What Is The One Thing That Makes You Who You Are?

New series gets people to think about who they really are.
Braunstein and Wrigglesworth interviewed Sri Dharma M. in New York, NY.
Braunstein and Wrigglesworth interviewed Sri Dharma M. in New York, NY.

Zack Braunstein was reading the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture, several months back when he stumbled upon a compelling term: Shraddha, a Sanskrit word that translates loosely as "faith" or "devotion" but can more broadly reflect the driving force within a person's being. The word seemed to capture something Braunstein had searched for in his own life -- and he imagined it might resonate with others, as well.

Shortly after Braunstein, a writer and meditator, and his girlfriend, photographer Sam Wrigglesworth, decided to quit their jobs and explore what shraddha means to different people around the country. They embarked on a cross-country journey in September to ask people:

"What is the thing at the center of your being that if you woke up without you would be a totally different person living a different life?"

“It’s the hardest question I could think to ask,” Braunstein told The Huffington Post.

The pair has conducted 62 interviews around the country, Braunstein said, for a project they're calling "Searching for Shraddha." They've met with teachers, writers, Hindu yogis, orthodox Jews, Buddhist monks, interfaith priests, activists, lawyers, as well as people they've randomly encountered on the street.

Hindu chaplain Gadadhara Pandit Das said faith is key to what shraddha represents.

"It is upon this faith that we can move forward in our lives," Das told HuffPost. "For example, we can't know for sure whether God exists. However, if we choose to have faith then we can move forward to investigate whether or not there is a God."

It's that inner spark that Braunstein hoped to uncover in each of his interview subjects.

The pair met up with Grandpa W. for an interview in Woodstock, New York.
The pair met up with Grandpa W. for an interview in Woodstock, New York.

“I was curious about the things other people had as far as convictions or beliefs that were so central to them that the idea of living without them was unthinkable,” Braunstein said.

Interviews average around 45 minutes to an hour, Braunstein said, and often go remarkably deep.

“There comes a point when language fails us and we start to approach the ineffable," Braunstein said. "Eventually, it’s almost like I’m not in the room anymore. They’re focusing that inner lens so intensely."

One interviewee depicted on the website works for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization. (Braunstein and Wrigglesworth are keeping the subjects semi-anonymous to respect their privacy.) Reflecting on his work for racial justice and nonviolence, the reverend said:

I get up every day and I do what I was born to do. Every day. It’s life-giving, it’s holy, it’s sacred. I get joy out of it. In the midst of facing tanks and tear gas, I still get joy.

Another man spoke of being raised in a conservative Mennonite community but later encountering non-Christians when he went to work with refugees in Vietnam. Many of these people, he said, were "better pacifists" than some of the Mennonites he knew -- and the revelation turned his sense of the world on its head.

I had to either say, Life is lying to me, or I had to say, What I have been taught as to who are the good people and who are the bad people–I have to go back and relook at that. I think the God that created this world can’t lie to us through life.

Many of Braunstein's interviews eventually reach similar conclusions, he said, despite the fact that the subjects come from a wide variety of faiths and background.

“People talk of this sense of expansiveness, of love," he said. "People talk about communities in which they’re not the central figure, of charity and giving. Some people talk about God.”

Braunstein and Wrigglesworth interviewed Connie H. in Beacon, New York.
Braunstein and Wrigglesworth interviewed Connie H. in Beacon, New York.

The pair hopes to end their project in Oregon by mid-March. Braunstein is planning to write a book based on the interviews,and Wrigglesworth aims to compile a photo book.

Before they wrap up the project, though, there will be two final interviews to conduct, Braunstein said. For those, he and Wrigglesworth will have a chance to get in the hot seat and turn the camera back on themselves.

Also on HuffPost:

26 Books Every 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Seeker Should Read