Maharishi visited Gulmark, Kashmir’s tallest mountain, in 1968. (Photo courtesy of Alan Waite, director of the 1968 film about Maharishi, Sage for a New Generation)
I learned Transcendental Meditation in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1971. I was a senior in high school, playing bass and singing in a working college blues band. (I didn’t go to prom—my band played for it!) The youngest of three children, I knew nobody who meditated, not my family or my friends. It was Bill Ryan, a schoolmate of my older brother’s at the University of Wisconsin, who convinced me without a word to start TM. No, I don’t mean some kind of esoteric psychic transmission. Let me explain.
Bill, my brother Mike, and I used to go to concerts like the Moody Blues, Love, James Gang, Edgar Winter, Lee Michaels, Stevie “Guitar” Miller, and Three Dog Night. At one point, I hadn’t seen Bill for about a month. When I visited him at his apartment, he looked brighter than I’d ever seen him, practically glowing. I asked, what’s up, expecting him to say he was in love, or had just won the lottery (actually, I think that was before gambling was decriminalized). But he said three words that would change my life: “I started TM.” At the risk of sounding like some kind of cliff-jumping lemming, I was sold. I mean, he could have said, I just ate charcoal, and I would’ve said, pass the briquettes. The change in his demeanor and countenance was that obvious.
At the ripe old age of 17, I talked my folks into giving me the required permission to learn Transcendental Meditation. It didn’t matter if my future brother-in-law would refer to me as “weirdy,” as much for eating sunflower seeds and yogurt as meditating. In those days, who knew lettuce was green? Iceberg was king in our home. Velveeta was our only “cheese”—and, Holy Cow, Batman, we were from Wisconsin! My uncle, a dairy farmer for many years, would simply shake his head in disgust. Even his explanataion of how Velveeta was processed from castoff parts of real cheese did nothing to dissuade us. So what if it contains less than 51 percent cheese?
Turns out the student instruction fee was $35, which some muttered about even then. (The price is now $2500.) I had read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha a couple times and even began doing my own meditation by a stream in a wooded preserve in Madison called the arboretum, not too far from where I worked summers as a car jockey for the dealership my Dad sold Buicks at, talk about stream of consciouness. I’d zoom over on my lunchtime break on my massive automatic white Honda 50 step-through “motorcycle.” (Actual bikers would always smile at the gawky kid with knees jaunting skyward crouched like big bird on a toy piano. The scooter could reach speeds of maybe 45 mph downhill with a strong backwind, but to me, it was pure Steve McQueen in The Great Escape all the way.)
When I learned TM, it felt reminiscent of my arboretum experiences, but now it didn’t require a particular setting. I could meditate anywhere. I loved the simple 20 minutes process twice a day, still do. It immediately became part of my daily routine.
It was months later, reading a book by TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Science of Being and Art of Living, that I noticed a picture of the Beatles on the back cover. I hadn’t realized this was the Beatles’ so-called guru. You have to remember, by 1971, the Beatles were history, having famously fragmented into litigation, acrimony, and separate pursuits, while the TM movement with its message of deep rest, inner tranquility, elimination of stress, and creation of world peace was growing in leaps and bounds. I’m not saying the Beatles didn’t focus worldwide attention on Maharishi when they went to study meditation at his ashram in Rishikesh, India, in 1968. It’s just that it’s been mentioned so many times in the press that you’d think the Beatles and Maharishi were synonymous. I call it the “9/11-Iraq syndrome.” When two things are conflated often enough, they tend to vulcanize into a Pavlovian blend. Don’t forget, by the time the president sent American forces to invade Iraq, over 70 percent of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was directly connected to 9/11.
What has this got to do with Maharishi, you ask? Maharishi/Beatles. Maharishi/ Beatles. Certainly having the most popular pop group in the world show up at your doorstep brought a lot of attention to Maharishi’s movement. But don’t forget he had been traveling around the globe for nine or ten years by the time the Fab Four showed up.
If you read Lewis Lapham’s account of the spectacle (he was on assignment for Saturday Evening Post at the time), it’s clear that their arrival was treated as a decided boon for the movement’s hopeful efforts to create peace in the world by teaching individuals to experience inner peace. As many know, within a couple of months the Beatles unceremoniously parted ways with Maharishi. I learned from someone on the course that John Lennon was going through his own stuff at the time. Imagine, he was attending with his wife, Cynthia, although sleeping separately, while in regular correspondence with Yoko Ono, his future wife, all the time doing long series of meditations called “rounding” (remember “Dear Prudence”? “…round, round, round…”) and apparently doing drugs as well. Yikes, magical mystery tour, indeed.
Anyway, by the time I found out the Beatles had spent time with Maharishi, it was nothing more than a passing, “Cool, man.” By then the Beatles were yesterday and Maharishi was my tomorrow. After graduating high school, I somehow talked my folks into allowing me to forgo college in order to attend a one-month course in the Science of Creative Intelligence near the redwood forests of Humboldt, California, with Maharishi himself overseeing the whole operation.
I remember waiting in my parents’ drive way for four people I’d never met before to pick me up to drive out three days straight to the West Coast, and thinking, Oh, my God, what am I doing?
To be continued.