Archive for November, 2009

Originally posted at the TM-Free Blog

Today I thought I’d juxtapose two items that recently came to my attention; two items that serve to illustrate the great gulf that can sometimes open up between the undeserved, glowing, fawning, uncritical (add more adjectives here) representation of Transcendental Meditation and the organization that sells it in the press, and the ongoing reality of what that organization is actually in the business of teaching, and what its goals are.

First, there’s the horribly mistitled New York Times article that showed up on the Times’ website this past Friday. In a skeptical world, with editors and reporters who actually worked to dig up the facts and put the claims made for such products into context, there would be something more in this article than a regurgitation of the same old things we’ve seen in TM movement press releases for the past few decades, and quotes from both TM salesmen and specially selected consumers of their product.

The title, “Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?” is one of those leading questions that snake-oil salesmen love, since they can then respond with the answer they’ve already prepared. In fact, that’s the strategy of the TM sales pitch for decades, as founding TM salesman Maharishi Mahesh Yogi once stated during a TM teacher training course: “Every question is a perfect opportunity for the answer we have already prepared.” The New York Times has set the stage, creating a vacuum into which the following stage-managed presentation perfectly fits. A better title might have been, “Vedic theocrats claim introductory technique of their faith curbs heart attacks.” It would have from the beginning clarified who’s making the claim, and the nature of the organization that’s making the claim. Unfortunately my expectations of New York Times reporters aren’t likely to be fulfilled in my lifetime; this is a sad benchmark of how poor the reporting is in one of the nation’s leading newspapers today.

But wait, there’s more! Featured at the top of this slightly rewritten press release masquerading as a New York Times story is an account of a 70 year old woman with high blood pressure who meditates. Clearly, meditating isn’t the only thing she’s been doing about her high blood pressure. See, it says so right there in the article:

Could the mental relaxation have real physiological benefits? For Mrs. Banks, the study suggests, it may have. She has gotten her blood pressure under control, though she still takes medication for it…

I think the cause of her blood pressure being under control is rather obvious, and it isn’t the practice of TM. But that didn’t stop the TM salesmen from putting one over on this reporter, claiming that instead of the scientifically proven benefits of those nasty nasty “pills” from “allopathic” doctors (the words that some TM devotees use for scientifically-validated medications and medicine), the magic words in somebody’s head were the real cause of their lowered blood pressure. The best they can come up with, as a clear statement of TM’s efficacy, is “could have;” those of us familiar with the ineffectiveness of the whole “health” regimen sold by the Transcendental Meditation organization would say, “probably not.” The rest is just a tornado of blowing smoke, leaving the reader with an illusion that TM is proven to be something of value when the evidence, after decades of trying, is just not there.

Mentioned nowhere in this story is a connection, obvious to knowledgeable observers, that takes the sheen off this glowing report alleging TM effectiveness: the lead researcher, and the primary person quoted in this article, works for the same organization that sells the TM program. The reader can certainly tease it out if so motivated, since the researcher, Robert Schneider, is a medical doctor who’s identified as a director of a “research institute” based at Maharishi Institute of Management. But not everybody knows that “Maharishi” is the founder of the organization that sells the TM program, and that should have been made clear to readers. Also evident is another of the TM movement’s habits, of giving grandiose institutional names to various elements of TM promotions and assigning “directors” to them. While its name may create the impression that the “Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention” is a large imposing white-columned building full of top-notch scientists working on the latest cutting-edge discoveries in their fields, the fact is that this “Institute” is probably just Schneider and a few associates, and the only means of “prevention” they’re researching, or even the least bit interested in, are those things that are part of the faith-based, allegedly “Vedic” stable of “Maharishi” branded products and services.

Meanwhile, as the TM organization, with yet another uncritical promotional piece successfully placed with a prominent newspaper, makes another mark on its proverbial bedpost, there’s the reality of what the less-obvious structure of this organization is up to. But here, the story is nowhere near as simple to tell. It’s full of websites and e-mails full of language that makes the eyes of most readers glaze over; a lot of it is completely incomprehensible. Perhaps, then, a little explanation of what I think is happening here, and what the organization can be likened to, is in order, which can be summarized in a few sentences:

The Transcendental Meditation organization is a millenarian movement. That is, the main core belief of the organization centers on its particular concept of a future transformation of society and the planet.

While many people automatically assume that such movements center around Christian concepts of the “end-times” or similar ideas, movements based on other theologies, and other scriptural works, also exist. I would suggest that the underlying notion of massive social change put forward by the TM movement to various degrees in past decades finds a resonance, and a willing audience, in American culture because the idea of some future mass transformation is so common in religious culture here, and because of that, the idea is not automatically seen as strange or out-of-bounds.

The Transcendental Meditation organization is a Vedic revivalist religious movement. Similar to many other millenarian movements, it seeks to remake the world in its own image, based upon its contemporary interpretation of ancient scriptures. There is, of course, no previous thing to be “revived” since that is merely a myth of a glorious past; as with other such movements, the notion that all the movement is actually doing is putting things back to how they once were can be a motivator for some to work toward the movement’s goals.

The organization works toward transforming all aspects of society so that society reflects its values, language, symbols and rituals. The TM movement thus has always had various subgroups seeking to gain entry into various fields; the “Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention” I pointed out above is one such subgroup focusing on medicine. It has, through other small front groups, focused on other areas such as law, athletics, education, psychology and neuroscience, and of course it once sought direct involvement in government through its establishment of Natural Law Parties in a number of Western countries.

Perhaps the most audacious, or ridiculous, example of how the TM movement today is clearly a millenarian Vedic revivalist movement is its proposal that all existing cities be torn down and reconstructed to its proprietary designs based upon its version of Vedic architectural standards. Yes, it’s true, they want to tranform the world so much that, given the opportunity, they’d probably bulldoze your house.

The Transcendental Meditation program is the point of first contact between this millenarian religious movement and the outside world, serving to recruit individuals to perpetuate the movement. Of course, if you were to walk up to someone and invite them to join a movement based on scriptures from some other part of the world, in a dead language that is certainly not their own, and that you wanted them to help take over and reconstruct everything, there would be very few takers. Instead, Transcendental Meditation is the means by which recruits are eventually introduced to all those things, and also, how the organization attempts to gain legitimacy in the surrounding culture. It is a product with a certain amount of value and utility in Western culture – that is, if the claims made for its benefits could be shown to be based upon something a bit more substantial than “the relaxation response” and the placebo effect.

The process by which an initiate learns TM includes some references to those religious and millenarian sorts of things, but they’re couched in different terms. The Vedas are mentioned in passing as some vague source of where the knowledge of meditation came from, and the tradition in which TM’s founder learned about meditation. The idea of a greater movement is introduced through references to “world peace” that, according to the movement, would result if only enough people meditated. Who could be against a movement that’s working toward world peace? But that’s merely a vehicle to eventually introduce the more esoteric parts of the TM belief system that certainly aren’t going to be mentioned to a reporter writing about the alleged personal benefits of the movement’s flagship product.

Because of this clear separation between inner and outer doctrine, any one person who starts the TM program may never come face-to-face with the weirdness and religiosity of the organization’s belief system. Depending on how and where any one individual is initiated, and the degree to which they become involved in any of the other programs offered – advanced lectures, residence courses, and the like – such details may simply slip by in the torrent of information included in the process of learning TM. While many who learn TM may never have any further involvement with the organization, a few people will devote a significant portion of their lives to it, and it is those people on whom the movement will rely to perpetuate itself.

The TM movement, like many other movements of its kind, has always piggybacked on other trends in popular culture to legitimize and promote itself, most famously through its association with the Beatles. Today, that piggybacking continues in other ways, as with the example above where TM is styled as some kind of “alternative” offering in the healthcare field. Other contemporary attempts by the organization include the repositioning of its university as a center for learning in the fields of sustainable living, organic agriculture, and renewable energy. Again, the clearly religious and devotional aspects that are easily findable by various means on the Internet, and have long been discussed by those previously involved, are kept in the background if they are generally visible at all.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the e-mail that John Knapp posted here earlier today. I’ve extracted one paragraph, and bolded and italicized some parts of it in the light of the points I’ve just discussed.

The spiritual counterpart for your country lies in India. Each country is connected to one of the twelve jyotir lingas in India, the seat of Shiva, the eternal silence at the basis of creation. Reviving the age-old knowledge about the spiritual connection of every country with the Jyotirlingas in India and the creation of 48 Brahmananda Saraswati Nagars is Maharishi¹s greatest gift for humanity. The following website gives you more information about Maharishi’s global plan to transform every country into a Vedic country:

So there it is in their own words: “Reviving the age-old knowledge” as part of a “global plan to transform every country into a Vedic country.” The TM organization is a millenarian religious cult, and that’s just from taking their own words at face value. There’s this whole other world in the organization that teaches TM, and it’s probably not anything like most people who read one of these recent newspaper articles about TM might expect.

A young Maharishi Mahesh Yogi posing with an unidentified Shiva lingam. Photo from

Perhaps the weirdest part of this, to Western sensibilities, are the references to “jyotir lingas.” I’d written last year in some detail about how the movement’s fascination with such lingas was involved in a since-abandoned project to immediately build “Maharishi Towers of Invincibility” around the world, including one in the Washington DC area. Simply put, a lingam is a symbol for the worship of the Hindu deity Shiva; the Jyotir linga are 12 temples in India where Shiva is worshipped. While the TM organization attempts to ascribe a scientific motivation for these references to deities, there is no way that a lingam, and the references to the Jyotir linga, can be taken in anything other than a religious context. In recent years an image of a lingam has been broadcast between programs on the Maharishi Channel, the movement’s worldwide television channel.

Taken together, these references to religious symbols and places of worship, and the announced intent of the TM organization to “transform every country into a Vedic country” clearly indicate that what is being proposed is some kind of theocracy, where every aspect of life is lived in accordance to a particular interpretation of Vedic scripture. While some may assume that the movement’s previous methods of getting as many people as possible to meditate would cause some kind of spontaneous transformation of society into one conforming to Vedic standards, the means or the specifics are quite irrelevant.

What I want to know is, why is an organization that clearly and ultimately wants to bring the entire planet into compliance with its religious beliefs getting free and unquestioning promotional assistance from the New York Times and all sorts of other media outlets?

Here’s what I want to see. I want to see some enterprising reporter out there go do some digging, spending a little time and energy getting fluent in the subject, and eventually writing about how all those people you thought were laid-back former hippies now want to bulldoze the planet and remake every aspect of it conform to their crazy ideas, based on scriptures and beliefs which are clearly religious in nature.

Anything would be better than yet another rehash in print of the same old claims that the movement’s been trying to make stick for over three decades now.

baltimore sun selfserviceadvertising-1-DassDIY234This is fascinating. The Baltimore Sun now allows anyone to advertise on their website. And it’s absolutely free!

All you need to do is insert your ad in any comment thread, and it’ll stay there forever.

Every single story I’ve read on their website over the past week or so has at least one ad in the comments promoting a Chinese website selling dubious brand-name clothing, handbags and shoes. In many cases there are no other comments!

Is it still “spam” when the site’s management is doing absolutely nothing to squelch this use of their website? The only thing I can gather from their inaction is that it must be okay.

If they act like the value of space on their website is so low that they let it fill up with crap (whether that be the comments or the spam), why should anyone spend money to advertise on it?

EDIT: It’s gone, but this is the first time I’ve noticed anyone cleaning up.

In a comment thread over at the TM-Free Blog, where I’m a contributor, a reader recently quoted Sam Harris, from his book, “The End of Faith:”

“A nuclear war between India and Pakistan seems almost inevitable, given what most Indians and Pakistanis believe about the afterlife.”

Quite possibly the scariest thing I have ever read.

That’s because Harris wants you to be scared. It sells his books.

The problem I have with Harris is certainly not his atheism (which I share). The problem is that he can write most of a book that I would otherwise largely agree with, and then come along and play the American exceptionalist game, which is just a slightly modified rehash of imperialistic, colonial rhetoric in which those brown savages elsewhere on the planet must be tamed and placed under an appropriate boot heel. He used similar tactics in the one book of his that I read, “Letter to a Christian Nation.”

Equating the governments of India and Pakistan with rioting mobs there is part of the slight-of-hand Harris uses. I find it disgusting.

Worse, Harris ignores the plain fact that his own country, the United States, has done very much the same thing, if not much worse given the comparative scale: armed itself with nuclear weapons enough to wipe out the planet several times over, in an “arms race” and “cold war” with the Soviets that in the end was rather pointless as it became a race to see whose system would be bankrupted first. With all those decades filled with militant rhetoric, “mutually assured destruction” and incidents like the Cuban missile crisis (how well is that history taught to young people today?), nuclear war was not inevitable as we’re still able to sit here and talk about it.

He also ignores the obvious, that for eight years the U.S. President was largely beholden to religious interests, largely of the Pentecostal signs and wonders and prophecy variety, while controlling some thousands of nuclear weapons that could have been accurately delivered on a few minutes’ notice. A portion of that arsenal still exists and is still very much active, and the same is true of that of the former Soviet Union.

For all the rhetoric and hardware, in reality the “inevitability” of nuclear war is not as great as Harris would like us to believe, regardless of the religiosity of those in power, perhaps because the tendency toward suicidal action is really not that great. The big problem, as I see it, is the slow grinding away at knowledge and education by the actions of religious groups over time, which is a process that’s well under way here in the United States. Harris would do better to address that immediate problem rather than manufacture and/or exaggerate external threats to the U.S. in the same way religious factions regularly do here. He should also be wary of always taking the statements of those he considers adversaries at face value.

There are some days when I think it should be obvious, that the whole subject of “meditation” has been pretty much exhausted and is now entirely the realm of quacks and snake-oil salesmen. But, to continue the theme of worthless corporate media that I was working with in the last post here, “meditation” is one of those background puff-piece staples of the media, kind of like how every single PETA stunt or press release will get prominent reporting all over, no matter how gross, nonsensical or just plain stupid.

“Meditation,” of course, could mean almost anything. In a lot of cases, I think it’s just a means by which people get permission to take a break from all the things they think are more important in their lives, if only just to take a short nap, or even close their eyes for a bit.

Certainly “Transcendental Meditation®,” the form of meditation I’m personally most familiar with, sometimes seems to be nothing more than a means by which an exotic authority figure plays the role of cosmic daddy and tells his charges to go take a nap twice a day. It might not be just a nap, with all the fabricated exotica of mantras and mental states and all the rest of that baggage. But it seems to me that somewhere around the core of what TM is about is both the exercise of that kind of authority, and the narcissism of the meditator, who often believes that whatever they’re doing makes them healthy, pure and special. With that narcissistic specialness, and the mystique that meditation still seems to carry in Western culture, comes the need to inappropriately proselytize and advertise whatever they’re doing between their ears to the outside world.

Tonight someone tried to post a comment on my previous blog entry. As you can see, I’d made no mention of meditation, breathing exercises, blood pressure, or any of those topics; it was about as far away from that as I could get. The last time I wrote about meditation here was last May! But that didn’t stop the commenter from attempting to post the entirety of a recent New York Times article to the comment thread, without a link to the source. The article, “Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?” is the latest in a very long string of promotional pieces that have appeared in the Western press over the last few decades. The subject, as usual, is a research study or two that supposedly supports the claim that Transcendental Meditation® provides unique benefits.

The problem with these claims is that these research studies inevitably involve individuals from the TM movement’s university, the Maharishi University of Management. Every time I see one of these stories go by, I’m reminded of what a TM movement lawyer, Stephen Druker, once told me in person thirty years ago:

We want to make sure that they’re going to protect the integrity of our subjects, because one’s in a very delicate state when one is practicing these. And also that they’ve designed the experiment so that they won’t disturb the meditative state and test something other than what they’re supposed to test. But once the experiment is designed properly, we’re all for as we’ve been for every other phase of the TM program, extensive scientific research.

The research he was talking about at the time was on the TM movement’s claims that they were teaching a method by which people could levitate at will, but what he said, I think, applies to all research in which the TM organization is involved. What does “test something other than what they’re supposed to test” actually mean in practice? I take it to mean that researchers aren’t allowed to design a study that might in the end cast TM in a negative light, or that might even show that TM isn’t everything its promoters say it is.

This particular New York Times article, which unlike a lot of articles on the subject does point out that the researcher quoted in the article is associated with the Maharishi University of Management, still avoids pointing out the obvious: the researcher is a promoter of the very product he’s researching! He himself has been a  meditator for almost two decades, probably three! He is not in any way an objective observer! Here he can be seen in the TM movement’s trademarked beige suit, sporting  the TM movement’s trademarked male-pattern-baldness haircut!

So with that in mind, and understanding that when I see reference to yet another fine batch of in-house TM research in the press, I know I’m looking at a form of spam; spam that’s getting reported all over because the average reporter seems incapable of digging up the obvious fact that the TM organization has been trying to make these sorts of claims stick since the early 1970′s. The claims don’t stick because whatever effect they’re claiming exists is down in the noise, and all the studies claiming such effects almost always involve long-term TM devotees, some of whom have likewise been banging their heads against this wall since the early 1970′s.

So, let’s see. I’m looking at an attempted comment which is clearly, technically, a copyright violation, the full text, beginning to end, of a NYT article; the commenter couldn’t be bothered to simply excerpt the story and provide a link; it’s a comment that’s completely off-topic relative to the entry it’s attached to; and the content is yet another article I’ve seen a hundred times or more. If the commenter thought it was so important that I see yet another instance of the TM organization successfully spamming the media PETA-style, they could have e-mailed me. My e-mail address is in the obvious place if you really have the burning need to serenade me with more of the same-old, same-old.

What’s this? The commenter has signed it with a valid name and e-mail address, so off to Google we go, where I find a reference to the commenter, identified as a “retired VP of Microsoft.” The sender’s IP maps to Bellevue, Washington. I do believe we have a match.

I normally don’t reply to such attempts, but tonight was an exception.

Subject: Re: [Mike Doughney] Please moderate: "WTOP Radio's drinking out of the toilet bowl again"
Date: Sun, 22 Nov 2009 22:22:38 -0500
From: Mike Doughney

Somehow I would have thought a retired VP of Microsoft would know better
than to try to post off-topic spam to a blog comment thread. Then again,
maybe that explains a lot about the state of the web today. Then again,
maybe TM just helps you lose your mind. In any case, your submission is
being ignored.

WordPress wrote:
> A new comment on the post #206 "WTOP Radio's drinking out of the toilet bowl again" is waiting for your approval
> Author : Min Yee (IP: ,
> E-mail :
> URL : http://none
> Whois :
> Comment:
> NOVEMBER 20, 2009, 12:47 PM
> Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?
> Richard Patterson for The New York Times Recent research suggests transcendental meditation may be good for the heart.
> When Julia Banks was almost 70, she took up transcendental meditation. She had clogged arteries, high blood pressure and too much weight around the middle, and she enrolled in a clinical trial testing the benefits of meditation.

Seconds later, I get a reply:

Subject: Re: [Mike Doughney] Please moderate: "WTOP Radio's drinking out of the toilet bowl again"
Date: Sun, 22 Nov 2009 19:28:57 -0800
From: Min Yee
To: Mike Doughney

I've not done TM but yoga breathing techniques have helped.
And it has brought down my high blood pressures.
Anyways, its your website.



No mention of having spammed, no attempt at an apology, no nothing other than “Look at me! I do breathing exercises and my blood pressure went down! Ain’t I special! I don’t even do TM!”

So I hope you’ll cut me a little slack if my frequent dismissal of all things related to “meditation” gets under your skin. Incidents like this just reinforce my impression that meditation tends to be the realm of the clueless and socially inept. Even among former vice-presidents at Microsoft. Maybe that explains Windows Vista. Or not.

This past Saturday afternoon I was reminded again why I haven’t been listening to this station for a while.

For the past year I’ve actively avoided listening to this station; for those of you who aren’t Washington DC locals, it’s the all-news station. I finally stopped listening almost completely about a year ago, after the voter passage of Proposition 8 in California, which amended the state constitution to eliminate all possibility of the recognition of same-sex marriage there.

The Mormon Church openly supported this amendment to the California Constitution by sending a letter supporting the measure to be read before all church congregations. The Church also owns WTOP as well as other broadcast stations. It is one of the ways in which it seeks to legitimize its role in local communities; by owning prominent media outlets, the Church benefits by avoiding the appearance of insularity, or as I’ve once heard it put, of appearing to be “the great American religious cult.”

But it wasn’t just this one episode of the Mormon Church, the station’s owners, issuing political dicta that caused me to avoid listening to this station. Time after time, all of the stories I’d hear I’d already read online earlier that day. There was also this “national security correspondent” I’d hear from time to time, who could always be counted on to faithfully regurgitate the paranoid imaginings of the American insecurity of the day. There’s also the fact that this station runs the rants of Cal Thomas, a prominent evangelical wingnut, during morning drive time every weekday. Thomas is usually heard on stations like this one, not on major-market secular all-news stations, and one of his other roles is as a fill-in host on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News program.

All I really used WTOP for was traffic reports, and now I have two other options – looking at Google Maps before I leave the house, or satellite radio, through which I wouldn’t even have to wait as long for the next report.

So for the past year my total listening time to WTOP Radio probably totals less than an hour, during times when it just couldn’t be avoided. Yesterday I was out running errands and it was one of those times, when I’d had to remove the satellite radio from the car I was using. I punched up the button for WTOP on two occasions an hour or two apart. Keeping in mind that I’m working from memory, here’s what I heard.

The first time I heard a reporter going on at length about “Iran’s nuclear weapons program.” Not Iran’s alleged or suspected nuclear weapons program, which is the way this subject is generally reported, even in the Associated Press stories on WTOP’s own website. No, the existence of this alleged “nuclear weapons program,” in the context of an imminent threat that might justify bombing Iran, was reported as undisputed fact.

The second time I heard a teaser that went something like this: “Coming up next, John McCain says political correctness is to blame for the massacre at Fort Hood. WTOP news time…”

Who the hell cares what John McCain has to say, particularly when it’s a matter of trying to come up with a rationale for mass murder. Is that a subject on which he’s some kind of knowledgeable authority?

The fact of the matter is that, if I turn on this station for just a few minutes of the day and I find that most of what I’m hearing has basically zero value, I’m not going to listen.

Anyone can play stenographer, finding somebody somewhere that said some thing and putting it on the air as if it’s fact. I expect something better. I don’t need “journalists” to carefully assemble two equal piles of opposing views and call them equal, when clearly one is a pile of shit (generally, lies and propaganda that defend the indefensible) and the other is not.  I can do without the nonsense and the inside-the-beltway militaristic spin.

I’ll be sure to put the satellite radio back in my car soon.