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Filmmaker Paul Saltzman retraces his journey of 50 years ago when he spent a life changing time in India and met The Beatles.

Courtesy of Paul Saltzman

In the spring of 1968, young Montreal filmmaker Paul Saltzman showed up at the ashram of the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Heartbroken and in spiritual distress, he had travelled to Rishikesh, in northern India, to learn transcendental meditation. He accomplished that. He also met The Beatles.

The world’s most famous musicians were themselves studying meditation at the ashram. Saltzman was let into their inner circle. He developed a bond with John Lennon in particular, and confided in the All You Need is Love singer about the recent crushing breakup with his girlfriend.

“You know, Paul,” Lennon told Saltzman, “the really great thing about love is you always get a second chance.”

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It was exactly what he wanted to hear. “It was very helpful,” Saltzman told The Globe and Mail this week. “He couldn’t have said anything kinder to me.”

Saltzman reveals in his documentary previously unknown details of this pivotal moment in The Beatles' career, some keen insights behind the songs found on White Album, and developing a bond with John Lennon, seen here.

Photograph Copyright Paul Saltzman. All rights reserved/Handout

After previously publishing the book The Beatles in India, last week Saltzman released his documentary film Meeting the Beatles in India, a serene portrait of his enlightening bump-in with Paul, John, George and Ringo. On the occasion of the documentary and the 80th anniversary of Lennon’s birth (Oct. 9, 1940), Saltzman spoke about the man dubbed the “smart Beatle.”

For those who haven’t seen your film, can you describe how you met the Beatles?

I had completed my first meditation at the ashram. I was stoned. George Harrison once said that he got higher meditating than he ever did on drugs. I came out of the meditation room in a state of bliss. I was walking through the ashram and I saw John Lennon, with Paul McCartney across from him with his back turned, at a large dinner table with the rest of the Beatles and others.

How did you not freak out?

I found myself just curving toward them. It literally was not a thought. I’m in an altered state. I’m so relieved to be in bliss. And I see them. I noticed my heart was beating a little fast, but I was detached from that. I wasn’t in the drama of it. I never thought “Beatles.” It was a blessing to see them as humans, and not the glitz, not the reputation. All of them were remarkably down-to-earth. No ego. No “I’m a Beatle, and you’re not.”

We know George was serious about mediation. Ringo, less so. Where was John on the spectrum of being committed to meditation?

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He was serious about meditation, and he was getting lots of it. I was told later that John kept meditating his whole life. He was a very conscious guy, working toward evolving his own conscious self – his own heart, his own ability to love and to be loved. He had a lot of growth to do, like the rest of us.

Any chats with John that weren’t mentioned in the film?

Yes. We were sitting alone one day. I had been wrestling with my ego. I was wondering if it was okay to be proud of myself, or if that was narcissistic. When I told John I was struggling with this, he said, “Me too, mate.” He said he had asked the Maharishi what he thinks, and that the Maharishi said that if you feel good about doing good in the world, that’s fine. Just don’t feel good about doing bad in the world.

I’m no Maharishi, but I think I could have come up with that.

Yes, you could. All wisdom is actually fairly accessible and fairly logical. We humans just find every way to avoid it.

You never kept in contact with John, or with any of the Beatles. Why not?

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My thought was, “These guys don’t need new friends. Their lives are crazy.” The experience I had with them was complete – it was complete and it was perfect. Staying in touch with them was never a desire. I didn’t want anything from them.

Do you miss John?

I can say that I do miss him. But not as a friend, because we weren’t friends. I miss him as someone who touched me deeply, both in his music and, when we were together, for how kind he was and how helpful he was. I value him hugely for both.

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