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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.
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What Might Autism Teach Me about What It Means to Be Human

by Krista Tippett, host

Paul Collins's bookPhoto by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr, cc 2.0

The Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families.

General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature. And when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of Autism, I knew I’d found a way in.

During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.

Some of our programs feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable.

The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.

Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. You can read a beautiful essay by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould about his son with autism.

Paul writes this:

"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."

There is more in this hour of radio than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.

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Complicated Grief: How to Lessen Pain that Persists

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Angel of GriefStatue of an angel grieving in a cemetery in Houston, Texas. (photo: Timothy Faust/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

There is no pain so great as the memory of joy in present grief. ~Aeschylus

UCLA researchers found that grief over losing a loved one can take an extreme form of bereavement, stimulating the part of the brain normally associated with reward and addiction. This is called “complicated grief” and the name alone gives more weight and depth to our varied experiences of loss.

This phrase is being considered for addition to the 2012 DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook for diagnosing mental disorders. There is no formal definition, but The New York Times describes its symptoms as:

"… a yearning for the loved one so intense that it strips a person of other desires. Life has no meaning; joy is out of bounds. Other symptoms include intrusive thoughts about death; uncontrollable bouts of sadness, guilt and other negative emotions; and a preoccupation with, or avoidance of, anything associated with the loss."

Observed differences in brain scans

The nucleus accumbens (NA) is the part of the brain associated with reward and addiction. Participants in the study were asked to view images of their lost loved ones paired with words about their loss. The people who showed the most devastating patterns of grieving also showed more activation in the NA.

Mary-Frances O’Connor, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, who used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor brain activity told the Times: “It’s as if the brain were saying, ‘Yes I’m anticipating seeing this person’ and yet ‘I am not getting to see this person.’ The mismatch is very painful.”

Hope for treatment

Though bereavement research and training is very limited, there are some clinical trials in the works modeling treatment of victims of PTSD.

The patient undergoes the painful task of recalling the death in detail while the therapist records the session on tape. Then the patient must listen to the tape at their home daily with a goal of learning that their grief can be put away or picked up again on their own terms, just as one can do with a tape. Also patients are asked to focus on future goals without their loved one.

Asking a bereaved person to compartmentalize and relive their pain in this way sounds painful, even insensitive. However, the method has shown signs of success and is an important early step in understanding this underserved population of sufferers.

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Touching our Trembling Places: A Generational Story for Yom HaShoah

by Iris Tzafrir, guest contributor

Eisenmann Memorial, BerlinA balloon flies over Eisenmann Memorial in Berlin. (photo: Danny/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Our household was a heavy one. I always felt the presence of sadness and loss; those emotions were part of everything that took place in our family, including birthdays and personal achievements. I knew where the sadness and sense of loss came from, to an extent, from stories that Aba (my father Yehoshua) told — and from his writings.

Growing up, I did not want to touch those places where the sadness and loss came from. Ouri, my oldest brother, calls these hard to touch places hamekomot harotetim, “the trembling places” inside of us.

As I matured, I came to believe that, if I got courageous and got close to these trembling places, I might be able to help myself and those I love to heal from that sadness and sense of loss. And maybe eventually this package of sadness and loss would not be so overwhelming and heavily present in my life.

A Murdered Family Made More Real

A Sign on the Wall of BelzecA wall at the entry to the Belzec extermination camp in Poland reads: “This is the site of the murder of about 500,000 victims of the Belzec death camp established for the purpose of killing the Jews of Europe, whose live where brutally taken between February and December 1942 by Nazi Germany. ‘Earth do not cover my blood; / let there be no resting / place for my outcry!’ Job 16:18’.” (photo: Iris Tzafrir)

Last year, my siblings and I traveled for the first time with Aba to Poland and Germany to visit places of significance in Aba’s life before and during the Shoah. Belzec is an extermination camp located in Lublin county in eastern Poland, where we believe Aba’s parents and four younger siblings were murdered during the spring of 1941.

We prepared to conduct a memorial ceremony with kipot (head coverings), memory candles, and poetry written by Aba. My brother Assaf opened the ceremony, saying that we were gathered there in memory of our grandfather Tuvia, our grandmother Miriam, and our uncles and aunts Schiendel, Israel, Tzvi, Sara-Eitah, Roza, and Yehudit.

We then read Aba’s poem, “In the Illumination of Lightning”:

In the illumination of lightning
I saw a frightened boy in an open field
Distancing himself from a well-branched aspen that is being severed at once.
Gashes of a downpour are beating on his back
And the tears of his face mix with the water columns.
Such powerlessness.

As the flood silences down he will come into his ark
Wondering from what will he construct his world that was destroyed.

It was hard reading Aba’s poems to completion without choking and spilling into tears. Working our way through the ceremony was about courage. I felt courageous standing and reading Aba’s poems in Belzec, memorializing with purpose our murdered family members whom we had never met.

The ceremony made our murdered family more real than before because I now had a place to associate with the sense of sadness and loss absorbed from Aba over the years. I knew that it made Aba feel good to see us being courageous. It was an attribute that was held in high esteem in our family: you don’t run away when a situation is hard; you stay and grind through it, if necessary, because something beneficial, albeit hidden, might come out of such situation.

A Journey to Renewal and Healing

At the Gate of AuschwitzIris Tzafrir, her father Yehoshua (seated in wheelchair), and her siblings Ouri, Ora, and Assaf stand at the entrance to the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland. (photo: Iris Tzafrir)

We concluded our 10-day trip on the grounds of Block 66 in Buchenwald, Germany, where Aba arrived after a death march that started in Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). Aba described his liberation moments on April 11th, 1945: an American tank went through the main gate of Buchenwald, and from the top of the tank a black soldier came out and said: “You are free.”

Standing on the grounds of Block 66, Ouri pushed Aba for details, reaching to touch a trembling place, trying to frame the enormity of the moment.

“How did you see the black soldier? How did you hear him say ‘You are free?’”

Aba answered crying, “You hear these words everywhere; after all the atrocities we went through, these words come from the heavens.”

Between Tishah Be’aav, the day memorializing the destruction of the Temple, and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Jewish people read from the book of Isaiah. In chapter 54, verses 7-9, God promises:

"For a brief moment I forsake you, but I will gather you with great compassion; in an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says God, your Redeemer; this is like the waters of Noah to me; I swore that the waters of Noah would never again submerge the earth; similarly, I swore that I would not be angry with you and would not rebuke you.”
—from The Living Torah, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

When I listen to Aba recalling himself as a small boy holding on to his mother’s hand when they walked together to the Thursday market in Dombrova, near Krakow, I ask, “How could You leave us, even for a moment? In the one brief moment that the prophet Isaiah talks about, I feel that You have forsaken the boy in the ‘Illumination of Lightning’”:

As the flood silences down he will come into his ark
Wondering from what will he construct his world that was destroyed
.”

We read from Isaiah during the transition period from destruction to renewal. The trip we took is part of our family’s attempt to get closer to our trembling places where we feel anger, sadness, and loss of trust. Now that we have visited the trembling places as the real places that they are, we are able to continually use them as sources for reflection in our journey to renewal and healing. We find such renewal and healing by creating anew:

What is good in life is to create.
To create, from what is and from what is not.
To breath life into a clean fresh page,
Line to line, crossing and toasting each other.
Forms coalesce in the real and in the abstract
Leading you in awe among mazes.
Do not fear, Ariadne in a thread of grace
Will bring you into light.

Mix the colors, knead the material,
Slightly swing with your hammer and determinedly remove
Oddments that seize beauty.

Creation is born in pain,
Because you have to start anew.
What is good in creating, is that you never conclude.

—“What is Good in Life” by Yehoshua Tzafrir, translated from Hebrew by Iris Tzafrir


Iris TzafrirIris Tzafrir is an Israeli who has been living in the United States for the last 20 years. Trained as a scientist, she manages intellectual property transactions in the agriculture industry. She regularly speaks and writes about being a second generation of Shoah survivors.

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

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Clint Eastwood and David Lynch Teach 10,000 Veterans to Meditate with Operation Warrior Wellness

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The filmmaker David Lynch has been a vocal advocate of transcendental meditation for some time now. But I’m quite intrigued with the work that his foundation is doing with returning veterans. The national initiative they are calling “Operation Warrior Wellness” aims to “teach 10,000 veterans and their families a simple meditation practice for preventing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Their kick-off event is this morning and they are streaming live video at 11 Eastern from the Paley Center for Media in New York.  It looks like their will be a healthy line-up of celebrities (Clint Eastwood and David Lynch), scientific researchers, and war veterans who “will present evidence showing that Transcendental Meditation can be an effective aid for veterans suffering from combat stress and PTSD, including anxiety, depression, anger episodes, hypervigilance, insomnia, and substance abuse.”

While you wait, here’s a short video the David Lynch Foundation produced featuring veterans and their experiences with meditation:

If you watch this, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas about what they’re doing.

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Sacred SpacesAndy Dayton, associate web producer
A few weeks ago I took a break to attend a week-long retreat in rural Wisconsin. A change of setting was refreshing, and perhaps necessary. Much of my week was spent walking through open fields and gardens, a nice contrast to my cubicle here at SOF headquarters. I also went on two excursions to some unique and inspiring places: Frank Lloyd Wright’s summer home Taliesin, and Deer Park Buddhist Center.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. (photo: Andy Dayton)
Both of these spaces seemed to compliment each other as meeting spaces of the old and new. Taliesin’s modern-looking organic architecture was aged to the point that it almost seemed to crumble into the hillside, while Deer Park’s traditional Buddhist decorations were placed on a brand new, modern building. Both spaces carried a certain weight that stuck with me, especially the interior of Deer Park’s temple, which you see pictured at top.
Fitting then that I returned to a staff discussion about Esther Sternberg’s new book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being. I’ve only just started reading it, but the book focuses on the relationship between health and the spaces we inhabit — an idea that I can easily connect with my week in Wisconsin. We’ve talked to Sternberg before — first as a voice for our program "Stress and the Balance Within," then again as part of our Repossessing Virtue series. Sternberg’s book has been showing up in some unexpected places, and it’s raised the question of whether we might have another conversation with her. I look forward to continuing her book, and perhaps hearing from her again.
The view from Taliesin. (photo: Liz Sexe)
Image at top: inside the Deer Park Buddhist Temple. (photo: Liz Sexe)
Sacred SpacesAndy Dayton, associate web producer
A few weeks ago I took a break to attend a week-long retreat in rural Wisconsin. A change of setting was refreshing, and perhaps necessary. Much of my week was spent walking through open fields and gardens, a nice contrast to my cubicle here at SOF headquarters. I also went on two excursions to some unique and inspiring places: Frank Lloyd Wright’s summer home Taliesin, and Deer Park Buddhist Center.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. (photo: Andy Dayton)
Both of these spaces seemed to compliment each other as meeting spaces of the old and new. Taliesin’s modern-looking organic architecture was aged to the point that it almost seemed to crumble into the hillside, while Deer Park’s traditional Buddhist decorations were placed on a brand new, modern building. Both spaces carried a certain weight that stuck with me, especially the interior of Deer Park’s temple, which you see pictured at top.
Fitting then that I returned to a staff discussion about Esther Sternberg’s new book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being. I’ve only just started reading it, but the book focuses on the relationship between health and the spaces we inhabit — an idea that I can easily connect with my week in Wisconsin. We’ve talked to Sternberg before — first as a voice for our program "Stress and the Balance Within," then again as part of our Repossessing Virtue series. Sternberg’s book has been showing up in some unexpected places, and it’s raised the question of whether we might have another conversation with her. I look forward to continuing her book, and perhaps hearing from her again.
The view from Taliesin. (photo: Liz Sexe)
Image at top: inside the Deer Park Buddhist Temple. (photo: Liz Sexe)

Sacred Spaces
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

A few weeks ago I took a break to attend a week-long retreat in rural Wisconsin. A change of setting was refreshing, and perhaps necessary. Much of my week was spent walking through open fields and gardens, a nice contrast to my cubicle here at SOF headquarters. I also went on two excursions to some unique and inspiring places: Frank Lloyd Wright’s summer home Taliesin, and Deer Park Buddhist Center.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. (photo: Andy Dayton)

Both of these spaces seemed to compliment each other as meeting spaces of the old and new. Taliesin’s modern-looking organic architecture was aged to the point that it almost seemed to crumble into the hillside, while Deer Park’s traditional Buddhist decorations were placed on a brand new, modern building. Both spaces carried a certain weight that stuck with me, especially the interior of Deer Park’s temple, which you see pictured at top.

Fitting then that I returned to a staff discussion about Esther Sternberg’s new book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being. I’ve only just started reading it, but the book focuses on the relationship between health and the spaces we inhabit — an idea that I can easily connect with my week in Wisconsin. We’ve talked to Sternberg before — first as a voice for our program "Stress and the Balance Within," then again as part of our Repossessing Virtue series. Sternberg’s book has been showing up in some unexpected places, and it’s raised the question of whether we might have another conversation with her. I look forward to continuing her book, and perhaps hearing from her again.

The view from Taliesin
The view from Taliesin. (photo: Liz Sexe)

Image at top: inside the Deer Park Buddhist Temple. (photo: Liz Sexe)

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The Ceaseless Society
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

I’m not going to lie. I’m really enjoying Jon Kabat-Zinn. His Google talk introduced me to some very simple techniques that I’ve been using lately to help me fall asleep faster. Bedtime is when my mind is freed from all restraints, unfortunately. That’s when the hamsters go nuts, and it usually takes me an hour to fall asleep, on average. But just breathing the way Jon Kabat-Zinn shows has helped me bring my ETA to sleep down to about 15 minutes. Joy.

He jokes about how, in the 1960s, while some Westerners were heading off to forest refuges in India to learn to meditate, counterintuitively, he discovered meditation at perhaps the most accomplished technical institute in the world, MIT. Here he is back at MIT in 2006 to talk about the increasingly hectic pace of life in the 21st century. (He gets on stage around the 18:00 minute mark.)

In his conversation with Krista, Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about one aspect of that hectic life: our 24/7 networked reality and the difficulty it poses. In some sense, I think this is going to be a generational thing, a matter of conditioning. But one worthwhile question he asks is, “Who are we going to be without the technology?” I’ve been thinking about this alongside my recent discovery of Ray Kurzweil and his thoughts on the future of human evolution, A.I., and digital networks. I’ll be set to retire around the time the singularity happens in 2045, and by that time, apparently, we might be living in some kind of Matrix society (i.e. lots of trench coats and sunglasses?).

Here I am blogging on the Web about how networked we all are and will continue to be. Well, fine, I can’t escape. The machines have me. OK, time to take a breath. I could choose to be paralyzed by the immensity of the big problems of civilization or the little ones in my life, or I could just…whew…relax a little bit, stop freaking out, and start each day fresh.

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A Culture of Availability to Everybody But Yourself?

by Trent Gilliss, online editor

Perhaps this TEDtalk gets at the heart of the matter. In the second half of our upcoming show with Jon Kabat-Zinn (first available in podcast on Thursday morning), he argues, to some degree, that the accelerated pace of technology and its significance in our lives doesn’t allow us to be mindful, to live in the present. All this communication and digital connectedness actually creates an inner dissonance — a disconnectedness with our own selves.

One memorable moment in Krista’s interview: Kabat-Zinn describes a person viewing a sunset. Instead of simply taking it in, he says, we either are thinking about how we might write about it (or perhaps tweet or blog it), or, that certain somebody standing next to you actually has to gab away and tell you how gorgeous it is — which completely removes you from the moment of recognition and contemplation. In other words, we have this compulsion to do something with the moment in order to make it meaningful. We are not being mindful.

In the video above, the presenter includes a couple images that capture something that Kabat-Zinn is getting at. In one photo, a girl is actually extending her arm with her camera while kissing her boyfriend. But, it looks awkward, inauthentic, dispassionate because you can tell her real interest is in telling the later story. Her body, her eyes, her lips are oriented more toward the iris of the lens than the irises of the boy. And, in another intimate setting of a public nature, a crowd of onlookers are almost all holding up their devices capturing the moment while the Obamas stand on stage in celebration.

I’m guilty of both, and then some. You?

Renny Gleeson wraps it up quite succinctly in his post-event blog post:

With all this connection comes the danger that in our mad rush to be everywhere, we end up nowhere. That the technology we use to connect, actually separates and isolates.

Kabat-Zinn isn’t necessarily gloomy about the technology onslaught though. He notes that the steep learning curve in learning how to deal with and incorporate this availability into our lives will be achieved. We, as individuals and as a society, just may have to bottom out first in order to create the balance within.

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Alzheimer’s, Memory, Being

Krista Tippett, Host

This week’s program is another one that draws on my past and tugs fiercely at my heart. I write about my formative, wonderful, heartbreaking experience as a chaplain to Alzheimer’s patients in my online journal this week. When I wrote my book a couple of years ago, I had to recognize the men and women I came to love who had Alzheimer’s as being among my greatest teachers. And I found in Alan Dienstag the wise teacher and conversation partner about this experience that I’d been waiting for, without knowing it, all these years. He wrote to me afterwards that the conversation was very nourishing for him, almost therapeutic, and it felt that way for me too.

Like the best of conversations that delve deeply into particular human experiences and passions, as Trent noted after he heard the interview, it speaks beyond those particulars to the wider human condition. This is a mystery, and part of the reason I keep doing this work.

I’d also like to do a kind of shout out and thanks here to the Masonic Home and Hospital in Wallingford, Connecticut, where I spent several hours each week over 18 months that are now woven into the fabric of a radio program. Recently out of the blue I received an e-mail — through our show inbox — from Ray Cooley, who was the chaplain there and my mentor and supervisor through that experience. It meant so much to me to hear from him and to know that he’s listening!

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Depression and Me

Krista Tippett, Host

We’re putting our show about depression on the air again this week. It’s been over two years since it has been broadcast, and, as always with rebroadcasts, we went in and refined and hopefully made it better. But this is essentially the show we created six years ago, which people discover all the time online.

Some have told us it has helped keep them alive. This kind of effect of our work is humbling and amazing beyond words. But in every way this show is unusual. It is more personally revealing for me than anything else we’ve done. I feel vulnerable knowing it will be out there in the ether again in coming days.

In my journal this week, as in the program script, I “disclose” that when we first created this program I took the making of it as an occasion to walk with some trepidation back through the spiritual territory of despair. I have a bit of the same sense now, airing it again, because that dark place seems a bit closer to me this February than I’m happy to admit. It’s a long, cold, depressing month in a frankly depressing moment in time, and I’m very tired.

As I prepared for those interviews years ago, and conducted them, I worried that peering down into that abyss again — even in memory, or vicariously through conversation with others — might send me into it. It did not. It was a clarifying, strengthening experience; one that made me grateful to be at a remove where I could in fact learn from depression rather than be enveloped by it. But I will stress here — as much for myself as for anyone reading — that we are not in a place to find spiritual enlightenment when we are in the throes of this illness.

Just in recent weeks, I had a new conversation with Parker Palmer, in which we both found wisdom on economic depression in some of the ways he had talked to me about clinical depression all those years ago. But hearing this show again right now, I’m personally most held and strangely comforted by Andrew Solomon and especially Anita Barrows’ insistence that emerging from depression — “healing” if you will — doesn’t mean leaving darkness behind. It means being aware and whole enough to accept dark months and dark times as expressions of human vitality.

Those of us who have struggled with depression live imprinted with its reality — and the terrifying possibility of its recurrence — ever after. It is a gift, albeit an uncomfortable one, to live on this side of health where I can accept darkness as a companion, not a teacher when it is as close as this, yet an essential thread of the life that is mine.

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