How do we prime our brains to take the meandering mental paths necessary for creativity? New techniques of brain imaging, neuroscientist Rex Jung says, are helping us gain a whole new view on the differences between intelligence, creativity, and personality.
“With intelligence, there’s the analogy I’ve used is there’s this superhighway in the brain that allows you to get from point A to point B. With creativity, it’s a slower, more meandering process where you want to take the side roads and even the dirt roads to get there.”
One of our most popular interviews in which Dr. Jung unsettles some old assumptions — and suggests some new connections between creativity and family life, creativity and aging, and creativity and purpose.
Eckhart Tolle and the Kingdom of Heaven Within
A spectral projection from a stained glass window near the interior entrance to the Sisters’ Chapel, the oldest part of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Gary Bridgman / Flickr)
To listen to Eckhart Tolle is to be reminded that anything is possible — for anyone.
I’m not talking about living a life of leisure filled with expensive cars, beach homes, and extravagant vacations, but an experience brimming with the kind of spiritual insights that not only make this life worth living but decidedly more fulfilling. The problem is, whenever you say “spiritual insight” there’s often the assumption that you’re talking about something too ethereal to be practical or too elusive to be achieved in this lifetime.
This is exactly the point that one of the world’s most well-known spiritual teachers and authors rebuffed during a talk he gave this past February at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education:
“Some people awaken spiritually without ever coming into contact with any meditation technique or any spiritual teaching,” he said. “They may waken simply because they can’t stand the suffering anymore.”
This book trailer for Andrew Solomon’s new book Far from the Tree is really well-done. To be able to witness the love between these people and the moving personal stories are grounded in the grit of experience. You forget this is a promotional video to sell his book, which I’m now reading with zeal.
The More Alert We Are in Our Bodies, The More Compassionate and Connected We Become to the World Around Us
by Krista Tippett, host
U.S. culture glorifies “perfect” bodies. At the other end of that spectrum, we champion people who fight when their bodies fail. Matthew Sanford has charted another way. In his lyrical memoir, he describes how he learned to live in his whole body again, despite an irreversible paralysis, in part through the practice of yoga. And like every story well told, his contains lessons that reach beyond the confines of one person’s experience.
Here is the kind of passage — one of several Matthew reads in this show — that made me want to understand more.
“I am forced to feel death — not the end of my life, but the death of my life as a walking person. In principle my experience is not that uncommon, only more extreme. If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying. The death of a loved one sets so much in motion … Then there are also the quiet deaths. How about the day you realized you weren’t going to be an astronaut or the Queen of Sheba? … What about the day we began working not for ourselves, but rather with the hope that our kids might have a better life? Or the day we realized that, on the whole, adult life is deeply repetitive? As our lives roll into the ordinary, when our ideals sputter and dissipate, as we wash the dishes after yet another meal, we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying so that another part can live.”
The “mind-body connection” is a somewhat controversial phrase, a new-age notion to some, though it has been studied and described scientifically in a multitude of forms in recent years. I have spoken with scientists engaged in that work, but none of them has impressed me with the reality of the mind-body connection as Matthew Sanford does by his mere presence.
For over a quarter century, as a result of a car accident that killed his father and sister, he has been in a wheelchair. Yet I’ve rarely sat across from a person so alive, a body so palpably whole and wholly energetic as his. He has knitted his mind and body back together again over a quarter century, wresting wholeness through layers of cultural denial.
As we speak, Matthew Sanford makes me aware of the seamless cooperation of my mind and uninjured body, a synergy most of us take completely for granted. I stand up and walk as soon as the desire crosses my mind; I gesture with my hands to illustrate an idea I am passionate about; I shake my foot as my own engagement in conversation rises.
This kind of fluid connection was severed in Sanford. Yet as he struggled to come to terms with his body’s new realities during years of recovery and violent corrective surgeries, he encountered another kind of mind-body connection that our culture practices instinctively, reflexively. We celebrate those who battle adversity, triumph over obstacles, beat the odds. We love the 80-year-old man who runs a marathon, the injured hero who never gives up pursuing the technology that will enable him to walk again. This is the mind-body connection translated as a battle of will over matter.
Matthew Sanford heeded these kinds of images for many years. He accepted the advice that he should declare the lower half of his body dead and pour all of his energy into creating bodybuilder arms. He lived for years, he says, feeling like a floating upper torso. Then in a time of renewed pain he gave yoga a try. He was fortunate to have a first teacher who specialized in Iyengar yoga.
Iyengar focuses on precision and alignment, qualities Sanford’s body needed and could grasp. Through yoga, he came to a conviction that healing, for him, did not have to mean walking again. Yet he learned to experience his paralyzed limbs in a new way. He describes it as a subtle sensation of energy to which he has patiently learned to attune himself, an alternative to the crisp and clear sensation of nerve endings most of us take for granted. He writes, “My mind can feel into my legs.” Speaking with him about this, coming to a vicarious sense of it myself, is fascinating.
We also speak at some length about a fascinating central idea Matthew Sanford has developed in and through his disability. He speaks of the “silence” he encountered where his mind and body stopped communicating with one another. But this core silence is within each of us, only grown more evident through his injury. He describes it variously in his book and in our conversation, as “the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy;” “the place where stress lands;” and “the source of our feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe.”
This is the quality of solitary apartness evoked by the existentialist philosophers. But as Sanford understands it, this silence both separates us from one another and, in its universality, joins us together. In this I sense that Matthew Sanford, through an experience of bodily paralysis, has put new words and a new picture to a core human truth at once both spiritual and physical.
I often feel that I will never be quite the same again after my radio conversations, but rarely is that conviction so tactile and embodied as this time. Through his work with both able-bodied and disabled students of yoga, Matthew Sanford tells me, he sees that the more alert we are in our own bodies, the more compassionate and connected we become to the world around us. Thanks to him, acts like washing the dishes and taking the stairs become moments of gratitude for the grace of my body and all of life.
Seane Corn Demonstrates “Body Prayer”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
For Seane Corn, yoga is much more than a practice in flexibility. It’s a way of applying spiritual lessons to real-world problems and personal issues. One way she channels her energy and love is through a practice she calls “body prayer,” as she shares in this video from Yoga from the Heart.
She shared this perspective about “body prayer” with Krista Tippett in our show, “Yoga, Meditation in Action”:
“I trust that if I do my yoga practice, I’m going to get stronger and more flexible. If I stay in alignment, if I don’t push, if I don’t force, then my body will organically open in time. I know that if I breathe deeply, I’ll oxygenate my body. It has an influence on my nervous system. These things are fixed and I know to be true.
But I also recognize that it’s a mystical practice, and you can use your body as an expression of your devotion. So the way that you place your hands, the ways that you step a foot forward or back, everything is done as an offering. I offer the movements to someone I love or to the healing of the planet. And so if I’m moving from a state of love and my heart is open to that connection between myself and another person or myself and the universe, it becomes an active form of prayer, of meditation, of grace.
And when you’re offering your practice as a gift, as I was in that particular DVD, as I do often, I was offering to my dad who’s very ill. And so when I have an intention behind what I’m doing, then it becomes so fluid. Because if I fall out of a pose I’m not going to swear, I’m not going to get disappointed or frustrated. I’m going to realize that this is my offering, and I don’t want to offer that energy to my father. I only want to offer him my love. And so I let my body reflect that. And when you link the body with the breath, when my focus is solely on getting the pose to embrace the breath that I’m actualizing, then the practice, it’s almost in slow motion.
It has a sense of effortlessness. When people can connect to that, it takes the pressure off of trying to do it perfectly. It just becomes a real expression of their own heart. Sometimes it’s graceful and elegant, other times it’s kind of funky and abstract, but it’s authentic to who the person is. It’s their own poetry.”
Apatheists, Spirituality, and Health
by Eric Nelson, guest contributor
Although we’ve known each other for over 30 years, I can count on half-a-hand the number of times my best friend and I have discussed religion. Ask me to describe his interest in spiritual matters on a scale of 1 to 10 and I’d have to say I don’t really know.
Maybe the best word to describe him is “apatheist,” a term coined by blogger Hemant Mehta, better known as “The Friendly Atheist.”
Apatheists or “So Whats,” to borrow a phrase from USA Today religion writer, Cathy Lynn Grossman, aren’t necessarily people who don’t believe in God. They’re just not particularly interested in exploring the subject further.
Many reasons are given as to why, but the bottom line is that a lot folks are simply giving up on the search for ultimate meaning. Forty-four percent of those who participated in a recent Baylor University Religion Survey said they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom.” Nineteen percent said, “It’s useless to search for meaning.”
That’s too bad, especially since there’s so much evidence to the contrary from people who have found that meaning and purpose and spiritual inspiration actually animates and empowers their life. But acknowledging this spiritual dimension does even more. It has a positive effect on health.
Just ask medical researcher, Gail Ironson.
Dr. Ironson conducted a study to determine the relationship between spiritual consciousness and the progression of AIDS. She looked at two key factors: viral load, which lets you know how much of the virus is in your body, and immune cells, which work to fend off the AIDS virus. Over a four-year period she noticed that those who were actively cultivating a spiritual outlook had a much lower viral load and maintained immune cells at a noticeably higher rate than those who consciously disavowed such activity.
As promising as this sounds, it may not be enough to get the spiritually apathetic to change course. For some, perhaps even most, it’s going to take a fundamentally different perspective on the underlying concepts of God and religion — a sort of cost-benefit analysis, if you will.
What might inspire such a shift in perspective depends, of course, on the individual involved. Regardless, it’s likely that more could be done on the part of those already engaged in spiritual pursuits in terms of sharing with others the benefits of their quest.
Not the least of which is better health.
Eric Nelson is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. He also works as a Christian Science practitioner, helping those interested in relying solely on the power of prayer for healing.
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Compassion Is a Skill to Be Developed Through Practice
by Krista Tippett, host
Matthieu Ricard looks on as Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point to children in Vancouver, Canada. (photo: Linda Lane/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
The title we’ve given this week’s show, “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” is slightly tongue-in-cheek. It appeared in a British newspaper after the publication of scientific study results on Matthieu Ricard’s brain. He dismisses this label and has issued many good-natured disclaimers. We’ve revived it here, however, because of the lovely way in which Matthieu Ricard fills that phrase with a whole new range of savvy, satisfying meaning.
I certainly found myself identifying with Ricard’s descriptions, in his own writing, of his youthful, worldly-wise dismissal of “happiness” as a goal. I too was dismissive, well into adulthood, of the very word “happiness” and its overwhelming associations with the dream-come-true state that ends movies, for example, or the happiness as “having it all” American way.
But Matthieu Ricard puts words to what I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. He accomplishes that as much with his ideas as with his presence. He is a slightly incongruous yet wholly comfortable Frenchman swathed in the lavish gold and red of Tibetan monastic robes, with practical shoes beneath. He is at once sophisticated and mischievous, intellectual and childlike — something, that is, like his teacher the Dalai Lama. It was a privilege to experience them both at a series of gatherings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were in conversation with Nobel laureates, scientists, social activists, and educators. We converted a tenth-floor suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, aptly named and somewhat surreal, into a production suite for this interview, which you can view as well as hear on our site.
I am fascinated by the way in which science is interwoven with Matthieu Ricard’s life story as well as his current work with the Dalai Lama and his very definition of the spiritual quest. He is one of those so-called “Olympic meditators” — people who have meditated tens of thousands of hours and whose brains have been studied and yielded important new insights into something called neuroplasticity — the human brain’s capacity to alter across the life span. This is a fairly recent and fairly dramatic — and not uncontroversial — discovery that came about as a result of research involving the Mind and Life Institute — a fascinating dialogue with scientists from many disciplines that the Dalai Lama has been hosting for many years.
Matthieu Ricard actually began his life as a molecular biologist, working with a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris. His decision to leave France for a Buddhist monastic path greatly perplexed his father, Jean-François Revel, a philosopher who was a pillar of French intellectual life. But as he describes in a literary dialogue with his father that was published as The Monk and the Philosopher, Tibetan Buddhism was less of a departure in his mind than in his father’s.
He had become drawn to the spiritual masters, who would later become his teachers and eventually his peers, leading lives of integrity. And there was a very personal, full-circle integrity in his love of the natural world that had manifest itself in part in biological research — and in his appreciation for Buddhist spirituality as a life shaped by what he describes as “contemplative science.” I am utterly fascinated by the echoes between science and spirituality that Matthieu Ricard has continued to pursue and that we discuss together in this show.
Will neuroscience one day be able to not merely describe the movement of neurons and brain chemistry but add its own vocabulary to the meaning and nature of human consciousness, as related to or distinct from the brain? And how can we not be fascinated by the evocative echoes between the way quantum physicists have come to describe energy and matter and the way Buddhist philosophy has always described the interconnectedness and impermanence of human experience and all of life? Our understanding of the intersection of mind, life, body, and however you want to define the human spirit continues to unfold and develop, and is one of the most intriguing frontiers of this century.
The Dismantling of Lives: Coming Through for Someone Else
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
“It’s a prime time of my life, and I basically gave it away.”
Julie Winokur uprooted her husband Ed Kashi and two children from San Francisco, California to New Jersey to take care of Herbie, her 83-year-old father with dementia. This film is an intimate portrait of a family who is “doing the right thing” but are struggling with the demands of caregiving and managing daily lives of work and school.
You witness the love and the anguish of a multi-generational household making things work; it seems like the mental health of all, especially Julie, are in peril. The stakes are high, but so are the consequences if they chose a different course.
Although “The Sandwich Generation” primarily focuses on the voices of the caregivers, the most agonizing and heartbreaking part of the film comes at about the seven-minute mark. In this scene, a deconstruction crew is cleaning out Herbie’s home that he’s lived in for more than 40 years. Glass is crashing, boxes of his personal items are being heaved into a dumpster, and he’s left standing in his garage holding an old set of golf clubs he doesn’t want to let go. We never really get to know the man at the core of this picture. He’s discussed, he’s photographed, he’s cared for, he even sings a little at the end, but he remains on the periphery in a sense. And this scene grabs the onlooker and shakes us.
Looking for an image that could capture the depth of this week’s show on the “far shore of aging” resulted in this complicated portrait on the spectrum of caregiving from MediaStorm. But it also introduced me to an incredible series of photographs by Ed Kashi titled “Aging in America.” Eight years later, it’s more important now than ever.