2009

A Tibetan dancer from Shechen Monastery in Nepal during a sacred dance performance in France. 2004.

Photographs by Matthieu Ricard

Endogenous Repair

From "Stem Cells: Untold Stories,” a conversation between Doris Taylor and Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith, October 29, 2009:

Building Hearts + Lengthening Telomeres from Speaking of Faith on Vimeo.

"What we think impacts who we are. We know that. We know that, whether it's what we think makes us grumpy or what we think makes us happy. And we're learning that those have an impact on our physical body. Stress ages your stem cells. There's science out there from some of the best laboratories in the world showing that the way a cell knows how old it is, is it has a little piece of DNA, chromosome, right? On the end of that chromosome is a little piece of DNA called a telomere. And every time your cell divides, that gets shorter. And when it reaches a certain point, it says, "Oops. I'm old. Time to die." Well, stress makes that piece of DNA get shorter. So stress literally ages your stem cells. If you believe that's true, and it is, it also ought to be possible to reverse stress and make your cells younger...

[Matthieu Ricard] is doing some studies with some people at the University of Wisconsin where he and a number of his colleagues meditate, and as they meditate they measure differences in their brainwaves. And I basically said I would predict that those very same things that when you meditate and you have positive brainwave changes would also have an effect on your stem cells. He very graciously -- and this is an N of one -- let us measure cells in his blood before and after meditation. And what we found was a huge increase in the number of positive stem cells in blood. Largest increase I've ever seen, after fifteen minutes of meditation...

It's all about endogenous repair...

We have inflammation going on inside our blood vessels, inside our organs, inside our tissues. And I think those are nature's cues to say, "Send me cells." Well, I would also say that meditation is essentially doing that without the inflammation. It's nature's way of sending those cells to the sites where you need them in a way to turn down the negative aspects of stress. So stress in my mind is another word for inflammation. I would say inflammation is the physiologic consequence of stress."

The Capacity to Find the Hidden Light

"...this was my fourth birthday present [from my grandfather], this story.

In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

remen Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It's a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It's the restoration of the world.

And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. And that story opens a sense of possibility. It's not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It's about healing the world that touches you, that's around you."

-- Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen in conversation with Krista Tippet ("Listening Generously," 12/27/07) on Speaking of Faith.