One of my teachers from the 1960's and 70's, just died. The brilliant and I think, misunderstood, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Although when someone like Maharishi makes their exit, it is more like they merge with the ocean of light. Free at last from having to run a huge multinational corporation!
I learned Transcendental Meditation in 1968, at the TM center in Westwood, right next to the UCLA campus (University of California Los Angeles). During my TM instruction, I noticed that my instructor, Beulah Smith, said almost nothing. At the beginning, she sat with me, asked a few questions and listened. Then she gave me a couple of sentences of instructions, then we closed our eyes. Every few minutes, we would open our eyes and she asked me what I was experiencing. Then she gave me one sentence of instruction, and we closed our eyes again. Over the next few days, I realized that TM just worked, reliably. It was a beautiful and elegant approach to the technique of meditating.
I had been around inept meditation instruction before – mainly my own. I had been playing around with meditation for half a year, in early 1968, and people sometimes asked me to share with them what I was up to. My guidance was probably terrible, as there is an art to teaching, and I had no clue. Several years later, in 1970, I was trained as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation, and learned a system of how to instruct people – I learned how to guide people in the way Beulah had guided me. It turns out that Maharishi had evolved a beautiful and elegant system for mass-production meditation instruction.
It turns out that TM is based on a series of brilliant observations about the nature of the mind and body.
One of these insights was that someone learning to meditate needs to know, in the first minute, how to deal with thoughts and distractions. If they do not get this instruction right then, they will start to develop bad habits that may persist for a lifetime. TM developed a system to unobtrusively give the right instruction during that first minute, and as needed during the next twenty minutes, then first few days. About half an hour of one-to-one instruction, then six hours of group instruction over the next three days. If a new meditator gets this, they have a good shot at becoming able to meditate every day and thrive.
The second observation is that you can only learn the skills of meditation while you are meditating, or in the few seconds before or after doing a technique. You can talk about technique all you want, but it does not carry over into the meditative state. You have to be there to learn.
The third observation is that meditation happens spontaneously. The body and mind want
to do it, and crave it as part of the natural rhythm of a day. If you know how, meditation can fit right in with your basic rhythm of life. In a 24-hour cycle, we are awake part of the time, then asleep, then dreaming. Meditation glides naturallly into that three-part rhythm, as a way of enhancing the transitions.
The fourth observation is that meditation is itself a rhythm, an alternation of activity and silence, a continual movement among levels of awareness.
TM teachers would not use the words I employ above – every word a TM teacher says is scripted. Memorized and scripted, and it's a good script. Deepak Chopra's books seem to be about 90% TM-speak. But TM contains all these insights, and more, in their system.
Put together, these observations make for a remarkably effective system of teaching meditation. One day in 1973 I was conducting a group meditation at the University of California at Irvine. The people in it had been meditating for a month to several years. At the break, a man came up to me and said,
“I started meditating a year ago and about half the people from my introductory course are here! I started TM with a group of 14 or 15 people, and I recognize 7 of them.”
I said, “Yeah.” I was feeling bad about the other 7 or 8 people who weren’t there.
“What do you think the follow-through rate is?” he asked.
“Maybe half, after a year. About half the people are still meditating every day,” I replied.
He said, “You are not getting what I am saying here. I’m an educator, I teach workshops, and having a 50% followthrough rate is unheard-of. If you are talking something you actually do every day, like meditate, the follow-through is perhaps 3% to 7%. With a lot of support, it might rise to 15%. But 50%? Nobody
has a 50% follow-through rate."
It is surprising that no one has "cloned" TM's technology here. It is quite replicable. No one seems to be paying attention to the real skills involved in learning to meditate.
To give an example. I often find myself in the position of doing group meditations with assorted people – some have no training, some have taken many meditation courses, some do yoga, others have taken Buddhist month-long meditations. Say there are 25 people in the group. There are almost always three or four who close their eyes and look like they are at the beach, relaxing in the sun. Those are the people who were initiated into TM – often 25 years ago. When they close their eyes, there is no sign of strain on their faces, they are just glowing with quiet bliss. I always make a point of talking to those people afterwards, to find out what previous experience they have with meditation, and so often, they were initiated into TM in the early 70's, did it for a year or two, but the foundation of the training is still there with them. The other people in the group tend to show various signs of "trying" to meditate. Furrowed brows as they sit there "trying" to block out thoughts. "Trying" to concentrate.
From a training standpoint, this is really significant – that Maharishi made it possible for millions of people worldwide to learn something about ease in meditation. And further, that the training is permanent, in the sense that even decades later, people are able to meditate with ease – just close their eyes and rest blissfully. The skills of TM are in the muscle memory, and when you get it, you just know how to meditate. Like knowing how to ride a bicycle. You never really forget, even if you don't do it for years.
I left the TM organization in 1975, because there was a war going on within the organization. During the middle 70's, robotic yet vicious cult members seized control of "The Movement" as we called it. Maharishi made it clear that he did not want any creativity in the organization. None. Only rote repetition. Memorize the script and stay on the message. "I want human gramophones," he said at a meeting in the middle 70's. (In case you don't know, a gramophone is the British term for phonograph – a record player.) Maharishi made his rationale for this very clear – he wanted the TM organization to be a living archive of his teachings, and keep it intact without any variation for centuries. He wanted someone to be able to walk into a TM center in the year 2208 and hear the exact same message that he had spent so much time developing.
An incident happened in 1975 that kind of says it all. I was then 25, and a somewhat "senior" TM teacher, having been an initiator since 1970, and I was giving the regular Wednesday evening introductory lecture at the center in Westwood. There were about two dozen people in the audience, and I arrived early, as always, and had chatted with everyone. Half the crowd, maybe 12 people, were already doing TM, and each was bringing one or two friends, who had already decided to learn TM. They weren't window-shopping, they were excited about starting. They were about the warmest audience I had ever seen.
So I gave a very breezy, fun lecture, in which I interacted with the audience a lot, answering their questions and putting everyone at ease. Afterwards all of the 12 people signed up to learn TM, because they had already decided to and I did not do anything to chase them away.
About 15 minutes after the lecture began, two young women walked in late, and sat in back. Over the course of the next half an hour, one of them became more and more restless, and started frowning. She was just scowling and trying to hit me with eye-lightning as she sat there simmering with what looked like rage and resentment. Finally at the end of the talk she raised her hand and screeched, "Aren't you going to TALK ABOUT THE SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH?" I said, "Well, no. We already discussed it briefly, before you got here." I glanced at the audience. They were DONE. They had gotten what they came for, were ready to make an appointment for personal instruction, and it would have been weird to start blathering on about physiology studies.
It turns out that the young woman had just come from being trained as a TM teacher, and Maharishi had emphasized
very strongly that in every
lecture, every TM teacher MUST
talk about the scientific
research on the physiology of meditation. So she filed a complaint against me, witnessed by her friend, that Lorin violated Maharishi's orders. And it was totally true, I had not followed the instructions that she
had been given. There was a little meeting of bureaucrats in the center. They were a little embarrassed about it – the role of being thought police was sort of new to everyone – but they went ahead and made their ruling, which I only found out about later.
A week later when I arrived to give the Wednesday night lecture, a young man stood in the door and blocked my entrance. "For the sake of the Purity of the Teaching, I am going to give the lecture tonight," he said. And that was that. It turns out that there was an entire wave of people who could screech, "Maharishi says . . . " and then give some mind-numbingly stupid directive. They won the war, and drove everyone else out of the movement. No one is to blame for this – it's just what an ashram is
. Resistance is futile.
There was a procedure they expected me to submit to – you were supposed to go before a board, and grovel, and be put on probation for a year, and sign documents pledging your obedience to the purity of the TM teaching. I knew, because friends had already submitted. I had no interest in all that, it did not resemble in any way the tone of my relationship with TM and Maharishi.
But the screechers were obeying Maharishi, who had made it very clear that everyone with an ounce of creativity should get OUT of his movement. He wanted ONLY people who would memorize the lines, march in step, and comply with each new directive. There was a mass exodus of most of the teachers like me – people who would give an evening lecture and then go dancing.
People have written books about this era of TM – how there were these petty tyrants running around, and every once in a while they would stop in front of you and say, "Maharishi says . . . " and then complete the sentence with something that gave them the power to abusive and dominate.
Most spiritual groups are less spiritual than your basic phone company – the pay is less, the stakes are higher, and the guru cannot ever be questioned, even in jest. There is no jest. Just ask anyone who has spent time in an ashram. The politics are amazingly vicious. Your immortal soul and your Enlightenment are at stake. All the TM teachers who were not interested in spending their lives playing dominance/submission games, left. The dominatrix types had a field day – Wow, an entire worldwide organization made up of people who, by staying, have agreed to be spanked!
Coincidentally, around that time, the middle to late 70's, the number of people starting TM in the United States dropped from thousands a month, to hundreds, then dozens. This was very strange because by that time, there were thousands of trained TM teachers in the US. So this meant that each TM teacher was not getting even one person to start, each year. And well over half a million people in the country had learned TM by then, so those people stopped bringing their friends to the TM centers to learn. Basically, people just stopped going to the TM centers to learn to meditate. And the TM "movement" did not seem to care. Their attention was on something else completely.
I think what may have happened is that Maharishi lost interest in teaching TM on a mass scale – "been there, done that," and got interested in running experiments in consciousness. Maharishi studied physics in college, and I think he wanted to run a huge "physics of consciousness" lab, with tens of thousands of volunteers. And to run those experiments, he needed to turn the TM movement into a kind of army, of people who march in step and are ruthless. They kind of people who if he says, "Jump" they jump. If he says, "I want a thousand people to go to Beirut, rent a couple of hotels, and practice levitation all day," they go.
Around 1977 or so, the TM movement embarked on a mass program to try to levitate. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
, there is a series of sutras that talk about super-powers
, the kind cartoon heros have: levitation, invisibility, the strength of an elephant, knowledge of previous incarnations, telepathy, and seeing the future. The whole focus of TM in the United States became to get all the teachers and all the half-million or more people who had learned TM, to go take expensive advanced courses and learn to levitate. Soon there were tens of thousands of Siddhas trying, but failing, to levitate, all across the United States and around the world.
A few years later, when Depak Chopra became Maharishi's heir-apparent, there was a brief revival of new people starting TM. Then Maharishi drove Deepak out of the movement.
I have no idea of what would be like to run a huge, multinational organization with thousands of bureaucrats devoted to "preserving the purity of the teaching" and levitating. As far as I was concerned, Maharishi had his own deep and ineffable reasons for running his movement his way. I only benefitted from knowing him. When I left the TM movement, my heart ached for years at the loss of the community. TM is so cult-like that all my best friends, people I had been meditating and teaching with for 5 years, totally shunned me from then on. I often have clients or students who have been in the Transcendental Meditation community, over the past 30 years, and there is such a sense of deep fear. Fear of life. Fear of being polluted by thoughts different than TM-think. Fear of being led astray from the "purity of the teaching." Fear of being shunned by the community.
I am very grateful that Maharishi made it so clear that he did not want people like me in his movement. I am loyal to a flaw – way too loyal – and he had asked, I would have stayed and put up with all the creepiness.
During the time of my TM teacher training, Maharishi was very available. We could just go over to his room and talk to him. A few of us would sit on the floor for hours, while he conducted meetings and ran the TM organization. He was incredibly funny and could turn on a dime. I was usually the youngest and least important person in the room – I was 20 when I met him – but on the few occasions I said something, Maharishi listened intently and instantly incorporated what I said into his approach to the meeting.
Anyway, thank you Maharishi for a lifetime of amazing work. Your brilliant insights into the mind and body have guided me every day of the last 40 years, and blessed me immeasurably. I have taken the teachings you gave me and improved on them and created a good system for working with individuals and small groups, and every day I am grateful for the genius and ingenious teachings you gave me.