Physicist Carlo Rovelli says humans don’t understand the world as made by things, “we understand the world made by kisses, or things like kisses — happenings.” This everyday truth is as scientific as it is philosophical and political, and it unfolds with unexpected nuance in his science. Rovelli is one of the founders of loop quantum gravity theory and author of the tiny, bestselling book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and The Order of Time. Seeing the world through his eyes, we understand that there is no such thing as “here” or “now.” Instead, he says, our senses convey a picture of reality that narrows our understanding of its fullness.
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Brené Brown says our belonging to each other can’t be lost, but it can be forgotten. Her research has reminded the world in recent years of the uncomfortable, life-giving link between vulnerability and courage. Now she’s turning her attention to how we walked into the crisis of our life together and how we can move beyond it: with strong backs, soft fronts, and wild hearts.
December 19, 2019
The Calling of Delight: Gangs, Service, and Kinship
Fr. Greg Boyle makes amazingly winsome connections between things like service and delight, compassion and awe. He landed as an idealistic young Jesuit in a gang-heavy neighborhood of Los Angeles three decades ago. Now he heads Homeboy Industries, which employs former gang members in a constellation of businesses from screen printing to a farmers’ market to a bakery. This is not work of helping, he says, but of finding kinship.
Father James Martin is a beloved Jesuit writer and teacher who says desire is not selfish, but rather a path to understanding our callings in life. He believes everyone has a vocation we can find by asking: What moves me? “We all have an image of the person we want to become — more loving, more open, more free. That’s a call,” he says.
Matthieu Ricard is helping us redefine happiness in a culture convinced that it’s a passive experience. The French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk reframes happiness not as pleasure but as practice that requires discipline — akin to marathon training or learning chess. He asks, “What are the inner conditions that foster a genuine sense of flourishing, of fulfillment?”
When the wise and whimsical Sharon Olds started writing poetry over 40 years ago, she explored the subjects that interested her most — like diaphragms. “The politeness and the prudity of the world I grew up in meant that there were things that were important to me and interesting to me, [but] I had never read a poem about,” she once said. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for her collection Stag’s Leap about walking through the end of a long marriage. Her most recent book, Odes, pays homage to the human body and experience.
Writer and illustrator Maira Kalman is well known for her books for children and adults, her love of dogs, and her New Yorker covers. Her words and pictures bring life’s intrinsic quirkiness and whimsy into relief right alongside life’s intrinsic seriousness. As a storyteller, she is contemplative and inspired by the stuff of daily life — from fluffy white meringues to well-worn chairs. “There’s never a lack of things to look at,” she says. “And there’s never a lack of time not to talk.”
August 2, 2018
Alain de Botton
The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships
What if the first question we asked on a date were, “How are you crazy? I’m crazy like this”? Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton’s essay “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” was, amazingly, the most-read article in The New York Times in the news-drenched year of 2016. As people and as a culture, he says, we would be much saner and happier if we reexamined our very view of love. How might our relationships be different — and better — if we understood that the real work of love is not in the falling, but in what comes after?
The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a citizen artist and a forensic musicologist, decoding the work of musical creators across time and space. In his art, Yo-Yo Ma resists fixed boundaries, and would like to rename classical music just “music” — born in improvisation, and traversing territory as vast and fluid as the world we inhabit. In this generous and intimate conversation, he shares his philosophy of curiosity about life, and of performance as hospitality.
Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek sees beauty as a compass for truth, discovery, and meaning. His book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design is a long meditation on the question: “Does the world embody beautiful ideas?” He’s the unusual scientist willing to analogize his discoveries about the deep structure of reality with deep meaning in the human everyday.
Her name is synonymous with her fantastically best-selling memoir Eat Pray Love. But through the disorienting process of becoming a celebrity, Elizabeth Gilbert has also reflected deeply on the gift and challenge of inhabiting a creative life. Creativity, as she defines it, is about choosing curiosity over fear — not to be confused with the more familiar trope to “follow your passion,” but rather as something accessible to us all and good for our life together.
“When you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem.” Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” has traveled around the world. She grew up between Ferguson, Missouri, Ramallah, and Jerusalem. She insists that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity. She’d have us notice “petite discoveries” that embolden us to choose human nourishment over division. “Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things.”
“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” Mary Karr has a captivating ability to give voice to what is funny in life’s most heartbreaking moments. She is beloved for her salty memoirs in which she traces her harrowing childhood in southeast Texas — with a mother who once tried to kill her with a butcher’s knife and her own adult struggles with alcoholism and breakdown. Mary Karr embodies this wryness and wildness in her lesser-known spiritual practice as a devout Catholic — an unexpected move she made in mid-life.
Mysticism is the birthright of every human being, says Br. David Steindl-Rast. He speaks of the anatomy and practice of gratitude as full-blooded, reality-based, and redeeming. Now in his 90s, he has lived through a world war, the end of an empire, and the fascist takeover of his country. He was an early pioneer, together with Thomas Merton, of dialogue between Christian and Buddhist monastics. He’s also given a TED talk, viewed over six million times, on the subject of gratitude — a practice increasingly interrogated by scientists and physicians as a key to human well-being.
No conversation we’ve ever done has been more beloved than this one. The Irish poet, theologian, and philosopher insisted on beauty as a human calling. He had a very Celtic, lifelong fascination with the inner landscape of our lives and with what he called “the invisible world” that is constantly intertwining what we can know and see. This was one of the last interviews he gave before his unexpected death in 2008. But John O’Donohue’s voice and writings continue to bring ancient mystical wisdom to modern confusions and longings.
A French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk and a central figure in the Dalai Lama’s dialogue with scientists, Matthieu Ricard was dubbed “The Happiest Man in the World” after his brain was imaged. But he resists this label. In his writing and in his life, he explores happiness not as pleasurable feeling but as a way of being that gives you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life and that encompasses many emotional states, including sadness. We take in Matthieu Ricard’s practical teachings for cultivating inner strength, joy, and direction.
June 8, 2017
Sam Sanders, Terry McMillan, Lindy West, et al
Humor as a Tool for Survival
Humor lifts us up but it also underscores what’s already great; it connects us with others and also brings us home to ourselves. And like everything meaningful, it’s complex and nuanced — it can be fortifying or damaging, depending on how we wield it. But as a tool for survival, humor is elemental. We explore this idea with a rabbi who started out in drag, comedians, an NPR host, writers of sci-fi/fantasy, social commentary, and the TV show Veep.
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The Pause is our Saturday morning newsletter, a gathering of threads from the far-flung, ongoing conversation that is The On Being Project. Stay up to date with our latest podcasts, writings, live events, and more.
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