Wisdom//

Josh Radnor: “It’s the Only Thing”

The actor and musician on spirituality and what gives his life meaning.

image courtesy of Josh Radnor

[For the last few years I’ve written an email newsletter once every two months or so. I let people know what I’ve been working on and also what I’ve been reading, watching, loving, inspired by, etc. I also write a kind of essay-ish thing, which is what I’ve posted below. If you like what you read and want to subscribe you can do that here.]


Bhaktifest is a music/yoga festival held in Joshua Tree every September. I’ve been going the last few years and it’s always a reliably terrific and inspiring time. Ben Lee and I (a.k.a. Radnor & Lee) are going to be playing at this year’s festival on Saturday the 15th. I’m so excited about it.

A few years ago my dear friend David Newman called me up on stage to sing with him and my other dear friend Brenda McMorrow. When I got off the stage after some joyful moments with David and Brenda a young woman, who clearly only knew me from TV, approached me and said “You’re into spirituality?” And I said “Yeah. It’s the only thing.” I was kind of shocked by my response, I’d never quite said it that way before, but I believe it.

I see my life and life in general in spiritual terms. I think everyone is spiritual, whether they know it or not. By that I mean we all have some belief or faith in the unseen. We put a lot of stock — and most of our attention — in what we can see, touch, and measure. But most of what moves us throughout the day — hungers, longings, dreams, addictions, wounds, etc. — is unseen. All virtues (love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, patience) are intangible, immeasurable, fundamentally spiritual things that, when put into action, have very real and wonderful consequences.

The first time I ever sat with a therapist she asked what brought me in then listened to me stumble my way through an answer for about twenty minutes before finally saying, “Wow. You’re really hard on yourself.” She was right. I’ve always been hard on myself though I have no smoking gun for why. All I know is that an inner critic/taskmaster has been with me for a long time and he’s been a less-than-joyful traveling companion.

I don’t believe in the devil. It feels as ludicrous and reductive to me as the bearded lightning-bolt god in the heavens. But I’m clear on the fact that there does exist some kind of malevolent internalized force that assumes our voice and suggests all manner of horrible, self-punishing things into our ears. That voice is the root of shame, guilt, fear, hesitation, second-guessing, blame, victimization and self-punishment. Its character is demonic and the consequence of heeding its lousy advice is often tragic.

I initially waded into spiritual waters because I wanted some anxiety-relief. I began to have this gnawing suspicion that this voice in my head — while presenting itself as my trusted ally — might actually be the enemy. Beginning to identify this voice not as ‘me’ but rather as some kind of interloper in my consciousness was truly the beginning of my spiritual path.

Self-observation was and remains the key. This is the opposite of narcissistic self-absorption. It’s a puncturing of self-delusion, a cessation of believing every thought in one’s head, a dethroning of what Thomas Merton calls ‘the false self.’ This process is not ‘fun,’ in any traditional sense of the word. But we can’t grow without it. But there’s good news: The more I observe myself and my thoughts the more I am able to realize that that shaming, guilt-inducing voice isn’t the sole occupant in my head. There is another voice, a voice that speaks far less frequently but who is always there, witnessing the other voice.

As a general rule, I find the shame/guilt voice to be loud, harsh, and impolite. It barks orders, criticizes, and blames. It’s the first one on the scene, basically giving the opposite of a pep talk, cataloguing all the ways I’ll probably fail, why I’m not good enough, what there is to fear, why that guy doesn’t deserve what he has, why the other guy does and is better than me by every metric, etc. It toggles back and forth between superiority and inferiority, depending on the day, the hour, the moment. While the other voice is calm, objective, imperturbable, and forgiving. Also: it whispers. It refuses to draw attention to itself. It’s not going to compete with the other barking voice. I have to get quiet and still in order to even hear it.

Meditation attunes us to the quiet, wise, witness voice. There’s a reason it’s been recommended by every legit sage throughout human history. Why do we resist meditating? Or convince ourselves we’re incapable of it? Because that other loud voice loathes stillness. In that stillness lies the seeds of its destruction. It knows that if I get quiet enough I’m going to hear the whisper of truth and in the face of that truth its death process will have commenced. Its life — remember — depends on me thinking it’s me. So it does everything possible to keep me distracted, fearful, and anxious, all in the guise of ‘protecting’ me.

This can be a bitter pill to swallow, confronting the fact that the chief obstacle to my peace and equanimity is something inside of me. But it’s also incredibly good news. Many spiritual masters have said some version of the following: “Only the one who realizes he is asleep can truly awaken.”

When I think of myself as an ego in a body suit who’s only here to chase pleasure and avoid pain for a few short years, I get depressed. That, to me, is a life drained of meaning. But when I remember that I am connected to everyone else, and that we are all connected to an infinite and loving source — which I can neither name nor describe — some calm comes over me. I know that there must be a point to this. I remember the words of the Sufi mystic Al-Ghazali: “Know O Beloved, that man was not created in jest of at random, but marvelously made and for some great end.”

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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