“A voice said, ‘There he is — that one, you see, with the flowers.’ I saw one solid figure standing absolutely still. A multitude swayed around him. I had never seen a photograph of him, yet recognized this density, this shape — its decisive statement, ‘I am here.’ Condensed and contained, he appeared at the same time to have been waiting there for a thousand years and to have just parachuted down through a hole in the world above this one. He was rooted like a tree to the center of the earth, and he had roses. Other people pushed and bumped him as if he were invisible to them. His eyes remained fixed on nothing.”—
—Ellen Graf, on meeting her husband in China for the first time.
For a few years, my son and I have been practicing yoga as a means of quieting our noisy minds. I personally have had limited success with this, and although many of the asanas are meditative, I have not actually tried formal meditation techniques. I am interested in exploring this further, and wonder if anyone can suggest a good reference for a beginner. I am especially interested in one which might be good for someone with Aspergers Syndrome. My son was diagnosed at a young age, and I am told that I have "shadow-like" symptoms, as well. We both have issues with maintaining focus and follow-through.
I’m uncertain of where to begin, but know that sharanam has an extensive list of meditations and talks that might be a good starting point. I’d also like to open this up to the broader community and ask what others might recommend. Any ideas for this questioner? Please share with your followers so we can get this reader some help.
“You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn’t black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, f*** it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it. I come from a blue-collar background. I’m trying to do the right thing, and that’s where I’m going with this.”—
The Republican politician said this statement to reporters about his decision to support same-sex marriage legislation. McDonald was the 31st senator to support the Marriage Equality Act. McDonald is a Vietnam veteran and former steelworker. As a politician, he’s put his energy behind autism awareness and property tax cuts. Now he’s being heralded as a champion for civil rights.
About the image: Roger Minch Jr. of Troy, New York, the district that Roy McDonald represents, demonstrates his support of same sex marriage outside the New York Senate Chamber on June 17, 2011 in Albany, New York. Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
Tuesday Evening Melody: “The Sound of Sunshine” by Michael Franti
by Chris Heagle, technical director/producer
They say that miracles are never ceasing, and every little soul needs a little releasing…
As the first day of summer came and went last week, I found myself raising my fist to the sky and shouting La Niña! Please pardon the blatent regionalism, but here in the Twin Cities, where On Being is produced, it’s been a pretty slow start to summer. Tons of rain for an already soaked landscape and temps that have been about 20 degrees below average.
In this part of the country, knowing the details of the weather are not just a staple of small talk. It borders on obsession. Normally, I would include myself in that camp (after all, I’m blogging about it now!), but these days, I just want a couple weeks of uneventful summer sun.
This Michael Franti track, which came out last fall, is definitely more pop and less political than his previous releases. That might be too much of a departure for diehard Franti fans, but I can’t help putting this hopeful song near the top of my summer playlist.
I appreciate that there is an anonymous option for posting. I wonder though if every question is posted or if there is a way to ask something only for your (and your staff's) consideration. It is a question having to deal with an emerging effort in one community to bring the practice of mindfulness into the public education system.
Kendall, we answer and post most every question that is submitted through our Tumblr interface, but certainly respect those who want to share an idea without having it posted to the public.
The best way to get your idea to Krista and the staff is to send an old-fashioned email to email@example.com. I would have responded privately to you here, but you didn’t leave an email address. Thanks for the question!
Transformation Is Compatible with the Heart of Science
by Krista Tippett, host
Rich, a U.S. soldier who fought in Iraq, is hooked up to electrodes that monitor his brain activity while in Richard Davidson’s lab. (photo courtesy of “Free the Mind”)
I still remember when I began to hear about Richard Davidson's work. More to the point, I remember the warmth and excitement with which the immunologist Esther Sternberg first told me about him. He inspired in her a courage to align her insights from science and life. Later I would pick up the esteem and affection in which many wise people hold “Richie,” as they all call him — including Matthieu Ricard, the French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk, who brought the notion of happiness alive for me in a whole new way.
Richard Davidson has studied Matthieu Ricard’s brain. His body of work in brain imaging has helped shape the young field of neuroscience. And it shines a new light on elemental understandings of human character, mental and emotional health, and moral development across the life span.
As he tells it, he had a fascination with the mind — its mysterious power to define our very lives — from childhood on. And he was always scientifically oriented, interested in exploring the mind in terms of biology. But as a young scientist, he also became aware of the limits of the tools at hand. As I was preparing to interview him, I found an academic work he edited in 1980 on the "psychobiology of consciousness." And it was striking to realize that even thirty years ago, EEG biofeedback was the best researchers could do in monitoring what was happening inside the brain. This was the world before the widespread use of MRI and other technologies that have unlocked frontiers.
In this same period, Richard Davidson also became interested in meditation. As a graduate student, he traveled to India and attended his first meditation retreat there in the 1970s. To this day he doesn’t call himself Buddhist, but he does have a daily contemplative practice. He experienced this as personally and spiritually gratifying, and the scientist in him was intrigued by this ancient discipline of observing one’s own mind, as it were, from the inside.
He was “in the closet” with this interest for a long time, as he tells it, because Western medicine cast a wary eye on anything that might be deemed spiritual and therefore unscientific. But, one day in 1992, he received a fax from the Dalai Lama inviting him to Dharamsala, India to probe the scientific causes of human happiness and compassion. Davidson eventually brought Tibetan Buddhist monks into the laboratory that he directs at the University of Wisconsin to see whether their meditation practices might alter the very physiology of the brain.
The answer, as it turned out, was yes. Some of the most dramatic observable findings are not yet explainable. For example, these monks have a much higher rate of gamma wave oscillations than has ever been captured before. It is not precisely known how such oscillations correlate to life, behavior, and consciousness. But high gamma wave oscillations do correlate generally with clarity of mental perception — to synthesize and sort among multiple inputs and to attend to granular aspects of experience. These results from Richard Davidson’s laboratory provided a new and solid piece of evidence that our brains are open to change across the lifespan. We don’t reach a stage in adolescence or young adulthood where our minds have finished forming. There is a far more fluid, lifelong interplay between emotions, behaviors, biology, and even genetics than was previously suspected. The name for this — “neuroplasticity" — masks the very hopeful and practical power it puts back in the realm of human choice.
Richard Davidson is now aspiring to understand this more deeply and channel it more broadly at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which he founded in 2008. He knows that practicing meditation, and cultivating positive qualities like compassion and kindness, can actually rewire us physically. So might this, he is asking and testing, reveal new avenues of approach to conditions like ADHD, autism, even asthma? Might it show us elemental ways to equip children and adolescents to be more self-aware and compassionate in their interactions with others?
I’m also intrigued by how this work might challenge and enrich basic tenets of Western psychology. Richard Davidson tells of an early encounter with Buddhist practitioners seeking — and failing — to understand why Western psychology’s basic definition of the human emotional range is overwhelmingly focused on disorder. Is it really the best we can do, Davidson himself began to ask, to have a sophisticated understanding of anxiety and psychosis but only a primitive grasp of compassion?
I’m left wondering how this science might reframe and enrich things like therapy, child-rearing, education, and treatment of mental disorders in the years to come. I think it will be transformative. And as Richard Davidson says near the end of our conversation, the notion of transformation is compatible with the heart of science he has always known and revered. People like Richard Davidson recall us to this, and open a larger sense of what it might mean, to our common edification.
by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor, with photos by Tamar Salibian
The road may be — and almost always is — made of our footsteps, as Antonio Machado said, but there are places in the world, sacred sites, where arrival is at least equal to the effort of getting there, where our beginnings and our ends do actually know each other. The Camino du Sacromonte, which we recently climbed all the way to the Abbaye du Sacromonte at the very top of the trail is such a place.
We had begun rather unambitiously, meandering up and down through the alleyways of Albaicin, until we suddenly found ourselves on the Sacromonte trail. On one side was the lush landscape atop which sat the Alhambra; on the other side, and at a sharp elevation, we could make out the Abbey. It was a grey afternoon. We walked slowly and quietly, for there was not much sound around us save for a few tourists and locals, and the dogs of which there are an unusually large number in Albaicin. We stopped here and there, the landscape taking our breath away — literally. And then on a little bit more, and then another stop.
View of the Alhambra from the road to the Abbey of Sacromonte.
Then, it began to rain — first softly for a while, the droplets of whispers. The rain stayed with us all the way to the top, sometimes a mere hint, at other times a downpour. We continued walking for a long, long time, and then the rain became more ferocious as we made our way up the arch of the abbey. The path became more treacherous, but we persisted, stopping to catch our breath and then start again. For more than ten minutes, we ascended, our feet muddied, our hearts beating fast, our ears alert to the tiniest movement. But most of all, we were sustained by the smell of the absorbent landscape — the earth saturated with that moist fragrance, the vegetation holding the water in its roots but also on its surface.
Entrance to the Abbey of Sacromonte
It was not fear that seized me for that instant, though I may have expressed it in those terms. We’re alone, there’s no one around, just these two little women from Boston, speaking a foreign language, huddling against each other. It was awe, and awe is always mixed with an undercurrent of terror as though at any moment invisible figures — the ghosts of the gypsies for whose “education” the abbey was originally constructed in the seventeenth century — would suddenly jump out in an ambush. But it passed, that terror, leaving in its trail an unfamiliar but sweet sense of being gathered together, of being held, by the invisible hands and secret thread of the gods and their shadows, propelled by something transcendent.
We made it to the top and into the abbey, which was completely devoid of sound and sight. We sat in the foyer, looking out at the landscape ahead of us through the small iron gate. In the distance the Alhambra of the Muslims extended across the entire top of the mountains, and here, in this spot, the Christian abbey built on the grottos of the gypsies: a quintessential moment of faiths in violent embrace.
We sat for quite a while, looking ahead and inward, waiting for the rain to subside, which it did not. No sense of triumph, no sense of victory, but something else, pure and of this place, at this moment. Perhaps this is what faith feels like, we said. This sense of being on top of the world, held — contained is a better description — by something invisible, something beyond this religious edifice. But ask the question and you’ve subverted the sentiment, you’ve sullied the faith. But if not faith, then what?
There are places in the world where you can go down on your knees — even if you are a card-carrying secularist — and rail and curse and bless and thank your gods. Such places are removed from the push and pull of everyday life, from the noise and verbiage of human chatter. You can go down on your knees and when you come up again, you are less vulnerable, more resilient, at least for a little while — and a bit less wet. Camino du Sacromonte is such a place.
After some time, we decided to go down to the main road and find a way to get home. We did not have the foggiest idea, except that we had heard that bus #35 passed from the main trail.
We made it back to the main trail, and within five minutes, bus #35 came speeding through the narrow street. It was going in the opposite direction, up to the Abbey, but the driver motioned to us to jump in. Inside the bus was a rowdy, laughing bunch of passengers whose noise turned wilder with each jolt and turn of the bus. They all seemed to know each other, or acted that way, which is more likely. Before we made it to the top, the self-appointed “leader” of the gang asked if anyone was going to the abbey. No one was, and so with a rather wild turn of the steering wheel our driver took a right downhill turn, which I thought would land the little bus at the base of the ravine on its side and throw us into an accident from which we would be delivered to the community of ghosts that inhabit these mountains. But nothing of the sort happened though the swerve was pretty precipitous.
We made it back to the main trail and to the Albaicin. No doubt the gods and the ghosts were on our side, all of them that roam these lands — Christians, Muslims, Jews, the gypsies, the heathens, the believers, the kings, the commoners. Those who were burned at the stake, those who were occupied, those who were expelled, and those who built their monuments on top of the destruction, the mayhem.
The ashes. All in the name of faith. But if not faith, then what?
Taline Voskeritchian is a translator and teaches writing at Boston University. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, BookForum, London Review of Books, Agni Review, and in Alik (Iran), Warwick Review(UK), Daily Star/International Herald Tribune (Beirut). She also blogs at Passages Home.
Tamar Salibian holds degrees in film and photography from Cal Arts and Mass Art. She is pursuing a doctorate in media studies at Claremont Graduate School in California.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
He’s the featured guest in our show titled "Investigating Healthy Minds." While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.
In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.
You live in Denmark. Richard Davidson is based in Wisconsin. How did you first learn about him and his research? How did you connect?
I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.
What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?
The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.
Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.
Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?
About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.
By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.
I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.
You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?
In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.
This was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.
I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.
Two of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.
What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?
I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!
Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.
The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.
Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.
Tuesday Evening Melody: Philip Glass “The Play of the Wrathful and Peaceful Deities”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
There’s no other composer quite like him. Philip Glass summons the inner strength — the power and majesty — and the vulnerable adult who is always a child inside. His music stirs something primal; he reminds of us of our vulnerability. His music compels us to remember how profound we all can be, even when we can’t feel or say one remarkable word.
I’ve been moved by “Mad Rush” on several occasions, but I had no idea of the back story until now. It was originally written for the organ, which I encourage you to listen to, but the reason it was written is just as interesting. Glass tells the story this way:
"In 1979, most of us didn’t really know very much about His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We weren’t sure exactly when he would arrive, though there was a time specified. I was asked to compose a piece of somewhat indefinite length. Not actually a problem for me. I played in the organ; I’ve become very comfortable with this as a piano piece.
It eventually acquired the name “Mad Rush,” which had nothing to do with its original purpose but… For those who are interested in the Tibetan iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, you might think of it as the play of the wrathful and peaceful deities.”
You can watch Glass’ performance of “Mad Rush” at the Garrison Institute on April 13, 2008 at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City.
(Hats off to findout for reminding me of this exquisite piece!)
Will Muslim Women Feel at Home in Their Home Country of France?
by Anna Mansson McGinty, special contributor
Muslim men and women stroll down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. (photo: Archibald Ballantine/Flickr, cc by 2.0)
"Of course, I’m at home (laughter). Who else’s (country) am I in? I feel at home. I have my family here, we live, we eat, we cry, we laugh, we suffer, we don’t suffer. Some people are pleasant, some insult us. But truthfully, the day the law will be (implemented), I’ll no longer feel at home." —Camile, Paris
The law has been fiercely debated since the French National Assembly voted in favor of it (336-1) in July 2010, six years after the banning of conspicuous religious symbols in French public schools. The ban makes it illegal to wear any face covering in public spaces in France, and thus, from the perspectives of the opponents of the law, a religious act and symbol has been criminalized. France, with an estimated 6-7 million Muslims, is the first European country to make it illegal. Belgium and the Netherlands may soon follow suit.
The “burqa ban” and its current popularity in Europe raise several questions pertaining to religious expressions in public, freedom of expression, the future of Islam, and the growing Muslim population in Europe, but also, as the quote of Camile points to, national identity and citizenship. The ban rests on the salient notion of French secularism, laïcité, the separation of church and state and the division between private life and public sphere.
Laïcité requires that in order for the state to secure the equality of all citizens, these individuals have to present themselves as free from religion. Consequently, the notion of laïcité, together with a prevalent public discourse of Islam and Muslims as the ultimate “other” incompatible with “French values,” has made Muslims, who publicly display their religious affiliation, the target and object of scrutiny. In effect, a woman who does not abide by the law could be fined up to €150, and in some cases be required to take citizenship classes.
But why this urgent and intense focus on Muslim women’s garments? The relationship of the West to the veil and Islamic dress code is a complex political and social phenomenon, with a long history, suggesting several interrelated factors at play. Considering the very small number of women in France who wear the full-face veil (estimates range from 400-2000), one wonders if this is, as the proponents argue, an effective means to combat Islamic extremism and enhance integration. In which ways can policies prohibiting certain attire promote the preservation of “French culture” as well as the assimilation of Muslim immigrants into the French mainstream?
This kind of state regulation and control over certain gendered and religious (as well as political) bodies demonstrates the symbolic meaning and weight a national community can place on women’s dress and conduct in public, as women represent, in Cynthia Enloe’s words, “nationalist wombs;” they are not only bearers of the future generation, but also the ones transmitting the nation’s culture and values from one generation to the next.
Furthermore, it is hard not to make historical parallels to colonial times in places such as Egypt and Algeria where the “veil” and “the Muslim woman” became the battlefield between the anti-veil colonialists and the native, national liberation movement. Similar to the colonial politics of the veil and the discourse of “saving the Muslim woman” from her oppressive and traditional man and religion, French president Nicolas Sarkozy uses “feminist” rhetoric arguing for Muslim women’s dignity and equality in the French Republic. Interestingly, 10 of the 32 women interviewed in the report indicated that they had started to wear the niqab as a protest to the ban.
In response to the ban, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which makes recommendations on human rights issues, passed a resolution that emphasizes “freedom of thought, conscience and religion while combating religious intolerance and discrimination,” urging EU countries to protect women’s “free choice to wear religious or special clothing.” While perhaps not representative, the many personal experiences and testimonies of Muslim women featured in the report “Unveiling the Truth” resonate with this declaration.
To the proponents of the ban, the face veil symbolizes the most extreme version of Islam and poses a threat to national culture and secularism, but the women who claim to have chosen to wear the face veil, speak of the niqab as part of a spiritual journey, as reflecting a deepened relationship with God and the desire to follow the actions of the prophet Mohammad’s wives for guidance. The question now is how and to what extent the ban is going to be implemented, the social and political implications of it, and whether some of these women, such as Camile, will ever feel at home in their own home country.
Putting words around end-of-life issues is such a difficult task that, even in our tweets, it became difficult to substitute the words “death,” “dying,” or “aging” literally when she used demonstratives like “this” and “that” to represent those ideas in conversation.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Follow us next time at @BeingTweets:
The Elemental Force of Music and the Human Voice: A Place Where Grace Can Come In with Bobby McFerrin
by Krista Tippett, host
Years ago, when my children were young, we danced around the house to Bobby McFerrin’s Hush album. I’ve followed his adventures with magnificent orchestras and with the jazz great Chick Corea. I’ve heard his setting of the 23rd Psalm, addressed to a female deity, played in churches. And I’ve watched him leading thousands of strangers in the “Ave Maria” — singing notes they did not know they knew to sing — to their own deep delight.
Bobby McFerrin is an explorer on frontiers of the human voice; he sings the territory between music and the human spirit. I knew this when I sat down to speak with him, but I couldn’t guess how beautifully he would be able to put it into words or how theologically he does so. As an interviewer, I’ve learned that words can be unfamiliar and blunt tools for people whose principal mode of expression is art.
As we first begin to speak, this famously hyperkinetic performer is very quiet. He tells me that as a teenager he considered becoming a monk, because of his love of quiet. He tilts his head upward, with a thoughtful smile, and says he was fascinated by the monastic rhythm of life that brought one, compulsively and predictably, back to an awareness of the presence of God.
Bobby McFerrin instead took up art as a measure of his days. His way of making music — “catching songs” as he describes it — points at the elemental force of music, especially the human voice, in what is human and what is sacred.
As I was preparing to interview him, I found an online review struggling with the spirituality that is never far from the surface in Bobby McFerrin’s music. “He may be spiritual,” the blogger wrote, “but he apparently knows the world of the flesh as well, and has a very wicked sense of humor.” Here’s the truth as I see it: spirit, body, and playfulness are of a piece in Bobby McFerrin’s music and his person, as they are in all of us when we’re getting the complexity of our being halfway right.
But he takes it a step further. He uses music, as he tells me, to lean into that place where flesh and spirit are in tension. He sings the Psalms, pacing back and forth for his morning prayer. He loves that they mine the sweep of human experience, from gratitude and delight to rage and self-pity. He even proposes singing in moments of temptation — singing, before saying a word or lodging a critique that you know is unkind, or that you know would be best kept for another moment. Singing as an ethical discipline.
I begin to wonder if this is a subtle part of the reason that we find music and musicality of wondrous variety at the very heart of our many religious traditions. As breath has a power to join body, mind, and spirit, so too and more passionately does music. Bobby McFerrin’s projects across the years — including his “instant opera” Bobble, inspired by the biblical Tower of Babel story — have incorporated Tibetan throat singing, Qur’anic recitation, and liturgical chant. He attends an African-American church sometimes, he tells me, and it cannot help but be soaked in energy and beauty, because the worship service is a kind of addendum to hours of singing together.
In recent years, Bobby McFerrin has taken the mysterious and life-giving delight of singing together to rooms full of strangers. On a stage with neuroscientists at the World Science Festival, he moved his body and the audience saw and sang the pentatonic scale. Science is now able to study what is happening in our brains in this kind of musical moment. And at the same time, we rediscover the primal joy and homecoming in the simple act of singing together with a bunch of other people. There’s a parable of our time in there, one that I like.
Near the end of our conversation, he tells a remarkable story of an ethnomusicology student who came to one of his concerts and approached him backstage with some urgency. She had been unearthing and cataloguing dead, extinct languages in Africa. How, she asked him, do you know some of these languages? He was, she said, singing their vocabulary and syntax when he was ostensibly improvising.
We are “embodied memories,” Bobby McFerrin says. Music may be one key (the only key?) to unlocking some of those. For me, this story also makes me wonder, “Is music older than language? Is song at least as elemental to what it means to be human as words?”
Bobby McFerrin says, “This is what I want everyone to experience at the end of my concert … this sense of rejoicing. I don’t want them to be blown away by what I do. I want them to have a sense of real, real joy from the depths of their being. Because I think when you take them to that place, then you open up a place where grace can come in.”
Grace came in to my conversation with Bobby McFerrin. And it’s left me humming.
The musician Bobby McFerrin describes the art and act of improvisation as “simply motion, just the courage to keep moving.” In the audio above (from this week’s show "Catching Song"), he offers a three-week challenge for building improvisational muscles and describes how it works. Here are the steps:
Set a timer for 10 minutes.
Open up your mouth and sing.
Don’t stop for 10 minutes.
Do this every day for three weeks.
Sounds pretty simple, right? McFerrin, however, warns that every inch, atom, and molecule of your being will want to bail. Self-judgment will creep in. But don’t falter. Keep going. McFerrin holds open the tantalizing promise that, in a few short weeks, you’ll see a change.
So, who’s up for the challenge?
Once you’ve tried McFerrin’s improvisational workout, we’d love to hear what it was like. What surprised you? Delighted you? Share your reflections here in the comments section. You can even record yourself and send in your improvisational vocal creations here at (612) 326-4044. If enough people participate, we’ll produce an audio montage and post it to the blog.
It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself…
Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’ This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has said that she feels more comfortable observing other people than being a participant on the stage of life. But in this week’s New Yorker, Lahiri opens up and tells the story of how she became a writer. Hers is a story of stealth audacity and of finding a home for herself in solitude the of her desk.
The nature of “free will” is central for those who study ethics, the law, and religion. And science is getting in on the discussion.
Researchers cannot determine whether humans can make truly voluntary choices or if we’re justifying unconscious impulses. But their findings around the edges of it are illuminating.
For example, Miller-McCune reports that antisocial behavior is linked with the belief that free will is an illusion.
Researchers asked participants to read three types of essays: one that argues that free will is real, one that argues that it is an illusion, and a third one on a neutral topic. The experimenters are trying to instill a “disbelief” in free will.
The participants in this group reported that they were less likely to help a woman raise money for college (a fabricated scenario). They reasoned that it takes energy to help someone else, and, if a person doesn’t believe in free will then he or she is more beholden to one’s urges and will want to preserve energy. According to the authors of the study, “disbelief in free will serves as a cue to act on impulse, a style of response that promotes selfish and impulsive actions.”
Now, note that this study had a small (121) pool of subjects, and they were all scientifically-minded psychologists or philosophers. The researchers created a scenario about a man named John who kills a shop owner “because he needs money.” They were asked how strongly they agreed with three statements:
John is morally responsible for his action;
John did it because of his own free will;
John’s decision was up to him.
A high level of agreement with these statements correlated with how extraverted the subjects reported themselves to be.
Journalist Tom Jacobs raises interesting legal implications from this work:
"If these results hold up, they could pose a challenge for the legal system, with its need for impartiality. A jury that is largely composed of extraverts ‘may be more willing to hold a person morally responsible for an action, even if the person could not have done anything to prevent the action from coming about,’ they write. ‘Extraverts may be less likely to evaluate excusing conditions for bad actions,’ even when doing so might be appropriate."
Tuesday Evening Melody: “The Birth and Death of the Day” by Explosions in the Sky
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
This evening’s melody is recommended by Mila Vecore, a listener who heard our call-out for song suggestions on the radio and made her way to our submissions form. This is exactly the kind of story we were looking for:
"My mind (and soul) went straight to a song by an instrumental band, Explosions in the Sky, called "The Birth and Death of the Day." It is amazing how much emotion it evokes without a single word being expressed. In fact, I chose this as our wedding march and, as if the weather seemed to conspire with the music, an unexpected and very temporary rainstorm hit our outdoor ceremony, only to dissipate shortly thereafter with beautiful sunshine.
This song captured that moment, but every time I listen to it I can tell it would be memorable for many others, for their own reasons, if they just were exposed to it.”
I hadn’t heard this track before. But, after listening to it, you’ll madly long to have attended Mila’s wedding!
A big thanks to exposing us to this album! We’re glad you wrote.
About half-way through the Aimee program I thought I heard Krista mention a book about the all-consuming nature of ministry from a woman's viewpoint. Perhaps I was distracted while driving but I thought the book was written by a woman. It sounded like an ideal gift for my pastor, who's going on sabbatical for 8 weeks. Didn't see it referenced on the website. Does anyone recall what book Krista mentioned? Or did I hear incorrectly?
Thanks for the question. Although Krista didn’t recommend any book at this point in the show, she did credential Anthea Butler with her work, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World.
I’m not sure if this is light reading for a sabbatical, but I’ve often been surprised by what qualifies for leisure-time activity. Cheers!
“When I go to a campus where the Muslim Student Association and the Hillel are not talking to each other, my question to them is, ‘Who did you feed in Ramallah by not talking to Hillel? Who did you keep safe in the south of Israel by not talking to the M.S.A.?’”—
The Closest Thing to Oprah Winfrey in Early 20th-Century America
by Krista Tippett, host
I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it: Pentecostalism is one of the great underreported and misunderstood “religion stories” of our time. This faith with a strong egalitarian, populist instinct has always empowered people on the margins of society, culture, and religion itself.
And so it is not remarkable — yet this memory surprises nevertheless — that one of the most influential women in American religious history was Pentecostal. Aimee Semple McPherson was a famous preacher and worship leader decades before the most liberal denominations in the United States ordained women as ministers. She was the first woman to obtain a license from the FCC to run a radio station. She helped to feed 1.5 million people in Los Angeles during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Among other things her commissary, it is said, “kept the Mexican community alive” — the lowest rung on that city’s Depression-era socio-economic hierarchy.
Sister Aimee, as she was known then, also generated controversy to rival her accomplishments. She was not just a powerful woman when women were not generally powerful; she was sexual when women were not supposed to be sexual — or, rather, only women of a certain kind. She had a famously tumultuous personal life, was accused of staging her own kidnapping in 1926, and created an extravagant worship style replete with lavish costumes, moving sets, and live animals. We heard from one listener who remembered his mother’s account of a Sunday service where Sister Aimee came down the aisle of Angelus Temple — the 5000-seat church she built in Los Angeles — atop a white horse.
I confess that it is probably easier for me to admire Aimee Semple McPherson from a distance of several decades. The journalist Dorothy Parker called her “Our Lady of the Loudspeaker.” For those who were not captivated by her, her love of the limelight seemed to defy the very spirit she preached. I might have had the same reaction. Her preaching voice, heard in this show by way of archival recordings, is by turns moving, alarming, and histrionic. Some recent scholars and documentarians have called her a precursor to modern televangelists like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, or a harbinger of the brand of highly politicized Christianity that has garnered so much attention in our time.
I can’t say those analyses are wrong, but they are certainly incomplete. Unlike many televangelists, she amassed no great fortune and fed many hungry people without strings attached. Unlike the politically mobilized Christianity of our time, her life and message always returned to the simplest themes of Christian faith, presented most effectively to people without clout. In the U.S., Pentecostal women have become less prominent in ministry as Pentecostalism has entered mainstream culture. But “Sister Aimee” is a source of hope for women now embracing charismatic faith in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Anthea Butler says that what was viewed as scandalous in her time — her volatile family life, her failed marriages, her evident humanity — makes her more inspiring, not less so, in ours.
In not wanting to reduce Aimee Semple McPherson to analogy or analysis, I find myself in company with one of her more unlikely recent chroniclers — the novelist John Updike, who reviewed a spate of new biographies about “Famous Aimee” for The New Yorker in 2007. Here is how he ends that essay:
"The reality of her, gone from the scene for most of a century, emerges affectingly not in sociological boasts but in anecdotes that take her as she came. In 1927, a month after the charges against her were dismissed in Los Angeles, she arrived in New York in furs and a yellow suit, and was taken to a prime watering spot of the Roaring Twenties, Texas Guinan’s speakeasy, on Fifty-fourth Street. A reporter called out, with whatever sardonic intent, that she should be invited to speak. Guinan agreed, and, as Epstein tells it, ‘Aimee, demure, dignified, stone sober … left her table and stood in the center of the dance floor, smiling until everyone was quiet.’ Then she said:
'Behind all these beautiful clothes, behind these good times, in the midst of your lovely buildings and shops and pleasures, there is another life. There is something on the other side. “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” With all your getting and playing and good times, do not forget you have a Lord. Take Him into your hearts.
'And that was all — a miniature masterpiece of the evangelist's art, silencing a boozy crowd in no mood to hear it. Epstein writes, 'All at once they applauded, and Tex put her arm around Aimee. The clapping went on for much longer than her speech had taken.'”
Reminder of an On-Stage Exchange Thanks to Kungfutofu
Ms. Tippett:So Sylvia, one thing following on that. Lovingkindness meditation is also towards one's self. You share a story in your writing about precisely that, but you share what you often say to yourself when you're in a moment of anxiety. OK. So I think this is just great advice. I'm going to hang onto this. "Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax, take a breath, let's pay attention to what is happening, then we'll figure out what to do." I think that's a fabulous sentence for one's self and for one's children.
Dr. Boorstein:I'm so pleased that you found that. It's tremendously pleasing to me because I meet people in some significant numbers who tell me that they say to themselves in moments of distress. I say — they say, "I say to myself, 'Sweetheart, you're in pain. Relax, take a breath.'" I love that. A whole bunch of people out there saying to themselves, "Sweetheart."
“A powerful store of social capital still exists. It is called religion: the churches, synagogues and other places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility. The evidence shows that religious people – defined by regular attendance at a place of worship – actually do make better neighbours. … Religion creates community, community creates altruism and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good.”—
—Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom
In his article in the New Statesman, the chief rabbi builds on Robert Putnam’s recent research on the role of religion in public life. Sacks argues that religion and its institutions can, and should, play an important role in civil society — as an instructive model and a great convener of people.
“It is no coincidence that the big debate over the nature of society – the red Tory/blue Labour exchange – is driven by people who do God and is largely a response to theologians like Alasdair MacIntyre. Like it or not, the voice of the theologian is back in the public square.”—
What Confucianism and Pentecostalism Have in Common
by Susan Leem, associate producer
A visitor looks at the statues of the 72 Disciples of Confucius in the courtyard at the Koshi-byo, or Confucius Shrine in Nagasaki, Japan. (photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
Dogma, well at least its noted absence, has made its way into two of our recent shows. And it is non-dogma itself that binds two very disparate belief systems. Astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees avoids it, “I am not a person who adheres to any religious dogma.” And so did flamboyant preacher Aimee Semple McPherson as she embraced Pentecostalism, a non-dogmatic and fast-growing denomination of Christianity.
Though himself atheist, Martin Rees notes, “I can see a closer affinity with Confucianism and systems of thought like that.”
“Every person processes and embodies their tradition in an original and organic way that is complex and embedded in the person’s experience of joy and suffering; loss and loves. When talking about religion we are always treading on delicate and intensely personal ground and an authentic religious conversation involves listening more than speaking in order to fully understand and appreciate another person’s religious background.”—
—Paul Raushenbush, the wise and elegant editor of Huffington Post Religion, has just written an outstanding piece on the art and work of bringing religious ideas and difference into our public spheres. It’s sentences like the quotation above that deserve slow reading and pondering.
He then applies this thinking to what happens to religion in politics and in political lives, weaving in some astute observations from former Senator John Danforth. When I spoke with Danforth several years ago, he gave me much to think about. He has lived this line of faith and politics in an especially robust way.
Lately we’ve been playing around with radio promos and the top of the show, foregoing our regular theme music because it just doesn’t quite work for us, editorially speaking. And, this point was demonstrated while producing our recent show with Martin Rees.
So, Chris Heagle, our technical director went to work. I think playful best describes his reworking of the top with Krista reading script. Non? Does the Star Trek theme ever get old?
Marilyn Monroe holds a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (photo: Milton Greene, via Michael Donovan/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This spring I’m finally reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful work, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It’s been instructive to read her historical account in the midst of this season of political folly — from Newt Gingrich’s rapid freefall to Rep. Weiner’s embarrassing Twitter pics to John Edwards’ alleged criminal cover-up. But of course when is politics not a display of the follies of men? And I mean “men” here: rare is the female politician caught with her pants down, lawyering up to combat sleaze or scandal.
Published in 2006, Goodwin’s book chronicles the lives of Lincoln and three of his famed political adversaries — accomplished men who later became trusted members of his cabinet and fiercely loyal friends. (The film rights were secured by Steven Spielberg years before the book was finished; Daniel Day-Lewis plays the title role next year).
In America’s popular and poorly exercised historical imagination, Abraham Lincoln is mostly a cardboard caricature, but in Goodwin’s narrative he emerges as a compelling, complex figure. Not really a surprise, I know, but the person and his politics — Lincoln’s private ambition and public comportment, his personal burdens and professional brilliance — are irresistibly rendered.
So it’s never helpful (or truthful) to characterize earlier eras like Lincoln’s as more respectable or dignified than our own, top hats and high collars notwithstanding. The historical record is clear that politics has always been cutthroat and politicians have always been capable of the worst of human behavior. Nor should we assume that Victorian prudishness about sex curtailed the exploitation of women as disposable objects for the amusement of powerful men. Prostitution abounded in Lincoln’s America.
But there is something about the inherent contradictions regarding sex in our own age that seems to contribute to a perpetually adolescent outlook on human relationships. Americans are famously puritanical in our views about sex yet perversely voyeuristic about the sex lives of the famous.
We complain when CNN spends hours of air-time covering Anthony Wiener’s underpants problem, but seasoned media researchers know that such stories are the bread-and-butter of higher ratings and revenues. We gripe, but we can’t turn away.
There is also the correlation between the cultivation of celebrity and a lack of intellectual rigor, which makes sex (or at least sexiness) a preoccupation in American politics. Candidates for public office rarely speak in anything but clichés and soundbites; carefully controlled image is everything.
The three- to four-hour political speeches of Lincoln’s day — dense with ideas and historical and literary references — are unfathomable in our own. In a fast-paced visual culture, we want airbrushed good looks not lengthy, complex oratory. Before you know it, people like John Edwards think their sexual attractiveness makes them invincible.
In the end, though, the downfall of men like Wiener and Edwards — whether short-lived or for the long haul — may be less about sexual preoccupations (theirs and ours) and more about small lives (also theirs and ours). One of the ironies of our increasingly globalized world is that we are more solipsistic than ever, living our lives through the mediation of smaller and smaller screens, surrounded by people but starving for real human connection.
In 19th-century prairie towns like Springfield, Illinois where the isolation was real, it was somehow possible to “live large,” to practice the virtue of magnanimity: a generosity of spirit and intellect that is the opposite of our modern smallness, that seeks contentment not in self-gratification or the attainment of celebrity but in giving oneself fully to a transcendent purpose. Not that Lincoln and some of his rival-friends, especially, weren’t bundles of neuroses, capable, at times, of self-serving pettiness — but at least they exhibited, when it mattered most, something of genuine human selflessness in service to the greater good.
In our time, unfortunately, the self is most often the greater good. And politicians whose very survival as politicians — getting elected or staying elected — consumes their every waking moment, seem inexplicably tempted toward small, selfish, secret acts of betrayal and self-sabotage. Acts that are intended to prop up the insecure ego but which ultimately humiliate and destroy, laying low not just the powerful men themselves but the women and children, family and friends, who love them.
It is time for you to bring The humanist & environmentalist E. O. Wilson on your show. Mr. Wilson would be a leveling influence to those guests on your show that feel that the answer to society's disfunctional lifestyle is prayer and more technology. I would guess that he would tell you that society has a bright future but only in relation to our allowing the environment to also have a bright future. *
Jim Mauch - Cudahy, Wisconsin
* That Twinky came from the environment.
E.O. Wilson is a guest that we’ve discussed several times but have never been able to schedule. We definitely want to have him on the program. Not only are his many ideas about the environment and philosophy intriguing, his religious background and upbringing are worthy of asking him about and how it informs his approach to life and work event today.
“Health is not a commodity. Risk factors are not disease. Aging is not an illness. To fix a problem is easy, to sit with another suffering is hard. Doing all we can is not the same as doing what we should. Quality is more than metrics. Patients cannot see outside their pain, we cannot see in, relationship is the only bridge between. Time is precious; we spend it on what we value. The most common condition we treat is unhappiness. And the greatest obstacle to treating a patient’s unhappiness is our own. Nothing is more patient-centered than the process of change. Doctors expect too much from data and not enough from conversation. Community is a locus of healing, not the hospital or the clinic. The foundation of medicine is friendship, conversation and hope.”—David Loxtercamp, author of A Measure of Days: The Journal of a Country Doctor, as read in his interview with NPR’s Liane Hansen.