Since its conception about fifty years ago, an inspiring daily practice that many musicians and high profile celebrities have used to clear their psyches subsequently had a tremendous impact on pop music as we know it. Less demanding than yoga or espousing a devout spirituality, it’s a type of meditation that requires no training, focus, or even effort at all. This practice is little more than a suggestion for how to frame each day. Its mass exposure in the late 60s inspired much of the material from the The Beatles’ White Album(eventually contributing to their break-up), drove Brian Wilson further up the wall, and somehow remains the answer to the tribulations of more than one type of celebrity.
Credit for the popularity of Transcendental Meditation (or “TM”) and its return to the forefront of busy spiritual seekers’ minds belongs to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India’s Vedic tradition, who developed the meditation method from those roots. The goal of TM is to achieve a higher state of thinking and being, thereby overcoming human negativity and stress through just 20 minutes, twice a day, of sitting still with closed eyes in a comfortable chair. Instead of focusing on breath or the thought of nothing, TM calls for a stillness of thought, forgoing the effort it takes to focus thinking and allowing stillness of the mind to come naturally. Part of this stillness evolves into transcendental consciousness, where a person can discover their innermost treasures, talents, and potentials.
Little more than a decade after Maharishi made his practice public in 1957, he decided to take a vow of silence and in preparation, booked a world tour in which acolyte Pattie Boyd brought her then-boyfriend George Harrison and his band. The Fab Four were instantly hooked on the sweet-voiced leader and within four days were swearing by his technique and devoting themselves to intensive study under him. Joining them on the trip was Beach Boy Mike Love, musician Donovan, and sister beauties Prudence and Mia Farrow.
During their months practicing with Maharishi, Harrison became the most emotionally committed to the practice and was inspired to write numerous songs on the sitar, a sound he was infatuated with. In the midst of the retreat, it was Harrison who wrote the most musically dense and clearly inspired songs for The Beatles. Meanwhile, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were unconsciously developing the framework for the White Album, some of which was also largely inspired by their experiences with Maharishi.
As a classic example of this inspiration, Lennon was responsible for watching after Prudence Farrow in a sort of buddy-system for ensuring the wellness of retreat participants. When her commitment kept her meditating for 23 hours a day, several days in a row, he wrote a famous song for the dear girl that begged her to “come out and play.”
In another example, McCartney left the retreat without warning, possibly sparking a handful of those angsty songs. Several weeks later after hearing a rumor that the Maharishi had made sexual advances on women during the retreat, the remaining Beatles (Lennon and Harrison) returned home. Upon departure, Lennon wrote the evil-toned “Sexy Sadie” originally in mockery of their ex-spiritual leader.
Regardless of the way that relationship dissolved, The Beatles continued to use TM and in turn, it continued to inspire their music in different ways. The rest of their fellow celebrities from that trip also continued meditating, bringing their experiences back to the States to spread and share.
After arriving home, Mike Love of the Beach Boys advocated the benefits of TM to his bandmates, most of whom would practice it lightly throughout the rest of their careers. While Brian Wilson was the first Beach Boy to start practicing TM (even writing the most notable Beach Boys song about the practice) he certainly wasn’t the most passionate about it. When his cousin returned from studying under the Maharishi, he also came back with inspiration from his fellow practitioners and musicians.
As the musical leader of the Beach Boys, Brian was undoubtedly influenced by these new perspectives and, among many other self-destructive reasons, it drove him simply mad that he couldn’t draw the same inspiration as The Beatles had from TM.
Many different types of celebrities have been drawn to TM since The Beatles gave it their stamp of approval, but musicians especially benefit from the meditative practice. In an essay exploring the relationship between The Beatles and The Maharishi, Greg Panfile speculated as to why the four superstars felt so compelled to participate in this kind of meditation, writing that”…being surrounded by sycophants, available sex partners, rip-off artists and the like makes any effort at sincerity in any form that much more difficult.”
He goes on to suggest they may have used TM to escape their false-feeling realities and to get back in touch with their genuine selves. Brian Wilson told Rolling Stone in 1977 that he did it for pretty much the same reasons, and “to see what can happen, to see if there’s anything waiting in there that I haven’t found.”
More recently, soloist and singer of the Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer, became a devout fan of TM because of how it helped her cope with the harshness of life on the road,”…especially the constant traveling, the bizarre schedule and the constant lack of grasp on reality that happens when all of a sudden you’re thrust into the rock and roll machine,” she told the Huffington Post.
Science Daily reported in May of 2011 that “new research shows that musicians’ brains are highly developed in a way that makes the musicians alert, interested in learning, disposed to see the whole picture, calm, and playful. The same traits have previously been found among world-class athletes, top-level managers, and individuals who practice Transcendental Meditation.”
This could explain more concretely why musicians are predisposed to TM and why celebrities in general are attracted to it. Film director George Lucas can certainly be said to have these traits, and it was rumored that the Star Wars character Yoda is based on the Maharishi. Rosie O’Donnell takes TM as seriously as any other spiritual practice, even thought it technically is not affiliated to any religion.
The practice boils down to an openness of the mind and a willingness to have this kind of experience. Musicians, as artists, are more receptive to unconventional methods of self-control like TM, but to neglect everyone else who feels inspired by Transcendental Meditation would be undercutting a serious movement.
The David Lynch Foundation is an organization started by filmmaker David Lynch that uses TM to help individuals in high stress level environments. Children, prisoners, homeless people, militants, American Indians, and over 60,000 more people have benefitted from the DLF. In 2009, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eddie Vedder, Donovan, Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper, Moby, Bettye Lavette, Paul Horn, and Jim James came together to host a DLF benefit concert called “Change Begins Within,” showing how each of these musicians, for their own reasons, stand behind the TM movement fully. Shattered as their relationship was, McCartney and Starr continue to support what the Maharishi started- an uncomplicated, effortless search for a higher level of thinking that has proven benefits.
Originally published on BreakThru Radio, on 11/9/11.