We’ll dive into conversations that ignite the courage to break free from the known and comfortable, to live fully, love unconditionally, and leap into life’s great adventure.
And, to guide us, today, are three luminaries who have walked boldly off the beaten path: Pico Iyer, whose books on travel, culture, and inner exploration beckon us on a journey to presence; Karen Walrond, who inspires us to stay curious, creative, and embrace the changes that comes with aging; and violin virtuoso Vijay Gupta, who left the prestige of world-class concert halls to bring music and human connection to Skid Row and incarcerated communities.
Their stories illuminate pathways to live with integrity, purpose, generosity, and joy. To journey courageously inward, integrating our fragmented parts into wholeness. To build community and understand our shared struggles. And to share vulnerably the narratives that connect us all in our longing to live meaningfully. To flourish, connect and contribute your gifts. This is an invitation to blossom fully into who you’re becoming, without apology or hesitation.
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photo credit: Kat Bawden
Karen Walrond: [00:00:00] The idea of doing something for something bigger than yourself. That might be the secret sauce, honestly, right? That might be the secret sauce to living. Well, that may be the secret sauce to happiness. That might be the secret sauce to aging. Well, right? Is sort of figuring out a couple of things. One, what are the things that really sort of stir a passion in me? And that passion could be anger. Like, what are the causes that make me think it’s not right, that things aren’t this way, or it’s so great when things are this way? Right? Either one of those, and how can I be a part of that? And coupling that with what am I really good at? What do people thank me for? And how can I use that thing in service of that? Cause man, that is the secret sauce. That to me is the way you live well and aging is living. That is the way you age well is really sort of tapping into how can I help make the world the kind of world that I want to live in and that I want people coming up behind me, want to live in what is my small part. And that’s a really, really big part of it for sure.
Jonathan Fields: [00:01:00] Hey, so as we celebrate another year of deeply inspiring insights and personal stories here on Good Life Project., we’re once again reflecting on what it means to live fully, authentically, and meaningfully. And we wanted to revisit some powerfully poignant moments from a handful of conversations on living meaningfully that really moved me over the course of this year. My guest today shared profound wisdom on presence, curiosity, self-acceptance, integration, community, and the power of our stories. We’ll dive into conversations that ignite the courage to break free from the known and comfortable, to live fully, to love unconditionally and leap into life’s great adventure. And to guide us today are three luminaries who have walked pretty boldly off the beaten path Pico Iyer, whose books on culture, travel and inner exploration really beckon us on a journey to presence. Karen Walrond, who inspires us to stay curious, creative and embrace the changes that come with aging, and violin virtuoso Vijay Gupta, who left the prestige of a world-class concert hall to bring music and human connection to Skid Row incarcerated communities and others. Their stories really illuminate pathways to live with integrity and purpose, generosity and joy to journey courageously inward, integrating our fragmented parts into an experience of wholeness, to build community and understand our shared struggles, and to share vulnerably the narratives that connect us in all of our longing to live meaningfully, to flourish, to connect and contribute your gifts. This is an invitation to blossom fully into who you’re becoming without apology or hesitation. So excited to share these moments with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.
Jonathan Fields: [00:02:50] So our first guest today, Pico Iyer, reveals a path to presence and meaning, however tangled your journey may be. Pico is the acclaimed author of 15 books translated into over 20 languages, including his latest, The Half Known Life in Search of Paradise. His literary journeys invite us to really dwell deeply in each moment, to embrace life’s paradoxes and find tranquility and adventure on the open road. Pico divides his time between Japan and a Benedictine hermitage in California. Here’s Pico. I was trying to recall my first exposure to your work, and it was in a bit of a funny way. I stumbled upon years ago, the open road at a garage sale somewhere in the northeast thought it looked like an interesting book, picked it up, quickly, realized that it was a library book that had very likely never been returned to a library in Las Vegas, and there was something that just felt appropriate about that to me as I dove into sort of like this journey with you and the 14th Dalai Lama and your explorations with him. Um, but I was just immediately drawn in, by the way, that you tell stories, which it’s not as if you’re saying, sit down and listen to me as if you’re inviting people to just walk beside you. And I wonder, having read more of you over the years, if that is an intentional experience that you cultivate in your writing?
Pico Iyer: [00:04:15] Well, thank you. I mean, that’s such a lovely distinction. And as you say, to think of the Dalai Lama story being read in Las Vegas, I can’t think of a better setting. That’s exactly the ideal audience. Um, I think consciously I’m always traveling or writing as an everyman, just a typical bewildered, bungling tourist. And to that extent, yes, indeed, walking, um, by my side, insofar as I have no wisdom to impart, I don’t know more than the reader I’m hoping to know about as much as the reader. And of course, when you talk about walking side by side, that was my notion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, too, which is why I call that book The Open Road that he’s not on high delivering one truth. He’s walking along the road with us, past its turns, seeing the mountains in the distance, never knowing what’s coming next, but a kind and companionable, uh, friend by our side. So maybe that’s what I would aspire to be.
Jonathan Fields: [00:05:11] Yeah, I think you convey that really as you described. Not speaking up. Not speaking down, not even. It really just sort of like sharing as you go. It’s almost like you’re narrating real-time exploration, which is just incredibly inviting. Um, the Dalai Lama, I know he has been a presence in your life, I guess, since your late teens ish. Um, when you went to Dharamsala with your dad, curious what the context was when you first with your father went over there for this initial meeting?
Pico Iyer: [00:05:40] Yes. Well, my father was a professional philosopher, and he was interested in really all the great religious traditions of the world. So he knew much more about Buddhism than a typical person in England where we were living might. And I never forget, as a little boy, uh, when I was two years old, we had this little radio, an outward crackle every night, the report of this young God-King fleeing over the highest mountains on earth, being pursued by circling planes. So even I, as a little kid was transfixed. And as soon as the Dalai Lama arrived in exile in India, my father sailed all the way back to India from England to engage him in conversation. And the Dalai Lama, out in the world for the first time, really had an open-door policy. He was very excited to talk to anyone. And so my father established that connection in 1960, as soon as the world could really speak to the Dalai Lama. Actually, at that point, when he first met His Holiness, at the end of the conversation, he said to the Dalai Lama, oh, you know, I’ve got this little three-year-old kid back in England who really took an interest in your flight and plight. And the Dalai Lama, with his gift for making connection with everybody, found a photograph of himself when he was four years old, already on the Lion Throne in Lhasa, already spiritual leader of 14 million people and political leader soon of 6 million, and sent it to me.
Pico Iyer: [00:07:03] So from the age of three, I had this little photograph of the Dalai Lama as a four-year-old on my desk. And I remember now, every now and then when I was, uh, feeling sorry for myself. You know, the world is difficult for a little boy. I only had to look at this picture of a little boy who was ruling 6 million people. And I was freed of my concerns. And the interesting thing, too, is. So that photograph accompanied me when my parents moved to California, and it was on my desk for almost 30 years. And then one day I went upstairs and our house was encircled by 70-foot flames, and our house and everything in it except for me was wiped out, which reminded me I couldn’t really hold on to the photo. But if I held on to the values for which it spoke and the the hopes that it represented that could be within me as long as I live. So I really had that connection with the Dalai Lama since I was very small boy.
Jonathan Fields: [00:07:55] It’s incredible to carry that with you. And it wasn’t just this connection of, you know, having carried the image with you. This was an enduring friendship that developed over a period of years and then eventually decades. And you spent quite a significant amount of time traveling with him as well. And I guess part of my curiosity is, and maybe it was due to the timing, it was very early in sort of like when people were trying to say like, I would love to have an audience, but so many people have wanted and been given the audience. And yet I would imagine the number of people where that has turned into this lifelong friendship is rare, is few. And for you, I’m curious, having not only carried that relationship with you, but now having spent decades traveling the world, going to all these different places, when you step into these different places, do you feel like the conversations that you’ve had with him, the experience through being a friend for so long, informs the way that you step into other worlds when you’re sort of like traveling around this planet?
Pico Iyer: [00:08:57] I really hope so. And of course, it’s impossible to be with the Dalai Lama without learning from him, and I think I’ve learned as much from his presence and the way he carries himself through the world as from his conversation, because, of course, his words are widely available to everybody, and anyone in any corner of the globe can learn from them. But I think it’s just going down every morning with him in the elevator at 830 in a hotel. And as we arrive in the lobby, the word has got around that the Dalai Lama is there. And so lots of people clamor around him, wanting his blessing or his guidance or an autograph, and just the way he gives himself absolutely to every last small child who comes to him and over the course of the next eight hours, never spends any time alone. I think his notion is he’s here to give himself to people for as long as his energy holds out. And I think that in itself is a great instruction about attentiveness and just the generosity of offering your ear to somebody. Because he’s always traveling. I feel as a student as much as as a teacher, and he’s always traveling to listen rather than to lecture. So it’s humbling to see that, and I hope some of it is has seeped into me because, as you say, I’ve been lucky enough to travel with him across Japan ten times by his side every minute of the day.
Pico Iyer: [00:10:17] So I remember every time when I walk into his hotel room at 830 in the morning, he has a telescope pointed out the window. And that’s such a lovely way. When you mentioned travel, to remind myself, everywhere I go, I have a different angle on the heavens and maybe one I’m never going to have again. This is a unique perspective. Every time you’re in a new place, why squander it? And of course, he’s the first Dalai Lama in all of history who’s had the chance to travel the world. And I think he’s really treated that as a great opportunity to learn from every tradition and every person. And it’s interesting what you said about so many people seeking or longing for an audience with him. And I think that’s the reason I wrote my book. I thought, I’ve been lucky enough to spend all this time. I want to share it. Sorry, I was just thinking with excitement because you’re sitting in Boulder as we speak, and I’ve been with His Holiness in Colorado, and I think it’s one of the most exciting places on the planet for him, because I remember as he got out of the plane in Aspen, he looked around him and he said, I’m home. This is exactly what Tibet looks like. Which, of course, is why so many Tibetan communities have set up around Colorado.
Jonathan Fields: [00:11:24] So and it also brings up a curiosity around the notion of home, your childhood home. When the family moved to California, I believe it was in the early 90s or so was the home was consumed by wildfire, um, and including things that were, like deeply meaningful to you. But from everything that I’ve written, from just the nuggets that you’ve shared in this conversation, while I can certainly understand, the loss must have hurt. And you know, there’s a grief process that goes on, it feels like from the outside looking in that your sense of home was broader than a domain, a dwelling, a, you know, like a a pin in a map with coordinates, that there’s something that is more internal when you, um, explore the notion of home.
Pico Iyer: [00:12:14] Yes. I mean, I’d always grown up with that sense because, uh, from the age of seven, I was a little boy with an Indian face, Indian parents and English voice and English birthplace and American residence. And so I didn’t fully belong to any of those cultures, though I was a part of each of them. And so if somebody had said, where’s your home? Like more and more people nowadays, I’d have had to give a very long, complicated answer involving myriad locations. So I’d always had that intimation that that home was what I carried inside me. But as you say, the morning after, um, our house burned down, I was really reminded. That home isn’t where you live. It’s what lives inside you. Because I lost every possession in the world. But I still had my mother. I still had the woman who would be my wife. I still had this Van Morrison song that was going through my head. I still had my favorite books. I still had my values and some of my hopes, too. Uh, so the fire only took away things that weren’t weren’t all important. And I still had so much. And it’s interesting because in those days, my job was to write essays for time magazine. And so I was stuck in the middle of the fire for three hours. But when finally a fire truck got to me and said I could escape, I went down and I bought a toothbrush.
Pico Iyer: [00:13:28] And then I went to sleep on the floor of a friend’s house. But before I went to sleep, I thought, I will file an article to TIME magazine. I’ve just had this eyewitness view front seat view on the worst fire in California in history. And so, three hours after losing everything in the world, I wrote this article and I ended it with a poem I’d picked up in Japan from the 17th century, in which the poet writes, my house burnt down. I can now see better the rising moon. In other words, I now know what I really value, what do I care about? And so the very evening that I lost everything, something in me wiser than I am probably intuited. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This can sharpen your priorities. And in the following months, I found that in so many ways that fire opened doors as well as closing doors, because I didn’t have any notes anymore. But I still wanted to write. I had to write from memory and imagination from my heart, which is much deeper than writing from notes. When it came to replacing all my possessions, I realized I didn’t need 90% of my clothes and books and keepsakes. And it also reminded me, well, deep down, my home feels invisibly like Japan, so maybe I should spend more time there.
Pico Iyer: [00:14:41] And now I spend nearly all my time here in Japan. So I thought a lot about that fire during the pandemic, because I think all of us knew that it was making so much that we care about impossible, but I think it was making a few other things possible. And I think so many people, as the pandemic begins to ease, found that it moved them to think differently and therefore to live differently, and most of all, to remember what they care about. Which when we were racing around many of us in 2019, if you said, what are the three most important things in your life, I might not have been able to answer? So that’s one reason I go to my desk every day, and it’s one reason I go on retreat every three months. But the pandemic forced all of us into retreat, and suddenly we thought, this is what I really cherish, you know, my loved ones or this particular pursuit or practice I have. Um, and the fire had the same effect, I would say. And so it cured me of that. You know, I think when I was a boy, I had a sense that, you know, suddenly some money comes through the mail. That’s a great thing. Your house burns down. That’s a terrible thing. But life is rarely as simple as that.
Jonathan Fields: [00:15:44] I think it’s so powerful, you know, as you’re describing the pandemic and relating it to the experience of losing a house in a wildfire, my mind is immediately going to the fact that two years ago, I was living in Manhattan when New York City was literally on fire from a health and wellbeing standpoint. We exited the city, came to Boulder, Colorado, and when we touched down within a matter of weeks, some of the largest wildfires in the history of this state came. Um, and I was introduced to a word that I had never heard before, or, I guess, two words, which is go bag. And the notion that, you know, when you’re living in a place like this, as much beauty and grace and just expansiveness is all around you, it is also surrounded by perpetual danger, like there is a Damocles sword constantly hanging over the entire, you know, state. And it was suggested when the evacuation zone was coming closer and closer, um, with one of these that we pack a go bag. And what it did was it made me sit down with my wife and say, what goes into that? What do we care enough about? So that if, God forbid, we get the alert on our phones saying, grab your bag, get in the car and drive east, what goes into that bag? And it was a powerful exercise, just thinking and also realizing, especially after we had kind of started to think about that in our decision to step away from New York City after so long, then revisiting again in this context of saying, distill it down to literally a duffel bag, what we realized was exactly what you were saying, which is I don’t even think I would fill it, to be honest with you, which was a really I mean, it was it was a very liberating realization, as scary as the circumstance that led me to think about it, the thinking and then realizing that it’s not all the things that I really care about, you know, it’s the beings and the experiences. And it wasn’t just a thought experiment going through that actually, like, lived experience.
Pico Iyer: [00:17:50] Yeah. It makes me think of what the Sufis, the Islamic mystics. I think they say only what you can’t lose in a shipwreck is truly yours. It’s a variation of the same thing. And you’re right. I mean, the pandemic only reminded us of what is always true, which is we always live in a world of uncertainty. You and I can’t tell each other what’s going to happen tomorrow or even tonight, and that therefore, we’re always at the mercy of these forces, much greater than we are. Whether it’s a virus or a forest fire or a typhoon or a tsunami. So after our house was burnt down, we rebuilt that house. We had to rebuild in the same property because of the insurance policy, and we’ve had to evacuate that new house 12 times. And that’s because humans are living where humans shouldn’t be living up in the hills. And it’s not that nature is intruding on us, but the other way around. And nature is reminding us that there are laws much larger than the ones that we fashion in our heads. And of course, fire is nature’s Easter. I mean, fire is what’s needed to clear space, to open sunlight, for animals, to help seeds grow. It’s part of the cycle of renewal. So again, fire is never the problem.
Pico Iyer: [00:19:01] It’s it’s what humans do with fire or the way that we intensify it or live in the places that it’s almost certain to destroy. That’s off the topic of what you were saying, but it’s such a useful exercise, and I think so many of us, one way or another, are confronted with a variation of the question you and your wife faced because of all the natural disasters in the world, but also just because life is going to make a house call again and again and suddenly ask us what is important. And that’s why I always think of the sort of inner savings account. That’s really the only thing that can keep me going. As it happens, 20 hours after, uh, lockdown was declared in California, March 2020, my mother, who was 88, was rushed into the hospital. Uh, she was losing blood very quickly. And as soon as she came out of the hospital, I had to take these three flights across ghost town airports from Japan to be with her. And when I was with my mother, who was wavering between life and death in her late 80s, my bank account’s not really going to help her, though I’m glad if it’ll pay for good health care. My resume is no use.
Pico Iyer: [00:20:06] My the books I’ve written or the books I’ve read are not really going to help her. The only thing I have to bring to this situation is whatever I’ve gathered within, which is probably gathered in solitude or in silence, in reflection. And I think when I wrote this book, The Half Known Life, the title partly comes from my sense that, like most of us, I think when I was a kid, I was on top of everything. I knew it all, and I’ve been glad to be humbled by life and to feel now I don’t know a thing and that I can’t plan my destiny because pandemics and fires and everything else are going to rewrite my future at least as much as I do. And I think that’s a useful reminder that we’re not in the driver’s seat in this new book, The Half Known Life. As you know, I’m going across Iran and North Korea and Kashmir and many other places, but nearly always I’m in the passenger seat, literally. But it’s a metaphor for the fact that that’s where I am in the world now. Something I can’t begin to fathom is really determining my life, I feel, which isn’t to be a fatalist. I think it’s just to have a useful humility.
Jonathan Fields: [00:21:11] I mean, I think what the whole conversation really brings home to me is this notion that Paradise lies in the acceptance of duality and complexity in all things, and that the truth that, you know, we can never and will never fully know anything, anywhere or anyone, including ourselves, but we can coexist with we can even embrace and savor like the gift that lies in living, inevitably and enduringly in the question of it all. You know, like maybe that to hold space for that, to find peace in the realm of paradox is as close as we will ever get to any notion of Paradise peace.
Pico Iyer: [00:21:50] In the midst of paradox, I want to steal that. That should be the title of the book. I mean, you again, you summarize it just so, so perfectly. You’re such a good listener, but you’re also such a good reader. And exactly so that we don’t even know ourselves and we don’t need to know ourselves, and we have to make the most of life in the midst of that unknowing. Um, yeah. Thank you for expressing it perfectly.
Jonathan Fields: [00:22:13] It feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life Project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Pico Iyer: [00:22:21] Uh, again, if I were to go to the next town down the road. Kyoto. There’s a famous rock garden with 15 rocks there. And from no place can you see all 15. So people have been wondering what it represents for 300 years. But just around the corner from that famous garden is a waterstone water basin. And there’s one Japanese character on each of its four sides and a hole in the middle. And if you look at all the characters and the hole, it says, what I have is all I need. So I think that’s my definition of a good life contentment. Not hungering for something you don’t have or something maybe you’ll never get, such as Paradise, but realizing that maybe what you have is enough. As in your case, fleeing the fire with an almost empty duffel bag. But that’s essentially what you need. And I think in my case, I find it’s often hard to appreciate reality because they’re always going to be so many challenges and imperfections. And so every now and then, I remind myself that when I was 27 years old in New York City, I was at lunch with a friend and she said, what kind of life do you want to lead? And I said, well, I’d really like to be a full-time writer. And I feel very drawn to Japan, and I wish I could just lead a quiet life writing in Japan. So I said that 35 years ago. Now that’s the life I’ve been living, and I forget that it was my dream because it’s a reality now. And, you know, now I’ve probably got some new tweak on the dream, but in truth, I couldn’t ask for more.
Pico Iyer: [00:23:58] And I’ve I’ve been lucky enough to get exactly what I wanted as a kid, and I think many of us are in that state one way or another, but we just forget it. Or again, we’re concentrating on the one piece of the puzzle we haven’t completed, rather than the many that life has been gracious enough to to give us. So I think when you say, what’s the definition of a good life, the first word that comes to my mind is contentment. And I think contentment to some extent is up to us. It doesn’t have to do with our circumstances, but with what we make of them, whether it’s a pandemic or a forest fire or all the difficulties that life is going to throw it our way. Look at the Dalai Lama who began our conversation. I honestly think that nobody I know has suffered more than he has. I mean, 63 years in exile, unable to see the 6 million people that he has to rule and demonized by the government of the largest nation on earth. Real difficulty. And if he’s famous for anything, it’s three things his infectious laugh, his constant smile, and his robust confidence. And so you asked me 50 minutes ago what I’ve learned from the Dalai Lama. And maybe that’s one of the most useful things I’ve learned, which is that, uh, difficulty is non-negotiable. But even in the midst of it, one can have confidence, kindness and optimism, just as he does.
Jonathan Fields: [00:25:18] Um. Thank you.
Jonathan Fields: [00:25:21] So I love how Pico’s wisdom and stories just awaken a spirit of adventure and illuminate the path to presence. May we all have the courage to dwell deeply in these moments, the way that he invites us to. Our next guest, Karen Walrond, empowers us to live vibrantly and light up the world through her bold new book, Radiant Rebellion, and ask the question, is it possible to age unapologetically on our own terms? Karen really investigates how we can shake up cultural norms and narratives, tell new stories, stay curious, embrace change courageously, and flourish through the decades at any age, while also raising a little hell. Karen is a creative catalyst, attorney, speaker, and author. Her writing and workshops have empowered thousands to live with meaning, purpose, and joy. Here’s Karen.
Karen Walrond: [00:26:08] It’s so funny because I decided to write this book, Radiant Rebellion, because I didn’t understand why I was supposed to be upset about aging, like I had never been a person who worried about aging. I always got excited about my birthday, and I wrote it last year. Right. It takes that long for a book to come out, as you know. So I wrote it last year and I was celebrating my 20th anniversary. I was turning 55, my daughter was turning 18, my only child turning 18 and going off to college. And everybody except for the 20-year marriage, everybody. When I would say any of those things, I’m turning 55. The reaction was, uh oh, are you okay? Oh, your daughter’s graduating. Oh, how are you doing? Are you okay? And I kept thinking, isn’t this the point? Like, aren’t we supposed to be getting older? Aren’t isn’t our kid supposed to be graduating? Like, what is this about? And yeah, to your point, it’s very similar to sort of what I beauty ideals. I mean, and obviously beauty can be very tied up in aging, but I find myself sort of befuddled and I, you know, I don’t think you can have a podcast called The Good Life Project without also being befuddled at people who sort of look at these things and think, oh, that’s too bad. That’s really tough. When there’s so much real beauty out there, there’s so much real potential out there. There’s so much real good out there to be seen. All we have to do is just open our eyes to see it. And that’s really why I wrote the book. I will admit that there was a part of me that was sort of like, well, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m supposed to hate this, and maybe one day it will hit me that I’m really it’s really miserable. So how can I approach my aging to make sure that I never lose this feeling of excitement and the idea of the potentiality? And so that literally was sort of the exploration that that I did in the book. And I’m still happy. So that’s a good sign.
Jonathan Fields: [00:28:00] Yeah, I love that. It’s funny, as you’re sharing that I was reflecting on popped into my head was in a past life, I was in the fitness industry and part of the sort of like the aspirational let’s go after the, quote, silver sneakers market. And I was thinking to myself back then that was defined by the age cutoff of 55.
Karen Walrond: [00:28:20] Wow!
Jonathan Fields: [00:28:20] And I’m thinking to myself, do I consider myself a sort of like, quote, silver sneaker? Yeah. And I’m like, no, but I’m fine with the age. But so often the language that we use built into that language itself is a set of assumptions that include limitations and assumed feelings that often just aren’t true and aren’t there.
Karen Walrond: [00:28:44] Yeah, that probably for me, that sort of the use of language and the way we use language was probably the biggest aha moment for me, because I went into this feeling a bit smug, like I went in thinking, I’m cool with aging, and I will help educate all the other people who are not cool of aging. But I’m so enlightened, you know? And I had the opportunity to interview a woman who’s fantastic. Her name is Ashton Applewhite, and she’s an anti-aging activist. And I was talking to her and she said to me, you know, one of the things that I wish people did more was that I wish they examined how they used the words old and young, right. Just those words. And I thought, well, okay, what, you know, say some more about that. And she said, well, I hear people say all the time I don’t feel old. And I said, yeah, I say that all the time myself. I don’t feel old. Why is that bad? And she said, well, I suspect when you say that what you’re thinking or what you’re saying is I don’t feel unsexy or I don’t feel irrelevant or I don’t feel invisible. And she says, I don’t know about you, but when I was 13, I felt unsexy, irrelevant and invisible. Like, those words are not age related, right? And we so often use the shorthand of old is bad, young is good, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
Karen Walrond: [00:30:00] It was sort of this big, oh my gosh, I, I am guilty of it as well. And even me, as healthy as I am around aging like I still fall into that trap of ageist language. And you know, I love silver sneakers. I think that’s hysterical. I’ve never heard that before. But we do. We just have this sort of shorthand of what all that means without even really. Interrogating what we mean when we use the words. What was really interesting to me, though, was sort of the history of the perception of aging in the United States, because I wanted to know, did we always hate getting older? Was that a thing? I found this really interesting academic article written by a psychiatrist and a medical historian. Her name is Doctor Laura Hershbein, and she did this research and the way she did it, which was so interesting to me, is she looked up articles in popular magazines and how they treated aging. Right. And over time, and it turns out at the beginning of the of the 1900s, around the 1900s, the beginning of the 20th century, most articles were written by people who were older, who were in their 80s, and they loved aging. Like generally, everybody loved aging.
Karen Walrond: [00:31:08] It was like, oh yeah, okay, I’ve got an ache and a pain here, but I just love the wisdom that comes with aging. I love everything about it. And so people really sort of loved it. Fast forward, there’s two World wars, a Great Depression, and the United States government decides, you know what? There’s a lot of people who are in the workforce that are in their 80s. We’ve got a lot of kids in their 30s who have young families and can’t get jobs. So we’re going to mandate a retirement age, 65. Is it everybody? So we want everybody out of the workforce. So now, because these 80-something-year-olds are not contributing to the economy, they are now a burden. They’re considered a burden on society, which is bad enough. But then child psychiatrists and pediatricians decided to research to back up what a burden they were and the standard for normalcy as a five-year-old. So if you weren’t as agile as a five-year-old, or you didn’t have the cognitive ability of a five-year-old, it’s sucking up knowledge just to grow. Then you were impaired and they started writing articles. So now, like if you read articles about aging, they’re mostly written by psychiatrists or gerontologists or whatever. And now it’s a burden. So now we’re starting to think of, oh, I don’t want to look old, I don’t want to be perceived as old.
Karen Walrond: [00:32:22] Enter Clairol and everybody starts dyeing their hair. So because you don’t want to let people believe that you’re old anymore, you don’t want to be perceived as a burden, you better hide that. And it all happened in the first 50 years of the 20th century. So interestingly, it’s not just sort of a oh, I just don’t like getting older thing. It actually is baked into the culture in the United States that we think that older means irrelevant, older means a burden on society. And we’ve really sort of bought into it as a culture. And that, of course affects everything, affects beauty, it affects jobs, it affects everything. When you start to think of it that way. And it’s $1 trillion industry, largely unregulated, and the target age is 24 years old, is when they start doing that, which is bananas, right? Like it’s five years from Teenagerhood and you are now the target for the anti-aging industry. It’s insane. I started writing this book thinking I was just going to be like, oh, it’s fine, don’t worry about it. Aging. And I ended writing a book like, oh my gosh, like, we really need to rage against this. This is, this is toxic and we’re buying into it and don’t even understand why.
Jonathan Fields: [00:33:27] Where do you go from there?
Karen Walrond: [00:33:28] Yeah. As with everything, it takes getting just really sort of curious and doing your own research in a lot of ways and understanding, you know, for me, the reason that I got really curious about it was because I looked around me and I saw people my age and older who were doing great things right. They were starting new companies. They were writing bestsellers, like they were doing really good things, and it just didn’t jibe with the messaging I was getting. Like, I kept seeing these ideas like, oh, you’re in your mid-50s, so how good are you at technology, really? And do you know what an app is? You know that’s and I’m like but Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, they invented this and they’re older than me. So that doesn’t make any sense to me that we sort of think that. So really sort of getting very curious about it. And then for me, I thought, okay, here I am, I’m in relatively good health. What can I do to see what the messages are, what is really I can expect as I get older, and what are the things that actually make sense for me, as opposed to what Google tells me that I should do, like if you’re a certain age. And so I, I started like talking to experts. I started, I went to a nutritional neurologist and had bloodwork up and said, okay, where am I really? And what are the best things for my particular body that I need to do? I talk to people who were social workers, and I talked to clergy, and I talked to just people who were creating really new things, entrepreneurs, and really sort of went to them and said, how has aging changed the way that you do the work you do? How has your aging changed people’s perception of you, and what have you done to sort of fight that? And ultimately it’s really about continuing curiosity.
Karen Walrond: [00:35:01] It’s about being curious about the aging message, but also being curious about what you’re capable of and what is it that you want to do and what is it the things like, if you say, I want to learn how to surf and you think, oh, I’m too old for that. Like, what is that about? Like, what is that? What makes you think that that’s the case? And what would happen if you just tried and sort of really just. Getting curious and having a mentality of experimentation was really the way that it seemed to work for me, and it seems to work for a lot of people who I think age really, really well.
Jonathan Fields: [00:35:30] Yeah, that makes so much sense to me. So part of this curiosity, you know, for you around aging and beauty also leads you to make just some personal decisions, like to try something out. And part of that is like, what happens if I stop dyeing my hair? What actually happens if I let it just be the natural color that it is? Yeah. Talk to me about what that experience has been like for you.
Karen Walrond: [00:35:50] Yeah. So I did dye my hair for a long time. At first when I started dyeing it, I was probably in my 20s. And it wasn’t it wasn’t to hide gray. It was just I liked how my hair looked when it was extra dark. Right. Like that was really sort of the thing. I was like, oh, I love how it looks. It looks like that jet black, you know, it was this 80s and 90s and I thought it would look really cool. And so I started doing that. And then as I got older, I felt like that color was a bit harsh. So I went lighter. So sort of a dark brown. And for me, what was really interesting was because, again, I wasn’t a person that worried about aging, but I thought, that’s just what you do. That’s part of grooming. Like part of what you do is you dye your hair. And I would see. So I started to see silver come in, but it was in like really strange places like, you know, and I thought, oh my God, if I let it go, it would look polka-dotted and that would be really weird. And so I’m not going to do that. And then I finally was like, but what would happen if I did? And the thing is, several times in my past I had had very short hair, right. Sort of like half an inch. So I thought, you know what, if I don’t like it, I’ll just dye it and, you know, keep going. So I cut it all off like a lot of people will just sort of let it grow out.
Karen Walrond: [00:36:59] I decided I’m just going to cut it off and start from scratch, because I’m used to having really short hair. And what was really interesting was at first I was like, oh my gosh, what if people think I’m older than I am? Like, I don’t care if they think I’m my age, but what if they think like I think at the time I was like 53 or 54 when I started and I thought, what if they think I’m 70, right? And then I thought, and if they did, what would that mean? So what if that’s what they thought? What did that mean? And I had decided that if I did it, I wanted to if I was going to dye it, I wanted to dye it all silver. I was like, there’s no going back to black. Like I’m going to go back to what ended up happening. Which is really interesting, is people really responded to it favorably. I would get and to this day I can go out and people will say, oh my God, I love your hair. I love how I love it. I could never do that. People say that a lot, right? I could never do that. I love how it looks on you. I, you know, and what I think is really interesting is my hair is not particularly I mean, it’s a salt and pepper hair, but there’s nothing particularly great about it. It’s just hair. But I think people are really responding to the fact that I’m comfortable with it, that I’m, you know, and I think that’s, you know, we talked about that with beauty.
Karen Walrond: [00:38:07] Like they’re seeing somebody who’s like, I’m good with it. And I might as well have died at Purple or Blue or any of the other things that you’re like, whoa, I love that you did that. I could never do that. Right. And so that was really interesting to me and never had anybody say, wow, it ages you. Which I think is interesting because I did expect that nobody said that literally. Always been positive and often from strangers. So it’s not like, oh, well, that’s my friend. They’re being nice. Often I get stopped, often, almost inevitably, if I’m out in public, somebody will say something about it. There are some people who have beautiful silver, like, that’s not my hair. And I think that’s really interesting. I think it sort of goes to what we were saying, that the more comfortable and the more confident that you are in who you are and who you’re becoming. And I think if I were going to talk about what it means to be part of the radiant rebellion, it is this sort of I am really, really comfortable with who I am and who I’m evolving to be. And I don’t care really what the world says I should feel like about this. This is what I feel like about it and get really, really comfortable in that. And that is what people respond to.
Jonathan Fields: [00:39:06] Yeah. One of the other things that you sort of explore in the way that we think about aging is the notion or the role of adventure, the role of discovery. And again, I think it’s one of these things where we’re so often we’re kind of like, oh, I left that season of life behind me. But it’s so important to the way that we step into the later seasons of life.
Karen Walrond: [00:39:27] I will say that I’m very lucky that I have a dad who actually makes an appearance in this book, who has been a great model for me about curiosity and trying things. He’s in his 80s. He rides his bike 20 miles every, you know, every like other day. And sometimes I want to tell him, dad, I wish you would slow down like you’re scaring me, right? With all of these risks that you’re taking. But, you know, even as I say that, like, I laugh because I’d rather live that way right? Than any other way. Right? Than timidly. And that not trying. Like I think it’s such. So I, I am a little spoiled that I’ve had that model for me already. But for me, the thing that I think is really interesting is let’s just talk about this podcast. For example, when 20 years ago, if somebody said, hey, you know what I think, Jonathan, that you’re going to have. This thing called a podcast, you’d be like, what the hell is a podcast, right? Like, what are you? It’s like radio. Like, I’m not going to be a radio journalist. There are so many things that have changed just in our lifespans that we wouldn’t have ever considered would exist, right? So why should we stop trying new things when things change, the world around us changes so rapidly, and the opportunities that the world creates for us just changes so rapidly? Why would you stop that? That to me is like, that’s not fun. You know? You know, like like like that’s where the fun is, right? Is like sort of seeing how things are morphing and changing and being a part of that. If you had told me that I would be a writer, like I was an engineer 20 years ago, like if you told me I would be writing books, I would have said, like, okay, why would I do that? I have a job.
Karen Walrond: [00:41:09] Right? Like that would have been sort of my thought. And my life is so much richer for having tried these things that I would have seemed so weird. So why would I stop doing that? And why should anybody stop doing that? Like the worst that’s going to happen is that you aren’t interested in it. So then you move on to something else, right? That, to me, is just so much of what brings moments of joy, that play, that experimentation. Like those are how you cultivate moments of joy. And if there’s one thing, one learning, I think I’ve had in doing the work that I’ve done for the last 20 years, is that joy and happiness? I think I used to think that you live your life and hopefully joy and happiness will find you. And what I have learned is that joy and happiness require work like you have to work for it. You have to work to create those moments that really light you up. And as we get older, why would we ever say, I’m not going to try something and deny ourselves a potential moment of joy and happiness? The world is a dark place. We need to cultivate and create as many moments of light as we can, just for our own sanity, far less for making the world just better. Yeah, it’s really interesting how you say that some of those self-limiting thoughts might be because you’ve never tried to play with, why do I believe that about myself, and how could I do what I’m just saying in a way that that detaches from whatever that idea of perfect is supposed to look like? For sure.
Jonathan Fields: [00:42:37] It’s almost like. [laughs] Walk around asking yourself, how would I would I say yes or no to this if I were six?
Karen Walrond: [00:42:44] Yeah. Yeah, sure!
Jonathan Fields: [00:42:46] You know, it’s like if. Yes. All right. Let me give it a go. You know, um, rather than judging ourselves like for all the different reasons, but.
Karen Walrond: [00:42:53] Yeah, for sure.
Jonathan Fields: [00:42:54] I’m super excited for people to be able to, to dive into, um, reading Rebellion and, and spend some time reimagining and asking a lot of questions. Yeah. There’s a whole, by the way, there’s a whole toolkit. Just a lot of great stuff. So everyone listening and like, there are granular things built into this book also that you can really dive into and prompts and tools and things that you can explore. So please check it out. And it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation. So in this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Karen Walrond: [00:43:26] To live a good life. Remember what’s already good. And stay curious about what could be good. And don’t be afraid to try. That’s what comes up.
Jonathan Fields: [00:43:39] Mm. Thank you.
Karen Walrond: [00:43:41] Mm. Thank you. It’s always such an honor to speak with you. Too much time passed since the last time I’ve seen your wonderful face. So I’m just really, really honored that you had me.
Jonathan Fields: [00:43:51] So I love how Karen’s wisdom just really ignites creativity and empowers us to think about changing the narrative, and guides us to age joyfully on our own terms. May we all have the courage to embrace change and reclaim our radiance and raise a little hell, as she often invites. Our final guest today, Vijay Gupta, illuminates pathways to profound connection and social change through his work as a violinist, educator, and advocate. And Vijay electrified audiences as a soloist with the LA Philharmonic before founding Street Symphony, which brings live music to homeless and incarcerated communities. He’s a leading voice on music’s power to heal and foster social connection with wisdom and empathy. He really reveals how music helps us rediscover our wholeness and integrate our own painful fragments. Here’s Vijay. 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: [00:44:54] My parents were immigrants from Bengal, from the city of Kolkata. And on one hand, their life looked like the typical American dream, you might add, 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 unfulfillment. 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 unfulfillment, I think there were a lot of people telling them where their 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.
Vijay Gupta: [00:46:39] 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. 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. 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.
Vijay Gupta: [00:48:03] 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 sense that survivor mentality in myself. And one of the most profound acts for. 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. 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: [00:49:40] So powerful and I think so resonant with so many people. 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’re out in the world making music and making impact through the vehicle of music and gathering people around music almost potentially wasn’t going to be your path. 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 it seems like an encounter that you had in Harvard with Gottfried Schlaug was a pivotal moment because you could have gone down the medicine path. But there’s this happening that it sounds like was really profound for you.
Vijay Gupta: [00:50:33] When I was 17, I somehow landed an amazing internship at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine, and Doctor Schlaug 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 the 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. 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 you have an injury to your spinal cord and injury to your central nervous system in your brain that’s permanent.
Vijay Gupta: [00:52:16] It’s over. And Gottfried Schlaug 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. 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.
Vijay Gupta: [00:53:46] When I spent another two years studying music at 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 than my parents were. Then the narrative that they had written in their hearts 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. It was 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.
Vijay Gupta: [00:55:24] For someone to fly from JFK to New Delhi or to Kolkata 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. And the Hindu tradition that I was raised in, the oldest son has to be at the bedside of the dying parent. And I think my dad found purpose in making sure that even though he wasn’t connected with his home any longer, and 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 the boatman on the River Styx, you know, 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: [00:56:47] 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 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 funder 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. You know that the seeds that they planted in me are now becoming fruits that other people can be nourished through.
Jonathan Fields: [00:58:07] So you do step back into music as sort of the full-time pursuit. And as you described with the L.A. 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 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 Ayers. Take Me There.
Vijay Gupta: [00:58:41] I joined the L.A. 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 Juilliard-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, and Nathaniel ended up Greyhounding 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 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 Walt Disney 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. 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.
Vijay Gupta: [01:00:07] 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 sandwiches and 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: [01:01:05] You describe that early introduction to Skid Row as you use the word recognition. I want to know more about that feeling.
Vijay Gupta: [01:01:13] Years later into making music in 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 making music in Skid Row or a prison because it reminds you a little bit of where you grew up. 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 continued 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 a food addiction for me.
Vijay Gupta: [01:02:45] 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. 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 TM, end quote, and realize that I had my wounds in 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 to.
Jonathan Fields: [01:03:47] It was so powerful on 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 were 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: [01:04:02] We talked a little bit earlier about regret, and it made me think about the root of the word decide. 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 in 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 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. 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? There’s this kind of disinheritance 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.
Vijay Gupta: [01:06:22] The substance, for me was inhaling a Papa John’s pizza, or pulling up at a fast food drive thru 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 Mate says that the addictions are 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, 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 L.A. Philharmonic, and lived in the shipwreck of that decision for several years, and I think now, to a certain extent, continued to live through that decision.
Jonathan Fields: [01:08:24] Yeah, except you’d always been living in the shipwreck of it, just sort of you had the resources and the accolades and the ability to sort of like keep painting over the bones that we’re slowly just crumbling underneath the veneer and the paint.
Vijay Gupta: [01:08:39] 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 when 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, the music sang there. And as a musician, I knew how to listen. 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 Son Jarocho 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. 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. 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. A strict knowledge. The cycle, the cycles of cycles that happen when we balance individual practice with communal giving.
Jonathan Fields: [01:11:13] Mhm. 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: [01:11:25] 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 re-know, recognize ourselves. Thank you for being a mirror in this conversation, Jonathan.
Jonathan Fields: [01:11:52] Mm. Thank you. So I love how Vijay’s wisdom illuminates music’s power to heal and connect us, even in life’s most painful moments. May we all find the courage to build bridges through creativity and compassion. A big thank you to Pico and Karen and Vijay for sharing their profound wisdom on living meaningfully. Their stories illuminate pathways to presence and acceptance, curiosity, integration, and connection, and they remind us to embrace the paradoxes, to lean into change, to walk courageously together, and to have the courage to live authentically, boldly, and flourish in this grand adventure called life. And if you loved this episode, be sure to catch the full conversations with today’s guests. You can find a link to those episodes in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. 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.