I love the Beatles, and like many Beatles fans, I think The White Album is one of their great masterpieces. And one of the best songs on The White Album is, without question, “Dear Prudence.”
But did you know that the song was influenced by the music of the Gypsies, Transcendental Meditation, and the daughter (and sister) of Hollywood celebrities?
“Dear Prudence” was written in early 1968, when the Beatles were in India, while John and George were studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga. It was written for a woman named Prudence Farrow (Mia Farrow’s sister) who was there meditating as well, and became so immersed in her meditation practice that she rarely left her room. Hence John Lennon wrote a playful song for her, where he sings, “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?” The music was inspired, at least in part, by a Gypsy style of guitar picking that John learned from the folk-rock musician Donovan, also studying with the Maharishi.
While on the surface the song could be seen as a playful rebuke to excessive spirituality — Prudence, don’t waste your time meditating, come out to play! — at its heart “Dear Prudence” makes a powerful statement for an integral contemplative perspective: where Prudence (and by extension, anyone who listens to the song) is “part of everything” and is invited to “look around, round, round” and see the beauty in all things. The song is a reminder that there is really no line separating “spirituality” from the rest of life: it’s all connected. The point behind a contemplative practice, after all, is not merely to lose ourselves in meditation; but rather to find, through the disciplined attention of silent awareness, that we really are “part of everything” and it’s all beautiful — and so are we. In other words, contemplative practice fosters a contemplative way of life, in which we learn to see with, and through, the eyes of love at all times — not just when we are “sitting.”
The Beatles eventually became disillusioned with the Maharishi and left India. Prudence went on to become a T. M. teacher, eschewing the limelight and devoting her life to the study and practice of spirituality. Fast forward to 2015, Prudence now is a Yoga and T.M. teacher based on the Florida Gulf Coast, and has written a memoir called Dear Prudence: The Story Behind the Song. I haven’t read the book yet, but the other day I stumbled across a wonderful recording of a recent interview with Prudence. It’s quite enjoyable — not only as a bit of Beatles trivia, but surprisingly rich in its spiritual insight as well. Clearly, Prudence is more than just a member of a Hollywood family with a Beatles song written about her — she is an articulate and insightful woman with a clear understanding of the value of meditation and spiritual discipline.
In the interview, not only does Prudence talk about her childhood in Hollywood, but also recounts the Irish Celtic heritage — full of myth and folklore — that informed the life and spirituality of her mother, actress Maureen O’Sullivan. The interview also explores how Prudence’s childhood formation as a Catholic both inspired and challenged her when she began to explore eastern spirituality. It’s a delightful interview, a nice mix of Hollywood and Beatles lore, spirituality, and even some reflection on interspirituality. The book is now on my to-read list, but the interview itself is well worth the 45 minutes it takes to listen.
And in case you’ve been hiding under a rock or in a monastery for the past 47 years and don’t know the song, here’s a little video featuring it.