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"The real insight that spirituality offers us, and it’s so liberating if we take it, is that it is precisely within the mess and within the flaws that we get to find meaning."
16 March 2016

Krista Tippett enriches the debate

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Chad Holder

Berry Liberman on Krista Tippett

There aren’t many people who will get me out of bed at five in the morning. Krista Tippett is most definitely one of them. She’s the creative force behind On Being, a radio show and podcast that reaches 1.5 million listeners a month on topics ranging from religion and poetry to science and sound. Awarded the National Humanities Medal from Barack Obama for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence,” Krista has spent her life exploring the human condition in all its complexity—its darkness as well as its great potential.

Growing up in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist preacher, Krista felt the gap between what religion was teaching—a fearful lens of the world—and the everyday kindness and openness of her community. After graduating from Brown University she went to Bonn, West Germany in 1983 on a Fulbright Scholarship to study politics in Cold War Europe. This led to work as assistant to the US Ambassador to West Germany. Her time there, witnessing power up close, propelled Krista to pursue a Masters of Divinity from Yale, intensifying her sense that more meaningful dialogue could be had around the moral questions of our time.

Krista began to imagine radio conversations that spoke to this impulse—that wrestled and explored the inner workings of faith, science and ideas in a way that could enrich public life. On Being has become the connective tissue, a place to gather and learn about meaningful work and ideas being generated in the world. In my mind, this conversation with Krista has been happening through the podcasts for months now. She has become a familiar voice in my life, a daily ritual, a trusted companion on the quest for meaning and wisdom. I’m curious to know what she has gleaned from a life immersed in questions of the soul.

To my great delight I discover a voice of hope and reason, someone who sees “all this determined goodness, an abundance of good people and initiatives in the world” and understands that our mundane, messy, complicated lives are— when lived in the questions—an expression of what ultimately matters. Krista’s work illustrates that we can climb the highest mountains searching for answers, but the most muscular spiritual practice is one in which kindness, compassion and presence happen in the muck of the ordinary moment. Having spoken with some of the greatest spiritual leaders and thinkers of her time, Krista believes we are heading into an age of spiritual robustness, not bankruptcy.

This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

Berry Liberman: The first question I want to ask is the first question that you ask all of your guests: how would you describe the religious or spiritual background of your childhood?

Krista Tippett: Well, I had a Southern Baptist preacher grandfather who was the towering religious figure of my childhood. And church was not just a place you went. I mean, we actually went there a lot—three times a week. But it was a completely immersive religious culture. It was our friendship circle. It was the centre of culture in a small town in the Bible Belt. One thing I think a lot about as I get older is the gap between what I was being taught about religion, especially by my grandfather: it was a lot about rules. And it was mostly about what not to do.

It often had something to do with sex. It was always about the body. And it was about the body as dangerous. But the gap is that religion is pretty forbidding and fearful really—fearful of the world—and yet it’s also open and universal. My grandfather was the funniest person I knew. He had a huge heart. He was very passionate himself, which I think was why he was so attentive to how dangerous the body can be. So I internalised a lot of ideas about God and about the universe that were much more generous than the religion, than the explicit teachings. And as I’ve gotten older and worked in this field, that gap has been really defining for me. It sounds so obvious when I say it now! But maybe it’s kind of what I work through now in the work I do.


This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #45 of Dumbo Feather

You bring up something important there about belonging and religion. I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish tradition, although I personally don’t believe in God, but I deeply understand religion as community and belonging and, not necessarily tribalism, but story—which is a deep need for all human beings.

You know, it’s always interesting to me when I talk to doctors who are learning to factor in people’s spiritual lives or religious identity into the care they provide and their prognosis. The way they define the effect of religion is about people having support networks. It’s about human connection and human support. I think that’s really stunning. Because that’s not necessarily what we think of when we think of religious institutions. But it is what matters to people and that’s what makes an imprint.

It’s really important because religion has been so divisive and it has been so tribal and continues to be. And it’s so satisfying when you find your people. This is a huge question, but how do we open up the tribal lands and the tribal lines to belong to one another?

Yeah. The word “belonging” has been so much on my mind lately. And it’s a word that gets at a lot of what we actually do need and what we long for. When we talk about the good that there is in a tribe, it’s that sense of belonging. And I honestly think that belonging is organic and that it’s real, it’s something we have to live into, but we actually create structures that work against it, which kind of make it invisible.

It’s usually the violent and destructive manifestations of religion and religious identity that get all the attention. They get all the publicity. But the whole picture of religion in the world has a lot of beauty in it.

It has a lot of music in it. It has a lot of art and it has a lot of quiet redemptive community. It’s not just throwing itself in front of microphones and cameras. So I’m really aware of that. But it’s also true that it is in our intimate human spaces—whether that’s a family or a church or a synagogue—that not only do we have our most intense belonging but it’s where our dark sides find expression too. Because religion touches such powerful places in us—when it is distorted, when it is mobilised in destructive ways, it is extremely powerful.

I read that you’ve had psychotherapy?

Yes, yeah. Uh huh.

And I thought that was quite a sort of exquisite double-deep journey.


The journey into therapy, which is the story of the self. And then the journey into all of this wisdom and richness of the ages. So tell me more about how your therapeutic journey has informed your exploration of the spiritual life?

Well, I find that in ancient religious texts and any story or teaching that has survived millennia, that there’s some truth there. There’s something in there that human beings have recognised as true. I find there’s an exquisite psychological wisdom, a really sophisticated analysis of the human condition in our traditions, that we don’t often think of when we think of religion.

We think about teachings of God or something beyond us. But these are the places where we have really tried to grapple with the human condition in all its complexity—its darkness as well as its great potential.

I’ve written about reading the psalms when I was in the midst of my depression in my mid-thirties. And, you know, what’s so amazing about the psalms is that they really do give voice to the entire array of human emotion and potential—including murderous rage. It’s all there. And there’s a lot of raging against enemies which I never could really identify with. I mean, everything’s in there, from gratitude and joy and love to rage and misery and self-pity and a lot of talk of enemies. And then I started understanding that the ancient religious biblical scribes understood that those enemies can also be inside ourselves. And when I was in the midst of my depression that made a lot of sense to me.


Therapy absolutely saved my life for a couple of years. And I do think that one of the primary things I care about excavating from these traditions and these texts is a sophisticated analysis of who we are as human beings: the complexity of it, the richness of it, the paradox. And I actually think that all the lofty spiritual principles and aspirations require a certain amount of mental and emotional health. Right? I love this Buddhist language of having “mental hygiene.”


And so I start to see that sophisticated understanding of the human condition not only in our traditions but also in something like therapy. Also in practices like yoga and meditation that work on all that is in our bodies and how our bodies and minds are connected. You know, it’s amazing that these ancient practices have carried that intelligence. And here we are, in the 21st century, able to see inside our brains and map that—that all of these practices are actually helping us provide something not necessarily lofty, but a basis for balance and health. I want us to be able to talk collectively about the spiritual evolution of our species. Like, where we’re going as a species. And these tools for mental hygiene, for spiritual grounding—however you want to use the word “spiritual”—provide a robust and reality-based understanding of the human condition. I think these are really the basic building blocks for progressing in a profound way.

Everything you said is also my own hope and quest and work. And yet I have always felt excluded in so many ways from religion. How does the secular person searching for meaning stay open enough to listen to the richness of spiritual conversation?

I think that’s getting so much easier all the time, right? I think we’re living in a remarkable time when spiritual identity, religious identity is no longer inherited like eye colour. And that’s been true for a long, long time in the history of our species. There’s all kinds of access to spiritual ideas, teachings, to spiritual technologies— which is how I think of meditation and yoga. And you can reach for that outside of any official identity. But interestingly as people go deeper on a spiritual path they often start reaching for a lot of the things that religion offers, including community. Right? And ritual. I think, and this gets back to the fact that we’re embodied and that means so much more than we’ve realised, ritual is something that we need and crave. And we actually create little rituals in our daily lives without calling it that.

But there’s something really important about collective ritual and other religious traditions where you create containers for life passages. And grief.

I also think what’s happening here is that this same energy is then rippling back and both challenging and questioning and revitalising the traditions. Because they do carry these rituals and this wisdom that is part of what we’re longing for.

Do you belong to a community? Do you have a faith tradition that you adhere to or a spiritual practice?

You know, right now I don’t. I don’t belong to a church. I do a lot of yoga. There’s a lot of bad yoga in the world just like there’s a lot of bad religion. But if you find a good yoga, it’s life-changing. I’m also very much an ideas person—I read, right? And what I read has changed over the course of time. There was a time when I read the Book of Common Prayer every night and found that incredibly meaningful, and I read a lot of amazing stuff for my work. A few years ago I interviewed Karen Armstrong, a British writer who’s written a lot about religion in the 21st century. And she said she’s come to this conclusion that her work is her prayer. I don’t know if I would say it that way. But I do believe somehow that whatever spirituality and whatever religiosity is, these things emerge and deepen in the raw materials of our lives. And they are interwoven with what we do. It’s not a separate compartment. Which, as much as I said that my childhood religion was an immersive environment, when I left that environment, the whole institution stopped making sense. It was a separate world.

For me, the word “spirituality” is entirely tangible and appealing. So the thought of spirituality not being a separate box is wonderful. Because it crept up on me, you know? The more I was doing my work with Dumbo Feather, which is similar to what you do…

I learned. I knew about Dumbo Feather but I learned more and we’re such kindred projects.

There’s something really important about collective ritual and other religious traditions where you create containers for life passages. And grief.
Krista Tippett

Yeah. I feel that. And it’s such a privilege. I realised that the more amazing people I interviewed, from Brené Brown to Parker Palmer, at some point the spiritual question arises. And I’ve also been in therapy for 11 years. And there’s only so far you can go before you suddenly hit this point and there’s something deeper, richer, bigger than you. This year has been very much about that for me. I went to Bhutan for 10 days. Left my family for the first time ever for that length of time. And I think I was viewing that spiritual question as a siloed thing. Parker Palmer in our last issue mentioned a Rilke quote: that we live into the answers. It seems to be similar to what you’re saying— that your life is the prayer. And that’s quite an exquisite thought.

It is an exquisite thought! And it’s so different from the way these things have been taught to us. That it’s something you have to let settle in you and live, right? That you just decide: “Oh that’s right, my life is the prayer!” But even if it’s true we have to make it real. We have to make it three-dimensional. Because it’s still a whole new way of imagining ourselves. And imagining spirituality.

What do you mean by that?

I mean it is a radical thing, at least for me and the way I was raised, to insist that every moment, every encounter, that the most mundane, ordinary parts of our day are an expression of what ultimately matters. That sounds kind of lofty.

And so this task, this decision of saying, “Spirituality is in the elements of my everyday life, not in a corner somewhere, not in a separate experience” is big. John O’Donohue, the Irish poet—I wish you could have interviewed him, he died right after I interviewed him. He says: “Beauty is not all loveliness like”— in that wonderful Irish way—“Not all loveliness like.” Because when you talk about anything that’s deep and rich, even beauty, it has its messy places.

It’s interesting because when I went to Bhutan I had a sort of angry reaction to—this is me revealing my shameful side—monasteries carved into the rock. I mean they were beautiful and it was an extraordinary human endeavour. But the mother in me—who’s in the muck and was far away from my children, missing them—didn’t want the monastery on the hill. I didn’t want the purified life. Couldn’t relate to it. Everything you’re saying is so much more human and relatable, it’s not transcendent.

I love what you just said. And I think somehow the paradox is arriving at an understanding of transcendence that can only exist because it’s rooted in the muck. Right?


Which almost doesn’t make sense except we live it and it is real. I actually believe, I can’t really explain this, but I think somehow our capacity to really experience mystery and take it in is limited by how much we’re actually in our bodies. Like, how much we’re in the non-mysterious [laughs]. You know? The biological, the physical reality. And so one observation I have about my grandfather, who had a second-grade education and was fearful of a lot of things that he had every right to be fearful of: he grew up on the frontier. Not having sex until you were married actually made sense when childbirth was dangerous and sex led to pregnancy and pregnancy out of wedlock ruined lives. There was a lot of addiction in his family. There was no remedy for addiction. So a lot of these rules are about not drinking, not playing cards, not doing things that had addiction attached. And I understand that in the world in which he grew up, there were more perilous places from which people did not return. So that understanding and place of compassion has been a really important turning point for me. And I suspect, even like the Orthodox Judaism in which you grew up, there are rituals and a concern for purity, for example, that grew out of physical realities which no longer apply to the world we live in.

Yeah, that’s really true.

That there was actually an intelligence about the body behind what looked to us like really primitive practices. And now that intelligence doesn’t make sense but there was something honourable at its root. Yeah, I certainly think about that. What I also think about is how my grandfather was so fearful of physical reality—of the world. I think he actually had a great relationship with my grandmother. But they had a child who was stillborn. I mean, I think they were scared of all of this for good reason. And I almost feel like in putting up that firewall between oneself and one’s physical passions and the richness and ravages of the world, all he could hold onto in tradition were these rules that kept that at bay. And I think he was frightened of mystery. I don’t think he had been taught that he could love his questions as much as his answers, and that it was okay to have questions that just sat there and didn’t get answered. And I believe that limited his ability to experience mystery in the fullest sense.

And it harks back to what you were saying about mental hygiene and having the ability to enter the darkness in ourselves, to enter relationships with our selves in a way that is not fearful and rageful.

It’s a very strange thing about us as human beings. The classic historic question, the question of evil in the theodicy debate: “If there is a good God”—or the way I might say it now, “If there’s a loving intelligence, why is there so much suffering?” And that question to me remains sitting there. It doesn’t get answered. But on the other hand there’s something so strange and beautiful, kind of amazing about the fact that it is in that darkness that we grow. Now you have to be careful not to romanticise darkness and I think religion has sometimes romanticised suffering or dismissed it in some ways.

Nominated it a noble place.

Exactly. That’s not good. And everybody doesn’t survive, right? Everybody doesn’t survive depression or the multitudes of things we deal with. But the hardest things we deal with are also these incredible opportunities to move to a different place as a human being. And we encounter that again and again and again. And even when our children are little they have their small versions of this, right? You know that they have to fall down before they can walk. My kids are now 17 and 21. And the interesting thing, especially with my daughter, who’s 21 and has adult- sized problems [laughs], is that I can know her as well as I know anyone, know her struggle, but also know that what she’s grappling with is precisely how she’s going to become who she is! You talked to Brené Brown, right? That we actually learn courage and hope by walking through the things we didn’t know how we’d get through.

It’s just so strange and mysterious that struggle has the bizarre aspect of holding gifts for us as well.

And somehow what we’re talking about is really the heart of spiritual life. Of course, it is about appreciating beauty and loving and being hospitable and learning to be generous. But it’s again and again about the things we walk through that scare us and form us and change us. And how we keep walking.

I’m interested in the fact that you’re a mother who’s been compelled to ask the deepest questions. And you’ve had access to the great spiritual leaders and thinkers of our time. What lessons do you think your kids have learned from your enquiry, and how has it informed your parenting journey?

I wish there were a really impressive answer to that [laughs]. I remember sitting with Sylvia Boorstein. Have you heard the interview I did with her?


You should go listen to that one because it’s about parenting. We called it: “What we Nurture.” She’s one of the people who brought Buddhism to the West in the 1960s. And they were mostly Jewish—those American kids who went over and brought Buddhism to the West. So she’s a really renowned Buddhist teacher, but as she grew older she also really lived in her Jewish identity again. So she brings these things together in a beautiful way. Anyway, she said to me, and I know this is true— scientists will say this: our kids, they’re not necessarily listening to us, but they are watching us. They are picking up how we are and not what we say! Which is so alarming!

That is so alarming! The pressure!

[Laughs] my kids know what I do, of course. But being in radio is not like being in TV. It’s not like we walk down the street and people recognise me. But still they realise that I have a public persona and it’s been really important for them to have a distinction between that public persona and just me. So there’s a bit of a boundary there. I mean, I don’t impose what I learned at work today, but this is one of the most puzzling things about parenting: you never know really what you’re passing on. And I’ve actually worried that I haven’t overtly shared so many of the things that are coming at me. The other day my son, both my kids say they’re not religious, although their dad is an Episcopal priest. I mean he’s much more…


Yeah! So there you go! It’s logical! But my son at breakfast the other morning suddenly read me this quote by the Dalai Lama. Someone had sent it to him on social media or something. And he just said: “How does this guy get so wise?” I said some things to him about why I thought the Dalai Lama was so wise. And then I was like: “You know I’ve interviewed the Dalai Lama?!” And when I interviewed the Dalai Lama he wasn’t that interested [laughs]. So I’m saying they have to discover these things for themselves anyway. There might be a zig-zaggy line between years ago when I interviewed the Dalai Lama and told him about this, and then it landed in his brain at 17 as something that he had discovered.

Earlier you were asking me about living a spiritual life through the raw materials of life. And one thing that I have really taken from my conversations, which is not as much spiritual as it is scientific, is this notion of neuroplasticity, this great discovery we’ve made in our lifetime.

I met Norman Doidge this year. And that was incredible.

I do believe somehow that whatever spirituality and whatever religiosity is, these things emerge and deepen in the raw materials of our lives. And they are interwoven with what we do. It’s not a separate compartment.
Krista Tippett

Yeah! I mean, it’s a huge paradigm shift to know that we are physically, through our lives, changing—and that we can help shape that. The downside is, we have to work really hard to shape it. It’s not just the New Year’s resolution, it’s like: “Do you decide?” so that’s one thing that I’ve taken really seriously. I love the language of virtues. These ways of being in a world that hold some of the wisdom of our traditions and are kind of rituals at the same time. And it’s not just the big flashy ones like love and compassion. It’s hospitality and generosity and patience and kindness. Those are stepping stones to the big virtues. And at some point a few years ago I really took that in and, I mean, I had to fight really hard to create this project, and I did hit a point a few years ago where the person I was at work, at least some of the time, is not who I wanted to be. On the one hand I’m doing these beautiful spiritual interviews and then on the other hand there’s ambition, and I can be really impatient with people. I was in a bad organisational environment. And I understood that, but I also decided that I either had to be able to change—I either had to be able to be who I wanted to be at work—or I had to leave ’cause I couldn’t live with this disconnect. I also took it in in my private life. And there’s something magical about saying: “I am going to become a more patient person.” And not feeling like a patient person. I would not say it’s a word people use to describe me! But the whole idea here is that we can practice. Virtues are practices. Judaism actually does this better than Christianity in saying: “It’s not about what you believe, it’s about what you do.” And so it’s just saying: “I may not feel patient, I may not feel kind, but I am going to do kind and patient.” And even with my children, I have had this experience where you do become more patient. I know that the muscle memory strengthens. So that’s just really practical. Virtues are amazing tools for living.

I’m wondering, having had all these incredible encounters that you’ve had and conversations that you’ve shared with the world— one point five million listeners a month I believe—do you have hope for humanity that we will act from our highest selves?

Oh I do. I do. I also have faith that a lot of people are aspiring to their best selves already. But it’s like what we said at the beginning, that it’s the loud, stirring religious voices who get all the play. And loud, stirring cultural voices who get all the play. I’m privileged being at this media platform, and you are too, to have a view of the parallel universe. All the amazing energy and aspiration and good work. Which may be more real!

One thing that’s notable about generations coming up is that they’re very pragmatic. There’s an idealism, but it’s rooted and grounded and it’s not necessarily about saying, “We’re going to save the world!” It’s about looking at the world right in front of you and saying: “This is what I can do right here right now.”

I have to work hard to think of my project as being powerful because it’s something I grew and had to fight so long for. And it’s such an honour for me that you’re listening! I do take that in. Having a media project is a powerful thing. The last few years I’ve realised that. Because, you’re on a megaphone. And so I see all this quiet and determined goodness and a lot of searching for wisdom and practising wisdom, and then I ask: “What is it that I can do with this project I have?” That’s really where we are as an organisation—“How can we serve that?” The thing that concerns me is, I do feel like there’s an abundance of good people and initiatives and work and I long to see more connective tissue.

You mentioned having a microphone and I have a quote here: “The best religious voices and lives are the last to throw themselves in front of a microphone. It’s a quiet story, it’s a story of everyday goodness.” It’s a question, I guess, around the word “humility.” It can be a challenge to lean in to the microphone and speak and be heard, because we need strong voices for peace and for the planet and for kindness and tenderness, and yet we need humility and gentleness and goodness. How do we reconcile that?

So I had this cathartic moment in thinking about humility when my daughter was young. I was studying theology at the time and I was reading all these passages in the New Testament about humility and what a great thing it is and the humility of a child. And I never thought much of it. As a woman in particular, it’s like, Does humility get you anywhere? Talk about things that religion has exalted at the expense of human life. Humility is one of those. And then I realised…

What do you mean by that?

Well: “Women be humble,” which meant, “Make yourself invisible. Take anything that comes at you and take it gracefully.” That’s the association I have with that word and that I had with that word inside religion. And then I’m living with this child and the thing that Jesus is always talking about is the humility of a child, which also was never compelling to me at all…


So then I was actually out walking with my daughter one day and I realised how a child walks through the world discovering everything for the first time and it’s all so amazing. And they have this approach of curiosity and a readiness to be surprised and a readiness to be amazed. I realised that’s another way to think about humility—not as debasing yourself but about walking through the world with curiosity, ready to be surprised. And ready to expect the best of and to see what is amazing about “the other.”

And so that is my definition of spiritual humility. It’s passionate, it’s big, it’s smart, it’s looking hard, it’s listening hard. Not everything and everyone is going to rise to that expectation. But you’re only likely to get more when you expect more. When you have created a space with your curiosity and your respect and your readiness to wonder that people can rise to that. So the word “humility” is problematic because it’s loaded with all these associations. But I do think it is one of these great, great virtues. If you just think of the opposite of that version of humility, it’s: we’re so guarded, we’re so defended, we’re so ready to be disappointed, we’re so cynical. And if you approach the world or another person in that mode, you’re going to get what you’re asking for. But for me humility asks for more and brings a readiness to take delight in the world and each other.

That’s really beautiful. And one of the things that’s resonating for me is my slight horror at both deeply understanding what you’re talking about, my aspiration to it—that when you walk towards someone and your heart is open and curious and deeply empathic that that is what you’ll see and receive from them—but then my horror at how I trip every day. And there are small moments, shameful moments really, when I forget about kindness and I forget about empathy and compassion and I just get caught up in the smallness.

And you’re at a really intense place in your life. You know, parenting is so interesting because it brings out the depths of love and empathy in us that we didn’t know were possible on the one hand, but it also is so all-encompassing that you hardly have the energy for the outside world, right? Or for other kinds of irritations or disappointments. So you should forgive yourself.

You’re letting me off the hook! [Laughs] so, I’d love to know, has there been an interview that changed your life?

I feel that I am a little bit changed by every conversation. I really can’t single one out. I do feel like my favourite interview is always the last one I did. I mean that’s a little glib ’cause clearly there are some that really stand out. But even the show we just did last weekend with this neuroscientist and epigeneticist: fascinating not only how we are changed by experiences and behaviours, but that this crosses generations. The good part of that is that this is knowledge which is a form of power and it’s telling a truth that is hard to see but does open the possibilities. And so that’s really formed me. And it’s often true that whatever we just did, it’s working on me from the inside. Sometimes people say, “The Dalai Lama or Desmond Tutu must have been a high point.” And you know, well, Desmond Tutu was pretty amazing, it was incredibly amazing. And the Dalai Lama is amazing in his way. But it’s just not true. I mean some people I’ve interviewed who are not famous and not really spiritual are completely spiritually illuminating.

Like Gordon Hempton. That really stayed with me. Like they all do in different ways.

Thank you.

Thank you, Krista!

Let me just say one last thing. You know, the story you told about Bhutan and the monasteries in the side of the mountain. I mean, this is how I feel in the 21st century. I feel like spiritual wisdom and spiritual technologies were historically consigned to experts, monks and nuns. Or rabbis. In all the traditions. I do think the amazing thing that’s happening now is that all of it is coming out for us to claim. And the potential power of that is just really remarkable.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Chad Holder

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