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Conversations about what it takes to build a life of meaning

Why 'the guy' from 'The Office' wants a spiritual revolution

A version of this interview originally aired on May 7, 2023.

In a series like this there are a couple phrases that are hard to avoid.

"Spiritual journey," for one. It's so overused and cliche. The other is "seeker" — which is another one of these words that just seems so self-indulgent and unnecessarily precious. But the fact is the people I'm talking to in this project are definitely on some kind of spiritual path and they are looking for answers to existential questions, and by definition that makes them seekers.

The conversation I'm bringing you today is with someone who just leans into all of it. He wouldn't be annoyed at being called a seeker. Far from it. His latest book actually calls for a spiritual revolution in America. Which he expects to raise some eyebrows. In his own words: "Why the hell would the guy who played Dwight on The Office be writing a book about spirituality?"

I'm talking about Rainn Wilson of course. And although he is a very funny guy, he's not joking about this.

I talked to him earlier this year right after his book, Soul Boom, came out. We liked it so much, we're sharing it with you again. We start off talking about his early spiritual influences, which included a certain TV show about all kinds of ethical quandaries — and intergalactic space travel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rainn Wilson: When I discovered Star Trek, it changed my life. Yes, it is a bunch of folks on a spaceship boldly going where no man has gone before. But it's also about the next stage of the evolution of humanity on planet Earth. You see, the backstory to Star Trek that a lot of people don't know is that there has been a horrific World War III. And coming out of the ashes of that war, humanity has essentially solved racism, solved sexism, has solved income inequality, and is then able, in its maturity, to go out into space and explore and spread the word.

Rachel Martin: But where did you see, I mean, did you really see some kind of spiritual element to it that helped you?

Wilson: Growing up in a Baháʼí family, we were always talking about peace and love and transforming the world and service to humanity. And we would have Buddhist monks in the house, and when born again Christians would knock on the door on Sunday morning we'd invite them in and we'd cook them pancakes and talk about the resurrection or whatever topic du jour.

And so I would always look at things through a spiritual lens. So for me, when I look at Star Trek, I talk about this in terms of a spiritual path. We all have an individual path that we walk on a daily basis. I'm trying to be a better person and I've got this stress at work and I'm feeling anxious and this person is mean to me and I'm struggling with this and that. And that's our personal spiritual path.

When people talk about spirituality, they're often focused on that aspect of a personal spiritual journey and we're not focused so much on the broader one, which is humanity's spiritual maturation into living in global peace and harmony.

I am old enough to remember the '70s, when people would actually talk about world peace.

Martin: And mean it. Not, like, as an irony. Right?

Wilson: And mean it. And we believed that we could have peace, especially with the end of the Cold War. And nowadays, you bring up world peace and you just get that big, collective eye roll like, oh, you're the most naive idiot to walk the face of the earth to even consider world peace. Human animals are self-serving and aggressive and backstabbing and will never have peace. We'll only have a kind of detente where hopefully we're not blowing each other up as we slowly, slowly destroy our planet all the while.

Martin: And do you not think that?

Wilson: I don't think that. I think that there is one story of humanity which is tribal and which is about aggression and is about conquest. And that's one story. That's one mythology of humanity, right? There's another one where humans lived at peace with nature, where humans were cooperative or kind to each other or worked together, shared knowledge and enlightenment and moved forward and into progress. So we can focus on that mythology of humanity.

Martin: Like a lot of people who grew up in a faith tradition they inherited from their parents, you fell away, like so many people do. But then in your early 20s, you were going through a hard time. You were working through a lot of mental health issues, and you found it again. Can you walk me through what that process was like? Did it feel very comfortable, like going back home? Or were you hesitant about it, because it's sort of not the cool thing to be, like, the religious guy.

Wilson: It's so not cool to be religious. And it's so funny because I've always identified as being a dork and a misfit and an outsider. Maybe that's why I played Dwight so effectively, apparently. And Hollywood comics and comedic actors are filled with misfits and alienated outsiders. But then you throw into the mix, I'm a religious person and my religious faith, which is the Baháʼí faith, is a very important part of my life.

Oh, Rainn Wilson is also a member of this obscure Eastern religion and talks about God with Oprah and whatnot? Believe me, the stand-up comics and comedic actors of Hollywood have no idea what to do. I alienated even the unalienable.

But, yes, you're absolutely right. I rejected anything and everything to do with religion and faith and spirituality when I was in my 20s as I was pursuing my career as an actor in New York. I didn't want anything to do with morality or God or hypocrisy of religion. I viewed religion as a weakness, used as a crutch by weak people, and spent many years as an atheist. And, well, then things just started to break down for me.

I suffered from really crippling anxiety. I had regular anxiety attacks that would render me lying on the floor in a pool of sweat — no joke. But it led me back on a spiritual quest where I was like, you know, maybe I lost something by getting rid of anything and everything to do with spirituality. Maybe there's some answer there. So go figure.

Martin: You described talking to friends during this time about what they thought about a higher power, and you were not satisfied with their answers. What were they telling you?

Wilson: So I would ask my friends, "Hey, do you believe in God?" Which is a great conversation starter.

Martin: Good time at parties — Rainn Wilson.

Wilson: (Laughter) I would go to parties and be like, "Hey, do you believe in God?" And people would gulp and turn ashen and bolt in the other direction.

Martin: Where's the hummus?

Wilson: Check, please. But almost to a person — my artist friends would say, "Well, I certainly don't believe in an old man on a cloud, you know, with an agenda scowling down at us. But I definitely — I believe that there's something more out there. There's some kind of energy, some kind of eternal creative juice, something going on out there." And that was fine, and I was with them on that. But that wasn't enough for me. I was like, wait a second. So there either is a God or there's not.

Martin: But do you really not think there's a gradation? Like, you're so sure that there is God?

Wilson: Oh, yeah, sure is not the word. I know there's a God. It's not a faith thing. God is as real to me as my body is. Let me put it this way. Let's back up and get a little mystical for a second.

In the Baháʼí faith, there's a prayer we say every day where we say, "I bear witness on my God that thou hast created me to know thee and to worship thee." And we say this prayer every day. We have been created to know and worship God, according to the Baháʼí mythology. And at the same time, in the Baháʼí writings, the No. 1 way to describe God is unknowable.

So here we are. We have been created to know the unknowable. I love that. That makes my head sizzle with excitement. I get that. So I'm trying to know the great mystery — to know the unknowable. That's a process. It's not a destination. It's not something you arrive at. It's an ever-evolving process of understanding what it is to be in the midst of life.

Martin: You believe there's a God. You believe God made the world and that there is also intention in that, is what I discerned from your writing, that it's not all random, right? And I'm going to quote from your book:

But why not?

Wilson: I wrote that? That's really good.

Martin: You did.

Wilson: That's good.

Martin: I know. I love that. But I guess I stand in awe of your assuredness as someone who, myself, is seeking some kind of intention in the randomness of life. But how do you know it's not all just random?

Wilson: How do I know? I guess the best analogy I can give is that I know that I love my wife. I know that I love my son. I know that I love my father, who passed away a few years back. And forgive me for tearing up on the radio. It's a terrible place to tear up.

Martin: It's the best because we can't see you.

Wilson: How do I know that I love my family? Like, if I went in to a scientist and said, "Prove to me that I love," and they'd say, "Well, we're going to do some brain scans and an MRI and a CT scan, and we're going to look at what parts of your brain light up and ..." — but that's not love. That's not love. And I will never believe that love is simply a chemical, neurological response in order to, you know, continue the species propagating itself. My experience of love is far deeper and more profound than that. So that's the first step in knowing that there is a creative force in the universe, is knowing that there is love. I also know that there is beauty. I also know that there is art and there is music. And all of these things that are ineffable and transcendent and transport my spirits are footprints. They're handholds on the path to finding the great mystery.

Martin: You write that sacredness is a condition, and I loved that line. If sacredness is a condition, how does that manifest for you in a daily way?

Wilson: Boy, that's such a great question. I want to go to the quote that I can't quite remember from Thich Nhat Hanh, that — it's essentially, in the eyes of someone who is awake, all things are sacred. And there has been a profound loss of the sacred in contemporary Western civilization. Nothing is sacred anymore. And I think sacredness and holiness is part of the conversation that we need to have collectively. You know, what is sacred, and how does it work? We can certainly experience it in nature and, you know, for religious people, we can experience it in holy sites. But how can we nurture the sacred as a condition in our hearts that we can carry with us so that a conversation like we're having can be sacred, so that, you know, a place where you contemplate life and the world can be sacred?

Martin: To see sacredness in the everyday means purging yourself of cynicism, doesn't it? Which is sort of the social currency of the moment, it seems.

Wilson: Yeah. I was fortunate as an actor to study with the great acting teacher, André Gregory, the focus of the movie, My Dinner With André, and he would meet with the students. And I had tea with him once, and he said, "How are you doing, Rainn?" And I said, "You know, André, I'm just feeling so cynical. I'm feeling pessimistic. The world is a pile of crap, and it's getting worse." And I'll never forget this experience. He grabbed my arm like a vise, and he looked into my eyes and he said, "Stop it. Don't do it. Don't be cynical. Everything wants you to be cynical. Everything out there in the world wants you to be pessimistic. If you're cynical, they win. You have to keep hope alive."

And that was transformative. And I walked out into the West Village, out of his apartment, and I really saw the world in a different way and realized that fostering hope and fostering joy in others is maybe our highest spiritual calling that we can do. We have to keep hope alive that we can transform ourselves, that we can transform the planet. And that is a key pillar to the spiritual revolution.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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