“It doesn’t actually take any more time to say good-bye or hug you know, your children or whatever it is in the morning when you’re on your way to work. But the mind says, ‘I don’t have any time for this.’ But actually that’s all you have time for, is this because there’s nothing else than this…So when your four year-old can’t decide which dress she wants to wear, that’s not a problem for you, unless you make it a problem for you. That’s just the way four year-olds are. And the more we can sort of learn these lessons the more we will not be in some sense running towards our death, but in a sense opening to our lives.”
Scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn has changed Western medicine through his work on meditation and stress. He’s clinically demonstrated the benefits of ancient traditions of mindfulness and meditation. And he’s adapted these for people who are healthy or living with chronic illness, for Olympic athletes and corporate cultures.
In this week’s On Being podcast, Jon Kabat-Zinn offers wise perspective on inhabiting the ordinary and extreme stresses of our lives. Technology may function 24/7, he points out, but our minds and bodies do not. He has practical and spiritual tools accessible to everyone — for slowing down time and “opening to our lives.”
And, for this week’s show, our host Krista Tippett recommends reading:
There are a couple of minutes in this podcast in which we hear Jon Kabat-Zinn conduct an introductory meditative experience for employees at Google. This spiritual technology is immediately effective and at the same time an engagement for a lifetime. It is about “coming to our senses” in the fullest sense of that phrase. This book explores these ways of living in more depth.
“I used to think that to become free you had to practice like a samurai warrior, but now I understand that you have to practice like a devoted mother of a newborn child. It takes the same energy but has a completely different quality. It’s compassion and presence rather than having to defeat the enemy in battle.”—
This makes so much more sense to me than the warrior imagery!
Freestylers enter a “flow” state, which researchers described as a “complete immersion in creative activity, typified by focused self-motivation, positive emotional valence and loss of self-consciousness.” Their creative gate is wide open.
“It’s the absence of attention,” said [researchers]. “When the attention system is partially offline, you can just let things fly and let things come without critiquing, monitoring or judging them.” “It’s almost like you’re able to think faster. … You’re able to incorporate multiple perspectives without thinking about it.”
“Dr. Mathra continues, “They’ve got these Lays Stax right next to the Pringles as though they are equivalent. How can they do that? One is a positive semi-definite quadratic form and the other is an indefinite quadratic form - they’re not even the same definiteness!””—
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines sounds depths I had never considered before, between mathematical truths and great existential questions. It does so by probing the parallel lives and ideas of Turing and another pivotal 20th-century mathematician, Kurt Gödel. Turing’s discoveries were made possible in part by Gödel, who shook the worlds of mathematics, philosophy, and logic in 1931 with his “incompleteness theorems.” They demonstrated that some mathematical truths can never be proven. Or, as Gödel says in Janna Levin’s novel, “Mathematics is perfect. But it is not complete. To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” This held unsettling scientific and human implications; it posited hard limits to what we can ever logically, definitively know.
Janna Levin is an atheist, if we care to categorize her. And while that simple fact informs our conversation along with her exquisite intelligence and her mathematical training, we cover territory that can’t be bounded by such definitions. Janna Levin’s most certain “faith” is in the conviction that we can agree on basic realities described by mathematics — that 1 plus 1 will always equal 2. Putting God into that equation, or barring God from it, is not her concern. Yet this conversation is a beautiful example of the deep complementarity of religious and scientific questions, if not of answers. The ideas and questions Janna Levin lives and breathes open my mind to new ways of wondering about purpose, meaning, and ultimate reality.
There is much in her thought that I struggle to comprehend and will continue to ponder. I’m intrigued, at the same time, by echoes with the wisdom of ordinary life. Gödel’s idea that there are some truths we can only see at an angle — by standing outside, looking in — is a fact even in the work I do, of speaking of faith. The deepest truths are usually impossible to see and articulate straight on.
And I feel a kindred pull to Janna Levin’s delight and passion in the great narrative of the world and humanity, epitomized in these lines from her book that we read in the show:
“I am looking on benches and streets, in logic and code. I am looking in the form of truth stripped to the bone. Truth that lives independently of us, that exists out there in the world. Hard and unsentimental. I am ready to accept truth no matter how alarming it turns out to be. Even if it proves incompleteness and the limits of human reason. Even if it proves we are not free.”
Of all the ideas Janna Levin presents, the most provocative and disturbing, perhaps, is her doubt that there is free will in human existence at all. She cannot be sure that we are not utterly determined by brilliant principles of physics and biology. Yet she cleaves more fiercely in the face of this belief to the reality of her love of her children and her hopes and dreams for them. She sees “evidence of our purpose” in figures like Gödel and Turing, even though they did not the find the clarity in life that they wrested from mathematics on all our behalf.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the world feels more spacious to me after this conversation with Janna Levin — even, to use her words, if it suggests incompleteness and the limits of human reason and faith; even if it suggests we are not free. She possesses a quality that keeps me interviewing scientists as often as a I can — a delight in beauty, a comfort with mystery, a limitless ambition for one’s grandest ideas combined with a humility about them that many religious people could learn from.