Thirteen years ago, dejected after failing an important exam at a Memphis scholarly conference, David Rosen sought refuge at the gravesite of his childhood idol, Elvis Presley, at Graceland.
Amid the stillness of the Meditation Garden, just beyond Lisa Marie’s swing set, Rosen found consolation ... and inspiration.
“I had no idea why I was crying,” recalled Rosen, now a Texas A&M; University professor. “But I knew that something was going on here.”
That “something” grew into a years-long study of the spiritual life of Elvis Presley, a spiritual life that Rosen believes is wedded to the ancient Chinese religious concept of Tao--that there is a central organizing principle of the universe--and one that the Jungian psychoanalyst details in his book “The Tao of Elvis.”
Presley, who died a quarter-century ago Friday, “was a deeply spiritual man,” said Rosen, whose book is divided into reflections on 42 Taoist concepts--one for each year of Elvis’ life. “I want people to suspend judgment and approach Elvis with a spiritual attitude. Elvis embodied the Tao--he was struggling his whole life to figure out what was his unique purpose in life, struggling to balance opposites"--opposites with parallels in Taoism.
“Elvis was a man of Tao, who struggled to balance the opposites: poverty and wealth, male and female, old and new, good and evil, king and non-king, joy and sorrow, water and fire, dark and light, and stillness and movement,” he writes.
The book argues that Elvis was more than sideburns and swivel. Amid the fame-earning pelvis pumping and lip curling nestled traces of Elvis’ own spiritual quest.
“He wore a Star of David, a Jewish spirituality symbol, and a cross--a Christian spiritual symbol,” Rosen said. “He always joked, ‘I don’t want to be left out of heaven on a technicality.’ ”
On tour, Elvis traveled with his favorite books--among them the Torah, Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” the Bible and “The Autobiography of a Yogi.”
Not too surprising, Rosen said, for a man who once pined to join a monastery and whose co-star in one film abandoned Hollywood to become a nun.
“Elvis read widely; he read the ‘Tao Te Ching,’ ” Rosen said. “I think he thought of himself as a deeply spiritual, religious individual. He was open to all the religions of the world and all spiritual concepts.”
Elvis’ routine also included meditation (“Better than any drug I know,” he once said), particularly before performances.
“A lot of people don’t know that he was a member of the Self-Realization Fellowship of Yogananda,” Rosen said. “Elvis meditated 30 minutes a day to get the ego out of the way so God could speak through his songs. He thought God had a special use for his voice.”
Indeed, though rock ‘n’ roll was his bread and butter, Elvis never took home a Grammy Award for his rock music. His three Grammys were for sacred songs: “He Touched Me” (1972) and “How Great Thou Art” (1967, 1974).
“When you listen to his spiritual music, there’s a natural soulfulness that comes through,” Rosen said, adding that Elvis’ songs were “manifestations of the Tao working through him.”
The professor wonders whether Elvis had much choice in the matter; he says that Elvis’ “very name means ‘the force of God’ in Hebrew,” and his middle name, Aaron, was that of Moses’ brother.
Even in his dreams, Elvis connected with a higher power, Rosen writes. In the mid-1960s, Elvis said he saw the face of Jesus Christ in clouds above an Arizona desert.
Afterward, Elvis said: “I know now. I’ve got to do something real with my life. I want out. I want to become a monk and join a monastery.”
After writing a will in 1977, Elvis “was shaken by a dream in which he saw ‘the face of God.’ It manifested itself in the form of a white so bright he almost couldn’t look at it.”
“He gets this gift of light in his darkest hour,” Rosen said. “And that’s a Taoist principle--that you find the light in the darkness.”
Elvis’ death in 1977 marked the end of his struggle to reconcile his opposites, the end of his struggle to reconcile his true self with the weighty title “the King,” Rosen said.
“In our society we don’t have royalty, so we often project our own desire to link with the divine onto singing stars, movie stars, even presidents,” he said. “All of that was projected onto Elvis. But he knew he was not a king, and that caused him a lot of mental anguish.”
Elvis’ death has meaning for everyone, Rosen said.
“The point of the book is: We don’t have to go the way he did, but we can learn from his life,” he said.
“He’s a mirror for us to look into and draw projections from. Instead of using Elvis to make that link to the divine--a lot of people approach a sort of worship of him today--instead we can use him to find our own link to the divine,” Rosen said.