On Growing…On Learning…On Being


Chrystal Bell, one of our Smiling Scientists, had the amazing opportunity to attend a very special gathering almost a year ago in California.  Below is her description of the event, some reflections that we could all learn from, and a few pointed questions we may want to ask ourselves moving forward in a curious, mindful way.  It’s kind of like asking yourself, “how do I want to show up today?”  I am extremely grateful to Chrystal for sharing her experience with the Smiling Science Alliance, and we hope to hear more from her in the future!

“In February 2018, I attended the On Being Gathering at the 1440 Multiversity in the Redwoods outside of Santa Cruz. On Being is a podcast, blog, and project created by host Krista Tippett that explores what it means to be human.

The Gathering consisted of community conversations, meditation sessions, workshops, communal meals, and everything else you might expect when 400 people come together at a retreat center for three days. For a glimpse of what the time was like, click the links above to see the space and the featured guests who served as our teachers and guides throughout the weekend.

I showed up to 1440 not knowing anyone but quickly found kindred people and eased into conversations with everyone I talked to as though we were old friends. There was no pretense, there were no titles, just a broad cross-section of humanity gathered together. We arrived, as described by poet David Whyte, “dedicated to a kind of deep friendship around the truth, around wanting to know the deeper context; deep friendship with different forms of belief that can still be in conversation with one another, and a deep friendship with people who are often made in quite a different way and have a different voice. The axis of friendship is always along that frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you.”

The community conversations were the focal point of our time together and I found myself torn between taking notes and just listening to take it all in. While I could write extensively about the content, I’ll share just a few things that really stood out to me:

One: Whyte delivered the invocation for the weekend with an invitation to ask yourself, “How can I be the ancestor of my future happiness? What can I do right now that I will thank myself for in the future? What did my younger self do that I am thankful for right now?” I recall sitting in my chair, absolutely gripped by these questions and caught for a moment with how I’d even begin to answer them. I was especially curious about those choices my younger self made that have rippled into who I am now. I often think back on my twenties as a time when my only strategy was to just wing it, get one foot in front of the other, and hope everything would work out. But this last question actually required me to look back with compassion and kindness for that younger version of me; to see that even though I might have been unsure of what I was doing in the moment, my inner compass was leading me right where I needed to be.  In other words, somehow I figured it out. We are most often our own harshest critics, with little awareness of just how much we save ourselves over and over again, all of the time.

Thinking forward to future happiness, this is a great seed for bringing intention to our everyday actions. It requires not just living in the moment, but living in a way where we might one day glance in the rear view mirror of our lives and truly be grateful for our actions—sometimes making choices that may even break our hearts at the time. Maybe it is forgiving someone who has harmed us, leaning into discomfort when all we wanted to do was run away, walking away from a relationship, deep listening instead of giving advice, or a simple act of grace. Of course, part of the mystery is that we don’t know right now what we’ll ultimately thank ourselves for, but it feels solid to position ourselves in a way that opens up the possibility.

Two: Krista’s Tippett’s deeper uncovering of “be the change you want to see” was especially powerful. She said, “we cannot call forth in the world that which we do not embody.” In other words, what do I want the world to be and am I, myself, living in that way? Many of the attendees at the Gathering were change-makers—scholars, writers, activists, podcast hosts, actors, and people whose life’s work was about changing the world or at least making it better. So Krista’s words were especially meaningful for the group to explore both what we are trying to do and how we are being while doing it. How am I showing up in the world, as a parent, as a partner, in work, in friendships, and do my own actions align with those that I expect or ask from others that I encounter? This is incredibly humbling and it requires constant work and attention.

Three: Finally, as a nod to the work that we do as scientists, these are some quotes I heard from guest speakers that I’ve been holding close:

“The nexus of science and spirituality is wonder.” –Writer Maria Popova

“We cannot be curious and angry at the same time.” –Author Seth Godin

“I have a deep reverence for mystery.” –Astrophysicist Natalie Batalha

I have been asked so many times over the course of my career why and how I have been able to do this work and these three said it beautifully. You’ll see that at the core of these three statements are wonder, mystery, and curiosity. That is the beauty of what science can be and it is what I have always loved. When I have a tough day at work, I have only to reflect on that sweetness that comes with revealing what had once been unseen; bringing into the light what had been in the shadows. That is why I’m here.

Finally, as an invitation for self-reflection, I will leave you with these three questions that were posed in the application process for the Gathering. I encourage you to take some time to think about your answers and take stock of where you are in your life at this moment. And if you’re up for the same challenge the applicants had, type your responses out, and distill each down to 600 characters or less. GO!

  • Who are you?
  • The theme of our conference will be wisdom as a calling for inner life but also public life in the world. How do you think of your mission at this moment in time? How are you expressing that in whatever form community takes in your life?
  • We live in a moment of uncertainty and change – of vast open questions at the heart of our life together. Rilke spoke of “living the questions.” What questions would you like to pose, hold, and live with others in the period ahead?”

-Chrystal Bell

Thanks for reading, and remember…keep smiling!