Monday, March 21, 2011

Article on Transcendental Meditation in the New York Times

There was an article on transcendental meditation published Friday, March 18th in the New York Times. Evidently, there has been a mini-revival of interest in TM among some celebrities, including David Lynch (who has been practicing TM since the 1970s), Russell Brand, and Moby. The article includes several celebrity testimonials about the value of TM, including this one by Brand:
“Transcendental Meditation has been incredibly valuable to me both in my recovery as a drug addict and in my personal life, my marriage, my professional life,” Mr. Brand said of the technique that prescribes two 15- to 20-minute sessions a day of silently repeating a one-to-three syllable mantra, so that practitioners can access a state of what is known as transcendental consciousness. “I literally had an idea drop into my brain the other day while I was meditating which I think is worth millions of dollars.”
The article also says the following about David Lynch's experiences with TM:
I was not into meditation one bit,” Mr. Lynch said, in his laconic Missoula, Mont., drawl that years of living in Los Angeles has failed to dilute. “I thought it was a fad. I thought you had to eat nuts and raisins, and I didn’t want any part of it.”

Mr. Lynch was persuaded by his sister, Martha, when he began having marital difficulties with the first of his four wives, Peggy, in the early ’70s. “I had a whole bunch of personal anger that I would take out on her,” he said. “I think I was a weak person. I wasn’t self-assured. I was not a happy camper inside. Two weeks after I started, my wife comes to me and says, ‘This anger, where did it go?’ I felt a freedom and happiness growing inside. It was like — poooft! — I felt a kind of smile from Mother Nature. The world looked better and better. It’s an ocean of unbounded love within us, so it’s real hard to get a conflict going.” (Still, a year later, the couple divorced.)

I'm a fan of meditation, but such anecdotes don't really tell us much about what, if anything, meditation is good for. We don't know, for example, whether Brand's meditation was the cause of his recovery from drug addiction, or whether Moby's meditation was what enabled him to give up drinking (as he is quoted as claiming in the article), because it's possible for people to lie or to simply be mistaken about such things.

But that's not my main concern with this article. It's more troubling that the author focuses on the benefits of TM, without going into its darker side. TM was founded as a business venture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; in order to practice TM, you have to pay for special training sessions, in which a teacher gives you a secret mantra that you have to recite when you are meditating, and which you aren't supposed to share with anyone else. The abbreviation TM suits the business well, since they have vigorously asserted ownership over their intellectual property, for example having trademarked the term "Transcendental Meditation" itself. The TM movement has also authored studies which purport to offer scientific evidence for the health and other benefits of TM. What's disturbing to me about TM is that they seem to be ripping people off, by charging for what anyone can practice for free (mantra meditation), and by claiming, whether implicity or explicitly, that TM has some kind of special benefits not attainable through any of the various "freeware" meditation practices that are also available.

The very occasion of the New York Times article is a recent fundraiser organized by David Lynch, for the purpose of providing scholarships to pay for TM lessons for those who can't afford it. This all sounds very noble, until you realize that the only reason such a fundraiser is necessary in the first place is because of the greed and puffed-up claims of the TM movement itself. Now, I am a great admirer of Lynch's work, and am fascinated by the apparent relationship between Lynch's meditation practice and his creative output, but I believe he is doing people a great disservice by leading people to TM, when so many other, equally effective meditation practices (such as zazen or Vipassana) are available for free. On the other hand, I did learn from the article that George Lucas's Yoda character may have been based on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which fact alone probably made the article worth reading:

There's probably a lot of dirt on the dear old Maharishi, but my favorite is the story that he made sexual advances towards Mia Farrow and other women who traveled with the Beatles to his ashram in 1968. Sexual impropriety seems unfortunately common among people with spiritual authority (there are numerous cases from the world of Zen, for example), and to me this is another reason for being weary of gurus, especially those who charge unreasonable sums for magical mantras. If only the Maharishi could live up to the noble Yoda, who was created in his image! Now there's a guru I can't imagine charging money in exchange for teaching Jedi mind tricks, nor making a pass at Leia when Luke wasn't looking.

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