The 1960s were archetypical. Following the enormous destruction and inhumanity of two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, and the reactive focus on creating personal wealth for safety in the 1950s, the 60s quickly became a time of tremendous change in society, marked by a world wide upheaval between the generations and growing skirmishes between governments and their own young people. The ‘old order’ was being challenged daily by social and political activism, as well as drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the ‘free love’ movement. As Bob Dylan told us, the times they are a-changin’. Our generation was looking for fun, yes, but also for deeper meaning for ourselves and for others, trying to create a better world.
The 1960s came to a head in 1968. It was both positive and negative. It started with the ‘Prague Spring’ liberalization of communism in Czechoslovakia, followed by the ‘Tet Offensive’ in Viet Nam and the buildup of the anti-war movement in the United States. In May of that year the ‘Paris Riots’ saw hundreds of thousands of French citizens take to the streets in a general insurrection, started by university students in a quest for social and political reform. By August, Russian tanks crushed the ‘Prague Spring’ but it was the first crack in the face of totalitarian Soviet communism that would eventually lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. And while the early and mid 1960s saw major leaps forward in the American civil rights movement, 1968 was the year the movement lost two heroes in the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at age 39, and Bobby Kennedy, just 42.
By 1968 the struggle for outer justice and equality was being mirrored by a growing thirst for inner transformation, and our generation dived into the universal quest for personal fulfillment. We were looking for a more loving redefinition of relationships than our parents’ generation seemed to believe in. It wasn’t just about getting a job and making a living, anymore. It was also about living your feelings, about honesty, joy and playfulness. It was about peace both inside and out. The Beatles, Dylan and Donovan were our heralds, our troubadours calling out to us, leading the way, in the ideal, to an end of the patriarchal, both within and without. It was the beginning of a movement from a struggle-based paradigm to a joy-based paradigm. In their music, they never felt or appeared or sounded as if they were out to please, or manipulate, or make money. For the Beatles, they were mostly having authentic fun, itself a great lesson.
But something was missing. Early in 1968, at the height of their popularity and arguably the most famous people on the planet, the Beatles traveled to India, to the foothills of the Himalayas, to find something that all their fame and fortune could not give them. They went to find inner peace. For eight weeks they disappeared into an ashram to study meditation. No press or visitors were allowed.
Seekers in their music, they were now seekers in their spiritual lives. For many of us, the Beatles were the avatars—the embodiment, the archetype—of western culture and society and when they turned to the East, millions of young people turned to see what they were looking at, where they were going, what they were doing. To the West, then, ashrams were a little known phenomenon. They were centers of spiritual learning, of yoga, of vegetarian eating and, to the generations of the 60s, word that the Beatles were at an ashram in India aroused a curiosity in a great many people searching in their own lives for a deeper fulfillment than materialism could deliver. The Beatles were forging ahead, again.
Why did all four Beatles go to India? George was the most interested. He was ‘the quiet one’, perhaps most in touch with himself. He was a devoted seeker, devoted to finding the inner connection with his own Divine Nature. This connection is soul food. It requires quiet to do this. That they all went was significant. Each, in their own way, more or less, was looking to get away from their fame, from the cacophony of their busy lives. Looking for the quiet. Looking for the soul food. As George said, when we sat together at the ashram: all the bells and whistles, all the outer rewards and distractions, “It isn’t peace inside, is it?” They were also there to be together. They were family.
Personally, I woke up one morning in Montreal in late 1967 and realized there were parts of myself I didn’t like. I was shocked. I had thought all was going well: I was working in film, been a television host at 21, was proud of myself for doing voter registration work in Mississippi in the dangerous summer of ’65. And yet, in that moment, I felt empty inside. As I thought about it, I realized I lacked self-confidence. I lacked a sense of inner peace, even a sense of meaning for my life. In December of that year, I stuffed my backpack and set out on a journey to ‘find myself’. I only thought of India. It was instinct, the inner voice. I knew nothing of India or meditation, and I had no idea the Beatles would be there.
I said good-bye to my girlfriend, both of us in tears, and arranged to end my time working at the National Film Board of Canada with one last job, as a sound recordist on a documentary shoot in India. On December 4, 1967, with two hundred dollars and a round-trip ticket to India in my pocket, I boarded a plane for my first trip overseas.