The next day, I sat with the Beatles overlooking the Ganges. After chai, everyone left except George and me. Sitting alone with him I felt shy, awkward. George was quiet and intense, but friendly. He was then just a few days away from his twenty-fifth birthday. I told him I loved Norwegian Wood and asked him how long he had played the sitar.
“A little over two years,” he answered. “It was when we made Help. We were filming and there was a sitar around. I was curious and fooled around with it on the set. But, the first time I really listened to sitar music was off a Ravi Shankar album. Later, I met him in London and asked him to teach me. He agreed, but it wasn’t until I came here with Pattie, to Bombay where Ravi lives, and studied with him that I really got deeply into it. And into India and all it has to offer, spiritually and otherwise.”
A baby monkey dropped down onto the far end of our table from the thatched roof above, scampered four or five feet towards us, grabbed a crust of bread lying there and chattered off, noisily. We both laughed at its apparent pleasure. “I’m going to practice for a while. Would you like to come and have a listen?” George asked.
We walked over to his bungalow and into a small meditation room, about eight feet by ten feet, with only a white futon on the floor and his sitar. George sat cross-legged near the center of the room and I sat facing him a few feet away, my back resting against the wall. He gently nestled the large gourd at the base of the sitar against the sole of his left foot, as soft sunlight filtered through the slightly dusty windowpanes. Everything was glowing. I could smell the faint aroma of sandalwood incense from somewhere outside as George closed his eyes and began to play. As the multilayered music, like a kaleidoscope of exquisite colours, filled the small room my eyes closed and I drifted dreamily on the waves of sound. Time shifted. It seemed to slow down. He played an Indian raga for fifteen minutes, or maybe it was forty. As he finished, the musical reverberations slowly fading into silence, I felt a soft, delicious feeling of peace. When I opened my eyes, he was gently laying his sitar back down. The sunlight had shifted across the futons and there was an vibrant, soothing aura in the room.
In the relaxed conversation that followed, he told me that his wife Pattie had learned transcendental meditation first and then got him interested. The Beatles’ interest in meditation and spirituality had begun several years before Rishikesh. George was influenced by the writings of the Indian scholar and sage Vivekananda and had been exploring the spiritual aspects of life for some time. As he found exciting books or passages, he would share them with John, Ringo, and Paul. As they delved into deeper spiritual questions they found drugs less capable of helping them find the inner answers they were looking for. Earlier, smoking marijuana and hashish, and taking LSD for fun and for exploring consciousness, had brought some positive results manifested in their songs. In time, though, drugs became somewhat of a dead end. I had experienced this as well.
On August 24, 1967, the Maharishi was giving an introductory lecture at the Hilton Hotel in London and Pattie and George took the other Beatles along to hear him speak. Afterward, they went backstage for a private meeting. They were drawn to his message and the Maharishi invited them to leave with him the next morning by train for a ten-day meditation retreat in Wales. But, after only one day at the retreat, they learned of the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, and returned to London. When the Maharishi returned to the city they continued to study with him and he invited them to Rishikesh for the three-month intensive meditation course.
I asked him what meditation was like for him. He was quiet for awhile, and thoughtful: “Meditation and Maharishi have helped make the inner life rich for me. The meditation buzz is incredible. I get higher than I ever did with drugs. It’s simple, the vibration is on the astral plane, and it’s my way of connecting with God.” He was silent for a moment, and with a profound modesty he added, “Like, we’re the Beatles after all, aren’t we? We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for. But, isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside. Is it?” He gave me a dear, even loving smile. Neither of us spoke for several minutes.
Sometimes, it’s only much later that we realize the impact another person has had on us. I’ve never forgotten his words. Only years later would I realize that, in that moment, George changed my life. He was one of my heroes and he was pointing the way, telling me where to ‘find myself’. Not outside myself, in money or fame or anything else external, but within myself. He was also telling me that that’s also why he and the other Beatles were there—to find something deeper within themselves. In time, I would come to understand that it’s a universal journey: To know ourselves, to like ourselves, profoundly, to be self-realized, we must journey within. George and I sat quietly a while longer, and then we went out into the warm winter sun.