Laurie Anderson’s Buddhism: Art, Meditation, and Death as Adventure

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An excerpt of the transcript from Laurie Anderson's conversation with Scott Snibbe on A Skeptic's Path to Englightment podcast.

Grammy Award winning artist Laurie Anderson, a longtime student of Buddhism and meditation, shares her personal path with Buddhism, approaching art with a beginner’s mind, staying present with suffering without letting it overwhelm you, and making our lives meaningful.

Scott Snibbe: Laurie Anderson is one of our greatest living artists. Her work includes spoken word and performance, top-charting albums and music videos, digital art, film, virtual reality, and the invention of ingenious instruments like the tape bow violin and the talking stick. She’s won the Grammy Award and many other honors, and is currently the subject of a fantastic solo show at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

Scott Snibbe: Laurie, thank you so much for joining us as a guest on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. I really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us.

Laurie Anderson: What a great title. How did you come up with that title? 

Scott Snibbe: Well, a lot of my friends are skeptics and many of them were curious about enlightenment, so it just seemed natural over the years. I was their only Buddhist friend so they would ask me and I didn’t have a good answer because I had a more religious, traditional education in Buddhism. So I wanted to make this podcast to help people have a secular path into it. 

Laurie Anderson: That’s very good motivation because I think that when you really have to explain something to people who are super skeptical it’s quite amazing. Because you have to start from almost nothing in a way, right?

Scott Snibbe: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I’m curious to hear about your journey with Buddhism. I bet for some of your friends, you’re the only Buddhist they know. But could you talk a little bit about how you discovered Buddhism and what role it plays in your life? 

How Laurie Anderson discovered Buddhism

Laurie Anderson: It was originally about attention, paying attention, and being able to focus. And it was thanks to a friend of mine, Bob Alecki, who I was working with, and he had, and has, a really wonderful ability to quietly focus on things, and see how they work. And so I said, How are you doing this? And I really love asking people stupid questions like this. 

Anyway, Bob was telling me that he had been having a lot of trouble concentrating. And so he went to Barre, in Massachusetts, to the Insight Meditation Society headquarters, and did a 10-day silent retreat. He said that after this, all of his scattered thoughts had calmed down and he was able to focus on things. And his mind was like, as he put it, a beam; you could focus it over here and there and look at things for a long period of time. 

And so I thought, Whoa, I’d like a mind like a beam. So I went there myself, to Insight Meditation Society, in western Massachusetts. And this was in ’77, so they’d just been – I think it was maybe their second year, maybe their third, but it was very early in their programming and they were quite hardcore at the time. So you would get up at four and you’d meditate, then you’d have the only meal of the day, and then a bell would ring and then you’d do walking meditation and sitting and then you’d have some water and then you’d do it again. It was many, many hours a day.

They said, Why are you here? And I said, I’m here to get a mind like a beam. And they said, Oh no no no, like, this is based on pain. And I said no, I’m talking about a beam. And so we had a conversation that was very ridiculous, kind of ping-ponging between pain and beam and pain and beam.

And finally I realized, after doing it a couple of days, that it really was about pain. Because they said, You’re here because you’re in pain, and I said, No, that that is not why I’m here. And I realized that was why I was there, and that it was a very unique way of looking at pain. And the idea was that when something happens to you, and you don’t just scream and freak out, you put it somewhere. Unlike in psychoanalysis, you retrieve it through language and stories.

This way, your body tells you things. As I learned more and more about the practice, I trusted that method because your body really doesn’t lie, and your body has a mind of its own and it remembers things, and it puts them places. If you feel anger, sometimes your jaw clenches. If you feel loss, sometimes you feel it in your heart. Anger somehow is in your liver. You are a library of pain.

Your body really doesn’t lie, and your body has a mind of its own and it remembers things, and it puts them places. If you feel anger, sometimes your jaw clenches. If you feel loss, sometimes you feel it in your heart. Anger somehow is in your liver. You are a library of pain.

So the idea with this practice is to find it. It’s painful to sit there for 18 hours a day. Your left arm feels like it’s going to fall off. So when it does, you focus on that left arm and you find many emotions in there.

And that was the start of this. And at the end of that particular 10-day period, one of the things I noticed was that I had, after that period of time, incredible peripheral vision. And I was doing a lot of sculpture then and I was very excited by this idea that I could feel the space around me, above me, behind me. And it was an absolute thrill.

So it wasn’t the space that is the I-space of “I see that in front of me, I look at it, I want it,” that sort of vision of desire, but a vision of experience, of being in space.

And that was, for a sculptor, a huge thrill. To understand space in an entirely new way without putting yourself in the middle of it. That was enough to hook me. Even just that, to understand that I was in an ocean of sound and an ocean of air and that I had a lot more freedom than I thought.

So it began to be about a lot more things than the alleviation of pain and attention. But I have to say that, I’m pretty casual if somebody says, Are you a Buddhist? I’m like, Yeah.

To me, that’s kind of like saying I’m an artist. In fact, it’s exactly the same thing because it requires the same thing, which is, pay attention. That’s really the only rule. Let’s just say it’s a suggestion. That’s the only thing you have to do, pay attention. There’s nobody in charge. There’s nobody judging you. This is the ultimate thrill for an artist is there’s nobody at the top. There’s nobody saying you did a good job or you didn’t. You’re the Buddha, ultimately, and who wants that responsibility? Kind of nobody.

You know it can be extremely intimidating to think, I’m in charge. Who put me in charge? This is a big mistake. When you realize that it gives you freedom beyond your wildest dreams, it is exhilarating.

So over the years, this has changed many times, this practice, and it’s so many different ways to approach it, ways to understand it. The very first thing that you hear in Buddhism is that truth is presented as the truth to you, to believe or not; let’s say to propose it as an experience. Because all of these are for you to look at yourself. Don’t believe what anybody tells you, you look at this yourself.

So the very first one of those proposals is life is suffering. And especially in the last couple of weeks, we’ve had this almost unbelievable opportunity to experience that, to experience despair, to experience utter despair. Not push it away, not try to say why it’s there or what we can do about it or oh my gosh this is worse than the last time. No, just to let that be an experience.

And so I am really happy and grateful to have this practice that allows me to do that and not to just say, Oh this is a geopolitical situation that we – but to actually be able to feel that on as many sides and ways as I can because it’s coming from every direction.

And so what an opportunity to get that very first step. Life is suffering. And of course, then you go on from there. Okay, and then what? So it pushes you into an investigation of that situation, of our situation.

Because it’s also easy sometimes to just let go of that very first truth and go, Hey, it’s not so bad, this is pretty good. I’m having a good time, I’m learning a lot of things, it’s a wonderful time to be alive, and all of those are true. But that basic truth is one that is opening up for us in a way that’s just so powerful.

Listen to the full episode: Laurie Anderson's Buddhism: Art, Meditation, and Death as Adventure


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