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Paul Mason Talks Via Rishikesh: En Route to Chittavrittinirodha and The Beatles

By: John Wisniewski | Image: © Jonathan Miller

Reporter John Wisniewski met with Paul Mason to discuss his extraordinary adventures hitchhiking across Europe to India, self discovery through Transcendental Meditation, meeting the Maharishi and the Beatles . Learn more from his fascinating interview below.

1. When did you become interested in spirituality Paul?

Hi John, I think I've always been more interested in the inner spirit than the outer personality, more likely to respond to my intuition rather than relying on guidance or understanding through education. It's my habit I suppose.

Both my parents were churchgoing Christians, who encouraged us kids to have good non-materialistic values. But school seemed forever to be encouraging us to have pride in our achievements, and expecting us to compete with others, both on the sports field and in academic subjects. However, I was relieved when I found that my friendships were usually based on sharing rather than on competition. I think I found myself more drawn to those who weren't unduly attached to material possessions. I was particularly curious about gypsies and tramps, who seemed to live less cluttered lives, without many possessions, and some of them appeared closer to nature.

2. You have written your new book about your spiritual journey. Why did you go hitchhiking on only £40 (forty pounds sterling) to travel the world?

The thing is John, that after a period of being footloose and fancy free, I found myself in a relationship with an attractive strong-minded young woman. She was few years older than me and was interested in philosophy and Indian thought. She seemed to be under the impression that I was interested in these subjects too. I found myself under pressure to come up to her expectations, intellectually and spiritually. I really wasn't used to being so accountable to anyone, and it was very challenging. Over time, I think I became somewhat overwhelmed and depressed. I didn't know the word then, but that must have been the condition. Anyway, that feeling of being off beam became more intense and I was starting to have trouble making sense of my situation. But when I got the idea to travel and see the world, the pressure and gloom I was feeling lifted, and I instantly felt a sense of hope and direction. So, I started trying to scrape together the funds to get an air ticket. Initially I had hoped to travel all over, especially to the East and maybe South America. Mmmmm, but it wasn't easy getting money together, as at that time I wasn't working. With the costs involved in getting a passport and buying a rucksack, I was left with barely enough to go on a continental holiday, perhaps sufficient for a few days in Paris maybe. I realised then that if I was going to get to distant countries, I would have to resort to hitchhiking or else give up my desire to travel and that was out of the question. he thought of not travelling returned me to a state of deep gloom.

3. Why did your girlfriend want to take such a potentially dangerous journey with you?

My Italian girlfriend, Yolanda, seemed to have a lot of trust in me about most things and faith in me too. I really don't know why! But anyway, when I told her I was thinking about hitchhiking to India, she immediately seemed really interested and responded that she was all for coming along with me. It was then that she confided in me that she had long been attracted to visiting India. With regard for the potential dangers of the trip, or what might happen if we got ill or destitute, naively we just looked at the journey in totally positive terms, and never discussed what we would do if things went wrong.

4. What was the main reason you wanted to go to India?

For the Indian food? Oh, a big treat when I was a kid was sometimes being taken to an Indian restaurant. I loved the atmosphere of those places. I recall getting to eat banana fritters! But I wondered why anyone would want to eat ladies' fingers!! Oh, I later discovered that they're not fingers at all, but a vegetable called 'okra'! Hahaha. Seriously though, I suspect that my desire to go to India was influenced by a couple of people, both much older than myself — one being a neighbour who had served out in India as a Colonel, and the other was one of my schoolmasters. The later was rather eccentric history teacher called Mr. Knight, who kids called 'Twizzle', who would tell amazing tales of his times in India. I must have stored up impressions and created a desire to go to India sometime, but I wasn't aware of this desire until this idea of going hitchhiking surfaced.

But my aim wasn't simply about going to India, or to any place. My aim was to meet people in distant lands and find out how they lived, what they valued, and whether they were doing a better job of their everyday lives than people in the country I lived in. You know, I had a hunch that I would find clues as to finding a better way to live. There was an aspect of this journey which made it appear more like a pilgrimage, rather than a holiday. I never saw it simply as an adventure, because for me it was a very serious attempt to make sense of my life and make sense of being alive. In truth, I just wanted to be happy, and to stay happy. It didn't please me to find that my moods fluctuated for no good reason. Oh, and I'd decided that I didn't want to lean on drink or drugs to be happy, in fact I'd decided to become teetotal a few months earlier. I didn't know much about India. I'd heard some of the strange music, which I was unsure about, and I'd seen pictures of fakirs lying on beds of nails. I knew that I was in for some shocks on account of the poverty there, but somehow, I trusted I would find likeminded fellow travellers there. So, the main reason for going to India was this vague feeling that in India, I would meet lots of sincere people intent on connecting with a higher deeper plane.

5. Did you find what you were looking for? Initially we were just looking to get away, and find our way across Europe, then to cross the sea straits to Morocco and travel along North Africa. In this we were successful, but then we found we couldn't enter Egypt by road, so we travelled by ship from Libya to Turkey in a former Nazi minesweeper. We continued travelling onwards, hardly letting up for more than a few days, through the Middle East to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and in those places, we were given many life lessons. But that was the outer quest, looking at cultural differences that might shed light on a better way to live.

But I think your question is about spirituality. Did we find release from our confusions and find the goal of our search?

Speaking for myself… Yes! Unequivocally, I would say that I did. I found a spiritual home in Swargashram, near Rishikesh, where I discovered a community of villagers of diverse faiths, Muslim, Christian and Hindu, who lived in seeming harmony - some sort of 'Shangri La', an ideal village, and alongside this I also discovered that I could access a serenity within myself by going beyond thought. Those two things, the knowledge that a diverse community can live in harmony, and the discovery that I could find deep peace and harmony within myself, so what more was there to look for? For me life now made sense and I looked forward to applying the principles and practice back in my life back 'home'.

6. Would you recommend others to embark on such a journey? It was a crazy, dangerous, and challenging trip, and it would be irresponsible of me to encourage anyone to try and emulate what we did or behave like that. But I would encourage listeners to listen to their intuition and follow their own path, regardless of how much resistance they might meet with from others. But I don't believe it is for everyone to take the sort of risks we did, and I hope that by reading this book, 'Via Rishikesh: En Route to Chittavrittinirodha', readers get to share this journey so that they too confront the same moral dilemmas and shocks and get to share the pleasures too. Hopefully, by reading this tale, readers will gain insights and understandings they would otherwise miss out on.

7. Why is this book being published now and not before? This travelogue was my first book idea, which I started way back in time, but never got around to finishing until now.

I've put together about a dozen books over the years, but now, having researched and written about various topics, including meditation, Indian thinking, and The Beatles, I decided it was high time I shared this journal of my experiences, especially in light of the fact that this sort of journey is no longer possible to take and that these days since lockdown, people have been restricted in their ability to travel except with their imagination and largely speaking have had to content themselves with browsing their computers in order to discover the world.

But this trip is not something I wrote about from my imagination. This journey was extremely real, brutally real at times. I suspect there are many who would enjoy reading this genuine story about a sincere young couple in search of …. in search of whatever it is people go in search of ... spiritually speaking!

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Bungalow| Image courtesy: © Jonathan Miller

8. Can we talk about the Maharishi next? How long have you known him? It was probably my girlfriend's curiosity about the Maharishi that sparked a desire in me to meet up with him. I had a mind to chat about my opinions about life. However, when we turned up at his Academy in the Himalayas, he was off elsewhere, in Canada I believe! So instead, we spoke with his followers, and it was they who persuaded us to take up the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM). We were taught in the basement of Maharishi's lovely bungalow, which was tucked away in a corner of the jungle. The jungle area where his Academy was situated was teeming with life, a fantastically natural and magical place. I loved it there. Our being taught meditation was very interesting, in that it is an experience of letting go of thought. I experimented and went further than the instructions I was being given and made the decision to let go of thought entirely, and almost at once experienced a profound taste of the eternal peace that lies within. I was surprised and enormously pleased to have this experience, which was as though I'd accessed and pressed my 'reset' button.

Following this experience, I began practicing regular meditation - Transcendental Meditation - and found that by meditating twice a day one could easily find inner peace and harmony within. Quite a discovery!

This led me to want to know more about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, his background, and his teachings. However, although I wanted to know everything about his teachings and those of his master, I didn't want to be overwhelmed by Maharishi's personality. I reckoned many others had already been. So, I decided instead to research him at a distance by studying his books, listening to miles of tape, and watching dozens of hours of audio-visual material, until I got a clear impression of his teachings.

When I eventually found myself in Maharishi's presence - in Britain in the early 1970's - my suspicions about the power of his personal charisma were confirmed, in that he seemed to have the effect of pulling people towards him. Rather at odds with the behaviour of his followers, I chose not to attend his extended residential courses but to continue viewing him at a distance, listening to his lectures from those courses on tape.

It so happened a publisher contracted me to write Maharishi's biography, and I did so with relish, outlining his life story and teachings in some detail. The book now retitled 'Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: The Biography of the Man Who Gave Transcendental Meditation to the World' is now in its third and final edition, substantially expanded and improved, with more photos and more information.

9. Many were searching for spirituality during the 1960's. The Beatles with Maharishi and Pete Townshend with the Meher Baba. Why do you think this was? I don't think it's an exaggeration to say it was the experimentation with drugs, which lead many in that era to want to discover more about Indian spirituality. Youngsters were smoking hash and marijuana. Some were using LSD, and the result of this was that they got a taste for altered states of consciousness. I think it was natural they should approach these spiritual teachers in the hope of finding some sort of drugless high.

10. Did you learn from Maharishi? As a child I wanted to know how to pray, to chat with God. I was searching for a way to connect with a higher energy. Later, I asked around as to find out how to meditate. In time, I used to practice my own homespun method, which worked well for me. When I did it, it got me very deeply relaxed. I found that Maharishi offered an intelligible explanation as to 'how' meditation works, and that 'how' was something I had never thought about before. Also, by virtue of his having had a master - Swami Brahmananda Saraswati - whom he referred to as 'Guru Dev', he got to know a lot about traditional Indian thinking.

Accordingly, because of my interest in this 'Guru Dev' and finding there were no books available about his teachings, I taught myself enough Sanskrit and Hindi to translate three Hindi books about this old sage, which I published myself. These publications were met with very good critical reaction, and are still well thought-of, popular and selling well.

The Beatles seated around Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in a clearing near the office at Shankaracharya Nagar, prior to a group photograph of course participants being taken. Rishikesh, India, Feb.1968| Image courtesy: © Paul Mason

George Harrison, John Lennon & Paul McCartney of The Beatles, with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, at a sing-along on the sandy foreshore of the Ganges. Rishikesh, India, February 1968| Image courtesy: © Paul Mason

11. How did the whole Maharishi retreat come about in 1967?

Pattie Boyd had a modelling career before she became the wife of Beatle George Harrison, and together they became interested in all things India, and she took up meditation in early 1967. Later that year, hearing Maharishi was to visit Britain, she encouraged her husband and his fellow Beatles to get interested in meditation, and as The Beatles were concerned, they would not get another chance before his retirement. Tickets were purchased for John, Paul, George, and their entourage to attend the last scheduled public lecture of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, at the London Hilton Hotel.

After the lecture, a representative of The Beatles signalled their interest in his teachings to Maharishi, and they then met and had a private meeting with him, whereupon Maharishi invited them to attend a short course in Bangor, Wales, the following day. It was whilst they were in Bangor that they were 'initiated' into Transcendental Meditation (TM). Maharishi then proposed that they attend a meditation retreat in India, but this visit was postponed until the following year. Subsequently, they made the trip to India and spent many weeks meditating and attending lectures.

I decided to research and write a book detailing the life and times of The Beatles and their involvement with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, titled 'The Beatles, Drugs, Mysticism and India', and in this I was tremendously assisted by finding many who were on the same meditation retreat as The Beatles and Donovan, in India in 1968. I was given photos hitherto unseen, and recordings hitherto unheard, which helped in setting the scene and telling their story.

Lakshman Jhoola | Image courtesy: © Jonathan Miller

12. Will you write another book?

I wanted to write another book about a discovery I made, which is simply that it's relatively simple to explain how to attain the state of yoga. In Indian literature yoga is said to be the temporary halting the fluctuations of the mind —'Yogash chitta vritti nirodha' meaning 'Yoga is the stopping the fluctuations of the mind'. So, yes, I had the idea to write a book about this, but after a friend asked me if I was going to include a description of this process in 'Via Rishikesh', I decided to add on a description of this teaching onto the story of the hitchhiking to India, hence the subtitle 'En Route to Chittavrittinirodha'. In truth it is very fitting, for this is the result —the culmination of the journey to India, to Rishikesh, for it was by going via Rishikesh that I discovered the route to take to find the state of 'yoga', accessing stillness and peace of mind.


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