all go through life thinking that we’re going to live
forever, that we’re invincible, thinking that everything
will go the way we hope and plan. But, if you live long enough,
you realize that just isn’t so. You know [the saying], ‘How
do you make God laugh? You tell him your plans.’After
enough losses and twists and turns in the road, you realize
that, hey, I better learn to build the muscle that deals
with things not going the way I want, because if I don’t
I’m in for a big surprise.”
award-winning musician, composer and producer Gary Malkin does
not speak lightly of life’s surprises. Now passionately
involved in the creation and promotion of the CD Graceful
Passages: A Companion for Living and Dying, Malkin
describes himself as once being defined by the external world where
your bank account and your glory wall are the measures of who
you are. Listening to just one track on Graceful Passages assures
you that at some point in Malkin's history, he did some earnest
reassessment and came up with a different definition.
Passages is a compilation of music paired with spoken
messages about loss and dying from 12 of the world’s
most profound wisdom keepers-- Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Rev. Alan Jones, Elisabeth Kubler- Ross,
and Ram Dass, among others. The CD is meant “to help
people realize that emotional and spiritual intelligence
is needed profoundly during the transitions of life,”Malkin
explains, “when you don’t exactly know what’s
coming around the bend. When people experience loss of any
kind , they’re in new territory. This is the time when
you need support from the people who have walked those walks
and traversed those waters. That’s the time when you’re
most receptive to really listening. So that’s our goal,
to kind of raise the bar on the world’s awareness of
the need for support during transitional times.”
own encounter with tragedy opened his ears and helped him hear
deeper voices than those he had followed before. Out of his
despair grew a realization that life’s meaning did not
lay in material success, and a mission to help others access
the spiritual, especially during times of grief and sorrow.
spoke with Gary Malkin about his work with Graceful Passages and
the journey that brought him to its creation. What follows
are some of his thoughts on his music, his spirituality and
the results when these two are grafted together.
you describe some of the events in your life that triggered
the faith journey you are engaged in today?
MALKIN: In 1974, when I was twenty-one years old,
I was an integral part of an accident of a little girl, Lisa,
who was like a godchild to me. I was helping her father jumpstart
his car, and we didn’t realize she was under the car
when we pushed the car to get it started. It was a horrific
experience on every level. I saw the child, frozen, under
the wheel, wondering what was going on. For ten years after
that, I would wake up in the middle of the night in cold
sweats with an image of her under that wheel.
the memorial service, I viewed the body of this child whom
I adored, and I knew that she was no longer
there. [Yet] her spirit was so bright, I knew that couldn’t
be extinguished. I had
this indefatigable, unshakable faith, almost like nothing I
had ever experienced before, that she was somewhere else.
It was an experience of believing in a way that I’d never
believed before. It was really an epiphany
for me. And that planted the seed of what eventually became Graceful
Passages. Hindsight is 20/20. You don’t really know
the seeds until you look back.
would you describe your faith before this experience?
MALKIN: I was very turned on to the Jewish religion
up until my bar mitzvah, and after that I got turned
off to the superficiality of the way the Jewish religion
was being handled in temples in America. My faith was integrally
connected to joy, to music, to dancing. In 1971 I was introduced
to Eastern religion, but up until Lisa’s death, I think
my religion, if you will, was creating intimacy
with song. I was really in love with the act of accompanying
a singer and diving into the heart of the music. Music was
my spiritual path. It always has been, really. But after
Lisa died, I went through a real dark night of the soul period,
because it shattered my world. The fact that something like
that could happen to an amazing, beautiful child was really
deeply troubling to me.
Lisa’s death, you faced more tragedy—thirteen years
later, your sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and then
4 years after that, your father died. Then your daughter was
born six months later, in a very hard delivery. All of these
are life-changing events.
MALKIN: You can’t emerge from an experience
like losing your father, especially when you’re close
to him, without having a major reevaluation of your spiritual
beliefs and your sense of what’s important in life.
your daughter’s birth, that also involved some uncertainty
MALKIN: It’s really interesting, because we
did everything right and there was no indication that anything
was going to go wrong. It was a textbook pregnancy. Then
when the birth came, it was like being hit by a truck. Six
months after my father died, both my wife and baby almost
died. It was one of those very complicated births with many
things going wrong. I guess looking back it was another huge
chink in the belief that everything’s gonna go as you
planned. It was another death, if you will.
were you doing during those critical hours after your daughter
MALKIN: I was praying as hard as I’ve ever
prayed in my whole life…I couldn’t pray the
way people have recommended me to pray - for the “highest
and best outcome.”I was praying that they would both
survive. I mean, of course! I’m only human.
stayed there for hours with my daughter and my wife. Within
about six hours, I heard the doctor say, “My God, there’s
life coming into her [his daughter].”It was again this
profound moment of God coming in and breathing life into a
situation. My daughter and my wife ultimately turned out fine.
us about Graceful Passages. How did it come about?
MALKIN: It was about five years after the birth
of my daughter that Michael [Stillwater, co-creator of Graceful
Passages], my old and dear friend whom I’ve known
and worked with for many years, contacted me. He had recently
been touched by the death of his father. As a result of the
life-changing experience that he had had at the deathbed
of his father, he decided to offer his gift to others going
through similar circumstances. He
came to me with this idea to produce a CD of songs that he
had written for people and their families to play at their
bedside, at the portal of the end of life.
was devoted to using music for spiritual healing and being
a spiritual musical minstrel in the world even when we first
met back in 1976, and for me he was almost a bit too much
that way. At the time, I was afraid of being identified as
some sort of new-age spiritual musician. When he approached
me after the birth of my daughter, there were cracks and chips
in my control freak’s view of the world, but I was still
extremely attached to the image of being a successful film
and TV composer. I was actually quite identified with that
world, even though I had a deep relationship, privately, to
spirituality. I had a very stubborn ego that was attached to
the image of having my success defined by the external world.
I had to have the big house and the big car and Emmy awards. …My
energy went into defining my value by the way that the world
and America works, which is “you are how much money you
have and how many awards you’ve gotten.”
so, when Michael came to me with this concept, I said, “Okay,
let’s explore it.”We recorded it with him speaking
as if he were talking intimately to someone who had just received
a terminal diagnosis, and I was on the keyboard scoring it
like a film.... When it was done we just got chills.... That’s
when it occurred to us that it would be wonderful to record
the voices of the spiritual treasures of the world, and then
score it the way people score films. We didn’t think
anyone had ever done that before. Since Michael has been offering
healing music for 25 years, he already knew a lot of people:
Ram Dass, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Rabbi Zalman, among others.
initially recorded Michael, Arun Gandhi and a Cherokee Indian
woman named Jyoti. We asked them if
they were going to die tomorrow, or if a loved one was going
to die, what would they want to tell their loved one? We asked
them to speak directly to one person who was in need of the
kind of comfort you might want to offer a child before they
go to bed after a good cry, or after you’ve
made love and you want to be intimate with someone. That kind
of intimacy is what we were asking each person to speak from.
then edited these hour interviews into about five to eight
minutes and scored them.
did this experience affect you?
MALKIN: When I scored those three, a shudder went
through me and I thought, Oh, God, I wonder what I’m
going to have to go through so that I can be the vessel through
which an authentic expression can be created. I really [understood]
that what we were doing was creating a context for people
to truly contemplate the issues of their fear of dying and
the very thought of the mystery. The gravity of
the project humbled me; I told Michael that this was a way
bigger deal than I had [imagined]. However, at the time,
I think my ego was still attached to the world of form and
being a successful composer and all that. It’s a hard
one to break.
couple of months later, I went to Hawaii for a vacation, and
I decided that every night at sunset I’d meditate and
pray to God. I sensed something coming…and knew that
something wasn’t quite right with my life. I
literally pleaded to God for all that wasn’t authentic
and real to strip away. I prayed that I would be the expression
of what I came here to do in this life. I said, “I
don’t know what it is anymore, but I think that there’s
more that I came here to do. Please, please strip away anything
that isn’t true, authentic and in alignment with my highest
MALKIN: A month later, on July 17, 1998, I had this
horrific bicycle accident. I was hurt very badly, and my
daughter was pretty scratched up too. I shattered my left
wrist in 18 places. It was a question mark whether I’d
ever play piano with my left hand again.
I ended up finding a famous hand reconstruction surgeon who
was able to reconstruct my wrist. But then, as I was healing
from that surgery, my wife went through a spiritual crisis
of her own, and chose to leave the marriage, when our daughter
was six years old.
kind of impact did that have on your faith?
MALKIN: Oh, that was the heart of it for me. That
was the beginning of my true faith journey. Looking back,
God was in that. My wife knew that there was something that
needed to shift in the marriage, but it took me a long time
to see this. I hated that it happened, and I still have hard
times with it sometimes, but I know that it was what was
necessary to strip me bare. I would say the most profound
dark night of the soul for me was this period. It was absolutely
the thing that broke my ego’s picture of how things
were going to go.
really stubborn, because I had a lot of different opportunities
to surrender before this point ( laughs ). But
it took a real two-by-four for me to break this particular
attachment to being famous and successful financially. It really
took this shattering to get down to the nub. I
don’t recommend it, not to anybody, I wish to God it
could have been smoother and simpler and certainly less painful,
but this is the path that my life took. For a year I walked
around, to borrow a phrase from the famous grief expert Ken
Druck, “with no skin on.”And that was the state
I was in when I wrote the rest of the music for the messages
on Graceful Passages.
there any faith community you were in touch with, or was it
basically you and God?
MALKIN: I had very good friends who basically
let me sob and sob and sob as much as I needed to, who were
there for me, who took me to doctors and physical therapy.
A huge part of my healing was allowing my family and close
male and female friends to support me and be there with me.
And I meditated and prayed a lot. Another thing that really
helped me was reading Pema Chodrun’s book When
Things Fall Apart. She’s an esteemed Buddhist
teacher from Nova Scotia.
biggest spiritual practice in healing the wounds of this time
was writing the music for Graceful Passages. I was
listening to these world-class wisdom-keepers speaking about
how to deal with loss, while I was panting on the floor trying
to recover from my own loss. The
synchronicity of Grace that I had been felled, but right around
me were these amazing people speaking incredible things about
loss, that basically was my church, it was my temple. It
was audio medicine for my soul.
has been the response to Graceful Passages?
MALKIN: It is truly a miracle, the kinds of letters
that we get from people, the lives that have been changed,
the ways in which people have responded to Graceful is
cannot tell you how many letters, phone calls and emails we’ve
received from people whose lives were different and changed
because this product opened up the discussion, brought out
the elephant under the rug, and shifted things from being in
debilitating fear to a state of acceptance and compassion.
classic example is the story of a woman who was hanging in
the balance on life support, and no one could make the decision
to pull the plug. Things don’t always work this neatly,
but a friend came to the hospital room and played a track from Graceful
Passages. When it was completed, everyone intuitively
knew to go over and give a kiss to the woman who was on life
support and say their goodbyes. And literally, by the final
note of the music, she had died, without any interventions.
doesn’t always work that way, but it’s a very dramatic
example of how it helps people have closure even when they’re
facing cancer and they’re fighting for their life. People
say, “I don’t want to face this issue of dying.
I don’t want to give up hope.”And we say, “It’s not about
giving up hope. It’s about giving up fear.”
advice would you have for someone currently going through a
dark night of the soul?
MALKIN: When you’re having a hard time I think
it’s really important to be honest about it. One of
my mentors is Thomas Moore. He says, Don’t look for
the happy ending or the silver cloud when you’re in
the midst of the dark night. You need to go through it, you
need to experience it. What does it taste like, what does
it feel like? Be as present as you can in your despair and
allow it to infuse you and fill you, rather than try to avoid
way of approaching it is trying to be as conscious and present
and deep-breathed as possible as I encounter another corner
of my consciousness that doesn’t trust that in God everything
is going to be fine. No matter what.
Interview by Linda Douty.
listen to a selection from Graceful Passages, visit the Oasis
Spirit Songs Section of explorefaith.org.
visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith.org
visitors and registered users.
Malkin is currently creating other CDs designed around the
Graceful Passages model, dealing with subjects including
courage, love, forgiveness, grief and birthing. He is also
involved in the nonprofit Companion Arts, whose mission is
to use music and the arts to deepen the humane and compassionate
dimensions of life, specifically in health care and in inter-faith
communities. The newest release, Care for the Journey: Sustaining
the Heart of Healthcare, was created to support the health
care professional to reconnect to their original sense of
purpose when they became a healer. To learn more, visit their
website at: http://www.thewisdomproject.net.