“Nothing remains the same for two consecutive moments. Confucius, while looking at a
stream, said, “It is always flowing, day and night.” We may be tempted to say that
because things are impermanent, there is suffering. However, if you suffer, it is not
because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Have you ever seen the Dalai Lama? In fact, have you ever had contact with any Tibetan
Buddhists? Throughout my life, I’ve rarely seen people more joyful or content. A
refreshingly playful, almost childlike quality exudes from most of the Tibetans I’ve met.
And what’s strange is that when I’m around them, I feel like I’m more in the moment,
more connected to what’s important, and more open to both the meaning and the joy of
A few years ago, I fulfilled a life-long dream by going on a Himalayan trek. I embarked
on what felt like a pilgrimage of sorts with close friends to a place called Ladakh, (also
known as Little Tibet), a remote part of northwestern India adjacent to the original
Tibetan border, not far from Kashmir. This breathtakingly beautiful region has been
primarily populated by Tibetan Buddhists for over 2000 years, uninterrupted by Chinese
invasions and until just a few years ago, untouched by the influences of modern life.
When I first arrived and started to explore this remarkable Himalayan community, just
exchanging greetings with the locals was an ecstatic, life-embracing experience.
“Julay!” they would shriek in delight, as they greeted me along the road. Whenever the
Ladakhis encountered us, no matter who, where or when, they would burst into this big,
generous smile, their arms would fly out into the air towards their foreheads in what
looked like a kind of salute to their third eye, while their voices joyously exclaimed this
infectious greeting, as if simply encountering one another along the path was a precious
miracle. God, they seem happy, I thought to myself.
Over the course of a few days and hundreds of these greetings later, I noticed that
something indescribable had started to shift within me. The protective armor I’d grown
accustomed to wearing all my life – the layers that I had on so long I didn’t even notice
were there – started to meld into a kind of joy that I hadn’t felt for many years. It
reminded me of those lazy Sunday afternoons when I was nine years old, all the way
back to the early sixties, when I would meander on my trusty bicycle through the streets
of my sleepy home town, safe and sound, without a care in the world. It felt wonderful.
After a few days of being in Ladakh, most of us foreigners started to imitate the locals –
(after all, when in Rome!) – and pretty soon we were all unselfconsciously exclaiming this
joyous greeting as we would pass one another, foreigners and Ladakhis alike, without
concern for what anyone would think. With each greeting, I started to feel inexplicably
happier and more grateful, just to be alive. I was suddenly in awe of this miracle we call
life, and it’s preciousness was undeniable and palpable.
While at Ladakh, we had the great honor of being given permission to observe an ancient
Tibetan Buddhist sand painting ritual, performed by the monks of the local monastery
over a number of days. Endless hours were meticulously spent creating an intricate
mandala of multi-colored sand, only to be ceremoniously destroyed on the last day of the
ritual as a living metaphor of life’s fragility. Joyfully, they created the sand painting.
Joyfully, they destroyed it. How can there be all this joy knowing that everything that is
here now will most assuredly be gone one day?
I share some of these memories from Ladakh because they were a significant part of my
initiation into the direct understanding of the laws of impermanence, laws which have I
believe has something to do with the characteristic jois de vivre of the Tibetan Buddhists.
If one lives long enough, it’s impossible to avoid the inevitability of loss. Little did I
realize, however, that hidden within these painful losses are the strengthening life lessons
that carve us into who we truly came here to be. Becoming familiar with the transitory
nature of life has not only helped me cope with life’s unexpected twists and turns; it has
also helped me cultivate a greater capacity for gratitude than I’ve ever dreamed of
experiencing. (Gratitude, as Brother David Stendl-Rast says, would suffice for all the
prayers that could be said in a lifetime.)
Coming to a place of acceptance of the laws of impermanence is a key component to
what can be called spiritual intelligence, a term I’ve borrowed from Daniel Goleman’s
bestselling book on emotional intelligence, called Emotional IQ. I use the term spiritual
intelligence to describe a way of living life with both/and awareness, living life fully
while simultaneously accepting that it will all end one day.
One prayer that describes a spiritually intelligent approach to life in Western culture is
quintessentially expressed in the well-known Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Neibhur,
famous for its use in the 12-step Recovery Movement. In this simple prayer lies hidden
within it perhaps one of the most powerful keys to a peaceful, grateful life. It reads:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change
the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Integrating Impermanence into Everyday Life
Buddhism’s teachings are infused with spiritually intelligent wisdom that reflect a deep
understanding of life’s fragility. This tradition teaches the certainty of change and the
inevitability of death with such consistency, it normalizes that which Western culture
outright avoids and denies. By practicing letting go, surrendering to what arises, and
reminding ourselves that everything, including ourselves, will pass away one day,
Buddhist teachings teach us that one can learn to accept the inevitability of loss and
therefore enjoy each precious moment as it passes. For many of us, this is easier said than
Most of us in Western cultures don’t willingly engage in these practices unless something
unanticipated and unwanted occurs that forces us to; a loved one passing away
unexpectedly, being fired from our jobs, or perhaps an accident of some kind. Generally,
it is during these painful and sobering initiations that we start to pay attention to the
essential laws of impermanence, often leading to greater wisdom, acceptance and a
deeper relationship to life’s mysteries.
The Greatest Wonder in the World
In the ancient Hindu text, the Mahabharata, written almost 7000 years ago, a universal
phenomenon was written about that continues to have relevance to the human experience
today. To paraphrase, it asks:
“What is the greatest wonder in all the world?”
And then it answers:
“The greatest wonder in all the world is that everyone dies, but no one believes that it
will happen to them.”
What can we learn from this millennial, universal blind spot in human beings?
For as long as we have been in existence, human beings have been fearful of death and
the unknown, afraid of no longer existing, and terrified of leaving familiar surroundings
and loved ones behind. We all know why. It’s understandable to want things to go as
planned, to want to control life, and to hope that the things and people you love in your
life will never leave or change.
Sooner or later, however, we all must acknowledge that these hopes are futile attempts to
go against the grain of existence, similar to swimming against the very current of Life
My initiation into the full understanding of the inevitability of loss had a particularly
relentless quality, which apparently is quite common to those of us who are a bit stubborn
and unwilling to accept life on its own terms, as I was. Since I’ve always been a person
who has, for better or worse, been attracted to living larger than life, my initiation
provided more than enough drama to satisfy a lifetime, leaving an indelible impression on
me. Like most people who experience a life passage of severe loss, out of these ashes
arose the phoenix of change that ultimately delivered me to the life that was waiting for
me to live.
My Former Life
Up until about eight years ago, I was living another life. I was known in the music
industry as a studio rat, a term fondly used when describing the overworking recording
industry professional. As a result of many years of ambition, hard work, and some luck, I
had accomplished the near impossible: a successful, award-winning career, composing
and producing music for media production on a national scale without having to live in
Los Angeles, the center of the known media universe. The cost of admission: an
unsustainable lifestyle, spending endless hours in the studio while attempting to find
balance with some semblance of a family life.
Up until this time, I was earning more money than I had ever dreamed of earning,
composing and producing music for top-rated television shows, award-winning national
ad campaigns, and feature films, one of which even played at the Cannes Film Festival.
As if it weren’t hard enough to become successful in this competitive field, I made it
even more challenging by wanting to maintain a lifestyle in the more beautiful and
considerably mellower San Francisco Bay area, away from the hectic freeways and the
smog-filled air of Los Angeles. While common wisdom dictated that LA was the required
habitat for media composers, I was one of the rare few that actually had a national
clientele without having to live in Southern California. I knew I had beaten the odds, and
I was grateful for it.
By staying in the Bay Area, I was a big fish in a small pond. I was happily married, (so I
thought), with a beautiful six year-old daughter that I adored. I enjoyed a respectable
reputation in the community. True to the role I was playing, I had the required enormous
house with swimming pool and the mandatory luxury car. I was proudly bringing home
substantial royalty checks every month, which made me feel like I had most assuredly
made it. But even though I knew better, I was living with the erroneous belief that it was
all going to last forever. I couldn’t imagine it ending. I thought I was set for life.
But deep inside, I had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. While I had received
many accolades for my work, I wasn’t feeling artistically fulfilled. Since I was five years
old, I had big dreams of making some kind of significant contribution to the world of
But given how well I was doing financially, I didn’t dare ‘rock the boat’ by indulging in
such extravagant thoughts. After all, I was a husband and a father. As the son of a
Russian Jewish immigrant who had been weathered by the harsh times of the depression,
I was programmed to be a breadwinner. I knew my job was to take care of my family,
and show that I could make a living in this incredibly competitive career. Artistic
fulfillment would have to come later. It was a time in which I felt compelled to prove
myself to the world, but to myself most of all.
Creating Media that Matters
Still, I knew what I truly loved to do. I was passionate about working on media projects
for beneficial causes. I had never been so fulfilled as when I was writing music for
projects whose purpose was to raise awareness about important issues, procure money for
people in crisis, or to help catalyze positive change in the world. I wanted my music to
make a difference in measurable, practical ways. The idea that one’s art could actually
be useful, the way a healer could be, or the way an investigative reporter could be, for
example. Now this was thrilling.
After a number of years in which I consistently offered my talents and services, I became
known in the local media community as the guy who was willing to do pro bono work for
socially responsible causes at the drop of a hat. It was while working on these kinds of
projects that I felt significantly more fulfilled, more alive, and more connected to what I
came here to do. After each of these projects, I would go to bed at night feeling that I had
finally figured it out. This is what I wanted to do when I grew up!
This proved to be a great challenge however, due to the fact that no one I had ever known
had been able to support themselves strictly from pro bono work. Most people come to
realize that one can’t be financially successful doing what you most love to do while also
making a significant contribution to the world. (Could you imagine Bono beginning his
career by attempting to influence movers and shakers of world politics to reduce the
African debt, before he had his first hit? I don’t think so!)
Well, who was I to think that I could have my cake and eat it too? I was lucky to have a
career in music at all, my inner voice would say. Best to proceed with financial security
as the highest priority first. Then all would be well, my marriage would last till we were
old and grey, and I would have plenty of time to follow other yearnings, such as
satisfying the artist within when I had the time on my hands to be concerned with such
luxuries. I had a plan, and I expected life and God to ‘step in line’ with my plan.
However, life had other plans for me, and within a short period of time after I decided
that I had to express myself as an artist and release a debut album, literally everything
started to unravel. Professional assignments started falling apart in front of my eyes.
Technological breakdowns in my studio suspiciously became the norm. Clients became
more unmanageable and difficult than ever. But no matter how loud the warnings got, I
held stubbornly to my Personal American Dream, the life that would guarantee success,
consumption, and security forever. The more I resisted the pure (and inconvenient)
creative expression that was waiting to emerge from within me, the more uphill life
And then, in the summer of 1998, when my daughter was six years old, my life as I knew
it came to horrific, painful, and unexpected crash.
It was my time for the Fall. As described in most spiritual traditions, it was time for my
initiation into the Great Mystery through the power of suffering, the suffering that is a
requisite for every hero’s journey, It finally happened to me.
During a bicycle ride with my daughter in the neighborhood, I sustained a truly horrific
face-plant into concrete that severely cut into my face, a number of body parts, and most
notably, my wrist, where I sustained 16 fractures, possibly jeopardizing the use of my left
hand, a part of me which was rather essential for playing piano, for composing, and for
continuing a musical career as I knew it.
To add insult to injury, one month, many stitches, a horrific oral surgery and an
excruciating three-hour hand reconstruction surgery later, – while I was recovering from
this horrific trauma – my wife then informed me that she wanted to leave the marriage.
To my horror, she said that she would like to leave California, take our six year old
daughter away from me, (the treasure of my life), and start a new life in Europe,
hopefully with the man she had reconnected with, (after not being with him for more than
At this point, I must point out that I was a typical California guy. This means that for
twenty-five years, I had done everything that was au courante to explore. Gestalt
Therapy, Reichian Work, Co-Counseling, Shamanism, Peyote Ceremonies, Emotional
Releasing, Rolfing, Alchemical Hypnotherapy, Meditation, Tai Chi, Yoga, and, for good
measure, extensive couples therapy as a preventative insurance strategy. To say that I
was sure that this stupefying reversal of my wife’s feelings would NEVER happen to me
is a complete understatement. I was devastated, humiliated, infuriated, and emasculated.
I knew that I would never be the same again, and wondered how I couldn’t see it coming.
When I started looking at it in hindsight, I had to admit that there were a number of
omens that things were amiss between us – but at the time, I was completely blind.
Just as the Mahabharata talked about the greatest wonder in all the world, I was
completely taken by surprise that my life (as I knew it) had to suddenly face its death cry,
and no advanced psycho-spiritual tool could ever adequately prepare me for this
unexpected turn of events. As the Texans might say, I was road kill.
This was, without question, the death of everything I cherished, everything I invested my
life in, and everything I was personally committed to, including my own supposedly
airtight strategy for success. After a lifetime of believing in the possibility of true love
and happy endings, a part of me died that day. Perhaps the magical thinking of youth
should be allowed to die through painful initiations such as this, opening to a more sober
way of living that can allow everything in its own season, in its own way, with a healthy
respect for the inevitable, and at times ruthless law of impermanence.
In hindsight, I must reiterate that there were plenty of signs that this ‘fall’ was headed in
my direction. Because my sense of self-worth was inextricably linked to how much
money, praise, attention, and status I was getting from the world, I just wasn’t willing to
see it. Like it or not, it was time for me to be initiated into a way of having a more
meaningful relationship to life’s Mysteries. It was my time to become aware of how
fragile and precious life is by having things that I loved taken away from me for a while.
While I’m not saying that this is the way everyone has to come by this knowledge, I do
know that loss allowed me to appreciate life as an priceless gift, worthy of being
treasured. Over time, I came to see life as a priceless opportunity to serve others, and to
be of value to those in need.
The Creation of Graceful Passages
During this time of physically rehabilitating my wrist, learning and asserting my rights
and responsibilities as a new single father, (so that she couldn’t be taken away), and
attempting to sort through the separation and divorce that followed, I was physically,
emotionally and spiritually drained.
In the midst of this challenging time, Grace knocked at my door. A dear friend of mine,
pioneer Chant master Michael Stillwater had approached me with desire to create
something that could support his work with people at the end of life. After having
experienced the death of his father recently, he started to offer extemporaneous songs at
the bedside of those who were going through the dying process. As he sang about love,
forgiveness, and gratitude, somehow all the things that were not being said amongst
family members, (as well as the ever present fear and denial) miraculously dissipated into
tears of joy and sadness, expressions of love and appreciation, and a more fearless
embrace of the journey that lay ahead for all involved.
He approached me because he had thought to himself that if he were dying, the music he
would want to hear would be mine – which was deeply gratifying – and thought that we
might be able to join together to create a recorded resource that could support people in
being less afraid, more willing to accept the realities of the transition at the end of life,
and more open to experiencing the gratitude, connectedness, and love that seemed to be
universally needed at such times.
I myself had experienced the death of my father six years prior to this, and I had been
forever changed from the experience. Remembering how hard it was to be at the bedside,
with that elephant under the rug feeling in the air, I was intrigued with the idea of
creating a resource that could possibly help people during this time of intense fear and
challenging emotions. Given that I was traversing my way through a ‘death’ of my own
at the time, I welcomed the opportunity to explore what might be supportive to those
experiencing the heart of Loss.
We began experimenting with the power of intention and prayer, (now documented as
being capable of offering a great many benefits to people dealing with all sorts of
challenges). We recorded Michael as he extemporaneously spoke in an intimate, loving
manner to an imaginary person who had just received a terminal diagnosis. While he
spoke from the heart, I improvised at my keyboard underneath him, scoring every
emotional nuance as if I were scoring a motion picture film.
When we finished the prayerful message in support of presence, acceptance, and a space
to feel, we both were awestruck. We wondered to ourselves if anyone had ever musically
scored the universal messages from the world’s spiritual and humanitarian leaders – the
world’s wisdom keepers – using the same aesthetic and musical standards as are used in
the scoring of films? Could we obtain intimate, vulnerable, and meaningful messages
from respected authors, speakers and leaders of our time, and deepen the impact of these
healing messages by creating an emotionally resonant musical atmosphere around them,
making them impossible to be listened to without an open heart? Could we create an
audio resource that was as compelling to listen to as the viewing of a film? Could we
imbue it with an inherent quality that would create sacred space for a wide, spiritually
diverse audience? Could we intentionally design it so that it would help to inspire greater
compassion, empathy, intimacy, and presence for people dealing with the passages of life
that more often frighten, perplex, and disturb us?
Over the next three years, with the help of our credit cards, the Nathan Cummings
Foundation, my retirement fund, and a number of generous individuals and organizations,
we recorded wisdom keepers from all over the world speaking messages dedicated to
those facing loss and death. We recorded the messages from people such as Elisabeth
Kubler Ross, the pioneer of the death and dying movement. We also recorded Dean Alan
Jones, Episcopalian minister from Grace Cathedral, along with Rabbi Zalman Shacter-
Shalomi, founder of the national Jewish Renewal Movement. We recorded the well-
known American Spiritual teacher, Ram Das for the first recording after his well-
publicized stroke. We also worked with the voices of Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned
Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Arun Gandhi, (the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi who is
carrying on the peaceful work of his Grandfather), and others. We spent over 1200 hours
in the studio editing interviews, composing music, and designing a groundbreaking audio
resource that has since set a new benchmark in what is sometimes called a new kind of
‘audio medicine for the soul.’
Featuring a rich aural tapestry that features full orchestra and choir, Graceful Passages: A
Companion for Living and Dying, has received international acclaim from leaders in
hospice and palliative care, the chaplaincy and pastoral care worlds, as well as key
figures in the entertainment and self-help fields. The book and CD is now regarded as
‘one the most powerful non-pharmacological audio interventions for the alleviation of
anxieties associated with the end of life process’ and as a result, has been embraced as an
essential tool for all care providers assisting those facing loss of any kind.
All of this came into being because we followed a natural curiosity to explore what
resources we might be able to create so that we all can become more familiar with the
nuances of the death and dying process for human beings, both metaphoric and literal,
something the Buddhists have been doing for thousands of years. And none of this would
have ever transpired if I hadn’t been asked to endure a death, the kind of death that
sooner or later, one way or another, none of us can evade.
Dying Every Day to Feel Fully Alive
I’ve heard that the Dalai Lama, along with most practicing Tibetan Buddhists, includes a
death and dying meditation as a vital part of his daily spiritual practice. Since
impermanence is one of their core principles, they believe that starting at birth, we can
normalize death, even make friends with it, by beginning a life-long process that might
prepare us for the little and big deaths of our lives, those moments when we experience
loss of any kind. Given that, it should come as no surprise to learn that the core values of
Buddhism are based on kindness and compassion. When we remember how precious this
life truly is, how else could we treat one another than with kindness?
The Buddhists, along with most of the world’s indigenous cultures, see everything as
interconnected – a cycle of life that includes death, knowing that it doesn’t make sense to
shove any part of life “under the rug”, away from our awareness. When we can accept the
reality of our mortality and face it head on, it just might turn out to be the best-kept secret
to living a satisfying life. One can experience profound gratitude and fulfillment in this
life, especially when you live it out loud and all out, with full awareness of life’s
preciousness. That is why, one breath at a time, I try to come to peace with dying every
moment of every day so I can feel fully alive. After subscribing to this practice, I started
to realize an ironic truth: most of us are not as afraid of dying, as we are of fully living.
In our industrialized, so-called “civilized” societies, the predominant worldview couldn’t
be more different than those who live in the timeless village of Ladakh. Everything in our
fast-paced, high-tech, youth-obsessed culture revolves around an institutionalized
obsession with keeping the awareness of our mortality off of the mainstream’s radar. Our
media, our advertising, our careers, and our lifestyles are all infused with a mass-
condoned form of unconscious propaganda, dedicated to ensure that our experiences,
thoughts and reminders of death pertain to others, to all those unfortunate people we read
about in the news, in Iraq, or next door, but most assuredly not us. We are relied upon to
deny the truth of our fragility, so that we can keep this ironically life-giving awareness
(of our mortality) down below our conscious thoughts, fueled by a collective, primordial
What I know now is that when I finally accept that death will surely happen to me, (and
could happen, therefore, at any moment) then more joy, life, and gratitude is available to
be experienced than ever before. I’m convinced that there is a correlation between this
essential practice of facing the inevitability of our dying with this refreshing temperament
that looks at the world with an almost childlike wonder, that shrieks with delight at the
greeting of a stranger, as the Ladakhis do.
I still find it remarkable, that with all the suffering the Tibetans have seen since their
country was taken away from them, they are still known for their inexhaustible joy,
laughter, and gratitude for the preciousness of life itself. I believe this experience of joy
and innocent love of life is available to all of us, if we were only willing to have the
courage to accept the responsibilities of what it means to be mortal – namely – to fully
accept the inevitability and the reality of our mortality.
The Life That Was Waiting for Me To Live
Since the release of Graceful Passages five years ago, I am now living a completely
different life, with different values and different priorities. I might not be “making it” in
the entertainment business as much as I was before, but now I’m much more connected to
what really matters in my life. My daughter is now fourteen years old, and I travel around
the world speaking and performing as an advocate for the integrative power of music, for
healing, for inspiration, and for spiritual awakening. I believe in the vital role music and
media must play to catalyze change and make a difference in people’s lives, and I’m
constantly seeking projects I can work on that fit this description. I occasionally serve as
an artistic director for global peace conferences where participants are hungry for more
impactful, musical experiences beyond merely intellectual discourse, where the art and
music of the world’s cultures can provide direct infusions of the remarkable diversity that
is available to all of us on this complex, fragile planet we call home.
It all can be summed up very simply. I’m grateful and happy to be alive. I am deeply
grateful for this precious gift called life and I embrace each moment with a deep sense of
humility and awe. We never know in advance the future lives that are waiting to be
lived. I had to die into the unknown so that the life that was waiting for me could finally
Now I understand what that song, Amazing Grace, is really about.
“I once was lost, but now, I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.”