The Retreat That Still Reverberates, Within You, Without You, Across the Universe
Forty five years ago this week, The Beatles were settling into the ashram of their new guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in Rishikesh, India.
The news coverage was nonstop and global, as it had been six months earlier when the lads first met Maharishi and became public advocates for his Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique.
It would have been easy at the time to dismiss the media frenzy as just another pop culture craze, but reporters knew this was different. Why would four young, bright, fun-loving youngsters, wealthy beyond imagining, able to go anywhere and do anything, choose to hunker down in an austere, vegetarian, non-air-conditioned compound in the Himalayan foothills and spend large chunks of time each day with their eyes closed?
What is this meditation thing?
What could a backward, impoverished country, only two decades removed from imperial rule, have to offer people who seemed to have everything a human being could want?
Questions like those turned what might have been a brief media burst into a watershed moment in cultural history. I opened American Veda, my book about the impact of Indian spirituality on the U.S., by calling the Beatles’ expedition “the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness.”
Since publication, not one person has argued with that assertion.
It was as though the earth tilted on its axis in February, 1968, making ancient Eastern teachings flow more easily and quickly to the West; the result would impact healthcare, psychology, neuroscience and especially the way we understand and engage our spirituality.
In retrospect, the meeting of the Fab Four and the teacher who will probably always be known as “The Beatles’ Guru,” seems as karmically destined as that of Bill and Hillary or Lewis and Clark. Like many in the counterculture of which they had become de facto leaders, the band members had come to see that psychedelic drugs, like LSD, could open the door to higher consciousness but they did not let you stay there, and, in the bargain, came with serious risks.
The search was on for safe, natural ways to expand the mind and attain inner peace and unified awareness; the East seemed to have answers, and all signs pointed to yoga and meditation.
George Harrison, having spent time in India studying sitar with Ravi Shankar and reading spiritual literature, was among the ripest candidates.
For his part, Maharishi had been circling the globe for nearly a decade, slowly attracting students, mostly among respectable middle-aged people, with a metaphysical bent. His laser-like focus on meditation, and his skill in presenting a systematic, universal practice that was suitable for both secular self-improvement and spiritual enlightenment, were ideally suited for the rational, pragmatic West.
When, in 1965, college students began to take up TM, word spread quickly and meditation clubs popped up on campuses. By August of 1967, when Maharishi lectured at the London Hilton, it was only natural that Pattie Boyd Harrison would hear about it and lead her husband and his mates to the jam-packed hotel ballroom.
The Beatles took to meditation like they had taken to Chuck Berry and Little Richard; John and George were especially enthusiastic (hear David Frost’s interview with them). Young people everywhere, always eager to emulate their musical heroes, flooded TM centers. The press coverage was remarkable for its shortage of cynicism; it featured parents and respected cultural leaders who were impressed by the life changes they observed in the meditating youth.
As a result, scientists, prodded by Maharishi, who had majored in physics, started doing rigorous research on the effects of the practice.
Before long, physicians and therapists were recommending meditation to stressed-out grownups. To meet the burgeoning demand, Maharishi trained a cadre of teachers, essentially democratizing what had long been an esoteric practice available only to an elite few, much as Henry Ford had democratized automobiles.
Now, hundreds of studies later, meditation and yoga are as mainstream as aerobics and vitamins.
Would this have happened if the Beatles had never gone to India? Would there be yoga studios on every street corner? Would HMOs recommend meditation?
Maybe, maybe not, but certainly not as quickly.
That’s not just my assessment.
Life magazine at the time dubbed 1968 “The Year of the Guru,” and when Newsweek commemorated that seminal year four decades later, one article was titled “What the Beatles Gave Science.” The author, Sharon Begley, chose the topic because the lads’ trip to India “popularized the notion that the spiritual East has something to teach the rational West.”
That’s reason enough to commemorate the anniversary of that eventful journey; if you need another one, go listen to The White Album—almost all the songs on that double record were written or conceived in the ashram on the Ganges.
*Postscript: Whenever I write or speak about this subject, people bring up the Beatles’ sudden departure from the ashram and John’s angry cynicism afterward (“Sexy Sadie” was originally “Maharishi”).
Usually, the comments contain erroneous information—understandable, given the media sensationalism and the passage of time—so here are the facts. Ringo left after only ten days, complaining that the ashram food upset his tummy. Paul spent two months, then left because, he said, he had things to attend to in London.
Two weeks later, George and John took off, abruptly and angrily, because they’d heard stories of hanky panky on the part of the guru. The rumors about Maharishi and Mia Farrow were later put to rest; other rumors persist to this day. George, famously, remained an avid spiritual practitioner the rest of his life, maintaining an active link to at least three spiritual lineages: TM, the Hare Krishnas and Yogananda’s organization.
Ringo and Paul apparently continued to meditate; in 2009, they performed at a Radio City Music Hall concert to benefit the David Lynch Foundation’s efforts to bring TM to students and veterans. As for John, like most people I’d assumed that he washed his hands of the whole thing back in 1968. But, just last year, Yoko Ono told an interviewer that her late husband valued meditation and looked back favorably on his time in India.
What I find most striking is that, 45 years later, we’re still talking about all of it.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise