Joseph Campbell. His writings on semiotics, comparative religion and mythology (in particular ‘The Power of Myth’ and ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’) helped inspire the framework on which I built my character Robert Langdon. The PBS interview series with Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers was hands down the most thought-provoking conversation I’ve ever witnessed. Campbell’s breadth of knowledge about the origins of religious belief enabled him to respond with clarity and logic to some very challenging questions about contradictions inherent in faith, religion, and scripture. I remember admiring Campbell’s matter-of-fact responses and wanting my own character Langdon to project that same respectful understanding when faced with complex spiritual issues.
—Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, in response to being asked about the one writer he could meet, dead or alive, during an interview for The New York Times Sunday Book Review.
Of all the people he could meet, I must admit that I’m rather surprised to see it is JC.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Aztlan, Anew: U.S. Latinos Leave Catholic Church to Seek Ancestral Heritage
"What we’re doing is praying with our feet, with our bodies."
Centzi Millia, a 31-year-old Aztec dance instructor prepares for an afternoon class, wrapping her long blonde dreads into a bun and gathering small children into a circle. “We honor the Mother Earth with our bare feet, and the vibrations we create — the Mother Earth as a living being feels those vibrations.”
The dance starts in a flurry of drum beats and the bass jangling of Ms. Millia’s chachayotl, the thick anklets of Aztec danzantes made of rattling seed pods.
"It was actually at Knott’s Berry Farm, of all places, that I discovered the danza,” Ms. Millia says after class, sitting in the sunlight of Kuruvunga Springs, a remnant site of the ancient Tongva people nestled between Santa Monica Boulevard and Wilshire. “My parents would say those were the dances our people used to do, but that’s as far as they would tell me.”
Eighteen years later, Ms. Millia is one of several Aztec dance teachers in Southern California. A child of Mexican immigrants, she represents part of a trend among Latinos in the U.S. who are shifting away from the Roman Catholic Church. Though the Church still holds sway among new immigrants from Latin America, the children of these immigrants have been turning toward forms of Protestantism or are choosing not to affiliate with any type of religion.
However, Ms. Millia and some of her second- and third-generation peers raised in traditional Catholic households have left the Church not to follow any alternate form of Christianity or atheism, but to pursue the spiritual paths of their pre-Christian ancestors. As she pursued dance, Ms. Millia’s elders taught her how it was reshaped and used as a tool by Spanish conquerors to lure the local people away from their native, or indigenous, beliefs and toward Catholicism.
Instead of dancing for Mother Earth, Ms. Millia says that dances became offerings to the Virgin Mary. The special days of celebration for the native people became Catholic holidays. These kinds of revelations pushed her away from the church.
All this journalistic analysis around the ‘Nones’ as the demise of religion. But so many of them are ethically and spiritually passionate. The new non-religious represent the evolution of faith, not its demise. They will restore the great traditions to their own deepest truths.
There is something very comforting about ritual. I have friends who go to church or sit at the Zen center. I respect that. The ritual of writing fills that need for me. Writing has been a kind of spiritual devotion for me. Listening to language, feeling stories unfold and poems arrive, being present to the page – I do not think of it as a career, I think of it as a devotion. That is a big difference to me.
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.”
The Act of Parenting Is Folding the Towels in a Sweet Way
by Krista Tippett, host
I picked up Sylvia Boorstein’s lovely book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, years ago and loved it. Then, several years later, I found myself on a panel discussion with her and loved her in person.
I was struck in that discussion by one story she told, about a man who participated in one of her meditation and Metta or “lovingkindness” retreats; she conducts these for Buddhist practitioners but also for rabbis and clergy and lay people of many traditions. As this man prepared to pack up and go home, he described an unsettling sense of vulnerability, of openness to life which also meant that his defenses were down. He felt blessedly sheltered in the context of that retreat but far too exposed to take his newfound vulnerability out into the world.
This has its corollary in becoming a parent, I think. One’s sense of sovereignty and safety goes into freefall — and stays there. But no one tells you this in advance! As the French theologian Louis Evely beautifully put it:
"(W)hen one becomes a father, or a mother, one suddenly sees oneself as vulnerable, in the most sensitive part of one’s being; one is completely powerless to defend oneself, one is no longer free, one is tied up. To become a father is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart."
So how to live, how to love, how to know what we can do (and what we can’t) to raise children who will participate in the world’s beauty and its pain and be safe inside their skin. This too is a conundrum, a daunting challenge that we rarely name together. But it is always there if we are raising children not merely to be successful (and there’s lots of advice about that), but to be good and grounded and kind.
I went into this conversation with Sylvia Boorstein hoping for some practical wisdom about imparting such qualities of character. In the course of our time together, some of it in exchange with an audience of people with children in their lives, we circled back to the simplest and most daunting reality of all: our children are likely, in the end, to act and live as we act and live. Nurturing their inner lives means nurturing our inner lives, for their sakes.
I couldn’t have found a better conversation partner on this. Sylvia Boorstein has four grown children and seven grandchildren, and her spiritual practice is blessedly reality-based. Buddhism, of course, is at its core about embracing reality head on, about minimizing suffering in life by first acknowledging that suffering is a fact of life and resolving not to make it worse.
So, as she describes, this spiritual practice has helped her grasp that her lifelong tendency to worry is simply a quality she possesses, no more remarkable than the fact that, as she puts it, she is short and has brown hair. Others of us may have a tendency towards anger, or to reach for sensory comfort when life throws its curve balls. The trick for achieving balance and joy in our own lives — a trick made both harder and more important by the presence of children who exhaust as well as delight us — is first to know this about ourselves.
Spiritual parenting, as Sylvia Boorstein describes it, is not about adding work or effort to our overly busy lives. It is about self-knowledge and “wise effort” that helps us live gracefully moment by moment. It is manifest as much in how we fold the laundry as in how we discipline or praise our children. She offers this, for example, as a simple piece of effort that can reorient our attitudes and responses in all kinds of situations. Rather than asking, “Am I pleased?” in any given situation, we can ask instead, “In this moment, am I able to care?”
Meredith Monk’s Voice: A Sensory Experience That Reaches Beyond Anything in Print
by Krista Tippett, host
The singer and composer Meredith Monk is a kind of archeologist of the human voice. She’s also an archeologist of the human soul, with a long-time Buddhist practice. Through music and meditation, she reaches to places in human experience where words get in the way — and she shared with me what she has learned about mercy and meaning, about spirit and play.
For years we here at On Being have meant to, planned to, interview more musicians. Then in the last months, for varying reasons, conversations with Bobby McFerrin, Rosanne Cash, and now Meredith Monk fell into place. What joy.
After this experience with Meredith Monk, I’m shying away from describing her with the label “performance artist.” Her music is avant-garde, but it also feels primal, ancient. She’s called herself an archeologist of the human voice. The woman we meet in this conversation is also an archeologist of the human spirit. She has a long-time Buddhist practice. Playfully, and reflectively, she mines life and art for meaning.
As listeners to On Being know, I begin every conversation, however accomplished or erudite my guest, by learning something about his or her childhood. We can all trace interesting and substantive lines between our origins and our essence, wherever we are in life. These can be joyful. They can painful. But they are raw materials that have formed us. In Meredith Monk’s case, a life in music was almost inevitable; three generations of musicians preceded her. She struggled with eyesight problems and issues with bodily coordination. Her mother — a singer in the golden age of radio — found a program called Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which uses music to create physical alignment. Later on, as a young artist, Meredith Monk describes a moment of “revelation” that the voice could be flexible like the body — fluid like the spine — something that could dance and not merely sing.
She sang before she could speak in any case, as she tells it, and after experimenting with classical musical education in college, she gave herself over to her own distinctive voice, her own art, which is rich with songs that use words sparingly or not at all. As our show with her opens, you hear her singing a hauntingly beautiful piece, “Gotham Lullaby.” It is a demonstration of one of the things she talks about, eloquently, in this conversation — the power of music to reach where words can get in the way. This can be unfamiliar, even uncomfortable for the listener, as for the performer. But it is a deeply human experience, essentially contemplative and yet infused with the emotion that music can convey like no other form of human expression.
There is so much I carry with me out of this interview. It simply enlivens the world, and deepens its hues a bit. “The human voice is the original instrument,” she says, “so you’re going back to the very beginnings of utterance. In a way it’s like the memory of being a human being.”My teenagers stretch me to appreciate that this is the redemptive effect even of music that is strange and unfamiliar to my ears and my body. Meredith Monk brings this home to me as well, but differently.
I’m also challenged by her insistence that in our media-saturated world, we must, for the sake of our souls, continue to seek out direct experiences like live artistic performance. The very point of art, she says, like the very goal of spiritual life as the Buddha saw it, is to wake us up. The sense of transcendence we sometimes feel in these settings is not a separate experience but an effect of being awake, of being fully alive.
But this is too many words. Meredith Monk’s voice, and the radio we’ve crafted from it, is a sensory experience that reaches beyond anything I could print on this page. Listen. And enjoy.
And, if you have some time, I highly recommend listening to our playlist of Meredith Monk’s most meaningful songs from across the years, which she personally selected for us while doing research for my interview. Stream all eleven tracks and listen at your leisure.
Powder and Praise
The way Henrik Sorensen emphasizes the ecstatic nature of his subjects with the use of powder in these spiritual portraits is exquisite. Can’t way to see more.
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The better we understand human psychology and neurology, the more we will uncover the underpinnings of religion. Some of them, like the attachment system, push us toward a belief in gods and make departing from it extraordinarily difficult. But it is possible.
We can be better as a species if we recognize religion as a man-made construct. We owe it to ourselves to at least consider the real roots of religious belief, so we can deal with life as it is, taking advantage of perhaps our mind’s greatest adaptation: our ability to use reason.
—J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a trustee of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Clare Aukofer, a medical writer, have struck a nerve with their op-ed "Science and Religion: God Didn’t Make Man; Man Made Gods" in Monday’s Los Angeles Times.
Like the authors, I marvel at the advances and insights brought about by recent DNA research and neuro-imaging studies. How these findings help us better understand the psychological and physiological underpinnings of our predilections of religious belief is of great value. Perhaps this could help us understand people of other cultures and religious traditions better.
But, I thought we were past the “God is dead” argument. So why do the authors insist that people can “make departing” from innate religious impulses “possible” rather than embracing our physical and mental adaptions. Our ability to use reason may be a wonderful complement to ask the spiritual questions that elevate our transcendent natures rather than ground them all the time in practicality.
And, perhaps, Thomson and Aukofer’s use of divisive statements such as “religion hijacks these traits” makes religious believers the “out-group” and atheists who rely on reason the “in group.” Even as this non-believer writes this post, I sense that the dichotomy of the two poles is a false one that ignores all the other wonderful adaptations that may make us mere mortals and extravagant beings. Let’s have a more inclusive conversation that uses science as an instrument of understanding rather than a blunt object to make others wrong.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor