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Yo-Yo Ma:
it is time for a second enlightenment

Yo-Yo Ma is an internationally renowned cellist and champion of culture’s power to transform lives. In moments of blissful musical flow, he experiences perfect equilibrium when his body becomes part of his mind. Fingers are like tiny brains, Yo-Yo says, they find their way into the sounds they want to hear. He calls for a second enlightenment in which we combine the power of the mind and body, the head and the heart to find and build a better future.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend. Additional music played by Yo-Yo Ma.


When the Nazis invaded Paris, marched into Paris, my father was a student. There was of course a curfew, lights out. So what he did at night would be to play – in his little garret – Bach, that he had memorised during the day on the violin to keep himself company. There was no light, so he could play in the dark.  

I am 28 years old, my son Nicholas would have been three months old. We’ve rented a house for the month of July on an island. We couldn’t quite see the ocean, but you could smell the sea. You know, it was like a 30 mile speed limit. Everything was slower. And it was a magical time, experiencing, I think, one of the single biggest changes in anybody’s life is the arrival of a first born. We had him in a, in a straw basket, we could carry him around. It was sensational, less, lived, more innocent. And it was a time for discovery. You know, every day was different. You know, you’d see fishermen just coming in with their, with their daily catch. It was truly magical. 

So I was born in 1955, 10 years after World War Two ended. I grew up with the words ‘never again’ instilled, carved in my mind, and yet we have done it again. And again.  

The past that I’ve come from happened before I was born. And in many ways, even though I may not have lived it in some ways I have been affected by it all my life. In some ways it has determined my life.  My father was born in 1911 and 1911 was actually the end of all the Chinese dynasties, around the time when Japan became stronger and stronger and invaded, uh, Northern part of China. He, I think, threatened to burn his father’s store if his father didn’t stop importing Japanese goods. You know, the, the violence that was always in the background, on two continents, actually they shaved my mother’s hair so that she would not be seen as a girl. When the Japanese came to Hong Kong and during the bombardment and the invasion post-World war Two, my mother remembers family just chopping up furniture for firewood, food being grabbed out of her hands because other people were hungry. So I think these things are not so much facts, but stories that have always been in the back of my mind. 

Even though I arrived in the United States in 1962, I was not really conscious during the 68 riots. I was too young and protected and kind of in a bubble, but as a new arrival wrestling with the idea of what happened in the country, in my adopted country, in the country that I’m loyal to, uh, to know that there was this history that I have to somehow be responsible for.  

And this is where I start thinking about culture and who writes it and how do we actually subconsciously inherit? And sometimes it’s consciously through what, how we’re educated, who our parents are, who our friends are, who our communities are. And then sometimes it’s from understanding other communities that were not mine to begin with. Through understanding, through guides, through people that can take us into another world, it becomes then my world. If we live in a world where you hurt then I hurt, then we’re beginning from the same place. And that’s when we can start constructing the world that we need, that we want to live in. 

I come from a culture that talks about progress, about how things should get better. We kind of think of living older is progress. And, but are we progressing in every way? Sometimes I feel we’re not. I have seen so many slices of life, participated in so many different human activities and connections. I feel like often my mind is a jumble of chaotic experiences that I need to sort out. It’s like rearranging your closet, your drawers every month and with new things coming in and what thoughts do you keep? What, what do you discard and what do you, how do you make sense of that closet? That’s your mind? I feel that I’ve, as I’ve aged, I’ve come into contact with more and more of what is the span of the spectrum of human behaviour and human nature. From the idea of, you know, I’m a child of World War Two to actually seeing living evidence of, essentially, man’s cruelty. So it makes me think about late in life, about the deep responsibilities we have in any action, and how, how that pervades and persists through time and what are the constructive actions we can take that can persist through time.  

This moment is actually a combination of all past moments and we are active people. We can think, we can reflect and we can act. 80 years ago we were smack in the middle of World War Two when we thought the world was going to end. And now we’re smack in the middle of a number of crises the likes of which people say have almost no precedent. So how can I imagine another 80 years from now what the world is going to be like when my grandchildren, my cute little bugs, are going to be in their eighties. I think part of living well is creating the equilibrium necessary in order to act in a way that is constructive, whether it’s for myself or whether it’s for my family or for my friends or my community or my country or the world community. I think that’s, that’s the trick.  

My body, as decrepit and feeble as it might be, is completely, not only attached to my mind, it is part of my mind. You know, when I listen to cello young cellists play, I talk to them about having the fingers be little brains. They’re feeling their way into the sound they want to hear. So in fact, the body, both the conscious part of the body, as well as your unconscious part of your body is very, very much part of this thing that people call mindfulness. I feel we’re way overdue for a second enlightenment. The first enlightenment being what brought us our modern world, uh, all the disciplines that we study, all the sectors that we’re all the nations that we have all invented during more or less invented or reinvented and reconceived and re energised, configured, uh, through, from the enlightenment where rational thinking was supreme, which has propelled us into the modern age in terms of the explosive growth of knowledge and the tools to look at the universe and to look at our micro universe. It vastly expanded our sense of perception that, that we’re endowed with, of sight of hearing, of tasting, of touching, of, of smell. What’s changed since that period of enlightenment is that we’ve actually discovered our subconscious. Dostoevsky, Sigmund Freud, we now see are one, the mind cannot function without the tools that the mind uses in order to interpret the world around. And in this next version of enlightenment, we have to combine the mind and body, which means we have to combine the head and the heart metaphorically. And in order to rebuild or build better into the future.  

In 65 years of life, obviously I have experienced many, many kinds of love. We often think that we live in a world where we have to share the pie. You know, the pie is one size, and if you have more of it then I have less of it, and what I have to say, uh, in love, uh, the pie actually is infinitely expandable. So the size of the pie is how you continuously make it and remake it in pans that can grow in size. Or it can shrink because I think love is actually a muscle. If you practice it, if you use it, it expands, it gets bigger. And if you don’t practice it, it atrophies. 

For those who have fallen in love and been in love, you know what kind of feeling that is, you’re almost giddy. All your senses are on overdrive. You are, you feel insanely alive, but also possibly at the same time, insanely insecure. She loves me, she loves me not, what happened? What did she say? What’s that? Was that what, what? It’s, it’s an… it’s I think it’s a state of mind that is about as much a feeling of being maximally alive.

More recently I think another thing that completely changes one’s life is the birth of a grandchild. It suddenly puts you into a different stage of living. I know that my two and three year old grandsons, my love for them goes beyond my lifetime. So my hopes for them go beyond what I know I can experience. So my experience of them goes far beyond my own life journey, towards the Twilight of their life journey. We get closer to the native, the Indigenous populations of the world who think seven generations.  If we’re in an economically dominant society, often we think quarters, three months, because things change so quickly. Well, something’s change very quickly, but for those that think in cycles, they change much more slowly because the cycles come back each year.  

I’d like to make a broadcast from 2030. I’m now talking to you as a 75 year old. My grandchildren are teenagers. I have a granddaughter, who’s a preteen. It’s pretty intense. We’re pretty busy grandparents. However, I’m still deeply involved in thinking and caring about and trying to be active in how I can be useful to my immediate community and to the communities I’ve met through a life of playing concerts now for over 70 years, you know, traveling the world, trying to understand the world, and I’m still living in the same house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I think I’m still in pretty good health. That means that there’s a chance that my wife and I can actually see my grandchildren become, you know, 30 year olds. 10 years ago, uh, I invested very heavily into thinking about what we, we called Gen Z at that time. And now of course we have now Gen A and B, but Gen Z is where sort of my hope they seem to have had great values from the outset. They were not as materialistic as my generation was, and they seem to want to live an authentic life, whatever that means. And I think from what I see is that they have led an authentic life. They have worked tirelessly with people that they trust to rebuild the institutions that they’ve lost trust in. And they’ve actually –  now the 35-year-olds, they were 25 then – they’re now actually making policies that I thought 10 years ago would take 30 years for us to get there. But they’ve actually taken charge and taken the lead and working, being, working in the Senate, working in Congress, working, getting elected to actually work for a better kind of capitalism, circular capitalism, tracing things from the very beginning of its origins, whether it’s a mineral or it’s a plant out to the very end of its human usage back to the earth. And from what they’ve been able to develop, an AI technology and this huge data that we can know a mass to actually trace every single thing that emerges from the earth back to the earth, and to make sure that in the process, we return that object to a carbon neutral state. The capitalism that is being practiced now is actually one where people benefit. They, their income is created. Jobs are created, but it’s done in a way that does not harm the earth.  

I’m talking to you as a 95 year old, the year is 2050. The sun is going to get bigger, we still have a couple of billion years, but, but we see signs that it is going to expand, and it is going to swallow up the earth. But that’s way, way into the future. Not for me to think about, but it’s for the succeeding generations to care for so that the human population will have a future no matter what. 

If Nicholas woke up early, I would take him out with me and try and get him back to sleep, put him in a car seat and just drive around hoping that he would, you know, uh, that being an automobile would get him to go back to sleep. And if not, we would wait until seven o’clock when the doughnut shop opened and the smell of fresh doughnut, not that he would eat it, I would be the one eating it. Everything was new and everything was less complicated.