The only behavioral traits leftover from my childhood are shyness, niceness, and imagination. I can’t remember much else. It was so thoroughly scooped out by puberty and intense experiences that much of my childhood self is lost to a kind of amnesia.
The first scoop was the Beatles. We were driving through the dark one night on our way home from visiting family in Wisconsin. My step-brother and I were playing in the back of a Dodge Caravan. Say what you will, but that thing had phenomenal fucking speakers.
Then, I heard something from another world come on the radio. Something that forever altered the way I view music, and eventually—through a cascading domino effect—life in general. I think I’d just turned 13. In that moment, that innocent mind was filled with an ethereal curiosity that I’d never known before. I didn’t know what the song was about, but the flow of words and effects forced me to accommodate a new definition of music.
“Is this Pink Floyd?” I asked my parents.
“No, it’s the Beatles.”
“What’s it called?”
My dad smiled in the rear view and said, “I Am the Walrus.”
“Goo goo g’joob!” Yes, that’s the actual line. No, “Koo koo ka-choo,” nonsense… lookin’ at you… Bono.
What shook me the most in this song was the drastic stereo shift at 2:11. Some later remasters took it out, and I think that ruined the whole fucking song. It’s magical because, when it comes in, it’s drastic so you notice it. But after a few bars, it seems normal. That was an interesting lesson on perception for a 13 year old. The Beatles gave me my first insight into psychology.
I got a CD player that Christmas, but unfortunately, Magical Mystery Tour wasn’t highly available on CD yet (wouldn’t be until 2009, 10 years after that fateful listening in the van). It was still difficult to buy things online, and none of the local stores had MMT on cassette. So, I went without.
Until Napster. Someone had uploaded an Mp3 of it from a rare CD release, and it was the first track I downloaded. It took an hour and half since we only had a 56K modem.
Armed with bootleg Mp3s burned onto cheap CD-Rs, the summer of ’02 approached. I was 15 and in the thralls of pubic despair, awkwardness, and loneliness. That was a pivotal time, not only for me, but for the nation. Everyone was still reeling from 9/11, there was madness and negativity everywhere and I was struggling to make sense of it all.
The economy had started to suffer, so I started hearing the dawn of the “finance fights” between my parents. As stress permeated the house, I found myself spending more time alone. Yet that’s also the summer I’d start hanging out with two lifelong friends, the three of us still bonded together through shared experiences of transcendence by way of bong.
A friend and I were able to get a hold of some pot. I’d smoked a few times before, but nothing really happened. Then, for whatever reason, something definitely happened: I tripped balls. Sitting there with my headphones on, listening to the Beatles on a bootleg CD-R, the clouds parted and everything shifted into view. I was lifted out of the mundane darkness and flown headfirst into pure euphoric psychedelia. Suddenly, there were no boundaries, no obstacles. I was flying. I felt vast. I felt free.
It toppled my foundations and opened up a new path, a new John. There was no going back. It was like a spring rain sending all of my potentials into full bloom. I owe my life to that moment because life is all about perspective. I was freed from the tyranny of viewing things in only one way. If it wasn’t for that, there’s no way in hell I’d still be alive. And, even if I was, I probably would’ve never stumbled on Buddhism.
That same night, another track from that album spoke to me on a sublime level. It was my heart, putting everything I felt into words.
“No one I think is in my tree. I mean it must be high or low.” The lyrics in Strawberry Fields Forever communicated my situation to myself. It told my story, of being an outsider who felt perpetually misunderstood. And it captured this new view as well, the open view of what seemed like a deeper understanding of the world.
“Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” After this glimpse into the other, into the mind, I wanted to understand. This woke up some latent urge in me to see things in a deeper, clearer way. An instinct that still survives to this day.
Weeks later, the Beatles gave me a new religion.
“Try to realize it’s all within your self
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within and without you…
When you’ve seen beyond yourself
Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.”
I was a good Catholic kid before I heard Within You, Without You. I was even an altar boy somewhat interested in the priesthood. Mary Jane and the Beatles wiped all of that away. This track prompted me to research Eastern faiths. I picked up a copy of the 13 Principle Upanishads and I was totally mind blown. These Indians who lived thousands of years ago were perfectly expressing my stoned insights.
I left the Church. I couldn’t buy into a religion that said that animals don’t have souls. And I could no longer worship a God who would send his “children” to suffer for all eternity in a lake of fire.
I was introduced to another God, an incomprehensible awareness that was shared by all beings. That was pure love and wisdom without judgment. But the curious and rebellious traits that marijuana nourished would also make me question these Hindu beliefs as well. So my journey into the world’s religions and philosophies began and would last for over 10 years.
I found Zen after I’d ended my search, when I’d settled on cold materialism and a weary nihilism. I was resigned to live and die without direction. Stumbling on Buddhism, I soon realized that one of their songs was inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. It is not dying
Lay down all thoughts surrender to the Void. It is shining
That you may see the meaning of within. It is being”
This song deserves its own Buddhist commentary, but I’m not gonna go into that here.
The Beatles were notorious for writing open-ended lyrics that people tried reading into. There were massive debates over whose interpretation was correct. But, like all the great poets, their most sublime tracks were intentionally written with an open view, riffing off of what they were feeling at the time. So, there are no right or wrong answers.
There are times in our lives when the simplest things have a significant affect on us. It might be a relationship, a poem, a song, a dream, or a trip. These moments only seem formative years later when we can trace the courses of our lives back to them.
These moments seem more numerous when we’re young, but getting older doesn’t make us immune to them. It could be happening right now and we wouldn’t even know it until we look back on today a decade from now. Our courses are always shifting. A single instant can send us off in directions that we could never imagine, and transform us into versions of ourselves that the mirror can never show.