Rainn Wilson is a three-time Emmy Award-nominated actor, best known for the role of Dwight Schrute in NBC’s The Office. He is also a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder of the digital media company SoulPancake, which created thousands of pieces of content and over a billion video views.
Below, Rainn shares five key insights from his new book, Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution. Listen to the audio version—read by Rainn himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The spiritual paths of Kung Fu vs. Star Trek.
My spiritual path began with a comparison between two of my favorite ’70s television shows, Kung Fu and Star Trek.
Kung Fu, for those of you who don’t know, is about a Shaolin monk in the late 19th century who’s banished from his monastery and then wanders the old cowboy west while fighting a lot of racist cowboys. All the while, he brings a lot of his Eastern wisdom and perspective to materialistic immature Americans, making for a fantastic television show.
The Kung Fu path is the personal, individual, spiritual path that we walk. This is the path that most people think of when they think of spirituality. You think of someone trying to bring their wisdom to a chaotic world, walking with peace, seeking to make themselves evermore. They are filled with spiritual virtues like kindness and patience. They seek tranquility and serenity in a world that is beset with issues like racism and violence. That’s the Kung Fu path.
The other path has to do with all of humanity. Star Trek is about technology, but Star Trek is also about how humanity has matured. In the mythology of Star Trek, there has been a World War III, a devastating conflict, and out of the flames of conflict, humanity has eliminated racism, solved income inequality, men and women are equal, etc. The Star Trek characters are at peace with their environment and, in doing so, we are then able to go out into the universe. They then are able to boldly seek out new life and new civilizations because of the work we have done as a species at home.
We need to focus on the spiritual maturation of humanity. When we think of spirituality, we often only think of the Kung Fu path. However, there is a grander vision, using spiritual tools to help transform us as a species, seeking to become ever wiser, ever more mature, and evermore selfless.
2. There are a plethora of pandemics.
It’s important to set what our current stakes are. There are a whole bunch of pandemics that are out there besides COVID. We’ve just come through a particularly nasty pandemic. But when you really take the telescope, float it above the earth and point it at society, we see that there are a lot of pandemics going on.
“One other pandemic is the current mental health epidemic that young people are suffering.”
Some of these include nationalism and militarism, or unjust economic extremes. We’ve got statistics pointing to 20 of the richest men on the planet having more resources than half of the planet’s population. There are so many of these pandemics. Materialism is a pandemic. Sexism and racism are pandemics. Climate change—the granddaddy of all the pandemics. To really combat climate change, we need to reinvent our entire relationship with Planet Earth, which is why it is such an overarching kind of pandemic that humanity is currently fighting. One other pandemic is the current mental health epidemic that young people are suffering. The statistics are blood-curdling and mind-boggling. This is the pandemic of deaths of despair; anxiety, depression, loneliness, alienation, and suicidal ideation. Suicide is now the number one killer of young people.
These pandemics can’t simply be addressed with legislation. It’s not about increasing funding here and changing laws there. There is an underlying disease underneath these pandemics, which points to the need for a spiritual revolution. We need to address the spiritual imbalances that underlie how we do everything on Planet Earth. If we’re going to tackle these giant pandemics that are really eating away at society, we need to look at the bigger picture.
3. We need to explore death and figure out how to live it.
I lost my father during the pandemic. He died of heart disease during open-heart surgery. His heart disease was too widespread to fix through surgery. Though this was a very tragic loss, it shifted a lot of perspectives for me. This was a chance for me to examine death from a macroscopic lens and look at how humanity has dealt with death and pondered death throughout history.
One of the biggest realizations I had was when I saw my father’s body on the table before we were going to wash it, purify it, and wrap it for burial. I realized that this body was not my father. This was not the reality of Robert George Wilson. This was simply a vessel. This was the vessel in which his spirit, his light, his soul, whatever you want to call it, inhabited. His consciousness rode around in it for 79 years.
“The death of our physical bodies is not the end.”
This way of seeing the world and seeing death is invaluable to anyone’s spiritual journey, both on a personal transformational level and on a societal one. Fundamentally, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. While examining consciousness and the reality and mystery of consciousness, we realize that this frames what it means to be alive. This gives us meaning and purpose. If our light, if our soul, if our spirit continues on some kind of journey after our physical meat suits drop away, then that kind of changes things. Death is not the end. The death of our physical bodies is not the end.
It is similar to a baby in the womb. When a baby emerges from the womb, it might feel like that’s the end, that’s death, that’s the end of that. But it is simply the death of one reality and moving into a much greater reality. Death is a subject we like to avoid in Western culture, but it is one that we can gain a lot of wisdom from pondering. It can enrich our lives and revitalize what it means to be alive.
4. We have thrown the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater.
Humanity has rejected religion forcefully and a lot of times for a very good reason. However, there is a lot of spiritual truth and wisdom to be found in the world’s faith traditions that we have kind of wholesale rejected out of hand. During a trip to Jerusalem, I had some realizations about Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, which can only be made when you’re there at their center in Jerusalem.
There are many universalities of religions. People talk about how diverse they are and how much they disagree and how much they’re not alike, but when broken down, there are some universal truths about all religious faith. There’s prayer and meditation, there’s a sense of transcendence, there’s a sense that we are not just material beings. There’s also a sense of a higher power, of a morality—all the juicy stuff that is foundational to religious belief and practice.
“We can live lives of service and have justice be central to our society.”
So, what if we were to throw out all of the crap we don’t like about religion and just focus on the qualities of religious practice that make the world a better place? For example, there can be a harmony of science and faith; they don’t have to be at odds. We can live lives of service and have justice be central to our society. We can also use practical spiritual tools with an emphasis on music and the arts. Humility could also transform us. Currently, many faith practices often have blowhards telling us we’re going to burn in hell. Therefore, we need to find that beautiful essential humility. All of these things together will bring about the mystery of being alive and the awe of being in the universe.
5. Rewrite the mythology of humanity, foster joy and build something.
There are seven pillars of a spiritual revolution. One of them is to write a new mythology of humanity. Our old mythology is that it’s every man for himself and that we are a bunch of aggressive backstabbers. Old mythology focuses on our dog-eat-dog world, so don’t tread on me. That’s the old story of humanity. It centers on the tribal features and the worst elements of humanity. It convinces us to reinvent the adversarial systems that we’ve built up. Those systems are founded on aggression, competition contest, one-upmanship, and some of the worst qualities of what it is to be a human being.
Another pillar of a spiritual revolution is to foster joy, create hope, hold on to hope, and squash cynicism. The world wants you to be cynical and wants you to be pessimistic. This feeds back into the mental health epidemic that’s plaguing young people. It is a sense of hopelessness about climate change and the disunity that we have in America’s political system, among many other things. As warriors in the spiritual revolution, we need to bring hope and joy to people. That’s part of our mission, and that’s something that everyone can be a part of.
Finally, don’t just protest, build something. This is what it’s really all about. It’s very easy to protest. You can go on Twitter and say, “Hey, that’s unfair, and that sucks.” You can also hold a placard out on a march and say, “Hey, stop that injustice.” Certainly, protesting injustice is really important, but it’s much harder to build something. It’s much harder to cooperate, work with other people at the grassroots level and build new systems.
That is what a spiritual revolution is all about. Reinventing these adversarial systems, working at the grassroots, creating hope; not just protesting, but building something new. One of my favorite quotes is from Buckminster Fuller who said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
To listen to the audio version read by author Rainn Wilson, download the Next Big Idea App today: