Between Order and Mystery
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Nature really is chaotic. The real myth is the one that the Natural History Museum promotes in its collections and in its family trees and genealogies. The real myth is the myth of order.
Interestingly enough, earlier this week one of our podcast listeners alerted us to a New York Times article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon that adds another perspective to the naming and ordering of nature. While Prosek’s words lament a loss of nature’s magic to the rigid confines of Linnaean classification (named after the “father of taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus), Yoon’s essay mourns the loss of popular interest in taxonomy:
In Linnaeus’s day, it was a matter of aristocratic pride to have a wonderful and wonderfully curated collection of wild organisms, both dead and alive. Darwin (who gained fame first as the world’s foremost barnacle taxonomist) might have expected any dinner-party conversation to turn taxonomic, after an afternoon of beetle-hunting or wildflower study. Most of us claim and enjoy no such expertise.
And, she relates this loss to a divestment from the natural world:
We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening.
I find it interesting that these two perspectives on taxonomy can seem completely at odds, while at the same time come from the same sense of wonder in the face of the nature. Perhaps these two viewpoints evoke a need for balance: without some system of naming we’re limited in our ability to understand the natural world, but pin everything down too neatly and we lose the life that makes nature so attractive and — as Prosek might say — mystical.
(image: A plate depicting the characters used in Linnaeus’ classification system, from Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes.)
Robert Coles: “Children Consider Human Conflict”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
As promised in our show with Robert Coles, “The Inner Lives of Children,” we are finally able to bring you the video of Robert Coles’ Lowell Lecture at Harvard Extension School in April 2008. We had a few technical difficulties and permissions procedures to clear, but we think it’s worth the hour. In particular, he talks about his first encounter with Ruby Bridges in New Orleans, and his subsequent conversations with her.
If you’d like to take the video on the road, you can download the file from Harvard’s presence on iTunes U.
Robert Coles on the Spiritual Intuition of Children
» download (mp3, 5:38)
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
As promised, here’s preview audio for our upcoming program with Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist who often deals with the spiritual lives of children. Originally, he was a prominent voice in an older Speaking of Faith program, Children and God. I believe that was just the second episode of SOF I ever listened to, and I remember loving it, yet apparently the program was beginning to show its age. The program also featured three voices. Back then, they said a radio program with just one long interview for one entire hour was a crazy idea. It’ll never work!
Kate and Rob listened to Robert Coles’ full interview with Krista again, and were convinced we had to bring this back to air as a one-voice show, taking it completely back to the drawing board and producing a new show from it. Here’s a rough tidbit from the new program we’re producing. Enjoy! The full program is scheduled for the first week of January.
Editor’s Note: You can now listen to the entire program on the Web site for “Robert Coles and the Inner Lives of Children.”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I have to express my excitement about the show we have scheduled for podcast release on New Year’s Day. Back in 2000, Krista sat with the wonderfully insightful and heartwarmingly endearing child psychiatrist Robert Coles.
A small part of this 60-minute interview was incorporated into the show “Children and God.” This show single-handedly made a SOF superfan out of me. And, it wasn’t until recently that Krista mentioned that she spoke with him for a full hour. Hearing that was a revelation, and thank goodness Rob listened to it and recommended him for a new show, a fresh production.
Eight years later, his ideas about children’s curiosity about understanding the world and their innate spiritual sensibilities — and that they are witnesses to events and behaviors and ideas — resound so much more loudly now than when I originally heard him. Not only because I’m a father now, but more so because I’m a working witness to the economic downturn who’s asking himself basic questions about trust and need and responsibility.
We’ll be posting some preview clips from the program. I can’t wait for you to hear it.
If You’re a Hindu, Be a Good Hindu
Colleen Scheck, Producer
“The main creed that I like to refer to when I think of Vedanta is as Swami Vivekananda said: ‘If you’re a Christian, be a good Christian. If you’re a Muslim, be a good Muslim. If you’re a Hindu, be a good Hindu.’”
This is the comment of 17 year-old Akhil, a young man interviewed as part of a new study released by the Search Institute’s Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. The study is the first report from an ambitious project reaching across cultures, languages, and traditions to understand how today’s global youth experience and think about their spiritual growth. Focused on advancing the scientific study of this area of human development, the guiding philosophy of the endeavor is that good science is the key to good practice in fostering the formation and growth of spiritual identity.
I attended a presentation of the study results this week, and walked away with increased curiosity about how young people around the world are shaping their spiritual sense of self and the overall importance of that dimension in their lives. The exploratory findings in the report include data from focus groups, interviews, and surveys with youth ages 12–25 across 17 countries from Cameroon to Syria to the United States. Some intriguing points include:
- When asked “what does it mean to be spiritual?,” the most common response among youth in all countries was a belief in God. In Cameroon, 4 percent responded that they don’t know or don’t think there is a spiritual dimension to life compared to 28 percent in Australia and 10 percent in the U.S.
- Thirty-four percent of youth surveyed indicated they are both religious and spiritual. In focus groups, they talked about the relationships between these two ideas, but their descriptions revealed little consensus. “Spirituality is the search for answers and religion provides the answers” (15-year old female from the UK). “You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual, but you have to be spiritual to be religious” (15-year old Canadian male). In Thailand, this question was not included in the survey because there is no distinction between the two words in the language or culture.
- In response to the question “What makes spiritual development easier or harder?” the top response for making it easier was spending time outside or in nature (87%) while the top response for making it harder was experiencing grief, pain, or loss (44%).
- Youth surveyed most often nurture spiritual development alone or by helping others. Top-rated activities include reading books, praying or meditating by oneself, and regularly helping people who are in need. Across all countries, family was the most common source of support for young people in their spiritual growth, followed by friends.
A panel of international advisors followed the presentation, providing additional context to the findings. Lori Noguchi of the Chinese-based Badi Foundation commented that there is a remarkable desire among youth in China to explore questions of spirituality when given the opportunity. In Chinese education, there is a strong moral component, but it is often scripted and doesn’t match with young people’s reality — and that creates a crisis for many around spiritual development.
Kelly Dean Schwartz, a Canadian social psychologist, remarked that areas of spiritual development that need much more attention include the role of doubt in adolescent spirituality, the role of arts, media, and technology, and the role of sexuality. He oversaw a focus group of Canadian youth for the study. When he stopped filming the group and tried to take their discussion to a deeper level, that’s when participants opened up more and expressed a connection between sexuality and spiritual development in their lives.
A program on this topic is on our long list. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please share.
Eckhart Tolle and Moving to a New House
Krista Tippett, Host
This week we’ve been wrapping up production on next week’s show with Eckhart Tolle. One mark of a promising interview, for me, is when it continues to resonate in my head and my life in the following days. And the conversation I had with Tolle worked its way powerfully into my experience of moving these past few weeks — specifically one thing he said almost as an aside.
He was elaborating on his theory of the importance of the present moment — of being fully aware, alert, attentive to it, engaged in it. He noted that stress is a symptom of not wanting to be in the moment we’re in. On the heels of hearing him say that I realized that I was treating most of the events on my moving “checklist” as tasks to be endured. I was looking at an entire week of my life — the packing, the organizing, the moving out, the moving in — as a period I just had to soldier through to get to the other side. And I became aware that approaching it that way — in effect steeling myself not to be present — did raise a wall of stress in me, a palpable physical and emotional sensation.
But here was the surprise: I could immediately disarm that by leaning into the moment. I still had to pack that box, and it was not the most exciting task of my life, and it was tiring at times, but it was not stressful. As I kept pulling myself back to this discipline time and again across the week, I even experienced little unexpected epiphanies and joys I would utterly have missed in my practiced “just get it done” mode.
To be honest, I went into my interview with Eckhart Tolle somewhat skeptical. I’m always wary of hype, or what looks like hype, especially when it comes to religious/spiritual figures. Often that’s valid. But I’ve also learned that sometimes the people who are getting all the attention are getting it for a good reason. More from me and others on the show we’re calling “The Power of Eckhart Tolle’s Now” in the days to come…
Being Here Now, Again
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
The picture above, taken with my iPhone, is the view from my desk on a rainy day. The flowers in the vase are fake, the vase itself a left-over from Mitch Hanley’s wedding, the artifacts hard to make out on the shelf include an amethyst and a piece of old tile from a town on the Croatian coast called Opatija; one of the pictures too backlit to make out is a photo of Albert Einstein with Rabindranath Tagore.
I took this photo of the view I see before me even as I type (though it is brilliantly sunny today) to remind me of something. The something is, to wake up to what is before me; to not become inured by habit into thinking any moment of my day need necessarily resemble the previous moment; to remind me to throw off the routinization to which I am so prone, and in which I take equal amounts of dread and comfort.
Being alive to the present moment, which Ram Dass gave us decades ago as the injunction to Be Here Now isn’t a new idea, but it’s back in a big way and it has a massive new audience because of the work of Eckhart Tolle, whom Krista interviewed recently, in a warm and wide-ranging 90-minute conversation we are about to produce into an episode of Speaking of Faith that will be distributed on August 14th.
It’s a change up for us to interview someone so much in the limelight of popular culture as Tolle, thanks to the exposure of his new book A New Earth in Oprah’s Book Club and in several web seminars with Oprah. Normally, to be honest, we seek out people who are somewhat under the radar, whom we feel a duty to bring to public attention, given the significance of their story, their thought, their work. People like V.V. Raman and Ingrid Jordt, who may never become household names but have incredible intellectual and spiritual wealth to share. We also do interview big names: Jimmy Carter, Elie Wiesel, Rick Warren, Barbara Kingsolver all come to mind.
In this case, as Krista and other staff members sank into his work, we felt it was an opportunity to explore the mind of a genuine spiritual teacher and philosopher who is having an unprecedented experience of celebrity, to hear the story of his own spiritual development, and the effect of his unexpected fame. We found this understated man to be fun and warm, and we’re excited to offer up our very particular conversation with him. I’m reminded in the conversation with Tolle of our recent conversation with Kevin Griffin, who says in that program on spirituality and addiction that after all there is nothing difficult about being mindful except remembering to be mindful. That’s the hard part. And, to complete the circle, I love this nugget from Ram Dass which is cited by Tolle: “If you think you’re so enlightened, go spend a week with your parents.”
Stay tuned for our delightful program with this thinker, philosopher, and teacher.
Spirit of Language
Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer
As we prepare to do a show on endangered languages, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of language and spirituality. This came up recently with my three-year-old daughter, who has been asking about death since we buried her fish in our back yard. We were driving across town the other day and she said out of nowhere, “Daddy, when will be my last day?” Meaning, When will I die? After a moment of panic, I decided to talk to her about various views of death from different religious traditions. But I quickly realized that she has no knowledge of the words “spirit” or “soul,” and so it was impossible for her to even grasp that concept. In her mind, she is just a body, nothing more, nothing less. And yet, in due time, the English language will give her a concept of the soul, and with it a whole new conception of her self.
Just learning a language is, in part, acquiring a spiritual worldview. And that would explain why religion and language have so often been intertwined in the history of Western civilization. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s, the first book he printed was the Bible. A generation later, Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, and he also produced the first complete translation of the Bible from the original into a contemporary European vernacular. In 1533 Henry VIII broke with Rome and created the Church of England. The result was a whole new English liturgy, with phrases that have since lodged in most English-speaking brains: “Till death us do part,” “Man cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower,” “In the midst of life we are in death,” and “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
When I think of all the spiritual concepts bound up in my own language, it’s hard to believe that (according to organizations like The Living Tongues Institute) languages around the world are dying at a rate of about one every two weeks. What conceptions of humanity and our place in the world are being lost? I’d be interested to know if any of you have learned any rare languages, and if so what unique ways do those languages have of ordering the world with words?