“I have the right to be joyful. It is legitimate joy. It is eternally my right to access my infinite bliss wherever I am.”
It’s hard not to feel like every conversation Laraaji will end up peppered with these mantra-like insights; the ambient music vet has been a meditation practitioner since the 70’s, when a “cosmic heart-opening experience” changed the way he viewed the world and inspired the kind of experimental music that would catch the ears of the Brian Eno. With over four decades of meditation under his belt—and his own work as a laughter meditation practitioner—Laraaji’s practice is nearly reflexive, his well-honed ability to find “inner silence” as natural as breathing.
But, Laraaji is aware of the fact that finding and claiming this inner peace is not easy for everyone. His latest release, Sun Piano, is his attempt at supporting listeners on the path towards peace and joy. On Sun Piano, the Harlem-based instrumentalist departs from the zither instrumentation that propelled his career and returns to the piano, the first instrument he learned to play. The result is a series of piano compositions that Laraaji hopes will help people be “present, confident, positive, relaxed and joyful during this time.”
With titles like “Flow Joy” and “This Too Shall Pass,” Sun Piano is Laaraji’s offering to those of us who are struggling during this hard time. As both the Black Lives Matter protests and the coronavirus pandemic continue on, Laraaji reminds us to spend as much time cultivating our inner world as we spend fighting to change the world around us. Read the rest of our interview with Laraaji to hear more about his meditation journey, how you can kickstart your own, and how Laraaji uses meditation to access joy wherever he is.
Sun Piano is out now via All Saints Records. The second album in Laraaji’s piano trilogy, Moon Piano, will be released on October 9 on All Saints Records.
Do you start your day with meditation?
Yes, sometimes I don’t even start my day; my day is already flowing from the previous day and I haven’t gotten any rest. But meditation [is] being still, relaxing my awareness from the world’s perception of who I am and returning to the self that is beyond the world’s self. I’ve discovered that the names, the titles and the classifications that we wear are the real owners of our anxiety, stress, bitterness, hate and fear. When I am not owning those titles, and I’m just sitting with the “I am” before I put anything on the end of “I am”, I am not a doctor, I am not a musician, I just am and that “I am” place is a place of instant peace, balance and equilibrium, harmony. And if I do this on a daily basis, hourly basis, I am prepared to not get bent out of shape with the world’s drama.
How has meditation guided you through this current moment, and how has your relationship to it changed in the past few months, if at all?
Nothing takes the edge off like meditation. Meditation has allowed me to relax, be creative, be in touch with my inner creative vision. It has allowed me to move more slowly in the day, more gracefully, and to know that whatever we’re going through, I’ll get through it. This period has allowed me to do more spontaneous meditation during the course of the day. I’d say that I do more meditation sitting now. To find myself doing nothing, going nowhere, I’ll just be still. Or, if I’m going to a park like Central Park or Riverside Park here in New York, I’ll grab a park bench and just do some deep breathing. And then just tune into the trees, the water, the park and the sky. Cloud-watching, sitting in a park, [and] breathing [have all] become easier during this time because there’s no rush.
What has your journey with meditation been like?
My first real experiment and exploration for meditation was in the early 70s as an actor. I was starting to feel uncomfortable not being able to decide what roles in the movie industry I was able to take and what roles I would turn down. At that time I felt like maybe I should investigate meditation to discover what my core identity is, who am I behind the world’s experience of me. So my early explorations were long hours of sitting, deep breathing and learning how to be still and listen to the inner voice or the inner silence. Learning that the inside of me is quiet gave me a strong basis for moving in the world in a more quiet, peaceful way, and also gave me the inner space from which to bring forward new music by improvising from this inner quiet space.
Over the years I believe my meditation has shifted in that I learned that I could practice the meditative space while moving, dancing, giving massage, performing live music, walking down the street, or hanging out with a friend. Meditation for me is a conscious awareness of the eternal present moment.
You said in a previous interview that you only recently settled on the song titles for your album Sun Piano. Could you tell me how you arrived at titles like “This Too Shall Pass?”
I felt like the music could lend itself to today’s listening public, and that the title should suggest to the public a positive state of attitude and perception. In other words, to let this music serve the present moment we’re going through. As I listened to the music I would sense what feelings they evoke within me or what pictures they could support within the listener that could support the listener in being present, confident, positive, relaxed and joyful during this time. So those titles were selected deliberately to honor the feeling of the music, and to serve the listening public in this particular time.
A lot of the music that has emerged from this moment is sort of focused on being overtly political, but your work has always been about centering joy.
Yes, and I believe that’s necessary to help to sustain balance. I don’t believe that I or any individual is totally defined by what’s going on in the world and the world shouldn’t overwhelm us. That we should come into the world with a sense of balance. The side that is eternal, the side that is beyond the world should be factored into our feelings and emotions. That we don’t belong totally to the world, that we belong to our destination and origin, which I accept is spirit, is space, is eternal.
Have you ever struggled in your meditative practice? Whether in finding your own authentic one or achieving relaxation?
Yes, the struggle happens when I’m in a relationship with a person or living in a social situation where I don’t have access to private time or have ways of being alone. So I found that early mornings, from 12 to 5 in the morning, worked for me because I didn’t have a nine to five lifestyle. The hours between three and five are when the etheric space of your environment is the lightest and the most open for inner sacred spiritual work, because lots of people are sleeping and your environment is least busy at that time. I discovered that these were the magical hours where meditation was simpler, and I didn’t struggle so hard to be in deep relaxation and to find that inner quiet.
You’ve said that people have had out of body experiences while listening to your music. Have you ever experienced an out of body experience yourself?
I would rather say transitioning into an alternative body. In 1974, I experienced music that transported me instantly from thinking of myself as a physical carbon based electromagnetic field body to a sound, infinite field, eternal body. That experience might have been five to ten minutes but it totally changed my attitude about what music could do and what I wanted to do with music. It changed my perception of who I am, that I’m not the physical body and that there’s a presence that is beyond the third dimension. Another series of out of body experiences would be while listening to vocalists, usually the gospel kind that would sing and then hold a note. While listening to that note I would find that there was a vibrational shift going on inside me. That’s happened more than a couple of times, listening to gospel singers with this big voice. Maybe it’s the joy and the exhilaration of the artist with their voice and their body language that is immediately infectious.
The first transitional experience you referenced, was that the sound vision you had, right? Have you had one like that since?
Yes, indeed. No [I have not]. The memory of that triggers my recall of the alternative sense of time and space flow. My desire to have that experience again, it was pointed out to me that that desire in itself can obstruct; it’s the desire of being attached. So I’ve allowed myself to just enjoy new music and the vibrational memory of that experience. That experience taught me that whatever it was, it is still happening somewhere within my subconscious or higher consciousness. The memory of that experience inspires me to put music into a bigger space and the third dimension, and to reference the listener’s ability to experience timelessness where they are. To experience the absence of separation where they are.
You said something recently that struck me: “Bliss happens.” It’s a simple phrase but is often easy to forget, especially during stressful times like this. How do you center joy in the midst of everything that’s going on?
Our fundamental eternal identity is joy or bliss. If the world temporarily shocks me or pulls me off course, I can use breathwork and movement to bring myself back into alignment with my inner self. When I am bringing my inner awareness into the mix, I have the right to be joyful. It is legitimate joy. It is eternally my right to access my infinite bliss wherever I am. Of course, I can temper the way that I express this joy so that it does not insult or disrespect someone who is going through a difficult time in this period. This period of difficulty on the planet is not supposed to take me out of my peaceful inner space. That is not all of you, there is a “you” that is not subjected to what’s going on in the world as a “you” that is eternal, that is infinite equilibrium. There is a you that is blissful and radiant, independent of what is going on in the world today.
That reminds me of something that bell hooks once wrote, which I’ll paraphrase: “Working within community…we are able to experience joy in struggle. That joy needs to be documented. For if we only focus on the pain…we show a partial picture.”
I believe that’s very true. However, not everyone is skilled at pulling their focus away from the external and placing it on the internal until they have the technology of spiritual survival. You must have something going on or you’re at the mercy of the world, and the world might not have enough mercy to help you through this period. I suggest you give 10% of every day to your inner work, back to the spirit and the creator. When you give 10% of your day, you can step into the world and be buoyant, resilient, and still be present enough to be of support to those who are going through a harder time than yourself.
What was the last thing that made you laugh unprompted?
Maybe the most recent one was listening to a talk by Michio Kaku talking about Einstein. How that Einstein, when he was at Princeton, would give lots of talks and lectures but they were mostly about the same subject. One evening his chauffeur came to pick him up to take him to a lecture and the chauffeur said, “You know, You’ve been doing this same lecture for so long that I could do it for you.” So they decided to pull this gimmick where the chauffeur would dress up like Einstein and Einstein would be the chauffeur. This went over very well until one time at the end of a lecture this mathematician at the back of the room posed this very difficult question. The chauffeur said “Wow, the answer to that question is so elementary and simple, that even my chauffeur could answer it.” [laughs]
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you want to mention?
I’d say that those who are on a spiritual journey or any kind of journey should have a pet name for their journey, preferably one or three syllables. “Transitioning in Bliss” was a pet name for a period that I was going through, and that helped me to be more upbeat and positive during that period. So finding a pet name for this period in your life that supports you towards your higher goals.
Do you have a pet name for this period in your life right now?
I’d say that this period is “Embracing the Unity”. I do it through music, through mindfulness whenever I’m in public and I see a fragmented public expression. Even before I go into the public, I practice embracing the unity where I am so that I can move inside of a body language, a breath language, an interactive readiness to be about embracing the unity.