#603. Why Dwight from The Office (Rainn Wilson) Is Calling for a “Spiritual Revolution”
Dan Harris This is the 10% Happier podcast. I'm Dan Harris. Hello, everybody. Why, you might fairly ask, am I interviewing Rainn Wilson, best known for his star turn on the sitcom The Office, playing Dwight Schrute, the hilariously dysregulated paper salesman with a lust for power and a tragic haircut. Why, you may ask, am I interviewing that dude about mental health and spirituality, because in real life, Rainn Wilson has spent many, many years wrestling with religion, sobriety and marital ups and downs. And he's got a new book called Soul Boom, in which he cracks a lot of jokes and also makes a dead serious case for a spiritual revolution. I'll explain exactly what he means by that. In this conversation, we also talk about the role of the Baha'i faith in his life. He'll explain what the Baha'i faith is all about, why he was so miserable at the height of the office's popularity. I found that fascinating. What he considers his greatest achievement in life, the importance of spiritual pilgrimage and the ingredients of the perfect religion, which he insists must include potlucks. A little bit more about Rainn before we dive in here: he won three Emmys for his work on The Office, he hosts a podcast called Metaphysical Milkshake, and he's got a new travel series on Peacock called Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss. Rainn Wilson, welcome to the show.
Rainn Wilson Thank you. Dan Harris Thanks for having me on the show.
Dan Harris Huge pleasure. I am a longtime fan, so it's really nice to get to talk to you face to face, albeit virtually. Let me ask you this: what is a soul boom?
Rainn Wilson A soul boom is a much needed spiritual reboot. I feel passionately that us Americans in contemporary life have discarded so much about spirituality because we have such a profound distaste of most religion that we've kind of thrown the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater and there are really beautiful and powerful spiritual tools that can make our lives better. And not only personally, but can help our society transform for the better.
Dan Harris All right. There are a million things I want to ask you about all of that. Let me just start with on a definitional tip here. What do you mean by spiritual?
Rainn Wilson I am talking about séances that raise the dead.
Dan Harris Interview over.
Rainn Wilson Thank you, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. Dan, I know I can go there with you. Most podcasters would be like *questioning noise*. But truth be told, that is a super important question. You've been at this a long time. You understand that, because people have very different definitions. To some people, it does mean ghosts. To some people it means going to church on Sunday. And that's what's spiritual is and what it means. To me it's anything that has to do with being a human being that is not of the material. So my body, what does my body want and need? It needs food and drink, right? Occasionally sex with my wife. It needs shelter. It wants comfort. And the kind of primal part of my animal brain wants a certain social status. Right? A certain social capital, which is very important to us human beings and to building societies. Putting all that aside, the rest of the stuff is spiritual. It's my heart, it's my consciousness, it's my soul. The light of my divine qualities of kindness, humility, openness, compassion, honesty, all of those divine qualities that we all have within us. That is what spirituality is, but it’s of the soul and the spirit.
Dan Harris And in this case, do you mean soul in the classic religious sense that there's some essence of us that is immaterial.
Rainn Wilson Well, I wouldn't say immaterial, but I would say that, yes, I believe from my own personal faith tradition and from a lot of study and reading that we are spiritual beings and we are having a human experience as Father Teilhard de Chardin famously said, “We've got 80 or 90 years, if we're lucky, and these meat suits and our reality, our spiritual reality continues after our bodies fall away, just as babies in the womb had one reality that was our kind of first reality. And we were growing arms and ears and legs and eyelashes that we were going to need on that physical plane. We are growing spiritual qualities on this material plane for our wherever our journey takes us.” This is backed up by every faith tradition. Now, some will say, well, you know, in Hindu tradition, you come back, sometimes you come back, sometimes you continue. If you're arrived and Enlightened, sometimes you choose to return as a bodhisattva. But every faith tradition has some kind of idea that we are more than the material and that our journey continues after death in some way, shape or form. And I buy it. I'm in.
Dan Harris Sign Rainn all the way up. Having said that, though, my limited understanding of Buddhism, a foundational principle of the Buddha, and just to say this podcast is heavily influenced by Buddhism, one of his foundational principles was there is no soul, there is no self, there is no nugget of Rainn hiding behind your eye sockets somewhere that actually the thing to see is you are inextricably intermixed with the universe.
Rainn Wilson Yeah. So there's a lot of different interpretations, obviously, of Buddhist teachings and what the Buddha meant and what the Buddha actually said versus what a lot of his disciples said. And I know that you've done on your podcast a lot of deep dives into really the reality of the Buddha. I love what you're doing, this new series about getting to know the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths and the life of the Buddha. So I'm no authority at all. But even if you believe in the idea of the Bodhisattva that you have a reality and your body dies, and this arrived, enlightened, awakened, because Buddha means the awakened one, if this awakened reality part of yourself chooses to, it can return to another corporal existence to further the work of increasing compassion and reducing suffering. So whatever that is seems like a soul to me. It's maybe just a different definition. Here's how I would change it. In the Baha'i faith tradition, I'm a member of the Baha'i faith, this oneness that the Buddha was talking about. And when you go back to the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Vedantic thought of, the reality is we are all one. This illusion of separateness is inherent to part of the suffering that we're all undergoing. This illusion of separateness can best be described metaphorically in the Baha'i tradition as thinking about the ocean. So there is this incredibly beautiful ocean, and there are waves on the ocean. And we're all waves on this sea. So are we individuals? Yes. Is a wave an individual thing? Yeah. Is the wave part of something much bigger? Of course, both of those things can be true. There's not a dichotomy between the individual and the collective, but I draw ever closer to enlightenment by releasing those boundaries that separate us. And that's part of our spiritual journey. And again, you can find that in the Bible with Jesus, you can find that with Muhammad. I have a section in Sould Boom, Dan Harris, oh! Look, I happen to have a copy right here. I have a section about religion in here. I have a chapter called Hey Kids, Let's Build the Perfect Religion, where we talk about finding the bits and bobs and dudes and dads of all the faith traditions that we love the most and putting them together in one big jambalaya soup of a new religion. But before that, I have a chapter called The Fabulous Foundations of Faith, where I discuss the universalities of religion because it's really easy to look at the differences, let's say, between Buddhism and Islam, which seem wildly different at first blush in so many ways. But if you put that aside a little bit and dig a little deeper, there are some foundational elements that are 100% in alignment. And so the book is not to propound any specific religious faith, it's to dig into spiritual ideas. So I want us all to like, okay, let's cut some differences between the faiths, Let's put them aside, Let's let's look at the universalities and what we can learn from them.
Dan Harris I want to go into those lists a little bit later in this interview. Just so people have more of a sense of who they're listening to, though, who you are, can you educate us a little bit about the Baha'i faith and its role in your life?
Rainn Wilson Sure. Who I am is a ridiculous looking sitcom actor. So for those who are just listening to the dulcet tones of my voice on the podcast app of your choice, but this particular actor was raised a member of the Baha'i faith. And that was really beautiful and cool. I left the Baha'i faith for a very long time in my twenties and early thirties and started my own personal spiritual quest during that time. But for those who don't know, the Baha'i faith is very accepting and inclusive of all the different faith traditions, and that is its foundation. There is only one God. This God is not an old white man with a beard on a cloud, obviously, and no one really believes that. But there's nothing that is like a deity or a persona or a person or like a demigod who can throw lightning bolts and find you parking spaces. And that's not what God is. But this unknowable force that's beyond time and space that exists in this universe in infinite other universes. Anyway, that's a whole different topic of conversation. But this God force, for lack of a better word, sends down divine teachers to humanity every 500 or thousand years or so. These include Lord Krishna, the Buddha. That Abrahamic faiths Abraham, Moses, Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad and Baha’is also believe that there is a new, what Baha’is would call a manifestation, not a prophet, but a manifestation of God, because that's what these holy teachers are, named Baha'u'llah and Baha'u'llah lived in the 19th century in Persia and the Middle East. He spent his whole life in jail and being banished and tortured, essentially, like all of these spiritual teachers do. They're like, Hey, we believe in love. Oh, let's persecute you and attack you and imprison you and crucify you. So Bahai’s are also believers in the teachings of Baha’u’llah, and that name means the glory of God. That was a title that was given to him and by Baha’is work for peace and love and unity in lots of different ways. And we accept the essential teachings of the world's faith traditions.
Dan Harris So that I think I'm using this word correctly. I think that syncretic impulse, that ecumenical, impulse of, let's combine different philosophies, worldviews that seems to be feeding quite powerfully into your new book.
Rainn Wilson Yes, it does very much. The book is very inspired by the Baha'i faith in a lot of different ways. It's not a Baha’i book. I'm not trying to convert people to Baha’i, and it's really not about that. It's just a playground of ideas about spirituality and kind of shaking things up and getting people to think about and talk about spiritual concepts in some fresh ways.
Dan Harris You said you left the Baha'i faith in your twenties and thirties. Have you come back to it and what does your practice or participation look like?
Rainn Wilson I have come back to it. I spent a lot of dark nights of the soul in a kind of mental health journey of my own. I know that you suffer from and have suffered from anxiety. I did the same. I had a period of time in my twenties when I had crippling anxiety attacks that would leave me on the floor, sweating and shaking. I had a lot of depression and addiction issues and loneliness and alienation. And as I had jettisoned my faith, I thought and I've used this phrase before, but I love it, I kind of thought, have I thrown the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater by jettisoning religion and I'm so miserable? Maybe there's a spiritual solution to what I'm going through. It's similar in a lot of ways to your path. So I read the Bible and I read the Bhagavad Gita and I read the Koran and I read as much as the Rig Veda and Upanishads as I could understand and really did a deep exploration. And eventually, after a very long period of time, at least 12 years, came back to the Baha'i faith. So I am a member of the Baha'i faith. What does that look like for Baha'is? There's no clergy in the Baha'i faith, which I love. There's no priests or Malezer gurus or anything like that. It's a democratically elected and run organization. Not dissimilar from how a 12 step program runs itself. And I get up in the morning and I read Holy Writings from the Baha’i Writings. At some point in time during the day, I say a special prayer similar to the Muslims who bowed five times to Mecca. Bahais once a day turn their hearts toward the Holy Land in the Baha'i faith, which is in Israel, in Haifa, Israel, where Baha'u'llah is buried. And I say “I bear witness oh my God, that thou hast created me to know the and to worship thee. I testify at this moment to my powerlessness and to thy might, to my poverty, and to thy wealth, that there is none of their God, but to help imperil the self subsisting.” I read a holy writing at night. I have a prayer and meditation practice that I do, and there is a period of time in the year where Baha'is do a fast, a spiritual, fast, similar to Ramadan in some ways. And then I try and work to bring light to the world and make people laugh and make the world a better place and be of service. And that's what it is to be a bit higher.
Dan Harris Can you go over the words of that prayer that you say?
Rainn Wilson Yeah.
Dan Harris Can you do those again?
Rainn Wilson So “I bear witness, oh my God, that thou hast created me to know thee and to worship thee.” So I love that first sentence of the prayer because it says and I think Babylon has given it to us, because to say for a very specific reason, it's the meaning of life. We have been created to know and worship God. Now, let me stop you right there. And I know there's a lot of skeptical Buddhists out there going whaat. What does that mean? To know and worship God? At first blush, Do you mind me going off on this, Dan?
Dan Harris I love it. Whatever the opposite of mind is. I love it.
Rainn Wilson Okay. I like that. So at first blush, you're like to know and worship God. Okay. What does that mean? I'm going to read stories from holy books and I'm going to say a lot of prayers and say, Oh, God, you're so great. I love you. God, you're so wonderful. That's what that means. But dig a little deeper in the Baha'i teachings, the one aspect of God that is most accentuated is that God is unknowable. The “unknowable essence” he's called throughout the Divine writings. So we're supposed to know the unknowable. And that is a dichotomy that I love. That is it's really impossible. God is an unknowable essence, and yet we seek to know him. How do we do that? Through the arts, through sciences. Einstein was very much, you read his quotes, on a journey towards trying to understand God through an understanding of the mysteries of the universe and cosmology. By knowing other people. It says in the Koran to know God is to know thyself, or actually, is that from the Quran? It might be a hadith, but to know God is to know thyself. So as we get to know those divine components of who we are, that's also getting to know God. Now, let's talk about worshiping God. In the Baha’i framework of worshiping God, the highest form of worship is service to others. Yes, there are prayers in the Baha'i faith, and you can certainly say, God, you're so wonderful. And Lamott has that wonderful book called Help Thanks Wow; The three kinds of Prayers.
Dan Harris I love that title.
Rainn Wilson It's help, which is you can ask, Hey, God, help me. My cousin is sick. Thanks. Which is praise and gratitude, which you Buddhists love the gratitude. I'm grateful for this beautiful flannel shirt. And I get to talk to Dan Harris, and he knows so much about happiness. And wow is gosh. Life is so short and beautiful and wonderful and the universe is so magnificent. So those are the three prayers in her book. And I love that book. Worshiping God is service to others. Also in the Baha'i faith, the creation of arts and sciences is worship of God. So you might be listening and you're like an electrical engineer making the world better by bridging power grids. Right. That's worship of God. Anything that is bringing people together, using your creative faculty, your imagination, your mission of service to others is worship of God. So when you unpack that sentence, it becomes a lot more mystical and variegated than you would think at first blush.
Dan Harris Yeah, and I know there's more to get to from the prayer, but just to say this doesn't really describe me anymore, but I think an older version of me, when I heard somebody reference God, it just sounded creepy. But what you're describing is, at least to my ears, inarguable. I mean, there's so much mystery in the universe. We don't even know if there's just one universe and there's some mysterious animating force, if not forces, behind or enmeshed into everything. We don't know what consciousness is, how it arose. And so when you say get to know God, even though you're gendering God as a he, but you're really talking, it seems to me you'll correct me, about being engaged with life instead of just engaging with the minutiae of your ego, trying to butt heads with the mystery a little bit.
Rainn Wilson I love that you used the word mystery two or three times, because when I was feeling the same way as you did years ago, where God felt creepy, I thought about God and he just it was so patriarchal. It was just like this male energy. It was judgmental. It was like watching me like, Oh, I'm doing these drugs. And God is up there going, Yeah, that's no good. You suck. Doing those drugs Rainn. As if God is like your Uncle Carl or something. I really, really struggled for years. But I decided to go on a deeper dive. A lot of people stop there and I will pat myself on the back. Forgive me. I'm going to bring my own bell here. I wanted to dive deeper and try and really understand what was meant by the word God. In fact, I have a chapter in my book called The Notorious G. O. D. I'm digressing here, but based on a television show I tried to pitch called The Notorious G. O. D. I wanted to do a TV show about God because I went on this quest looking for what God could possibly mean. And I thought it would be fun to talk to scientists and AI programmers and pygmies living in the bush and born again Pentecostals and new age thinkers and atheists. And let's explore this concept. It's one of the most ancient concepts in human history and one of the most important and influences the course of our lives. So I had a pitch deck and a sizzle reel, and we went out. I had episodes outlined and the whole thing. It got, of course, turned down everywhere. And the best thing I ever heard was from Netflix. And they said, Yeah, we're sorry, the topic is just too controversial. Okay, so that is so typical of Hollywood. Oh, really? Netflix. So you can have drunk housewives of Dallas throwing garbage at each other and the boobs slip out and then someone hits each other and vomits and then they all hook up. That's okay. That's perfectly fine. That's light entertainment. But an exploration of God is too controversial. So that's where we are as a culture.
Dan Harris To say nothing of their mini series on Jeffrey Dhamer.
Rainn Wilson And it was the number one show. Anyways, that's a separate topic. I'm getting back to the word mystery that you used when I went on this journey. I read a lot of Native American spirituality and I came across this idea from the Lakota Sioux called Wakan Tanka, which is the name for a higher power, which literally translates as the great mystery, you could say the great Spirit, but also the great mystery. And as soon as I read that I was, it stopped me in my tracks. I was like, Wow, I love mysteries. I'm not talking about mystery podcasts. I think about like existential mysteries of being alive and their conception as far as I and my limited white man understanding of it is that this power that is beyond time and space runs through nature and runs through beauty, runs through the wind in the trees. That is the power of the ancestors. That is beyond time and space. Like I said, that can be felt in the four directions. In fact, there's seven directions. There's four directions. Then there's up and down and the seventh direction is in, internal. That this all loving natural force is how they understand, quote unquote God. And that nature is all a metaphor. So the sun is a reflection of the power, light and strength of God or reigns, or the abundance and bounty of God. The springtime and the growing of the crops is how the gifts are given to us. And that goes on and on. So that was a big part of my journey as well.
Dan Harris There was more to the prayer, though. Can you do the.
Rainn Wilson Okay.
Dan Harris Maybe there was a second stanza.
Rainn Wilson Yeah, “I testify at this moment to my powerlessness and to thy might, to my poverty and to thy wealth. That there is none other God but the help and peril, the self subsisting.” So for me when I say that prayer and in my work, in my meditation practice and my prayer practice, because I try and do both. Humility is important. I mean, I'm naturally arrogant and entitled, and it's important for me to humble myself. And in remembering that this great mystery has all of reality in this universe and infinite other universes beyond this one. He, for lack of a better pronoun, is all powerful. And I am and I am weak. And just being in that state of submission that there is great mystery and power and beauty in that act of prayer.
Dan Harris Coming up, Rainn Wilson talks about why he thinks we need a spiritual revolution and what exactly that means and the importance of spiritual pilgrimage.
Dan Harris So you got back into the faith of your upbringing a little bit later in your life. I'm just curious to map some of the anecdotes you've shared about your own sort of mental health onto what we know about your career. Were you having bouts of anxiety and depression while you were on the Office? Was this before? Help us put it in the timeline.
Rainn Wilson I would go into Steve Carell's trailer and throw up on his couch and he would come in and be like, What the hell? I mean, like, Steve, I'm so anxious. I'm just kidding. We jest, Dan, we have fun while we talk about very deadly serious topics. By that time, I was in recovery. By that time, I was deep into therapy and I wasn't dealing with anxiety in the same way during those office years. It's funny, though, because I had a recent conversation with B.J. Novak. We did a book event at the 92nd Street Y and someone asked, What do you regret about The Office? And it's funny, we both had the same regret, which is and this is very much in line with your podcast, your audience and Buddhist philosophy, which is: I did not enjoy it while it was there. I was not in the moment and drinking in my gratitude for having the greatest job ever. So when I was on the Office, we were getting Emmy nominations, I was getting Emmy nominations, I was making a lot of money. I was working with beautiful people, making great comedy, a terrific show. It doesn't get better than that Rainn. Let that be enough. And it wasn't enough for me. And I was like, well, I want this other movie and I want a studio deal and I want to have a first look deal and how come I'm not getting paid for this and I want and that Hungry ghost part of myself was really activated. So I struggle with that for a lot of The Office. And, and frankly, I spent a lot of it really unhappy because I was just trying to get the next thing or the bigger thing or why am I not as big a movie star as Will Ferrell and Jack Black and and comparing and all the things as humans do. And it just it wasn't enough. And I wish it had just been enough. And I wish I could have just been like, I'm just going to just revel in these nine years of playing this amazing character with this amazing group of people, and I couldn't do it. So that's a symptom of my anxiety of the spiritual disease that I've been struggling with. I will say, and this is a funny story and totally true. All of a sudden, Dan, in my anxiety, if I just addressed my anxiety, started to flare up on talk shows and I had a crippling fear of going on talk shows, especially ones in front of a live studio audience. It was a little bit crazy, and it was also a little bit understandable considering my background. I had this unnatural fear that I was going to freeze up and not have anything to say. And people weren't going to laugh. They weren't going to like me. And I would repeatedly stay up, you can ask my wife, I would get like three or 4 hours of sleep. I would have diarrhea. I would just be going over like my quote unquote material, the stories I was going to tell on the talk shows. And it was brutal. And it took a lot of work. I took therapy, I did hypnosis, I did EMDR to try and get to a point where I could do a talk show with kind of grace and ease and without kind of crippling anxiety.
Dan Harris I appreciate so much of what you just said and really relate to it. Just a this may be a superficial place to begin in the wake of the rather profound things you just said, a revelation that you just shared with us. But just on talk shows, I'd always I've never been on one of the late night talk shows, I guess I've been on The Daily Show. But on The Daily Show or Colbert back in the day it wasn't rehearsed. It was really extemporaneous, at least as the guest. I didn't know what they were going to ask me in advance, but I thought on the late night talk shows, if you went on Fallon or whatever, that actually you went through a rehearsal beforehand with the host, etc., etc.. So why would that be so different from being on a TV show unlike On the Office, a scripted show?
Rainn Wilson So you don't do a rehearsal, You don't. You talk to a producer a couple of days beforehand or a day or two beforehand, and they ask you a bunch of questions and they ask you, Are there stuff you want to talk about or do you have a funny story? And they look at your social posts and they say, Oh, I hear recently that you adopted a donkey. Why don't you tell us about that? And you do this banter with the producer and out of that, the producer kind of figures out, Oh, here's a really funny story and here's the three or four things we talk about. And they go over it with the talk show host, the day off, without you. They say, and rank and talk about his donkey and then ring and talk about his new show or project or whatever. So it's this weird hybrid on a talk show. And this is what screwed me up as it's not memorized, but it's pretty beaded out like what they want you to talk about, but you can also improvise if you want, because those talk show hosts are so good. But that balance always threw me. And also the fact that there's this big audience, but then there's a camera that's on you like this big. Do you play to the camera and the host or do you play to the audience? And I always like was like, because I come from the theater, like, do I play? But if you play to the audience, then you're really big. But because you're being captured on this camera and do you improvise or do you go… And so I'm trying to remember the story and trying to make it as funny as I told it when I first told it, which is never quite as funny. And I would rehearse it and go over it in my head over and it would get stale and canned and it messed me up, plain and simple.
Dan Harris I hear it in your retelling that you just got coiled up into intense overthinking.
Rainn Wilson Yes.
Dan Harris The more profound thing you talked about, though, was the Hungry Ghost, which I relate to. Man, I ruined. I was in the news business for 30 years and basically ruined many of those years by doing exactly what you described. The sense of insufficiency in comparison. Yeah. So I really relate to and I think a lot of people will.
Rainn Wilson And just out of curiosity, and you may have spoken about it before, but how does that manifest for a news guy is kind of like, Well, I want the anchor desk at 7 p.m. or I need a better show.
Dan Harris Or so I was never in 24 hour news. I was on ABC News, so there were very few slots throughout the day. But who's going to get the big job on Good Morning America or World News Tonight or Nightline our three principal shows? Why did that person get it? And then on a slightly lower level, like who's getting to cover what stories or why did that person get sent to Iraq? And I wanted it. And yeah, it's pretty intense and I did not handle it well.
Rainn Wilson Yeah. I didn't handle The Office stuff well, and mostly it just made me a jerk. And I did not handle my marriage very well either, cause I was… I would rage and I would get depressed, and I was just talking about myself and my career stop. And, you know, fortunately, I had good therapy, and I just kept working at it and it got better. And I would say by I don't want to put a date on it, but 2010 - 11 I was much, much better. And it's been just so much better since then. And the years since The Office have been wonderful. Like I haven't as an actor, I haven't really hit much that has really taken off that people, you know, mostly love The Office, but I've loved it. I've played some great, interesting roles and I get to be on Star Trek and I get to do big action movies, and I've gotten to do weird little comedies and indie films and play dramatic roles, and no one's really watching them. And guess what? I don't really care that much. I get to play great roles and that's why I got into this business.
Dan Harris How did you get to the point of not caring? And by the way, this is a sort of a healthy, not caring as opposed to a nihilism. How did you get to that? Let's just call it healthy apathy. I know that's a contradiction in terms, but how did you arrive at that after being, as I said before, coiled for so long? I'm asking for a friend.
Rainn Wilson No, great question. I don't have - I have one realization that I made. But let me actually let me start with that. So my main realization really had to do with the Serenity prayer. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. I know most of your listeners know it already, but I want to parse it out to say that grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot change. What can't change? I can't change if audiences like me in other roles or not. I can't change if Judd Apatow doesn't want to cast me in his next big studio comedy. I can't change if a studio or network doesn't want to make a show with me or do something with me. That's completely out of my control. It's like I have chosen to have a career in Hollywood, which is one of the most unfair, crazy making, upside down places in the world. I've chosen to make my living there in a lot of ways. It's like a giant popularity contest. Who's hot and who's not? And a lot of my movies that I tried bombed and no one watched them. And that's fine. That happens sometimes to people, to talented people. And that's all that's out of my control. So day in, day out, whether someone wants to make a movie with me, whether someone wants to watch the indie film that I did, it's out of my control. The courage to do the things I can't. What can I do? I can be writing scripts. I could be meeting filmmakers. I could be generating projects. I can have meetings with folks. I started a production company called Soul Pancake that was an uplifting digital media company for years that we ran. I can try and make a difference in the world, and so that's where I put my focus. Now there's more to it than that. It was 12 step meetings, it was therapy. It was talking to my wife, it was meditation. It was surrender to God, like the prayer that we talked about. And a lot of it has to do with my worst defects as a person, which is people pleasing. Scratch any actor and underneath, maybe a newsman too, you get: I hope you like me. And I had a lot of that. People pleasing and codependence too, and letting that go. And yeah, but it's been a long, it's been a long process. But oh, man, it's been such a relief. These last ten, 12 years have just been. So nice.
Dan Harris I could sense it through the ones and zeros for sure. I'm curious. Did you and your wife make it through?
Rainn Wilson Yeah. We've been together 28 years married, 31 years together. Her name is Holiday. Reinhorn. She's a fiction writer. She went to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and she toils away on these incredibly beautiful short stories that she publishes. And talk about that! She’ll work like a year on a short story and publish it and like 137 people will read it because people don't really read. But she loves it and she's brilliant and she's far more kind of spiritual and grounded than me. And we've worked on a lot of stuff together, been through a lot. And by far my greatest accomplishment is to work on this marriage, keep it going, and learn how to be a better partner, to be more humble in what intimacy is. And it's related to happiness, I think is intimacy, because when you have intimacy, you have a greater well-being. But so many of us grow up. We don't learn intimacy. You have to learn yourself. I had to learn intimacy, like from a therapist, which is almost embarrassing. But my parents didn't have intimacy. They never hugged, They never talked about emotions. They grew up in a household where if you had emotions, everyone ignored you, shunned you and pretended that the emotions didn't happen. So I had to learn how to do that. And it takes some doing, takes some work.
Dan Harris I think that's a really important point you're making. And actually, my wife and I went to a couples counselor pre-pandemic, and he made the same point to us, which is that even if you had great parents and I actually did have great parents who were touchy feely with us and each other, all appropriately, nobody ever really gives you interpersonal hygiene on any level. You're not taught how to be a friend or a coworker, and certainly not how to be a good partner in a romantic arrangement. We learned from our parents and the movies and the movies which are designed to have a heightened drama and keep you engaged. They cut out all the boring, important stuff. The chopping of wood and caring of water that's involved in a romantic partnership.
Rainn Wilson Like listening. Yeah, that's an important one. Listening to your partner and not trying to fix them. Guys have such that tendency to kind of like, you know, the partners will talk, and I wonder if it is a guy thing or it must be a cultural kind of thing and like, well, you should do, do, do, do and you should do, why don't you do blah blah blah and why don't you fix it by calling so-and-so and just asking for like no one wants to hear that. I was the king of telling people the best way to do things. And what do I know?
Dan Harris Well, speaking of what does Rainn know. Let's go back to your book. The thesis, as you explained it earlier, is that we need a spiritual revolution. What do you mean by that and how would it help?
Rainn Wilson So great question. And that's the thesis of the book. I talk about, there's two paths in spirituality and I compare them to TV shows. So the first path, I compare it to the show Kung Fu from the Seventies. One of my favorite shows of all time. For those who don't know, it's about Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk and martial artist who came from China to the Old West looking for his brother. And he encountered these racist cowboys and angry people and greedy people, and he brought his beautiful Eastern wisdom, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist philosophy, and helped people along the way. And there were some good ass kicking fights along the way as well. So that to me is a parallel to the spiritual path that most people walk when they engage with it, which is prayer and meditation. I want to make myself a better person. I want to bring my peace and tranquility that I generate internally and bring that to the world. And I want to grow in my own personal wisdom, etc. It's that personal spiritual path. The other show I talk about in the book is Star Trek. Because in Star Trek, which I believe personally is one of the most spiritual shows of all time, and Roddenberry would hate that I'm saying that. But I really do believe that because what's happened in Star Trek, there's been a big war on planet Earth. And out of the ashes of that war, we've learned how to get along. Finally, we've created a world federation. We've eliminated income inequality. We've eliminated racism. We accept people of all different skin colors and classes and cultures and celebrate their diversity. And we've eliminated sexism. And then we're allowed to go out and boldly go into space and explore space as no man has done before. So to me, that's the other aspect of spirituality, which is communal, which is: how can I help the world? How can I help make the world a better place? How can I relieve the suffering of others? Even the Buddha talked about that a great deal about you work on your own suffering and attachment and non-attachment so that you can go out in the world and relieve the attachment and non-attachment and suffering of others. Right. And you do that through increased compassion. So this is humanity's maturation, as evidenced by Star Trek. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha'i faith, says all men were created to carry forward an ever advancing civilization. So we all have a role to play. You play that role, Dan, beautifully and this podcast that has brought joy and inspiration and upliftment to millions and millions of people over the years. You're sharing your own personal story. This is your contribution. You don't need to be a podcast host or an actor to do it. You can be an accountant. You can be a housewife, a dog walker, bus driver. It doesn't matter. You can be in service in your work. You can help other folks. You can create a grassroots movement. So the spiritual revolution is looking at those spiritual tools and looking at the current systems that are at play in the world that are so broken and so misguided. The example I use that still just stuns me is that our health care system is based on profit. A health care system should be healing people who are sick. Not profiting off of people's sickness. We almost want them to be more sick so that the industry can just make more money. So it's completely backward. We're not going to fix it with some legislation. We're not going to fix it with a bill being passed in Congress to: Don't itemize these bills in certain hospitals in certain ways. That's not going to fix the problem. The system has been created without compassion in mind, without basic human spiritual integrity in mind. And we need to envision in some way, shape and form a transformation of these systems that drive our contemporary society. And. Easier said than done. I know a lot of people might be rolling their eyes and being like, Yeah, great idea. How do you do it? It's so naive and pie in the sky and I get that. I do try and address that. Some spiritual practicalities for that. But more importantly, we just need to be engaging in a conversation of hey, can we use spiritual tools to make the world a better place and to bring people together and heal division.
Dan Harris I think one other point of skepticism might come from folks on the left who are like, we got a lot of people on the right who are waving around, quote unquote, spiritual books as they try to take away my rights. So why would I want any form of spirituality infecting or affecting political discourse?
Rainn Wilson Yeah, and I get that we've been bludgeoned with a lot of spirituality and religion. A lot of people suffer from religious trauma. Religion itself is responsible for some of the worst atrocities in human history. The list just goes on and on. I get it. And I have been personally attacked from both left and right online as I've been talking about my book and my television show about happiness. And from the left. Oh, great. Here's another proselytizing Pretend daddy, God isn't going to save us. And moralizing. And then from the right of you're not saying that Jesus Christ is the way in the light and the only way to the fathers through him. When you're talking about like social justice issues, spirituality, being used to tackle social justice issues, which can be distasteful to both sides. And again, that's okay. I don't really care. That's out of my control. But I do think that it applies to everyone. And I hope that soul boom reaches people who are fundamentalist Christians and might get something out of it. And people that are diehard Marxist atheists that might get something out of it because I'm essentially just talking about increasing compassion and increasing service to others and building grassroots movements. That's the same stuff. I'm not comparing myself. I'm not comparing myself. It's the same stuff that Ghandi and Martin Luther King we're talking about. And it's just I just sparking a conversation is what I'm about.
Dan Harris You referenced your new TV show. It's called Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss. It's on Peacock. You travel around the world to look at some of the happiest places on earth. And there's kind of an intersection between the show and at least one of the chapters in the book. In one of the chapters in the book, you talk about the importance of pilgrimage or sacred spaces, sacred places that you would make a trip to. Why is pilgrimage so important in your view? And how could a regular person who doesn't have a TV show operationalize this insight into their daily lives?
Rainn Wilson I thought this was a podcast only for people with TV shows.
Dan Harris It would be a small audience, but very valuable for advertisers.
Rainn Wilson Yes. All 37 listeners. Yeah. Great question. So in Rainn Wilson and the Geography of Bliss, I hated that they added my name to it. It should just be the geography of bliss, which is based on Eric Weiner's great travelog. I go around the world looking for what makes us happy because maybe there are lessons to be learned from other cultures. Maybe we don't know everything here in America and we can learn something from Icelanders or people in Ghana, West Africa, or in Thailand, which are some of the places that I got to go. And in a way, the TV show was a kind of a pilgrimage. I got to take pilgrimages to deeply happy places and learn from some extraordinary individuals. That was amazing. And yeah, I have a chapter on sacredness called the Sacred Pilgrims. I took a pilgrimage with my family to the Baha’i Holy Land, and I felt this holiness and sacredness everywhere I went. And it was so special. And this is in every faith tradition you can do. Every faith tradition has some kind of pilgrimage, even Buddhism, depending on the type of Buddhism, maybe not Western kind of yoga class Buddhism. But in actual Buddhist practice, there are many different kinds of pilgrimages that are undertaken, obviously in Mecca, Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There's many of these kind of holy places. In Native American and indigenous spiritual traditions. It might be a local mountain, you know, or the top or a burial ground or a sacred stand of trees. In the chapter, again, I'm just raising questions. Why is it that we in our Western culture have lost all sense of the sacred? Now, it used to be that only churches were sacred. So again, we have this kind of trauma around the word sacred. Oh, sacred for my grandparents meant the church on Sunday and everything else was not sacred and of the devil. You know, there's a lot of that going around. But I do think that we've lost something by not considering more deeply how to create sacred spaces. We can create them in our home, in our backyard. We can create sacred activities. Sometimes my family would get together and just make pancakes on a Sunday morning. And it's a time of joy and light and celebration and relaxation that has a sacred feel to it. I talk about in the chapter the haiku poet Bashō from medieval Japan, who would journey about to shrines and villages and sacred places. And he would observe nature there. And then he would write a haiku and he would leave it behind. And he's considered the greatest haiku poet of all time. And I'd talk about him in terms of these sacred journeys, because that is so beautiful to me, because it's an intersection of faith, religion, spirituality, nature. It can't even be considered without considering the natural world and art, the making of art and poetry. So they're all three interwoven seamlessly. And Bashō pilgrimage is making art by reflecting on nature at these sacred and holy places. And he leaves a poem behind it, each one. And I was just thinking, how could we? I don't have an answer, but how could we bring that into our lives? What do you think, Dan? What do you - what's a sacred space for you? Or how can you what do you do to bring a sense of something sacred and transcendent, dare I say holy into your life?
Dan Harris It's interesting that, you know, I have a bit of a gag reflex at phrases like sacred or sacred space or holy, and yet I realize that's counterproductive. I'm just saying it out loud. I also think, if I'm hearing you correctly, to maybe put it in different language. When you talk about sacred activities or places, it's please tell me if I'm wrong about this, an activity or a location that elevates you out of the more noxious aspects of the ego.
Rainn Wilson Yes. And where there's a transcendent beauty connected with it that feels above the mundane.
Dan Harris Right. So it could be that the common denominator is awq.
Rainn Wilson Yeah. I think awe is a big aspect of it.
Dan Harris So I do my best. Which is not good, to infuse that into as much of my moment to moment life as I can. And I find that meditation is really helpful at that because it's a systematic program designed to wake you up out of the automaticity and autopilot and sleepwalking that is the sort of mind set in which most of us live our lives. And so the more I'm doing that, just hanging out with my son and I can remember like, yet maybe not to check my phone right now. Same with literally any other human being. And then it all becomes, if you want to use the word sacred, sacred. And can you generate awe like I'm in a crappy hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky right now. Can I generate awe staring at this faux granite countertops I’ve perched my laptop on? Yeah, why not think about all the hands that touch this slab of plastic.
Rainn Wilson But culturally, so much of our external environment is based on crass materialism. And listen, I need to go down to the Costco just like the next guy and get the bulk toilet paper. I want to go down to the O'Reilly Auto parts and get a oil filter. Like we got to shop. I'm not like being anti consumerist, but yet at the same time, so much of what I see when I drive around, especially Los Angeles because I live in a small town outside of Los Angeles, which is prettier, but it's all this kind of box chain stores and boxy hotels and auto glass and grocery stores and parking lots and dumpsters and freeway divides and traffic lights. And we as a culture, haven't sacralized the way that we do business. I don't know if it's possible, but do we really need to settle for that? Do we need to settle for a world in which we interact that's just so crass and ugly? And I don't know. I'm not trying to be elitist about it, but I feel like we should be talking about that a little more.
Dan Harris I think it's both, just in my opinion that, yes, we should have more beautiful, inspiring, transcendent places that are available to everybody because that does uplift the mind and anything I think it's possible to generate awe in the face of anything. I've riffed on this before, so I apologize if I'm being repetitive apologizing to the listeners here. But if you just think about everything that has happened since the Big bang, huge ocean of cause and effect. So what did it take in that chaos to land us at this moment? What did it take for that dumpster to get built and placed where it is as ugly as it is as you drive around doing your shopping? What did it take for this faux granite tabletop to get made? You can look at anything through the lens of cause and effect. The Buddhists would call it karma and see it as holy or sacred or just holy shit.
Rainn Wilson Yeah, I yeah, that's well-said. I struggle with that. And I don't know what the answer is because we can't just have beautiful fountains everywhere and gardens everywhere, can we? Or maybe we can, I don't know. But I have a chapter on death. Chapter on God, a chapter on consciousness, Chapter in the meaning of life. Like these big spiritual questions are ones to ponder, the ones to debate. And I think it's a really interesting conversation because culturally, I do think that we have lost something by losing our sense of the sacred, the profound, the mystical and the holy. And I understand that distaste. I understand that bile coming up in the back of your throat, “Holy”. Oh, what does that mean? It sounds like holy water. And some cleric with a with robes and it seems like antiquated ritual that has no bearing on my life. And I think nature also is obviously the greatest source of awe. And it's some place that we can go to that is is sacred. But guess what? We're not treating nature as sacred. We're not. Climate change is the granddaddy of looking at nature as unsacred. It's just something to be scooped up and spit out, draw the elements we need from it; oil and nickel and copper and whatever. And then we just spew the detritus back into the soil in the earth. And I know that sounds like a hippie dippy environmentalist, but there is a spiritual disease in our culture that causes us to accept that we treat nature in this way.
Dan Harris Plus one. Coming up, Brain is going to talk us through an exercise where he creates the perfect religion and he will explain why one non-negotiable ingredient is potlucks. You referenced the lists that you include in your book, and there's a list where you do this exercise of coming up with the perfect religion. Can you walk us through that list where you landed?
Rainn Wilson Right. So I, I have this chapter called Hey, kids… forgive me. I'm looking at this chapter. It's called Hey, kids, Let's Create the Perfect Religion. And I also have a list that talks about the ten universals of all religious faith. And yeah, here's some of the elements of it. Some of the elements are, these are some favorite aspects of religions that I would love to see people gathering around and embracing. One is the centrality of the divine feminine. If you do a little reading around spiritual topics, you'll see that humanity, up until about 10,000 years ago, religious faith was based around the feminine that was the Goddess and the harvest energy and the Mother Earth. And we could learn so much from going back to some of those belief systems and getting away from this kind of patriarchal view of God and again, aggression and survival of the fittest that has gotten us here. One of the aspects I draw on this list is the harmony of science and religion. I think this is one of the greatest false dichotomies in religious and spiritual debate as people. How many times have people said, I don't believe in spirituality, I believe in science? Yeah, and I believe in science, too. And I believe in spirituality. I think they're both ways of understanding life are both ways of understanding the world. One is a process of through experimentation. It's a process of understanding the physical processes and it's a databank of knowledge. And spirituality is how to live in it. Why we're here, what gives us meaning, what gives us purpose, and what other kind of mysteries of the universe might be there that we can't pick up yet on any kind of instrument or algorithm. So profound connection to the natural world, focusing a life on service, emphasis on music and the arts. The list goes on. And then I end with potlucks.
Dan Harris Why potlucks?
Rainn Wilson Pollack is one of the greatest inventions, of course, in Native American contribution to modern society. But potlucks bring people together. Everyone likes a hot dish. Everyone likes a casserole. Sometimes we don't like the vinegary beans, salads. Those are the stuff that doesn't get eaten. But people coming together, bringing something, sharing together a communal table, like at its essence, at its heart, a great potluck is one of the greatest symbols of spiritual unity that exists.
Dan Harris How often do you get to go to potlucks.
Rainn Wilson Baha’is do potlucks all the time. Baha’is are very good at potlucks. So every other month I'm at a potluck. I love it.
Dan Harris It does combine the social interaction we all need with a kind of a leveling effect of sharing food.
Rainn Wilson Yeah, everyone likes food, everyone likes sharing. And it's a great way to celebrate diversity, too. If you're with immigrant families and there's dishes from around the world and you're sharing what you love about your cultural heritage and celebrating the diversity too, which is another one of my main tenets of building the perfect religion is celebrating diversity. We are all flowers of one garden, and a garden is most beautiful when it has a variety of different flowers. And we need to celebrate different skin colors and different ethnic heritages and different music and different ways of being social and embrace, that's one of the strongest, best things about being a human being. And potlucks do that essentially.
Dan Harris I really appreciate you talking about potlucks, that and other aspects of your own life in this conversation. And to watch this change from it sounds like in your Office days that there were times when you did inhabit the darker aspects of Dwight Schrute’s personality. And and it also seems like you've wrestled with and exorcized some of these demons and that's very cool to to see and to hear about.
Rainn Wilson And that's one reason why I wrote this book, because I think the essential question is like, why the hell is the guy who played Dwight writing a book on spirituality? The hell is this guy? But, you know, I've been sharing my story for a while now, and I share my personal story because it's a way in again to looking at spiritual tools and faith based wisdom. And it was important to me, you know, it helped me. And I want to share that on a personal level and I also think, Dan, it's really friggin important. We're in the midst of some of the biggest crises that humanity has ever faced. A mental health crisis among young people right now is staggering. It's horrific. And guess what? There are spiritual tools that can help heal this mental health epidemic. You address a lot of them on your podcast and you look at climate change and there are spiritual tools that can help us heal our relationship to the natural world. There's the threat of war. So these discussions is not like an airy fairy new agey thing, like, Oh, I'll do yoga class and a crystal and read am Eckhart Tolle quote and think about it like they're tools that we need. It can save lives, it can bring people together, it can help humanity, and it helped me personally and it can help other people. So that's why I talk about it as a spiritual revolution. Like I wanted to have some impact in what I'm talking about. It's not just, Oh, here's a nice little fun, little hobby side pursuit.
Dan Harris I know we're almost out of time, but just on this question of impact and you touched on this a little bit earlier, but just going to say a few words about how I think about it and maybe you can tell me if you agree or disagree. I think I fundamentally agree with you that many of the world's most intractable problems level up to psychological, emotional, spiritual problems in the human animal, and it's going to be addressing those that will hopefully help us move the needle on some of the big problems. And in terms of my own work and my own impact, I don't know that I think how we humans have always had like really big problems. And I don't know that anything I'm doing or anything I'm a part of doing is going to level up to the to fixing them fundamentally and/but I think if I and you can help individuals improve their own lives, that is actually really not nothing. And maybe it adds up to some sort of larger impact. But even in and of itself, if anybody is listening to this conversation and they decide to take it seriously, it will improve their lives. And that does ripple out.
Rainn Wilson Yeah, very well said. And we know this from positive psychologists that as you strive to help others, it actually helps you. We live in a culture that's, oh, I'll be happier if I accrue more stuff and I gain more social capital. But in actuality, you're happier when you're helping others. And that was one of the great benefits of doing The Office is I can't tell you the people every day was like, Thank you for this show. You made me laugh. I was going through such a hard time. Laughter is so important. Thank you for the stories that show got me through COVID, etc. on and on. I will say that two things because you asked about this. Hey, kids, let's build a perfect religion. Two elements I just want to bring up, which I think go along with this. One is that we need to create a new mythology of humanity. The old mythology real quick is that there's different tribes. We all hated each other. We battled, we went to war, and it was survival of the fittest, backstabbing, dog eat dog. May the best man win. Don't tread on me. Every man for himself and survival of the fittest Strongest one. The worst aspects of humanity: aggression, contest, adversarialism. There's a different mythology. We helped each other. We cooperated with each other. We traded with each other. We learned from each other. Over the course of human history, there's a different history book that can be written, a new mythology of humanity that we grew up together, we grew wiser together. We've helped and abetted each other and humbly learned from each other's cultures and traded. And this is another aspect of who we are. We're not just these self-centered animals. That's part of who we are. Definitely. You have to acknowledge that. But there's a whole other part of who we are as well. And I'll finish by saying another one of the takeaways I put at the end of the book about what is necessary for a spiritual revolution we've addressed a little bit, which is creating joy, fostering joy and squashing cynicism. We have to believe that we can make a difference and we can change things. It's so important if we live in cynicism and pessimism and oh we’ll never change, things aren't going to change. And the forces of darkness, the Voldemort's, when the Eyes of Sauron win, if we're pessimistic. So we have to experience joy, release joy, give joy to others and believe that we can make a change. And I think that's crucial for a spiritual revolution.
Dan Harris Just a couple of things to say in response. One, I'm one of those people who feels like your performance specifically in the show generally has been a pretty significant value add in my life and definitely during COVID.
Rainn Wilson Oh, thank you.
Dan Harris Thank you. Another thing to say is that I just really agree with you on pretty much everything you said, that you can look at the human condition through the lens of original sin, that we are just, we start broken and the only way out is through something way beyond us. And maybe that's true, but my view is closer to what you describe, which is we have it all. We have the full catastrophe available to us in our repertoire, really shitty aspects and really amazing aspects. And there are bugs in the human software, but there is a huge feature and you articulated it, which is and I think this is if there's a way out of our problems, this is it. Doing good for others is of benefit to us. That is a massive feature in the human operating system and, like you said, what does Dwight Schrute have any right to write about spirituality. Same could be said to like a C level network news man. What the fuck am I doing talking about this? But in my humble view that aspect of the human operating system is the way out.
Rainn Wilson That's beautiful, man. And that's just a great place to start. Well, how do I start a spiritual revolution? Like, well, do unto others and serve others, and it'll make your life happier and better. Just start small. Bring a hot dish and a casserole over to a sick relative. Start small. Build from there. It starts to become more and more important in your life. And you start realizing I can't really live my life unless I'm doing service to others. And we can start there, and it will snowball.
Dan Harris Before I let you go, can you please remind everybody of the name of your new book and also the name of your new TV show and where we can find both?
Rainn Wilson The book is called Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution. And it can be found anywhere you like to buy your books, please support independent bookstores. Number two, Rainn Wilson and The Geography of Bliss debuts May 18th, 2023, on the Peacock streaming service Home of The Office. How about that synergy! In which I travel the world looking for happiness? It's a it really. Dan, you're going to love the show. It's really uplifting and fun and funny and goofy, and it just makes you feel warm and makes you appreciate other cultures. And it's kind of the antidote for the times we're living in. So I hope people will check it out.
Dan Harris Rainn, such a pleasure. Good on you for using your platform for such a positive sentiment.
Rainn Wilson Said Look, we got a minor television sitcom actor and a C level minor news man having conversations about transformational spirituality and happiness. Look at us. That's great. It's been such a pleasure. I've been a huge fan of what you've been doing for such a long time. I'm glad we were able to make this happen. And thanks for taking time to talk with me today. Really appreciate it.
Dan Harris Thank you to Rainn Wilson. They always tell you I don't know who they is in this case, but the conventional wisdom is that you shouldn't meet people who are your heroes. But Rainn did not let me down at all. It was great. Great to meet him. Thank you as well to everybody who listens to the show. If you got a minute to do us a solid, go write us and reviews. That always helps. And thanks finally to everybody who worked so hard on this show. 10% Happier is produced by Tara Anderson, Gabrielle Zuckerman, Justine Davey and Lawrence Smith, DJ Cashmere is our senior producer, Marissa Schneiderman is our senior editor and Kimi Wrangler is our executive producer. Scoring and mixing by Peter Bonaventure of Ultraviolet Audio. And we get our theme music from Nick Thorburn of Islands. We'll see you all on Wednesday for a brand new episode. We're going to talk to fan favorite, Dr. Luana Marques. She's an anxiety expert. She's out with a new book with a three part plan for transforming Anxiety into something way better.