How often have you changed your decisions, or done something you didn’t feel entirely called to do, because you felt the weight of other people’s expectations? Maybe it was overt, maybe they made their point-of-view, or even demands of you, known. Or, maybe you just felt it, more as an undercurrent. And, yet, you let it control not only your decisions, but your actions, and, at times, even your possibilities and path in the world.
We’ve all been there. And, sometimes, that very dynamic becomes even more complicated by our own inner turmoil, fueled by a deep and real tension between two paths that we found ourselves powerfully drawn to, or away from, making it nearly impossible to figure out which to travel, and which to abandon.
This was the experience of my guest today, world-renowned violinist, activist, 2018 MacArthur Fellow, and founder and Artistic Director of Street Symphony, Vijay Gupta. A violin prodigy who’d performed with the Israeli Philharmonic under Zhubin Mehta before the age of 10, and landed a spot in the iconic LA Philharmonic at the age of 19, Vijay faced a choice early in life – between the artistic fire of music that burned within him, and a dual passion for science and medicine, which was also the more expected and accepted conventional path by his parents, who were first-generation immigrants. As he began to deepen into the path of medicine and, as he’d describe, for the first time in his life, feel his fingers beginning to lose the ability to play, a chance encounter with someone who would become a momentary mentor would change everything. Setting him back on a path of music, where he’d build a luminous career for over a decade, rising to the top of his field.
But, it was yet another chance moment, one that found him face-to-face with the unhoused community in LA’s Skid Row, that would lead to yet another radical left turn, abandoning one of the most plum jobs in music and years of building a reputation and career, to not only be of service to a community but to also reclaim a part of himself he’d left behind, without even realizing it. And to find a place of not only self-acceptance, but also of solace, fellowship, and community, in a place he never realized he belonged.
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Vijay Gupta (00:00:00) – Because we do, I think, sometimes feel like we have to kill a part of ourselves in order to live in the world, that we somehow justify the fragmentation that our choices create within ourselves and say, okay, well, I’m only going to live this half life. I’m okay with living a life where I’m not fully integrated into who I am. I would be the recipient of incredible news coverage and awards and lifetime achievement things and honorary doctorates. And every single time these things came, I felt like more of a fraud because I felt like what was being congratulated was the veneer, the performance, the shinier I made myself, the more love I could attract to myself in the world. I would finally be lovable. And yet, here were folks in Skid Row who were saying, Dude, you’re okay, you’re okay. We’re all fucked up. We’re all here, right? Just be here, be here, be fully here. What would it be like to be fully here?
Jonathan Fields (00:01:05) – So how often have you changed? Maybe your decisions or done something you didn’t feel entirely called to do because you just felt the weight of other people’s expectations? Maybe it was overt, expressed.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:17) – Maybe they made their point of view, or maybe even their demands of you known. Or maybe you just felt it more as an undercurrent. And yet you let it control not only your decisions, but also your actions and at times even your possibilities and path in the world. We have all been there, and sometimes that very dynamic becomes even more complicated by our own inner chatter, fueled by a deep and real tension between maybe two paths that we found ourselves drawn to, or maybe away from making it nearly impossible to figure out which to travel down and which to abandon what to say yes to and what to say no to. Well, this was the experience of my guest today world renowned violinist, activist, 2018, MacArthur fellow and founder and artistic director of Street Symphony, Vijay Gupta, a violin prodigy who performed with the Israeli Phil under Zubin Mehta before the age of ten and landed a spot in the iconic LA Philharmonic at the age of 19. Vijay faced a choice early in life between the artistic fire of music that burned within him and a dual passion for science and medicine, which was also the more expected and accepted conventional path by his parents, who were first generation immigrants.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:37) – As he began to deepen into the more acceptable adult path of medicine and, as he described for the first time in his life, feel his fingers begin to lose the ability to play music, a chance encounter with someone who would become a bit of a momentary mentor would change everything, setting him back on a path of music where he would build a luminous career for over a decade, rising to the top of the field. But it was yet another chance moment, one that found him face to face with the unhoused community in LA’s Skid Row. That would lead to yet another radical turn abandoning one of the most plum jobs in music and years of building a reputation and career to not only be of service to a community, but to also reclaim a part of himself that he left behind without even realizing it, and to find a place of not only self acceptance, but also of solace, fellowship and community in a place he never realized he belonged. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.
Jonathan Fields (00:03:50) – In spending a bit of time sort of exploring not just what you’re doing now, but where you’ve come from. At one point I heard you describe your parents by saying I was raised by not one but two Bengal tigers as parents. So deconstruct that a bit for me.
Vijay Gupta (00:04:06) – My parents were immigrants from Bengal, from the city of Kolkata, and on one hand, their life looked like the typical American dream. My dad was a very charming travel agent. This kind of climbing this ladder out of working baggage claim at JFK, he kind of built his life up from the American dream. And my mother was, on the surface, this sort of soft spoken, demure bank teller. She was very dedicated to myself and my younger brother. But underneath there was this kind of undergirding of strength, and there was a kind of fierceness that took no prisoners. That fierceness has and had a rather possessive energy. There was something wild to it, and I feel that wildness in myself now when I play, but also in moments of anger, in moments of unfulfilled.
Vijay Gupta (00:05:11) – And I sort of track what that energy is and where it comes from. And as it is with so much of our stories, that origin is in the souls of my parents who were grappling with feelings of deep fulfillment. I think there were a lot of people telling them where they’re ladder out of displacement, where their ladder out of poverty or immigration would stop. And I think that they could accept that for themselves to a certain extent. But they were completely unwilling to accept anyone else’s definition of what their children could accomplish. And so their fierceness of knocking on the doors of America was manifested through the ways in which they supported and sacrificed and pushed for my brother and I to have every possible wild opportunity available to us in our lives. And oftentimes that came at the expense of our childhoods.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:16) – I’m fascinated often by the dynamic of first or second generation kids and families and a realization often that comes later in life of what their parents were really grappling when your parents are first generation here. Oftentimes when you are growing up under that generation, it can be really tough.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:35) – And I’ve had conversations with friends over the years who then reflected back on what their parents were actually going through enduring, surviving and having to reset psychologically and physically. And there was a profound sense of understanding and sometimes gratitude and forgiveness that just wasn’t there. As a kid, I’m wondering if you have had an opportunity to sort of reflect back now at what your parents were moving through in that season of life.
Vijay Gupta (00:07:00) – There certainly has been a lot of reflection, and I will say that forgiveness has become one of the central themes, not only to my spiritual and human work, but my creative work. Now to I know we’ll get into this conversation, but I work closely with people who are in recovery from addiction, whether that is alcoholism or drug addiction. But I also work with people who are reentering society from long bouts of incarceration, sometimes decades long. And one of the hardest things is self-forgiveness. And I wonder if it’s because self forgiveness is about choosing a different story. It’s about manifesting and creating a story that’s not rooted in our trauma alone.
Vijay Gupta (00:07:44) – And I wonder if the ego often is attracted to stories of trauma and pain, or rather taking the entirety of one’s identity defined by a trauma or a pain. And I think that that trauma and that pain is passed down generationally. I read a book called Hungry Bengal, which charted the incidences of famine in Bengal in every generation of my family, going back through British colonial occupation and famine not only has an impact on the body, it has an impact on the psyche. It’s the starvation of the moral spirit. It creates a fragmentation of society which is based on surviving and not thriving. And I sense that survivor mentality in my parents. And I sensed that survivor mentality in myself and one of the most profound. Axe forgiveness that I’ve had to practice in my life is to realize that I have the right to thrive, even if my parents didn’t. And what does that mean? That means not staying in bitterness. That means not taking my identity from the traumas that affected them. But often to them that looked like betrayal.
Vijay Gupta (00:09:10) – And grappling with that complexity is something that I’ve had to find the language for and find the nuance for. And so often I don’t have the words to forgive verbally or to forgive through the left hemisphere of my brain. But in creating music or poetry or metaphor or that right brain spiritual space, that’s where I feel like the literal space for forgiveness can emerge.
Jonathan Fields (00:09:40) – So powerful and I think so resonant with so many people. The notion of it really all coming from you in reflection and probably a little bit of just seasoning and getting a little bit further into life. And I love the metaphor of you sort of looking at what has become a central source of creativity, of artistry, of expression for you almost being a proxy for you to be able to offer back some form of this is how I feel now, but not directly in words, not sitting down face to face, having a conversation over a meal or something like that. So many people struggle with wanting to get something out, whether it’s a parent, whether it’s a friend who they become estranged from, whoever it may be in their past.
Jonathan Fields (00:10:28) – It’s just time. We’ve all been carrying this in our various ways, and it’s time that the weight be lifted, but we just don’t know how. So I love that you’ve shared that one of the modes for you is it’s music, which is quite beautiful also, because this is something that was in no small part, you know, the genesis of your parents saying, we’re going to actually center this in your life at the earliest of ages, like introducing you to the Suzuki method, which I think a lot of people are familiar with, which is very focused and very directed and and becomes eventually a central part of your identity, your profession, your creative expression. So it’s almost like they’ve they’ve helped give you the language to then speak back in a way that is confident and comfortable for you.
Vijay Gupta (00:11:15) – That feels very resonant. It feels very true. And one of the central tenets of the Suzuki method is one being nurtured by love. You know, Suzuki’s book that he wrote was called Nurtured by Love, and he insisted that parents practice with their children, especially in the beginning stages.
Vijay Gupta (00:11:35) – And his premise, which has now been proven by so many neuroscientific studies, is that children learn through immersion the way that they learn a complicated language. And his premise was if children can learn a language as complicated as Japanese by ear, why couldn’t they learn a language like music that way? And of course, the more time I’ve spent studying the Suzuki method, even in my adult years, I’m awestruck by the power of him choosing music in post-nuclear Japan, right to sort of rebuild not only youth and youth engagement, but to rebuild and give voice to that kind of unspoken devastation that everyone was experiencing, everyone was healing from as they were putting society back together. What is that place of cohesiveness, but also a place of mourning and grieving? Right. There is a role for that. One of my first Suzuki teachers was an incredible woman named Louise Behrendt, and she was one of the first women to teach the Suzuki method at the Juilliard School, and she insisted on teaching in the pre-college division, and she used to leap and dance while she taught the Suzuki method.
Vijay Gupta (00:12:55) – And I realized now that when I teach, she’s in me, she’s in my body. She was acerbic and demanding and she rarely complimented. But when she did, her face just lit up. You lived for her love, and she took us to Carnegie Hall when a group of us were six, seven, eight years old, the Suzuki kids would make it to Carnegie Hall before we were ten years old. And of course, my two Tiger parents thought this was this sort of terminus, right? This was the end of the road. You made it to Carnegie Hall, right? And my dad wanted to celebrate by taking us out for, you know, pastrami sandwich. Is a Carnegie deli bigger than our heads, you know? But Ms.. Behrend actually organized the next concert immediately and the next concert, the same program we played at Carnegie Hall. The very next concert took place at the. Rusk Institute for People for Young Children with Terminal Cancers at NYU. So the very same group that played at Carnegie Hall the next week was playing in a hospital ward.
Vijay Gupta (00:14:02) – And I’ll never forget playing for dying children my own age. And of course, at the time didn’t understand, like my little brother asked my parents in the car like, Why are the kids bawled? Like what happened? And my parents didn’t have an answer for that. And yet there was something electric in that room. There was something electric in the sense of connection that Miss Barron was instilling in us that music is not just a thing. Music is not just a commodity to exist on a stage. It’s not a product, it’s a conveyance, It’s a vessel. It’s a form of connection and communication. And I think that now, when I think back to what it feels like to be in a jail or a prison or a shelter, making music, I look for that sense of electric connection like a litmus. That’s when I know we’re on. And often I don’t feel that sense of connection in a beautiful concert hall. Or rather, I have to work harder sometimes to build that sense of connection and trust electricity in a hall than I do when that music is a human offering, the way it is in a state prison or in a county jail.
Jonathan Fields (00:15:19) – What do you think that’s about?
Vijay Gupta (00:15:21) – I think it’s about peeling back the veneer, the armor that we so often where the audience is in a jail or a shelter don’t care about my self-imposed metrics of perfection. As a classical musician, I’m always thinking in the sort of micrometer level, right? As a violinist, if my hand is just one millimeter, not even a millimeter less than a millimeter out of alignment, I’m out of tune. And my ears are so attuned to hearing when something’s wrong. So I’m constantly listening for errors. I’m looking at myself through that lens of what’s imperfect. And when I started going to Skid Row to make music, I went there with a number of my Philharmonic colleagues. I was a member of the LA Phil for 11 years. I joined the orchestra in 2007, and when I started going to Skid Row, it was from that lens of We’re going to give you this audience of people seeking shelter from the streets of Skid Row, a perfect musical product, and halfway through the first movement of a Beethoven string quartet, a woman in the front row raised her hand and it was like six inches from my face.
Vijay Gupta (00:16:41) – And all my colleagues and I recoiled because we hadn’t signed up for human contact. And then when we finished the movement, she stood up and she said, This is my music. What you’re playing is my story. What is this? What is this music? And in that moment, she completely redefined why we were there. She claimed that music for herself. And I have seen this happen time and time again over the last 11 years of making music almost weekly in Skid Row or in a shelter or a jail that people care about the human narrative. They care about the why more than they care about the what. And when I started looking at myself and my colleagues and the music I love through the lens of love, through the lens of purpose and why it changed the way I played, I was playing differently for people I loved. I was playing differently out of a place of love. And yet in the concert hall in this place, that should be the temple of where we offer music with love.
Vijay Gupta (00:17:48) – I was only seeing myself as a You didn’t quite get there. Oh, you missed that note. Ah, your sound wasn’t right. Oh, you’re not playing with rhythm. And then, of course, that lens of lack becomes the way that we look at everything else around us. And oftentimes I would look at my colleagues on stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall and wonder if people I was meeting in a Skid Row shelter were happier than they were.
Jonathan Fields (00:18:17) – I want to dive a little deeper into the work that you’ve been doing around this as well. But I also don’t want to miss an important milestone or touchstone, you know? You came up with a dual passion, not just for music, but for science and for medicine, both at a very young age and the fact that we’re having this conversation, the fact that you are out in the world still making music, not just still making music, but making music and making impact through the vehicle of music and gathering people around music almost potentially wasn’t going to be your path.
Jonathan Fields (00:18:50) – And you end up very early in college, graduating at an astonishingly young age by any measure, but with two different focuses one pre-med and bio and one music and doing resident or research. Then at Hunter and then Harvard. And it seems like an encounter that you had in Harvard with Gottfried. Slug was a pivotal moment because you could have gone down the medicine path, you could have gone down the music path and maybe treated them as bifurcated. But there’s this happening that it sounds like it was really profound for you.
Vijay Gupta (00:19:25) – When I was 17, I somehow landed an amazing internship at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine, and I was interning under a researcher named Dr. Dennis Silko, who was responsible for discovering the amyloid beta plaque, the plaque that builds up in the neurons of people who are experiencing Alzheimer’s disease. And I think Dr. Silko noticed in me he could sense some unfulfilled art. And he took me aside and took me to lunch. And he said, hey, you know, there’s some researchers here who are working on the impact of music in the brain.
Vijay Gupta (00:20:02) – Maybe you should meet them. And that’s how I was introduced to Gottfried Schwab, who was kind of working across the street at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And Dr. Schlossberg was a conservatory trained musician and organist. And then he came to the US and became one of the key researchers in studying the impact of music on the brain. And his studies focused around functional fMRI studies, where he was working with people who had had a severe injury to the left hemisphere of their brain, particularly in the Broca’s area or Wernicke’s area, which controls speech and speech function. And he found that his aphasic patients, whereas they couldn’t string along a cohesive sentence if a melody was applied to a string of words that they were trying to say, they could sing sentences. And so he started giving his patients 80 hour doses of singing lessons. And he did functional MRI scans throughout the entire process of these lessons. And he found that the brain had literally been rewired by the music that in the undamaged right hemisphere of the brain, a new speech center had formed.
Vijay Gupta (00:21:13) – And I was totally fascinated by this research. And I was curious about how neurons could form over an injury at the time. This was around 2001, 2002. It wasn’t yet fully understood that central nervous system neurons could regenerate. We do understand this now that the brain remains plastic throughout one’s lifespan, and yet at that time it was like you have a have an injury to your spinal cord and injury to your central nervous system in your brain, that’s permanent. It’s over. And Gottfried slugs research was starting to disprove that. And yet all it seemed like he wanted to talk to me about was how passionate I was about music. We had these conversations about counterpoint, about Brahms’s fourth Symphony, about Bach, about the cantatas, about this music that I had held as sacred soul food in my heart. And it was clear that he had held that too. And he just said to me very clearly, you know, science will wait for you. The kinds of questions that you’re asking. We don’t even have the technology yet to ask those questions, but the violin won’t wait for you.
Vijay Gupta (00:22:26) – Music won’t wait for you the same way. And I think he articulated something that had been a fear in me that I could actually sense in my body, in my fingers. I had practiced every day as a dedicated Suzuki kid since I was three and a half years old. And that was the first summer when I was 17, 16, 17 years old that I hadn’t been practicing and I could feel it in my fingers. I could feel, you know, there was like concrete settling into my hands. And I think he knew what that feeling was. And he encouraged me to take a leap. And at the time, that was one of those betrayals that my family was unwilling to tolerate, that my parents especially felt that I was wasting my time when I spent another two years studying music. The Yale School of Music. And that was also the beginning of me realizing that I was going to chart a different path for my life and for myself. Then my parents were then the narrative that they had written in their hearts.
Jonathan Fields (00:23:32) – So betrayal in was it that they had come here to give you a quote, better life? And being a musician was not what that meant.
Vijay Gupta (00:23:41) – They had that understanding before I did, and I think it came a lot from it stemmed from them spending time in the hallways at Juilliard, talking to people who had graduated with master’s degrees, who had won competitions, who were getting their doctorates in music and yet didn’t have jobs in front of them. Meanwhile, I was in those classrooms, totally immersed in Bach and Bronze and Beethoven and Mendelssohn and Schubert and Schumann. Loving the music, but not yet old enough, you know, still naive and starry eyed that this music was going to carry me forward. And there was also a myth that certain people in the classical music industry were perpetuating, which was Keep your head down, play your excerpts, win the competitions, and the system will save you. You’ll have a job at the other end. And I think my parents saw that that just simply wasn’t the case.
Vijay Gupta (00:24:41) – And yet for me, in my understanding now, and perhaps even at that time, I realized that my parents, like so many immigrant parents, had leapt into the void. Their whole life was about leaving a place of security, a place of home. They had left everything that had nurtured them. And for me, I realized now the most honoring act that I and so many people in my second generation have practiced towards our parents is to replicate their leap into the void. And for me, that manifests as being an artist, right? That manifests as having to create relationships through trust, through faith, through people the same way that they had to create those relationships through trust and people and relationships which nurtured them. My dad was a travel agent. That’s a very, very charming guy who spoke multiple languages and his job was to beg, borrow, steal, lie, do all of his things that he could in order to secure the best possible price for a bunch of tickets at the last minute for someone to fly from JFK to New Delhi or to Calcutta because they had to get back home, probably for the last rites or the last moments of a grandfather or an elder or a grandparent who was passing away.
Vijay Gupta (00:26:19) – And the Hindu tradition that I was raised in. The oldest son has to be at the bedside of the dying parrot. And I think my dad found purpose in making sure that even though he wasn’t connected with his home any longer, even if he wasn’t connected with his home any longer, that he wanted to create ways for his brethren to be as connected to home with as few barriers as possible. I kind of think of him now like the boatman on the River Styx, you know, Chara, and he’s someone who was ferrying people back home to the motherland. My dad passed away in 2017 and we had been estranged for several years before he died. I didn’t speak with him before. He passed away for about five years, and that was continues to be one of the most painful things in my life. And after he died, I was furious. I was so angry. I felt like he had abandoned me. I felt like I had abandoned him. And one day I was looking at my desk and I look at my desk now and my desk is covered in Post-it notes and sticky notes and whiteboards and notebooks.
Vijay Gupta (00:27:27) – And I have my dad’s handwriting. And there was one day I looked down at my desk and I just started weeping because I learned how to connect with people the way that he connected with people. He spoke multiple languages, and I realized now I speak multiple languages. I’m going to go to Skid Row today and I’m going to speak social worker. I’m going to speak to someone who’s been incarcerated for 30 years. I’m going to speak Baroque violin with a musician who’s coming down from the Colburn School to play with me. I’m going to speak jazz charts with six men who have spent the last 12 weeks playing the guitar while living at the Midnight Mission. I’m going to get on the phone and talk Thunder as I fundraise for Street Symphony. My role in my life now is to be that connecting force the same way that my dad was, that connecting force. And when I think about honoring my parents and the sacrifices they made, I think about the kind of life that I get to have now. And it brings tears to my eyes now to think about the fact that I’m just continuing to live the life through which they lived.
Vijay Gupta (00:28:41) – You know, the seeds that they planted in me are now becoming fruits that other people can be nourished through.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:48) – Going back to that moment, that conversation, which leg? Here’s somebody who made the opposite choice, who is saying to you, think about this. I mean, think about this. Like the choice that I made will be available to you down the road. But this other path, as you described, you felt the concrete forming in your fingers every passing month, every passing year, that becomes harder and harder, if not eventually impossible to reclaim, especially at the level that you were doing it. So you step back into that, and I can’t even imagine that moment because this is a moment that I think changes a lot of people’s lives when you’re making a really profound choice between it’s a hard choice because it’s not like one thing you don’t like or one thing you do or like one better than the other. It’s like I have profound passion for these two different things. How do I choose? I think so many people struggle in this moment, and then often, once they’re down the path of whatever choice they made, there’s regret.
Jonathan Fields (00:29:50) – And you’re down this path and we’ll circle around this. But in a lot of ways, I think you’ve actually found a way to bring it all back together, but in a different way, you know, so you do step back into music as sort of the full time pursuit as you described with the LA Phil for 11 or so years and have been touring and really immersive. But there was another moment which sounds like it was a really powerful inciting and said maybe not a moment, but sort of a season that brought you from the halls of classical music where most people expect to experience it to the street. And part of that was the story of Nathaniel Ayres. Take Me there.
Vijay Gupta (00:30:34) – I joined the Philharmonic in 2007, and it was around that time that the LA Times columnist Steve Lopez was writing a series of articles which later became a book which later became a movie called The Soloist, about a Julliard trained musician who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in the 1970s and was treated with shock therapy and Thorazine and handcuffs at Bellevue Hospital.
Vijay Gupta (00:31:04) – And Nathaniel ended up grounding his way across the United States, eventually living in downtown Los Angeles alongside, you know, upwards of 10,000 people like him who were afflicted by severe mental health issues and poverty. And Nathaniel became part of the Skid Row community in downtown Los Angeles. And when I first joined the orchestra, my dad was teaching me how to drive in downtown LA, and I made a couple of wrong turns and he got pretty irritated with me. And then we were on Skid Row and there was this feeling in me of immediate recognition. And what I mean by recognition is literally that etymology, the root of a re knowing of oneself, that this was a moment of fracture. This was a moment where I was looking across that shore of regret and wondering if I had made the wrong choice, that perhaps what the world needed was a doctor. Maybe my parents were right. I thought I had proven them wrong by winning a job in the LA Phil, which was one of the highest paying orchestra jobs.
Vijay Gupta (00:32:22) – It’s like the NBA of the American orchestral world. But I don’t think I had proven myself right yet. And Nathaniel was part of a series of experiences I had that introduced me to the Skid Row community. There’s a West African mystic named Sumit who writes about people who have what we call schizophrenia in the West. But in the West African traditions, they talk about these people becoming shamans because they have a thinner veil with what we call the other side. And Nathaniel was immersed alongside this world of Schumann and Schubert and Beethoven. He knew every catalog number, the opus numbers of Beethoven symphonies. And I felt, again, that sense of recognition here was one of my people. I could talk to him through music. And yet he talked about Schubert as. If Schubert was there in the room with him in Skid Row. And as I started to meet and eventually collaborate with and play with Nathaniel all over LA, whether it was on the streets in front of all the city concert hall or on the streets of Skid Row in the place where he was living at the time, right outside people living in tents or under tarps.
Vijay Gupta (00:33:40) – It became clear to me that the concert hall wasn’t the only place where Schubert lived, that Schubert and Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms could also perhaps live in Skid Row. And I started cold calling shelters and clinics. In my second or third year in the LA, Phil and I started convincing my colleagues who had kind of adopted me in the orchestra to come with me, to come with me to Skid Row. And I had no money to pay them. I didn’t have anything to offer them. I just knew that musicians wouldn’t say no if you could feed them, and I would kind of bribe my colleagues with pastrami sandwich is in beer and say, Hey, let’s go down and play a Beethoven quartet in the Skid Row shelter. And afterwards we’ll hang. And they said, No, no, we’re there. We’re there with you. We’re there for the reason that you want to be there. We want to make music in this place, too. So Nathaniel was my guide to making music in Skid Row, and that was the beginning of a project that I started almost 13 years ago, which is now a nonprofit organization called Street Symphony.
Jonathan Fields (00:34:49) – You describe that early introduction to Skid Row as you use the word recognition? I want to know more about that feeling.
Vijay Gupta (00:34:58) – On one hand, there was a gut punch of shame and guilt. Who was I to be? Another person sitting on this gorgeous, pale wooden stage in Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall or on stage at the Hollywood Bowl in front of 18,000 people? When I had had a legitimate passion and love for science, for medicine, and beyond that, I had also been taught as someone who grew up as a devout Hindu, that worship wasn’t something that happened on an altar alone, but that the highest form of worship was to serve Shiva incarnated in human beings, regardless of who they were. So I felt like a hypocrite. On one hand. But years later, into making music and Skid Row after I had become estranged from my family. I was talking to a therapist who said, Well, it makes sense that you feel drawn to make music and Skid Row or a prison because it reminds you a little bit of where you grew up.
Vijay Gupta (00:36:09) – I grew up in a very chaotic and oftentimes turbulent household where the arguments, even if they were about me and my brother and finding ways to support our lives, left all of us battered and bruised emotionally and physically and spiritually. And so I think that the recognition of Skid Row was almost a recognition of the kind of chaos that I had been familiar with as a child. And it felt natural to make music while people were screaming at each other. It felt natural to make music while the alarm bells were going off. And somehow there was this prayer that I continue to enact when I go into a prison or a shelter. A hope that if I play beautifully enough that the yelling will stop, that perhaps if I play beautifully enough, I’ll be asked to put the violin down and come have a meal. Because food in my home was the place of unconditional love. But it was also the seeds of food addiction for me. It took me many years of making music in Skid Row to realize that I was addicted to that pattern of not acknowledging my truth, of pushing myself beyond my limits, and then rewarding myself with unconditional love in the form of food.
Vijay Gupta (00:37:37) – And there was a turning point in making music in Skid Row where people at the Midnight Mission who were in recovery from alcoholism or addiction pulled me aside and said, Hey, man, keep showing up, keep walking the steps with us because we’re all in recovery from something. And it was these wise sages who had walked the steps their entire lives, who saw that I was in the throes of my own addiction as well. And they could see past me trying to be, quote, good person, end quote, and realized that I had my wounds and my shit and my baggage that I was carrying myself and that skid Row was a crucible, a human crucible where I could walk my own steps, too.
Jonathan Fields (00:38:23) – I was so powerful in so many levels, not the least of which the fact that this was your place as well. You weren’t an outsider dropping in. You are an insider. But it took a lot to open to that. And then, of course, the question is, what do you do with that?
Vijay Gupta (00:38:39) – We talked a little bit earlier about regret, and it made me think about the root of the word decide.
Vijay Gupta (00:38:47) – I’m an etymology nut. I love looking at looking up the origins of words. And it’s so chilling to realize that the root of the word decide or decision is related. To kill the side and decide is the same as homicide, suicide, the side, the kill. What are we killing? And I wonder if that’s often too severe a word of grappling with the nuances that life offers us. Because we do, I think, sometimes feel like we have to kill a part of ourselves in order to live in the world, that we somehow justify the fragmentation that our choices create within ourselves and say, okay, well, I’m only going to live this half life. I’m okay with living a life where I’m not fully integrated into who I am. So often pain is something that we push away, and I’ve come to realize that. This has systemic repercussions on our society. We ostracize and criminalize people who represent pain to us, whether they’re in the form of people we call marginalized or vulnerable, someone who we see pushing a shopping cart on the street and talking to themselves.
Vijay Gupta (00:40:11) – We say that’s the problem. We stigmatize them for the pain they represent to us. And yet I feel that we do this because we haven’t found ways to connect the fragmented parts of ourselves which are in pain. Right. This is kind of dis inheritance of ourselves that we continue to live with. And what my mentors, my people, my my friends in Skid Row were teaching me was the practice of reintegration, the practice of making oneself whole again by not having to succumb to the numbing behavior of assuaging myself through the substance. The substance for me was inhaling a Papa John’s pizza or pulling up at a fast food drive through after playing a Bruckner Symphony on stage at Disney Hall while my shoulders ached and my back burned because I was grappling with an overplaying injury, the numbing behavior was just a symptom. As the trauma specialist, Gabor Marty says, that the addictions just the symptom, the deeper behavior is what needs to be addressed. I was living a fragmented life, and people in Skid Row could see that I was living a fragmented life.
Vijay Gupta (00:41:40) – Whereas people at Walt Disney Concert Hall and people in the world, the people for whom I was performing, would shower me with accolades, right? I would be the recipient of incredible news coverage and awards and lifetime achievement things and honorary doctorates. And every single time these things came, I felt like more of a fraud because I felt like what was being congratulated was the veneer, the performance, the shinier I made myself, the more love I could attract to myself in the world. I would finally be lovable. And yet here were folks in Skid Row who were saying, Dude, you’re okay, you’re okay. We’re all fucked up. We’re all here, right? Just be here, be here, be fully here. What would it be like to be fully here? And that opened the doors for me to make a decision that I wish I had been brave enough to make earlier, which was to leave the world of the shiny veneer. I resigned from that NBA all star position at the LA Philharmonic and live in the shipwreck of that decision for several years.
Vijay Gupta (00:42:56) – And I think now, to a certain extent, continue to live through that decision.
Jonathan Fields (00:43:01) – Yeah, except, you know, been living in the shipwreck of it, just sort of you had the resources and the accolades and the ability to sort of keep painting over the bones that were were slowly just crumbling underneath the veneer and the paint. It occurs also, this was a place where maybe the only place for that season of your life where you could show up and just be you and where the fragmentation got to drop away. I think so many people can live or can identify with living some level of fragmentation. And yet if part of that gives you access to money, to status, to wealth, to power, to accolades, we often choose fragmentation plus status rather than wholeness and uncertainty and never know whether that second option would actually deliver us into a place of so much more grace, because we’re just not willing to risk it the way that you basically have said yes to the theologian.
Vijay Gupta (00:44:04) – Parker Palmer writes in his book, A Hidden Wholeness.
Vijay Gupta (00:44:09) – That wholeness is about creating access to that space within us where our soul not only comes alive, but it comes alive in these moments of grace, amazing grace that transforms us, leaves an indelible impact. And I think we know we know somewhere that once we experience that kind of grace, we can’t go back. And the grace that was demonstrated to me in people who had walked through the fire of some of the worst. Things that humanity had to offer, and they didn’t often emerge unscathed. There were people, dear friends of mine, who were some of my greatest teachers who died from relapses, who overdosed after they had imparted these tremendous gifts to me. And it became a sort of totem for me in my life to realize that if I wanted to honor this person, that I could still live out the lessons. I could still live out the grace that was the gift that they had given me, and that was a gift I never expected to receive when I walked in there. And perhaps I had showed up to Skid Row in an act that was informed by ego.
Vijay Gupta (00:45:36) – I think sometimes I’m very aware of that fact that the difference between charity and engagement is a profound charity allows us often to live in fragmentation. It’s a wonderful place to start. It’s a wonderful thing to feel. And yet it allows us to say, I’m done. But a relationship engagement never really allows us to say we’re done right. We can never say we’re done loving or we’re done learning or that we’re done practicing. And so I feel like, what Street Symphony and being in Skid Row allowed me to practice was developing the skill of accessing that place of wholeness, that feeling of wholeness. Often when we live fragmented lives, considering wholeness feels like we’re somehow going to be reduced, that the level will come down somehow, that we’re letting ourselves off the hook. And yet what I found, especially what I made music in Skid Row when there were no stakes, when there were no judges, when there was no microphone recording me, no Grammy committee, I played better to music, sang there. And as a musician, I knew how to listen.
Vijay Gupta (00:46:54) – I knew how to understand that feeling. And when I leaned into that place of wholeness, that place of wholeness became profoundly healing for me, even to the very nature of how I played when I was playing in Skid Row. I would play softer. I’d play more gently. I wasn’t performing. I’d feel open to start improvising. And eventually I started reaching out to musicians from other cultures where improvisation is the core of how they play. Musicians from West African drumming traditions or from the tradition or from my own bass tradition of Hindustani classical music, where improvisation is rooted in trust and relationship. And when I started playing that way, it felt as if that burning, holding clenching gut knot could finally release. And I could trust my own voice because there was finally space for it.
Jonathan Fields (00:47:49) – It’s like the alchemy of a performance into an offering.
Vijay Gupta (00:47:54) – That’s it.
Jonathan Fields (00:47:54) – It becomes an invitation. And the freedom you described there, it’s like all of a sudden it’s not about this. I need to strive for the most perfect performance ever.
Jonathan Fields (00:48:05) – It’s more like just I just need to be here and I need to let go.
Vijay Gupta (00:48:09) – Coach John Wooden says, you know, give it away to get it back. It’s the kind of thing where when we show up to make the selfless offering, the gift of that offering comes back to us so many hundred fold. You know, it comes back to us in a way which allows us to cultivate a new source of self-regard. I know who I am when I’m in love and I know who I am when that love is reflected back to me. So it becomes a question of which mirrors do we choose? I don’t know if we have control over the path that our life takes, but perhaps we do have a path. We do have a sense of a choice when it comes to the people that we surround ourselves with. And making a practice of finding those mirrors in the world is a deeply collaborative and deeply sacred practice to me. Now.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:04) – Early in life, when you made that choice between medicine and music, I know one of your aspirations, if you had chosen the medicine side, was not to be a famous neurosurgeon working at a fancy hospital or a plastic surgeon making huge amounts of money.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:19) – But to effectively be a Red cross, to be a doctor without border, to be out there in the world driven by profound service and making an impact, often with people and populations that were largely ignored and under-resourced. And that was the aspiration. Had you chosen that path? Years down the road, now you chose music. But the underlying ethos that spoke to you earlier on the side of medicine. It sounds like it’s really found its way back into the way that you offer music as well now.
Vijay Gupta (00:49:55) – I would say that’s true. It feels like it is important to me. It’s very important to me that music is both a generative force and a generous force. And the generative quality of making music allows for this sense of transcendence to happen for all of us in the room. We’re able to cross over into something that’s both deeply communal and deeply individual. Later on today, I’m going to the Midnight Mission, which is a 12 step recovery shelter in Skid Row, and it’s been the site of Street Symphony work in Skid Row for the last 11 years.
Vijay Gupta (00:50:38) – But today I’m going as a participant. I’m not going as the boss. I’m not going as the maestro. God forbid I’m going to go jam with a handful of guys, live at the mission who are getting clean and who have been part of a of a 12 week guitar workshop where they’re writing their own songs. And part of the work now that I find myself really enjoying is to step back and let the flywheel do its work. One of the things I was taught, it’s a tenant in the sun jarocho tradition and so on, which is kind of like the classical form of mariachi music. It’s a form rooted in the port of Vera Cruz in Mexico, with influences from Spanish poetry, Portuguese instruments, Afro-Caribbean rhythms and indigenous cultures, all of these things mixed in Baroque era Mexico. And yet in this tradition, improvisation and storytelling and advocacy and activism are all integrated. They’re all whole. And one of the things I learned from this tradition was this concept of compromiso. And what that means is literally come with Promesa a promise, right? An artist makes a promise that would actually go further to say a citizen makes a promise to their world in an act of belonging to that world that we balance, showing up in that generous and generative space with a deep, I would say, spiritual practice.
Vijay Gupta (00:52:19) – Right? That becomes a kind of what we would call in Sanskrit sadhana, a daily practice that the balance of that individual practice and the communal generative generosity is what creates that positive feedback loop of practice and showing up practice and showing up again. There’s a sense of fragmentation that happens in the world where either we choose the individual practice or we choose the community. And I think that that dialectic is a myth. I think we can choose both. I think we have to choose both in order to live a full life. But it’s to acknowledge the cycle, the cycles of cycles that happen when we balance individual practice with communal giving.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:10) – You mentioned the word sadhana and the language Sanskrit. I believe it’s the oldest recorded language or one of them. You have the length of both forearms tattoos, which are Sanskrit. Can you share what those translate to?
Vijay Gupta (00:53:26) – The text says Poor, poor, poor, not poor, poor nation, poor Ahmadiyya, poor society. And this is the opening incantation mantra of the Isha Upanishad, which is one of the shortest, I think the shortest Upanishad.
Vijay Gupta (00:53:48) – But if there is one text that contains the entirety of what I deem Hindu spiritual practice, it is that text that you should and the text that’s tattooed on my arms, you’ll hear this word over and over again. Burnham Burnett Poorna means whole, complete, fulfilled, perfect. And what it says is if you take something that’s whole or complete or perfect away from something else that is whole, complete or perfect, what remains is still whole, complete and perfect. Right in this ancient riddle is, I think, embedded the entire philosophy of fractals, right? That the integrity of the smallest atom is reflected in the macrocosm, the wholeness of the entirety of existence. Right. And I think that there’s also a call to action in that mantra, which is to be whole now be. Here now, right? That this is the moment we’ve got. This is the moment in which we can practice. And if and when we do that, we enter into a sense of oneness with that which is permanent and eternal and constantly hold because we were never separated from it.
Vijay Gupta (00:55:16) – We will never be separated from it. It is the entirety of our inheritance.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:21) – Beautiful. It feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Vijay Gupta (00:55:33) – What comes up for me is conversations like this. There’s so much power in being able to share one’s story, and there’s so much power in feeling the gratitude of when that story is received. And I think when we tell our stories, it allows us to also step back a bit and Renault recognize ourselves. Thank you for being a mirror in this conversation.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:59) – Jonathan Thank you. Hey, if you love this conversation, safe bet you will also love the recent conversation we had with Seth Godin about reclaiming significance, especially in the context of the work we do in the world. You’ll find a link to that conversation in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow good live project in your favorite listening app.
Jonathan Fields (00:56:22) – And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor? A seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action. That’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.