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A while back I was listening to an episode of Alec Baldwin’s podcast "Here’s the Thing" where he was interviewing Jerry Seinfeld. In the closing segment, Alec noted that Jerry is a long time meditator, and Jerry confirmed, saying he’s been doing Transcendental Meditation since 1972. Alec asked him to describe what meditation is like, and Jerry said, “You know how two or three times a year, you wake up and you go, ‘Boy, that was a really good sleep?’ Imagine feeling like that every day. That’s what it is.”
That description stuck with me. I had heard of Transcendental Meditation (TM) before, mostly as something that the Beatles were into for a while, and hadn’t the guy who discovered it died not too long ago? (I was right, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had died in 2008.) The idea of feeling alert, energetic, and well-rested every single day was incredibly appealing. Who wouldn’t want that?
I forgot about it for a long time, and months later came across a YouTube video made by the Maharishi Foundation describing in more detail how the process works. You meditate for 20 minutes twice a day — an effortless process, they said — and get all these amazing benefits. More energy, less stress, better focus, more creativity, better organization, more positive mood.
I was wary, but fascinated, so I did some more research. It turns out, TM is a very specific type of meditation. There are a lot of different kinds of meditation, but this one comes backed by a pretty big non-profit organization, dedicated TM Centers in every state, a deity-esque Indian frontman, an incredibly devoted following, and a whole bunch of scientific studies that tout its physiological benefits.
I signed up for a free informational session at the TM Center in my area. I hadn’t read anything about the process of learning to meditate costing money (but in hindsight I should have specifically researched that). I figured that if I did it, I would give a nice donation, maybe a hundred bucks or so.
When I arrived at the TM Center, I was surprised that it was a house, not a commercial space. Only a small sign outside proved it was Transcendental Meditation Center. Inside, I was greeted by a kind, soft-spoken woman named Janet, who seated me in her living room with a few other people.
Janet talked about TM, telling us most of the same information I had gotten from the YouTube video and handed out a few professional-looking pamphlets. She stressed that it’s not a religion. She talked about how when enough people meditate, it can literally cause world peace. How it can reduce violent crime in cities. How it can prevent major illnesses. How it connects people on a deep, psychological level. She blurred the line between science and cult-ish mumbo-jumbo.
And then she casually mentioned that going through the process of learning how to meditate — four consecutive days of instruction, each about two hours long, and then regular follow-up sessions — cost about $1,000. And this was actually a discount, it’s usually closer to $1,500. She passed out forms on clipboards for everyone to fill out, including your preferred mode of payment.
Sitting there in Janet’s living room, everyone else eagerly filling out their forms, I felt a little trapped. So I filled mine out, too. I figured I’d use money I’d been generously gifted the previous Christmas to pay for it. After all, it could end up being the best investment I'd ever make. An investment in myself and my own happiness.
The night before my first session, I practically had a nervous breakdown. I sat on my boyfriend’s bed, crying hysterically, convinced I’d been duped into paying more than an entire paycheck to join a cult. He consoled me, and said that I should just go, learn what I could, and if it got weird I could always bail. So I went.
You’re not supposed to talk about what happens when you learn the TM technique, or specifically what the technique entails. I don’t like this; it feels like what a cult leader would say to keep their abusive behavior under wraps. (Looking back, I actually think it’s more of a means of protecting their brand. There are a lot of knock-off versions of TM, but supposedly none of them are as effective because they didn’t come directly from Maharishi.)
Suffice it to say, on the first day I was instructed to bring two pieces of organic fruit, a bouquet of flowers, and a clean, unused handkerchief. There was chanting and singing and I left smelling of incense.
The technique was easy, and I was pretty sure I was doing it correctly, so I started doing it twice daily as instructed. I thought I was getting some of the benefits that I’d been promised, but I wasn’t ever really sure. I guess I felt calmer and less stressed. I guess I slept a little better. But was I just imagining it? If there were benefits in the first couple months, they were subtle.
When I expressed to Janet in a follow-up session that I wasn’t really sure I was feeling the benefits of meditation, she said that none of the benefits are guaranteed, and that they’re more pronounced in people who are more stressed or angry to begin with. Maybe I was just too calm and happy to feel a strong change.
I gradually stopped putting aside time each day to meditate. Janet called and emailed a few times, trying to schedule more follow-up meetings. I ignored them, unsure of what to say.
To be clear, I don’t think TM is without its value. For a lot of people, I think it can be a good way to get to a calmer, happier mental state. (I am still skeptical about it causing world peace. I’m sorry, Janet.) I just think I was already in a pretty calm state.
I’ve stopped meditating now, mostly because when I’m laying in bed listening to my alarm go off at 5:30 a.m., sleeping for an extra 20 minutes sounds much more appealing than getting up to meditate. I will probably get back into it eventually, though. Maybe when something stressful happens and I need some help to cope.
Despite the more cult-like aspects of Transcendental Meditation, at its heart I think it’s just a well-meaning brand trying to protect itself. The Maharishi Foundation would benefit from dispensing with their more far-fetched claims, though. And not asking people to bring organic fruit to their first session. And not cloaking everything in so much secrecy. Basically, treat it like a mental health aid, not a magical happiness spell.