It was a cold Saturday morning in a hospital in San Francisco and I was huddled on a desk, silently cursing the winter chill. I wasn’t supposed to be at work that day. The department was eerily quiet, too bright with all of the fluorescent light panels on. And then from a corner of my inbox, I noticed an email from Seth Godin that has illuminated my life since then: his interview with Krista Tippet, host of the podcast On Being.
I’ve been a fan of Seth for some time now, religiously devouring his daily emails (you should really subscribe if you haven’t), books, interviews and classes. Seth’s humbling brilliance, punctuated by Krista’s insightful wisdom stunned me. The hour flew by. Even though I was unfamiliar with Krista’s tone and style, it was easy for me to slide into the show’s rhythm.
That interview made me a Krista fan, as I relished episodes wherein she conversed with luminaries I’m both familiar and unfamiliar with: Pico Iyer, Maria Popova, Alain de Botton, Paul Muldoon, David Whyte, Elizabeth Alexander. It wasn’t until later, after ten episodes or so, that I finally started to grapple the depth of the show; I slowly felt its impact within the inner workings of my own being.
What is striking with these conversations is that although Krista’s guests/partners are not necessarily spiritual nor religious, she is always able to take them to a field where the heart, spirit and soul meet, bringing her listeners with her. Each episode always leaves me feeling a little more grounded, embracing the length of being human even more.
As soon as I found out that she was releasing a book, I knew that Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living would be just as generous as Krista was (also Seth’s words in the interview).
Maybe it comes with age: that desire to look even deeper within ourselves, that longing to understand the purpose of our existence. While I joke with friends and family that I’m always having an existential dilemma, understanding how I live and want to live has been a consistent pursuit.
The question of what it means to be human is now inextricable from the question of who we are to each other. We have riches of knowledge and insight, of tools both tangible and spiritual, to rise to this calling. We watch our technologies becoming more intelligent, and speculate imaginatively about their potential to become conscious. All the while, we have it in us to become wise. Wisdom leaves intelligence, and ennobled consciousness, and advances evolution itself.
The book is divided in five sections: words, flesh, love, faith and hope. Each chapter brings forth Krista’s insight, weaving in the wisdom of her previous On Being conversation partners. Reading the book elevated my own engagement with spirituality, an overwhelming feat at times for me.
I was once a 15 year old student at St. Scholastica’s Academy (SSA) in the Philippines, a Scholastican trained and taught under my alma mater’s motto of Ora et Labora (pray and work). SSA was a Catholic school and it nailed religion in place for me, even though it created a lot of contradictions in my young, inquisitive mind. I knew that I was queer woman back then, and I slowly came to detest the hypocritical messages of the institutions (specially the Catholic Church) I was a part of. I challenged, I rebelled. My family moved to the United States; I became a non-believer.
As liberating as untying oneself to the Catholic Church was, it also made me feel hollow. The raucous of my early 20s created the noise needed to fill up the hollowness, but one could never really get away. As one gets older, you start to realize that the saying “the only way out is through” does hold a lot of weight.
To my surprise, Krista referenced St. Benedict (I can’t bring myself to say just “Benedict,” having revered him and his twin sister St. Scholastica for 14 years at SSA), the St. Benedict of my childhood:
Benedict of Nursia had a quiet idea: to create a livable rhythm of life that could bring together both hermits — the familiar monastic model of that time — and people joining from the world, and replace the inconsistencies of scattered, competing religious authorities.
Benedict could not know in his lifetime, nor could anyone else near or far, that he was fashioning a crucible of resilience that a thousand years later would literally keep Western civilization alive.
As much as I wished that I was given this context about St. Benedict when I was still in school, I also know that my reception to this information would not be as awe-inspiring now. It suddenly made sense that I am drawn to silent retreats, to places like the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland and the San Francisco Zen Center in San Francisco. After learning about Pico Iyer’s regular trips to an hermitage on the coast of California, I vowed to do the same.
My path to seeking a spiritual practice first started upon learning about Buddhism. More than its tenets, I was deeply drawn to the simplicity of its teachings. I marveled at the way it encouraged openness, kindness and forgiveness towards others. Most of all, it affirmed my imperfect, human self.
But I found myself drawn again and again, almost for sanity’s sake, to the East, where so much more was at stake, and life and mind felt more passionate and vital. This realization unsettled my sense of personal progress and education: it was possible to have freedom and and plenty in the West and craft an empty life; it was possible to “have nothing” in the East and create a life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.
Books by His Holiness Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Paramahansa Yogananda guided me, as I continued to explore different ways of deepening my spiritual practice. I started attending the East Bay Church of Religious Science in 2011. In 2013, I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism, chanting nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
Buddhism in all its variation has cultivated a sophisticated psychology of the heart-mind, never separating the two in its languages of origin. Across thousands of years, it focused on contemplative disciplines to investigate and calm the mind as everyday practice.
How I understood spirituality was confined to a very specific practice, the framework I’ve been operating on ever since my introduction and eventual disavowal of Catholicism. I grew up going to Church every Sunday. I knew all the rites and sacraments by heart, the ten commandments, what the Holy Week was for. I was both familiar and intrigued by the Bible, lulled into its poetry but repulsed by some of the stories. Embedded in my consciousness and experience is the practice of spirituality through religiosity — the importance of upholding rituals and traditions, of belonging to a group, collective or congregation.
It wasn’t until I started to listen more closely to the messages of poets, physicists, spiritual and religious leaders, thinkers, philosophers and of course, Krista, that I realized there was another way. That one’s spirituality could be deepened just by recognizing the humanity of others, by extending our realm of tenderness beyond those we consider as family and friends, towards strangers. That it our “spiritual lives are where we reckon head-on with the mystery of ourselves, and the mystery of each other.”
This was the ultimate lesson for me: the capacity of our spirituality to transcend difference, rigidity and dogma and center the way we relate to each other with beauty, love and grace.
We create transformative, resilient new realities by becoming transformed, resilient people. This is about the lover as well as the beloved, the citizen as well as the politician, the social entrepreneur as well as the person in need. It means me, and it means you.
In a time of polarization, of Donald Trump, of Boko Haram, of continued American military dominance, of imperialism, of state repression, of police brutality, I feel the urgency for indignation and the necessity for resistance. The Chibok girls are still missing, Syrian refugees are seeking for places to take them in, indigenous people in the Philippines are exercising their right to resist annihilation.
What’s going on around us can dampen the spirit severely. One of the many gifts of Becoming Wise is that it illuminates our spiritual lives in numerous ways, just by reminding us of things that are already present. Most of all, it counts on something that we all tend to forget sometimes:
We never see see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. I think it was William James who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shaped my mind.” And so in choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world, our inner world, our outer world, which is a really the only one we’ll ever know.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.