It started with a dinner party. When 86-year-old pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein met Ethan Hawke, international film star, the two quickly discovered they shared a common malady: stage fright. Based on his familiarity with nervousness prior to concerts, Seymour was able to provide Ethan with invaluable insight and advice. That was the beginning of a deep friendship.
Renowned spiritual scholar and activist Andrew Harvey was a fellow dinner guest that auspicious night and contributed to the decision to create a documentary about Seymour exploring his unique combination of accomplished musician, teacher, and seasoned elder. The film, Seymour: An Introduction, directed by Ethan Hawke, has received enthusiastic critical acclaim and is an inspiration to all who see it (see trailer below).
Seymour and Andrew’s friendship has continued to thrive with a shared curiosity and appreciation for the intersection of life and art. The trusting conversations captured in this book between these two dear friends reveal key truths about passion and creativity through an exploration of music, difficult childhoods, the friendship of animals, and journeys of the spirit.
Memories meld with philosophy, and observations with reflections, dissolving the line between teacher and pupil. With equal parts candor and generosity, Seymour and Andrew offer a master class in playing life with our fullest, most gracious selves.
Andrew Harvey is an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist, translator, mystical scholar, and spiritual teacher. He has written and edited more than 30 books—including the best-selling titles The Hope and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He has taught at Oxford University, Cornell University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the California Institute of Integral Studies, and the University of Creation Spirituality as well as at various spiritual centers throughout the United States. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Sacred Activism.
Seymour Bernstein is an American pianist, composer, and teacher. He is the subject of the documentary Seymour: An Introduction, directed by the actor Ethan Hawke. One of the most sought-after workshop leaders and piano instructors in the United States and abroad, Mr. Bernstein is also a prolific composer. His compositions range from teaching material for students of all levels to the most sophisticated concert pieces. He continues to perform as a guest artist with chamber ensembles and serves regularly on the juries of a number of international competitions. He maintains a private studio in New York City and is also an Adjunct Associate Professor of Music and Music Education at New York University. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Shenandoah University.
Conversations with Seymour Bernstein
Dirk Terpstra: Andrew, you write in the the introduction of your book that you are wary of fame and success, yet you have chosen to publish the story of the conversations and friendship between you and Seymour Bernstein. What made you decide to create this beautiful book and publish it?
Andrew Harvey: Well, I think all spiritual teachers should be wary of fame and success, because fame can make you repeat yourself, and success can make you arrogant. So if you really want to tell the truth, you have to risk yourself again and again, and you have to stay humble.
So being wary of fame and success doesn’t mean that I don’t write books and get them published. What it means is, that I try and keep my heart clear, and keep my mind as subtle and as humble as possible for my own sake and evolution.
It seemed very important to publish this book, because Seymour’s vision has captivated hundreds of thousands of people. I know him extremely well and knew I could bring him out in a very deep way, and so make the vision that he’s giving in the film even richer and deeper, and dance with it myself in a way it gave me great joy. Publishing something like this, in a time like this is very important. The values that Seymour and I are standing for, are values of deep discipline, profound attention to the greatness of the past, and bringing it into the present, sacred friendship at the deepest level, a love of God in the boldest sense, and the love of animals. All these values are really important for our own culture, and that’s why I published it.
I love the conversation form of the book too, because one of the things that I love myself doing is collaborating. A lot of teachers run their own individual empires, but I am devoted to the divine feminine, and one of the aspects of the divine feminine I love the most is the aspect of collaboration. I find that I need to collaborate to get out of my own dogmas, my own fundamentalism — To truly listen to another being’s way of approaching the truth. And I find that when I do, when I listen with my whole being, something new is born for me, which deeply satisfies and thrills me.
Dirk: When you spoke with Seymour Bernstein about the abusive relationship with his father, and when you shared with him your relationship with your own mother, what did you learn from Seymour about forgiveness?
Andrew: It was a hard concept for me, not to forgive your own father, but I haven’t changed my own vision of forgiveness. I realized that for me, forgiving is absolutely essential for my own mental health and to my own life. I think, as we talked, it became clear, he had nothing good to say or feel about his father. He didn’t feel he inherited anything from his father that helped him.
My case, with my mother is more complicated. On the one hand she caused me the greatest wounds in my life, and on the other hand, she left me some of her own extraordinary qualities—some of her own passion and truths and vibrancy and gifts for storytelling. A lot of what I am, comes from her, so it’s a strange situation. It is if I used part of the legacy that I have had from my mother to overcome the other part. So I have to be grateful for what she gave me and I am grateful, and I know that I do love her, despite and beyond all the madness, and that’s been a huge relief and a great healing.
What is also really important to me is that you can’t impose on anyone else your own vision. You’ve got to have the humility to listen, and listen to them in terms of their own life and experience, and that’s a very important lesson for many things.
Dirk: During the conversation, Seymour speaks about the art of ‘uniting the artist and the person’. Something Ethan was also searching for. How can we start uniting the artist of our own life story with us, the person?
Andrew: Well, I think that Seymour explained it beautifully, when he says that in order to play a great sonata, you have to bring the whole of yourself to it. You have to bring the whole of your mind and you have to bring the whole of your heart.
Because pianism is physical, you have to bring your coordinated body, and when you experience music at that level, what it gives you, is a vision of synchronizing all the different powers inside you to play something truly beautifully, and truly in the tradition.
When you think about how you live your life, it becomes clear that what’s needed to live a life that’s beautiful—It’s to bring the whole of your mind, the whole of your intelligence, the whole of your heart and the whole of your coordinated body to living it, because that enables you to live as a full person a full life. This is a very profound statement, because I think Seymour is onto something very important, because he is really saying: “Don’t make the romantic assumption that the artist and his art are different from life. See life as an art and realize that art requires the whole of you, constantly, and it challenges you to come into deeper balance and more refined understanding of all the factors involved in every moment.“
Dirk: What did you feel when you were engaged in a discussion with Seymour about loving each other, and about who is spiritually more evolved than the other?
Andrew: When you truly love somebody, you always believe that they are more evolved than you are. You’re so delighted by the dance of their qualities, you’re so excited by their wisdom. So I genuinely feel that Seymour is more evolved than I am, and I think there are reasons for doing so. I think one of the reasons is that Seymour is so completely compassionate, and it takes a lot of suffering and aging and surrendering, to become that compassionate. I recognize in Seymour a level of tolerance, of tenderness and a level of compassion, I hope I sometimes have, but I truly want to have more of.
Dirk: Andrew, love to you means “the emptying of the self to receive the other”. Where does self love come into play here?
Andrew: It takes a very strong self to be able to empty yourself. You’ll be emptying yourself simply out of a desire to abandon yourself, and that is true self emptying. True self emptying is an act of courageous love by someone who has a strong self that they honour, but that they’re also brave enough to leave that aside in the name of love and truth.
Dirk: How would you explain Seymour’s attitude toward learning how to play life more beautifully?
Andrew: I think that Seymour has understood that music can create the deepest harmony that’s possible in life. Because of his passion for music, he was initiated into that truth early. And then he came to understand that when he practiced well, the whole of his life seemed to go well. Because he felt good about himself, he felt that he was honouring his passionate choice of life. And then he discovered that playing beautifully a great sonata enabled him to come into deep inner coherence. That gave the quality of his living and he has built his whole life around that.
You can purchase the book Play Life More Beautifully here.
To purchase the DVD: Seymour: An Introduction, click here.
More information about Seymour Bernstein – seymourbernstein.com
More information about Andrew Harvey – andrewharvey.net
INTERVIEW BY: DIRK TERPSTRA – SOUL LOVE FOUNDER