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."