One day I called my friend Andrew Harvey who told me that he couldn't talk at the moment because he was on his way to Maine to spend a week working on a book entitled Play Life More Beautifully with piano virtuoso, Seymour Bernstein. I had never heard of Seymour, but I quickly learned more as I also discovered that his life was the focus of a new documentary produced by Ethan Hawke, "Seymour: An Introduction". A few weeks later Andrew gave me a copy of his book of conversations with Seymour, and I wasted no time devouring it. Meanwhile, Andrew and I began working together on a book on joy, and much to my surprise, I soon found Seymour to be one of the most remarkable examples of a life lived joyfully that I have ever known.
When I speak of a life lived joyfully, I do not mean that Seymour's life has been a bowl of cherries with whipped cream topping. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1927, he endured a childhood and adolescence overshadowed by many forms of abuse at the hands of his father. Seymour knew early on that his destiny was inextricably connected with music. Enduring an immigrant father whose values were shaped by the Great Depression and who sought to mould Seymour into his image of a successful macho entrepreneur, Seymour's early life was a mishmash of torturous rejection and discipline by his father alongside glorious moments of delight in music and the beginning of piano teaching at the age of 15. His induction into the Korean War seemed like the end of his world because he could not pursue a career in music, but even in such a drastically opposite milieu, Seymour was able to play and give piano concerts.
Upon returning from the war, Seymour studied with such notable musicians as Alexander Brailowsky, Sir Clifford Curzon, Jan Gorbaty, Nadia Boulanger, and Georges Enesco, but he himself became one of the greats and at the age of 88, is not only a phenomenal musician and composer, but a purveyor of deep wisdom and joy in a mad and joyless culture. I bow to Seymour, not simply because he is a survivor of incredible pain and abuse in his early life, but because he has learned how to "play" life, or rather, allow life to "play" him:
But I have to tell you that I consider myself blessed because when I sight-read music and confront it for the first time, it's analogous to love at first sight when you meet certain people. You don't know anything about that person, but something triggers that love. There are certain pieces that I instantly fall I love with. As I play them, my vocal chords get activated. It's as though I'm exhaling the music through singing. Somehow the music takes hold of me. I have the feeling that there is a special body part inside of me. And this body part gets permeated with music and plays me. It's telling me what to do. It's analogous to someone whispering secrets in your ear: "Now go softer, now go louder, now move ahead, now take a little time." In short I have the feeling that I'm being played. It's one of the most satisfying, beneficial, inspirational, and, at the same time, mysterious experiences that I can think of. It makes me exceedingly joyful. And when I realize what the music is telling me, I can't wait to share it with my pupils. They sense that I'm telling them something sacred that they didn't know. Imbued with this new information, my pupils are elated. The circle is completed.
Throughout his conversations with Andrew, Seymour speaks of his "spiritual reservoir," ---a place inside him that was never touched by the abuse and from which pours forth his gorgeous creativity.
Andrew speaks of his own upbringing in India where the greatest image of the sacred is the one in which the sacred is represented as a dancer with the flame of destruction in one hand and the drum of creation in the other. "Life itself is a dance of opposites," says Andrew, "light and dark, the universe is a constant dance of matter and light." So descriptive of Seymour's life, Andrew tells Seymour: "So why I love this image is because dancing requires the whole of you. And if you're going to truly live an awake life, it requires the whole of you being lit up by love, passion, courage, and intelligence...So let's go back to your teaching. You're helping people to become dancers in this way, dancers with music."
I listen to Seymour's music as I write, and I allow the totality of his emotional history to pierce me---the anguish, the darkness, the sweet tenderness, the poignancy, the beauty, the humor, and the horror. It's all there in the music and in the man---and it's all there in everyone reading these words as well as the person writing them.
From a very early age, Seymour was consciously connected with "something greater" than his rational mind and ego--something mysterious, profound, and glorious which he came to call his "spiritual reservoir." But he was more than connected because he allowed that "something" to infuse him with passion, beauty, and creativity, even in the face of what seemed to a young child like death and which he literally approaches at the current age of 88.
In this moment, countless species on Earth, including humans, are approaching the end of their existence. While scientific data continues to suggest extinction events occurring sooner, rather than later, no one knows with certainty when or how these will occur. The only thing we know with certainty is that each of us has a choice about how we will meet our demise. While it is crucial to know the facts, it is equally crucial to live as if there were no tomorrow because tomorrow doesn't exist. The only moment that does exist is this one.
Will we spend the rest of our days either dining on doom or drowning in denial or like Seymour, feast on what lights us up?
The rational mind, scientific data, and the human ego are pathetically limited in their capacity to reveal our deeper humanity. They cannot begin to guide us in our encounters with the "Big Five," namely: Love, death, suffering, the sacred, and eternity. These are the stuff of mystery, and nothing could be more important in the process of our demise than extracting from them every drop of healing medicine they hold for us. The trajectory of reason as sovereign in industrial civilization has come to a dead end. We are now called to the journey of "playing life more beautifully," and the life and work of Seymour Bernstein is an extraordinary guiding light. From the final moments of his conversation with Andrew, Seymour concludes:
When I contemplate the miracle of life, and the fact that the universe continues to expand, I fall on my knees in awe and wonderment. Certainly something is responsible for this. Yet, I consider it an affront when people give this force a name. For me, it transcends names. As I humble myself before it, I firmly believe that it is not given to me too know the answer to such a profound mystery. To accept this, to know unequivocally that there are no answers to certain questions, defines, in my estimation, the essence of humility.