The first time I experienced Tina Turner in the flesh, I was a 16-year-old hippy chick doused in patchouli oil. I didn’t just see and hear Ms Turner sing Proud Mary at the Fillmore East in New York City – I felt her in every cell of my teenage body. I was transfixed by the ecstasy of her thunderous hips and legs, the vibrating canopy of her shaking fringe, the irrefutable bidding of her sultry, raw voice.
She was female sexuality fully embodied and unleashed. She catalysed the same in me and in multitudes across the planet, selling more than 200m records in her lifetime. The queen of rock’n’roll seemed as much shaman as singer. I knew instinctively that she had suffered abuse and pain. We survivors have a kind of radar.
But what was shocking, healing, astonishing was her ability to publicly transform that pain into power. I saw what the female body and spirit could do – and I wanted to do it too. It was as if every portal in my young being suddenly snapped open. Looking back, I know I would never have written The Vagina Monologues without the event of Tina Turner.
So I was not surprised to learn that – after a career as one of the most successful rock’n’roll stars ever, lighting up the world with What’s Love Got to Do With It, Private Dancer and so many more hits – she has now, in her retirement in Switzerland, written a book about her Buddhist spiritual practice.
I had a ton of questions for Tina but she was clear that, in her last years, she wants to focus only on her spiritual life. We discuss the book, Happiness Becomes You. From each line of it, I felt her life force, an indestructible happiness that not only allowed her to leave her abusive first husband Ike, but propelled her to make an extraordinary comeback on her own. It was this life force that brought true love into her life and moved her through the suicide of her eldest son, as well as her own cancer, strokes and other difficult health conditions.
I realised that, in the 50 years since I first heard her sing Proud Mary, she had alchemised the energy that made her such a great performer into grace and radiant wisdom – and that she is now, in fact, the queen of light.
V Your new book is very encouraging and discusses some tough times in which you transformed negativity to positivity – or “changed poison into medicine” as you say. Does that mean you don’t hold resentments?
Tina Turner I suppose it might seem natural to resent bad situations or other people’s bad behaviour, but it’s just not in my nature. I’ve always felt the most important thing isn’t what happens to us, it’s how we choose to respond. I release negative feelings by taking to heart the importance of forgiveness and self-reflection rather than blame. That’s how I broke the cycles of negativity in my life.
V Among the tough times you’ve been through recently have been all sorts of medical challenges – cancer, high blood pressure, kidney failure, stroke and vertigo. How did you use your spiritual practice to overcome these physical difficulties? Has illness been a teacher?
TT There is a passage from the Buddhist philosopher Nichiren that I love: “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is like the roar of a lion. What illness can therefore be an obstacle?” Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is another name for the enlightened nature that exists within each of us, which is far more powerful than any obstacle we may face. As I’ve learned over and over, there’s great value in never giving up. Drawing on my years of spiritual discipline, I summoned up my inner lion and overcame each health problem that came along. Illness has given me a greater appreciation for health and reminds me to enjoy each day to its fullest.
V You also speak in the book about the concept of “polishing your life’s mirror” to help you see things clearly. What did you do to change your view of yourself and how did that change your life?
TT I came to realise that the way I saw myself had a strong influence on the way everyone else saw me. When I was young, my perception of myself was quite negative. I didn’t really care for the way I looked, especially how my legs looked, which is funny now because I became almost as famous for my legs as for my talent! [Laughs.] But once I decided that my personal standard of beauty would be my own, and that I’d never compare myself to others, I could finally appreciate myself fully. Then, if a negative thought ever came to mind, I’d replace it by repeating a positive one many times over, which worked wonders.
V I’ve also chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for many years, so I’m familiar with this Buddhist tradition. How did you find it? What made you stay with it? How did it help you find the courage to break away from an abusive ex and become independent?
TT Actually, Buddhism found me. The abuse I endured in my 20s and 30s had become obvious to people around me, and at different times a number of them suggested that I learn about Buddhism. They said it would help me change my life. I figured I had nothing to lose, so finally I tried it. I stayed with it because it worked. It took some time to develop the confidence and courage to finally stand up for myself. But once I did, I left that unhealthy environment on my own terms and with no regrets.
V You once said endurance was your legacy. Do you still feel that way?
TT Now that I’m in my 80s, resilience and endurance are still my strongest assets. I’ll tell you a secret to joyful endurance. It’s to never complain, no matter what challenges life sends your way. Many years ago, when I was going through my toughest times, some very wise older women in my neighbourhood chanting group told me to never complain because “complaints erase good fortune”. I agree. Complaining is a waste of precious time, doesn’t solve anything, and only brings you down. We can transform any situation by changing ourselves first, opening our hearts ever wider and increasing our compassion.
V You grew up in a small, rural Tennessee town in the 1940s and 50s. What was the most lasting influence of that experience?
TT Spending time in nature was my favourite refuge as a child. It was a healthy influence in shaping my inner world and helped me to listen to my heart. I cherish good memories from those days, especially my joy in singing at school and church. That helped prepare me for my career. I’m really a country girl at heart, which is why I’ve always loved where I live in Switzerland, surrounded by Mother Nature.
V You’ve written about being the daughter of a woman who didn’t want you. I was also not loved by my mother, and I know what the long-term impact can be. What would you say about how you overcame this to people who may have a similar situation?
TT The healing that came from my spiritual practice taught me that, whether or not we received the nurturing love of a mother or father, we can still become that source of love for ourselves and others. My mother’s rejection led me later in life to seek love in places that weren’t good for me. But over time, I learned how to love myself and reveal my inner light, which we all have. That’s how I’ve been able to fully embrace all the flaws and imperfections of my life, to appreciate both the hard times and the good, and let go of past hurts. That’s true freedom.
V If you could go back to your childhood and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?
TT It would be the same thing I’d like to share with everyone: “You, exactly as you are, are worthy of all the love, kindness and joy in the world.”
V In the book, you refer to 2020 as “the year of seeing clearly”. Please elaborate.
TT In many ways, 2020 has been a year of discarding what’s superficial in order to reveal true realities. The pandemic and other things that have caused suffering for a long time have become very clear to all. And that clarity has value, in that it serves our growth. So when I talk about seeing clearly, I mean recognising the value of all our experiences, positive and negative, throughout our lives because there is always something to be learned from them. There is always a piece of fortune in misfortune. I’m optimistic that we human beings, particularly young people, will use the things we’ve learned this year as a springboard to help heal the world.
V The end of the book talks about forgiveness. You make a distinction between forgiving and excusing or condoning actions. Can you speak some more about that?
TT I wanted to make clear the importance of forgiveness and self-reflection rather than blame. It is so important for mental health. Forgiving people doesn’t mean you’re condoning their bad behaviour. I believe that the law of cause and effect is strict and no one can escape the effects of their actions, whether or not we forgive people. But we don’t have to carry the burden of pain, anger and resentment – we can let it go. Holding on to those toxic feelings only harms us and keeps the negativity bound to us. I choose the freeing mindset of forgiveness, which is so healing and helps me to be whole.
V The final chapter is called Homecoming and paints a lovely picture of the years since you retired. Please share more of what that homecoming means to you.
TT Now, in my retirement, I have all the time in the world to be at home. Time to relax, reflect and appreciate just being. I’ve loved creating new projects that I can do at my own pace, like recording for the Beyond interfaith albums, writing my books, and working on my musical [new productions of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical continue to open around the world]. I’ve also had time to reflect on so many beautiful memories from touring around the world. Before each show, I chanted and prayed for the happiness of all the people who came to see me. When I was in the zone on stage, it felt like flying. My rock career was really a dream come true. It didn’t just happen, of course, it took a lot of hard work! [Laughs.] I did what I wanted to do, and I’m very proud that I did it my way. I can see that even more clearly in retrospect, so it’s been a glorious homecoming.
V How is your daily life these days?
TT I enjoy the here and now, focusing on the present moment, whether I’m strolling through my garden, reading, chanting, or late-night movie-watching. I appreciate every day of life as a gift.
V What does your version of ideal happiness look like? What is your heart’s desire?
TT My life over the past 10 years has been my ideal version of happiness. That may come as a surprise to some, since I had serious health challenges. But real joy doesn’t mean having a problem-free life. True and lasting happiness comes from having an unshakeable, hopeful spirit that can shine, no matter what. That’s what I’ve achieved, and it is my greatest wish to help others become truly happy as well.