This afternoon I’ve finally composed and posted a conclusion to “Thirty Years Later: What was all that about?” my twelve-part retrospective commentary and analysis of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) program and other nonsense promoted by a guy who was usually known by the name “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.” This is a bit timely this week as two former Beatles and a few other minor luminaries are going to be promoting a concert in New York this weekend that allegedly is raising money to make possible the teaching of TM to school children. This kind of program in public schools challenges the separation of church and state, the TM program and organization having long ago been found to be religious in nature.
For the concluding post at the TM-Free blog, go here. The entire series is archived below the fold.
I was initiated into the “Transcendental Meditation Program” on December 31, 1977. Though at one point I was a willing consumer of some of the organization’s products, I still puzzle over exactly what it is that the TM organization is selling, and why some are still, apparently, quite attracted to it. After three decades of the “movement” fully embracing full-blown weirdness and pretension, in contrast to its now rather brief mid-Seventies attempt to gain respectability by wrapping itself in the language of science and research, you’d think the movement would have faded into obscurity by now.
But that’s certainly not what’s happened. Just a simple Google News search on Transcendental Meditation turns up about 50 hits on recent news articles. Some of these articles are the usual cultural references to the Beatles or some other personality that at some point practiced, and perhaps helped popularize, the technique. The other articles include references to people who once practiced TM but since abandoned it, often for some other religious or meditative practice, or often, reference to yet another study or other that raises the perennial but tenuous claim that meditation, in particular TM, can supposedly help lower blood pressure.
Still, a complete explanation of the actual mechanism by which TM might have some perceived effects like that is a bit elusive. Viewed in a somewhat different, perhaps you could call it cynical, light given my intervening life experiences, I find it hard to nail down exactly what it is that’s being taught in the context of “meditation.” Perhaps that sounds kind of strange, after all, isn’t “meditation” the central feature of the program? But perhaps something else is going on. After all, one thing that always gets repeated by those promoting TM is that you can’t learn TM from a book, or by reading about it. Some kind of interaction with other people in a particular setting seems to be the central feature; an interaction that in some ways is rather precisely described and carried out.
Looking through the movement’s materials that I’ve accumulated through the years, and what can be easily seen today in the movement’s programs by looking at its websites, there doesn’t seem to be much of substance to the program. Even looking back to my memory of my own experiences, I sometimes ask, why was I initially attracted to the TM program, and why did I stick with it for about ten years, long after any apparent effect on my own life, one way or the other, had long passed? Given what now seems obvious and trivial today – what was all that about?
I first attended an after school TM introductory lecture, at my public high school, in 1974. Posters advertising the TM program had been hung in school corridors. I never learned the details of how the lecture was arranged, but in those days – before Malnak v. Yogi - it wasn’t something that seemed all that unusual. Perhaps ten students and teachers showed up for it. I found the program rather interesting if not a little peculiar, but my interest didn’t extend as far as taking up the program, primarily because of both the cost and the time commitment.
Some years later, during my second year of college, a then-girlfriend was a meditator with a few years’ experience with the program. After a few months of dating, having heard the program being personally endorsed by someone I then cared for, and now in the position of being able to afford both the time and the money, I took the plunge. The introductory lecture was unusual – we watched the broadcast of Maharishi on the Merv Griffin Show during the last week of 1977, and if I recall correctly, it was the show where the “sidhi” program was announced. This was the point at which I became involved with TM: the moment when the glory days of mass numbers of initiations, of TM centers scattered across the country, and a reasonably priced program accessible to the average middle-class person were about to come to an end.
I paid one hundred eighty dollars at the end of 1977 to be initiated at the student rate. To measure that in todays dollars, multiply that by three or four. I ended up sticking with the 2×20 program for the next ten years. There were a few residence courses along the way – one weekend and one week-long. On the week-long course, held in the movement’s building in downtown Washington, DC, I received the so-called “advanced technique,” which substituted the single word “mantra” with one of two words. How much I paid for this, in 1982, I don’t quite remember, but it was some hundreds of dollars.
By some circumstance I never took up the “TM-Sidhi” program that allegedly offered what they called “supernormal” abilities, including the promise of eventually flying through the air. Again, I avoided involvement largely because of the time and expense involved – the course at the time (the early 1980’s) involved a minimum of two weeks in residence and a series of weekend sessions at a cost of at least two thousand dollars. Again, double or triple that number to get a feel for that price in today’s dollars.
After taking a hiatus from college that turned out to be permanent, I considered volunteering at MIU, the movement’s university in Fairfield, Iowa as a possible means of eventually obtaining the “sidhi” techniques. As luck would have it my entry into a career in the broadcasting industry preempted that plan, and I never again considered working full-time for the TM movement.
But during that time in the early 1980’s I was involved with a few small projects at the Washington DC center. Having been involved with another meditator who was familiar with the local TM community I came to participate in a few efforts to popularize TM in the local media, and an attempt to acquire a low-power TV broadcasting license. Not much came of those efforts, but I was given two “Maharishi Awards” anyway. Like many of the posters produced by the movement, there’s lots of vapid fine print saying how great the subject is (the recipient, in this case), golden colors, formal script, and a big gold seal and a blue ribbon. Atta boy, Mike!
Today we can easily go back and inspect the movement’s “secrets,” all those things we were told during the initiation process we weren’t supposed to go talking about, even among other meditators. With the dawn of the Internet, such secrets don’t stay that way for long, and as the ‘net became popular in the mid-1990’s, so did the accessibility of information, analysis and commentary on the TM programs and organizations.
Perhaps the single most widespread and enduring cultural artifact of the TM movement is that of “mantra mystique.” It’s the notion that the sounds given to meditators to silently repeat in their heads are somehow special, private, special, and uniquely selected to be suitable for the initiate. Did I mention that the mantras are supposed to be very special?
A list of many if not most of the mantras distributed by TM teachers has been available for more than thirteen years online, on the minet.org website I created to offer as a base for critical examination of TM, the TM organizations, and its associated programs. It’s just a list of sounds, and it’s rather obvious that the means by which the particular sounds are given to initiates has had very little consistency over the years. There’s a lot of variation across sets of mantras that differ depending on when the teacher was instructed. But given all the fuss over mantras, and the seemingly random changes through time, the list doesn’t suggest that the mantras are of any particular value except perhaps as some device to fill the initiate’s expectation that they’re about to receive something of value.
The same goes for other aspects of the initiation. The prospective meditator must witness a ritual, a “puja,” performed in a language they don’t understand. Even if the prospect were given a translation of the ritual, it would probably be meaningless without an explanation of the culture and terminology. But this is just the start of an obvious pattern, first pointed out to me years ago by a former meditator: the TM movement offers pieces of India’s culture, disconnected and decontextualized, that are fed, piecemeal, to paying customers. It doesn’t matter if the customer doesn’t understand what’s going on: the mystery is part of the product, it inflates its apparent value. Why else does the prospective meditator have to sit through such a thing, except to be disoriented and perhaps a bit confused by it?
There’s also something called “checking,” where a meditator allegedly has their meditation practice “checked” by an instructor. The checking notes are also readily available, and what’s clear is that the checking ritual is something of a flowchart, with scripts of exchanges between the instructor and meditator. An interesting feature of the flowchart is such that the meditator doesn’t get to leave until agreement with the instructor is obtained. There is, again, not a whole lot to the “checking” ritual of substance other than the reinforcement, through repetition, of the same ideas and expectations that are present even before meditation instruction, in the introductory lectures. Meditation is supposed to be easy and effortless, and we’ll stick you in an endless loop of our checking flowchart until you agree.
In asking “what was all that about?” I am looking for things of substance, something more substantial than meaningless sounds, alien rituals in foreign languages, and repetition of elements of the sales pitch for the practice. There are more substantial aspects to the program – but they aren’t all that obvious unless one turns the tables and considers what the prospective meditator brings to the initiation.
The marketing of the TM program, all the way from product placement of the program in popular culture through the two evenings of introductory lectures that precede initiation, accomplishes two things which are both, in a sense, rather obvious. The marketing first serves to select for individuals who are receptive to certain aspects of the program, which might not actually be the meditation practice itself. Secondly, the marketing sets certain expectations even while being vague as to what the actual process of initiation is; “easy” and “effortless” are part of that expectation-setting, as well as the assumption that, after having spent a considerable amount of time and money, there will be benefits from the practice.
One example of the marketing is “The TM Book,” a paperback written by two then-TM teachers in 1975 and distributed by the movement. It was given free to new meditators when I started. While the book is 221 pages long, it can be summarized with a quote from the beginning, and one from the end of the book. In one sentence on the first full page of the book is this remarkable summary of the program:
The Transcendental Meditation program changes the quality of life from poverty, emptiness, and suffering to abundance, fulfillment, and happiness.
The book is illustrated throughout with two cartoon characters representing a TM teacher and prospective meditator. On the next-to-last page of the book, the prospect gets out of his chair, stands up, puts his finger in the air and declares, “I’ll take it!” as if he’d just finished the negotiations for purchase of a used car.
It’s these two elements that I think epitomize TM, elements that have been central to the nature of the TM movement all along. First, the program is presented as being more important than pretty much anything else in life, can influence all aspects of one’s life, and that acceptance of the program can cause profound positive change in one’s life; in this sense, the program emulates religious faith, certainly a “born-again” faith hinging on a one-time “decision” as it often appears in American culture. Second, the program is a package, a consumer product, marketed as if it were any other product, where “I’ll take it!” indicates a decision to buy. Nothing special is required – the prospect need not learn new skills or meet anything other than the most simple requirements. The “easy”-ness and “effectiveness” of the product are in the forefront of the sales pitch for it.
The prospective meditator brings two things: their expectations and the means by which they pay the purchase price for the product. Here is where things get interesting, because the TM movement offers an endless series of just this kind of purchase transaction, up to a scale that is hard to believe.
What is the actual cost of committing oneself to practicing the basic TM technique?
Back in 1959, according to Paul Mason’s biography of the program’s founder, an initiation fee was set at one week’s pay. That amount has varied over the years, perhaps depending on whose definition of “one week’s pay” is being used. It also says something about what stratum of society the program is being marketed to. When the current fee of $2500 is considered against the “one week’s pay” rationale, the size of the fee suggests that the program is being marketed to people with an income of $130,000 per year, or more.
Along with the fee, the initiate must bring fruit, flowers and a white handkerchief. Perhaps the need to bring physical objects underscores the underlying transactional assumption, that to be involved with the movement’s programs and to gain the claimed benefits, one must bring something of substance to the table. Later, clearly, that substance is money, but at the beginning, physical offerings are also part of the exchange. Belying the movement’s claim that what it’s offering is some kind of eternal “knowledge” available to all, clearly the “knowledge” is only made available to those who can pay whatever they charge for it.
Less obvious is the time commitment. The initiation process, about eight hours in total over seven days, involves five group sessions outside of the “interview” and the initiation itself. Thereafter, one must meditate twenty minutes twice a day, and allow an additional few minutes’ time to finish meditation. What is that time worth? Perhaps the clearest way to put a price tag on that time is to consider, as I put forward above, that the movement’s target prospect makes $130,000 a year. Based even on a sixty hour work week, that comes out to about 42 dollars an hour. Given that TM requires a time commitment of at least fifty minutes a day – time that can’t be spent doing anything else – at that rate, TM costs 304 hours a year, and if that time is valued monetarily, that cost is, at least, an additional $12,750 a year.
Thus the program conditions the meditator towards the idea that involvement in the program involves ongoing expenditures of time and money, particularly when the current program becomes stale and the movement’s other products and programs become attractive. At the very high end is the movement’s ultimate product: the million-dollar residence course. While the cost and the trappings are in a different realm of price and ostentatiousness (or, perhaps, outrageousness), the underlying appeal of all the programs are the same. They offer the initiate the promise of control of various aspects of life that generally are not under conscious control.
“The TM Book” is a snapshot of the TM movement of 1975. Between the beginning and end of the book I described earlier is a compendium of the movement’s featured claims during that time. The charts and graphs, referring to scientific research often conducted by people involved with the organization or republished by it, are those that were common in the pamphlets and other materials distributed by the movement at the time.
The one common thread throughout the book is that almost all the benefits described involve exerting control of aspects of living that are generally not under conscious control. Some of the claims are clear and illustrated with charts; others are obscure or otherwise hard to understand, particularly when movement jargon is introduced to the description.
As was often the case in pamphlets of the time, the book’s first chart, titled “Change in Metabolic Rate,” purports to show that TM provides a state of rest deeper than sleep. That’s immediately followed by a claim that certainly involves an item not generally thought to be under conscious control: that TM causes a growth in intelligence.
From there, other less straightforward but similar claims are made, but the claims almost always center on abilities that are often difficult if not impossible to improve through conscious effort: increases in learning ability, speed in accurate problem solving, academic and job performance and productivity are on the list. The implication is that these things can be changed without effort, that control is exerted through the simplistic purchase of a program, through a particular expenditure of little more than money and time, sold as almost trivial in ease, not requiring particular skills, and most notably, not requiring any effort at all.
Vague claims that are not in any way supported by the scientific research are also made in five sections of the book. Increases in “adaptability,” “stability,” “purification,” “growth” and “integration” are alleged to occur through the program, with long lists of benefits culminating in a statement that’s become one of the high-profile, contentious (if not outrageous and crackpot) claims commonly associated with TM in recent years: that world peace can be brought about by simply meditating.
In hindsight, it’s clearer to me that the book targets a particular audience: people who value control, those who seek to control aspects of their lives that are often, if not by definition, beyond their control. It is a sales pitch that selects for a particular type of personality. Unlike the appeal of many religions and ‘cults,’ this pitch is something a bit different from the usual: it’s an appeal to people who are used to exerting power and control. Not surprisingly, this group often controls a substantial amount of wealth.
It’s often been said, often by those who are talking about Transcendental Meditation in a critical light, that TM is some form of Hinduism. But I take a somewhat different view; to me, TM is as American as apple pie, or at least, it is a Western product, reflecting aspects of Western culture. It is as Hindu as Chow Mein is Chinese: the result is something that came from the interaction of two different cultures. From the standpoint of the original cultural context, it becomes something tolerated and even embraced when dealing with tourists, particularly when the tourists are bearing dollars.
The TM program, as we’ve known it for the last few decades, is traceable to the intersection of a man of a foreign culture with the prototypical American suburbia of 1959: Los Angeles, California. It is likely the result of a man surveying everyday life around him – in what was probably a very alien culture, to him – and making certain observations about that lifestyle. He brought with him certain artifacts of his own culture, and presumably some sort of a reason for traveling if not a fully-formed plan, perhaps not necessarily the plan he publicly talked about; perhaps a general idea to set up an organization that would, first and foremost, keep him and his family comfortable for decades if not lifetimes. From that fusion of cultures came this product, and from that, came the marketing (if the product wasn’t itself the marketing), the celebrity endorsements, and the global organization.
Let’s take the marketing of TM, and, rather than accept it at face value as being reflective of some process of “scientific research” to benefit the world, flip the premise upside down. From the perspective of someone who devised significant parts of this program while sitting in suburban America, what is it about the American suburbanite that his program, and the marketing of it, seek to address?
Perhaps the feature of American suburban life that drew the attention of the founder of the TM program is its pervasive consumerism. A man who showed up in L.A. in 1959 carrying the most meager of possessions in a bedroll came face-to-face with the material wealth of the middle class. That material wealth provided a lifestyle of relative ease to the average American that’s still inaccessible to a majority of the earth’s population.
But it’s not enough to simplistically suggest that consumption of material things gives happiness. To some degree, consumption brings some element of control to everyday life, some suggestion that the consumer can control aspects of their lives by purchasing the right products. This is true across the spectrum, from soap and deodorant to cars and homes; ownership of material goods gives one control over one’s time, mobility and to some degree, social status, and here, that ownership is not limited to an exclusive few of upper caste. While these things may be obvious or trivial for those of us who’ve lived all our lives with them, they may have seemed extraordinary to a man described as a ‘hermit’ from India in 1959.
Meanwhile, there are the things over which the individual still has little to no control, starting with the perceived level of “stress” such a lifestyle produces. The marketing of the TM program promises yet another level of control over many of those things that aren’t particularly controllable. The promises stretch from the everyday scale to the global scale: from reducing one’s stress level and raising one’s happiness to bringing about world peace. It is the consumer product to end all consumer products, giving the buyer (the illusion of) complete control of the uncontrollable. Far from being an example of the counterculture of the late 60’s, at it’s core it was completely tailored to the needy, somewhat conservative suburban American of the early 1960’s, so much so that the movement required that former “hippies” cut their hair, shave and wear a tie before they were allowed to learn how to be TM instructors.
It seemed to bother some people that we were receiving pieces of wisdom from a man from India, since from our viewpoint America was a more progressive country than India.
Here in one sentence is an apparent paradox inherent to the marketing of TM. By the reasoning of “some people,” at first glance, TM should have been universally dismissed as useless, as a throwback to a backward land. While some clearly rejected TM based upon its source, many embraced it, in ways that I think reflect America’s often complicated relationship with the rest of the world.
“America… a more progressive country” also implies that Americans, secure in some notion of supremacy versus the rest of the planet, can’t be conned by foreigners. This notion lies in tension with certain desires, that poverty, unhappiness, stress and other ills will allegedly be remedied by something relatively exotic, in the form of the TM program. These are things that often lie in areas where some feel the West has reached a dead end and has nothing to offer. By this line of thinking, there is no domestic product that addresses these areas – fields that, before encountering the TM program, people often didn’t think would have anything to do with paying for meditation instruction packaged as a consumer product.
It’s into this realm that the decontextualized pieces of Indian culture presented in the TM movement’s programs came into play. The entire movement took on an appearance that was just alien enough to clearly support the assumption that it wasn’t from here. TM instructors dressed in formal Western clothing and with otherwise conservative appearance accepted money and performed a ritual that clearly came from somewhere else, in front of an image of a dead Hindu monk, in a language most people here couldn’t understand, while being told not to disclose what they’ve been taught. These collisions are deliberately created, sending a series of messages: “Your Western lifestyle is basically lacking. You will pay us to fill that need. You think all your Western science, medicine and technology still doesn’t address those needs, so you’ll accept something alien you don’t understand on the flimsy promise that it’ll eventually satisfy you. Finally, since we know you think you can’t be conned, you’ll accept our instructions and our non-answers to your questions, otherwise you might suspect that there’s a lot less to this program than you think there is, and you wouldn’t want to feel foolish about what you’re doing and all the money you’re spending, would you?”
Over the years the TM movement has evolved, and the Indian cultural aspects of the movement have moved from the background to front-and-center. A standard photo of the movement’s founder is now likewise always present on websites and materials. The movement’s products have also evolved from simple meditation to astrology, herbs and architecture, clearly identifying them as being of Indian origin. References to the Vedas, a text generally considered to be of Hindu religious or spiritual origin, are recast as “scientific” in a further decontextualization of their original meaning to be successfully sold to a credulous audience.
All of these contemporary aspects of the TM movement reflect an underlying strategy: to frame itself as an external source that supposedly addresses the alleged shortcomings of Western life. It is designed to exude a level of strangeness that enhances its attractiveness, but not so much strangeness as to be completely irrelevant or repulsive.
While Transcendental Meditation today has a much lower social profile than it did in the early 1970’s, there are still a few people being initiated into TM. One of these recent initiates is James Wolcott, social critic for Vanity Fair magazine. Matching my earlier observation that the organization is targeting relatively wealthy people through its high fees and marketing, Wolcott was reported to be one of the country’s most highly paid people in the magazine business, earning $400,000 a year six years ago.
Wolcott has written about TM a few times on his blog. His first mention of it was before he was initiated, in February 2007:
I’m interested in [David] Lynch’s evangelical efforts on behalf of Transcendental Meditation, however; it might be helpful to have a mantra to call my own.
I find this comment hilarious. You want a mantra, go check out the list and pick one! They’re free! They’re not special, they’re just a few meaningless noises, and they’re not yours to call your own! (And that list includes a big hint at the top: they’re so meaningless, that list isn’t even there for you to meditate with!) It almost sounds like he’s going to go visit the pound and bring a puppy or kitten home. There’s something so, acquisitional about the way he announces his intention. It’s also, of course, another instance of something I noted earlier: the single most lasting legacy of the pervasive marketing of TM over many years is this bogus notion that the mantras are something very special, and over time as the “mantra mystique” has bounced around in popular culture, it’s mutated into this form, that mantras are something that can be bought or sold.
Some months later, Wolcott evidently paid for his own special mantra (that’s sarcasm, folks) and along the way picked up a few morsels of the TM organization’s propaganda about ‘invincibility’ thatwas presented in a rather chaotic, unintentionally self-parodying fashion in Germany a few months later. Here he is, babbling nonsensically about the ‘Global Financial Capital of New York’ and some ‘vision of a metaphysical umbrella of invincible defense’ in September 2007:
Another pity about being in Cape May this September, apart from missing the Martha Graham performances (Joel Lobenthal has the latest), is that I won’t be around to greet and extend a nervous hand of hospitality to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he pays his not entirely welcome visit to Columbia U. … I would guide Ahmadinejad to the recently opened Global Financial Capital of New York, the headquarters of positive thought and world peace in the financial district. It is where I received my instruction in Transcendental Meditation, and it’s possible that the Maharishi’s sun-toned vision of a metaphysical umbrella of invincible defense might strike a receptive chord in Ahmadinejad, or at least give him something to think about between snacks on the long plane ride home.
Wolcott’s later comments seem to confirm what I wrote earlier in this series: that the primary focus of TM, with respect to the initiate, is the expenditure of time and money in the direction of the TM organization’s products, and that’s reflected in Wolcott’s writings in the months after his initiation. Here in November 2007 he bemoans the ‘valuable private minutes’ spent by others on something other than TM:
Perhaps if Sam [Peckinpah] had discovered Transcendental Meditation, like David Lynch, he could have spent those valuable private minutes in his trailer attending to his mantra instead of practicing his knife throws. But TM was out of fashion then and couldn’t compete with tequila.
Finally, in March 2008, he writes this paragraph in the wake of Elliot Spitzer’s fall, and characteristically, it’s all about making money flow in the direction of the TM program in lieu of other things:
The sad thing is that $15,000 could have underwritten the enrollment of six people into the Transcendental Meditation course and equipped them with training and mantras that help alleviate the stress and tension that compel some people into risky extracurricular activities. Six pulse nodes of radiating bliss whose benefits would have been exponential went unimplemented as the money was shoveled elsewhere for a few fleeting, emptying moments of rocks-off release. Such a waste of cosmic resources.
There are days when I seriously wonder why otherwise lucid, talented people reach some point in their lives where they throw all critical thinking overboard and lose their minds when it comes to things like this. No, James, it’s not “cosmic resources,” it’s money. Here, it’s money that, if we’re going to argue over whether it’s money well spent or not, could perhaps have gone toward keeping somebody fed or clothed or sheltered instead of “rocks-off release.” Still, Elliot Spitzer’s personal “rocks-off release” to my mind is something considerably more tangible than whatever’s claimed in this line that looks very much like something cut-and-pasted from the TM organization’s propaganda: “metaphysical umbrella of invincible defense.”
And as with so much of the TM organization’s language, the style of which is mimicked by Wolcott here, a few perhaps reasonable ideas are spun into the mix along with phrases that a friend once called “space-terms.” Here, we have “alleviate the stress and tension” laid up against “six pulse nodes of radiating bliss.” That’s an example of how such movements subtly dehumanize and deindividualize people, it makes it sound like the point of TM initiation is to turn out vibrating tuning forks devoid of thought or action!
The fact of the matter is that what the TM organization is doing is collecting a vanishingly small number of people who are willing to spend money and time on what they sell, and who in some cases, participate in the selling. This is an organization that, collectively or through individual people, exerts no actual influence over “world peace” and very little power over anything else.
It does, however, target people who find that, despite having attained a certain level of material wealth, they have little control or influence over the direction of the planet. By claiming to be bringing about “world peace” through some kind of metaphysical thought process, sold with plainly silly phrases like “pulse nodes of radiating bliss whose benefits would have been exponential,” it provides the illusion of control and influence through the mere expenditure of time and money. Wolcott’s writings about TM reflect that basic fact, and also strongly suggest that the TM program is a means of personal therapeutic spending and acquisition more than anything else.
The structure of the TM “movement” and the names by which it was called evolved over the decades in the same way in which it moved from an image of a pop-culture curiosity to all-out weirdness. Initially it used rather normal sounding names like “International Meditation Society” and “World Plan Executive Council.”
But if the underlying message of the movement is that it offers some means of control, not just on a personal level but on some perhaps megalomaniacal scale, of things like national and world events to allegedly bring about world peace, the movement’s name and structure eventually came to reflect that. It took on the terminology and titles of government – a government with conventions and titles and rituals and finally its own currency, but in reality it is a bunch of people with no significant power or influence playing at government. While in some sense this looks like some kind of parallel government, I call it a toy government. Its apparent primary purpose is to preside over the contrived task of getting a bunch of people to practice a certain set of mental techniques, rituals and bouncing on foam rubber (a practice delusionally dubbed “Yogic Flying”) at the same time and the same place at various points around the world, some of them in India, one of them, of course, at the organization’s facilities in Fairfield, Iowa. Real estate ownership, occasional property development (sometimes with the participation of wealthy donors), and above all, getting people to part with their money are other significant activities.
In 1976 during a year retroactively if not at the time dubbed “Maharishi’s Year of Government” the TM organization began to call itself the “World Government of the Age of Enlightenment.” Individuals who spent sufficient time and money on the organization were given the title of “Governor,” while movement higher-ups were called “Minister.” But even the nod toward a parliamentary form of government would not last, for the ultimate model it would adopt was that of monarchy – but a monarchy one could buy a role in, if one simply were willing to hand over a substantial amount of cash.
By 2000 the movement was calling itself the “Global Country of World Peace” and had crowned a king, “King Nader Raam,” the new title for former researcher and TM promoter Tony Nader. The image of a king, complete with golden crown and golden robes and the spectacle of having his weight measured out in gold, still wasn’t quite weird enough.
In 2003 the “Global Country” announced the million-dollar residence course. Here is the ultimate continuation of the movement’s toy government framework. For those who want to, as if by magic, control the world – but who have no real power, but plenty of money – they can buy into the “Global Government” and be named a “Raja” for simply coughing up one million dollars and spending some months in Holland. The alleged training course is “for those who wish to be the permanent administrators of the Global Country of World Peace in their regions.” Of course, as usual, there is nothing of substance about the position except for the raw exchange of money and time for title and status among a relatively small group of people.
It appears that in practice these “Rajas” got to sit in a room in Holland in the same building with the movement’s dying leader and watch him on closed-circuit television (and near his end, only hear him) blather more of the same things he’s said for the past fifty years. No doubt a lot of that talk was about his and his movement’s inflated sense of worth and importance.
What kind of person throws that kind of money at the “Global Government,” a toy simulation of real government? Perhaps the highest-profile example of a donor who supports this organization’s activities, such as they are, to the tune of millions of dollars a year is Howard Settle. A wealthy Texas oilman, Settle and his wife have been recently credited with making possible a stipend of seven hundred dollars a month to so-called “yogic flyers” by donating a million dollars a month over the past few years.
Settle hasn’t been named a “Raja” as far as I can tell from what’s been written about him online, so apparently he hasn’t the time or inclination to go to Holland for a while and spend a million dollars on that particular cash-absorbing program. But if you read the transcript of what he’s told those so-called “yogic flyers,” he is clearly a true believer, that the money he’s throwing at people bouncing on foam is actually buying the world something. As I’ve been pointing out, that to my eye the central feature of the TM program is a series of transactions involving money, likewise to Settle this is just another business proposition, another investment. Clearly, in Settle’s own words, he thinks that spending his money to enable people to bounce on foam rubber, after a few decades of that practice being surrounded by ridiculous claims, grandiose language and delusional expectations, is a business transaction that he can calculate a rate of return on.
I’ve quoted this piece of Settle’s statement at length, since I think it clearly shows how the throwing away of enormous sums of money by wealthy people on this toy government is somehow justified in their own minds through the use of the same cut-and-paste language the TM organization has repeated over the past few decades.
For any business transaction, you want to invest as little as possible, but in return you want to receive as much as possible.
‘We have the tools to calculate how efficient we are at this principle of ”Do less and accomplish more”: we calculate the return on investment and the rate of return.
‘In business, if you can achieve a two to one return on your investment over a period of a year, your calculated rate of return is 100%, and this is pretty good. In fact, if I offered each of you a 100% rate of return, it would be insane not to take advantage of an investment as favorable as that.
‘By contrast, Raja Hagelin has informed us that the influence we create in the Super Radiance groups is equal to the square root of 1%. The easiest way to calculate this effect is to multiply the number of Yogic Flyers by 100. So yesterday, with 1750 Yogic Flyers in the Invincible America Assembly, each of you had the effect of providing a positive influence of coherence to 175,000 of your fellow citizens. In other words, the return on investment of a single Yogic Flyer in the Assembly yesterday was 175,000 to 1; and this return did not take a year, but occurred within three hours. I haven’t calculated the rate of return on this investment of your time, but it approaches infinity.
‘This return to each of you on the Assembly is on an investment far more precious than money. It is a return on your action – your karma. And the result will be a continuous stream of positive influence in your life that will grow each day as you participate in the Assembly.
What’s really fascinating, when trying to get a handle on this man’s state of mind, is that this contrived-though-disconnected sense of pseudo-rationality supporting his spending decisions was preceded by the published admission that there is no proof at all for the claims made for these programs. In 2003, Settle financed the construction of one of the “Global Government’s” first “Peace Palace” in Lexington, Kentucky, a building into which Settle located one of his company’s offices. In an article in the local paper, which was ironically republished on one of the TM organization’s own websites, Settle made this remarkable admission:
“You can’t prove what it does for you,” Settle said of meditation, “but over time, the effects become more and more noticeable.”
So the personal effects can’t be proven, and thus, we may assume, the global effects of “world peace” and eventual creation of an “Invincible America” are likewise unproven. But he’ll throw tens of millions at the process anyway.
Many may assume that people with the kind of wealth Settle has already run the world. But perhaps the truth is that money doesn’t always buy power. The TM organizations, through endless repetition of mere rhetoric and bogus claims, have created a completely fictional web of power and influence – that all these rituals and practices will magically change national and world events, if someone will only spend the money such that enough people are doing them.
For some who started over thirty years ago inexpensively with just the twice-daily practice of Transcendental Meditation, after a few decades of conditioning that ridiculous premise is somehow reasonable. Howard Settle seems quite proud of the mental gyrations with which he justified what he sees as just another business decision. Perhaps to him these enormous sums of money are something similar to what “therapeutic shopping” is to some of us of more modest means – but we at least come home with a little something to show for it. Spending might make him feel better – but he’ll never see anything substantial for it, and he couldn’t care less.
There was a time in the early 1980’s when the then – “World Government” sought to increase its presence in the Washington, DC area, to seek government support for the organization’s programs, and as it was alleged, to have a positive effect on the federal government through the mere presence of tiny numbers of meditating people. Groups of meditators were encouraged to relocate to the area, while the organization purchased two buildings, one an aging downtown hotel, the other the Dickson Mansion in the Carter Barron neighborhood on 14th Street, N.W. The relocated meditators moved into a number of homes within a few blocks of the mansion.
This was during the same time that I was involved in one of the local center’s small projects, spending some time with the core group of meditators. Since the “National Capital of the Age of Enlightenment” was not yet open, afternoon group practice of the so-called “Yogic Flying” program was held in one of these homes. During one of my visits, while I was meditating in an upstairs room, the group bounced on foam rubber laid out in the first-floor rooms, shaking the whole house.
Some of the relatively wealthy individuals involved with the local TM center – then in the process of being renamed “Capital of the Age of Enlightenment” – were introduced to me that afternoon. Two of those people were a man from the family who owned a real estate development firm in the Washington area, and a woman from the family who owned one of the area’s well-known auto dealerships.
Fast-forward some twenty-five years later, and the man who’s now a full partner in his family’s real estate development firm, Jeffrey Abramson, is today still involved with the TM organization in the Washington, DC area. In October 2007 he announced his plans to construct a “Grand ‘Tower of Invincibility’” in the area with a press conference hosted by longtime TM movement publicist Bob Roth. While his proposal gained some coverage in the city’s media - where a Washington Post writer, copying Abramson’s press release, called it “a 12-story monument dedicated to peace and freedom” – there really isn’t much of an explanation why Abramson believes that this building is somehow connected to either “peace” or “invincibility.”
Actually, the vagueness of the plans is in a way the most notable thing about the announcement. While clearly Abramson is talking about building a physical building, the statement he issued to the press has that ethereal quality of most of the TM organization’s rhetoric. Like a lot of that rhetoric, he briefly mentions TM, physicist and TM poster boy John Hagelin, and throws around the words “science,” “coherence” and “research,” but after that there really isn’t much of an explanation of why Abramson needs to build this tower. After all, the exhibits to be contained in the tower, and the process of initiating people into the organization’s programs, can be located in conventional buildings, and Abramson himself has already helped finance one of these for the organization in the area, in nearby Rockville, Maryland.
This vagueness is even a bit weirder when Abramson, standing at the podium during his press conference, expresses some urgency that construction on this building get started right away. “I’m in a hurry. I think it needs to be built now, we don’t want to debate it, we don’t want to wait.”
So what is this tower really about? Why the sudden urgency to build it? And why, if it’s the TM programs that supposedly bring about “world peace” and national “invincibility,” would he need a tower, too? Is there some thing special about the tower that might in itself, in the minds of the promoters, be very important, perhaps as important as TM itself?
Certainly Abramson himself, after repeatedly saying the tower was merely a “monument” to his favorite form of meditation, hinted that the tower was so important that Congress should quickly approve the use of federal land to build it. “Congress has shown that it can act quickly if it wants to,” he said, “and I think in the name of national invincibility it certainly ought to.” The peculiar way he phrased this sentence certainly implies that “national invincibility” brought about by the tower’s mere existence should be enough to prompt Congress to immediately act.
As is often the case when examining the rhetoric the TM movement has spewed in recent years, the usual notions of cause and effect are clearly not helpful in making sense of such statements. Yes, we are talking about people who think “national invincibility” is something that can be brought about by bringing together a mass of people who bounce on foam rubber for an hour or so a day. The creation of a monumental building that has a similar magical effect on the nation in their minds is apparently not that much of a stretch, since as can be seen in later movement pronouncements, this proposed tower is no ordinary monument.
A few months after Abramson’s announcement, after what little attention he gathered from it had long faded, the “Global Government of World Peace,” that is, the TM organization, announced “groundbreaking” ceremonies for 48 of these “Maharishi Towers of Invincibility” around the world. In the usual manner in which the organization announces projects that may or may not ever even be started, this doesn’t necessarily mean that construction of 48, or even one, of these towers is imminent. The January 2008 announcement of these ceremonies appeared on a new website with a number of supporting documents on it. One of these documents was a ‘backgrounder’ which included comments made by the organization’s leader about these towers. While most of those comments are self-congratulatory and shed little light on the question of the actual need for these towers, one paragraph stands out.
[Maharishi Mahesh Yogi] said that the Rajas should have the 12 Jyotir Lings in that place too where the people are practising their Yogic Flying for national Invincibility in each country. These would be the representations of the 12 Jyotir Lings in India which express the full value of Shiva, pure Cosmic intelligence, the Constitution of the Universe, the point where the Grace of Guru Dev is most lively to bless all mankind.
In another more lengthy document placed online in February, the wording describing the towers is somewhat different. Here it says that the “Towers of Invincibility” are actual representation of lingas:
Maharishi explained that the Maharishi Towers of Invincibility will be the representations of the twelve Jyotir Lingas in India, which express the full value of Shiva, pure Cosmic Intelligence, the Constitution of the Universe, the point where the Grace of Guru Dev is most lively to bless all mankind.
What, then, are the Jyotir Lingas, or alternately, Lingams? A lingam, more generally, is a symbolic representation of the Hindu god Shiva, used in worship. Physically, it’s usually a rounded stone set in a circular base. The 12 Jyotir Lingam are located throughout India, in traditional shrines of special reverence where Shiva is worshipped.
Thus the series: a linga is a symbol of Shiva, and the “Maharishi Tower of Invincibility” is a representation of a linga. It follows, of course, that these towers are somehow intended to be a symbol of the god, Shiva, and are somehow related to the practice of Shiva worship.
We might also reasonably conclude from all this that the construction of these twelve story tall lingas, presumably to aid in the worship of Shiva, are intended to bring about “national invincibility” through the creation of what can only be described as a religious shrine. But it’s historically true that all of the programs associated with this organization, as I first pointed out in part 3, have had an element of extreme decontextualization. Things that have always been clearly religious at their origin in India are stripped of original meaning and given new descriptive terminology. Shiva, formerly a deity, becomes mere “Cosmic Intelligence” or the “Unified Field” in a “theory” uniquely presented by a particular physicist involved with the organization. Bija mantras used in TM, once widely known to be associated with Shiva and other gods of the Hindu pantheon, become meaningless sounds, and meditators are told they need not concern themselves with the original meaning or context.
Historically, of course, the TM movement’s attempt to cast its programs as purely secular in nature has run aground, most spectacularly when the teaching of TM and other programs in public schools was interrupted by a federal court ruling finding that “the teaching of the SCI/TM course in New Jersey public high schools violates the establishment clause of the first amendment.”
Here the movement’s longtime habit of stripping obvious Hindu iconography and even Hindu theology of any original religious or cultural context has taken an extreme form, moving from the language of textbooks thirty years ago to the construction of multimillion-dollar buildings today. An outright appeal has been made for direct government support for construction of a building that at minimum will contain religious artifacts, and that is strongly suggested to itself be a religious artifact that will somehow, as is implied by its proponents, have influence on its surroundings. It’s as if the movement’s mere reluctance to point out the obvious religious nature of the project is expected to transform it into a completely secular monument suitable for government support.
Meanwhile, on the movement’s satellite television channel, an image of a white, featureless lingam has recently regularly appeared, without explanation or even a description of what is in the image. Whatever the reason, the image is important enough to appear between other programs on the channel. Why it is there, while likely known to at least some of the organization’s devotees, is apparently not important enough for public explanation.
With the passing of the movement’s founder, it’s possible that the realization of what may have been his original inner goal – to spark a Hindu revival transported to the West, complete with ritual worship of Shiva – has become a priority. (The middle name of the founder, Mahesh, is a popular alternate name for Shiva.) But that revival, continuing the peculiar habits of the founder when he first arrived in the West, must be sheathed in his old habits of vagueness, confusion, denial and deception. It must not appear religious, by retelling the traditional religion with substitutions of language, confusing religion with science on a grand scale. It must deny its origins while its origins are obvious; unlike the 1960’s when the culture and religion of India were truly obscure to many if not most Westerners, anyone with Internet access can explore those origins in detail and draw the connections.
Perhaps all that accumulated denial explains the peculiar – some would say, pathological – culture of the TM movement today. This culture has developed to the point that a wealthy donor to the organization stands before the press of the nation’s capital and says he’s going to build a ten million dollar tower as a monument to meditation, while simultaneously, we may reasonably infer that he doesn’t dare clearly explain in public why that tower is so urgently important to him.
One way in which I sometimes view the TM organization today is that many of its practices and its leaders seem to drive people towards a state of dissonance. One example of this, of course, is the religion that dares not call itself religious angle, where the movement adds more and more religious imagery and practice to its programs while still insisting that those same programs are somehow scientific in nature. Another is the fact that its leaders claim imminent success when it’s clear that the movement has accomplished very little, relative to its inflated claims, over almost half a century.
The movement’s insistence that scientific support exists for its claims are yet another source of everyday dissonance. Completely arbitrary assertions, vaguely based on traditional Indian or Hindu beliefs and culture, are held to be true because they’re allegedly supported through “scientific research.” These arbitrary assertions are often put forth because they are in some way support ventures that are profitable to the movement or to certain influential supporters in a position to benefit. Meanwhile, the alleged “scientific research” in fact may only be vaguely related to the claims made, or the “research” is the product of the movement’s own people, reflecting their biases and preferences.
A contemporary example of this phenomenon is the introduction of “Maharishi Vedic Architecture,” also called “Maharishi Sthapatya Veda.” This is, of course, a commercial product, involving architects and builders; it’s the design and construction of buildings that are allegedly in accordance with Vedic tradition regarding orientation, proportion, and placement on their building site.
Now one of the first things you’ll notice, if you read the organization’s “exhibition” of its project to create what it calls “ideal housing,” is the grand scope of the supposed undertaking. It is a never-ending project, a “Global Undertaking to Reconstruct the World in Harmony with Natural Law.”
What do they find wrong with the current construction of almost all civilization? To them, a house is not properly oriented unless its entrance faces due East. They claim that, as a result of faulty orientation, “at least 75% of all buildings contribute to ill health and all other problems in society.”
I’ll say it again. As is often the case when examining the rhetoric the TM movement has spewed in recent years, the usual notions of cause and effect are clearly not helpful in making sense of such statements. Yes, we are talking about people who think that if the entrance of your house doesn’t face due East, you’ll get sick. They even insist that there’s scientific support for this ridiculous claim. As can be seen in their online “Exhibition:”
According to the latest research in neuroscience, brain cells fire according to orientation. The firing patterns of neurons in the thalamus of the brain are altered by the direction one is facing, thus influencing the entire brain functioning and the whole physiology. When one is facing East, the brain physiology functions differently than when one is facing North, South, or West.
There is, of course, no scientific research that supports these claims. In fact, the organization has even issued a “Background and Summary of Scientific Research” that, while pointing out some peer-reviewed, published research carried out by unaffiliated researchers suggests that the brains of rats may be able to sense physical orientation, this research does not indicate sensitivity or awareness of the cardinal directions or the favored eastern direction:
Although Vedic Architecture clearly and repeatedly suggests preferential sensitivity to the eastern direction there is no evidence yet as to whether any neurons in mammalian brains are sensitive to the cardinal directions, i.e. whether brain cells are either sensitive or selective to magnetic field orientation and/or to environmental cues signally the direction of the rising sun.
Other inconclusive “scientific research” has been performed on human subjects by individuals associated with the organization. This research doesn’t indicate the mechanism by which the cardinal directions might have any measurable effect on human behavior.
How does this obsession with east-facing doors and a particular type of traditional architecture play out among the TM movement’s devotees? One example could easily be found during a brief visit to the campus of the movement’s “Maharishi University of Management” (MUM) in Fairfield, Iowa, in the spring of 2004. The original student center building, a midcentury-modern relic with a main entrance facing west, was evidently determined to be a major offender in the orientation department. Handles had been removed from the doors of the main entrance, and a ramp had been built around the building so that people could make a detour all the way around the building and enter through the east side. Taped to the original entrance doors was this sign:
Please Do Not Use This Western Door
Natural Law always supports every aspect of our daily activity.
Wrongly placed entrances may contribute to:
- Inauspicious, negative influences for everyone
- Anger, aggression
- Constant fear
- Chronic diseases
Inauspicious entrances facing western directions contribute to:
- Influence of poverty
- Lack of creativity and vitality
- Influence of quarrelling
- Influence of mental inconsistency and instability
Thank you for kindly upholding Natural Law for the residents and/or for those working in this building by not using this western exit.
Note that this sign found on the MUM campus claims that the “wrongly placed entrances” are the sole source of these negative effects. Other more mundane possible influences, such as bad air, fumes from construction materials, or insufficient lighting, are ignored.
It would be one thing if this “Vedic Architecture” product, and the ridiculous claims made for it, was a relatively small business confined to the realm of individual home buyers and the buildings built for the TM movement itself. But Jeffrey Abramson, the Washington, DC area developer and longtime TM devotee I wrote about in the previous installment of this series, has bigger plans. Currently nearing completion in Rockville, Maryland is what is said to be the world’s largest Vedic office building, 2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard. It’s 9 stories tall, sized at 198,000 square feet, and it cost seventy million dollars.
While reading the promotional website for this building, I feel a distinct sense of deja vu. This building is in some ways being marketed in the same way that the TM technique has always been marketed. The marketing materials begin with a set of completely reasonable claims, that good air, better lighting and improved thermal control from a high-efficiency physical plant provide benefits to tenants. This sounds similar to the initial claim made for Transcendental Meditation, that reducing stress is beneficial. But from there things take an odd turn. From the “Return on Rent” brochure for 2000 Tower Oaks:
Increases in retention due to aligning corporate values to employee’s personal values. Studies show corporate values can re-capture 70% of employees who would have left their jobs.
It’s not clear to me how moving into a particular building is going to magically “align” corporate values and retain employees. After all, if a company is running little more than a cubicle-based sweatshop, moving to a new building would probably change very little about that working environment. But this sounds a bit familiar, going back to one of the many vague claims, if not an article of faith, seen in “The TM Book:” that mere adoption of something with a Vedic source – TM – causes positive changes in interpersonal relationships and organizations.
Any veneer of reasonability finally goes out the window when reading the “Vedic Architecture” brochure on the 2000 Tower Oaks website. Here we learn that Abramson’s building is built with a very special magic architecture that “aligns the intelligence of every individual in the building with the cosmic intelligence of the universe. This influence promotes greater success, clarity, creativity, intelligence and cooperation among employees.” There’s even more:
Here are a few of the general principles about this architectural system incorporated into the design of
2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard.
- Orientation: The building must be oriented perfectly to the cardinal directions, true north, south, east and west, with the entrance of the building in the auspiciously easterly direction facing the rays of the dawning sun.
- Proportions: The building must be constructed according to precise mathematical dimensions, in harmony with the dimensions of the cosmos. All measurements of 2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard, interior and exterior, are proportionally designed to mirror the geometry or architecture of the universe.
- Center of silence: Every building needs a center of silence or core called a Brahmanstan.
- Vastu: The building needs to be placed symmetrically and harmoniously on its site within a defined terrace or Vastu with auspicious slope of the land and any nearby bodies of water in an auspicious direction.
I was particularly interested in how one might incorporate a Brahmanstan, that “silent core,” into an office building where the waste of any floor space costs money. I looked over some of the floorplans offered, and there wasn’t anything obvious that looked like an empty space in the middle of the building. It turns out that, according to a June 20, 2005 article in the Washington Post, the Brahmanstan is merely outlined in marble on each floor. Which is to say that we are talking here about a developer who sincerely believes that drawing lines in marble on the floors of an office building will somehow contribute to positively influencing the people who work there, by some unexplained mechanism that sounds suspiciously like the kind of thing found in a religious faith.
The entrance of the building, as advertised, faces directly east, and there are no doors on the west face of the ground floor of the building. A nearby building that Abramson’s company also constructed, and that will soon serve as the company’s headquarters, likewise is oriented this way.
The construction of this building was accomplished with the direct involvement of auspices of the TM movement; “Maharishi Vedic Architecture” is one of the many trademarks of the organization. Fairfield, Iowa based “Maharishi Global Construction” and its chief architect, Jon Lipman, were part of the team that constructed this building. Recent emails sent to the TM movement’s so-called “Governors” have named Lipman “Director of Architecture for Invincible America” and “Deputy Minister of Vedic Architecture.” As I wrote earlier, the TM organization calls itself a Global Country, with “Ministers,” “Governors” and “Rajas;” I call it a toy government, as it has no real governmental power.
It was perhaps inevitable that certain subtle aspects of the marketing of Transcendental Meditation would find their way into other fields, brought there by those most familiar with that style of marketing. As I explained earlier, the marketing of TM plays on a paradox, the tension between the assumptions of American dominance and inability to be conned, versus the perceived need for new solutions in areas where American life is found wanting. Your company has difficulty retaining employees? Move to an office in this new building based on some barely understandable foreign architectural mumbo-jumbo and by simply paying rent to a new landlord, your employees will be happy and compliant! And again, it mimics the elements of the TM program that make it the ultimate consumer product. By simply spending money in the right way – on office space in a magic building – intractable problems are instantly solved, or so the marketing implies.
It’s perhaps unfortunate that the substantial, positive progress represented by the “green building” methods incorporated into this building may be cheapened by association with the nonsense represented by its marketing, which include silly notions like an east-facing door and special marks on the floor of the lobby to create a peaceful environment. But that is not a new phenomenon for the TM organization; after decades of misrepresentation of scientific research, an inability to discuss the ways in which its programs originated in Indian religious practices and beliefs, its ridiculous attempts to mimic government and monarchy, and no real progress toward its ostentatious goals, some might say that the TM movement still cheapens everything it touches.
It seems that the main thing the TM movement and its promoters are selling right now is nostalgia. This weekend, two former Beatles are going to heave themselves onto the stage of Radio City Music Hall in New York for a concert that, it’s alleged, will raise money to support “a global initiative teach one million at-risk kids to meditate.” The message that the “Global Country of World Peace,” the TM movement’s toy government, is suggesting be sent to news media to promote the event, leads with nothing more than a memory. “So much has happened since the Beatles, Donovan, Mike Love, and Paul Horn traveled to India in 1968 to study the Transcendental Meditation® technique with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,” it reads. But in fact, not much has happened at all, except for the same old things that the organization’s been attempting – and spectacularly failing at – for half a century or more, while as always, burning through people and money. This latest project seems focused on reviving the flagging careers of a few aging stars more than anything, and taking one more run at the perennial, nearly impossible task of increasing the credibility of the TM program among the general public.
Since it seems that the nostalgia game is what everyone’s going to be playing this weekend, I thought I’d add a bit of my own. This comes with a physical object; it took a bit of digging around in the basement to find it, in a box full of decades-old papers, one of those boxes full of things that really serve very little purpose for me today, unless I feel the need to look back and see where I was, or what I was doing, or even, who I once knew, at some point in the distant past.
This one little item comes in an envelope, that coincidentally has an almost exactly thirty-year-old postmark on its fifteen-cent stamp: April 16, 1979, South Fallsburg, New York, 12779. Those of you familiar with the TM movement of the time may recall that South Fallsburg was the location of an old hotel in the Catskills, which with the beginning of sex-segregated movement facilities, was used to house women, children and married men. “Advanced” courses including that of the TM-Sidhi program, which purportedly conferred the ability to fly, were administered to women there. In keeping with the toy government theme, the place was called the “Capital of the Age of Enlightenment.” It was later sold to some other Indian guru’s group.
In that envelope is a card, on the cover, a drawing featuring a girl with wings. Cards like this were sold to course participants to send to friends and family. Inside, someone had a bit of news to share.
…and now for the news you want to hear – I’m off! I started flying on April 11th. It’s really a joyful experience.
As it turned out, the joy wore off after a while. Some people had real problems functioning after taking this course and practicing what they learned, by hopping around on foam rubber pads and calling it “flying.” When people say they stopped practicing the “sidhis” because they were having a rough time, they aren’t exaggerating.
This place is really beautiful. The dining hall and assembly hall are really plush. Women wear beautiful saris. People applaud by ringing little bells. Everyone here is really nice, and they serve us our lunch and dinner – we don’t have to get anything ourselves. In other words, this place is heaven on earth!
Well, I dunno. Perhaps there would be more to living in “heaven on earth” than being waited on hand and foot by people who aren’t even being paid to serve you.
By the way, Happy Easter! (I’m not exactly the Easter bunny, but at least I’m hopping)
Muscular twitching that caused “hopping” would be about the only thing a lot of people who practiced the TM-Sidhi program would be left with. No flying, no super-cool extraordinary abilities, nothing. But a lot of people who were selling Maharishi’s products back then thought all that was imminent, and would be experienced… any day now.
I hope something good happens so that you can get your sidhis, too! Jai Guru Dev
Fortunately, it seems I dodged that bullet. Real life intervened. Two thousand dollars, were I to have had it at the time, in the early 80’s, would have probably been spent on more important things. If it wasn’t for that, an eventual, rather spectacular, falling-out with the writer of this card – someone who, being the usual garden-variety human being, certainly didn’t exhibit the “support of nature” that was one of the supposed benefits of the program – might have driven home the obvious point that the program was something of a scam. Or, perhaps it was just a passing comment from someone who’d recently visited MIU, the movement’s university in Fairfield, Iowa, who pointed out that it wasn’t worth moving to Fairfield just to clean toilets. That would have been the other means by which I could have taken the sidhis course.
So that’s my little contribution to this weekend’s nostalgia fest. I put it here as a reminder that fondness for some old memories of decades past isn’t much of an excuse for failing to grow and failing to learn from your mistakes. It isn’t a way of avoiding the fact that some of those things that I might have thought were sane and reasonable, like the idea that through thinking certain thoughts people could fly, were in fact just plain stupid and are best abandoned. This kind of avoidance of the obvious continues today when Lynch, McCartney and Starr continue to push a similar falsehood: that if you pay money to some shady organization, they’ll teach you the right magic thoughts that’ll change and fix your life, or those of “at-risk kids.” It was bogus thirty, forty or fifty years ago, and it’s bogus today; whether it’s pushed by a “Maharishi,” a “Raja,” some former Beatle or some other famous personality; from the stage of Radio City or in some back alley.