Thursday, February 7, 2008

Across the Universe

Tags: Maharishi, Beatles, meditation, LSD, aliens

This past November I wrote about growing up in Philadelphia in the 1960s. I was motivated by the recent sale of the house I grew up in, and by a cover photo on a Sunday NY Times Magazine that reminded me of a photo I took in 1968 after seeing the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he toured the US with The Beach Boys. While the Beatles love affair with TM was short-lived (years later Paul McCartney confessed in an interview that the supposed sexual indiscretions attributed to the guru were false and that the Maharishi becoming upset by the Beatles drug use at the Himalayan retreat was the actual cause for the rift ), even the momentary intersection was responsible for some interesting things.

Looking back at the era, the arrival of the Maharishi onto the pop culture scene of the late 1960s makes quite a bit of sense. The chain of events included:

* George Harrison taking interest in the Indian musical instruments that appear in some of the scenes in the Beatles’ second feature film, Help!
* A friendship between Roger McGuinn of The Byrds and the owner of the World Pacific record label (Ravi Shankar’s US label) led to David Crosby bringing Ravi Shankar to George Harrison’s attention.
* John Lennon and George Harrison’s introduction to LSD-25 by way of being dosed by their dentist, Dr. John Riley, at a dinner party in 1965.

Canadian poet and song writer, Leonard Cohen, has spent quite some time in a California Zen monastery and his teacher, an old Japanese Zen master who heads that center, said something once that I think has a whole lot to do with the experience of psychedelic drugs.

“You can’t live in God’s realm too long. There are no restaurants or toilets.”

The Beatles move from LSD to meditation mirrors the experiences of the US Buddhist community as a whole. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review conducted a poll in Autumn of 1996:

"Number of responses: 1,454 (63% from the magazine, 37% from the web). 89% said that they were engaged in Buddhist practice. 83% said that they had taken psychedelics. Over 40% said that their interest in Buddhism was sparked by psychedelics, with percentages considerably higher for boomers than for twenty-somethings. 24% said that they are currently taking psychedelics, with the highest percentage for people over 50 and under 30. 41% said that psychedelics and Buddhism do not mix OR: 59% said that psychedelics and Buddhism do mix. The age group that expressed the most confidence in a healthy mix was under 20. 71% believe that "psychedelics are not a path but they can provide a glimpse of the reality to which Buddhist practice points." 58% said that they would consider taking psychedelics in a sacred context. (In the "under 20" category this percentage was 90 %)."

I remember that, when the Maharishi was in town in 1968, people could go to his hotel and get a private consultation with him for the price of one week’s salary and a bouquet of flowers. That consultation resulted in receiving one’s mantra, a nonsense word that you would repeat during meditation and that would help clear one’s mind. A major reason for my own independent skepticism regarding TM is the whole idea of the “top secret mantra.” Many years later a bunch of people who’d received TM training around the same time suddenly realized that they’d all been given the same mantra.

No wonder it’s a secret.

This is not, however, to dismiss the idea of daily meditation. If you’ve ever spent twenty minutes sitting on the floor or on a pillow trying to empty your mind you will gain an immediate insight to how The Beatles White Album came about.

For a little while in the late 1990s until about early 2002 my office was located directly next door to the Indianapolis Zen Center and I would often join them for their evening meditation. One night there was just myself, the center’s Abbot, and his assistant. After the half-hour of sitting in silence the Abbot’s assistant remarked, “I don’t know what was going on; my mind was a young puppy tonight.”

Perhaps monks who’ve been at it for twenty or so years can actually “empty their minds,” but most of us will find that, when we try, it is as if a damn of the most bizarre images and ideas has burst and floods our minds.

Flooded, I imagine, by characters like Bungalow Bill, Rocky Raccoon, blackbirds, warm guns, savory truffles, and all the little piggies.

So, from a dentist’s tea cup to a Himalayan retreat, from the giggles muffled by the Maharishi’s beard to the greatest double LP in pop music history.

And into deep space.

Polaris, 431 light-years away, is the destination NASA sent The Beatles song "Across the Universe" to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its first space mission. On Monday, February 4th at 7 p.m. Eastern time, the array of huge antennas that were usually tuned to listen for inbound signals from space beamed the best of John Lennon’s Rikikesh compositions to a spot (186,000 x 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 431) miles away.

Born sometime between 1911 and 1918, named Mahesh Prasad Varma at birth, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died this past February 5th in Holland. In the end I think he is bets remembered as basically a good fellow whose impact on the world was for the good and whose momentary affair with the counterculture of the 1960s influenced some fine music. Without it, there’s a chance that side two of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper LP might not start with “Within You Without You,” and that would be a tragedy.


Mike Streif said...

Hi Stan. Very much enjoyed this.

Stan Denski said...

Thanks Mike. I've been keeping up with your blog too. I hope people are starting to find it. I have it, Lux Tempor, in my links.

Coffee Messiah said...

Nice trip down memory lane and explains a few thoughts that passed through my mind about reading about it all as a young - un!

Cheers from up N! ; )

steve said...

Another term the Buddhists use to describe the busy mind is "monkey mind." Anyone who has tried meditation has been shocked at the amount of thoughts rattling around in their heads. The trick is not to try to empty the mind; it will do it own its own. Trying just pisses off the monkey and makes him more agitated.

Anonymous said...

Hey Stan, I should be checking in here more often. Anyway, I've been reading up on a lot of Tibetan buddhist stuff of late. You know what the Dalai Lama said when someone asked him if he thought LSD could bring people closer to God?
"Well, I hope so!"
Tibetans are cool. We need more of them.

// Patrick