Rainn Wilson: Answering Life's Big Questions
Updated: Sep 12
“Decade by decade, things have gotten better and clearer for me. I feel like my heart is more aligned with the winds of the spirit and the will of the Universe and for that I’m truly grateful.” - Rainn Wilson
When I think of a creative who could help steer me in the direction of heart-centered living, I think of Rainn Wilson. He is a seeker of all things spiritual. Most people know him as Dwight Schrute from the hit show The Office, but that persona does not have much to do with the real Rainn. It just proves he is a great actor.
I booked a phone interview with him while he was starring in a play at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. I was happy with my good fortune. There was no way I could have arranged a chat with Rainn through his Hollywood publicist. In that world, you have to be somebody to talk to someone at his level. After the phone interview was scheduled, I was shocked that I had the nerve to ask the theater communications director if I could photograph Rainn between shows for the watercolor portrait I would be doing. Yes, Rainn would be happy to meet me at the theater’s front bar in between shows. Yikes, this was actually happening!
When an unassuming Rainn walked into the bar, my nerves immediately settled down. He was using his hands to sheepishly try and flatten his unruly hair. I made a mental note to keep it that way in his painting. I sensed it summed up the real Rainn, the one from long before he had to give a thought about his appearance. Photographing him took all of 15 minutes.
Our “phoner” came later that week. Because he takes himself lightly, Rainn is easy to talk to. He says that his dream to be a performing artist was sparked in high school. Having seen his father put his love of abstract painting on hold for his day job, Rainn decided that when he graduated he would dive into his dream full force. He didn’t want acting to just be a hobby. “I had that longing to be an artist. That was my deepest drive. I basically knew I would have to be an actor or I would die.”
Rainn now sees that on the first part of his artistic journey he took a wrong turn. He wanted to be successful and have a career, but to do that he thought he needed to put his focus completely on himself. “The intent was all about self-promotion. How do I get people to like me? How do I make more money? All that focus on the self, it was very narcissistic. And that led me to a lot of really dark times.”
He was baffled when his career began to take off and it didn’t bring the happiness he assumed it would.
“To all of the sudden be making a living as an actor, and being deeply unsatisfied didn't make any sense to me. Like, wait a second... I'm deeply unsatisfied, and yet, I'm living my life's dream! What the hell is going on here?”
That’s when spirituality came back into Rainn’s life, slowly. He went back to explore the faith of his youth. He discovered that when we develop spiritual facets of our character like kindness, humility, compassion and service to others life starts to get richer. He found out the only things that truly satisfy are the things that feed the soul.
“What I discovered when I came back to the Baha'i Faith was the idea that art and worship are synonymous. God is a creator so when we create something on the page or the stage, we're emulating that divine impulse to transcend the mere material. We're emulating the actions of the great Creator using imagination, heart, beauty, truth, and storytelling... it's a divine act.”
Rainn learned that having a relationship with the Divine means allowing oneself to be guided. But being human is tricky. One has to make sure their guidance is coming from the heart and not the ego. If you're just out for self your guidance system will be off. Rainn points out that every religious tradition has something about surrendering to the will of God in it. The wheels spinning in the brain can easily lead us astray if we're not connected to a higher being. “It takes a while to sync yourself up to the will and spirit of all creation, and once you’re aligned, those instincts need to be listened to.”
One of the biggest conundrums for the spiritual aspirant is whether the “still, small voice within” is from God or the intellect. It takes years for most of us to be anywhere close to discerning the thinking mind from the heart. Rainn says being in alignment is a partnership with the Infinite, but it’s not like the sun shines on you and you're happy for the rest of your life.
“It's all about setting your sail. When you sail a boat you’re not just going in one direction. You're tracking, you're going left, and right, and starboard, and leeward. At times you have to change the size of the sails. You may have to go around a storm or drop the sails for a while if the winds are too strong. Then you might need to row in the opposite direction for a while. You can feel it when the wind is taking you in the right direction. It’s the same when you’re in sync with the energy of the Universe. It just feels right.”
Sometimes our best laid plans can be shifted by the winds of a loving God. Rainn is certain of it.
“When I was first in Los Angeles my career was really going slow. I was very unhappy and wrote to an artistic director who I had worked with at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I asked him if there would be enough roles for me if I moved there? You know what? He was too busy, and I never heard back from him. Thank God because that's when I started booking more work in Los Angeles. If I would have left LA at that time, I never would have been on The Office.”
Rainn lives by his belief that the surest way to attract success is by being more of yourself. “What it comes down to is surrendering our petty will to the will of the Universe. Our career path has to be in alignment with God's will. It really all comes down to that. If you follow what turns you on and are really sensitized to that journey, doors will open. You have to listen to that inner voice and those little proddings. It’s all about letting go and being open to what comes along the way.”
The way he sees it, we all may not be traditional artists, but we are all creative and can love what we do, if we see what we do as service. Becoming a teacher only because you want the paycheck and summers off, won’t leave you gratified. But if you view your profession as guiding a classroom of souls towards wisdom, knowing that what they learn will be passed down for generations, your life’s work will be fulfilling.
Coming from the depths of who he is Rainn Wilson’s life purpose continues to shift and expand. Actor, producer, author, digital media company founder, podcaster and working with youth through the arts only scratch the surface of his accomplishments. Through it all, he imperfectly lets his connection to a Higher Power carry him. When he is not off course, Rainn rides the waves in wonder.
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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan