2016-06-30
Excerpted with permission from The Tao of Elvis published by Harcourt Books.

The Tao is the divine principle of Taoism, the oldest Chinese religion, dating from the sixth century B.C. Taoism concerns confronting, containing, transcending, and transforming opposites-the task of all individuals. Elvis Presley was a man of Tao who struggled to balance opposites: poverty and wealth, female and male, old and new, good and evil, joy and sorrow, water and fire, dark and light, stillness and movement.

By the time Elvis was twenty-one (the midpoint of his life), he had lived out the American dream. Yet, Elvis did much more. He foreshadowed the sexual revolution and women's liberation, and as a nonconformist and revolutionary, of sorts, Elvis's style of civil disobedience broke down racial barriers in the music world, which prefigured the civil rights movement. Alice Walker wrote in her novel "The Temple of My Familiar," "In Elvis white Americans found a reason to express their longing and appreciation for the repressed Native American and black parts of themselves." When you consider that Elvis had Scotch-Irish as well as Jewish heritage, we see just what a multicultural icon he really is.

When we see Elvis, we see ourselves. Elvis symbolizes the battle between the true and false selves in us all.


The discrepancy between Elvis's true self and celebrated exterior caused him immense pain and agony. He became extremely despondent and sought refuge in drugs. Nevertheless, Elvis was on a spiritual quest, which is surely related to his later being seen as a religious figure. His favorite songs were gospels, and central to his spiritual life were the books "The Prophet," "The Impersonal Life," "Autobiography of a Yogi," and the holy Bible. He also practiced meditation and belonged to a worldwide yoga organization, the Self-Realization Fellowship.

Following his death, on August 16, 1977, Elvis evolved into a global mythic figure. Along with the faces of Jesus and Muhammad Ali, Elvis's image is one of the most widely recognized on Earth. What does this say about him and us? What does it mean that churches have spring up in Elvis's name? Graceland has become a Mecca that draws nearly a million pilgrims a year. Like disciples, thousands of impersonators spread his word and image around the world. "Sightings" are almost a daily occurrence, while his actual image dominates our cultural landscape. In 1998, twenty-one years after his death, a twenty-four-foot image of Elvis projected on a screen and accompanied by his music sold out Radio City Music Hall. American's king has become such a force that it seems as if history might someday record time as before and after Elvis. Perhaps this is what John Lennon meant when he said, "Before Elvis there was nothing."

America lacks an actual king and queen mythologically linking the people with the divine. The United States also lacks unified spiritual leadership, so we project this deep archetypal need onto our heroes and heroines, particularly rock and movie stars and occasionally presidents such as John F. Kennedy.

In a real way, when we see Elvis we see ourselves. Symbolizing the battle between the true and false selves in us all, Elvis's huge appeal lies in his power as an archetype-his epic rise and fall captures what is in all of us. Through understanding the Tao of Elvis, we can come to better understand ourselves.

Elvis's journey reflects a profound change in our psyches as well as our culture. "Once I go, the world is going to really start changing. That's when it will all start," Elvis once said prophetically. We can celebrate and delight in Elvis's soulful music and giving nature, and we can empathize with the pain surrounding his losses and his dependence on prescription drugs. However, the ultimate challenge is to look into the Elvis mirror and see his pain as our own pain. Even though Elvis ultimately failed, our goal ought to be to transcend the opposites, undergo a creative transformation, and heal our own souls in the process.

Lao Tzu says, "Encouraging others, giving freely to all, awakening and purifying the world with each movement and action, you'll ascend to the divine realm in broad daylight." This is what myths are made of. Rock critic Dave Marsh said, "Elvis Presley was more than anything a spiritual leader of our generation." And Bob Dylan maintained, "When I first heard Elvis's voice I just knew that I wasn't going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss. He is the deity supreme of rock-and-roll religion as it exists in today's form. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail."

The rise and fall of Elvis reflects what has happened or can happen to each and every one of us. We all have a choice. We can follow a healing path of "egocide and transformation." Or we can choose a self-destructive path, as Elvis did, which ended his life prematurely. Elvis might have had "taking care of business" as his motto, but he wasn't able to take care of himself. His family and the Memphis Mafia (Elvis's entourage) were also not able to do so. Why wasn't his maxim "taking care of Elvis"?

Elvis represented both the best and worst of the American dream. Music critic Bill Holdship touched on this when he said, "Elvis is loved, he is hated. He was a genius, a fraud. A saint, the devil. The king, the clown. Even more than when he was alive, Elvis has come to symbolize everything great and everything hideous about America."

In 1956, after several successful national TV appearances and many hit songs including his first gold record for "Heartbreak Hotel," Elvis was criticized as being vulgar, inciting riots, and contributing to the moral decay of America. But what others saw as immoral, Elvis saw as merely different. He felt he was expressing not raw sexuality, but something akin to spirituality. Elvis didn't like his negative publicity, yet he was Taoist about it, saying, "There ain't nothing I can do about it so I have to accept it, like I accept the good with the bad, the bad with the good."

People everywhere struggle with the same thing that Elvis struggled with: the conflict between good and evil, and their true and false selves. Our only salvation is to transcend and transform the divided warring factions within ourselves. Elvis lost the human battle, but his life and death can provide us with wisdom and a deeper understanding of ourselves, we need to let go of and transform our false selves. We need to shed inauthentic personas and acknowledge our creative genuine selves as well as our own inner, spiritual natures.

Elvis is identified with the archetypes of sorrow, suffering, and sacrifice, which are part of the process of becoming sacred. He was on a spiritual quest, and he said the reason he always wore a Star of David, or a chai, the Hebrew symbol of life, and a cross was so that he would not be "kept out of heaven on a technicality."

Apparently Elvis didn't find enough meaning in his suffering, but perhaps we can by looking into the Elvis mirror. The task of our own healing journeys is to transform our battling opposites into a sacred whole so that our lives have meaning and ongoing creative purpose. In this way we can be compassionate with ourselves, rejoice in the spirit and soul of Elvis the human being, and allow the archetypal Elvis to flow with the mysterious Tao.



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