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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Do Nothing for Lent and Be Grateful

by Amy Ruth Schacht, guest contributor

Contemplating"Contemplation" (photo: Kasia/Flickr cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Ash Wednesday is today, inaugurating this year’s season of Lent. Cultural customs dictate “giving something up” for Lent. Without any meaningful or theological reflection, it becomes “giving up for the sake of giving up,” as though the mere act is enough. Is there more to it than just giving us something to talk about and a way to feel good about ourselves?

Perhaps a more faithful practice is to connect an act, or the abstinence from an act, with our longing for God. Give up Facebook, and all that may happen is that other chores fill in that time the way the ocean fills our sandcastle moats; the castle eventually falls, and there’s no trace of our intention left. Give up chocolate, and all that may happen is that we fill our mouths with Skittles or our minds with obsessing about chocolate. Neither connects us with the grace of God, present every moment.

If our intention is to remember our efforts and our strivings cannot save us, it would be better for us to do nothing, and do it often, these six weeks. Stare out the window at creation. Hold a warm cup of tea and sit. Waste an hour doing absolutely nothing. God fills the emptiness that comes. In a culture that measures our worth by the length of our daily accomplishments or the volume of our inbox or how scheduled our days, how countercultural would it be?

To commit to doing nothing. It takes practice to build up the tolerance for non-productivity. Who are we if we are not working? What are we here for if we do nothing? Where is God, and what does the Divine expect for us and from us? What about this invitation for Lent: for a set number of minutes every day, do nothing. It’s more of a sacrifice than we realize, for we are sacrificing what defines us and what gives us life. Perhaps then we will discover the power of grace that comes in every breath.

Amy Ruth SchachtAmy Ruth Schacht is a pastor at Laurel Presbyterian Church in Maryland.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.


Parker Palmer on Healing the Heart of Democracy

by Kate Moos, executive producer

Creative ReflectionsParticipants at a conference reflect on a plenary session speech by Parker Palmer. (photo: Fund for Theological Education)

Parker Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and the author of nine books, including well-known titles such as The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, perhaps most recently the Utne Reader’s 2011 Visionaries, 25 People Who are Changing the World.

His new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, takes a deep and wise look at the loss of values that have impoverished American democracy and public life. Palmer proposes ways to rediscover what the great political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart” that are essential to a democracy.

Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker PalmerPalmer writes:

“The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness.”

We corresponded by email over the course of several weeks for this interview. 

Parker, you cite five habits of the heart you feel are necessary to moving forward as a democracy: understand that we are all in this together, develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness,” cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, generate a sense of personal voice and agency, and strengthen our capacity to create community.

In and of themselves, none of these habits seem too complex or difficult for us to achieve, and I’m guessing most people would find it easy to embrace them, at least conceptually. What prevents us from becoming better at practicing these habits?

You’re right, Kate, of course. Saying the thing is always easier than doing the thing! So it’s important to understand why we have trouble embracing good ideas and allowing them to animate the way we live.

We resist the first habit of understanding that we are all in this together because it’s easier to pretend that we live in individual silos than to allow ourselves to get the fact. To take but one example, that the large and tragic achievement gap in public education between white kids and kids of color is something we all pay a price for sooner or later. If my son is doing well in school, great; I’m happy. But if his black and Latino classmates are doing poorly, I need to be unhappy about that, very unhappy, and advocate for the changes in public education that would help close the gap.

Among other things, that gap helps explain the fact that we now have more African Americans somewhere in the judicial and penal system than we had in slavery ten years before the Civil War. And that’s not only costly to this society in terms of the threat of crime, the cost of incarceration, etc., it’s flat-out evil in the way it crushes the spirits of young people who have just as much promise as my son does.

So, when you step outside your silo and understand your interconnectedness, life becomes more complicated and ethically demanding. But the bottom line is, what do you stand for: narrow self-interest or the common good? And do you understand that narrow self-interest can be self-defeating while caring about the common good can be a way of caring about yourself and those you love?

I’m 72 years old, so I reflect more often on the fact that I’m going to die than I did when I was 30, or 40, or 50. On that day, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be saying to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I spent all my years on Earth feathering my own nest and not giving a hoot about anyone other than my family and friends!” I’m pretty sure I’d rather be saying, “I’m glad I did what I could during my brief sojourn on this planet to help bring a caring community into being, to love my neighbor as myself.”

As you know, Kate, I say quite a lot in the book about each of those five habits, but let me say a few words about one more: “Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” This one is right at the heart of our democracy, both institutionally and personally. America’s founders, for all their blind spots, gave us a set of governing institutions whose genius lies in their ability to hold tension creatively over time. Democracy is all about taking the tension of our differences and using it as an engine to keep moving us forward on important social issues. So why is it hard to live this one? Because it requires us to resist the ancient and well-known “fight or flight response” that kicks in when we find ourselves in a tension-ridden situation. Our instinct is either to run away or to punch out the source of the tension!

We all know at some level that if we can hold tension creatively — in the family, in the workplace, in the larger community — we often emerge with a better solution to the problem than if we ran away or used force to control the situation. My favorite close-to-the-bone example involves raising a teenager. Good parents can see their teenage child’s potential and “true self” while they also see that child making some bad choices and perhaps even going off the rails. But good parenting means holding our children in a way that both acknowledges their long-term possibilities and their current realities, knowing that the worst thing we could do is to try to force the outcome. Many of us know how to do that kind of “holding” in our private lives, so we have the capacity to do some of the same in our public lives.

The key, of course, is love. Love leads us to hold the tensions we experience as parents in a creative way. Of course, the kind of love we have for those close to us cannot be replicated in the public realm. But can a different form of love — love of the promise of the human spirit, love of the common good — lead us to hold political tensions creatively? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so, because a politics rooted in greed or hunger for power rather than love of the commonweal is a politics headed toward self-destruction.

I’d like to devote much of my remaining time and energy toward helping to make our public life more compassionate and more generative — and I know many, many people who share that vision and that desire.

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The Convergence of Understanding Plate Tectonics and Human Experience

by Krista Tippett, host

Fragility and the Evolution of Our Humanity
Scientists emerge from the submersible Bathyscaphe Archimède after a 1973 dive in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the Rift Valley.

People often ask me to name my favorite interviews — the people who have made the deepest impression. That is an impossible question for me to answer, as I learn and am affected on different levels by every conversation I have. But I will go on the record now to say that this show (audio above) with Xavier Le Pichon is special and has left me extraordinarily surprised, delighted, and refreshed.

His is not a famous name beyond geological circles. But he is certainly one of the wise people, and big thinkers, in our world today. He lives in an intentional community he helped create to provide retreat for families caring for a loved one with mental illness.

Before that, Xavier Le Pichon pioneered the field of plate tectonics. He has continued to work all these years as a geophysicist even as he also became a spiritual thinker and writer in France. He delightedly walks that line I’m always seeking in life and conversation — that humbling, creative alchemy that happens where theology meets human experience, where religious thought encounters real life and changes it and is changed by it.

Xavier Le Pichon’s deep Catholic faith has always been compatible with the notion of evolution. He finds evolution not merely theologically acceptable but scientifically and spiritually “ingenious.” Though, well into the 20th century, his own field of geology had retained a “fixist” view of the map of the world. There was no knowledge of tectonic plates, in constant motion, that had across time configured and reconfigured the Earth’s crust and entire continents. Xavier Le Pichon became a pioneer in deep ocean exploration that first revealed all of this. He was a key figure at one of those historical moments where science not only overturns its own assumptions but changes the way all of us see the world.

And yet, as he tells it in our show "Fragility and the Evolution of Our Humanity," he nearly quit science a few years after he published his groundbreaking research findings in the late 1960s. In a moment of personal crisis, he realized that his vision had been narrowed by his focus on science and success. He traveled to Calcutta and spent a period of weeks volunteering with Mother Teresa and the Brothers of Charity. In an essay in English, "Ecce Homo," he describes how an encounter with a dying child transformed his life forever. The story of how he then gave his life over to facing human suffering, while continuing his scientific career, is itself remarkable. I am also left with so much to ponder from the lessons Xavier Le Pichon has drawn from that choice ever since — by the synergy he has found between what spiritual community and geophysics teach him about the way the world works.

From his studies of the Earth he knows that fractures, flaws, and weaknesses are as much a part of the vitality of living systems as strength and perfection. They are what allow systems to evolve, to regenerate, and to avoid cataclysmic revolutions. Simultaneously, he is fascinated by the fragility that marks human life at its beginning, its end, and at places in between. Taking this seriously, honoring it, as he well knows, would challenge our success and outcome driven, perfectionistic “Occidental” view of the world as much as the theory of plate tectonics challenged the field of geology.

And yet Xavier Le Pichon has turned his attention to history, philosophy, and the life sciences in recent years — looking at what Neanderthal skeletal remains reveal about human compassion, and looking at the remarkable historical moment around the sixth century BCE when many pivotal spiritual figures — Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius — first appeared simultaneously across the Earth. And, he has concluded that it is precisely our capacity to care and orient our collective life around the weak and suffering among us that has made us human as well as humane. This capacity, he proposes, has defined the evolution of what we call our “humanity” as much as any other physiological or cultural trait we possess.

I hope that you will be as enriched by this conversation as I am. I am excited to put it out in the world.


Focused Attention, Open Awareness
Krista Tippett, host

Holding Life ConsciouslyI’m not sure I’d seen the words “physicist” and “contemplative” in the same sentence many times, much less found them together as descriptors of the same person, before I met Arthur Zajonc. (His name reflects his father’s Polish origins, by the way, and rhymes with “science.”) As a professor of Physics at Amherst College, his research interests have ranged from the theoretical foundations of quantum physics and the polarity of atoms to the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. He also has a long-time contemplative practice and is a leading figure among academics exploring the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. And even when he is discussing elemental questions of science, he is likely to invoke ideas of the 18th-century literary figure Goethe, or the 20th-century scientist/philosopher/educational innovator Rudolph Steiner.

Writing that, I realize how erudite and perhaps abstract it might sound. In fact, being in Arthur Zajonc’s presence is as calming and grounding as it is intellectually intriguing. He has acquired an amazing range of tools across an adventurous 40-year career that explores human knowledge and human being in all their wholeness. Yet his tools and ideas are remarkably accessible — “sensible,” in fact, a word he uses often. He paints a manageable picture of how human life itself — lived fully and held consciously — compels us to integrate qualities of thought and mind that our culture often holds apart. We ourselves and everything around us have an interior as well as an exterior — and we can explore both with due vigor. Life as well as science has both an experiential, intuitive context and an objective, factual basis — and surely we must take all of this seriously if what we are really after is truth that matters and knowledge that serves.

Arthur Zajonc finds a favorite example of this layered nature of reality in the elemental substance of light. As we’ve explored a number of times on Speaking of Faith, the scientific debate over whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved in the 20th century with the unexpected conclusion that it is both. I’ve always pointed to this as an intriguing example of how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true — a lesson straight from life that the answers we arrive at depend on the questions we are asking.

But Arthur Zajonc takes this debate and its implications to yet another level. Whether light is a particle or a wave, he points out, is still not the whole story of light; those of us who live in a world of light and darkness live in our experience of it, not in a perception of particles and waves. Goethe defined color, evocatively, as “the deeds and sufferings of light” and insisted that light and color have sensory and moral effect as well as physical properties. And surely it is not insignificant, and also worthy of investigation, that light is a primary spiritual metaphor across the centuries and across traditions.

Rudolf Steiner explored this idea, beginning from a scientific perspective, in the late 19th and early 20th century and has been a formative thinker for Arthur Zajonc. Here again, he is drawn to the integrated approach — and the experiential application of ideas — of Steiner, who founded the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland, which continues to flourish across the world. Waldorf Schools are probably the best-known fruit of his philosophy. These schools intentionally cultivate the wholeness of the humanity of a child: intellectual, practical, ecological, musical, and spiritual.

Zajonc’s own life experience has been recently reshaped by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He has seen the progression of this illness in other members of his family, and so has some understanding of what is ahead. This is at one and the same time a source of grief and a continuation of the adventure Arthur Zajonc has long been on — to explore what holding life consciously means, now with a progressively debilitating condition. He tells me:

"There are two main types of meditation and both of them are part of my life, which one is a concentration and the other is what I call open awareness. It’s a very open presence.

In the concentration phase, tremors actually worsened.

You have a line of poetry or from scripture or an image and you bring your full undivided single-pointed attention to that content. But as we’re straining mentally to do that, the hand begins to tremor more. And then when you release the image and become very still and quiet and open yourself wide, the hand slowly calms to the point where indeed your whole body feels at ease and the tremor disappears. Interesting…

I can see that the mind and the body are so delicately attuned to one another that these practices affect the Parkinson’s state itself. … So here’s the question I pose to myself. Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s on the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest. … And I’ll keep you posted as to whether that comes out all right or not.”

Bell Sound Meditation
Shubha Bala, associate producer

Hanging bell in a rural settingThis four-part, bell sound meditation is a short guided practice led by next week’s guest, Arthur Zajonc. For our (overdue) weekend exercise, take these ten minutes to try this contemplative meditation. Then, reflect on your experience and share your thoughts with us:

  1. How did the sound of the bell help you focus your attention?
  2. Did you find that paying close attention allowed you to “let go” and be openly aware?
  3. How did/didn’t the voice of a guide help you in this exercise?

At Amherst College’s the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, you can find other guided meditations and Zajonc’s five-minute introduction to the bell sound meditation you heard above. Here, he describes this unfamiliar state of open awareness with a lyrical passage from the Tao Te Ching:

"Do you have the patience to wait ‘til your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving ‘til the right action arises by itself? The master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things."

Updated: 2010.07.14 with stricken language.


Arthur Zajonc: A Twitterscript

Colleen Scheck, senior producer

Arthur Zajonc and His Holiness the Dalai Lama"ReTweets By Others," "ReTweets by You," "Your Tweets, Retweeted" — try saying it ten times in a row! After live-tweeting (@softweets) our interview with Arthur Zajonc, we wondered what you found interesting enough to retweet. The top vote-getter:

Zajonc - If science is born from epiphanies, then reflection and contemplation (from meditation) is useful as a mode of inquiry

And here’s the complete Twitter transcript:

  1. About to listen to an interview between Krista and Arthur Zajonc (http://www.arthurzajonc.org/) quantum physics, mindfulness, science…
  2. Zajonc - dad’s Polish family illiterate, mom’s Southern family very literate… both have influenced me
  3. Zajonc - Went into college excited that science would be able to answer the Truth with a capital T
  4. Zajonc - So I decided to flunk out! A bit dangerous during Vietnamese war era..if not in school then you’d have to join the army
  5. Zajonc - Before he flunked out, a professor got him interested in ways of thinking, meditation & introducing him to Goethe http://bit.ly/dXRGj
  6. Zajonc- ppl think you calculate your way towards a discovery but..insight comes in a flash-Newton seeing apple fall & saying same as moon
  7. Zajonc - then after the insight you begin the calculations to see if that’s true. Goethe was interested in the first part
  8. Zajonc-one can have that epiphanal moment in science, art, AND faith..this is common ground between these areas-sourced from common well
  9. A brief web exhibit highlighting Newton and Goethe’s color theories: http://www.webexhibits.org/colorart/ch.html
  10. Zajonc-theory of relativity made us realize even most basic thing-size-is not absolute and is based on relative to other things
  11. Zajonc-Even in classical physics observer effects experience, just like trying to see if a baby is sleeping..you can try tiptoing
  12. Zajonc-Difference is in classical you can reduce your impact on experiment, but in quantum it’s irreducibly participatory
  13. Wikipedia’s brief overview of this observer effect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_%28physics%29
  14. FYI: Zajonc blogs about meditation and mindfulness for @PsychToday at http://psychologytoday.com/blog/the-meditative-life.
  15. Zajonc - He has been a meditator for a long time. Thought he was alone but then found 35 courses in his college that including meditation
  16. Zajonc - Contemplative traditions very effective in cultivating attention which is the best thing we have to offer world, esp in education
  17. Zajonc-Contemplative tradition separated from spirituality has HUGE place in education for attention reasons and as a way of reasoning
  18. Zajonc-If science is born from epiphanies, then reflection and contemplation (from meditation) is useful as a mode of inquiry
  19. Ricard is example of highly trained scientist who went to live with Dalai Lama & bridges both side http://bit.ly/3pekim
  20. Zajonc-teachers can do a competent job of posing technical theories with questions-what it means to know, exist, etc
  21. Zajonc-Discovered Steiner http://www.anthroposophy.org/ and his path of inquiry. Known now for his Waldorf School
  22. Zajonc - the paradox of light is that it makes everything visible and yet it itself is invisible
  23. Zajonc-For Steiner that wasn’t a metaphor, but pointed to something spiritual
  24. Behind the glass we hear Zajonc’s squeaky chair. Technical director Chris will be able to clean some-not all-of it in post-production
  25. Zajonc says that the word technology comes from the word “techne” which means “art.”
  26. Zajonc says the clarity that comes from a reflective life brings clarity… you see things you didn’t see before…a responsibility/burden
  27. Zajonc says the clarity that comes from a reflective life brings clarity… you see things you didn’t see before…a responsibility/burden
  28. Zajonc was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a year ago. KT asks how his contemplative practice has overlapped with this.
  29. Zajonc has had family members with Parkinsons. He’s seen its progression in others. “learn to hold your life even more consciously.”
  30. Zajonc quotes Mary Oliver - “What are you going to do with this one wild precious life?”
  31. Zajonc speaks about his friends-not just how he’s holding his Parkinsons but how they hold it too.
  32. When Zajonc sleeps, his Parkinson’s tremors disappear.
  33. Zajonc: “The question I pose to myself is it possible to be alive…and have such calm…that one can lead a life…”
  34. Zajonc: “…expression of that quality of meditative quiescence…alert and at rest. Bringing sleeping life into day life.”
  35. KT’s last question is about mystery and Zajonc’s take on it.
  36. Zajonc says that mind/body/spirit - each requires cultivation. “Bring all of who we are to what the world is.”
  37. Zajonc ends w/favorite William James quote 1909. “Let empiricism once become associated with religion…” http://bit.ly/bWUDoE