Episode #135: Rick Rubin & Author Stephen Mitchell: Living More Fluid With Less Force & a Deep Look at The Dao
My guests today are music producer Rick Rubin and poet, translator, scholar, and anthologist Stephen Mitchell. You may have heard Rick’s name over the years as one of the founders of DEF jam records, nine-time Grammy winner, host and creator of the TV documentary show ‘McCartney 3, 2, 1’ and host of the podcast Broken Record. Rick has worked with artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer, Johnny Cash, Kanye West, Jay Z and the Beastie Boys. As a friend, Rick had gifted me a book ‘Tao Te Ching’ by Lao Tzu, and he had given me the Stephen Mitchell version. Fortunately, Stephen Mitchell is a friend of mine. His works include the Bhagavad-Gita, Gilgamesh, The Gospel According to Jesus, and Loving What Is, which he co-authored with his wife Byron Katie. It was a real dream for me to have these two men sitting across from one another to have a conversation prompted by the Tao. Both of them are thoughtful, creative, precise, and unique in their approach to living. I hope you enjoy.
Listen to the episode here:
- Rick and Transcendental Meditation at 14 [00:06:07]
- Stephen and The Study of The Book of Job [00:09:16]
- Meditation as a Powerful Practice [00:15:00]
- The Challenge of an Inner Upheaval [00:21:00]
- Stephen on Going to a Christian School [00:34:18]
- Rick on Giving Tao Te Ching books [00:36:32]
- Understanding the Original Scripts and the Troubles with Translation [00:39:15]
- Different Versions [00:52:20]
- The Start of Something New [00:58:25]
- The Desire to Create [01:03:07]
- Human Life Challenges [01:16:09]
- On Byron Katie [01:24:34]
- Favorite Books [01:28:43]
- The Writing’s Original Language [01:31:33]
- The Fun in Exploring [01:36:57]
Rick Rubin & Author Stephen Mitchell: Living More Fluid With Less Force & a Deep Look at The Dao
When I hear something that doesn’t do what I’m expecting it to do and forces me to lean forward and listen closely, it’s a good experience. The surprise and unexpected are an integral part of what makes good art good. It operates beyond the face value. It pulls you in to question something.
Meditation practice or the practice of doing the work leads to a life where you don’t have problems. What used to be a problem isn’t a problem. It’s another opportunity for understanding.
Welcome to the show. This is a special show for me. Every show is special and I’m grateful to always have the guest. This show, I was a little uncomfortable doing. I was stressed out to ask the people to do it. I knew it needed to happen. My guests are author, Stephen Mitchell, and music producer, Rick Rubin. The way this came about was my friend, Elijah, was like, “You should interview Rick Rubin. Rick is a friend of ours.” I thought, “Rick doesn’t even barely want to talk in everyday life and I’m going to interview him. I’m not a musician.” I didn’t know how I would do it but there was something there.
I was going to bed that night and you know how it happens, the universe and God gives you an idea. As I was going to bed, I thought, “I know how to interview Rick Rubin. I’ll do it with Stephen Mitchell.” The reason is that several years ago, I had asked Rick, “How do you control your environments with such little force?” He said, “I’ll give you a book.” He gave me a book, Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu but it was the version by Stephen Mitchell. I thought, “This is how I can talk to Rick.”
To give you a background on both of them, Rick is one of the Founders of Def Jam Records. He’s produced acts from Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Slayer, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, it goes on and on. He has probably more than nine Grammys. He’s hosted a podcast, Broken Record. Side note, he is a huge fan of wrestling, which is one of the weird things I love about Rick. Stephen Mitchell is one of the smartest people I’ve personally met. This person is like, “Books are my friends.”
He did a version of Tao Te Ching. He says it’s not an interpretation, it is a different version. He did the Bhagavad Gita and The Gospel According to Jesus. He wrote a book with his beautiful wife, Byron Katie, Loving What Is. I encourage you to listen to that. He’s a Zen Monk. This is a high-thinking person. My hope with this was to sit them across from one another and to use the Tao, a book important to Rick and one that Stephen is passionate and informed about, and have them connect on a few passages. I wanted to talk a little. I used a few passages to spark the conversation.
It’s hard for me to ask my friends or people that have public jobs to do these interviews. I feel protective of them. I know things about them. This felt important. I’m relieved. Also, I want to thank Laird because he hunted Rick Rubin down for me a little bit to help me make this happen. I will say, they have a lot in common. I want you to know the answer when I asked them each about their parents. I thought it was an interesting answer. I hope you enjoy the show.
Rick and Stephen, thank you for coming to the house. I adore both of you. I’ve been friends with Rick for many years. I’ve observed with a lot of curiosity and wonder that Rick has so many unique ways of behaving. One day, I got the courage. I don’t pry too much. I said to Rick, “One day, I would like to speak to you about how you have this art or knack.” His environment reflects him so fluidly but there’s no force. Rick knows me and Laird. Sometimes you know you feel like you’re pushing and molding and all of these things. I would observe Rick and I thought, “He has some other way.” He goes, “I’ll give you a book.”
He gave me your book. I had read the book but I looked at it with new eyes. Since I’ve had the good fortune of knowing you through your beautiful wife, Byron Katie, I wanted to take the opportunity to talk to both of you about the real-life application and doing a different version of it. You’re saying that this is not a translation. You’re like, “This is a different version.” I want to make that clear. Also, to get your feedback. I want to be a part of here. Also, to talk to you about a few things about yourselves that crossover and have some interesting parallels. Thank you.
Rick, first of all, how did you get introduced to meditating at 14?
Dumb luck. It just happened. It was meant to be because it happened. No one in my family meditated. I had no connection to it. I had a hip doctor. The doctor that delivered me was a hip doctor in the ‘70s. He had a goatee. I went to see him when I was in junior high school because my neck hurt. He’s the doctor who delivered me. He said, “With that stress, I recommend you learn to meditate.” I remember thinking that my parents would not go for that. My parents said, “If that’s what the doctor says, that’s what we’ll do.” I learned TM at 14.
[bctt tweet=”Trusting them through trusting yourself. I trust myself never to be writing a word because it will affect somebody in some way.”]
I came to learn later that the fact that I learned it when I learned had a huge impact on my life. I meditated up until I went to college, I stopped in college, then moved to California after college, and started up again. When I started again, I realized, “This is a big part of who I am from the time that I had done it.” This informed me about how I live in the world. Even in the period when I wasn’t doing it, it’s the fact that I had done it for the years that I did it. I found myself more connected over the course of my life once I realized that this is a big part of how I manage my way through the world.
College is when you got involved with music. It’s interesting that you started one big thing in your life, your craft, and then go back and then combine those two things after.
It’s not that I combined them.
Still, I was interested in other things when I was meditating. The reason I stopped was I moved into a dormitory. It was different. I didn’t have the privacy of my home anymore. Now I’m living in a more public space and I didn’t feel like that was part of this communal living situation with a bunch of kids I didn’t know. I’m an only child. I’m not used to being around other people, to begin with. Now, having two roommates was a new experience.
You’re both from New York.
I’m from Brooklyn.
I’ve heard you say that books were your friends. Rick said he’s an only child. There’s this inner world that you lived in. You went to Cambridge and you were studying Zen. A kid from New York, how do you get there? Rick’s ways are interesting but then how did you say, Oh, “I’m going to do that.”
I was in a conventional mindset. Up through college, I was a good student. I was fascinated with a number of things and one of them was the great German poet, Rilke, whom I fell in love with. My girlfriend, when I was in Paris for my junior year, gave me a French translation of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and that changed my life in certain ways as it did yours. That’s where I was with high culture, loving it, and fascinated with it.
My life changed when my girlfriend dumped me. She was my first girlfriend. I thought, eventually, we’d get married, etc. I was devastated. In the months after she left, I tried to find in what I knew, which was mostly Western literature, places that would somehow help me get through the experience. What I wound up with was the place in the Bible that seemed to me to be the deepest addressing of the problem of human suffering and that was the Book of Job.
I read the Book of Job in the King James Version and I thought that whatever poet wrote this, had seen something about the world and it’s seen through human suffering somehow. It was like listening to music in a distant room that I knew was my music but I couldn’t hear it, it was so far away. I decided to learn Hebrew to get to a state of intimacy with that book and I did. Once I had learned Hebrew, I discovered how odd, how bizarre in a lot of places the Book of Job is. I had to learn some comparative ancient Semitic Philology and then textual studies, etc. It was one thing after another. Once I had made that commitment to understanding it, I took it in stride.
Fast forward six years, I had been translating the Book of Job as a way to get closer to it. I woke up one morning and it was clear to me that although I was writing what I considered a beautiful translation so I could get closer to it, I was no closer to understanding what that poet had seen. I decided to go to India to try to meet a master. I had fallen in love with an Indian master named Ramana Maharshi. I thought, “Maybe somebody is still alive in India who was enlightened and could help me understand.”
I started to learn Hindi. I was going to leave for India. Before I could buy an airline ticket, a friend of mine said, “You’ve got to go to Providence, Rhode Island and meet this monk that I’ve been meditating with. He says he’s a Zen master. I don’t know about that but he has very strange eyes.” I went down and saw him. The first time I looked into his eyes, I knew that he understood. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “I was going to be leaving for India.” He said, “No, don’t leave. Stay with me. I will teach you.” He did. He did a very good job.
He had only 4 or 5 students at the time. He had come to America with no money and very little English. He was a great teacher with open flaws. It didn’t last more than five years. During those five years, I was meditating a minimum of four hours a day and it was usually more like six. One week every month was twelve hours a day. There were certain solitary retreats that I did as a way of intensifying things that were either 30 days solitary or 100 days solitary. I did two of those. It was intensive training.
A year after I started with him, I had my first opening where everything became clear. There were Zen texts like The Zen Teachings of Huang Po or The Diamond Sutra that were close to me before the experience and were as clear as day afterward. It was a clear transition. The rest of my Zen practice for many years consisted of working on the places where I had sticking points where there were karmic deficiencies that I needed to get clear about. That was, to some extent, my work.
I also gained the most powerful tool when I met Byron Katie. Her work, in my experience, is the greatest compliment to the practice of meditation. One of the things about meditation that I can talk about from my own experience and the experience of a number of friends who have been meditating for 20, 30, or 40 years is there are certain unclarities that are embedded in our consciousness. It’s hidden in our ordinary consciousness and hidden even in states of meditation that we’re not even aware of them to work on them.
One of the wonderful things about Katie’s work is that it brings up hidden unclarities the way anti-venom poison brings up snake poison. They come to the surface and it allows you to see them and know that these are problems and have a method of evaporating them. It’s not through any resistance or force but simply by questioning if they’re true and seeing the emotional effect that they have on you and seeing who you would be if you didn’t believe them. What a wider world, a more limitless world is available without seeing things through that concept, through the filter have that concept. It’s a powerful practice. That has been important to me over the last several years.
Would you call them assumptions? They’re assumptions that we have or stories we tell ourselves that we can’t see past. We accept them as what it is. Through her work, we get to realize that it’s a story.
It’s a thought. That reminds me of one of the perhaps confusing things in the Tao Te Ching. There are a couple of lines that go, “Empty your mind of all thoughts. Let your heart be at peace.” That’s true and good advice. When the Tao Te Ching says, “Empty your mind of all thoughts,” it doesn’t mean to get to a state of no thinking because that’s not possible. For another thing, I’ve seen videos of people who claim to have no thoughts and their whole emotional attitude is flat. There’s no emotion that I can see and it’s unattractive.
One of the attractive things about a deeply enlightened person like Katie is that her enthusiasm, emotion, love of life, and compassion are at their highest. It’s attractive. The heart being opened is a deeply beautiful thing. If it’s possible not to have any thoughts, I don’t want any piece of it. What that line means is to treat your thoughts as things to be questioned. Treat your thoughts as not necessarily true but something you need to investigate.
When you are able to question any thought that is stressful, it can occur to you 1,000 times and it will cause no stress because you’ve already seen through it. You don’t need to get rid of it. You don’t need to empty your mind in that sense. When the thoughts are questioned and they appear, they have no power over you. In that sense, your mind is empty of them.
I like Katie’s phrase, she says, “I treat my stressful thoughts as children who need my attention. I love my children and I want to give them every possibility for expressing themselves.” That seems, to me, a sane attitude towards thoughts. When you empty your mind in that sense, your heart is at peace. You don’t have to do anything to get your heart at peace. It naturally occurs when you are able to have that attitude towards your stressful thoughts.
Rick, I’m going to pull you into this. I’m going to pretend you and I are the householders but you’re more advanced than me. We’ll let him be the master. I was joking. I wanted him to call us the master on this end. For me, both of you have both. We’re physiology. We’re hormones. We’re a lot of things. I know you use tools like meditation and things. When that inner disruption comes and maybe you have already the skill, which a lot of people don’t, to say, “I’m going to question the thoughts. Am I going to yield to that it’s true? I am not going to.” You still maybe have an upheaval. You’ve also learned how to navigate that as well.
It’s always a challenge but I do my best. I am better at it than I probably used to be.
You seem as if you are able to coast over the waves.
I do my best. I try my best. I’m not attached to any stories of how it’s supposed to be. When things come up, it’ll either be, “That’s a nice surprise,” or, “I wasn’t expecting that. I wonder what’s going to happen next.” It’s like I’m watching the movie. I’m watching what unfolds. I know I get to participate and I get to make choices but I don’t feel like it’s completely on me. I feel like I’m a participant in this bigger thing that’s going on and I’m watching it and riding this wave to the best of my ability. I’m not the wave. I’m finding my way through.
I bring that up because all of us experienced that. It’s reminding people that you have those choices. You talk a lot about when we can not be in the eye or me that there is a liberation to it. Rick said it so beautifully. You’re part of it but it’s not me and I. There’s a lot of suffering that goes on when we’re in our singular selves.
That’s true. As with many things, there’s a complementary truth that’s the opposite. I’ll give you an example. Whenever I have a problem, which is maybe every couple of months, it’s usually with something that Katie says. I will spend a couple of hours hurt. It never is more than overnight. From the beginning, the thing that’s amazingly helpful to me is that I always know it’s up to me to fix. It has nothing to do with her.
[bctt tweet=”One of the major things in the Tao Te Ching is not doing. It means that you’re not forcing things, that you’re letting things come to you.”]
It’s a great liberation. I will take a thought that’s at the center of that usually fairly small upset in me and investigate it either formally through the questions of the work or simply with a Zen questioning, which has no content. It’s a pure question without any thought or words or anything. I know that space so well from all the decades of Zen practice. I hold that thought. Eventually, it never takes more than overnight, it will unravel. The next morning, I’ll go into the kitchen and Katie will be there. I’ll give her a big smile, a big kiss, a hug, and it’s over. It’s that bringing it to the self that is important. It doesn’t conflict with an understanding that there is no self.
I wrote a whole book on the Diamond Sutra and Katie about the fact that the Buddha’s insight that there is no such thing as a self. It’s useful to be able to hold conflicting opposites together. Keats had the phrase negative capability, which is the mind’s capacity to be in a state of non-understanding without irritably reaching after the truth. That’s a fertile mental space. Keith said that at the age of 23, right before he died.
I like that space. I like when I don’t understand something. It’s more interesting when things are not apparent on their face. I like to watch a movie and not understand what’s happening.
How does that work in your music?
It’s a part of it.
Do you have an example?
I can’t give you a specific example but I can say that when I hear something that doesn’t do what I’m expecting it to do and forces me to lean forward and listen closely, it’s a good experience. I feel like the surprise and the unexpected are integral parts of what makes good art good. It operates beyond the face value. It pulls you in to question something.
I have another thing to add to this in my experience. One of the major themes in the Tao Te Ching is not doing. It doesn’t mean that you are sitting on a couch all day drooling. It means that you’re not forcing things. You’re letting things come to you. You know this well. I have had that experience with books many times.
I’ll give you one example. After I finished the Tao Te Ching, I wanted to clarify my feelings about Jesus of Nazareth, whom I had been attracted to ever since I was a 9-year-old Jewish kid in a Christian private school and heard stories about Jesus from the headmaster every Tuesday at the compulsory chapel. I got to the age of 35 and published the Tao Te Ching. The next thing was to get clear about my feelings about Jesus because I found him extremely attractive and yet there were passages in the New Testament that I thought was disgraceful. I didn’t have a way to bring those two together.
I couldn’t start the book. I tried and it wasn’t happening. I waited. I gave myself a couple of other projects but I was always waiting for further instruction. After about a year, I got a call from a foundation in San Francisco that said they were awarding me $10,000. I had never heard of this place. IK had no idea they had this award but there it was. I had $10,000 to spend, which was a lot of money for me at the time.
The next day, I was at a cafe in Berkeley. I was living there. I met an Israeli man who happened to be a guide and he said, “I’ll take you through Galilee. You’ll see the places that Jesus hung out. It will be great. It will help your book.” I went with him. I spent a week in Galilee kayaking, looking at the sights, and going to the site of the Sermon on the Mount supposedly, which never happened. There’s a horrible, ugly, vulgar Italian church commissioned by Mussolini on that spot.
After a week, I told my God, “It’s not happening for me. I don’t understand why I’m here.” He said, “Let me take you to the Sinai.” I was there as a soldier in the ‘70s. It’s an amazing place. We went to the Sinai and hired a Bedouin guide. About an hour or two into this magnificent granite wilderness, he stopped and prayed. It was time for prayer. As he was praying, going down completely on his knees and hands and saying, “Allahu Akbar,” I could see that this was a man who had surrendered completely, which is the meaning of Islam.
It was moving to me. I was almost to the point of tears. My body wanted to go up beside him and do the prostration beside him because I was moved by that surrender of his. It’s beautiful. I stopped myself because I thought it would freak him out, a Jewish man entering his religious space. I didn’t want to do that. I thought it would freak out my Jewish guide as well. I was doing it in my mind.
Over the next few days, I observed him closely. He seemed to like me. He invited me to his private garden and introduced me to his six children. I saw him treat these children with sternness but with such love. I saw how they respected him. I had never seen that in American children. Also, I interviewed him at the end of the tour because I wanted to give him some extra money. My Jewish guide said, “Don’t do that because it will be an insult. Hire him to do something and he’ll be able to do it.”
I hired him to give me an interview and he talked for a couple of hours. There were some things that came out of his mouth that were almost quotations from Jesus. He said, “Whenever a poor person comes around my garden, I always give them fruits because God gives His reign to the poor, the rich, evil and, good. I want to share this way.” It’s moving for me. When I got back to America, I started writing the book immediately because I had seen what Jesus meant by Father.
If you take the word patriarchy with all that we know about women, misogyny, feminism, etc., it’s right to be wary of that word. If you take the word and print it as it were and print it from the negative and see the opposite of what we naturally don’t like about it, that was what I was meeting, the positive image of the patriarch. The best thing you can imagine about a good father is what I saw and what led me right. All of this is to say that it was that waiting that was productive and creative. When I heard those two signals to start from the financial grant and then meet the patriarch, it was so clear that I had a green light. In fact, I did.
It’s amazing how the universe sets up the conditions to allow the thing that you are waiting for to happen when the time is right. It is out of our control.
It can take quite a while sometimes. What I most learned from my years of Zen practice was patience. When you’re meditating twenty hours a day in a freezing teepee and nothing’s happening and all you’re seeing is replays of something your mother said to you when you were 7 years old or your knees are inflamed to the point where you think you can’t go on, all of this is happening. Your job is simply to stay there and let it happen. That’s a great teaching in patience.
How did you end up going to Christian School?
The public school in my neighborhood in Borough Park, in Brooklyn, was famously poor. My parents thought it would be a good idea to send me to what they thought was the best private school in Brooklyn, Poly Prep. My grandfather, whom I adored and who was a wise man, thought that I probably wouldn’t get in because we were Jewish. I was smart so it was worth a try. In fourth grade, in my interview with the headmaster when he asked me what books I was reading, I lit up and talked with great excitement about Treasure Island. He loved it so I was in.
It was a wonderful experience for me. The teachers were great. I thrived. I stayed there through the twelfth grade. That’s how I ended up there. The chapel was a surprise but it was a profound experience for me. I’d like Christian hymns. I didn’t like the music in our synagogue. I thought it was bland and sometimes ugly, nineteenth-century band music. The Christian hymns were honest work. Sometimes they had pleasant tunes to them. I loved it. That’s how I ended up there.
I’ve always liked any spiritual congregation regardless of faith. It’s interesting to be around people where there’s devotion going on. It’s a beautiful feeling. I always liked it.
Rick, when you gave me this book, the Tao Te Ching, why do you give it to people?
When I first read it, it felt like it answered a lot of questions but it didn’t answer them in a way where it gave me the answers. It allowed me to examine things in a new way and find new ways into thinking about things. Over the years, I found that every time I reread it, which I do fairly often, I take away something completely new. It continues to refresh itself depending on who I am when I’m reading it. It must have some sort of a mirror-like quality. Depending on who I am when I read it, it changes.
I love that. That’s a wonderful way to experience it.
I feel like Katie’s work has the same thing. I love her expression, “I don’t have answers but I have a lot of questions.” When she pitches you, “Is that true?” It’s you doing the discovery. It’s not someone telling you. I appreciate that about this book and about the work, which is that inquiry or hearing it the way you need to hear it at that moment and it is different each time. If it’s okay, I would like to read a couple of the chapters and get your take on it.
What I also appreciate is you said that sometimes you can open it and read one chapter and see whatever you need to see that day. “The Tao is like a well, used but never used up. It is like the eternal void filled with infinite possibilities. It is hidden but always present. I don’t know who gave birth to it. It is older than God.”
If anything lands that you guys want to share about any of them or one that you would like that feels important to you.
I want to ask about how the translation or the new version came to be. Going back to the Job story, you read Job, and then you decided to learn Hebrew. What did you learn by reading it in Hebrew versus when you first read it in English?
I was reading it in the King James version. The state of Hebrew scholarship in 1600 was fairly primitive so there were a lot of words that they didn’t understand and that they were understanding from the ancient Greek translation and that has problems with it. These misunderstandings on the part of the King James translators, most of the misunderstandings were perpetuated in the committee translations. They continued those misunderstandings.
[bctt tweet=”It’s more interesting when things are not apparent on their face.”]
When I learned Hebrew I could see some things that changed my understanding of the book 180 degrees. One example is at the end after Job has this magnificent vision of a world of complete dynamism without any moralistic judgments on it. The animals and the essence of nature, what this is telling us if we look at it without human assumptions and pre-conditions lit up with an intensity that is 100 times greater than when I had read it in English.
After Job has this vision in the King James version, he says, “I’ve heard of you in the past and now I’ve seen you. I’m so sorry. I’m mortified. You can do whatever you want.” Those aren’t the exact words but it’s the intention of what King James is saying. What I discovered is that the words don’t mean that at all. They mean, “Now I have seen you, I am comforted by what you had said because I am no one,” which was profound. It wasn’t the speech of a slave talking to a master. It was the speech of somebody who had seen something life-transforming. It allowed him the liberation of no investment there. That’s one example.
With the Tao, what did you start with? Can anyone know what the original author intends? What’s that like taking on the mission of a translation or a retelling? How does that work?
I’ll tell you a story about how I came to do it and then I’ll tell you what it was like in the process of writing that book. After I gave up being a monk in Zen practice, I met a woman who later became my wife. In the first stage of getting to know each other, I shared with her what my attitude to money was. When I was a monk, I had nothing. When I became a monk, I gave all my money. I had a legacy from my grandfather. I was living off that at about $2,000 a year for seven years.
I told her that in the Jewish tradition, the community supports scholars. They don’t have to earn money. They sit in this house of study all day long and read the Talmud and supposedly get some wisdom that way. That’s my attitude. I’m not interested in money. It’s more spiritual to follow Jesus and the Buddha to not be involved with money. I don’t want to.
She appropriately raised an eyebrow and said, “Sweetheart, you may be cherry-picking the tradition. Here’s what I see. Unless you are able to let money into your life, you won’t be able to send your books out to a substantial audience because you won’t be able to deal with the money coming back from the sale of the books. You should look at this more seriously.” I did. I tried this and that. My books were still selling several thousand copies that were translations of poetry, etc.
After an intense effort at making money, I was still making maybe $5,000 a year. After a couple of years, seeing her having to be the only one paying the mortgage, etc., I was mortified. I said, “I have to take extreme measures. I’m going to do another 100-day retreat. It will be a mini-retreat, only three hours a day, from midnight to 3:00 AM.” My intention will be to somehow get to a saner place about money.
On the 94th day of this retreat, I had a vision of Yoda from Star Wars. He was three feet away from me. It lasted for maybe three minutes. He was as real to me as you are, Rick. On the 95th and 96th night, Yoda came back. I’m not somebody who’s much interested in pop culture. It was particularly interesting for this to be that kind of image. I smiled at it afterward.
I asked myself, “What is this telling me?” Here’s my answer, “I’m going to do a translation of the Tao Te Ching that’s called the Book of the force and it will have a commentary by Yoda. It will sell a lot of copies.” I began. When I got to about halfway through, I called George Lucas and he told me through his assistant that it was a fascinating project but he didn’t want his character involved with any particular religious tradition. I thought that was fine.
I changed directions. I was translating Tao as the force. I went back to the Tao and the commentary became mine and not Yoda’s. That’s how it happened. If I hadn’t had Yoda and that framework for beginning those first two chapters, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to be so free with it. Now, the work itself sometimes was a straight translation.
I don’t know Chinese. Luckily, I found a copy of a late 19th-century American translation that had the Chinese on one side. Each ideogram had an English word or phrase. I could see how the Chinese were moving. I had on my desk about six different English translations and a couple of German and a couple of French. I was able to see more or less the extent of a single word and how people were dealing with it. I could get a sense of what the literal was. Although, in many cases, the original text is like a Rorschach test. It was all over the map because it’s elusive to most people.
These translators were all scholars of Chinese or theologians. I felt I was coming to the project with deep experience in meditation. It seemed to me that nobody else had this. I was understanding things from the ground level whoever Lao Tzu was or the desperate writers that are bunched together and called Lao Tzu. In any case, there were certain chapters or certain parts of chapters that seemed to me to be coming from a much lower level of consciousness than the rest of the book.
When I came to these, I tossed them out the window and improvised. I was improvising on the same theme that was happening in the book. With the actual writing, I was placing myself in the space of the writer that I had been translating and creating out of that space. That’s why it’s not a translation. It’s a version.
When I was giving readings and the publicity for the book, I was amused when people would come up to me and say, “My favorite chapter is chapter 50,” which is completely improvised. It has nothing to do with the original Chinese. Things like that. To finish the story, the book sold over 1 million copies. That solved my money problem. I was able to pay half of the mortgage. I was pleased with myself for doing it.
It’s amazing. Have you ever looked back on the discarded chapters with new eyes later?
I still think they’re dull and not insightful. I quote them in the notes section so people can compare what I tossed out with what I came up with. It’s quite interesting.
I’ll re-read the notes. I usually just read the text. I rarely re-read the notes.
I read them again and it is interesting.
Laird, your husband, pointed out a pretty good one to me. I had forgotten that. I forget the books that I write. Sometimes when I open a book and read something, I think, “That guy knows some things.”
I understand that experience. I get surprised. Sometimes I’ll be out at a coffee shop and a piece of music comes on and I’m thinking, “It’s good. I want to know what this is.” It ends up something that I worked on. It happens because they go through you. Once they’re out, they’re out.
I always am curious, Rick. I won’t use the word confidence because you’re not going to look at it that way but most of us would. It doesn’t seem like you’ve stuck yourself or it never occurred to you to stick yourself into one genre. You say, “I’m going to do a rap album. Now I’m going to do country. I’m going to do metal.” Stephen has versions of this in the types of work that he’s doing. I was curious where you got that sense of freedom because you have curiosity and you’re not sticking to a formula. A lot of us are scared to change, try different, or new. A lot of people get slotted early. It’s like, “This is what you do.” Maybe you could talk about that freedom.
I have a funny answer. It occurred to me that I probably don’t know that much about any of them. Even though I’ve had success in different areas, I don’t feel like I’m an expert in any of those areas. That’s my thing. It just so happens that I’ve participated in these different things and I come at all of them with the same sense of wonder I may like them. I may have an idea for a way to get into them that’s interesting. To me, this is the interesting version of this thing. Because I have no training to do it a particular way, it’s always new. There are no rules to follow.
The fact that you can say, “I’m going to do a version and tap into the tone of the writers I’ve been reading and can improvise a whole new one.” That has this same idea of the freedom of not thinking there are so many rules to everything.
What Rick was saying is very much like a famous Zen book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind. A great quote from that is, “There are few possibilities in the expert’s mind. In the beginner’s mind, there are infinite possibilities.” I’m paraphrasing. That’s true. What I’m working on is a version of Selected Poems from the great Roman poet, Catullus. I’m not an expert in that area. I had to refresh my high school Latin but my Latin is pretty good. I can see things that experts don’t necessarily see. I’m barging into an area where people are protective.
I’d like to say one thing about that chapter that you read. What does he mean by older than God? God is a concept and as beautiful concept as it is, infinite, all-loving, etc., It’s secondary because it requires thinking. It requires some conception of a good. Reality happens before that, before any concepts, and before we’re able to interpret the world at all. That’s elemental. That’s the Tao. Anything else, any religion that comes out of that is always secondary. If we are faithful to the primary, we don’t get caught up in the kinds of problems that the secondary provides. That would be my take on that line.
That line hits me hard. I wanted to cry when you read it. It doesn’t strike me the way that you’re suggesting. It’s interesting to hear you say it. The beauty of this is it’s open to interpretation. I would question whether could not that concept of God be in fact the Tao? Why not?
The greatest Christian writers, in my experience, like Meister Eckhart or The Cloud of Unknowing, it’s exactly that.
When I hear it, I don’t reject it. It’s like, “That’s not what it is.” It’s beautiful and I love it. Also, it could be or it could be one.
It may have been clearer if you read it as it is older than “God”. Either way, it’s good.
I love it. The thing that you’re translating, what was number four?
I don’t remember but if I had to guess, I would think that that’s fairly literal.
The older than God line?
I think so. I’m not sure. I can check it out.
I’m curious. It’s interesting that you don’t remember. That’s great.
I don’t remember anything.
[bctt tweet=”Treat your thoughts as things to be questioned. Treat your thoughts as not necessarily true but something you need to investigate.”]
This leads me to seventeen. Before I read it, I want to ask both of you because you are who you are. You’re intelligent people. There are people who are born with natural creativity, intellect, and things like that. Is there something that your parents did or didn’t do that allowed you the freedom or that the gates opened for both of you? A lot of times, when you’re younger, there was less restriction or the question of, “Why not? Why can’t I do that?”
I was adored by my parents and my grandparents. I had that childhood. What it allowed me was not to have to work on parent-child issues, which takes a lot of energy. I don’t think I would have become a particularly creative person if it hadn’t been for my girlfriend dumping me. That was the great challenge that allowed me to work through it to being a creative person. By the way, eighteen years later after she left me, I had come out with my Selected Poems of Rilke, which was a great success. I got my first couple of copies. I sent her one. She wrote me back a warm letter.
We met in New York. We spent four days together. She walked into the restaurant and I saw a 40-year-old woman as opposed to my 21-year-old image. She sat down and we began to talk. I knew immediately that it would be extremely good and it was. I felt that I was loving her for the first time. She’s still a dear friend. Closing the circle, I have that twice in the same year. It’s something handed to me on a silver platter with my Zen master, too.
Rick, you said you were an only child. I know your parents were accommodating.
More than accommodating.
They were like, “Ricky, what do you want to do today?”
Both of my parents were very child-like. I was the adult in the house. By the time I was a child, I was always the adult. I could do no wrong in their eyes. I had a second mom, my mom’s older sister who never married and never had kids. She was my mom on weekends. She was the cultured one in the family. She would take me to the theater, museums, and interesting movies.
New York City. She was a creative director at Estée Lauder. In the fashion world, I got to see a lot of stuff that my parents were not connected to. I had, in many ways, a perfect storm of great support growing up. Maybe to the point of being unrealistic but that leads to the unrealistic belief that you can do anything. There were no boundaries to what I was told I could do.
This leads me to seventeen, which pertains to parenting or governments, “When the master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. If you don’t trust the people, you make them untrustworthy. The master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing. We did it all by ourselves.’”
I love that lines so much.
Me, too. It’s fantastic.
It’s funny because Rick knows us very well. You spent time with us with Brody and such. Rick, I watched you and your stillness is a nice reminder. Whether you realize it or not, I’m like, “It works. Maybe you can trust that a little more.” Both Laird and I are doers, “Let’s do it.” Rick will hear us, “Call for the girls.” He’s like, “Oh.” Rick is like, “These people.” I wanted to say that. Rick, we’ll start with you with this urge and desire to create. Have you felt that it’s always there?
I like to make things fun. It was always fun. I didn’t choose it as a profession, it chose me. I was doing it because it’s what I like to do and I was going to have a real job. It turned out to be something that people liked and asked me to do, which is shocking. It’s still shocking to this day. I still can’t believe it.
You came out of the gate hard. Let’s face it, those first several years, it’s LL Cool J and Beastie Boys. It was boom and bang.
Other than wanting to make something great, no commercial aspirations. It’s wanting to make something good to make my friends like it. To make something that my friends would like was always the extent of the desire.
What do you think the real job would have been, let’s say?
I would have been a lawyer and I would not have liked that life. It wouldn’t work well for me.
In a courtroom?
I don’t know. I hope not.
People would lean in and listen. They’d be like, “I don’t know. We can listen to this guy.”
The piece that you wrote speaks to me. It’s funny to say but I try my best to have as little impact on the work that I’m working on as possible. When I say that, I want it to be the best it can be and I’ll do everything within my power to be the best it could be. I’ll leave and go as far as to say that I’d like to do it with as little involvement if possible, whatever it requires. I’ll do what’s required but that’s all.
I can remember an artist who I made five albums with and then we stopped working together. I saw him years later and he said, “I have no idea what it is that you did in the studio with us. Whatever it is, would you please come back and do it again?” My goal is to get to the point where I can produce an artist without having ever met them or spoken to them, yet have the work that we are doing together be the best work of their lives. That will be the ultimate version of it. I haven’t gotten there yet.
That sounds right.
Rick will artists home with homework. I love this. I’ve heard you tell the story where maybe someone’s having a challenge. Instead of directing or telling them, he’ll say, “Can you go home and write one word or something down.” It’s a great coach. It’s the instinct to know what this person, this artist, or this performer needs at this moment. There are people that are naturally like that. They feel the person they know. It’s like, “They need a push. They need a hug. They need to be left alone.” Whatever that is. What about you? What’s the urge inside? I know the urge to learn is powerful in both of you but to create.
With me, I backed into what I do. Through the Job story, I didn’t want to translate it as an aesthetic exercise. I was famished with that understanding. It consumed me. Translating was a means to an end the first time but it ended well for me. My other projects were a lot like what Rick is talking about, except my people were dead. There was no feedback but there didn’t have to be. I too wanted to do the best for them right at a level of excellence that I could recognize.
For instance, in my project with the Latin poet, Catullus, I’ve read other translations, and I have done all the scholarship, which is fascinating. When I read the other translations, it’s an experience of successive wincing. He used this word. Catullus would never, “That is vulgar.” It’s the rhythms too. The rhythms are ugly and have nothing to do with the music that Catullus was producing.
My job in all of these is to create something not only parallel in meaning but parallel in rhythm. That’s at least as important as the meaning. I’m able to do the same thing that you are with live people and with my dead people. It’s like that chapter says, “Trusting them through trusting yourself.” I trust myself never to be writing a word because I think it will affect somebody in some way. It’s always my own sense of integrity that is producing these words.
If I come back and look at a 2nd or 3rd draft and see that there’s something inauthentic there or something that’s even a millimeter off from what seems to be the genuine reflection of the original text, I’ll go back and spend hours on it, sometimes days on a word. That’s what’s important to me, being faithful to this great poet. In a marriage, it seems to me that there’s no difference between faithfulness and freedom. It’s the same thing. By being faithful, you’re giving yourself the freedom that has no limits. The freedom itself produces another level of faithfulness. I feel that with my books and my marriage.
With the artists I work with, my only goal is to be as good as it can to my ears. I never second-guessed myself. I never think of an audience. I never think of who the end-user is. I only think about my experience. If it’s not moving to me, I don’t expect it to move anyone else. If it moves me, I hope it’ll move them but that’s the best I can do. I can’t get into someone else’s head. I can only be true to what I feel. I’m looking for those moments of feeling. What you said about being true to the original poet is another act of devotion. You’re devoted to them so it has to be as good as it can be on their behalf. You take on the responsibility of allowing them to be their best.
Going back to the Tao Te Ching, somebody might think I was arrogant at tossing those sections out at the window and improvising. My feeling was either that the original writer had a bellyache on that day or was having a rough time with his wife or it was an inferior writer who was collected with other writers in this collection that was supposedly written by the mythical Lao Tzu. My faithfulness to the writer who wrote most of the Tao Te Ching and the best of the Tao Te Ching allowed me to be unfaithful to those sections of the texts.
There’s another paradox that appeared to me while you were speaking. There’s a sense in which total selfishness can be beyond the self. You’re trusting your instinct over everything else is a kind of selflessness because it’s not trusting the ego, it’s trusting what you’re responding to. It’s trusting the Tao. It’s not trusting the ego. Pure selfishness in that way is a blessing.
It’s funny. You can use the word selfishness but I don’t think of it as selfishness because the intention of it isn’t a selfish intention. It’s being true to yourself in service to whoever it is that you’re collaborating with, alive or dead.
In order to do that, you have to get to the point somehow through some kind of practice where you can trust your own instincts 100%. There’s an old Zen thing that says, “If you can walk 1,000 miles and not hear anything anybody says, you’re mature in your practice.” That’s powerful.
[bctt tweet=”The solid nature of my home situation allows me to be good, to go crazy out in the world.”]
When you talk like this, I was going to ask you both about being people who interpret and elevate other people. Stephen, you have your own works. Ultimately, both of you in a lot of your work are elevating and protecting other people’s visions.
That leads me to 28. This one’s a little bit longer but it’s exactly what you talked about, “Know the male, yet keep to the female. Receive the world in your arms. If you receive the world, the Tao will never leave you and you will be like a little child. Know the white yet keep to the black. Be a pattern for the world. If you are a pattern for the world, the Tao will be strong inside you. There will be nothing you can’t do. Know the personal, yet keep to the impersonal. Accept the world as it is. If you accept the world, the Tao will be luminous inside you and you will return to your primal self. The world is formed from the void like utensils from a block of wood. The master knows the utensils yet keeps to the block. Thus, she can use all things.”
When I listen to that, I picture the world as a puzzle and each of us is a piece. If we allow ourselves to be the peace that we are, we plug in, fit neatly, and we’re part of this whole or we can fight with it And there’ll be the whole of where we fit and we’re out here by ourselves trying to be a different shape. It never works. It is about acceptance is what I get from that. I love it.
I’m curious. You’re human beings. You are susceptible to gravity like all the rest of us. Things show up, challenges and life. For me, dealing with health things has always been that and my children. It’s like trying to navigate those two realms. Where do you find the grace or acceptance when that’s something that’s right in front of you personally? Is there a moment that you acknowledge your human angst and fear? Is there such a high level of surrender already that you’re able to slip into that? I’m curious because both of you are masterful but you’re still waking up every day and putting your feet on the floor. I’m curious how you translate those moments.
I’ll give you an example. I had cancer a few years ago. This is at age 77. When I got the diagnosis, my reaction was, “What comes next?” There was never any fear. There was never any anxiety. I started doing my homework. The next step was deciding between surgery, radiation, and immunotherapy. It was immediately clear to me that immunotherapy was the way to go. I did weekly infusions. It was no big deal. I would go and they’d stick a needle in my arm. I would read enjoyably for two hours. A nothing burger every week. There was no physical reaction to it.
After a year, it was over and I’m cancer-free. It didn’t cause ripples because whatever the result was, it was good to me. If I died, it was fine with me. I would be sorry not to be there as a husband for Katie until she died. That was the way of the Tao and I was comfortable with it all. Meditation practice or the practice of doing the work leads to a life where you don’t have problems. What used to be a problem isn’t a problem. It’s another opportunity for understanding.
I’m thinking about how to best answer this. I can talk about what feels like life-threatening events that come up.
I don’t even need specifics. I’ve seen you go through some things. When it lands, what are your moves?
I would say I get more worked up over smaller things. I get more worked up over things that don’t matter so much. For big things, I’m pretty good. Sometimes the little things, I feel like nitpicking.
The death by 1,000 cuts kind of thing. Laird is a little bit like that. If there’s crap hitting the fan, Laird is cool.
I don’t like to be annoyed and it happens. With the big stuff, I do pretty good. I try my best. As you know, we’ve had a series of events that are nice to be on the other side of. I continue on with gratitude and thankful for the day, every day.
The creativity and family are also probably good outlets I would think. It puts everything right in perspective.
For me, the solid nature of my home situation allows me to go crazy out in the world. I have a solid foundation at home and it feels great. It’s true too with my parents. Having the solid foundation of my upbringing allowed me to go out on a creative limb in a fearless way.
There are a lot of parallels. In a different way, you both were well into your adulthood before you found what I would consider from the outside your big loves. It seemed like it came whispering to you a little bit later. That’s got to be pretty exciting.
That’s fantastic. I’m blessed.
Is there something that surprises you about how different parts of you are because of that?
It’s like a new room too. You get to be a different part of yourself I would imagine than you may be experienced prior to that.
The feeling of not looking for anything is a great feeling. It’s feeling settled. I like that feeling more than being alone.
That says a lot for you. I feel that way too. I’m an only child. I always used to joke, “Who are all these people in my house? It’s my family.” There’s this sweetness when everyone’s where they’re supposed to be in bed when you’re going to rest that night and they’re all there. It’s good. Like you said, there’s nothing else.
It’s a good feeling.
Stephen, you have the love of your life. It’s interesting, Katie’s work, your work, the elevation of each other, and real-world expression of it. For me, she’s almost like the real-world expression of a lot of your words if you read the Tao. There’s Katie, who’s like, “Is it true?” You’re like, “This is it in real-time.”
The thing is, after I met Katie, I happened to be reading the book again. In the introduction, I have a description of the master, which is purely Katie. This was years before I met her. This is another example of trusting one’s intuition. When I first met her, the first seconds of looking into her eyes, I could see how deeply enlightened she is. I had hung out with Zen masters and people who had reputations of complete enlightenment etc. She was on another level.
I could see a heart completely open by looking through her eyes down into the depths and it rocked me so hard because I thought I was pretty far along on the path of the Buddha. The first instance of looking into her eyes was a combination of enchantment, astonishment, and mortification because of my arrogance. I never have wavered from that first understanding of the depth of her enlightenment. It was profoundly moving and beautiful to me. That’s where I am, with her. I’m still sitting before her with my palms together.
In addition to the fact that you get to share your life with her, the fact that you found each other and that you are the perfect vehicle for her to get her and share her message with the world is a perfect relationship.
She comes from a small town in California. She had one year of college. In my terms, she’s uncultured, uneducated, and, beautifully so, open to anything. When I first met her, I was reading to her from Lao Tzu, from the Buddha, and from my anthologies, The Enlightened Heart and The Enlightened Mind.
You’re trying to impress her.
She would come out talking in an ordinary conversation with things that were right from the Upanishads or something that the Buddha said. She didn’t know it. She had no idea. It was also a great pleasure to be introducing her to my loves in high cultures like War and Peace, Vermeer, Matisse, Bach, and Mozart. That’s where I live in music. She introduced me to things like the Eagles, whom I hadn’t listened to. It was a great enhancement. It was wonderful. We’re complementary in that way. If somebody were writing the script for a book about questioning, they would have brought Katie and me together in this world.
It’s beautiful and lucky.
You’d appreciate this, Rick. I went and see Bobbing with Katie. She isn’t afraid of anything. I can keep you here all day but I won’t do that to you. I want to read a couple of things. Stephen, I asked you for your favorite nonfiction books. You said one fiction, War and Peace.
Tristam Shandy, too.
Those are two Katie books that I helped her with.
Rick, I know you have a ton of books. Is there one that you want to drop off for the audience that, at this moment, excited you?
Anyone who hasn’t read Stephen’s Tao, I don’t know a better book. I’ve never come in contact with a better book than that one in front of you. That’s as good of a recommendation. The beauty of it is even if you’ve read it and you read it again, it’ll be as good, a lot different, and as new.
For me, even Katie’s The Four Questions, I use as tuneups. Sometimes I get lost in my motions in the smallness of my insecurities or whatever. It’s an amazing thing where a couple of questions or a phrase can pull you right out of it and help you. I have one more that I’ll read that we can finish on. I want to say I appreciate both of you so much for coming out of your way. It means so much to me to know you both. I love you guys individually. I learn and I’m inspired by you. I was like, “I want to get them together.”
[bctt tweet=”It’s being true to yourself in service to whoever it is that you’re collaborating with, dead or alive.”]
I see this transferring back and forth. When Stephen is talking about waiting for the rhythm in a book and both of your approaches, I thought it would be exciting and a treat. Thank you. This is 33, “Knowing others is intelligence. Knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power. If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich. If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.”
It’s good. Do you remember how close that is to where it came from?
If I had to guess, I would say it’s pretty free.
We can chat.
You can check the notes.
It was part of my integrity to supply the literal as well there so people can compare them.
If you don’t speak the original language, how can you feel the rhythm of the writing?
You can’t. What I saw in that old edition with the ideograms was a crude way of progressing from one basic concept to another. I could sense something of the movement but it would not be at all the way that somebody who speaks Chinese would sense it. However, with this particular book, it is all over the map. I said Rorschach. If you compare six translations of a particular chapter, even only in English and not in French or German or any other language, you’ll see that they are wildly divergent. Knowing the original language is not as important as it seems to me for this particular thing as it would be for other languages.
Hypothetically, if there was a language that you didn’t speak, would it be helpful to hear someone read it in the original language?
Not to me because it wouldn’t take me into the world that that’s coming from. It would be alien sounds that my brain wouldn’t be able to process. If I know even a little bit of a language, that can be important to me.
Do you find that when you read things in translations, either in French or German or other languages, are there tendencies that you see that English translations tend to be this way and French translations tend to be this way? Are they all different? The same for biblical translations, are the Hebrew ones much different than the English translations or the Greek, The Septuagint?
It’s different. I don’t sense any particular differences between English language translations as a whole and French or German. Mostly the tendencies are to protect themselves. Translators are usually quite conservative. The poets who translate and are not conservative are sloppy. It’s embarrassing to me usually, certainly with what I’m doing now, Catullus and Tao Te Ching. It happens even with good translators. I am thinking of Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu, which I partly grew up with as a young man.
Here’s another example of waiting. After I finished the Tao Te Ching, my heart’s desire was to translate a selection from Chuang Tzu, Lao Tzu’s disciple. He’s one of the funniest writers ever and one of the most profound. There’s nothing like his combination of wisdom and humor in any literature that I know. In any case, I wanted to do him. I settled down after the Tao Te Ching came out. I was blocked. Nothing happened. Yet, I knew I had to do it.
With me, I know a project is going to be fruitful if there are two things that happen beforehand. One, I have the awareness that this is beyond me. I don’t have the skills. I don’t have the wisdom to do it. The second thing is I have to do it. If those two things happen, the book is going to proceed. I kept Chuang Tzu in my awareness. Fifteen years passed and I had another circle in my life close with a relationship that had ended. That resurrected in the most amazing way after fifteen years.
With my ecstatic state of mind after that, for a few weeks, I started the Chuang Tzu and I knew how to do it. I knew I had to be free in a way that I couldn’t allow myself before. That happened and I called it The Second Book of the Tao. That was waiting for something that I could not control but I knew it had to happen. I didn’t have any idea when. That was a digression. I forgot where I started from.
Rick, does it show up when you know you’re going to do a project? Is it an exploration? How does that work?
It usually starts with an exploration until you realize there’s something interesting to happen. The challenge piece of it is a good one. If it’s more of the same, it’s not as stimulating as when it’s a new problem to solve and trying to find a way in. It’s fun not knowing. I will say it is a little scary. For every project I start, I have anxiety before we start because I have no idea what’s going to happen. Once it reveals what it wants to be, it’s a great feeling of excitement when you see what it can be.
It goes from this blank slate of, “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I know we’re not done until it’s great.” That’s all I know. I don’t know how long that’s going to take. I don’t know when we’re going to get a clue. You play with no expectation. When something happens, It’s like, “This, this, and this seems like the clues of the direction. Let’s try that and see what happens.” Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes it’s a false indicator that gets you started and takes you in a completely different direction, which is great where it wants to go. It’s never preconceived. Sometimes I’ll have a preconceived idea as a backup, like an emergency plan. It’s like, “If nothing good happens, we can always do this.” I never start with that. I always start with free play. More often than not, there is no emergency backup plan. There have been some times where it’s like, “If nothing else works, we can do this.”
My experience is similar to that but it’s not working with live people. My experiences usually of listening, let’s say I’m translating a line of Catullus, I’ll write it literally and it’s always crap. I’ll look at that line and as I’m hearing the sense of it, I’m also at the same time listening for rhythm. It’s like a counterpoint. Both things are happening. There’s a certain point at which I will be given words to fit into the rhythm that it has to be.
Line by line, it’s always a joyful surprise when it configures itself into a rhythm in the most amazing way. I’m not doing it, I’m there to listen and to write it down when it comes. Sometimes it’s an hour or two hours. The listening is pure. It doesn’t allow other thoughts to interfere. It allows them to go right through. It’s a pretty ferocious focus on nothing.
Do you ever do it out loud or is it always silent?
It’s always silent but it’s silence that has potentially sounds or words to it.
You’re hearing it internally.
There’s always a discrete point at which I can move on to the next line. I know it’s not crap anymore. It’s pretty good. When I go back to it, I can refine it. I may go back to it 200 times if necessary. Listening is what my practice is and that allows the words to have a genuineness to them, at least in my sense.
At any point, do you read it out loud once you have it?
You have never read it out loud?
Never. There’s a state that’s in-between silent and out loud. I’ll read it in that way when it’s getting toward being finished but not literally out loud.
For me, the out-loud part is helpful.
Loud and out-loud.
Just out-loud. If I’m working on something, hearing it and not just imagining hearing it can help me. I can hear things in the phrasing in a different way when I hear it out loud. An artist was sending me lyrics and I said, “Sing it into your phone and send it to me and let me listen to it that way.” It’s different. I want it to work both ways. Sometimes it can work on the page but, sonically, it’s different. I want it to be sonorous as well as well-written.
I went to a Black Sabbath concert with Rick. It was amazing. He closes his eyes and listens to it and takes it in.
That was fun.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
Thank you, guys.
Thanks for bringing us together. This is amazing.
I’m happy. You just needed Justin. You don’t need me. You guys are awesome. Thank you.
That wraps it up for this episode. Make sure to follow us on Spotify for free episodes and subscribe to the Gabby Reece show on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. You can follow me, @GabbyReece, on Instagram and Twitter. Aloha.
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- Stephen Mitchell
- Tao Te Ching
- Def Jam Records
- Broken Record
- Bhagavad Gita
- The Gospel According to Jesus
- Loving What Is
- Letters to a Young Poet
- Book of Job
- The Zen Teachings of Huang Po
- The Diamond Sutra
- Treasure Island
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind
- Selected Poems
- The Cloud of Unknowing
- The Enlightened Heart
- The Enlightened Mind
- War and Peace
- A Thousand Names for Joy
- A Mind at Home with Itself
- The Four Questions
- The Way of Chuang Tzu
- The Second Book of the Tao
About Rick Rubin & Stephen Mitchell
Rick Rubin is a noted American music producer. He is also known as “DJ Double R.” He was born and raised in the US. He started his own recording company while studying at the ‘New York University.’ Rubin co-founded ‘Def Jam Records.’ He is also the founder of ‘American Recordings’ and the former co-president of ‘Columbia Records.’ He played a major role in popularizing hip-hop music in the 1980s. He has successfully worked with some of the biggest names of the music industry, such as ‘Aerosmith,’ Neil Diamond, ‘AC/DC,’ Eminem, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, Adele, the ‘Red Hot Chili Peppers,’ Shakira, ‘The Black Crowes’ among others. He has helped in shaping the careers of some of the most renowned performers of the industry, such as the ‘Beastie Boys,’ Johnny Cash, ‘Run-DMC,’ the ‘Dixie Chicks’ among others. He has won many award nominations and a number of ‘Grammy Awards’ for his outstanding production work. He is considered as one of the most prominent music producers in the country and is an influential figure in the world of music. He is a great follower of professional wrestling and has financially supported ‘Smoky Mountain Wrestling’ for a period of time. He lives with his partner in Malibu.
Stephen Mitchell was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1943, and he attended Amherst, the Sorbonne, and Yale. In 1973 he began studying Zen practice with Zen Master Seung Sahn. He has translated numerous books from Chinese, German, and Hebrew, including The Frog Prince (Harmony, 1999), The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai with Chana Bloch (1996), The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1995), A Book of Psalms: Selected & Adapted from the Hebrew (1994), The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers (1993), Tao Te Ching (1992) and The Book of Job (1992). He is also the translator of Bhagavad Gita (Broadway Books, 2000). He has also edited anthologies such as The Essence of Wisdom: Words from the Masters to Illuminate the Spiritual Path (Broadway Books, 1998), Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology(1993), and The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry (1989) and has published a book of original poetry, Parables and Portraits (1990). Stephen Mitchell lives in Berkeley, California.