The loss of a husband sent Nancy Cooke de Herrera into a spiral of grief that ended when she traveled to India in 1962, met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and discovered the peace of Transcendental Meditation.
Several years later, as point person for the Maharishi, de Herrera was on site when the Beatles, Donovan, Mike Love and Mia Farrow arrived in the ashram.
De Herrera comes to Stockton’s Barnes & Noble on Tuesday to talk about her role in helping introduce the art of meditation to rock and pop legends, and many others.
She’ll sign copies of the spiritual autobiography in which she tells the story of her life and times — “All You Need Is Love” (Jodere; $22).
De Herrera was a Bay Area blueblood and international fashionista who segued to devoted meditator and TM teacher to stars such as Madonna, Sheryl Crow and Paula Abdul, film legend Greta Garbo and troubled heiress Doris Duke.
Her book offers an eyewitness account of how meditation spread from east to west. Once thought to be esoteric teaching, it now has a secure place in American consciousness as religion and relaxant.
Meditation and yoga are so much part of the scene that it’s hard to recall an era when they were not.
“When I started, words like ‘guru‘ and ‘mantra‘ did not exist,” de Herrera said.
John, Paul, George and Ringo helped change that.
Her account of the Beatles puts us on the scene at one of the defining moments of the ’60s — the moment when pop culture met the guru. The moment when faith, fashion and philosophy took inspiration from India.
De Herrera remembers the Beatles fondly and recalls how the group gained peace and renewed creativity as they lingered to absorb the message of the Maharishi.
Her memories of Farrow — who accused the Maharishi of making a pass at her — are less amiable, portraying a spoiled young star with an agenda of her own. Husband Frank Sinatra did not make the pilgrimage with Farrow, though that certainly would have added an interesting (and dramatic) dimension to the ashram.
Beatles fans may be unaware that the group wrote “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” to honor de Herrera and her adventurous son, a roving photographer.
De Herrera will talk about the Liverpool lads and others whose paths have crossed hers in four decades of espousing meditation.
Madonna, for example, called de Herrera to come to her home and give her some much-needed confidence at a low point in her life, when she was troubled by a stalker.
“That was the primary reason she called me,” de Herrera said. “By learning to meditate, she could stay more centered and more in control of herself. I was surprised to find a very nice woman who didn’t want people to know she had a very good education and a very good background.”
Garbo, a close friend in the later years of her life, learned meditation for much the same reason.
“She used to say I’d made her so much less afraid of the world,” de Herrera said. “You couldn’t talk to her about acting very much, but once she told me she was always happier acting, because she could pretend she wasn’t herself.”
Duke was fearful of the fortune hunters who pursued her with professions of love and designs on her wealth.
“The sad part was that they scared away her real friends,” de Herrera said.
She first met Duke as a Stanford student vacationing in Hawaii, long before she discovered meditation. Duke introduced her to actor friend Errol Flynn.
“My father said he’d disinherit me if I went out with Errol,” de Herrera said of the hard-drinking, womanizing film star. “He was a real charmer, though, and so funny. We didn’t speak of spirituality then. Any spirit he was interested in came out of the bottle. He could hold it, though. I never saw him get sloppy. And the crowds adored him, because he was so friendly and outgoing.”
De Herrera, who has gone to India every year since her first visit 40 years ago, talks easily about these and other celebs, her spiritual quest and fulfillment, her time with the Beatles and the lessons of the Maharishi.
As a student and teacher, she said, she learned early the “tremendous benefit” of TM.
“It enables you to live so that stress never becomes distress,” she said. “My big question has always been whether there is justice in the universe. I’m satisfied now that there is, but I got those answers, little by little, when I sat at the feet of some of the great saints of India.”
When she returned to America, the wisdom she brought with her was not immediately welcomed.
“All my friends thought I was crazy when I started talking about Transcendental Meditation,” said de Herrera, a youthful 80 and mother of four. “It changes your whole outlook and brings a great deal of joy into your life. That may be why I have wonderful health and energy.”
She credits TM with making her less vulnerable to the trials and vexations of life, including a recent burglary that deprived her of many valuables.
“I don’t think that anything happens by chance. I keep reminding myself that this is all a test, and those are but material things. It’s not going to change my life. I might not have felt that way if I hadn’t been meditating for 41 years.”
She’s also one of the few people who saw the private life and “other side” of the Beatles in their prime.
“Most people were afraid the Beatles would distract us from the wonderful knowledge we were acquiring,” de Herrera said. “But the Beatles picked us up. They wrote more songs with us than they ever did before. And it was wonderful to see the change that came over John, who looked happy and pink-cheeked, and played his guitar for everyone.”
She also remembers the time someone asked George Harrison if he and his musical mates might care to go for an elephant ride.
“Being a Beatle is like living on an elephant,” Harrison replied.