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Memorable moments from NPR's 'Enlighten Me' series

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

For the past eight months, this corner of our Sunday show has been a place of introspection. The Enlighten Me series, helmed by my friend Rachel Martin, has explored how we all search for meaning. She has spoken with people who find that meaning in some kind of religious or spiritual practice and others who find it in their own ways. The series is now going on a bit of a break - maybe its own journey of discovery, if you will. But first, we're going to look back at some of those conversations and talk about what lies ahead with Rachel Martin. Hey there.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Well played, my friend. Hello.

DETROW: Nice to talk to you.

MARTIN: Nice to talk to you too. Do you know - sorry to hijack this from the get-go.

DETROW: Whoa.

MARTIN: At the beginning of this whole project, I swore to myself I was never going to use the phrase spiritual journey or even the word journey. And there you just bookended it with the whole thing.

DETROW: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: It's impossible.

DETROW: Did you make it up to that point without saying it?

MARTIN: No. It's impossible. It just happens because it was. It truly was. It wasn't just, like, a phrase. I was going through a thing.

DETROW: Yeah.

MARTIN: I was moving through a process. I was going on a journey, and everyone came along for the ride. So it was fun.

DETROW: Well, before I get up into your spiritual face and ask you questions, can you tell us a little bit about what's happening next with Enlighten Me?

MARTIN: Yes. So we are working on another life for this project, you know? We got a lot of great feedback from people. It meant a lot to our listeners. It moved a lot of people. And we're going to build on that, and we are making something new. It's still going to appear on the radio, but it's going to come at you in a different version too.

DETROW: So are we going to get a podcast out of this?

MARTIN: Podcast.

DETROW: Podcast.

MARTIN: You got it right. You got it right. It's all the rage, Scott. I don't know if you know that.

DETROW: I've heard about this audio format.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So we are. We're making a podcast everyone. But I think it's going to be really cool. It's going to allow us to be more creative, and it's going to allow us to really sit into these conversations in a different kind of way.

DETROW: OK.

MARTIN: And, yeah, I'm looking forward to it.

DETROW: Well, in the meantime, you did about 30 of these segments. You talked to more than 30 guests about how they found meaning in their lives. Did this, at the end, accomplish what you initially were setting out to do?

MARTIN: I think I fessed up in the beginning that this - it actually was, like, kind of a selfish project. I was genuinely...

DETROW: That's OK.

MARTIN: It's OK to admit that, right? I was genuinely going through my own existential, not really crisis, but just inquiry, you know? And I had left a pretty high-profile job in news and was craving different kinds of conversations with people about big questions, about what life is about and what happens when we're not living anymore.

DETROW: Yeah.

MARTIN: And did I achieve what I set out to? I did in that I wanted to connect with people about the stuff that I was feeling kind of alone in my head about, if that makes sense. I was stewing away, and I needed to connect with other people who were asking the same questions and feel less alone. And I found out that a lot of people were asking these questions...

DETROW: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Of themselves. And so we started a broader conversation.

DETROW: Well, let's talk about some of those big questions, and let's start with, like, a really simple, easy one that's really easy to define and think about and clarify and come to all the conclusions of. And that's, of course, God.

MARTIN: God.

DETROW: Yeah, straightforward. You know, we heard a lot of different descriptions of God or a kind of a divine presence in these interviews. Some people were very clear they did not believe in God. Others were, like Rainn Wilson, very confident in their faith. But I think a lot of the people you talked to fell into a bit of a gray area, like Patrick Stewart, who, at one point, compared God to how he felt on a theater stage as a young man.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PATRICK STEWART: I believe in presence because while I was there, breathing quietly, it was as though I was surrounded by all the hundreds of actors who had been on that stage for the last hundred years.

DETROW: You asked so many people a variation of this question. Did anything surprise you, or did you pick up on any themes or throughlines when you talked to people about God?

MARTIN: Oh, very few of the people who I talked to had a rigid definition for what that meant, which is sort of where I was at, too, at the beginning of this and now feel more comfortable with that ambiguity. People come up for - with different substitute words, right? I talked to my brother and sister, actually, for one segment. And, you know, my brother is a religious person. But he said, you know, I don't believe in some, you know, man with a beard up in a sky...

DETROW: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Telling me what to do, which is, you know, a rather basic idea of what that presence could be. See, I used the word presence. Because we run into trouble with language when it comes to defining what that is. A lot of us do. So you hear words like, you know, energy, connection, presence time and time again. It's because nobody knows. Nobody knows. But the whole idea of God is just - it's placing us in a larger universe, right? It gives perspective on the smallness of us, which I think is healthy, you know?

DETROW: Well...

MARTIN: And thinking about something bigger than yourself.

DETROW: How do you think about it, and has how you think about a God or God or a presence or whatever you want to call it - has that changed over the course of this project?

MARTIN: I used to feel - my definition hasn't changed. What has changed is my comfort level about it, if that makes sense.

DETROW: In a positive or negative way?

MARTIN: Oh, positive. Really positive. I felt such almost anguish over it in the beginning, and I - a lot of that had to do with my father's passing. He was a very religious person, and I grew up in a very religious Protestant Christian household where there was a very confined description and definition of what God is. And that didn't suit me and hasn't in my adult life. And I - through these conversations, I have come to the realization that that is just fine.

DETROW: Yeah.

MARTIN: It is fine not to know.

DETROW: Well, I think that personal comfort with the idea, I think, gets into another big theme, and that's the idea of prayer and the idea of mindfulness. And one of the very first segments looked at the idea of meditation. You went to a Buddhist monastery and talked a lot and thought a lot about meditation. And you ended that episode talking about how that was something that you were going to embrace more in your life. Did you keep that up?

MARTIN: I did.

DETROW: How's that going?

MARTIN: I feel really good about - it's going great. It has ebbed and flowed. In other words, there have been weeks where I was, like, on the money, up early before my kids, sitting on my meditation pillow. I got the candle. I got the coffee - the whole shebang. And then other weeks - not so consistent. But I keep coming back, and I feel better when I do. And it has made a difference for me. I feel it making me more patient and able to sit in discomfort. Is it prayer for me? - which I think is what you were kind of leading towards, I don't...

DETROW: Well, before we ask about prayer...

MARTIN: Oh, yeah.

DETROW: I do want to know, did it ever get easier? Once you made it more of a practice...

MARTIN: The meditation?

DETROW: ...Was it easier or was it always as hard as it was at first?

MARTIN: It got easier the more consistent I was. But I'll tell you, over Christmas, there were, like, 10 days when I didn't. And then I did again, and I felt like I was back at - not square one, but, like, OK, I'm starting out at, like, 10 minutes again.

DETROW: Yeah.

MARTIN: And, oh, wow, my mind is all over the place. But that's the whole thing. That's the whole thing is, like, life is like that. Mind is like that. You go off, you know? You're not focused. Things happen. It's the coming back. The whole point is the coming back, the return and the awareness of doing that. And so in that way, it's just - it's been wonderful.

DETROW: I think there are probably a lot of people listening - and I think you might have fallen into this as well, based on things you've said in interviews - who are very eager of the idea of meditation, right? That's something they're willing to embrace. But the idea of prayer makes them uncomfortable or makes them embarrassed or feels not a thing for them. You told Katherine May at one point you kind of felt that way, too. Is that still the case? I mean...

MARTIN: I did feel that way, and I still feel that way. And guess what? You should listen to yourself. I started writing in a journal as part of my meditation practice, and that has become like my prayer. And I'm not addressing it to anyone in particular. I'm not writing dear God, I'm not writing dear me. But I'm putting those thoughts out there in that way. Now, to be clear, I still make my kids say prayers at dinnertime, so I feel kind of a faker in that way if I'm not doing it in my actual life. But I'm trying to instill in them just, like, a practice of gratitude. And for me, maybe because it's my cultural inheritance and this is what I grew up with, but it feels like a ritual that I want them to at least have an understanding of. And then they can reject it in due time - you know? - or not. But I like giving them the exposure to that.

DETROW: It's just - I feel like a lot of the things that you grow up with come to a point of inflection for yourself when you are actively passing them down or not to your kids.

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly.

DETROW: And your kids are older than mine, but I'm getting at that point right now, and it's doing a lot of evaluation of, do I really believe this or not? If so, why? What do I say about it? But I think the other moment where a lot of things come up for reevaluation is the other end of the spectrum, and that's deaths, particularly deaths of parents. And you talked a lot about how the deaths of your parents were an early reason why you started thinking about these things. And you wanted to have these conversations, and you had some really moving conversations about death. I think one of the ones that I've thought about the most was with comedian Duncan Trussell, who interviewed his mother as she was dying. And that was something she had wanted to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DUNCAN TRUSSELL: I'm so grateful to her for that, that she was smart enough in, like, her last few weeks of life to sort of give me something to answer the questions that I would have asked her now that I have kids if she were still alive.

DETROW: Did any of these conversations make you change how you think about grief and death?

MARTIN: Oh, I love that you picked that Duncan Trussell conversation. I so appreciated the way that his mom talked about grief to him. She was trying to help him get used to this idea of her not being around anymore and that she wasn't disappearing, that it was - he was going to be OK without her, but that she would be there for him to manifest, you know, when he needed that. And I haven't forgotten that conversation. I love that idea of being able to call on someone when you need them and that they never really leave you.

Sometimes something will just happen, right? I will see something that seems super random. A coincidence is how most people would probably dismiss these things. But in that, I see my parents if it's something particular to them. And, yeah, I'm a person who derives meaning from that, and that gives me a lot of comfort, you know? I don't care what anybody else thinks about it. I don't need to be - I don't need to justify it to anyone else. But if - you know, if I see my mom in a particular bird that's hanging around me on the beach or if I hear my dad in a song that happens to randomly come on a radio station I never listened to, that is a spiritual experience for me.

DETROW: Yeah. I had, randomly, a long conversation about cheesesteaks on January 1.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DETROW: And then I - with somebody who was - my friend was visiting. He was going home. He was stopping. He was like, I'm going to stop in Philly to get the cheesesteak we were talking about.

MARTIN: Where are we going right now? I do not know...

DETROW: We're going exactly where you left it.

MARTIN: Oh. Oh, OK.

DETROW: Exactly where you left it. And I had that conversation. And then I realized about 10 minutes or so later that it had been 10 years to the day since a good friend of mine died, and that one of the things we did a lot was go eat cheesesteaks at lunch. Like, we would go, leave and, like - and I hadn't thought about that. And, like, on one hand, there's not a connection at all. But, like, I thought a lot about it, and I kind of felt that same way of, like, oh, that was a big part of our relationship. And without realizing it, I talked a lot about that. And, wow, that was 10 years ago today.

MARTIN: Wow. I love that.

DETROW: And it made me - like, the rest of the day, it made a sad anniversary kind of a happy one...

MARTIN: Yeah.

DETROW: ...In my mind.

DETROW: And sadness isn't bad, by the way. Sadness gets a bad rap. But it's part of the human experience. And there's, like, a warmth about sadness. There's longing, yeah. And as long as you know how to flip it around - but that's just - now I sound like some I don't know what. It's just love, Scott. It's just love. You loved that person.

DETROW: Let me end with this. You, for most of your career, were a very serious journalist. You...

MARTIN: I still am a very serious journalist, but I'm just leaning into a different part of who I am.

DETROW: Yes. I framed that poorly, but...

MARTIN: I forgive you.

DETROW: There were not as many opportunities for you to totally open yourself up to listeners...

MARTIN: That's right. That's right.

DETROW: ...In the way - as we talk about death and God and prayer and ghosts here in this conversation. It's a very different thing. Was that in any way hard for you to do, or did you just - did it just feel natural at this point?

MARTIN: I don't know. I think I was sort of desperate to do it. We're all craving authentic connection, you know? And you don't want all this stuff from your newsperson, right? You just - I don't.

DETROW: You just want the news.

MARTIN: You just - you want the news. But I was in a different headspace. And I - it has been cathartic for me. I hope it has been meaningful for people who have listened. But it has not been hard to share that stuff. I think that the more people open up about these kinds of experiences, we all feel less alone. And that's sort of my goal these days.

DETROW: Yeah. That's Rachel Martin, the host of our Enlighten Me series and still a very serious journalist. Keep an ear out for what is next for her a little later this year. Rachel, thanks again for coming on our show each Sunday. I feel like this was one of the highlights of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on the weekends, and I loved listening to it.

MARTIN: Thank you, Scott. It has been a wonderful journey. Do you see what I did there?

DETROW: I did.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWANEBORG KARDYB'S "HAVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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