Melissa Harris-Perry: You're back with The Takeaway. This is the moment that made me cool with my 21-year-old daughter.
Rainn Wilson: Hi, Melissa Harris-Perry, how are you doing?
Melissa: You see, my kiddo is obsessed with reruns of The Office. That greeting to me is from one of her all-time favorite actors.
Rainn: Hi, my name is Rainn Wilson.
Melissa: Emmy nominated for his role as Dwight in the US version of The Office. Wilson is also a producer, podcaster and has an upcoming Peacock series titled Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss. We talked a little bit about his new book, Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution, and what brought him to this path of spiritual exploration?
Rainn: Well, a lot of people are responding to this book saying, "Why the hell is the guy who played Dwight on The Office, writing a book about spirituality." There's a number of reasons. It's a series of topics that I have been fascinated by from my whole life. I'm the guy who would go into a party and talk to people and say, "Hey, what do you think happens after we die?" and clear the room immediately. Also, I went through some really hard times in my 20s.
What I realized now, this was during the '90s, was a mental health crisis, which forced me to reevaluate my take on spirituality, on God, on faith, and look for spiritual solutions to some issues that were, frankly, making me miserable and not want to live my life.
Melissa: Spiritual solutions, but why don't you in Hollywood, couldn't you have just done drugs?
Rainn: Well, that's one solution. That's a solution I tried for a couple of years. That didn't work out so well, that solution. The alcohol solution, I tried, that didn't work. The porn solution, the mindless distraction solution, the seeking fame solution, none of those things quieted that dis-ease, the unease, the discontent that we all have inside of us. The Buddha's central teaching is that life is suffering and that the word from the Sanskrit is Dukkha, which means dissatisfaction like chronic, dissatisfaction life is chronic dissatisfaction, and we learn how to deal with it and we learn how to cope.
Oftentimes, we just distract ourselves, don't think about it, stay busy. In my case, I really wanted to dig a little deeper.
Melissa: Yet, it's not a text that is missionary, and it's impulse. You're not here to convert the reader.
Rainn: I am. I want to convert the reader to the idea that spirituality is important. It's vital. It's part of the human experience, and culturally, we're issuing it and we need to dig in. That's my only agenda.
Melissa: All right. I want you to dig in with us on what it means to dig in because, as you're talking about all the things you try, and I think you're clearly not alone, all of us tried the distractions, the pushing it down, the pushing it away, and I'm hearing Solange, A Seat at the Table playing in my head right now just saying that. Talk to me about when you decide to stop and go in instead of pushing it away.
Rainn: One of my favorite quotes from the great Buddhist monk, and social justice fighter extraordinary, Thich Nhat Hanh, philosopher, meditator, spiritual guide, is the only way out is in. A meditation practice has helped me. One of the things I talk about in the book and I dig into God, I call God the notorious GOD and have a whole chapter exploring this idea for God in the modern world. For me, I conjoined my meditation practice with a prayer practice because I believe that prayer is speaking to the universe, pleading, besieging, asking, yearning, communicating.
The act of meditation is being receptive. It's listening. It's taking in. It's digesting. It's staying open and sensitive to what the universe is telling you. By universe, this is the best word I can find, it's multiverse. It's creation. It's the creative spark that courses through every molecule and all matter and dark matter in this universe and infinite other universes. That's what I talk about when I say the universe. I think that a great deal can be discovered by going in. I hope we can get to this in the interview, but then you do that so that you can take it out.
Melissa: I want to go in one more step before we start taking it out. I'm interested, and as we're talking you're giving me the quotations from Buddhist thinkers, I know that you are bringing multiple theological traditions. Can you talk about that a bit?
Rainn: I was raised a member of the Baha'i Faith. For those who don't know, the Baha'i Faith accepts the fundamental divinity and holiness, and sacredness of all the world's spiritual traditions. There's more to it than that, but that's an essential building block of what being Baha'i means. Growing up a Baha'i, we were reading Buddhist texts, we were reading the Bhagavad Gita, we were having Sufi thinkers and sick people over at our house and talking to them about their beliefs. To me, it's really important to dig into the rich wisdom tradition of all of the world's faiths to help inspire us, to guide us.
In this time of great pain, and uncertainty, and chaos, in this time of the mental health crisis, the likes of which we've never seen before in young people, in this time of climate change and the threat of war and the reality of war, this panoply of spiritual beliefs is there for us to dive into and to draw from.
Melissa: And there's Star Trek.
Rainn: And there's Star Trek.
Melissa: Which I have to say, I am such an over-the-top Trekkie that my husband won't really talk to me about it anymore. My team here on The Takeaway is regularly like, "Oh, is this happening again?" I love that at the start, you're giving us this sense that actually Kung Fu and Star Trek were for you both spaces of spiritual journey.
Rainn: Yes, exactly. I referenced in the book 2 of my favorite TV shows from the '70s because, for me, I'm kind of a pop culture junkie, as well as a mysticism and world religion junkie. Kung Fu is a beautiful television show from the '70s about a monk, a Shaolin monk, walking the Old West and dealing with all these racist angry cowboys. That I like him to the internal spiritual journey that's similar to the journey we were just talking about.
Star Trek to me is a different kind of spiritual journey, and one that we're not in conversation with very much, but is crucially important, and that is humanity's inevitable spiritual maturation. In the time of the federation, humanity has gone through a great war and incredible destruction, and out of the ashes of that has healed itself. It has solved racism. Remember, the first interracial kiss in television history was on Star Trek. It has healed sexism. It has healed poverty and income inequality.
Through the miracle of technology, yes, which is Roddenberry's main thrust. You really see this mature human species, occupants of a planet, living in harmony with nature and with science, and then being able to go out into the galaxy and seek out strange new life and new civilizations.
Melissa: I have also really loved the newer versions that have emerged, I think, for me, in particular, as a Black woman, Star Trek: Discovery. I'm also from the '70s. I fell in love first with Kirk's enterprise. I've also loved watching how, as you point out, on the one hand, having healed these things, but also having the residuals and so the social justice mission continues in this question of what does it mean to be Starfleet to be encountering not as war but as discoverers? I do think it leads us to asking really big questions about again, your point, once we've healed internally, what is the goal externally?
Rainn: Yes, and there are spiritual tools that we can put to use to build community and to build bridges and to heal us as a species on this planet. One of the things I pull up is radical compassion. I use that as a tool. That is an every-faith tradition. An idea of a compassion that is beyond beyond beyond. You look at Jesus's compassion for the other, that he would heal a Samaritan. Back in those days, the Jews didn't even talk to the Samaritans. That he would wash the feet of prostitutes and of the poor.
That he was serving on the front lines, the very poorest among us with tremendous compassion. I bring up and this might be a good Star Trek episode, the idea of what if we developed a compassion machine. I don't know if it looked like an MRI, or a brain scan, or whatever it is, but it allowed us to live in the shoes behind the eyeballs of someone incredibly different than us. A different race, a different class, a different gender, a different size, and shape.
They're certainly different culture, and to just live in their shoes and experience the life of a Pakistani fisherman or a Mongolian herds person or someone trapped in the war in Ukraine, whomever it is. That if we were able to exercise a machine like this, we could develop our brains to have an incredible compassion for the other. That's an aspect that Star Trek has as they seek out new life and new civilizations. They're also trying to understand it like you said, discover it, and to empathize with that species connect and see the similarities, not the differences.
Star Trek isn't going out in the universe going like, "We're superior, screw all of them." "They're different and weird." "Oh, we don't want anything to do with them." There's a humble posture of learning as they go about their mission.
Melissa: Quick break. We're back with Rainn Wilson right after this. We're back and still in conversation with Rainn Wilson. You write about in the book spiritual revolution mending our society. Tell us about that real world, not just sci-fi notion here of spiritual revolution as empathy technology.
Rainn: Great question to spot on. I love it. The empathy technology is just one idea that I throw. Again, I say in the beginning of the book, I'm throwing a bunch of spiritual spaghetti at the wall, and we'll see what sticks. Some things may resonate with people and some things may not. The thing I'm most passionate about in the book, and the thesis that I ultimately build to is that we need a spiritual revolution. We are in a time right now where all of our systems are starting to fall apart. The reason I believe that they are falling apart is that they're based on the worst principles of humanity.
Every system that we've created healthcare, environment, agriculture, certainly the political system, and the partisan political system is based on competition, contests, one ups manship, backstabbing, the dog eat dog, every man for himself, victory to the spoils go the victor, this kind of mentality, and certainly greed and profit at every turn.
As long as our systems are built on these modalities, they will be unsustainable, and they will fall apart more and more because we need to create systems in a practical pragmatic way but with a spiritual inspiration based on mutuality, on concord, on compassion, on cooperation, and community. This can be done and it has to be done. The stakes have never been higher.
Melissa: As part of that, you also talk about celebrating joy. I hear you as you say, to move towards that best part of ourselves rather than that cynical, lowest common denominator. Talk to me about celebrating joy.
Rainn: I see joy as a superpower. I think that one of the tools I bring in, I have a chapter at the end called The Seven Pillars of a Spiritual Revolution. One of them is to foster joy and squash cynicism. I think that cynicism holds us back. Pessimism is an easy fallback stance. Optimism is a difficult word because it doesn't really take into account the negative. It's like, "Hey, I'm optimistic." Sometimes when I meet optimistic people, I find them insufferable. That was awfully unspiritual [laughs] for me to admit but it's kind of true.
I struggle, I got my struggle, but joy is something that we can decide to bring into the world. In my prayer and meditation practice, I strive for joy in the morning. How can I bring joy? My Father, God, rest his soul, one of the things I loved about him the most was he always made a room a more positive and joyful place, every room he went into. He never sucked the energy out of a room or brought people down. He was bringing something additive. I strive to learn from his example as well. Joy is also the greatest service that we can do one to another.
If we can inspire joy, happiness, upliftment inspiration to people that we meet, that is a superpower and it is the greatest service. We then are fed by the service that we're doing to others, and we're inspiring join them and they can spread joy to other people. This isn't like hippie, dippie, fairy, fairy, kumbaya kind of thing, it's a practice. It's a practice of joyfulness that can be truly transformative.
Melissa: You dedicate the book to your father, and you just mentioned him. Can you tell us more about him?
Rainn: Yes, I can. He passed away a couple of years ago during COVID of heart disease. When I was a child, my mom left me and my dad. I was about a year and a half old. Normally, the dad takes off in broken families and mine was a broken family with a mom took off, and I stayed with the dad. My dad through all of his many marriages, and failings and issues, and ups and downs of our relationship, he was the steady. He was the constant in my life. He was a great spiritual teacher to me as well as being a very flawed human being.
Holding those contradictions in my head and in my heart is always a challenge. His passing was revelatory to me. It got me thinking much more deeply about death, and thinking about death frames the meaning of life itself. As I gazed upon his, for lack of a better word, forgive me, corpse, after he had passed, and we were preparing the body for burial, I was so moved and struck by the fact that this in front of me was not my father. This was not my father. This was the vessel that carried my father, but not in fact my father.
That was a very powerful revelation. It made me kind double down on this belief that we are spiritual beings, that we're having a corporal human experience for 80 or 90, or 100 years if we're lucky. Our spirit nature, our true reality is spiritual, and it will continue its journey.
Melissa: Can you tell us about the new Peacock series, The Geography of Bliss?
Rainn: Well, speaking of joy, I got the greatest job. I never thought I'd have a better job than The Office. I never in a million years thought that I get a better job that in The Office. All of a sudden, I did. 10 years after The Office, I got approached to do this incredible show where I traveled the world but instead of sampling delicious foods which I did a little bit on the side, instead of doing that, I got to talk to people about happiness. I'm searching for joy and searching for bliss, and well-being around the world.
What can we learn from other cultures? We, Americans, think we know everything. We think we've got the best way, we think we've got the best system. Well, guess what? There's a lot to learn in Thailand, and in Ghana, West Africa, and in Iceland, about how to live up a happier, more fulfilled life.
Melissa: How do you make sure when you're doing that, that you're not just culturally appropriating?
Rainn: Well, cultural appropriation would be taking on some cultural artifact superficially as almost some kind of fashion statement. Humility is learning from other cultures. That's not appropriation. That is the greatest honor to that culture. When we can learn from the people of Ghana or from the people of Thailand about what they have to teach us about living a balanced life.
Melissa: I love that language of humility. As we close-- I love that you brought us to the idea that The Office was a great job because, clearly, I think for many of us, part of what was the joy of watching it is thinking about how it helped us to see and have some humor in all the bad parts of jobs, all of the difficult and challenging parts. If there is a last takeaway that you can leave us with, how do we find happy geographies, geographies of bliss, even if we can't be on the road if we can't be traveling? How do we find it in our offices or our houses or are difficult places?
Rainn: That's such a great question and an important one, it's easy to find happiness and bliss when you're washing an elephant in Thailand or dipping in a glacier water in Iceland. It's harder when you got to work 9:00 to 5:00 or you got two jobs, you got three kids at home, and you got bills to pay, that's more difficult. One of the things I talk about in my book to bring it all around and connecting the dots between The Office, The Geography of Bliss and Soul Boom, is one thing we can do is find sacred spaces.
In a weird way, The Office, the bullpen main part of the office is a sacred space. It's a set for a television show but one that people spend millions and millions and millions of hours watching their beloved quirky characters, they're weird-looking characters, struggling and laughing and crying and being human beings, that makes it a sacred space. Sacred spaces are something that we can bring into our own home and into our lives. It can be a place where you light a candle, it can be a bench where you meditate.
It can be a beautiful plant or a little garden that you've cultivated, it can be not even a place but an events, a pancake breakfast with your family. We've lost a sense of the sacred of the holy and contemporary life, and I think in small ways, that's something that we can strive to do and to bring into the every day.
Melissa: Rainn Wilson, author of Soul Boom. Thank you so much for spending time with us on The Takeaway.
Rainn: It was my pleasure. It was so nice having a conversation with you. Thank you for having me.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.