A Formula for Spiritual Health
By Joshua M. Greene
George Harrison taught me something about spiritual health. This was in 1970—the year his song “My Sweet Lord” became the most successful single by any of the Beatles. George had been recording an album of Sanskrit prayers at Apple Studios, a project that reflected his appreciation for chanting as part of a complete daily spiritual program. I was a student of Krishna yoga visiting London at the time. As former organist in a college band, my good fortune was to be invited to chant some of the prayers and play harmonium on the album.
During rehearsals, George’s appreciation for the simplicity of India’s devotional songs affected us all. Nonetheless, from bad habit I began playing an embellished riff during an introductory solo. George looked at me with an impish grin and raised his eyebrows. “Really?” he seemed to be saying. Realizing my mistake, I quickly went back to the basic melody line, but the point had been made. Prayer should shine a spotlight not on us but on the Divine. Spiritual health begins by distancing ourselves from such self-centeredness. I’m still working to free myself from ego. For George, it came naturally.
We were never close friends, but even people who barely knew him noted his natural humility. “None of us is God, really,” he’d say, “just God’s servants.” To cultivate his deep devotion to Krishna (the Sanskrit name for God in human form), he woke up early and performed yoga postures for half an hour or so. Then he’d sit quietly with prayer beads before an altar that he kept on the mantle over a large fireplace in his home Friar Park, a few miles west of London. The altar contained small images of various deities and pictures of spiritual teachers whom he admired including Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. For someone who lived at the apex of superstardom, his humility before more advanced souls was stunning. He told us that his worldly success, first as a Beatle and then in his phenomenal solo career, proved to him there was some greater magic out there. Success, he said, had given him the freedom and the courage to seek it out. That freedom, he said, was a privilege given to him after millions of births and deaths in the material world. He felt a responsibility to engage what God had given him wisely, for the benefit of others.
“If I don’t use this opportunity,” he told us, “then I’ve wasted my life, haven’t I?”
George was always careful to focus on his chanting, since he accepted the Vedic (traditional Indic) teachings that say God and God’s name are not different. To chant a sacred mantra is consequently to be in the presence of the Divine. While chanting, George sat up straight and listened to the sound of each word as he chanted on a string of wooden prayer beads called a japa-mala. If he allowed his mind to wander, it would change the quality of his prayer. He would produce sound but not divinity, fulfill a ritual but not evoke love. So he paid attention. Cares over business or tensions with friends might have distracted him from time to time, but as far as possible he put all thoughts aside and focused on hearing the sound of each word of the mantra, reaching deep inside to nurture his devotion and to sense God’s presence through sacred sound.
He would use different mantras, but the one he favored most was the Krishna mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chanting Krishna’s names steadied his mind. He felt purified of anger and greed when he chanted. Beyond wanting that peace for himself, he wanted to share what he’d learned with people who had no knowledge of spiritual life. That was his intent behind recording songs such as “My Sweet Lord,” which contained the Krishna mantra sung by the Edwin Hawkin Singers. Producing spiritual records was George’s way of giving back something for all that he had received. The world would acknowledge that gift or not; that was out of his hands. But he wanted to see that as many people as possible heard the chanting.
George adhered to other principles of healthy spiritual life. He was strictly vegetarian, since he felt it contradictory to honor life in its many forms and still sanction animal slaughter. His favorite dish was dahl, a lentil soup that, when mixed with rice, forms a perfect protein and is an ideal meat substitute. Living the celebrity life made it difficult for him to give up other habits, such as alcohol and cigarettes. Still, as far possible, he kept company with people who did live clean lives and who shared his beliefs. He had his musical friends and he had his spiritual friends, and he liked to keep the two worlds separate.
In his later years, communing with the natural world was a vital part of George’s formula for spiritual health. A stream ran through the grounds of his home in Friar Park, and morning wind rustled the hemlocks and oaks that grew there in abundance. Entering the final years of his life, George felt God’s presence in nature, in trees and gardens and the simple miracles of tilling the earth, planting jasmine bushes, freeing a magnolia tree from wild brambles, and nursing abused ground back to beauty. He had seen people worshiping nature in India where they called the earth God’s “Universal Form.” Trees were the hairs on that divine form. Mountains and hills were the bones, clouds the head, rivers the blood flowing through the veins. Gardening from that vantage point took on holy dimensions, as though caressing God’s body.
In his early 50s, George was attacked by a deranged man who broke into his home late on night. George sustained multiple stab wounds. A short time later, he underwent an operation for cancer. The body was deteriorating, but his consciousness remained strong and healthy thanks to daily spiritual practices. Friends listening to him sing against such odds thought it about the bravest thing they had ever heard.
George planted 400 maple trees during the final year of his life, and when he strolled around the garden he would pick up a flower or leaf whose unique shape he admired. “I think he saw in that garden an affirmation that life goes on,” said Michael Palin. “That seemed to give him great pleasure in his final days. It was almost as though the body might be weakening, but everything around him was an affirmation of life and the continuity of life.”
When friends came to visit, George would remind them to take time to live every moment to its fullest. He would ramble on about plants and flowers and hug his friends for minutes on end, not wanting them to leave before knowing how much he loved them. In their eyes he glowed with a truth that has faded in the burning fires of a world at war: that the worth of a person dwells inside, in something eternal and pure regardless of karma or politics or religious beliefs.
Even a lifetime of dedication to healthy practices cannot reverse karmic effects from previous lives. Whether it was from cigarettes or more remote causes, George passed away from the effects of cancer in November 2001. For those who were there, it was not a sad moment but a glorious passage of his soul out of the material body and back to the spiritual world.