Long Read: Is Transcendental Meditation All It’s Cracked Up to Be?
Transcendental Meditation promises life-changing effects for its followers. Or is it just another cultish cash grab?
April 4, 2018
Here comes the midday slump, crashing down like an elephant on my eyelids. It’s late November, the sun is setting and I’ve been hunched over my computer since dawn. Espresso-break time? No, I yawn. I’d better do my second daily meditation.
It’s been two weeks since I finished a four-day, eight-hour course in Transcendental Meditation at the new Vancouver centre, and I’m not sure if it’s working out for me. Sure, the method is easy. I’m feeling more calm and alert during the day. At night, I sleep like a baby. But the meditation itself is not relaxing. It’s actually physically uncomfortable. During the 20-minute sessions, my head always feels like it’s being crushed by G-force or squeezed in a vise. I’ve also experienced stomachaches and foot cramps. More than once, I burst into tears. My teacher says I’m clearing years of accumulated stress, but I think it has more to do with my fear of getting sucked into a cult, as this controversial movement has often been described by professional deprogrammers.
So it is with a weary sense of duty that I drag my butt into the bedroom and sit down cross-legged on a cushion. I set my timer, close my eyes, take a few deep breaths and begin reciting my secret mantra in silence. As usual, my head feels heavy right away. Then, suddenly, without warning, I slip into an altered state and start sinking underwater.
when I arrived at the new Vancouver TM Centre at Yukon and West 8th for one of the twice-weekly introductory talks, the first step in the $1,310 course that would allegedly set me on a lifetime path of “unbounded inner bliss” and “infinite human potential.” So yes, I had been warned.
The main-floor office in a low-rise strata building has the soothing look of a modern yoga studio or a medical spa. A tasteful lobby is painted in matte marigold and light teal. Laminate flooring is whitewashed grey. The only obvious vestiges of the group’s flower power heyday are a small vase of wilting carnations and, farther inside, a life-sized mural of the late founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, smiling serenely in a flowing white robe.
TM has been practised in Vancouver since about 1968, around the same time the Beatles got hip to the natural high and Life magazine declared it “the Year of the Guru.” As of 2004, the last time the local database was updated, more than 20,000 people had been initiated. But the B.C. chapter has always been a loose-knit organization led by volunteer committees with classes held in private homes. It wasn’t until February of last year, when the donor base finally caught up with real estate prices, that this permanent facility opened.
Sipping from a china cup of Ayurvedic lemongrass tea, I sit back to watch a video from the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. “Sorrow, anxiety, traumatic stress, depression, hate, anger, rage, fear start to lift away. Life just gets better and better and better,” says the acclaimed film director, a TM practitioner since 1973 and the movement’s new public ambassador. With a lot of fundraising help from Lynch’s celebrity friends, his New York–based foundation offers the training free of charge to veterans, homeless people, prisoners and troubled students around the globe.
The technique is apparently effortless. “It is the only time I have that stillness long enough that I open my eyes and I am sad that it’s 20 minutes later,” television host Ellen DeGeneres explains in the video.
The results sound mind-blowing. “I found that there is an ever-present sanctuary within me,” exclaims the bombastic British comedian Russell Brand, one of the least likely poster boys for inner calm.
Health. Happiness. Focus. Balance. Creativity. Productivity. All this—and much, much more—can be mine by merely sitting quietly and saying a mantra to myself for 20 minutes, twice a day.
Flashback alert: the TM-trademarked promises of cosmic enlightenment are still as bizarre as they were in the late-’70s, when the Maharishi floated his “scientific” version of Hindu spirituality into the supernatural realm and started preaching the possibility of world peace through levitation, or “yogic flying.” In the early 1990s, the increasingly reclusive (and suspect) giggling guru moved to a former Franciscan monastery in the Netherlands and created his own nation, the so-called Global Country of World Peace, a closely guarded fiefdom replete with its own laws, currency (the raam) and ministerial government.
The Maharishi died in 2008, leaving behind an estate worth an estimated $300 million (U.S.). He was survived by four nephews, who inherited 12,000 acres of land in India, and Tony Nader, a Lebanese neuroscientist whom he had anointed as his successor in the movement.
But now TM is creeping back into vogue. It’s not just for weird old hippies anymore. The revitalized movement has been groomed, glossed and tapered at the ankles to entice the next generation of fashionable devotees. “It’s pretty charming to see a very well-dressed, anxious Jewish woman take a moment at her country club to say she needs to meditate,” Girls creator Lena Dunham told the Huffington Post. She’s been practising TM since she was nine.
Today, TM is marketed as a quick-fix supplement for a healthy mental-hygiene regimen—as conventional as doing yoga or getting a proper night’s sleep, but without all the deeper spiritual work and complex philosophical inquiry required by more traditional forms of meditation. Who has time to pursue wisdom and ponder ethical conduct these days? On the TM path to enlightenment, it is said that these things just come naturally.
The image makeover has been working. In the three years following the Maharishi’s death, U.S. enrolment tripled. In the last couple of years, there has been a bullish run from Wall Street, accounting for more than half of the new converts in New York. Inspired by glowing endorsements from a handful of A-list hedge fund managers, including Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, and cameos on the Showtime series Billions, Type A traders are investing in enlightenment to gain a competitive edge.
This isn’t a testimonial from a dreamy-eyed actor or a Wall Street wolf. They’re the words of the late Vancouverite Bing Thom, one of Canada’s most celebrated architects. Thom, who died of a brain aneurysm in October 2016 at the age of 75, wasn’t a starchitect who built colossal monuments to his ego. Calm, unassuming, always smiling, he was a passionate city builder who designed respectful, site-specific cultural landmarks (Surrey Central City, Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong) that transformed the communities around them. Although he never schmoozed or did the power-lunch thing, he was exceptionally adept at crafting consensus among politicians, neighbourhood groups and huge networks of diverse stakeholders. He was an activist who believed in the common good and was fearless about speaking his mind—whether ringing the early alarm bells about Vancouver’s empty condos or shaming the “godawful” Canada Pavilion built (by Chicago-based Giltspur Exhibits) for the 2010 Olympics.
This hero of mine was also a hard-core meditator who attributed his creativity and success to TM. He discovered it in the late 1960s, when he was 25, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and quickly working his way to a nervous breakdown. For nearly 50 years, he meditated twice a day, every day (for 90-minute sessions in his later life), went on a week-long retreat without fail every summer, and offered to pay half the substantial course fee for any employee who wished to take it (about 25 percent did). “When people come to my buildings, they say, ‘It feels so comfortable, so relaxing,’” he explains in a video interview posted on his firm’s website. “Well, I create meditative spaces. I don’t do that willingly. I don’t do that consciously. It just comes…That is the magic of meditation.”
I was intrigued from the moment I heard Thom say, in another interview eight years ago, that he could meditate for up to seven hours on a plane and not feel jet-lagged. But once I began investigating TM, I had trouble reconciling someone so seemingly grounded and sensible with a secretive hierarchy run from a baroque fortress in the Netherlands by rich rajas who pay $1 million for their exalted ranks and golden cardboard crowns. Unfortunately, Thom passed away before I had a chance to interview him. But if he believed in it so devoutly, well, maybe there is something to it.
a documentary filmmaker and certified TM teacher since 1993. She seems awfully normal—and well put together in fashionable slim-fit jeans, a fine-wool sweater and chunky jewellery—for someone who spent years living in an ashram-like spiritual community. I have brought, as requested, two pieces of sweet fruit (a pear and an apple), five fresh flowers (pink tulips) and a new white napkin.
We retreat to a small, dimly lit meditation room decorated with a shag rug and two armchairs facing the wall. I fill out an interview form that asks about my age, marital status, education, psychiatric history, current state of mind and past experiences with hallucinogenic drugs. (New initiates are asked to refrain from taking non-prescription drugs for two weeks prior.)
I provide three post-dated cheques made out to the Global Country of World Peace. As a journalist, I have been offered the half-price student rate of just under $700. TM is awfully expensive when compared with assorted Buddhist groups in Vancouver, which offer meditation classes for nominal fees of anywhere from free to $50. Then again, if you’re treating TM as part of your compartmentalized health regimen rather than a spiritual pursuit, a lifelong membership is comparable to a 12-month pass at YYoga.
The interview is followed by a short ceremony, which I have promised not to write about. All I will say is that it involves incense, flowers, candles and chanting, and it’s conducted by Badgely. I am asked to merely observe. I am not uncomfortable with the ceremony. It’s no worse than the faux spirituality scrawled across Lululemon shopping bags. But when it comes time for Badgely to give me a personal mantra (which I mustn’t share with anyone), I have questions.
What does the mantra mean? “It means nothing,” she says. How is it spelled? “It doesn’t matter.” Why was this mantra chosen for me? “That’s a very good question, but you’ll have to go to teacher training to learn that information.”
The thing is, I’m a journalist. Google is my best friend. And when I look up my mantra later that night, I realize that it is a Sanskrit word (not exactly meaningless), and it’s the same one given to every female initiate in my age group. Although I’m disappointed to learn that the mantra hasn’t been tailored to my individual needs as advertised, I’m beginning to understand the Maharishi’s savvy business model.
For the next three nights, I am joined by two other students: a young mother who has been having undisclosed health problems and a middle-aged saleswoman whose mother recently passed away. At the beginning of each class, we discuss our experiences, followed by a meditation, a lecture about the TM technique and/or philosophy, and a short video of Maharishi from the archives. (I can barely understand a word he says, but I love the kitschy Day-Glo settings and heaps of flowers that always surround him.)
The TM mantra method is indeed easy to learn. Amy Schumer calls it “the laziest.” It’s certainly easier than mindfulness, which comes from the ancient Buddhist tradition of Vipassana and has been popularized in the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Mindfulness, often referred to as open monitoring, requires focused attention on your breathing or various body sensations (the soles of feet while walking, for example) in order to be more aware in the present moment. What stops many would-be practitioners in their tracks is the (often misconstrued) notion that you must clear the mind of everything else. How can one possibly stop thinking? Whenever I have tried to learn mindfulness meditation (through audiobooks and in yoga classes, granted), it has always felt like a frustrating game of whack-a-mole as I try to stomp out all those pesky thoughts that keep popping up again and again.
In TM, we are taught that the mind will wander and that thoughts will come and go. Don’t beat yourself up for doing what comes naturally. Just go back to repeating the mantra when you remember, using it as a vehicle to settle the mind and, ultimately, to transcend thought. To help understand the process, we are told to imagine the cross-section of an ocean. The choppy waves on the surface are the active mind, the part that says “gotta to do this, gotta do that, don’t forget to feed the cat.” But below the surface, there is a calm, quiet, wide-awake field within each and every person. By repeating the mantra, we keep the mind active (you can’t fight the waves) while simultaneously diving down and dipping into this peaceful place, where we experience a state of rest even deeper than sleep. Every time we bob to the surface—both during meditation and outside of meditation in our normal, everyday life—we are bringing a little bit more of this relaxed state of being with us.
The ocean analogy is a helpful visualization, even if you don’t believe (which I don’t) that we are accessing the field of Being, also known in TM-speak as pure consciousness, the source of creative intelligence, the home of all knowledge and the light of God present within. That said, it would be just as easy (and much more affordable) to pick up a copy of The Relaxation Response. This 1975 book was written by Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician who studied TM, concluded that the same benefits could be acquired from 10 minutes of practice a day (with any old mantra), and packaged the basic technique in nine simple steps.
I suppose the TM classroom setting and small-group coaching is valuable for establishing a regular routine, which is probably the hardest part of meditation. “If you stop practising, you lose the benefits. You have to continue. That’s what Bing always told me,” says Venelin Kokalov. The new principal-in-charge at the former Bing Thom Architects—now Revery Architecture—began practising TM six years ago, encouraged by his mentor. “I was working 24 hours a day and I was super-stressed. I said, ‘Bing, I have a son. When am I going to find 20 minutes in the morning and the afternoon?’” Within two weeks of taking the course, Kokalov says he felt calmer, less anxious, more able to think clearly. He doesn’t treat it as seriously as Thom did. But when travelling for business, they would often meditate together, sometimes in lobbies and airports. “When they told me he was in the hospital, unconscious, I really thought he doing some sort of advanced meditation and would come back. At the end, he was doing really long meditations, up to three hours a day.”
I am, however, troubled by some of the TM teaching methods. When leading us into the group meditation, Badgely instructs us to open and close our eyes several times. “We don’t do that when we’re practising at home,” she says. Why not? “We just don’t.” What’s the point of having a teacher if she won’t answer our questions? Is it perhaps because this is a form of group hypnosis that discourages critical thinking and makes us more suggestible to some of the organization’s more exaggerated claims?
Let’s take the scientific “evidence” of TM’s unparalleled effectiveness, for example. The cornerstone of the TM sales pitch is the “proven” health benefits from “more than 380 peer-reviewed research studies…published in over 160 scientific journals.” The study most proudly trumpeted is a “scientific statement” by the American Heart Association in 2013, endorsing Transcendental Meditation as “the only meditation practice that has been shown to lower blood pressure (emphasis added).” This is a classic case of spin doctoring, implying that many benefits of meditation are unique to TM. If you actually read the journal article, the summary and clinical recommendations state far less effusively: “The overall evidence supports that TM modestly lowers blood pressure. It is not certain whether it is truly superior to other meditation techniques…because there are few head-to-head studies (emphasis added).”
Joe Szimhart, a U.S. mental health professional and specialist in cults who has helped many people come out of TM’s inner depths, says the group’s scientific propaganda is a manipulation technique used to justify the high cost, lure people back for more advanced (and expensive) courses and foster dependence. “The more time and energy you spend, the more benefits you reap—that’s what TM and a lot of these other controversial groups claim,” he explains by phone. “From my point of view, everything you’re going to get out of TM, you’re going to get in the first half hour. After that, it’s all layered-on business. And the deeper you get, the more dangerous it is,” he adds, noting that TM’s promise of enlightenment has been known to exacerbate existing psychological problems. “You’re not going to get the promise you’re not going to disappear and become a ‘pure being.’ Humans don’t levitate like angels.”
I return to the Vancouver TM Centre for the scheduled follow-up. We are told about additional courses and retreats, but it isn’t a hard sell. It’s not like the Landmark Forum, the favourite go-to life coaching system for Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, which really piles on the guilt and pressure tactics to recruit friends and family. Here, we are welcome to take what we’ve learned and come back as little or as much as we’d like. I honestly think the local organizers are good people who really believe in the technique and operate somewhat autonomously within the larger organization. Still, I’m uncomfortable with the guys in the gold caps over in the Netherlands and the students at the Maharishi University of Management in rural Iowa, who spend their days in the Golden Dome hopping cross-legged across rubber mattresses. We haven’t been told much about the weird stuff that occurs higher up in the organization. While most people who learn TM go on with their normal lives, advanced practitioners in the TM-Sidhi program are taught yogic flying, a seated bouncing motion, which, it is believed, will eventually progress to floating (levitation) and flying (like Superman). When yogic flying is practised by large groups in one place, it is said the so-called Maharishi Effect manifests in reduced crime, terrorism, war and—the ultimate end goal—world peace. That information comes later.
I’m even more uncomfortable—physically—during my final group meditation. “How was that?” Badgely asks, after we come up for air. Excruciating! It felt like a cement block dropped on my head. “Excellent,” she says. “You’re clearing something big.”
The next day at home, I sit down to meditate—and this time it’s very different. As usual, my head feels heavy right away. Then suddenly without warning, I feel like I’m falling. Wow, this is a new sensation. My dissociated body quickly regains equilibrium. I feel light, almost as if I’m floating underwater. No, it’s more like scuba diving in a glass capsule. Ambient noises take on a different dimension. I hear a car swooshing through the rain-pooled alley outside. The sound is muffled, yet amplified. In the next room, an email notification pings with the symphonic clarity of a percussive triangle. A ticking clock gets louder and louder, even though time appears to have stopped. Engulfed in happiness, I start laughing out loud.
Holy shit, I’m transcending! This is why the hippies loved TM. Or am I wigging out? Hmm. I decide to just let go and bob along in my blissful bubble. After the timer rings, I crawl into bed and pull up the covers, hoping to hang on to the warm, fuzzy euphoria while trying to make sense of it. I’ve had similar psychedelic experiences on ecstasy and magic mushrooms (and in the operating room), so I’m not totally freaked out. But this trip, whoa, it came without any chemical inducement. I haven’t even had a drop of wine for days. I have no idea what just happened. All I do know is that this story just got a whole lot more complicated to write.
My initial euphoria turns to panic the morning after. Am I really that suggestible? Did I drink the Kool-Aid? Was I talking to God? Am I losing my mind?
“You transcended,” says Mark McCooey, another local TM teacher, whom I call for advice. “It’s kind of woo-woo, but there is a sense while you’re in there, the bubble that you describe, that time doesn’t matter, deadlines don’t matter. There is a sense of inner richness or fullness that the outer world can’t dent.”
Most people, he continues, aren’t wide awake and aware of the experience, as I was, at least not at first. “The nice thing about TM, and what sets it apart from other meditations, is the ease of transcending…TM allows us to have that experience frequently enough that it starts to grow. The feeling starts to stick to you. It will become a steady friend.”
Huh. I’m not sure if I want this feeling as my friend. I don’t want to live in “Being.” I need to be functional. I don’t return to the TM Centre or transcend again, but in the weeks that follow, other strange things happen. Meditation becomes pleasant. No more headaches. I stop drinking alcohol almost entirely. I have a glass or two when I’m out on the weekend, but my typically robust appetite for wine, especially at the end of a long workday, vanishes into thin air. Poof. Gone. On the downside, I start smoking cigarettes again. (Only temporarily.) I don’t have any anxiety attacks, a mild condition from which I’ve suffered off and on for nearly 30 years. That said, I really should be far more anxious, considering that my writing speed—and livelihood—slows to a snail’s pace. (And I was already pretty slow in the first place.) I think I need an exit counsellor.
Szimhart helps me make sense of it all and offers some sage advice. These altered states of consciousness, or “ecstasies,” happen to a lot of people, in many places: on Catholic retreats, in Pentecostal meetings, during long yoga classes. In psychology, it’s called dissociation, a split from normal reality. “This ethereal dream world kicks in. Some people have visits from angels; others describe a feeling of oceanic oneness. They can be healing, temporarily at least. But some people don’t want to let that feeling go.”
He’s not worried about me. “Just let it float by. Don’t get too hung up on it. Don’t think that just because you had this great ecstasy that you’re any closer to pure being than your neighbour’s pet snake.”
Pet snake? “Yeah, a snake. Those creatures don’t have a discursive brain; they’re not there to question reality. A lot of the higher-level courses in these organizations claim they’re going to get you to your essence of being. There’s no core of self. There’s nothing happening there—unless you want to be a snake.”
I curl into a wooden pew in the choral loft above the stage at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at UBC. This is one of Thom’s most beautiful buildings, with its sinuous wooden walls and acoustic canopy of cables resembling an instrument. I have no desire to go back to the TM Centre, yet I can’t help feeling that a regular meditation practice is going to change my life in many profound ways. As the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra takes the stage, I reflect on something Thom once said, when comparing meditation to art. “Art is instantaneous,” he said. “It hits you right in the heart. It’s non-verbal. It’s just bang! And it leaves you with a certain sense of wonder.” The orchestra launches into Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. I close my eyes and begin to recite the mantra, letting the wave of soothing strings wash over me. A hot tear rolls down my cheek. This is ecstasy.
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