Wednesday, July 20, 2011


The Beatles and The Four Stages of Psycho-spiritual Consciousness

“The more I go into this spiritual thing, the more I realize that...something else is doing it.” ~ George Harrison

Nearly 2,000 years ago, four Gospels named for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John changed the course of human consciousness and history. Fast forward almost 2,000 years to twentieth century Europe and America--a time of dehumanizing technology, world wars, political tyranny, religious decline and civil unrest. This soul-malaise moved Carl Jung in 1933 to write about Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Less than thirty years after Jung's assessment, four young English musicians named John, Paul, George and Ringo took the world on a psycho-spiritual magical mythical tour of soul evolution. With their lives and music the Beatles would penetrate a rigid Western consciousness, expanding it like a Rubber Soul.

In their early years, the four teens were influenced by what had been dubbed the Beat Generation, a term coined by a group of American writers, artists and rebels like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs who came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The term beat connoted being "beat down by the establishment," but Kerouac added the paradoxically optimistic notion of restoring a new "upbeat and beatific” vision of consciousness. The four English musicians liked the symbolism and called themselves The Beatles. John Lennon felt "beat down" by life, and with his assertive rhythm guitar caused the band to explore all human emotions. Lennon said, "My role in to try and express what we all feel...Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all" (Beatles Biography 83). James Paul McCartney, undeniably the most musically balanced of the four, added stability and an almost naive "upbeat" optimism. Paul Vallely said of McCartney, "Paul McCartney is one of those people who has represented the hopes and aspirations of those born in the baby-boom era, which had its awakening in the Sixties" (The Independent). Add the slaphappy no-rolls drumming of Richard Starkey whom Lennon called "quite simply the heart of the Beatles," and the shy spiritually minded George Harrison with his rockabilly guitar style, and you have what drug guru and Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, in his book The Politics of Ecstasy, called, “The message from Liverpool...the Newest Testament, chanted by Four Evangelists-saints John, Paul, George, and Ringo" (134).

It is my contention that this Beatle "message" corresponds very nicely to what some have identified as archetypal stages of evolving consciousness. Stages-of-growth theory is founded on the Freudian depth psychological work of Eric Erickson and developed at the spiritual and moral levels by James Fowler, Lawrence Kholberg, M. Scott Peck and many others. Jung refers to four universal stages of individuation in his work, Man and His Symbols, citing Paul Radin's study of the heroic cycle in the Winnebago Indians mythology(112-114). These four stages are also found in the Eros and Psyche myth, the Hindu stages of life, the phases of the Buddha's awakening, the Epic of Gilgamesh and in the evolving God-image of the Bible. I will utilize the four stages as developed by Scott Peck in his book, The Different Drum, (186-200). After a brief description of each stage, I will give parallels found in the Beatle's biographical and musical career which animated, evoked and altered the consciousness of Western civilization.

Stage one is the ego stage, or what Scott Peck calls the Chaotic-Antisocial phase, "…a stage of undeveloped spirituality [during which a person is] incapable of loving others...[and] relationships with fellow human beings are essentially manipulative and self serving…, [eventuating] often…in social difficulty" (Different 188-89). This describes the early years (1959-62) of the ragtag band that would become The Beatles. They described themselves as Teddy Boys, the equivalent of American Beatniks, with skin tight jeans, leather jackets and ducktail haircuts. They smoked, drank, did drugs and fornicated. Their early music was little more than dissonant shouting and bizarre theatrics. McCartney was arrested and deported from Hamburg, Germany for setting fire to their apartment located in a porn theater. Their first big hit song written by John, Please Please Me, was covertly sexual, admonishing the prudish English lassies to please their lads like the carnally enlightened German Fräuleins.

Eventually such pathological behavior breaks a person down, preparing them for stage two--Formal-Institutional--which provides necessary structure so that social skills might be acquired. The ego expands to embrace some "other" person, idea or tradition. Falling in love, getting a job or finding an ideological stance is common. In 1962 the Beatles, demoralized by their chaotic German gigs, met their manager Brian Epstein who encouraged the group to assume a more mature social attitude. John Lennon recalled Epstein's words, "Look, if you really want to [succeed]'re going to have to change—stop eating on stage, stop swearing, stop smoking" (Anthology 67). During this period they donned suits, wrote formal love songs and focused on the institution of romance with lyrics like, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah." They guided a generation of young men and women, providing both with permission to fall insanely in love and attach to the idealized "other".

This second stage also comes to an end, always painfully, as the evolving consciousness tires of symbiotic enmeshment with the "other". Stage three arrives--the Skeptic-Individual phase--wherein one becomes an "active truth seeker" (Different 192). Confused and questioning everything, a person begins to discover who lives at the core of the self. This stage of consciousness overtook the Beatles shortly after achieving success in 1964. Neither stage one hedonism nor stage two institutional stardom had worked, so they shed their conformist suits and began using drugs to expand their individual awareness. Their albums changed tone, calling out for HELP! after experiencing too many Hard Day's Nights. They longed to escape from the socially restircting box they were in. Suddenly their songs were about failed love, domestic abuse and evil taxmen. They felt torn to pieces and expressed it by releasing "The Beatles Yesterday and Today" album with the Butcher Cover displaying dismembered babies. After an initial release, the record jacket was immediately recalled and replaced. The second image was less macabre yet still showed them emerging from the conformist box as individuals bent on differentiating "yesterday" from "today". In his book, The Beatles and Philosophy, Erin Kealey writes: "Beginning in 1965, the Beatles take a philosophical turn from singing the romantic songs that brought them early popular success to scripting more profound and critically acclaimed lyrics that probe the human condition…[exploring] such issues as getting lost in the crowd, alienation, self-deception, and the call to a better way of life." (109)

Scott Peck notes that stage three typically ends in hopeless exhaustion accompanied by spiritual curiosity, leading to the dawn of stage four--Mystic-Communal. Shattered by the in depth analysis of stage three, stage four results in an emptying out of the self and an increasing awareness of an "invisible underlying fabric that connects everything" (Different 193). During this period the Beatles went on meditation retreats and produced Sgt. Pepper's in 1966 with an album cover sporting such psycho-spiritual luminaries as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Babaji, Yogananda and an image of the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi. The album also included Harrison's Krishna inspired song, Within You Without You. The stark White Album was released in 1967, a symbol of emptying out the past and the future. The Beatles were helping a whole generation move through stages of development, regaining the lost soul Jung had written about in 1933.

Their first and last album covers taken alone demonstrate how the Beatles symbolized and galvanized the evolution of Western consciousness through the 1960s. Their initial album showed the four in complete conformity with no distinctions between them. Their last two albums revealed four unique characters walking away from the "institutional" Abbey Road studio, and then a final Let It Be cover that was similar to their first album with all four guys together, except that now each Beatle had acquired his own distinct look and individuated quadrant. The final message was clear: Be yourself, things change, move on and let it be.

The Beatles knew there was something mythical occurring during those years together. George Harrison said in 1967, “The more I go into this spiritual thing, the more I realize that...something else is doing it” (Gospel 194). Paul McCartney agreed, “We just happened to become leaders of whatever cosmic thing was going on. We came to symbolize the start of a whole new way of thinking” (Gospel 194). After they broke up John Lennon said, "The Beatles were a kind of religion" (Gospel 11).

Jung, in Man and His Symbols, says that the four stages of evolving consciousness found in every culture "provides a clear demonstration of the pattern [of individuation] that occurs both in historic myths and in...modern man" (114). The Beatles provided that archetypal pattern for many in the twentieth century. They became the living symbols of individuation, motivating scores of people to march forward in the messy yet magical, mythical soul-making processional.

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