Tuesday, December 25, 2012

1968, Meditation and Obstinate Faith: A Litany of Daisy Chains for Dear Prudence

Prudence Anne Villiers Farrow Bruns in Rishikesh, front row left

I have a set of pushpins squeezed into a pretend timeline in my mind. It’s linear (only for the sake of order) and runs left to right (convention). Anyway, on it, several crucial dates are pinpointed. It’s like those maps of the world people have on their inspiration corkboards with pushpins that represent every place they’d like to go. If I could fling myself back to one year on that ridiculously reductive line, it would be 1968. My reasons are myriad – I won’t start that list. But a good number of those reasons started flooding back to me when I spoke at length to American yoga and meditation teacher, author and film producer Prudence Farrow Bruns.

Prudence Anne Villiers Farrow Bruns is the daughter of film director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan, and the younger sister of actress Mia Farrow. She also happens to be the subject of the breathtaking Beatles song “Dear Prudence."
On January 23, 1968, Farrow, along with her sister Mia and brother John, traveled with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from New York to India and then to the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh, India for a Transcendental Meditation teacher training course. The Beatles arrived shortly thereafter, on February 16 and 20. Farrow became so serious about her meditation while in India, that she turned into a near recluse, rarely coming out of the cottage she was living in. As a result, Lennon wrote the song “Dear Prudence.”

Prudence Farrow Bruns
Farrow taught Trancendental Meditation for several decades after her teacher training course in India. She received her BA, MA and PhD in South and Southeast Asian studies from University of California at Berkeley. Her doctoral dissertation was on pulse diagnosis, titled Nadivijnana, the Crest-Jewel of Ayurveda: A Translation of Six Central Texts and an Examination of the Sources, Influences and Development of Indian Pulse-Diagnosis. She has also worked in film production, with credits including The Muppets Take Manhattan of 1984 and The Purple Rose of Cairo of 1985, with Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen.  She also conceived and co-produced the 1994 film Widow’s Peak.  Farrow became a magazine writer in the 2000s. Using her married name, Prudence Bruns, she has authored articles on Asian studies, world religions, ayurveda, and healthy living. She has presented at conferences and held teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin. She has taught Transcendental Meditation in Northwest Florida since 1970.

Occasionally, -like anyone not enough advanced in their yoga practice to be able to inhabit two (or more) lives at once- I lament that there must be a way to bend time, to live exponentially. And so it is with remarkable candour and detail that Prudence talks to us about her travels and experiences circa 1968. She relates the seismic impact of a spiritual experience that followed on the heels her father’s death, her unbroken loyalty to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, what the song “Dear Prudence” meant to her, the miracle she requested (and received) at Lourdes, teaching asana to Andy Kaufman, and the story behind her very name, a name which she notes, “fashioned my destiny.”
"I was sitting around my brother’s house reading a book on meditation because I was obsessed with it. It didn’t really make sense, but I was obsessed with it and he came up and he said, “What are you reading?” And I said, “I’m reading a book on meditation.” And he said “So, you’re interested in meditation...”
And somehow when he said that, I just felt... But I felt something happen and I just KNEW that I was hearing something that would have profound effects on my life..." (Prudence Farrow Bruns)


Priya Thomas in Conversation with Prudence Farrow Bruns PhD, December 2012:

Prudence: Hey Priya!

Priya: Hey Prudence, how are you?

Prudence: Fine. I’m so sorry the meeting that I was in just went over time...

Priya: No, that’s ok. I didn’t intend to start the interview this way, but I can’t get over how much your voice sounds like Mia Farrow’s! (laughing)

Prudence: I know! Well, you know, she is my sister! 

Prudence Farrow Bruns and Mia Farrow
Priya: (laughing) I know...guess you must hear that a lot then.

Prudence: All of the girls... All of us sound the same!

Priya: How many are you?

The Farrow Family
Prudence: Four girls. Hardly girls now! Hardly girls now! Four old women! (laughing)

Priya: (laughing) Let’s see now, why were you named Prudence? Do you know?

Prudence: Probably you ask that question because...Well are you of South Asian descent?

Priya: Yes, I am.

Prudence: Well yeah, you know, there’s so much thought put into a name in India, don’t you think? Whereas here, it’s important in a different way...So you would notice that I’m called Prudence, where maybe most people don’t notice it.

Priya: That’s possible...

Prudence: Or maybe it’s just me? and I’m looking at it too philosophically??

Priya: No, it’s possible...

Prudence: Anyway, I don’t know. My father insisted on calling me Prudence and he said he had an aunt named Prudence. And my mother really didn’t want to call me Prudence because before “Dear Prudence” the song, it was not a great name to have...You know, like Prud-ence...It was a severe name. And so my mother really was against it and most of their friends were against it. So we thought that I was called after this aunt. But there’s no such aunt named Prudence. We can’t find it anywhere in his family geneology. So we don’t know why I’m called Prudence.

John Farrow, Maureen O'Sullivan
Priya: hmm...odd..

Director John Farrow
Prudence: My father insisted on it.
And it did make a difference for me having that name. I fashioned my life differently because of it. I really think I did.

Priya: Is that right?

Prudence: It’s in my book. I just finished the book and I begin it with that point that you know, well, that I have this name and that it really fashioned my destiny.

Priya: That’s funny... I was looking at your life (on paper anyway), and thinking that your name was unusual, that it somehow seemed to suit your life. When does the book come out?

Prudence: Well, I just finished it. And I have an agent and I’m going to New York in the middle of January and I’m going to be having a strategy meeting with him and a couple of other people and we’ll decide how to best get it out. So it’s at that stage.

Priya: So if we could go back in time now and talk a little bit about how you first came to meditation and yoga in 1966...Can you describe your introduction to meditation? I believe it was at UCLA, is that right?

Anandamayi Ma
Prudence: Yeah it was at UCLA. Well, it was really before that because I was looking for meditation for a long time and I didn’t really know why. I didn’t know anyone who meditated or anything like that. And when I was in LA visiting my eldest brother, a friend of his had been to India with Anandamayi Ma. You’ve probably heard of her, haven’t you?

Priya: Sure.

Prudence: And he spent six months with her and then she had told him to go to Maharishi in Rishikesh. And so he had learned TM (Transcendental Meditation) and I was sitting around my brother’s house reading a book on meditation because I was obsessed with it. It didn’t really make sense, but I was obsessed with it and he came up and he said, “What are you reading?” And I said, “I’m reading a book on meditation.” And he said “So, you’re interested in meditation..." And somehow when he said that, I just felt...you know you could understand this perhaps being Indian... But I felt something happen and I just KNEW that I was hearing something that would have profound effects on my life and that it was just what I had been searching for. So even before he said anything, I could feel it. This was what I was looking for.

Priya: Where did it go from there?

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1968
Prudence: So then he told me there was this saint in India called Maharishi Mahesh Yogi you know and then he told me all kinds of amazing stories you know...that were very inspiring. More important than that, was that in the West we were having sort of a revolution of thought. My generation was saying we’re not going to go the way our parents have gone. The answers are not outside, they’re on the inside. That you could change the world by changing yourself...All that kind of thinking was not part of our culture. That’s not the way anyone in our culture thought... But there was a whole bunch of us that collectively went through this. You know, and I think that we were definitely looking for some solutions and when I started Transcendental Meditation, because it was so generic in the way it was presented (it was mixed with yoga etc) I really thought this is what I’m looking for, this is what the world needs, or the West needs.  This is our solution.

Priya: So you were pursuing something that went beyond just your own personal interest....

Mahesh Yogi with Mike Love (The Beach Boys)
Prudence: I got very excited at that point because I just thought it was revolutionary in the way that we were going to change things. It would change our minds. And by changing our minds, we could change people. So I was very excited on all levels and I wanted to go and study about it with this great saint who knew all about it. I just wanted to study and know more about it. And nobody here knew anything about it.

Priya: So how old were you at this point?

Prudence: Eighteen.

Priya: I know you said that you can’t really explain it but you must have some sense of why you were gravitating to meditation at that point...

1968, Rishikesh. Photo: Paul Saltzman.
Prudence: Well there were a lot of things happening at that time. I mean, we had people like Timothy Leary who just before that time were considered not just 60s gurus, but were simply respected teachers and professors at college you know...And he was saying, speaking from our generation that just like Columbus had set sail and found a new land, that we should be willing to venture out, that it was time for all of us to expand our horizons. So there was a lot of that in the air.  And you know I don’t know...Well, when my father died I had a spiritual experience. I mean it was very profound. And it kind of whitewashed everything. Sort of like if you have very sweet honey on your tongue and you can’t taste anything else. None of the other tastes can be tasted. Same with that experience...Nothing really measured up to it. And I became very excited about becoming a truly spiritual person.

And I read Siddhartha I guess right after I had that spiritual experience and it just resonated with me. It just seemed so right that you can live spirituality. You know, you didn’t really have that in the West. You went to mass and you tried to be like Jesus but you couldn’t experience it...And I wanted to become someone who could experience god as a truly spiritual person. It became an obsession. I was full of obsessions! (laughing)

Priya: And yet despite your feelings about what was lacking in your experience of mass etc, you did want to become a nun at one point. Were you younger than eighteen at that time?

Prudence: Yes, because I had a spiritual experience when my father died. And both Mia and I had gone to convent school. Well, I don’t know what religious tradition you were raised with...

Priya: As it happens, I went to a convent school as well...of the Sacred Heart...

Prudence: Oh, so you know you could become a teacher or you could become a nun. You know, remember when you go on retreats and the vocation? And they’d say ok so some of you are going to get the vocation. And I remember after I left that school and I went on to high school, I was so petrified of getting the vocation! I was just so sure I was going to be the one that got the vocation.

Mia Farrow
Priya: Right.. (laughing)

Prudence: When I was young, ten and eleven, Mia and I...well, we all wanted to be nuns you know. She wanted to be a missionary nun. We had visited a Carmelite convent and they were all covered with veils and they prayed all the time. And I wanted to be one of those kinds of nuns that prayed all the time cos in that tradition prayer was the strongest thing. So that’s what I decided I wanted to be.

Priya: When did that idea change?

Prudence: After my father died when I was fifteen and when I had that experience then I wanted to be spiritual. I wanted to be a saint. I wanted to be close to god and all those things. And before I started meditation, I really considered becoming a nun but it conflicted with my meditation and yoga. You know they said you can’t practice yoga cos it’s devil worship and it’s better to just be a nun. But because I felt that my deep spiritual practice was coming from the meditation and yoga, I didn’t want to lose it.

Priya: You mentioned Timothy Leary. So had you done LSD before you started meditation and yoga or was it all in tandem?

Dr. Timothy Leary
Prudence: When my father died I had this spiritual experience...then when I was sixteen, people that I knew were doing peyote. So then I did that. And then there was acid when I was seventeen. So it was all happening during that time. And everything just ran together. And I knew I really didn’t want to do acid....you know it’s so dangerous. And it was much more powerful then than it is now. I mean people really didn’t come back from trips. They were lost. There was some really crazy stuff. And so it really was like Columbus going out on the high seas.... So I was really saddened that I did it because everybody was doing it, everywhere. You couldn’t really hang out with people and not have done it. My acid trips were really scary. I only did it a couple of times. I couldn’t do it a lot. I was too vulnerable I think. But it left its mark, for sure.

Priya: What was the spiritual experience you had after your father died? Do you mind my asking?

Prudence: No, I don’t mind your asking. It was like a good acid trip. What happened was I was in the desert with a friend outside of LA and I went into my room because I needed to understand what had just happened. I had just heard my father died. And I just needed to somehow grasp it in some way....to make sense of what happened. And I was sitting on the bed and I tried to think – what happened? Then I felt that I was going back to when I was a child and I was aware of my relationship with my father...which was a very primal relationship. And then I realized that it was kind of an archetypal relationship that probably everybody has that relationship.... It grew from that into an awareness that...well, it was like I went back to when I was a baby. But I was really seeing god when I saw my father. Then it moved past that, and I did see god. And god consisted of everybody I’d ever known in my life, in my family. And then from there, my grandparents and great-grandparents, but from different times, from different lives maybe...But it all happened quite fast. I was seeing a meeting all of these people individually, but at the same time it was a collective awareness and it became very moving. It was a larger context I could never, ever understand, but I could feel it. And that’s how I can explain it. It wasn’t intellectual at all, it was something I felt with my heart.

Priya: How long was it after your father died that you went to India? It would have been a few years right?

Prudence: 1963...yes, it was five years.

John Lennon, 1968
Priya: Which brings me to the subject of song, “Dear Prudence” which was written for you by John Lennon. It’s such a beautiful, expansive song...

Prudence: It actually captured the feeling of that course (that we took with Mahesh Yogi).

Priya: That’s interesting. Great songs seem to capture things in layers – distilling so many things in any given moment... Do you want to elaborate on what you mean when you say it captured the course?

Prudence: It captured that period that we were there.
Especially the feeling of India... and of that meditation course... none of the other songs that they ever wrote have that...to me... And when I hear it I just feel that time in India, that course.

Priya: Of course..

The Beatles, Rishikesh, 1968
Prudence: And that course was very powerful for me. It was a monumental experience. At that time Maharishi did not realize, this is what he said, is that he did not realize that we, the young people from the West, carried so much stress. And I was kind of a prototype of many that were to follow. I was just leading the way of many, many others that would come after me. You know, after that course, he didn’t have people meditate solidly. But on that course, he had people do it just as long as you could do it, and you’d just be meditating all the time. But meditation is also a practice of purification and while its packing in and integrating that silence of your experience. So for me, it was horrendous and amazing at the same time. It was a huge game-changer... To go into the solitary guidance of such a great man. I totally trusted him beyond anybody I’d ever met. So I could safely give myself over to the process of just complete silence and deep, deep, deep meditation. So it was extraordinary of course.

Priya: I believe that in your own words you’ve called your dedication to meditation “fanatical”...that you were in your room non-stop meditating while others took time off, the Beatles rehearsed. I think you mention that even your sister Mia went out to hunt tigers while you stayed in your room. What for?

Prudence: After that experience of my father, there could be nothing that could match that. So I became ferociously hungry for more. 

Priya: Did you find what you were looking for?

Prudence: I did. I did. You know, originally I wasn’t allowed to go. Because of my age and all that...So I went to Lourdes for a miracle. You know, so that I could go to Rishikesh...Cos I figured I just have to go! There’s nothing else for me. I don’t want anything else.

Priya: Did you just say you went to Lourdes to get a miracle?

Prudence: Yes, because they wouldn’t accept me on the course. And I tried in California. I tried in New York and then I tried in England and it just wasn’t going to happen. I had to be twenty years old and I had to finish college. And that, to me, wasn’t going to happen. So I really felt, at the point where I was, where I just couldn’t live...I didn’t want to live without this. And I knew that this was what I wanted. So I figured, I’ll get a miracle. I’ll figure this out. I’m going to go. 

Apparition Grotto in Lourdes, France - 1960s
Priya: Right. I hear you. (laughing)

Prudence: So then I went to Lourdes and I did. I got a miracle. And it was amazing! And when I came back from Lourdes, on the pillow of my bed, was a drawing. Some fan of my mother’s was there from Brazil and she was a dentist and her name was Lourdes. And she heard from my mother that I was coming home and so without telling my mother anything she just drew this welcome home drawing, stuck it on my pillow, and it was signed Lourdes, but it was all in blue. It was like the grotto where I had been! When I saw it on the pillow when I walked in the door, I just knew I was going to India. It was like this is it! It’s in the can. I’m going to India! I had no idea how it would work out, but I knew I was going to India and exactly one year later, Maharishi came to Boston where I was staying. In a year I was on my way to India, on an airplane with Maharishi, and all of that.

Priya: Certainly sounds like you were very willing to experiment with your life on the basis of that spiritual experience you had after your father died. But do you think your willingness to go out on a limb has something to do your having grown up in a world where so many people around you were creative sorts – who were probably heterodox and experimental in their approach to life in the first place?

Prudence's mother, actress Maureen O'Sullivan
Prudence: Probably...To a certain extent...Yeah, I think that there were people experimenting with all kinds of things around me. And I tended to gravitate towards people like that. You know, I have sisters and brothers who didn’t. But it is true that the kids who were from the wealthy areas like Beverly Hills in California, they tended to be bolder, to try things that other people didn’t. But having seen my friends and people I grew up with, nobody was obsessed like I was. Whatever anyone told me I couldn’t do or dared me to do, I’d do. I’m the kind of person that will still go out on a limb.

Priya: Right. (laughing)

Prudence: You know at my age, going to the Kumbh Mela...You know....I’ll still do it. I think it’s part of a radical personality...maybe? I don’t know...

Priya: Now the Beatles had a pretty publicized split with Mahesh Yogi. What happened with you and Mahesh Yogi in that period?

Prudence: It was amazing. I had absolute and complete respect for him through the whole thing. So nothing, nothing happened. Nothing but exactly what I dreamed would happen. Maharishi was a real master and I felt that I got the best guidance I could ever have imagined. And he was truly as great as I dreamed he would be. I didn’t see anything that the others saw. I only saw him one way.

Priya: Right. You’ve been teaching meditation since 1968. How has your practice changed since you first started?

Prudence: It’s just deepened. Beyond what I could even have hoped for. And that’s really true.

Priya: You also have an intellectual interest in several areas pertaining to yoga and meditation. You did your doctoral dissertation on ayurveda. Do you want to tell me a little bit about that?

Prudence: I was attracted to the medicine side because it’s the easier thing to translate number one... As in, it’s not like kavya (poetry) or something....And it was all fascinating to me. Dr. Ram Karan Sharma was hired to be my advisor and I was having a real blast. I loved every second of it.

Priya: Given that your spiritual experiences were something that you could not understand intellectually, why do you think you were interested in academic study?

Prudence's father, John Farrow (bottom left)
Prudence: I think it really started with my father. He also wrote several books and he loved history and literature. And he would have on Sunday afternoons, his best buddies, which were usually priests, Jesuits, come over. And they would sit and drink, but they would discuss literature and different philosophers and things like that. I never knew what they were talking about at all, but we were allowed to sit in on these if we didn’t say anything. So we would just listen.

As a child, I was not intellectual at all. Like Mia, and all of my other brothers and sisters, Patrick, they were very good at school. You know, they read all the time. You know, and I just could never read. I was always just running around outside and climbing trees... and I was terrible at writing, terrible at school you know. Maybe I thought, stupid – just not good at any of that. But yet, I really, really admired them.
So there was that going on.

Priya: But you seemed to develop an interest later...

Prudence: After I started Transcendental Meditation, (and even before) I wanted to study Latin. I wanted to study even though I never really did it, and was just awful at it.

Priya: (laughing)

Prudence: Then after Latin, I heard about Sanskrit...which was Latin times a hundred!! And so then, that became an obsession. I wanted to study Sanskrit.

Priya: You taught meditation to Andy Kaufman didn’t you?

Andy Kaufman
Prudence: I didn’t teach him meditation. I taught him yoga asanas. I knew him pretty well in a certain way because I was his teacher. This was at Cambridge Mass. in 1969 and he started meditation, but at that point I could only initiate people up to sixteen years old. So he was like seventeen or eighteen. So I taught him asanas and other kinds of meditation.

Priya: What was his interest in asana. Do you know?

Prudence: To expand his mind. He wanted to become more spiritual and he felt the power of meditation and he wanted to pursue it. He eventually became a teacher of meditation. He got really involved in it. At that time, there was no way anyone would dream that he would become famous or anything.

Priya: Right. Interesting. So you’re looking at making film on the Kumbh Mela.

Prudence: It’ll be my first time being at the Kumbh Mela.

Priya: So what’s the project about exactly?

Prudence: I’m not sure. I started a Dear Prudence Foundation. Did you know that?

Priya: Yes, earlier this year right?

Prudence: So it’s all tied in with that...my writing the book and all the other things I’m doing. But the foundation is really because I’m teaching Transcendental Meditation and really think people could use scholarship money to start studying because it’s expensive to start. This way the foundation can support people who want to study, become teachers and all the things in between. So that’s the real motivation that’s behind all this and you’ll see this later but with the foundation I’m focusing on the yoga community and developing a bunch of courses on ayurveda, the Yoga Sutras, the Hathayogapradipika. Because I have the Sanskrit background, we can use original sourcebooks and texts. We’ll also be teaching Sanskrit. So we’ll be offering these courses, not as part of academia, so we will make it easy for people to learn...

Priya: So then you’ve kept up your Sanskrit over the years? I noticed that you have been presenting papers at conferences. One title read, “Siva Nataraja: Adbhuta Dance.” What’s your interest in the ashen one’s awesome dance!?

Prudence: Well I notice you’re in dance. Speaking of noticing things...

Priya: Yeah sure.

Prudence: One of the things I want to do with these courses is expand into things like dance. Do you know that there are now twenty million practitioners of yoga in the United States alone?

Priya: I’ve heard such numbers.

Prudence: It’s continuing to grow exponentially. I’ve been going into the community and I’ve met a lot of the teachers. And what happens is that people start and they do it for body beauty and all that, but then the yoga starts to have an effect on them and they want to learn more. It’s reaching a level now where there are a lot of people who really want to learn more but don’t have access to the information that the tradition has held. And dance is part of that yoga world... Not that dance is necessarily yoga, but they are related. And I’d like to do something with these courses on dance as well. So the foundation is really to find scholarship money to help people start studying a number of different things.


I t may not be 1968, but Prudence is still meditating; she is still continuing to live and "grow exponentially," something she attributes to a strong practice. As anyone knows, a strong practice usually requires many hours spent unseen; there is an absence that swallows words and makes folks uncertain. And so, true to lore, where there's a meditator, there's also always a knocking at the door…
John Lennon’s “Dear Prudence” magnifies the name Prudence, repetitively evoking her long meditative absences, her lids of silence, as it presents the beguiling visual variety of the world we know: the sun, the birds, a litany of daisy chains for youth and beauty, its disarming melody ever pleading for her smile. If ever there was a gandharva sent to lure a meditator out of trance....
It’s not hard to understand why this Prudence in her Prahlada-esque devotion to hours of intense meditation would have been dear to Lennon. Or to get a sense of the wonder and rambling joy that Prudence and many others shared in 1968.

Prudence continues to live a fascinating, highly experimental life, crossing paths with intellectuals and glitterati – a milieu in which Bruns admits perhaps unconventional lives are better tolerated, if not encouraged. Yet, even here, Bruns’ temperament, her childlike enthusiasm (that we hear of in ‘Dear Prudence” – “like a little child”) her obsessiveness and obstinate faith set her apart, and have characterized her many years of practice. And through that practice, Prudence’s unusual name, the one her father had insisted on with no real precedent and no explicit reason, somehow generated a life of its own, becoming a metonym for a generation’s shared fascination with yoga and meditation.
Dear Prudence, as dear to us now as she was back then.

•     •     •     •     •

To learn more about The Dear Prudence Foundation and its upcoming projects, stay tuned to http://www.dearprudencefoundation.org/

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