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The Transcendental Meditation movement was instrumental in bringing meditation into the mainstream back in the 1970s, but it’s not the only technique that works to relieve the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. So maybe I don’t completely hate Transcendental Meditation. TM is exclusive but not that special.
Here’s the deal…
TM doesn’t have a monopoly on easy, effective meditation techniques. You don’t need to spend 2000 dollars to learn to meditate. I know this to be true because I have taken TM and several other meditation courses that were equally effective.
It has been rumored that the courses at the TM Centers have gone up so much because the leader felt that Americans did not value a thing that was not high in price. There’s probably some truth to that. the TM centers do a lot of charity work, giving free meditation courses in prisons and working with other disadvantaged people. So maybe the price is fair.
My Experience with TM
I took TM back in 1983 when it only cost 200 dollars or something. I hated Transcendental Meditation, when I took it.
I might be the only person in the whole world who does. I hate the high cost and the claims that it is unique or special in some way. I also dislike transcendental meditation because it did not work well for me.
But meditation is useful, don’t get me wrong.
I was familiar with meditation as a regular daily activity and wanted to get deeper into it. I had done Siddha yoga meditation for a few months at the age of 18 and had hung out and meditated with a Hare Krishna couple from Australia. I met them at our hotel in Hong Kong during a puppetry tour with my mom when I was 10.
The Cambridge Massachusetts TM Center
I took a TM intro course at the Cambridge Massachusetts TM center. It was an old building with dark wood trim. Very retro and a little grungy. We had to go back for two weekends in a row.
We sat in chairs, eyes closed, facing our three teachers. We had a practice-mantra before we got our own mantra.
I don’t remember much about it except we just sat and did meditation and tried to relax and let go of thoughts as they arose.
We had three young guys for our teachers, and one of them was very stiff and awkward. At one point, he told us that if our eyes happened to snap open during meditation to just gently close them again.
The other teachers snickered because it was such a dumb and obvious comment. Everything has probably changed too since I took the course.
The day I got my TM mantra
The final day came where I had to bring the fruit and flowers for the altar and get my mantra. One of the teachers and I went into a private room where we meditated for a bit, sitting in folding chairs with eyes closed. Then he went over the technique.
Then he put the flowers and fruit on the altar under the picture of the guru, a pleasant-looking Indian guy wearing a long white flowing robes with long dark hair and a thick beard.
My teacher got up and started going through this long Sanskrit litany over the altar with the flowers and the guru photo and incense. As he finished, he sidled up to me saying a final Sanskrit word which was, I assumed, my mantra. It was done in this hokey, fake way that felt contrived.
He was pretending it had just come to him from the guru or something. In reality, they had memorized a bunch of mantras along with this Sanskrit litany, so they could do this fake ceremony and pretend to pick out a mantra for each student intuitively.
One of the reasons I hate transcendental meditation is because of the rituals and the mystique surrounding the Guru and the picking of these mantras.
Mantras can be powerful and often have roots in ancient traditions and languages. I have used many mantras over the years as a meditator and found them to be helpful. But for some reason, my TM mantra didn’t do it for me.
He gestured for me to say the mantra back to him, so I did. But it was this ugly word that I hated right away. It sounded like the combination of the word “sharing” and “shitting,” neither of which I wanted to say over and over silently in my head while I meditated.
The similarity to the word “sharing” made me angry because it seemed to be designed to point out how selfish I was as an American from a privileged culture.
I remember thinking that all of the mantras used in the US had probably been designed to have hidden associations to English words to make westerners feel bad about ourselves. Thinking the word sharing over and over was bad, but thinking “shitting” over and over was even worse.
Maybe if I had been given another mantra, I would not have hated TM so much.
He gestured for me to begin meditating with my new mantra and left the room for a while, so there was no time to tell him he had made a mistake or ask for another mantra.
And of course, since the Guru was very strict about the whole procedure, it would not have mattered if I had objected to the in my mind, “horrible” mantra.
I went away with my mantra and said it in my head 20 minutes a day twice a day as directed. I came back in a week or two to be checked out, and my teacher seemed to think I was not getting the right effect as I described my experience.
He asked me to say the mantra out loud. “Shuring?” I said, squinching up my face questioningly. He said it back to me but with a D sound instead of an R sound, so it sounded like the word ‘sharing’ but with an Indian accent and a rolled d or r sound sort of gurgled into it. “So even if you can’t say it with the right accent out loud you can think it in your head the right way,” he explained.
This did not help because using the rolled combo d and r sound emphasized the association with shidding even more.
Am I the only one who hates TM?
The psychotherapist I was seeing had taken TM, and when she found out I had also done the course, she gushed about how wonderful TM was and how good it was to focus on a “charming” state of mind.
This was the first time I heard the word “charming” mentioned in relation to TM meditation, and how one should always want to go to a more “charming” state of mind.
I did not have a “charming” experience at all with my shitty (or shiddy) mantra. I felt bad about not liking my mantra.
My boyfriend at the time was also a TM meditator, and we meditated a few times together. He would rave about wanting to sit there longer than the 20 minutes we were allowed, and marinate in that wonderful relaxing state.
While he sat there with a happy little smile, I got up as soon as possible. I did not get it. I never felt anything relaxing or charming when sitting there saying that “shadding” mantra.
I so hated transcendental meditation
After a few months, I went back to just meditating using the breath and noticing the heartbeat, body sensations, and whatever else came up, instead of using a sound in my head.
Sometimes I would use “om” or “so hum” as I got started and then just sit quietly following my breath. I never used the horrible mantra and its shitty associations. Sometimes I like to use the sounds for each of the chakras from the book Kundalini Awakening by John Selby. It is dated in writing style, but it is still an excellent essential guide to meditation.
So what’s the real story?
The TM cult and the advanced TM courses
Another reason I don’t like TM is that many people who took the advanced training and got involved in the cult wasted years trying to become enlightened.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Guru, came up with a lot of very long involved rigorous advanced courses that seemed to cause people to over-stimulate Kundalini. And sometimes it seemed to get Kundalini going in the wrong way.
People describe going into kundalini reactions or “kriyas” where the head or other body parts would twitch around involuntarily, or the entire body would flop like a fish on the mat after the “flying exercises.”
I heard stories of cult-like devotion to the Guru and the organization. Claire Hoffman wrote an interesting autobiography of growing up in the TM cult in Fairfield Iowa and her experiences with the flying sutra, called Greetings from Utopia Park. Listen to her NPR interview on Fresh Air here.
TM went off in a new direction
The pursuit of full enlightenment did not lead people to more peace of mind. Instead, many people became more and more troubled the more they tried and failed to attain the three mythical higher states of consciousness described in such detail by their Guru.
Some people experienced Kundalini awakenings gone wrong and ended up with severe mental problems. Some people did not ever fully recover. The advanced practices seemed to open people up to a type of energy that can go awry pretty quickly.
In her book Collision with the Infinite Suzanne Segal describes her experience with TM. She began having a lot of openings into new states of being right away, even in the basic course.
She dived into the advanced program for teachers of TM. For the next eight years, she became utterly absorbed in the TM movement. She was having a lot of anxiety and deep-seated fear during meditation, but when she shared her concerns with the Guru, he just laughed it off and did not address the issue adequately.
She left the TM movement when it started to go off course but continued to be troubled by the repercussions of her years of advanced practices in the TM movement. The door had been left wide open, but no one was guiding her, so she lost her way for a very long time.
After reading her autobiography, I sense that her spiritual growth went off course and was stunted for ten long years because she did not have proper guidance once the advanced TM practices had opened her up and left her hanging.
Transcendental Meditation and psychosis
In another TM autobiography called My Enlightenment Delusion by a writer going under the pseudonym Matt Landing, he describes a nightmare of wasted years.
He was another longtime TM teacher. He and the other advanced students had all been assured that if they put in a ton of hours daily during the advanced training, they would be “enlightened” within eight years.
As prices for courses went up and people were not becoming enlightened within eight years he realized it was BS. He left the movement still seeking the elusive enlightenment he had obsessed so much about, to the detriment of the rest of his life and relationships.
Next, he went to a retreat with Dr. Gabriel Cousens, a raw food expert, who claims to have attained enlightenment through the guru Muktananda in the Siddha yoga movement.
Cousens wrote a long tome describing his Kundalini awakening with his Guru Muktananda called Spiritual Nutrition: Six Foundations for Spiritual Life and the Awakening of Kundalini.
Matt, the TM guy, went home and continued the practices he had learned at his first Gabriel Cousens retreat. He had a psychotic break with grandiose thoughts, and mistakenly thought he was enlightened.
When he called Cousens raving about his enlightenment, Cousens had the common sense to tell him to stop meditating and stop eating raw foods and stop fasting.
He recommended that Matt should eat a lot of cooked food to ground himself before he got any worse. He was on the verge of needing to be admitted to a psych ward.
Is guru transmission of Shakti a real thing?
I received Shaktipat or energy transmission, from Gabriel Cousens at a talk he gave at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Los Angeles in the early 2000s soon after his giant new book came out. He seemed to sincerely believe that he was now enlightened and told us he had his guru’s blessing to transmit Shaktipat to us during our guided meditation.
Cousens seemed kind and genuine. I was the only one who was sitting up straight at the edge of my chair in half lotus, while everyone else slouched or leaned back. I was eager to make my spine straight to receive the touch.
But I did not feel anything when he touched my forehead for the Shaktipat transmission. I felt a sense of falseness.
Maybe I was not “pure enough” or ready.
But Cousens seemed a bit deluded about this sacred lineage thing. It seemed like a story meant to keep people hooked on guru worship rather than looking within themselves.
There is a mystique about energy transmission and enlightenment in general. People make all kinds of claims about the stages of awakening/enlightenment and try to reproduce the effects described in ancient sacred texts.
I am sure some of the stories about transmissions or “jump starts” are true. People describe being passively awakened through touch, breath, or eye gazes from enlightened beings, but a lot of them are false.
The problem is that often techniques that promise an awakened state or better wellbeing often do not produce results.
Maybe I don’t completely hate transcendental meditation
I have nothing against the basic TM mantra meditation program. It simply was not for me. Many people love TM and have gotten positive benefits from the basic program.
In later years Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of TM switched gears and went in a completely different direction from the original goal, which was to bring meditation to as many people as possible to create more happiness in daily living.
Here is a list of TM mantras they were using around the time I took the course and how they came up with them in case you are interested.
The TM movement brought meditation into mainstream American culture
The TM movement was at the forefront of researching the health benefits of meditation in the 1970s and beyond. TM opened westerners to the idea of meditation, and this was a good thing.
Things to do instead of TM
There are so many free and low-cost courses and online guided meditations to get started with a meditation practice
- Lincoln Gergar has excellent free teaching at Channeling Higher Self and very reasonably priced paid teachings on meditation.
- Free sample meditations from Dean Sluyter, a former TM teacher
- Core Energy Meditation is an enjoyable meditation using the three energy centers, lower three chakras lumped together as body center, heart chakra, and then three upper chakras or head area all integrated, one by one.
- Soul Sync meditation from oneness academy delightful 20-minute meditation
- Accessible, easy Tibetan Buddhist meditation at Nanchack.com
- Sahaja Meditation has extensive free training in many parts of the world and online
- 7 Cups therapy site has free mindfulness meditations
- Dina Proctor, short meditations for free
- Holosync is a binaural technology that can help you focus while you meditate
- Brainwave love puts out a series of great binaural beats programs with instruction that are less expensive and arguably better than Holosync.
- Rama offers incredible free hour-long body activations on each of the energy centers as well as recorded healings and paid services individually
- Sarah Peyton wrote Your Resonant Self and offers free guided meditations for healing trauma
And those are just a few of the many teachers and courses out there for meditation and healing that are at least equal to Transcendental Meditation in helping you to relax and feel better.