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Transcendental Meditation

The technique of Eastern meditation known as "Transcendental Meditation" (or "TM" for short) has attained such popularity in a few years, especially in America, and is advocated in such an outrageously flippant tone, that any serious student of contemporary religious currents will be inclined at first to dismiss it as merely an over-inflated product of American advertising and showmanship. But this would be a mistake, for in its serious claims it does not differ markedly from Yoga and Zen, and a close look at its techniques reveals it as perhaps more authentically "Eastern" than either of the somewhat artificial syncretisms, "Christian Yoga" and "Christian Zen."

According to one standard account of this movement, "Transcendental Meditation" was brought to America (where it has had its most spectacular success) by a rather "unorthodox" Indian Yogi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and began to grow noticeably about 1961. In 1967 it received widespread publicity when the popular singers known as the "Beatles" were converted to it and gave up drugs; but they soon abandoned the movement (although they continued to meditate), and the Maharishi hit his low point the next year when his American tour, together with another convert singing group called the "Beach Boys," was abandoned as a financial failure. The movement itself, however, continued to grow: By 1971 there were some 100,000 meditators following it, with 2000 specially-trained instructors, making it already by far the largest movement of "Eastern spirituality" in America. In 1975 the movement reached its peak, with about 40,000 trainees a month and upwards of 600,000 followers in all. During these years it was widely used in the Army, public schools, prisons, hospitals, and by church groups, including parishes of the Greek Archdiocese in America, as a supposedly neutral form of "mental therapy" which is compatible with any kind of religious belief or practice. The "TM course is one especially tailored to the American way of life and has been sympathetically called "a course in how to succeed spiritually without really trying"; the Maharishi himself calls it a technique which is "just like brushing your teeth." The Maharishi has been strongly criticized by other Hindu Yogis for cheapening the long tradition of Yoga in India by making this esoteric practice available to the masses for money (the charge in 1975 was $125 for the course, $65 for college students, and progressively less for high school, junior high school, and very young children).

In its aims, presuppositions, and results, "TM" does not differ markedly from "Christian Yoga" or "Christian Zen;" it differs from them chiefly in the simplicity of its techniques and of its whole philosophy, and in the ease with which its results are obtained. Like them, "TM does not require any belief, understanding, moral code, or even agreement with the ideas and philosophy"; it is a technique pure and simple, which "is based on the natural tendency of the mind to move toward greater happiness and pleasure... During transcendental meditation your mind is expected to follow whatever is most natural and most pleasant." "Transcendental meditation is a practice first and a theory afterwards. It is essential at the beginning that an individual does not think intellectually at all."

The technique which the Maharishi has devised is invariably the same at all "TM" centers throughout the world: After two introductory lectures, one pays the fee and then comes for "initiation," bringing with him a seemingly strange collection of articles, always the same: three pieces of sweet fruit, at least six fresh flowers, and a clean handkerchief. These are placed in a basket and taken to the small "initiation room," where they are placed on a table before a portrait of the Maharishi's guru, from whom he received his initiation into yoga; on the same table a candle and incense are burning. The disciple is alone in the room with his teacher, who is himself required to have received initiation and to have been instructed by the Maharishi personally. The ceremony before the portrait lasts for half an hour and is composed of soft singing in Sanscrit (with meaning unknown to the initiate) and a chanting of the names of past "masters" of Yoga; at the end of the ceremony the initiate is given a "mantra," a secret Sanscrit word which he is to repeat ceaselessly during meditation, and which no one is to know except his teacher. The English translation of this ceremony is never revealed to initiates; it is available only to teachers and initiators themselves. It is contained in an unpublished handbook called "The Holy Tradition," and its text has now been printed by the "Spiritual Counterfeits Project" in Berkeley as a separate pamphlet. This ceremony is nothing but a traditional Hindu ceremony of worship of the gods (puja), including the deified guru of the Maharishi (Shri Guru Dev) and the whole line of "masters" through which he himself received his initiation. The ceremony ends with a series of twenty-two "offerings" made to the Maharishi's guru, each ending with the words "To Shri Guru Dev I bow down." The initiator himself bows down before a portrait of Guru Dev at the end of the ceremony and invites the initiate to do likewise; only then is the latter initiated. (The bowing is not absolutely required of the initiate, but the offerings are.).

Thus the modern agnostic, usually quite unawares, has been introduced to the realm of Hindu religious practices; quite easily he has been made to do something to which his own Christian ancestors, perhaps, had preferred torture and cruel death: he has offered sacrifice to pagan gods. On the spiritual plane it may be this sin, rather than the psychic technique itself, that chiefly explains the spectacular success of "TM."

Once he has been initiated, the student of "TM" meditates twice daily for twenty minutes each time (precisely the same amount recommended by the author of Christian Yoga), letting the mind wander freely, and repeating the mantra as often as he thinks of it; frequently, one's experiences are checked by his teacher. Quite soon, even on the first attempt, one begins to enter a new level of consciousness, which is neither sleep nor wakefulness: the state of "transcendental meditation." "Transcendental meditation produces a state of consciousness unlike anything we've known before, and closest to that state of Zen developed after many years of intense study." "In contrast to the years that must be spent to master other religious disciplines and Yoga, which offer the same results that TM proponents claim, teachers say TM can be taught in a matter of minutes." Some who have experienced it describe it as a "state of fulfillment" similar to some drug experiences, but the Maharishi himself describes it in traditional Hindu terms: "This state lies beyond all seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting beyond all thinking and feeling. This state of the unmanifested, absolute, pure consciousness of Being is the ultimate state of life." "When an individual has developed the ability to bring this deep state to the conscious level on a permanent basis, he is said to have reached cosmic consciousness, the goal of all meditators." In the advanced stages of "TM" the basic Yoga positions are taught, but they are not necessary to the success of the basic technique; nor is any ascetic preparation required. Once one has attained the "transcendental state of being," all that is required of one is twenty minutes of meditation twice daily, since this form of meditation is not at all a separate way of life, as in India, but rather a discipline for those who lead an active life. The Maharishi's distinction lies in having brought this state of consciousness to everyone, not just a chosen few.

There are numerous success stories for "TM," which claims to be effective in almost all cases: drug habits are overcome, families are reunited, one becomes healthy and happy; the teachers of TM are constantly smiling, bubbling over with happiness. Generally, TM does not replace other religions, but strengthens belief in almost anything; "Christians," whether Protestant or Catholic, also find that it makes their belief and practice more meaningful and deeper.

The swift and easy success of "TM," while it is symptomatic of the waning influence of Christianity on contemporary mankind, has also led to its early decline. Perhaps more than any other movement of "Eastern spirituality," it has had the character of a "fad," and the Maharishi's announced aim to "initiate" the whole of humanity is evidently doomed to failure. After the peak year of 1975, enrollment in "TM" courses has steadily declined, so much so that in 1977 the organization announced the opening of a whole new series of "advanced" courses, obviously devised in order to regain public interest and enthusiasm. These courses are intended to lead initiates to the "siddhis" or "supernatural powers" of Hinduism: walking through walls, becoming invisible, levitating and flying through the air, and the like. The courses have generally been greeted with cynicism, even though a "TM" brochure features a photograph of a "levitating" meditator (see Time Magazine, August 8, 1977, P. 75). Whether or not the courses (which cost up to $3000) will produce the claimed results -which are in the province of the traditional "fakirs" of India "TM" itself stands revealed as a passing phase of the occult interest in the second half of the 20th century. Already many examples have been publicized of "TM" teachers and disciples alike who have been afflicted with the common maladies of those who dabble in the occult: mental and emotional illness, suicide, attempted murder, demonic possession.

In 1978 a United States Federal court came to the decision that "TM" is indeed religious in nature and may not be taught in public schools.* This decision will undoubtedly further limit the influence of "TM," which, however, will probably continue to exist as one of the many forms of meditation which many see as compatible with Christianity another sad sign of the times.

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