They met before Moby turned rock star, author/tea-shop proprietor, and sold more than 15 million albums; before Eddie began studying with his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and opened his own school, Ashtanga Yoga New York, which draws packs of devotees each day at dawn. Twenty years on, the two friends convene on the roof of Moby’s downtown Manhattan apartment to talk Hinduism, the nature of the universe, and the spiritual undercurrents of The Simpsons. Breathe’s Valerie Reiss dodges the inside jokes and mediates.
Valerie Reiss: How do you two know each other?
Eddie Stern: Are we allowed to tell the real story of how we met?
Moby: Yeah, we must tell the real story. In 1984 I was a college dropout and Eddie was a high school student.
Eddie: I was.
Moby: And he somehow became friends with my best friend, John, and I met Eddie at a bar called Aztec on Ninth Street near Avenue A, which is now a very gentrified, tony neighborhood, but at the time it was really dangerous.
The Aztec was famous for being a really sleazy hole-in-the-wall with cheap beer. So we met there and we got very, very drunk and founded a friendship.
And then you started dating my ex-girlfriend Margaret.
Eddie: I was already dating Margaret then, actually.
Moby: Oh, and Eddie was dating my ex-girlfriend Margaret.
Eddie: And John and I were in a band together. That’s how we met.
Moby: It’s funny because when I meet people who know Eddie now and I tell them that back in the early ’80s he was a punk rocker in a band called Chop Shop and he had a Mohawk that was about seven inches tall, oftentimes they’re surprised. [Pause] You sure you want these biographical details coming out?
Moby: No actually, we met at a yoga retreat in, uh, Mysore. [Laughter]
Eddie: Yeah. Actually, Moby and I were both on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Sri Lanka, where we were in silence, slept on nail boards.
Moby: No, we met over a pitcher of beer at Aztec in the East Village.
Valerie: So have you taken his yoga classes?
Moby: I tried. I don’t want to monopolize the conversation too much, but when Eddie was teaching at Jivamukti I went to take yoga classes but, um, I wasn’t allowed to come back.
Valerie: Why was that?
Moby: Because this was when he first started teaching. He was trying to be very earnest, and every time he looked at me he’d just start laughing.
Eddie: Moby would do something to make me laugh, like, you know…
Moby: Like fake fart jokes or something.
Eddie: Or fingers in the nose. I don’t remember the particulars but on a couple of occasions I had to leave the classroom laughing.
Moby: He’s also taught me a few times privately. But unfortunately I’m not here that often, and also the thought of waking up at 5:30 in the morning gives me panic attacks.
Eddie: But he did good.
Valerie: Yeah? Do you miss the fact that Moby hasn’t come back to your class?
Eddie: No, our friendship is beyond yoga.
Valerie: Why do you guys hang out with each other?
Moby: Pure habit.
Eddie: Old habits die hard. I used to live in this building right over here [he points over the fence to a nearby building].
Moby: That was funny, I could stand here and we could wave to each other. One time Madonna was over here visiting and we were all waving to each other.
Eddie: My daughter was born in that apartment. You could have seen everything.
Moby: Oh, I did.
Eddie: Did you?
Moby: I watched a lot of things going on in your apartment. [Laughter]
Eddie: Yeaaahhh. But when I was first getting into yoga, Moby was living in—was it Hartchester? Portchester? Westchester?
Moby: I was living in Stamford, Connecticut, in an abandoned factory.
Eddie: And you were really into Christian Youth then.
Eddie: We went to some of those Bible meetings together and stuff like that.
Moby: I was very Christian.
Valerie: Like a straight-edge Christian?
Eddie: And I was like a straight-edge yogi, if there’s such a thing. So we used to debate philosophically quite often.
Moby: We were both really rigid and militant in our newfound spiritual practices at the time.
Valerie: Did you come to any conclusions in those days about whose was better?
Moby:Well I was right, obviously. [Laughter]
Eddie: We’ve always agreed that a certain amount of compassion is necessary, and humility, kindness, and thoughtfulness. If you come back to those terms, then you always find a point to agree on eventually.
Moby: And for me back then, I saw the world as a very simple place, very black-and-white, and you were either with me or against me. As time has passed I’ve come to see the world as a lot more complicated. Back then I really thought my lifestyle choices were the right ones, and now I realize that in a universe as vast as this one, it’s impossible for any of us to be right. That informs whatever spiritual practice I have: That it’s mine, it’s subjective. It doesn’t mean that it’s right or it’s wrong.
Eddie: And it changes.
Eddie: What it is right now isn’t necessarily going to be what it is after we finish this conversation.
Moby: I still have no idea what Hinduism is. You’ve tried to explain it to me five or six times in great detail. We had this one car ride where we were going upstate to the dedication of a Hindu temple somewhere.
Eddie: Yeah, we were on the way to Bear Mountain, in upstate New York.
Moby: I remember it was about an hour-long drive, and the whole ride up and the whole ride back Eddie was trying to explain Hinduism to me and I sat there nodding like, I still don’t have a clue. Which doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher; it just means there’s something about it I just…
Eddie: Hinduism is complicated. Because there’s no central text, there’s no central unified belief. There are many different philosophical viewpoints.
Moby: Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time understanding it.
Eddie: But they all agree on particular things. They all agree that life is suffering, and the Buddhists agree that life is suffering due to attachment or to ignorance and that there’s a method for removing those things. There’s a path that you can follow to do that. The rest is just hairsplitting in terminology.
Eddie: In Hinduism you get everything. You have people who believe in God, people who don’t believe in God, people who believe the universe is nondualistic in nature, people who believe that it’s dualistic. And they all fit under this umbrella of Hinduism. Yoga also is in Hinduism but outside Hinduism too. It can fit under the umbrella of Hindu but also it can be practiced by anyone, so of course it’s also not Hindu.
Valerie: So does it make sense now?
Moby: More so, yeah. I’m a weird sort of Christian, in the sense that I don’t go to church, I don’t subscribe to any one denomination. And when people ask me if I’m a Christian, my question is, well, but what does that mean? I don’t know much about Hinduism, but within Christianity there’s actually a lot of animosity between groups. If you were to take a Russian Orthodox and a snake handler and an animist Christian from sub-Saharan Africa and a Southern Baptist and put them in a room they’d probably beat the shit out of each other. I don’t know if Hinduism has those schisms.
Eddie: Yeah, you definitely get that in Hinduism too. That’s why you can’t say cohesively there’s one thing called Hinduism. There are all these different ways that you can travel to the truth.
Moby: I actually have a much better understanding now. Because I think what we talked about before was the practice and the deities. It reminded me also—and it’s unfortunate that you don’t watch it—of The Simpsons.
Eddie: I watch it occasionally, mainly on your recommendation.
Moby: Because Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who runs the Kwik-E-Mart on The Simpsons, he’s a practicing Hindu and there’s this great episode where Homer decides to start his own religion, and decides he’s not going to go to church anymore. And his house burns down and the volunteer fire department comes and it’s staffed by all these people of different religions, and the reverend says, “See, Homer? It’s all about God working through people of different faiths”—and he points to the different people—and he says, “be they Jew, Christian, Muslim,” and then he points to Apu and he says, “Or, etcetera.” [Laughter]. And Apu says, “Well, there are 900 million of us.”
Valerie: Are you engaged in pop culture? Is that something Moby offers you?
Eddie: Pop culture like the Olsen twins?
Valerie: Or The Simpsons?
Eddie: Well, I don’t have a TV so I don’t get to see The Simpsons very often. In India I’ve seen it a couple of times.
Moby: But in any spiritual practice, what’s always surprised me is the specificity of it. Like with Buddhism. When I talk to my friends who are Buddhists, in general everything they say makes sense to me. And then they get into the weird stuff like reincarnation. And I get so hung up on that, because the world is so complicated and we barely know anything about our own bodies and where we come from and why our eyelashes grow, so to make such a big, grand, presumptuous statement as, “Oh and then you get reincarnated,” it seems so—I hope that whatever deities might be listening don’t get offended—but it seems so narcissistic to say that the universe cares enough about us that it’s going to reprocess us through some other creature.
Eddie: It all depends on who you conceptualize as the “us'” that’s being reprocessed. Is it you as an individual? You as a personality? Is Moby going to become a cat? Not necessarily. But reincarnation is based on something called karma, and that means any action you do has a reaction. Some philosophies say that the result of an action is contained in the action itself. So sesame oil is contained in a sesame seed and an apple tree is contained in an apple seed. Any action you can perform already has the definite expectation that a result is going to come from it.
Eddie: So the things that are being reincarnated are not necessarily you as a person, but your actions have to take fruition somewhere else. We don’t really have a conception of what form they’re going to take next time. Like in The Lion King, where a lion dies and becomes earth and the earth becomes grass and the animals eat the grass and they grow and they get eaten by something else. Next time around you don’t necessarily know what will happen. But the main thing is that it’s karma. Because matter in the universe doesn’t disappear. It just takes another form.
Moby: Well, that all makes perfect sense to me as a general concept, but when it gets into that degree of specificity, saying, “Okay, this results in this and this results in that,” it just doesn’t seem to me that the universe works that way.
Eddie: In certain cases I agree with you. A lot of people get hung up on unprovables. But there are people who have seen more subtle aspects of nature than we have. So it’s not necessarily that it’s narcissistic to contemplate other worlds or other levels of being, but that we can’t latch onto them blindly and disregard the way we have to behave here. We can’t neglect that for some other future life or a higher birth or something.
Valerie: Are there spiritual specifics that work for you?
Moby: I think what we’ve seen, at least in the West in the last 100 years, is this strange convergence—you can almost describe it as the quantumization—of philosophy, religion, and science. A lot of us have moved past this Newtonian understanding of the world—the kind of “what you see is what you get.” And now science, religion, and philosophy have all come to the conclusion that everything we perceive is not as it seems. It’s almost like Copernicus saying, “No, the earth is not the center of the universe. It’s actually this tiny little dot on the outskirts of a galaxy that’s one of a trillion galaxies that is 15 billion years old and vast beyond our understanding.”
And so any spiritual practice or belief or thought that’s not cognizant of that runs the risk of being dangerously, as I keep saying, either narcissistic or anthropomorphic. So maybe there is this paradox that we’re these short-lived little biological messy things on a very remote planet, and maybe we do have some great significance—that’s possible too.
But objectively speaking, most likely we don’t. And what do you do with that information?
Valerie: Yeah, how does that uncertainty manifest?
Moby: Well, you either become a nihilist or you become a naïve realist, where you say, “Okay, I know ontologically that the world is not as it seems, but it’s still nice.” There’s one school of thought that says, everything we define as life is really just bacteria trying to perpetuate itself. We look at bears, we look at fish, we look at people: We’re insignificant. What’s significant are single-celled organisms, because they’re the ones who have been around for four-and-a-half billion years.
We’re just a convenient vehicle. So everything we have—personality, emotion, drive, ambition, sex, love—are all just really good ways of making sure our bacteria continue to thrive. That question, “What do you do when you know that the world is not what it seems to be and that we’re tiny in this vast universe?” Well you sit in the sun and have fun with your friends. Or you blow your brains out. Or you choose to go about blindly.
Eddie: I don’t know if I agree with that viewpoint though. Because it’s a superimposition of meaning on top of something, where you look at it and you say, “What is the meaning of life?” And I don’t necessarily agree that there is a meaning to life, but I think life has its own meaning. When you try to impose something on top of it, you can come up with the view that we are insignificant, that we are nothing even though we think that we’re something great. Well, you can also look at it and say, “There is no meaning of life, life is its own movement and it’s living through us, and by that token, everything in the world, from a grain of sand to a person, no matter how big or small, is like a miracle of its own creation.”
Moby: Oh, absolutely.
EddieI differentiate between what is the awareness of these things and what is the obsession with these things. [Moby starts spinning a rusted dime on the table like a little planet.] And spirituality is the awareness of the thoughts and the feelings and the ideas. And not the actual feelings, thoughts, and ideas, or getting caught up in them.
Eddie: That way you don’t become either a nihilist or someone who just wants to enjoy and have fun in the sun the whole time. You get the awareness of the whole movement. That’s what Buddhism or Hinduism or yoga is striving for.
Moby: Yeah, but if I was to play devil’s advocate, I would say that the human ability to perceive is so limited that the best we can ever do is to just understand things from our tiny little perspective.
Eddie: But that perspective might be big when you get deep enough.
Moby: Yeah. There is that possibility.
Eddie: Like knowledge. Some people are able to tap into vast reserves of knowledge, so yeah, it’s still limited, but it can be expansive as well.
Moby: My favorite paradox is that we’re 30-odd years old, which from a universal perspective is so insignificant as to not even exist. On a universal temporal scale, 30 years is a trillionth of a second. So we’re these tiny little short-lived creatures, yet the matter of which we’re comprised is the matter that was there at the beginning of the universe. So we’re the most ancient things in the world, but we’re also the newest things in the world.
Eddie: And the time that existed in the beginning of the universe exists now also.[A publicist hands Moby a phone]
Moby: I’ve gotta go. Thanks. I’m not going to touch you.
Eddie: Don’t touch me, I’m new wave.