Beliefnet interview with Rivers Cuomo - June 2006
Alt Rocker Finds Inner Peace
Take Weezer's frontman, send him to Harvard, and have him meditate for two hours a day. What do you get? One calm Rivers.
Meet Rivers Cuomo, the famously self-tortured lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the Grammy-nominated band Weezer. They're the alternative-rock band who sing "Beverly Hills" and who made that great Spike Jonze-directed video "Buddy Holly." In the last few years Cuomo has been practicing Vipassana meditation, whose goal is, according to the Vipassana Mediation website, "the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation." But the 36-year-old Cuomo hasn't just been meditating. He recently finished up a world tour for "Make Believe," his most recent CD, returned to Harvard University to finish up the undergraduate English degree he began in 1995, graduated in June, and got married days later. Beliefnet caught up with him in his dorm room during the past semester.
It seems like you've reached a point in your life when you no longer need to suffer for your art.
I really don't need to suffer. I can really become a happy person and still make good music, in fact, better music. But until the music tells us that, I don't want to make that claim. I don't think "Make Believe" is enough proof.
"Make Believe" is Weezer's first happy album?
Yeah. It's just the first few years of being a Vipassana meditator, so. And I think a vast improvement on our fourth album. We'll have to see how the next one is.
You recently said, "Vipassana is a less well-known form of meditation in this country and I'm not sure why that is. I think so far, the press has misunderstood the purpose of the apparent austerities." What is the press getting wrong about Vipassana?
I went through a real ascetic phase, but that was before I was a Vipassana meditator. That was at the height of my misery at the beginning of 2003. [Laughs.]
I don't know why, but I have this real streak of self-flagellation. I'm not sure where it comes from. But once I started meditating, all that went away and now I live pretty comfortably. I mean, this is kind of spartan compared to what most rock stars live like, but, it's comfortable.
Actually, [the Buddha] did the same thing. Before he became enlightened, it was several years where he was living on hardly any food and really beating himself up, thinking that that would lead to happiness. And that was actually pretty common in India at that time, for people to try those kinds of ascetic practices. But he actually turned away from that and tried what he called "the middle path," and all of his friends that had been practicing with him thought he was like a total wimp for bailing out on harsh asceticism. And he started eating and taking care of his body and making sure he was healthy and practicing Vipassana meditation. And that's how he became enlightened, became happy.
You spoke about the focus on meditation being concentration.
Well, that's kind of like half of it. In the Vipassana course, the first three days are pure concentration exercise, and then the next seven days are Vipassana, which is more than that. You're not just trying to focus your mind, but you're trying to draw up all the deep negativities from your unconscious and purify them. My understanding of it keeps evolving as I experience more, so I may have said that at one point, but there's more to it now.
Your recent trip to India was filmed for possible inclusion in a documentary?
There's a filmmaker in Washington, D.C., who got funding from Geffen Records to film this trip. She wants to make a film about me and Vipassana. The record company owns the footage, so anything could happen with it. She's hoping that she'll be able to get some other funding to turn it into the film she wants to make.
A film like that could get a lot of people looking into Vipassana. How do you feel about being the unofficial spokesman for Vipassana?
I just gotta keep reminding myself: Every time I do an interview or something my volition really has to be just to serve, to help people. Not to feel like I'm important.
I noticed a copy of "Robinson Crusoe" on your desk. Are you reading it right now?
Yep. Well, it's really exciting, inspiring. It reminded me of Thoreau. Reminded me of "Walden." So I imagine it must have been one of Thoreau's inspirations. And it also reminded me of my time in solitude at Vipassana courses and stuff like that. One thing that really struck me is, what he writes about for some reason comes across as so cruel. Like there's so little feeling of compassion or regret that he has to kill the animals to survive. I'm not sure what to make of it yet. The way he describes it is so cold.
Any guesses as to where the coldness comes from?
It never occurred to him that the suffering of the animals is something to worry about or to feel sorry about. And maybe that was just a product of the times or maybe some Christian philosophy that justifies it; I'm not sure. Really the thing that strikes me most about it is: Maybe there's something in me that's reacting to this and that maybe other people wouldn't notice it.
You're thinking about suffering and sure enough…
He gets a pet cat or something and he says, "The cat keeps having kittens so I just go out and drown the kittens."
Didn't you write a song--"Really Freak Me Out"--about a spider?
I did, but I changed the lyrics because I had the experience with a spider, and I realized, "I can't write a song about a spider," so I just envisioned something else that's analogous.
Let's talk about the song "Pardon Me." To me, the lyrics initially seemed didactic ("I may not be a perfect soul/ But I can learn self-control"), but the melody is so catchy that you don't in the end mind.
I don't ever want anyone to think that I'm being judgmental. I gotta do everything I can do to not be preachy.
Is Vipassana in some way a turning away from experience?
That's a common misconception about meditation. That it's turning away from experience or turning away from really feeling what's going on. And it's really like the opposite of what you're doing. With Vipassana you're taking the time to stop and look inside yourself and really observe what's going on on a physical and mental level, and instead of just reacting to it, you're sitting there observing it with 100 percent of your attention ideally. You're not turning away from anything.
During Vipassana courses you are supposed to abstain from "using high or luxurious beds." Is your dorm bed "high and luxurious"?
[Laughs] I think that these things were formulated at the time of the Buddha when, I think, they were sleeping on the ground. That's obviously not required of us. The point is, the facilities are comfortable but not extravagant. You know, just a simple bed like this--that's fine. You shouldn't go in with an attitude, "I'm want to have, like, all these specific comforts while I'm here." That's not what it's about.
Was it hard going from being a rock star to an undergrad?
Yeah, the writing workshop last semester was really painful. And I think it is for everyone in the class, too. You've got 11 of your peers tearing your writing apart.
Any particular story that sticks out in your mind?
The day that my first essay was critiqued in a workshop.
Your ego is totally on the line.
Yeah, all on the line. You're so concerned about your ego, too. I mean, you're at Harvard, everyone's so ambitious and so driven. On top of that, I'm older than everyone else, so I feel like I should be better and more accomplished. On top of that, I'm a rock star, so I feel like people are paying extra attention to me and they're going to be extra critical. So, it's tough, but it's my own mental garbage.
Do you meditate in your dorm room?
[Points] In the closet. And, you know, that really just evens things out. 'Cause whatever things come up during the day that get you agitated, you'll sit and, "Oh." And on top of that, throughout the day, even when I'm not sitting, I'm doing meditation. Whenever I remember somebody said something mean to me I'll feel, "Oh, unpleasant sensation," and I'll observe it and try to be equanimous with it. Or I'll have to go in front of a camera and do an interview and feel nervous. So I'll feel all these unpleasant tingling sensations. So that the task, throughout the day, is kind of the same--whatever I'm doing--is just to observe the sensations and be equanimous.
The sensations are always changing but the task is always the same.
You've made a few statements about the uncertainty of Weezer's future. It must have taken some work on the band's part to be equanimous with this.
They have so much attachment to this continuing and it's frightening when that gets threatened. They've seen me go through this so many times over our career. I think they've learned that sometimes you've got to become a little detached from it. Say, "Alright, he's gotta go through his process and if he's meant to come back, if there's more songs that are there, it'll happen. And if not, it won't."
Do you meditate with them?
Yeah. Before the show. We sit for about five to 20 minutes. Not Pat [Wilson, Weezer's drummer] though, just the three of us. It was their idea. It was Brian's [Weezer guitarist Brian Bell] idea.
Does it have a positive effect on way things go?
I'm not really sure. I imagine we feel it must have a positive effect because we keep doing it. I know it makes me feel less anxious before I go onstage. Maybe a little more focused. I'm sure they had the same fears that I did when I started.
Because you're the most public Vipassana meditator in America, have the people from the centers wanted to talk to you?
It's an incredibly de-centralized organization. You can hardly call it an "organization. " Each center is comprised of just other students like me. People who work there are just people like me who go there for 10 days, or sometimes longer, and volunteer to work in the kitchen or clean. You might have one to three people that stay there for a years at a time, kind of just manage the place. They're not involved in teaching or disseminating any kind of philosophy or anything. Wait a minute--no, they kind of set a tone at the center, I suppose.
How was your visit to S.N. Goenka [Cuomo's meditation teacher, whom he thanks in the liner notes of "Make Believe"]?
It was pretty much what I thought it would be.
You must feel very indebted to him in some ways.
Yeah. You know, I went there to thank him. And I knew exactly what he would say.
He said nothing. "Whatever benefit you're getting, it's because of your own hard work." And that was it.
A long way to go for a short conversation.
Yeah, but it was totally worth it. [Pause.] I'm not even really sure why.