Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man – Reflections on a Great Song

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Do you remember that great song, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” by Bob Dylan and made famous by the Byrds?

Over the years we’ve often talked about how the lyrics of this remarkable song are eerily similar to our experience of meditation and even to some of the instructions given when someone learns the Transcendental Meditation® technique. So, this blog is pure fun. Looking at Dylan’s lyrics and commenting on the meaning, from our unique perspective.

Dylan never claimed the song was about TM, so don’t tell anyone he did. This post is just about some of our reflections on this fabulous song.

“Mr. Tambourine Man”

The correlations between the song and the process of transcending during the TM technique first struck us when we realized that the central character is “Mr. T____________ M____.” In 1964 when the song was written, His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh was getting quite a lot of press and had already begun training teachers. It would certainly not have been unusual for someone like Dylan to refer to Maharishi as “Mr. TM.”

Here are the lyrics of this remarkable song and the correlations with the TM technique (whether intended or not).

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to

The mantra used in TM is a sound and could be lyrically thought of as a song. TM teachers often refer to the research done on the TM technique that identifies a unique state of consciousness that has been referred to as “restful alertness.”

The mind is awake (“I’m not sleepy”), yet the body is getting deep rest.

The introductory lectures on TM talk about how the mantra allows the mind to stay alert, yet undirected (“there is no place I’m going to”)

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.
Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping

Instructions for practicing the TM technique are to meditate for 20 minutes in the morning (“In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you”) and in the evening (“Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned to sand”). What is evenin’s empire? What Dylan meant is anybody’s guess, but to us it means that all the accumulated stress and tension of the day has returned into sand, vanished, leaving me without anything left to hang on to, yet still not sleeping (restfully alert).

My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to 
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

The way Maharishi described what happens during the TM practice is that the mind remains alert, yet the body gets deep rest. With this deep rest, the body spontaneously throws off stress and fatigue (“my weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet”). Again, there is no where to go in the meditation process as the mind simply settles down, transcending thought (“no one to meet”).

The TM technique comes from the “ancient” Vedic tradition of India. The process of transcending thought leads to a state Maharishi called “pure consciousness” or “pure awareness” or “pure Being,” and was traditionally referred to in the ancient literature as “samadhi,” an “ancient empty street too dead for dreaming” because in that state there is simply awareness itself, without an object. There are no thoughts, no dreams, no one to meet.

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin’
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to 
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

During meditation one can certainly feel that one is on a “magic swirlin’ ship” and it is such a common experience to lose awareness of one’s hands and feet or to feel numbness in them (“my senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip, my toes too numb to step”) that there are instructions regarding this experience during the three days following instruction in the TM technique. When the mind transcends, then the experiences of the senses fade as well.

The instruction during TM is to be innocent, making no effort and to take it as it comes. With this, the mind will naturally go in the direction of greater charm, toward the field of bliss in pure awareness, the field of transcendence which is the deepest state of one’s own Self (“I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way, I promise to go under it”).

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’ swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re
Seein’ that he’s chasing.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to 
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

During meditation, thoughts come and go (“though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’ swingin’ madly across the sun” i.e the mind), those thoughts are the natural by-product of the release of stress that happens as the body gets deep rest. These thoughts are “not aimed at anyone,” as the stress is released, “it’s just escapin’ on the run.”

The field of mind is unbounded like the sky (“and but for the sky there are no fences facin’ “). For a mind like Dylan’s it would not be unusual that during meditation he would “hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme” coming in time to the repetition of the mantra, “to  your tambourine in time.” During TM instruction one learns that thoughts are not a barrier to meditation, and even if they seem to go with the rhythm of the mantra, the meditator is instructed in Dylan’s words, “I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing.” In other words, those thoughts are just a shadow, i.e. the release of stress.

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to 
Hey ! Mr Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.

During the process of transcending, Maharishi described how sometimes the mind would “tiptoe past the sleeping elephants,” meaning the deep-rooted stresses accumulated from the impressions of the past. To us Maharishi’s description is not unlike Dylan’s, “take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind,” i.e. to transcend thought, “down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves, the haunted, frightened trees,” past all the old impressions, the old stresses of fear and upset that have become stored in my physiology like “frozen leaves.” Let my mind transcend these things, and go “out to the windy beach far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow,” far from the stress and fears and worries of life.

Meditators often describe the experience of transcending as a feeling of complete freedom. Sometimes they describe the experience of white or other colored light (“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free”). Maharishi would often talk about “one unbounded, ocean of consciousness” and that thoughts are like “waves on the surface of the ocean.” During meditation, the mind dives beneath the waves experiencing thought at finer and finer, subtler and subtler expressions, until the mind transcends thought altogether and is left in the state of pure Being–”silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands” i.e. thoughts, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves.”

Maharishi also sometimes referred to meditation as the “science of forgetting.” In other words, as the mind transcends thought, then the memories of the day are forgotten (“with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves let me forget about today until tomorrow.”)

And so, Mr. Tambourine Man, thank you for playing your song, for allowing us to transcend, and thank you Mr. Dylan for giving us such a beautiful description of the process (and who knows if that was your intention or not?).

With love

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Janet Bray Attwood

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