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How do you make peace with your shortcomings? This man has an answer

Duncan Trussell says there is value in transcendent experiences.
Emma McIntyre
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Getty Images
Duncan Trussell says there is value in transcendent experiences.

It's almost Thanksgiving, which means I am fully within my rights to deploy a holiday metaphor. And I think it's apt because, what do you do when you have a feast you can't possibly finish in one sitting? You save the food you didn't eat and treat yourself to a second Thanksgiving later.

My interview with comedian Duncan Trussell a few weeks ago was a conversational feast. There was too much good stuff to absorb in one sitting. So we've put together a part two for your listening and reading pleasure.

Last time, we focused on the wisdom Duncan gleaned from his mom – especially in the months before she died of cancer. He recorded a beautiful conversation between the two of them for his podcast, and then his friend Pendleton Ward layered their words over this surreal animation for the Netflix show The Midnight Gospel.

We talked about what his mom taught him about what matters most in this life, and how to turn heartbreak into liberation.

This conversation is all about the wisdom Duncan himself has to offer — on the value of transcendent experiences, how he thinks about life after death, and how to love even the most broken parts of ourselves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: From what I know of you, you're definitely a person who likes to swim in the existential goo, you know?

Duncan Trussell: I do.

Martin: When did that start for you? I mean, did you come out of the womb that way?

Trussell: No, I don't think so. I don't remember. You know, if I meditated more, maybe I could answer that question, but I always gravitated towards it for some reason.

I was raised as an Episcopalian and as a kid, I really loved that and felt very connected to God and Jesus. And then after my mom's divorce, she had like a series of new age boyfriends, this was during the new age movement. So Birkenstocks, they didn't like my fake guns, and, obviously, you don't like your mom's boyfriends. If you do, like, what's wrong with you? How could you possibly like the guy who's walking out of your mom's bedroom in the morning?

But what was wonderful about that is it got my mom interested in some esoteric philosophies, which meant there were books laying about. And so I did the thing everyone does, I just sort of dabbled with it.

I remember my mom breaking up with a boyfriend who introduced us to all this stuff, and he was on the back porch. I think she had just dumped him. And I'm sitting there, he's smoking a cigarette and he looks at me and he's like, "You know this stuff that we talk about? One day you're actually going to need it. Right now you just think it's cool, but one day you'll need it."

And... Yeah. Then my mom died years later. And then that's when I remembered him saying that, because suddenly it gets real. I got testicular cancer, then it got real. All of a sudden you realize there is a real need for some kind of transcendent structure, something outside of the world to connect to when you're in a tsunami of unfortunate events.

Martin: What do you think about reincarnation?

Trussell: Oh, for sure.

Martin: For sure?

Trussell: Yeah, I mean, subjectively. I'm not going to get into debates with anybody about it. You will win. I have the most cynical, materialist, existentialist, intellectual friends. I try to bring this stuff up with them and they destroy any argument I have and I like that. All I can say is this is my fantasy. I think that people who are nihilistic, materialist, atheists don't realize that they believe in heaven too. Their heaven is like the heaven of pure, absolute, perfect annihilation.

Who was the one who drank hemlock? Was that Socrates?

Martin: I think Socrates.

Trussell: He said something along the lines of, if there's nothing after this, and it's like the deepest sleep, then you have given me the greatest gift anyone could give anyone. If there is something after this, I'm gonna keep doing the thing that you're giving me hemlock for. So I win no matter what.

It's really great. He did a good job. He's, well, he was pretty smart. He was OK. [laughs]

Martin: I mean, I guess. [laughs]

Trussell: He had some good ideas. But yes, I completely believe in reincarnation. I feel a kind of certainty about it and I don't really have any part of me anymore that doesn't believe that.

Martin: How far does the fantasy extend? I mean, does it get specific? Do you have a preference for the next go round? Like plant, animal, human? Because I'm the kind of person who thinks I want to come back as something more interesting than a human being.

But if it really gets down to brass tacks, I don't. Like, I just want to be a person who can still be in the peripheral life of my loved ones. That's not very interesting. Like, I'd like to be a person who says, I'm gonna be the tree, or I wanna be a bird.

Trussell: Who wants to be a tree? Are you kidding? You wanna be some immobile thing that people use as firewood? No thanks. Passing on the tree.

Martin: But they're supposed to be old and wise.

Trussell: Yeah, they might be old and wise, but there's not much they could do if some lumber person decides to use them for their table. I'm not dissing trees. My God, I wish they could attack. If trees could attack, we would live in a much more beautiful world.

The point is, I like the Buddhist emphasis on what we need to worry about is right now. Because I've heard something on the lines of, if you want to know what your next incarnation is going to be, look at your incarnation now, and that will inform you where you're headed.

Martin: In what way? What does that mean?

Trussell: Momentum. We're talking about the reaction. So those moments where the thing comes out of you that you've been working on and then suddenly there it is again, blah! The jack in the box comes out in traffic, in a relationship, whatever your particular scary defense mechanism thing is triggered. That is what will carry you into the next life

The way you react to scary things here, you're going to react to the scary things there. You're probably going to get scared, then you're going to get angry, then you're going to do the exact same thing that has been getting you in all the samsaric loops you've been getting in here.

I guess I'm just always getting in this relationship. You know, wow, this is mysterious. Why does the same exact relationship keep happening to me? You know, nothing to do with me! Just, like, Bermuda Triangle stuff. You know, what is it? Mercury must be in retrograde every time I get in a relationship.

So if you haven't started unraveling that loop, the loop will repeat and that loop will inform your next incarnation. And so that's a way to sort of wrap your head around it. But ultimately it doesn't really matter because you reincarnate in this life. That's what you need to worry about is your next incarnation here.

Martin: Wait, what does that mean? Just like, change?

Trussell: Not just change, but big changes. I used to wear trench coats and listen to The Smiths. I was a goth. You know what I mean? I was just sour when I was in high school and I went through that phase. That me is still in me. I'll listen to The Smiths sometimes like, this is amazing. But that level of like LARPing...

Martin: LARPing is a great word!

Trussell: Yeah, I'm not doing that LARP anymore. I'm doing a new LARP now. And I think that might as well be reincarnation. Mentally I'm different, you know, everything's different now. So that's what I mean. You reincarnate over and over again here, the cycle is happening here. And it just keeps going after you die.

Martin: In that episode of The Midnight Gospel with your mom, she said something to the effect of, the only point of a spiritual life is to just learn how to live in reality. So the question is, how is this helping me just be a person in the world?

Trussell: Yeah, it reminds me a little bit of Zen, you know, no BS, this is what's happening, right in this place.

It's like, OK, have you been to someone's house and they have a nice couch and they've put plastic over the couch. Have you ever seen that? It's the wildest thing.

Martin: Like if they have a pet.

Trussell: They don't want to soil their couch. They don't want oils or whatever they're worried about. So they cover it in plastic. It could be the best couch on earth, but now it's the worst couch because it's covered in plastic. It's venting. It smells weird in the winter. Like the plastic is sort of melting. You're breathing in toxic fumes.

Martin: It's not living up to its couchiness potential.

Trussell: It could be the best couch! It's maybe velvet or some nice leather. But no, all you're feeling is plastic. So, I think this is what my mom was talking about, if you've put plastic on, it's keeping you from a direct encounter with reality and you think it's protecting you but it's not.

Here you are in this beautiful, powerful, unbearably heartbreaking reality. Like, this is the real thing. You took human birth. In Buddhism, there's more gods than there are humans. Like, you have taken human birth, and you are here, you're not in the driveway. You're in the forge.

So, learning how to deconstruct, dissolve, remove, or allow the plastic to exist, but simultaneously allow your heart to touch what's happening now as it is, whatever your method may be, is so wonderful because you get to experience this world that we're in as it is, and one of the great delights that everyone realizes is you are running away from the best...couch? OK. The analogie is ruined. [laughs]

The couch has been chasing you! This is like a story I tell my kids: the couch. Don't run away from your nice couch!

Martin: Not to extend the awkward metaphor, but is your couch covered in plastic? Are you the couch you want to be in the world, in the apartment of your life?

Trussell: No. Right now, learning how to shake hands with a plastic, I guess is the way you could put it.

I love Pema Chödrön, and in her book, The Wisdom of No Escape, she talks about how people will start some meditation practice wanting to be a better person, be a better parent, be a better this, be a better that. And she says that's starting your practice off with an aggression against yourself.

This as-you-are thing that's been carrying you to the point of getting a Pema Chödrön, it got you to whatever your particular practice is. And then suddenly you're like, all right, see you later. Like, get out of here, thing that has sustained me, protected me. Get out of here. That's the aggressive part, and it shows up in the psychedelic world sometimes.

You know, people come back from whatever the particular experience they had, and they're like, I shattered my ego. It's like, why are you being so mean to yourself? Like, you shattered it? That's not cool. That's you too. The plastic is you. And the method that I've been taught is more like nonjudgmental awareness. Allow it to be this thing.

Martin: So ego death is not a thing for you. That feels violent. Because people talk about needing to kill your ego in order to be you.

Trussell: Yeah. Shake hands with it. You know, touch it. Don't be afraid. And don't reject it. And then maybe something will begin to shift over time.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, and a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.