We are all on a spiritual path, according to Rainn Wilson — and he’s not talking about self-care spa days and meditation apps. The actor, author, and devout Bahá’í joins Amy and Rebecca to share what he’s learned about the purpose of life, the beauty of Star Trek, and redefining what’s sacred. There may also be a spoiler about The Meg in there too. He is the author of NYT Best Seller “Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution.”
That’s part of our purpose in life, is to help humanity grow, mature, grow more wise, and move forward. It doesn’t mean you have to go work at the United Nations, or start a nonprofit, or something. You can do it in your community at a lower level. But we have a spiritual responsibility to give back, to use our God-given talents and qualities to help other people, to help move them forward to sacrifice.
And that’s a key word: sacrifice. Our time, our comfort, our money, even our prestige, and our social status, sacrifice these things for others to uplift, and help others move forward. And guess what? When you do that, you get even deeper serenity, calm, meaning, peace, love, and joy in your life. So win-win all around.Rainn Wilson
Make sure to check out Rainn Wilson’s Tips for a Better Life: Get Spiritual.
An Edited Transcript of Our Convo:
Amy S. Choi: You are listening to The Mash-Up Americans.
Rebecca Lehrer: Hey, I’m Rebecca Lehrer.
Amy S. Choi: And I’m Amy Choi. And we are The Mash-Up Americans. Today we are bringing you an old pal, Rainn Dietrich Wilson.
Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, Rainn. We love that guy.
Amy S. Choi: Love, love, love.
Rebecca Lehrer: He is a child of hippies. He’s a devout, devout Bahá’í, and a student of religion, and he’s been a spiritual seeker his whole life. Rainn Wilson is known for being one of the stars of the office, but he also founded SoulPancake, and is an author. His newest book is Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution.
Amy S. Choi: Fun fact about Rainn is we went to the same high school on the North Shore of Chicago where he was serving at the beautiful Bahá’í Temple in Wilmette. It’s one of the major Bahá’í temples in the world, and where I, not being Bahá’í, used to go, and be in the beautiful gardens at peace. And then I would go get stoned at Gillson Beach across the street. And as we discussed with Lisa last week, maybe this is my way of seeking.
Rebecca Lehrer: You know what? They made those gardens beautiful for a reason. Okay?
Amy S. Choi: For a reason, yes. Thank you.
Rebecca Lehrer: Anyway, we clicked immediately with him when we first met him years ago, because we’re all people who want to laugh, but also dig really deep, and ask big questions of ourselves, and the world, and our spirituality. And bringing people in and along for the journey and some kind of hope and optimism in asking the really hard questions. So we couldn’t wait to have him on the show for the first time, and talk about finding our spiritual paths.
Amy S. Choi: Love this dude. So here is our convo with Rainn Wilson, seeker, actor, just all around goofy, great, fantastic human.
So Rainn, I think maybe our listeners don’t know that we The Mash-Up Americans have a long friendship in history together with Rainn Dietrich Wilson. And I have quite literally spent hundreds of hours of my life just listening to your dulcet tones in my ears.
Rainn Wilson: My first question is, you have listeners?
Amy S. Choi: We have at least 7. It’s Rebecca’s dad.
Rebecca Lehrer: My dad is so supportive.
Rainn Wilson: He’s a huge fan.
Rebecca Lehrer: Very supportive. Yeah.
Rainn Wilson: No, it’s true. You Mash-Up Americans, and Amy especially, guided me and Reza Aslan through that first wonderful, delightful, sometimes frustrating, sometimes overwhelming season of Metaphysical Milkshake at Luminary. And we got to have some incredible conversations, and we had never really done it before. And you showed us the ropes on how to make a podcast, and we’re so grateful to your expertise, your OG expertise in the podcast sphere.
Amy S. Choi: So fun. Look at what’s happened now, Rainn? Here we are.
Rainn Wilson: Look at us.
Amy S. Choi: We get to get my texts when I watch The Meg.
Rebecca Lehrer: She loved it so much. She really did.
Amy S. Choi: I do think, though, that one of the things we think about, and we want to talk to you today about finding your spiritual path. And how to live a deep spiritual life, and sometimes what feels like a very world that pushes us to be super superficial. And I think one of the things that we cherished about our time working together, and with SoulPancake, your company that you started, and The Mash-Up Americans, they really mirrored each other in spirit. There was never any assholes, there was always big questions being asked. Everybody was so top to bottom, we are still friends with everybody that we met through you and through SoulPancake. It was so fantastic all the way through. And it felt like that work, and the company that you built, and that we are trying to continue to grow our company is part of a spiritual expression too. It’s more than just work, right?
Rainn Wilson: Well, what you guys have built with Mash-Up Americans is not just your podcast episodes, or your different podcast series. But a community of people that are storytellers, and uniters, and social justice activists, and people that just want to make the world a better place that are big-hearted. And you guys are connectors, you bring people together and get them talking, and singing, and working, et cetera. And that’s what we tried to do at SoulPancake.
It’s faded away, unfortunately. But SoulPancake was 12 years of that. It was good people trying to make positive content, and make a real impact in the world. My book Soul Boom is also about making a real impact in the world, working with good people, big-hearted people, hardworking people. That are ready to roll up their sleeves and build something because ultimately, “Don’t just protest, build something.” It’s way harder to build something. It’s easy to protest, complain, to send out an angry tweet. That’s easy, anyone can do that. But it’s much harder to bring people together, and to create something positive. So that’s my lesson number one. What do you call it? Building a happy life? What’s it called?
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, milling a good life, The Ultimate Guide to a Mash-Up Life. But that actually, first of all, thank you for that. And I think one of the things that SoulPancake did very beautifully, and is very, very matched to us as well. It’s that being uplifting isn’t about not having hard conversations. We are optimists who believe that by confronting challenging things, we’ll make things better in the future. And I think that’s a very shared ethos, versus let’s either just simply avoid it, or be very, very negative. Although sometimes we do shouty caps text very mean.
Amy S. Choi: Well, you need to have some sort of pressure valve. There needs to be something where you’re just like, “What the fuck!” And then you get out of your system. That’s just me. Sorry, did I just scream that?
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, you did.
Amy S. Choi: That wasn’t just in my head.
Rebecca Lehrer: It’s true. Okay. Well, so I want to just talk about your beautiful book. You have spent a lot of your life spiritually seeking, or trying to figure out your spiritual path. And part of what you say in this beautiful book, Soul Boom, is this simple statement, “We are all on a spiritual path.” Declarative statement, but that a lot of people are maybe resistant to. Why do you think people are resistant to this idea of, “I’m on a spiritual path,” or are we all on one?
Rainn Wilson: Well, I think that people are resistant to that because religion has done so much damage in the world, and most people have some religious trauma in their life. And if you scratch an atheist, you’ll usually find a very deep, and abiding, and justified resentment. Against their parents, or grandparents, or their church, or their synagogue, or their temple, or whatever however way that they were brought up within a religious faith. And it’s a counteractive, reactive knee-jerk response to that. Not all atheists are like that, but oftentimes when you really dig deep, it’s that negative response to a real trauma that we’ve suffered individually, but we’ve also suffered collectively. So for a lot of people, spirituality is synonymous with religion, and they don’t want anything to do with it. It’s interesting for me because I feel like spirituality, and even to a certain extent, religion is the possibility for healing, and progress in the world.
But for most people, and I mean really most people, and I’m putting evangelicals aside, just the rest of America, spirituality in a way is the problem, not the solution, but I’m trying to look, that’s why the subtitle of the book is, “Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution.” I’m trying to look at spiritual solutions and spiritual healing. So first of all, you have to separate spirituality from religion. And then number two, what I know to be true is that we are spiritual beings, and we happen to be occupying meat suits for 80 or 90 years on this planet. But our hearts, our souls, our consciousness, our transcendence, our love, our beauty that we cultivate, the glorious divine, spiritual, creative, wonderful qualities that we all have like, love, and compassion, and kindness, and honesty, and joy, these are all part of our spiritual beingness that will continue after our meat suits fall aside into incredibly glorious planes of existence.
I know that might sound airy-fairy, New Agey, or woo-woo. But I just know that to be true from my study of all of the great religious traditions of the world, there is some version of that in every mystical, transcendent holy text.
Rebecca Lehrer: And also with that, there’s, I think Americans are very literal, and as a youth I was very literal, everything is black and white. This is what’s bad, and this is what’s good, this is what’s evil. Whereas Christianity or some descriptions will be like, “This is what heaven looks like.” But what do you call him? You had such a funny description of God in here…
Rainn Wilson: Sky Daddy.
Rebecca Lehrer: Sky Daddy. But maybe Sky Daddy is just how ourselves at a cellular level, we change when we love deeply, or what over the course of our lives, and impact other people, and then we keep existing through that. Maybe that’s part of what heaven, or the continued life for my soul continuing on is for me, versus Sky Daddy opens the gates, although Defending Your Life, starring Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks.
Rainn Wilson: I love it. Classic. Brilliant.
Rebecca Lehrer: Still a perfect movie.
Amy S. Choi: I think about the platters of broccoli covered with cheese all the time.
Rebecca Lehrer: And that also how he had this, just such a mediocre hotel.
Amy S. Choi: But he loved her. That was his redeeming quality, his love.
Rebecca Lehrer: I know.
Amy S. Choi: This is super interesting because I’ve actually been having this conversation with my daughter, who is almost eight years old. And she’s somebody who I really admire, because I feel she has a really full expression of self. And I hope that I can help her retain that as much as possible, and keep the world from trying to mold her in a certain way. She is so soulful, but we were trying to have a conversation about what is a soul. She was like, “What?” And we were like, “You know, like the thing inside you that makes you you.” And it was just like blank stares all around. She’s like, “Huh?”
And she’s a child who she glimpses into the void. She has a lot of thoughts about death, she’s lost her best friend early on in her life, and she struggles with that. That’s the thing that keeps her up at night. But in talking about a soul, when to me, I see her soul shining so clearly, the concept of what that is, she can’t grasp it. Is there a way that you would describe that, or how did you talk to Walter, your son, about that?
Rainn Wilson: Wow, great question. I think for me, because I know that you guys have done a lot of shows about death and grief as well, and I think that thinking about death, I wouldn’t necessarily counsel you, and having conversations about death with an eight-year-old, although it sounds like she’s experienced some death tragedy in her life. I know for me, one time my cat Tex went missing, and I was around 10 or 11 or something like that. And then I found Tex, and Tex had been hit by a car, and it looked like Tex on the top, but Tex was obviously dead. And then I took a stick and flipped Tex over, and the bottom half of Tex had just mingled into the dirt from the decay. So it was like cat on top, dirt on the bottom. And I was thinking about like, “Oh, wow. That’s what happens to us, isn’t it?”
Rebecca Lehrer: There’s your dust to dust.
Rainn Wilson: It is, you are dust to dust. Exactly. And it became very clear to me in a very small way at age 10, like, “Oh, that body’s not Tex.” Whatever the Tex was that I loved, and played with, and he was goofy, and fierce, and crazy, and would run up and down the couch, and tear all around the living room. This was what held Tex.
And I had that same experience, which I write about in the book, when my father passed away early on in the COVID-19 years, he died of heart failure. But in seeing his body in the hospital room, and just having this profound sense of, “Oh, that body, that’s not him.” The light within him has moved on in some way, shape, or form. Like, “This shell, this is just a vessel.” So I don’t know if there’s a way to have that conversation, or if it’s too macabre or scary for an eight-year-old. I don’t know if it’s age appropriate.
Amy S. Choi: I think she’s into it.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. I actually think, to me, this is where if religion is a sort of container, maybe it gives you ritual or some framework, spirituality is what can happen when you actually go deep, and get into it. Religion doesn’t actually go deep, in my experience. I love my religious framework as a Jew. It works for me, but it’s like if I’m at synagogue, it’s like sometimes you’re just looking at people’s outfits, or being distracted by things. That’s not necessarily where I go the deepest with the tools that it gives me, or the spiritual thing.
But I do think that to me that’s a lot of what religion does, it gives you some of the language to think about like what’s happening to your body. Or that confusing feeling, “What is this? What are we? What are these meat bags that we’re in?” My kids have experienced death as well, and we’ve lost very important people in our lives. And it’s a lot of, even when we don’t get into it in detail, it can be over… I’m sorry I’m using my hands up high. But it’s like, “She lives in your heart, and in your body.” Omi, or my mother-in-law, is like, “Grandma Chris is in your body.” And they’re like, “Yeah, grandma Chris is in my heart.” And then they just talk about her, like she’s in their heart. There’s a way in which that has now just become true for them, which I don’t know, that’s been very useful to me.
Amy S. Choi: It’s interesting, though, because I feel like the framework that Gabe and I, and Alejo, our 10-year-old draw on really deeply in believing in a spirit world, and believing in this other plane. Fina has shut that down from day one. She’ll whisper to me at night, she’s like, “Mommy, I don’t believe in spirits.” And it’s like a confession. She wants to, and knows that maybe it would be nicer if she could, but she doesn’t. So it’s interesting.
Rebecca Lehrer: She’s also the most stubborn person who’s ever existed.
Amy S. Choi: It’s true. It’s because we believe that she doesn’t want to, which is fine. She’ll find her own path.
Rebecca Lehrer: That’s correct, also. Come on.
Amy S. Choi: But I think that there’s also, first of all, Rainn, the description of you, the mortuary, and then running to Target in your suit, and sweating your face off while you’re trying to find bowls.
Rebecca Lehrer: Well, also the mortuary kitchen. I was like, “You know what? You’re absolutely right. I’ve never thought about a kitchen in a mortuary.”
Rainn Wilson: Yeah. So, dear listener, Mash-Up listener, I’m a member of the Bahá’í faith, and in Bahá’í faith, similar to Judaism, you prepare the body for buria. usually family members, by washing the body, and then wrapping it in a shroud, or in a cloth.
Rebecca Lehrer: And very quickly after death.
Rainn Wilson: Yes. So we had the burial that day, and we were going to do that, and this is in Wenatchee, Washington. So I was like, “What are we going to put the water in that we’re going to use to wash the body?” And the guy is like, “Oh, shoot. I don’t know.” And he had a takeout coffee cup, and I was like, “No.”
Rebecca Lehrer: Just feels disrespectful as hell.
Rainn Wilson: And then he went back into this kitchen, and my dad’s dead body’s right there. And then if he goes through a door, and there’s a kitchen. “There’s a kitchen in a mortuary? This is really freaking nuts.” But I hear him clanking around, he’s like, “Well, I’ve got a teapot.” And I’m like, “No.” And he’s like, “here is a Tupperware thing, and I’ve got a Chinese food takeout container.” I’m like, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to get a respectful bowl to put the water in to wash my father’s sacred, beautiful body in this time of tremendous grief.” I’m so heartbroken at the time, I’m sobbing my way through many days. We were very, very close, my dad and I. My mom had taken off when I was two years old, so my dad was my primary caretaker for my entire life, so I was very bonded to him.
So he’s like, “Well, hurry, we got to get to the cemetery by one o’clock or something.” So I’m tearing out in my dad’s truck, it’s a heat wave, it’s 110 degrees. I’m crying, I’m sweating. Snot is getting into my COVID-19 mask, and I go into Target. I’m like, “Where do you have glass bowls?” And they’re like, “Aisle 27-D.” It’s like, I have to jog a mile through this Target past all the J-Lo athleisure wear. And I picture in my head, my dad laughing on the other side, “This is brilliant, this TV celebrity son, and this mask, sweating, his hair matted to his face, looking for the appropriate glass bowl.”
Rebecca Lehrer: “Is this good? Is it from the Heath Stone collection in that section of…”
Rainn Wilson: Totally. So, finally found a bowl, got back, did it in time. But I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has lost a loved one, but to undertake some ritual ceremony with the deceased. And it’s really not macabre very beautiful, and cleansing. And it’s hard, don’t get me wrong. It’s challenging, and it’s emotional, and a lot of people, “Oh, they’re dead, I don’t want anything to do with them.” And, “Just don’t want to even see the body.” Or just, “Cremate it. I don’t want to see anything.” But facing death is one of the great spiritual tests, and great spiritual inspirations. And it’s, “We’re all going to die.” You guys have talked about it and grief a lot. We did on Metaphysical Milkshake. Alua Arthur, was that her name?
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.
Rainn Wilson: The death doula we interviewed?
Amy S. Choi: Mm-hmm.
Rainn Wilson: So, brilliant. But going back to your daughter, I think the other thing that I talk about a little bit in my book is, and I just love these conversations, is consciousness itself, to have conversations with your daughter about consciousness, because it’s called, “The hard problem of consciousness.” Consciousness doesn’t add up from a purely materialist standpoint, and I mean materialist in terms of believing that there is only matter and energy in the universe, and there’s nothing more. That we have a 3D movie of our life, right, Amy?
We’re going around, we’re taking insights and sounds, but it’s like, “Oh, I’m in West Hollywood. I haven’t been here in a while, and bringing up memories. And I smell a flower in the parking lot, and it reminds me of my childhood, and I’m listening to music in my truck, and it brings up this.” The experience of human beingness is this 3D surround sound movie. And hardcore materialist scientists cannot explain it from purely the brain is a calculator machine, and all of this is illusory, including love. Which would simply be a firing of certain neurons in the release of certain chemicals in your brain. That’s all that love is.
And I know that love is so much more than some neurons, and some dopamine. And no one’s going to convince me that it just is that. “Sorry, you just have this computer brain, and that’s what love is.” So, maybe a conversation with her about consciousness, and that leads to this idea of spirit, or soul, or heart, or love, or something more.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, like, “How do you know the things you know?” Like, “How do you know what’s real for you?” Or asking questions.
Amy S. Choi: Yeah. Well, I think something also that we loved about your book, that we love about you, and even just how you’re describing getting to this studio today. Which I would like everybody to know that we’re recording at Invisible Studios, which is lovely. And when I told Rainn that, “Great, you’ll be at Invisible Studios.” His response to me was, “Well, then how will I find it?”
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. If the dad jokes are in your heart, you can’t stop it.
Amy S. Choi: You can’t stop it. You can’t.
Rainn Wilson: But your response was like, “Well, it’s at 5464 Gardner Avenue.”
Amy S. Choi: I was like, “I need you to listen to me.”
Rainn Wilson: Yeah.
Amy S. Choi: But I do think that the beauty of being able to walk through life, being aware that you’re a conscious person, is that then everything becomes technicolor. Sometimes I don’t. I get too preoccupied with the gears twirling in my head, that I don’t smell the flower, even though the scent of the flower is right there. There are moments when I think we can walk through life just so high key, focused on X thing that is not about our bodily experience. That I think this practice of noticing, or continually pausing, is something maybe like a daily ritual or a daily practice that could get us closer to being on the spiritual path.
Rainn Wilson: There’s this wonderful guy named Jeff Kober, who teaches meditation in LA. He’s also an actor, and he has a daily newsletter, highly recommended for people to subscribe, of Vedantic thought, and ancient Hinduism, pre Hindu philosophy. And he’s told the story of a famous teacher who was studying with his meditation teacher, spiritual guru guide, or whatever. And then he said, “Hey, I’m trying to understand what you said before about the meaning of life, and this and that and that.” The teacher turned him and said, “Describe to me what it was like when you put on your socks and shoes this morning.”
And the guy was like, “Wait, what are you talking about?” It’s like, “Describe it to me.” Well, “I don’t really remember.” He was like, “Okay, come back tomorrow.” So he came back tomorrow like, “I really want to know the meaning of life, and what you said about this, and the spirit.” And he’s like, “When you did the dishes, describe to me moment to moment what you did, and what you washed.” And he is like, “I don’t remember.” So it was, always in order to find meaning and bliss, especially through that tradition, the Vedantic tradition, and Buddhist tradition, which came a few thousand years later. But we always talk about this being in the moment, but that is a spiritual tool that can make our lives better, and can make that consciousness that I talked about ever more rich. Is the noticing, and by the way, I’m no good at it. I’m not speaking from some throne on high about this. I struggle with it all the time.
Rebecca Lehrer: He’s literally floating in the studio. But when I hear you saying this words, I literally find myself putting my fingers, and sitting straighter, thinking about grounding myself. What are your feet doing? There’s a lot of that like reminding yourself to be in your body, it’s like touching the air, or feeling what’s around you. And it’s also small, versus, “Stand here for 15 minutes, and make your mind quiet.” I’m like, “Good luck.”
Amy S. Choi: Well, let me just peel all my skin off my body. Are you kidding me? What are you talking about? Well, I think this is actually something that we think about all the time, and Rebecca has grown up in a really rich tradition of rituals. And I have many that are cultural, and many that are being adapted or that my family and I have created. But what are your most important or significant spiritual rituals? What are the things that are part of your daily life that contribute to this expansion of consciousness?
Rainn Wilson: I am a meditator. I don’t really have other rituals than that, I try and find time in my day to be creative every day. It’s weird, because I started as just an actor, and then a writer. But I really think of myself as an artist, but most of what I’m doing is more like producing, and generating content and stuff like that. And there’s part of me that I just want to sit under a tree and write poetry.
So, the meditation practice is very simple for me. I didn’t study anywhere. I don’t use apps or anything like that, but I find that if I can have 10 to 20 minutes of stillness, where I’m noticing my breath and being present, it makes my day better. In the same way that working out makes your day better. Like, you don’t want to do it, you resist it, it sucks. And then you do it, and you’re like, “Wow, I felt 15% better all day long because I did that one sucky thing for 45 minutes.”
Rebecca Lehrer: A hundred percent.
Rainn Wilson: And meditation is the same thing. We don’t want to stop and have that thing, but trust me, it will make your day better by 15%. So, it’s grounding, and I also couple it with prayer, and I talk about this in the book. Because I talk about how our country is so divided.
Amy S. Choi: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Rainn Wilson: Yeah, really.
Rebecca Lehrer: What do you mean?
Rainn Wilson: And I said in the book, and I really think this is true, “Half the country prays and half the country meditates.”
If you’re in the blue states, you meditate. And if you’re in the red states, you pray, and you don’t meditate. But there’s something about coupling those two together that I think is really important. And it doesn’t mean you have to believe in Sky Daddy, certainly, but also you don’t even have to believe in any kind of God as some kind of being. Anne Lamott, has that brilliant book called Help, Thanks, Wow. And those are the three kinds of prayers she describes. Help, like, “Help me.” That’s when you’re on your knees in a crisis. Thanks, is just gratitude. And wow, is just wonder, curiosity and wonder.
And if you can just to the universe, or to nature, or to your ancestors, or to the spirits, or whatever it is, just a thanks, and a wow, just some moments of thanks. And wow, coupled with that meditative practice, the meditation is listening, and the praying is beseeching, connecting. Picture your heart as a satellite dish, and it’s receiving the radio waves from the galaxy, but it’s also beaming out radio waves into the galaxy. Even if it’s just 10 minutes of that in a day is the heart of my daily practice.
Rebecca Lehrer: Well, I just cried, so no big deal.
Amy S. Choi: Yeah, that’s so beautiful.
Rebecca Lehrer: That was a very moving framework actually, even just to remind, Help, Thanks, Wow. I know that’s Anne Lamott, but even your framing of the beseeching, and being in it, and experiencing it, and thanking for it. That’s all I really want to figure out how to do more of. And when having little kids, it’s hard. And you’re in this world, it’s hard. I had an Apple Watch for one week, and I think you’re similar to me. It’s not for you, do not get it.
Rainn Wilson: No.
Rebecca Lehrer: Because then you’re just like, “Beep, Boop, Beep, Baap, Baap”
Rainn Wilson: I don’t want to text when I’m playing tennis, or something. And my wrist vibrates.
Rebecca Lehrer: No, literally. And I was pouring coffee, which is a very meditative, those kinds of rituals. I was grinding in doing a fully morning ritual, and it was like, “Remember to be present.” And I was like, “This is so fucked up. You just took me out of my presence.” We get so into creating structures around it, external ones, instead of just finding the ones from inside. Which I think is part of what Amy and I have been seeking in the years since we started Mash-Up.
Amy S. Choi: I do think that there’s something about external ones, and I love how you write about it, Rainn about pilgrimage. Because I think as a person who’s been a constant, slightly dissatisfied seeker my whole life. And I’m not a cynical one, I’m like, “Oh, it’s there, out there. I just got to find it. I got to find the right one for me.” I spent a lot of my early thirties trying to…
Rainn Wilson: A couple of years ago.
Amy S. Choi: No, late twenties. Oh, God.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yesterday.
Amy S. Choi: Yesterday, Rainn, what are you talking about? What is time? But, basically, as soon as I had my own money to travel, I was like, “I’m going to go to these places. I will find the Holy Land.” And I think one of the things that I came to about visiting places like Varanasi, or Bodh Gaya, or Jerusalem, that somehow they were all had the same spirit. The way that you talked about going to Jerusalem, or being on pilgrimage, and it feels like there is an energy erupting from the earth, and that these are the pockets, and places where it’s coming out. And people feel it and they go there.
And I do think that there’s something very specific about surrounding yourself, and situating yourself in a place where you are almost helpless against feeling the splendor, and the wow. But I wonder, I’m in Brooklyn, New York, and I’m probably not going to be bopping over to the beautiful Bahá’í Gardens in Israel anytime soon. Maybe I could make it to Wilmette. That one’s also beautiful. That’s my home Bahá’í temple, the one that we grew up with.
Rainn Wilson: Right.
Amy S. Choi: But the way that we can find a practice, the thanks and wow in our daily lives, if we could just take 10 or 15 minutes. Can we surround ourselves with that? Are there daily pilgrimages we can take?
Rainn Wilson: Well, it’s funny you mentioned that because I just posted about this. I started a Soul Boom Instagram, which has really started to take off in a really cool way. And it’s young people really interested in having probing, meaningful, uplifting, spiritual conversations. And you wouldn’t think you could find that audience on social media at all. But it’s been pretty good. But, for me, every summer, pretty much I go on a hike in the cascades, either Oregon, or Washington. And I’ve done big ones. I’ve done eight-day hikes before where we’ve covered a hundred and some miles, and I’ve done just little overnighters. But for me, that’s a pilgrimage. Those are the mountains of my youth. I grew up in Seattle. Those mountains just mean a lot to me. I don’t know what it is.
Well, it’s just the incredible beauty, and ancientness, and the trees. And I just find that my year is not complete unless I’ve made that pilgrimage. And I do think that backpacking itself is a pilgrimage. “Oh, we’re going to climb Mount Johnson, and we’re going to go to Archer Lake or whatever.” But that’s what you’re doing when you go out into nature.
So, how do we bring that back home? It’s one thing to go to Nepal, it’s another thing to go to Bali. It’s another thing to go to the Bahá’í Holy Lands in Northern Israel, or whatever pilgrimage that one goes on, or even going to Archer Lake on Mount Johnson or whatever. But how do you find that in your daily life? And I don’t really have an answer for that. But I talk about how sacredness is something that we’ve lost in the modern world, and that our ancestors had, and our ancestors did something right. But for hundreds of thousands of years, we were for a time all indigenous people in occupying our indigenous lands.
And if you look at any indigenous culture, there was a sacredness to a rock, or to an ocean, or to a lake, or to a mountain, to a river valley. And then that sacredness would be brought down, the river that flows down from that mountain, from that sacred lake is pure, and beautiful, and our ancestors drank from it. There’s just that connection to the land we’ve lost touch with in the crazy noise, and static, and chaos of modern life. I don’t really have an answer. Maybe the Mash-Up listeners have some answers about how do you find the holy, and I want to separate holy from churches, and relics, and altars. How do you find the holy in the dailiness?
Amy S. Choi: Yeah. Well, definitely all 17 listeners are going to have an answer.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, so it’s true. But even with my four-year-old son, literally doing the stop and smell the roses. Sometimes I’m like, “We got to go. We’re going to be late for school.” And he literally be like, “Well, I need to stop and smell this rose.” He stops at every flower to smell it.
Rainn Wilson: That’s beautiful.
Rebecca Lehrer: And I’m like, “This is actually it.” This little boy with all this energy. And I’d be like, “I’m doing something right here.” Where he’s like, “That doesn’t really matter if the bell rings before we get there.” What matters is that we are aware, and experiencing the things around us, even in the middle of a big city, we are seeing these beautiful things and examining them. And that’s one of the great, at least with a little child, you could tell us what having a teen is like.
Rainn Wilson: Oh my God. Don’t get me started.
Amy S. Choi: I’m so scared, Rainn.
Rebecca Lehrer: I’m so scared.
Amy S. Choi: I do think though, that that’s what Amos is doing, or maybe Rainn, what you’re talking about is that we also imbue objects and rituals with holiness. So it can be us, right? That it’s not so much that we’re waiting to approach it, or find it. It’s, “Oh, what is in our lives that we can create ritual around that is personally sacred to us?” That then we can start to see bigger and divine things in or gather around.
Rebecca Lehrer: And it’s one of the things that, for instance, I love in my own personal attrition Shabbat, which is that it supersedes all other holidays, even the most holy days. It’s the thing that happens every week. And even if Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, which in 2023 do fall on Shabbat. Shabbat changes those prayers, because Shabbat has other rules, and Shabbat happens every week. It’s supposed to be a moment, a day, where you take stock, you let go, you unplug, you have your Shabbos goy turn off the lights for you, press the elevator button. And I know many traditions have a version of that.
Like Hindu friends, every day you wake up, thank the ground that you’re putting your feet on, and that it’s receiving you and that it’s serving you. And I love that in your work, you are constantly being like, “There’s all these resources. I’m not just telling you mine. There’s so much out there that you can pull from, and your own wisdom traditions.” And I think one thing I want to get into, because you just talk, they’re so casual. You’re like, “Just started this social. And then I’m asking these people, and they’re young people, and they want to ask these questions.” It’s like, there seems to be something holy also about making community, and being of service to other people too. And not it just being your own growth, but actually how we then serve a larger community.
And I’m wondering how you’re thinking about that, and wrestling with that as an artist, as a creator, as a producer, as a person? When you’re thinking about what your good life is, and what you want to reflect on as you continue to impact the world. What does it mean to build community and what you can do with that?
Rainn Wilson: Thank you so much. This is something I’m really passionate about. And the first question you asked me is, “Why are people turned off by talk about spirituality, or spiritual journeys or whatever?” Here’s another one, spirituality in the United States right now, and this really actually pisses me off, it is incredibly solipsistic. Spirituality is often used in a consumerist capitalist way, “I’m going to pay X amount for this app, or this yoga class, it’s going to make me feel more peaceful. My anxiety will be more in control through my day.” And then great. So I’ve paid X amount of money and I have received X amount of thing in return for my money, and then my day is a little bit better. And that’s it.
Now, there is some benefit to that. And if it’s important, because if you are less anxious, and more serene through your day, you can do more good, and be a better parent. Let’s say you can learn better at school, you can be a better husband, or wife, or partner to someone.
Rebecca Lehrer: I like to be short-tempered with my spouse and children.
Rainn Wilson: Yeah, I’ve heard.
Rebecca Lehrer: It feels great.
Rainn Wilson: Yes. But it stops there, especially in contemporary Los Angeles where in this yoga meditation land, where like, “Oh, I got what I needed out of it. I’m done.” But the spiritual path, the spiritual journey, and you look at any of the great teachers, you look at the Buddha, for instance, the Buddha wasn’t all about just overcome suffering, so that you can just live a happier life. It’s overcome suffering so that you can relieve suffering in others. So the spiritual path is one of service, and of community because that’s the only real way to give service, is to build community and do it at the grassroots.
So I talk in the book about my two favorite TV shows of the 1970s, Kung Fu and Star Trek. And Kung Fu is, for those who don’t know, is about Kwai Chang Caine, and just super short thumbnail, you can look it up on YouTube. He’s a Shaolin monk, martial artist philosopher in China. And then he comes to the old west, and he is looking for his brother, because he’s been cast out of his monastery. So he’s being beset by all these racist cowboys, and all these terrible, aggressive people. And he’s using his spiritual tools to make his life better, and sharing his wisdom with other people.
And I talk about that synonymous with the spiritual life that we all live as we walk through the world. We’re all like Kwai Chang Caine, seeking to bring peace, and harmony, and serenity to the world, and our wisdom as we walk through the world. And that’s fine. But the other aspect, and that I focus a little bit more in my book, is the Star Trek, which is my other favorite ’70s TV show. The original series of Star Trek, to me, is very spiritual because it has to do with humanity has overcome income inequality. Humanity has overcome racism, humanity has overcome its connection with nature. We’ve found balance, and harmony, and justice on planet earth.
So then we’re able to arise as a species to the next level of where we’re going, which is exploring space, seeking out new worlds, new life, and new civilizations. But also getting along, trying to get along with other alien races, and the federation, and build evermore community as we go forward. And we often don’t think about spirituality as being this, more in the Star Trek mode. In the Bahá’í tradition, the founder of the Bahá’í faith, Bahá’u’lláh, says that all men usher forward in ever advancing civilization.
That’s part of our purpose in life, is to help humanity grow, mature, grow more wise, and move forward. And there’s tons of different ways to do that. It doesn’t mean you have to go work at the United Nations, or start a nonprofit, or something. You can do it in your community at a lower level. It can be at your church, it can be in your block, it can be in your friend group. But we have a spiritual responsibility to give back, to use our God-given talents and qualities to help other people, to help move them forward to sacrifice.
And that’s a key word, sacrifice. Our time, our comfort, our money, even our prestige, and our social status, sacrifice these things for others to uplift, and help others move forward. And guess what? When you do that, you get even deeper serenity, calm, meaning, peace, love, and joy in your life. So win-win all around, but all too often in the woo-woo spiritual crowd, it’s just about limiting my anxiety, and then it stops there.
Amy S. Choi: Right. This is something that I loved so much in your book, and it’s a question that I think about actually specifically in relationship to you a lot. Which is, you have in your book like a litmus test question. Which is like, “What kind of old person do you want to be?” And I think there’s something just like, “What kind of person do you want to be? What’s the vision of yourself as a person? And what’s the path that gets you there?” And I think as an actor, and one that is so well known for one specific character to certain people, it’s just like-
Rainn Wilson: You mean the guy from The Meg?
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah.
Amy S. Choi: Yes, exactly.
Rainn Wilson: Yeah, the billionaire guy, Jack. I can’t even remember my name.
That one particular character?
Amy S. Choi: I laughed when you died. I’m sorry, Rainn. I hope that your actual-
Rainn Wilson: You just spoiler alert. You just let everyone know that my character was eaten by a Prehistoric shark.
Amy S. Choi: Megalodon.
Rainn Wilson: A Megalodon. Bitten in half.
Rebecca Lehrer: Amy got high as hell, and loved that movie.
Rainn Wilson: Yeah.
Amy S. Choi: But I think something that Mash-Ups definitely struggle with because we’re presented this many times, like immigrant kids. This vision of who you should be to achieve, what is a picture of successful, what does it mean to achieve an American dream, for example. And it puts you into a box, or there are very specific archetypes, or roles that you’re supposed to play. And I think you have been, as an artist sometimes, put into a box. Yet I admire you so, so much because at least in all the time that we have known you, and that the people that love you have known you. You have always been you, clearly evolving and growing, but a lot of people are very different in different situations, and you are Rainn.
And I think that that is amazing. That’s an achievement that not a lot of people that have a lot of eyes on them are able to hold onto. That’s something that everybody struggles with, not just what kind of person do you want to be. But how do you hold onto your you-ness, or your spirit, when maybe the world, and capitalism, and white supremacy, and all those things are trying to mold you into something that you are not. Or trying to get you to be something that you are not, when maybe your spiritual path is going in a different direction.
Rainn Wilson: Wow, that’s such a good question. I don’t even feel qualified to really answer that. This has been a long journey. Isn’t it a journey towards authenticity? So, finding your authentic voice. In my other book, The Bassoon King, I tell this story, but one of the greatest failures I had is one of my greatest successes. And I don’t think there really is such a thing as failure, because I got cast in a lead role in a Broadway play, and I was pretty young. I was, I don’t know, 29 or 31 or something like that. And this was a huge opportunity for me.
I was really struggling as an actor, and I got so nervous, overwhelmed about being this right conservatory actor, and I needed to be handsome, and charming, and I needed to do this and that. And maybe I could get a good New York Times review, and maybe I could sign at the William Morris Agency. And I felt all this pressure, and I got really stuck in my head. Needless to say, long story short, I sucked, I was terrible. And there are very few things worse than knowing that you, as an actor, then knowing that you suck in a play, and you’ve got to do it for 4 or 5 months, 8 shows a week, and it was excruciating.
I was sobbing on the phone to my wife, who was off in graduate school at the time, and it was awful. Just awful. And when I finished that play, and I did get terrible reviews, and people didn’t like it, and I wasn’t very good. And I got out, I’m like, “Never again. I’m never doing that again. I’m never going to try and please other people do things for other people, try and be someone that I’m not. I need to embrace who I am, I’m quirky, and I’m weird, and I’m ungainly.” I’m not gainly. Okay? Certainly not gainly. So, “Who is that Rainn Wilson-ishness? And I just embraced it after that point.
And I don’t believe that I would’ve gotten the role of the guy in The Meg. No, I’m kidding. Of Dwight in The Office, had I not, bombed on Broadway, and sucked, and felt pressured to be something that I wasn’t, and it was excruciating for months. It was awful. I remember one time they were like, “Half hour please. Is your half hour call, ready for a show.” And I happened to pick up The Village Voice, and I was just thumbing through it, and I just happened to thumb it open, and there, boom! Was a review of the show. And it was a scathing review of the show, and of me, it said-
Rebecca Lehrer: Was it Michael Musto?
Rainn Wilson: It was.
Rebecca Lehrer: He would.
Amy S. Choi: That guy.
Rebecca Lehrer: He would.
Rainn Wilson: It was scathing. And they’re like, “Okay, places please.” And I didn’t mean to read it, and it was so awful. But I’m so grateful for that, because it just allowed me to be myself. But there’s more struggles than that, a lot of therapy, hello! Being in recovery has helped because I’m just trying to be a more in alignment with the great cosmic spirit of the universe. That helps as well.
Rebecca Lehrer: Well, Rainn, you’re an inspiration.
Rainn Wilson: Oh, stop.
Amy S. Choi: I think you are very gainly, Rainn.
Rebecca Lehrer: Very gainly.
Amy S. Choi: Just the ultimate gainly.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, the most gainly. I do think for us, we’re trying to envision the world that we want, and then figure out the paths to, like you’re saying, not just protest. That’s the first step, but then carve out, and plan, and be strategic about making that world happen. This also feels like an act of protest, Soul Boom. It’s like you’re stating, “These are some of the things I see that are stressing me out. This is some of the problems I see.” And then, “Here are some solutions I’m offering.” How are you seeing your next moves in there? What’s coming from this for you?
Rainn Wilson: So, my next work I think, and where I’m hearing the most outcry, it’s like spiritual tools for the mental health epidemic. How can we draw from the world’s great spiritual traditions to find healing remedies for us in a really dark time?
Amy S. Choi: Rainn, it’s always just heartening to know that there are so many good people out there doing good work, and thinking about how they could help. I think as far as us thinking about what it means to make a good life, what is the ultimate guide, and tips for a fantastic, spiritual, alive life, that has to be one of them. So we’re just so happy that you were able to come, and talk to us about it.
Rainn Wilson: And what you just expressed was gratitude. And gratitude is a great superpower to harness. I’m sure you’ve been talking about it on your show, and I am grateful for you two, for all the wonderful help, and guidance, and light, and fun we had with Metaphysical Milkshake back in the day. And so nice to see you both, and be in the studio with you. It’s a delight. Grateful.
Amy S. Choi: A delight.
Rebecca Lehrer: We are grateful. Thank you to Rainn, for always just going there with us.
Amy S. Choi: This conversation and each of these conversations this season are part of the way we are finding our own path to spirituality, and community. And it’s just so nice to have so many people with us and along for the journey altogether.
Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, really feels good. I think that maybe that’s what he was talking about. Doing it feels good. I don’t know.
Amy S. Choi: It feels good. Also laughing till we snort, because this feels like a critical part of our spiritual path.
Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, my gosh. Does it ever the most.
Amy S. Choi: Next week, we are so excited for Jonathan Menjivar, our Salvadoran, Angeleno compadre who is going to talk with us all about money, and class, and guilt. Gets awkward, gets tender. We’re so excited to dive in with all of you.
Rebecca Lehrer: Make sure to catch the rest of the ultimate guide to a Mash-Up life every week this fall. And like and follow the Mash-Up Americans wherever you get your pods, and tell your friends. And if you haven’t signed up for the newsletter, do it. mashupamericans.com/subscribe. Love you.
This podcast is a production of The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Senior editor and producer is Sara Pellegrini. Production manager is Shelby Sandlin. Thanks to DJ Rob Swift for our theme song, Salsa Scratch. Additional engineering support by Pedro Rafael Rosado. Please make sure to follow and share this show with your friends. Bye.