What are "familiar strangers"?
Familiar strangers are really just those strangers along the path--whether it's this old guy I met in Mexico, or this Russian soldier who's probably technically one of the most horrible people I've ever met in terms of the stories that he shared. These are all strangers in that I've never met them before but they are strangely familiar at the same time, because they are reminiscent of something that you feel is a part of you.
In your book you preface each chapter with a piece of Siddhartha Guatama's story. Siddhartha left behind his life as a prince to embark on his spiritual quest. Do you see your spiritual journey as analogous to his?
I would never be so arrogant as to compare myself to the Buddha, but I think Siddhartha's story is so resonant because it has a lot of similarities to many [people's stories]. Because it's really a simple story. It's about a kid born into privilege who is blessed with everything but he just isn't finding meaning and then seeks a different path. In some ways that's certainly something I've experienced, but that's not to say I've necessarily found any sort of enlightenment or any answers. But it's definitely spurred the journey--this curiosity, this intrigue about the world--and it can't be just as simple as being born and having these things given to you and then that's it.
So there is only so much you can get from your parents.
Exactly. You have to go on a certain exploration yourself.
Oh, definitely. I was taught when I was very young it's not worth doing unless you really enjoy it, draw some fulfillment from it, and it has resonance in the world. So everything I do--whether it's working on the book, Channel One, or working on a comic book--it's all in the same spirit.
A lot of your assignments have put you in the middle of religious strife--Kashmir, Israel, etc. Do you see religion as the cause of these conflicts, or is it something else in human nature?
I think religion is a product of human nature. I don't think that we can attribute suffering necessarily to religion. But I think fanatics--no matter what brand of fanaticism--link onto things like religion. So I don't think it's fundamentally the fault of any religious institution.
Do you think it becomes problematic when spirituality becomes institutionalized?
I definitely think so. For example I was in the Middle East not too long ago during this whole siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. What you find is that in the news all the rhetoric revolves around religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. But at heart what people really want are the same basic things on both sides. They want to feed their families, they want to be able to go to school or go to work safely without the threat of being shot and they want some measure of respect and acknowledgement from the rest of the world.
So what do you think the answer is?
There's a great saying in one of the Eastern traditions that if you want to change the world you need to change your perspective of it. And I think the media plays a huge role in terms of going out and getting an accurate portrait of what's going on in the world.
I feel that's pretty important in terms of what I was trying to do with this book. I was not trying to go out and look at conflicts and simplify them and say o.k., here's the solution. But I really wanted to explore them, explore some of the deeper issues; and try to introduce the idea that what we need to do is go and get a better understanding and only then can we start to think about what some of the solutions are. Frankly I think we in the media tend to simplify things--and I'm certainly a culprit of this as well--because we have to under certain constraints. What we tend to do is brand an entire culture because of the behavior of a few lunatics, and that's something that we have to get away from.
I've talked with dozens of young Arab men--[the type of men] we tend to think now are the source of all this global catastrophe--and yet most of them remind me of myself or remind me of the guys I went to college with. They want nothing more than to get a good job, take care of their families and again, to get some measure of respect for the way their culture is.
Would you consider yourself spiritual but not religious?
I don't consider myself very religious in that I don't observe any faith specifically or necessarily observe any rituals. But on the other hand I have a deep sense of faith and spirituality, and believe there is some sort of science in the universe, that there is a connection between me and some greater force. It's just not governed by any rules and/or structures. In my experience I've seen that that is in some ways intellectual suicide. To believe in the dogma of stuff that has descended for thousands of years and that has no real relevance in the world today--I think it limits our spirituality.
Has Hinduism had a particular influence on you?
All of the Eastern traditions I grew up with had an influence on me. I had an interesting upbringing obviously with my family. I remember growing up, certainly we had a Hindu, and a Buddhist, and also a Sikh influence--my mother's family was predominantly Sikh.
I grew up in the Northeast and I went to a predominantly Catholic school. My parents always felt that it was important to have that influence, to be tuned into what is the prevailing sensibility of where we lived. I remember when I was young every few weeks my dad would take us to church or we'd go to a mosque or we'd go to a temple just to see: what is it, what is the nature of belief and why do people feel so much security around these sorts of institutions.
Growing up with my father was just always a lot of fun. The thing I admire about both my parents but especially my father is just his curiosity about life. From a young age we traveled all over the world with him and my mom, and we traveled to India almost every year. But on the way we'd stop in London and go see the Tower of London and he'd tell a story of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and then we'd go to Greece on the way back and go sit at the Acropolis. And there was really that sense of: this is the world and it's yours and you need to understand it.
Other than going to a mosque or a church on the weekends and your parents exposing you to different religions and expressions of spirituality, did your family practice at home, for example, did you meditate together?
Yeah, my father and my mom started probably over 20 years ago practicing transcendental meditation. Contrary to what a lot of people think my dad trained in Western medicine. He trained in India and came to the U.S. in 1971 during the Vietnam War when there was a huge shortage of doctors in this country. He practiced in New Jersey and did his residency and his internship and ended up as an associate professor at Harvard and really was on the traditional path. And then at some point in the early '80s he just came to that point in his life where he said: Something is not right, I'm not feeling fulfilled.
And so they started transcendental meditation and became quite active in the TM movement at the time. That was just sort of part of our life. I started meditating when I was five or six years old. As far as I can remember it's always been a part of my life.
And you still meditate regularly?
Yes, it's sort of become almost like an addiction in that I need to do it just to give me some sense of peace during the day. I started and then I stopped and I did advanced techniques and I went through periods where I just blew it off completely but now I've sort of gotten back with the program.
What is the most important thing you've learned from your father?
I think the most important thing is really to have fun and never take life too seriously. Just watching him and growing up with him I've learned that life is an ongoing adventure and you're never going to be at the point at which you have all the answers, so you just keep searching and having fun doing it.
I mean I've gone scuba diving with my dad--we learned how to scuba dive together--we've gone sky diving, and now he's picked up golf and we play golf every weekend together. He's just a real student of life and he's curious, constantly.
Most people see him as a teacher and a guru but he always likes to tell us that he still considers himself very much a student. Whether it's me or my sister's new baby he sort of considers us the teachers to a large degree. So that sort of relationship is fun.
I read in another interview that your father said that between the two of you, you're the wiser and more mature. And that you've been a storyteller since you were a little kid while it's relatively new to him. What's your take?
[laughs] That's a father's sort of perception. My father always sort of jokes that when he was young he wanted to be a journalist, a writer, a storyteller. And he took a very long route to get there--into science, and halfway across the world, and then back to come to what his true vocation was. In that way he's envious that I've been able at a young age to really find what I want to do--and it is journalism, and it is storytelling and that sort of stuff--so he likes to say that.
I think what drives my ambition is just the need or desire to tell stories and to understand the world. Now more than ever the world is a very intriguing place. What I like to do is go look at the world and draw stories out and then try to expose them. You know I don't really consider any of these stories necessarily my own. "Familiar Strangers" is other people's stories and I hope I helped bring a certain relevance to them. All the film stuff that we're doing and the comic book--they're fun and they're cool and hopefully they'll make a lot of money, etc.--but really they're stories, they're stories about exploration.
Do you see a conflict between your ambitions and your spirituality?
I don't think so. Traditionally people tend to see that--that you can't want material things and you can't want success and still be spiritual at the same time. But from my understanding and what I've always been taught, you can't be attached to any of those things--you can't be attached to materialism and wealth and fame and all those things, but it certainly doesn't mean you can't have any of them.
You've interviewed many soldiers and people who are fighting each other and several times you point out that despite the passions involved in these battles the lines between friend and enemy are almost arbitrary.
That certainly comes through in places like Pakistan and India. The times that I've traveled to Pakistan or Kashmir I've always been [seen as] the enemy I suppose because I'm American and I'm Indian. On the other hand just two generations ago my family was from Pakistan, that was their home--or what is now Pakistan, what was part of India.
There is this idea that at one time you're friends and another time you're foes and on this side of the line we can be buddies but on that side we'd be at each other's throats. And that's the reality--it's not even just a metaphor--it's a reality of what life is like in some of these places. The irony is also when you meet so many people on the front lines of these wars--and it's not just in Kashmir, it's in Chechnya, it's in Colombia, it's all over the place--you find that they're so young, they're like teenagers or they're 20 years old and that the conflicts they're involved in precede them by generations. They're not even sure what it is they're fighting for or why they're fighting. It's almost like it's part of their genetic coding and they just are doing what they think they're supposed to do. And that is what I think needs to be explored and understood.