Interview: Krista Tippett

Krista Tippett is the Host/Executive Producer of the radio show On Being (here's a favorite episode of mine). At On Being, she also runs the Civil Conversations Project, a public forum providing ideas for healing our fractured civic spaces. Ms. Tippett loves language, radio, and each decade of her life more than the last.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?

A human being and a mother and a person who loves language and loves radio and has a radio show and podcast and a project that is about creating a space for new kinds of conversation and relationship.

How do you find calm in a busy world?

What I've learned gradually across the years is that I have to be able to find calm as part of the everyday. It's something I have to cultivate all through the day and in the busy spaces of life, rather than seeing it as something that is in a compartment that's set apart. I need those spaces, too, places I can occasionally go away to. But I've learned to get calm inside myself and carry that with me through the day.

Can you offer any insight about how you've learned to get calm inside yourself?

For me, it's been as much a process of self-knowledge and self-awareness as it is of this technique or that technique. I have learned to create some boundaries between being at work and being on email and being reachable and not.

Protecting the downtime that I have and the quiet time that I have when I'm not at work actually makes me come into each day's work with greater equanimity because I did have that break.

I do a lot of yoga. Yoga has certainly put me back in my body, gotten me out of my head. It absolutely goes all the way through me and physically creates calm. I'm not somebody who has a really robust meditation practice, although I've always thought I should, and I've spent a lot of time feeling bad about that.

But in recent years, [I've] started having a six-minute time of being mindful every morning while my tea steeps. It feels like a ridiculous amount of time that I shouldn't even talk about it. But it has made an amazing difference. I'm much more still inside. I don't rush as much in the morning and yet I get as much done.

What are the conditions for constructive conversation?

The conditions for constructive conversation have to be put in place before any words are spoken. The container of a conversation is important, and by that I mean the physical space in which it's held, the way the invitation was made, the hospitality that is extended. That can be the kinds of things we think about when we think about hospitality: an offering of food or a cup of tea or lighting.

But [for] my show, I create a hospitable conversational space [by] how prepared I am coming in. I've taken the time to immerse in somebody's ideas and I think there's something that communicates itself without words or very quickly in a conversation.

We've all had the experience of sitting with someone and you have to explain yourself or defend yourself or present. I want people to be in a different mode where they're in conversation, they're settling and maybe something surprising will happen and maybe they will put words around something they've never quite put words around before.

We're very good in our public spaces at letting different aspects of our humanity speak their truth: our intellects are articulate, we know how to wield opinions, and we've become articulate about expressing our emotions in public spaces.

But Parker Palmer, a Quaker author, said for the insights of the soul to speak its truth, it needs quiet, inviting, and trustworthy spaces. I think those are the conditions for a different kind of conversation. Without that, it really doesn't matter what happens [or] the words that pass between you.

How do you think we can cultivate empathy in ourselves?

We have to be hospitable towards ourselves as well, don't we? Buddhism is especially wise about the fact that compassion for others begins in compassion for ourselves.

The extent to which we can be truly empathetic towards others is going to be limited by how we're able to do that inside ourselves. It's being gentle and forgiving in the spaces that are closest to us [so] that we also can be authentically gentle and forgiving as we venture out into other people's worlds.

I think listening and curiosity are some of the tools for empathy. Those are things we have to practice because some of the ways that we listen reflexively in public are not really about listening, they're just about being quiet.

Listening is really presence as much as it's about being quiet. It's [being] open to being surprised, open to being delighted, open to learning what we do not know. When we do approach another person or an unfamiliar situation in that frame of mind, then empathy is a possibility.

What's the antidote to fear?

Fear is such a key experience in human life. It's actually a response that in many situations serves us well. But when fear becomes too reflexive and too interwoven into how we move through the world, it doesn't inspire the best in us.

Also, a lot of things that we would call something else in public life, like anger, are actually just expressions of fear. That's what fear comes out looking like when it shows itself in public.

An antidote to fear is safety. But it's not that simple. We are complicated creatures and what might look to a lot of us like a safe situation doesn't feel safe necessarily to everybody who's in it.

Safety is as much a bodily experience as it is a kind of decision or rational analysis of the situation. An antidote [to fear] is actually having a complex, compassionate, very attentive understanding of what it would mean to make people feel safe and to calm fear.

We might think that what we need to do is have a conversation or confront our differences or solve a problem. But I think one reason a lot of those things go wrong is because we haven't taken the real time and energy to make people feel safe.

We might need to create those spaces and be in those spaces for a long time before we start to solve a problem or have the dialogue that we can only have as equals, where we can all bring our real generativity and creativity in our safety and groundedness.

How do you handle criticism?

I don't like it! Who does like it? When criticism feels like it dismisses you or devalues you, it's painful and it's very hard to react graciously.

I suppose I have gotten better at this as I get older. You try to take it in, understanding that it is something emanating from another person and it’s probably as much about them or more about them than it is about you. There’s this line from a great Greek or Roman thinker: Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

We want constructive criticism from people we care about. We want to be getting better. But criticism that comes out of nowhere and punches you in the gut - you have to try to not personalize that as much as you can. Because it really isn’t about you.

What does money mean to you?

Money is complicated. I’m not great with money. On the one hand, I don’t have a lot of material needs and on the other hand, I think I’m kidding myself about that. I’m not very good with managing money and I wasn’t taught to be. [But] I think it’s a little bit of a cop out to say, 'Oh, it’s because I don’t care about material things.'

Somehow money is telling a story about us. Rachel Naomi Remen, a wise physician and thinker, said something like, 'Money is just condensed human energy.' She put it into human terms. We turn [money] into something that’s abstract and has different kinds of power than it really has. But there are human things that are condensed and contained in it. This would be a real frontier for me in my life to figure that out.

How can we live a meaningful life?

Living a meaningful life is nothing more and nothing less than asking that question in every moment and figuring out what it means in every moment. It's sometimes very mundane, and occasionally it’s very profound. But living a meaningful life and all the virtue that goes with that is something we have to practice. It doesn’t come naturally.

The terrible and wonderful reality that is mysterious but nevertheless true is that it’s often the hardest things that we didn’t expect, that we wouldn't have wished for that become these great opportunities for fleshing out that question of the meaning of our lives more richly than we could before.

What do you want for the world?

I would like for the world to evolve, for humanity to evolve, for our humanness to evolve to where we start calling things by their true names. So much of what goes wrong and so much of what can go right is just about the human condition. But we rarely grapple with that head-on and I think it’s time.

The problems of climate change, economic equality, refugees - these are human crises that we turn into political issues. We can do something about them as political issues. But we can’t ever get to the root of it. We can’t create the transformed conditions where they won’t repeat themselves. I think a lot of people are making that move and I think this is happening in many places, but it’s a really uneven picture.

What’s the best kept secret about being an adult?

It is such a relief to get older. It is such a gift that you settle into yourself, which is the work of a lifetime. You get much more forgiving of yourself and you start to enjoy the ordinary things of life in a way that you’re not able to when you’re younger and it’s about novelty and new experiences.

I love being an adult. I just had a birthday - I’m 55 - and I’ve loved every decade more than the last.

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