I 100% believe in meditation, but don’t pay an organization to teach you to do it.
Unlike the post about the first cult I was in, NXIVM, I write this with a heavy heart. I have enjoyed my time and the people that run the Transcendental Meditation (TM) community in Vancouver, but I’ve known deep down this moment might come.
Sarah Edmondson got me out of NXIVM and has recently opened my eyes about the TM organization through her podcast interview with Patrick Ryan on A Little Bit Culty, so you can say she got me out of two cults, even though I haven’t been active at the local TM centre since before the pandemic. The last in-person event I attended was in 2019, but I was publicly touting TM in a podcast interview in 2020.
How I got in
I learned about TM through filmmaker David Lynch. I wasn’t a fan of his work until I met Leo, who’s loves Twin Peaks and I got into it too. I saw Lynch talk about TM often on Twitter. WAY back in my PR days (before I had changed to Conscious PR) I met a female entrepreneur. Then I saw her speak at a panel at the Social Venture Institute conference in Vancouver in spring of 2014. I saw her tweet about TM too (a few years later I thanked her for that tweet). When I left the one-year “Ethos” program at NXIVM there was a hole in my schedule from the lack of classes I had been taking twice a week. I was craving self-development again. I saw David Lynch’s tweet and finally signed up for an intro with the local Vancouver TM centre online. This was July 2014.
At the intro, I met the woman who’d become my TM teacher. She held the intro at the office of a local animation school and there were maybe two other people there. She is lovely, and we connected right away through our mutual love of film. She showed us the TM promo video and Jerry Seinfeld was on Oprah talking about it. In an episode of her show, Oprah had her entire team try TM for a week (maybe a month?). I think there was also a video of TM’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who we were told convinced The Beatles to help spread TM to the west in the 70s. (There are SO MANY CELEBRITIES who practice and have given testimonials for TM since.) My teacher told us the benefits of TM and the structure of the classes, if we wanted to learn the technique. By the end of the hour or two, the office was dark as heck and the only light came from the computer screen. The fee to learn then was C$1300. I wouldn’t have signed up had it not been for the instalment option. I did that and paid for the course over six months.
The course stretched out over 4 days: 3 weekday evenings about two hours each, and one weekend morning. One or two of those weekday evenings was just watching videos of Maharishi speaking. All the videos I have seen of Maharishi look like they’re from the 70s (he died in 2008) where he sits (alone) on stage with flowers and incense around him in front of a couple of hundred people in a gymnasium-sized building. With a long grey beard and a white robe, he seems gentle and harmless and wise. But I would tune out a lot whenever I watched his videos because stuff he said wasn’t always relevant to me.
On one evening, I think I did a straight 20-minute meditation with my teacher in silence and my eyes closed. The very last evening is when she gave me my mantra. First by saying it, then saying it in my head, and then without my mouth moving.
The weekend ceremony was really beautiful. We had to bring fruit, flowers and a white handkerchief, which were all placed on a small table with a photo of Maharishi. (I bought a pack of napkins from The Bay for $25, which is now my “nice” napkin set.) My teacher did a chant in Sanskrit and incense filled the entire office. If no one knew we were doing TM, it may have looked like a Hindu ceremony.
About a week later, I did another check-in and found out I was saying the mantra wrong, so my teacher corrected me on that. We were free to do check-ins any time after that up to six months and I think I went a few times. We were always told the mantras were meaningless, but I read in a Vancouver Magazine article in 2018 that there are different Sanskrit words given to men and women based on their age. That was the first article I read that said TM taught yogic flying, but when I looked on the TM websites, I found nothing, so I assumed it might be rumours…even thought there were other sites saying the same thing (which should have been a red flag).
I also got a book on TM. During the group meditations/check-ins I went to afterwards, the teachers would tell us great stories, like how great it feels to meditate with a thousand other practitioners at Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa, the studies about TM groups meditating in areas of high crime and war that proved crime went down during the times the meditation was happening, and Maharishi’s Vedic Pundits in India who would chant together in groups of thousands.
Six to twelve months after meditating twice daily, I felt better mentally and emotionally, and felt the practice was working. I met an old business consulting teacher from 2009 at a few events and did some work for him. I talked about it on social media A LOT. I mailed out brochures to people who were interested. I took my hubby to a documentary screening after the new Vancouver centre opened (which my agency did publicity for). I enrolled one person in TM around 2017. To my knowledge, I didn’t recruit anyone else.
Besides my initial course fee, I didn’t pay for anything except for maybe the event when Bob Roth, CEO of the David Lynch Foundation, came to town in 2019 to talk about how they wanted to teach TM to inner-city children. I did some PR consulting for that event too, and saw David Lynch answer audience questions via Skype (I think). I still think David Lynch is still one of the coolest American filmmakers (even though some of his work is super dark as hell) and I hope and pray that his foundation is doing good work in giving children the real benefits of meditation.
TM is a different organization from what NXIVM was. It’s bigger. It’s worldwide and has touched millions over the course of 70 years. Even though it’s done some harm, I’d like to think much of the work has been positive. I’m just not deep enough to intelligently analyze the pros and cons. Like a religious organization or Scientology, there’s money behind it and that’s why it has the reach it does.
I still meditate, and the basis of my practice is what TM taught me. I sit down in my office for 20 minutes daily before breakfast and before dinner (with 3 minutes to get out of the meditation) and still say my mantra. I’ve added more layers to it: breathwork, affirmations, angel prayers, and chakra visualizations—and I’m not sure that will ever change much. I’ve now been practicing for 7 1/2 years.
Here are the positives I’ve gotten out of my meditation practice and TM:
- Intuition. I would have never called myself intuitive, but my “gut instinct” or “emotional radar” abilities have gotten so much better over the years.
- Mental/emotional health. My practice has gotten me out of dark times and for that I’ll always be grateful.
- Social life: I met great people, including my TM teacher and the key person I worked with when I did PR for the new Vancouver centre opening in 2016. I attended group meditations, potlucks, film screenings and other social events, including meditation Mondays, when we would meditate together and eat vegan soup. It was so much fun! I will always say the people I met at those events who had been meditating for decades are still the nicest people I have ever met.
- Check-ins: Although I’ve never had to check in with a teacher since first learning the technique, I think it’s nice that they offer that for free anytime. I remember saying in a few group sessions that I had trouble staying with the mantra or using the mantra to “out-play” the music in my head, and they told me never to mentally shout my mantra. The teachers always gave me great advice on how to meditate better.
- Self-development: I’ve learned about Ayurveda, especially nutrition, from some workshops that were held both online and offline. There was also a group Monday talk based on the Shrimad Bhagavad-Gita, a holy 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the epic Mahabharata. I’ve never read it, and now that I know it’s a religious text, I’m almost certain I’ll never read it (I’ll touch on why later).
Here are the reasons TM is a cult, based on the points discussed in the podcast mentioned above:
- Shroud over the truth. They tell you about 1% of what the entire TM organization entails in the meditation intro (or on the website) and for good reason. They say the mantras mean nothing, even though they do mean something. And most of the videos of Maharishi we see at the intro level are benign (more on that later). Patrick Ryan said one former staffer/follower even got video-shopped out of some videos with Maharishi because he was sitting out front or close to the stage.
- Pain is “good.” They use science to sell TM, but they fund many of these studies with positive results. They tell you that if you feel uncomfortable while meditating, that it’s working to “bring up” negative physical symptoms. That’s never happened to me, although I have jerked a limb or woken myself up during. I believe meditation DOES have measurable mental and emotional benefits, but I’ve never fully believed you could heal an illness with meditation. IMO, a regular meditation practice COULD help your body heal because rest does. Ryan says that the meditation research outside TM indicates 40% who practice meditation have psychological problems, potentially because some people need to do active things to get into a meditative state. I also think that if you are having negative thoughts, meditation may not be good for you if you keep focusing on those thoughts. (TM teaches you to go back to the mantra if you have thoughts and the moment you recognize you are not focusing on the mantra.)
- The deeper you go, the more rules there are. According to Ryan’s story, at Maharishi University, students learn to become teachers. Curriculum includes multiple daily meditations and then the three-month intensive (see next point). It never looked like there was a dress code for my teachers, but Ryan says at one point the men had to wear suits.
- Lack of reality. According to Ryan, in the intensive course, Maharishi talks about special powers: being invisible, walking through walls, levitating, and flying. This is where the yogic flying comes in. At the last Ayurvedic workshop I attended in Vancouver, the woman leading it talked about the TM Advanced programs and how eventually you’d learn to levitate. I think that was around 2019 (red flag ignored once again). Maharishi also said immortality was possible, but only if you didn’t ejaculate (I suppose the equivalent for women would be orgasm?).
- People have died. In Ryan’s day, his friends jumped off buildings thinking they could fly. In 2004, one university student killed another student. More recently, two high school students killed their teacher. Ryan proposes these deaths occurred because the parents of these children were so involved in the program and had no time to nurture or properly raise their children.
- Unlimited offerings. Even though TM touts it’s a nonprofit organization, they are making a lot of money, to the tune of billions. They rent (maybe even buy) real estate. They host retreats (both locally and in India). And they pay staff full-time to run it all. During the pandemic, I took two free online workshops about Ayurveda, one of which talked about needing to face east when you meditate, and also how to build a house that had entrances and exits facing the right direction. It started to make sense how TM makes its money—they’re even into development and construction! Occasionally, I remember seeing emails from TM about light and aromatherapy for health (more red flags). They also teach yoga—which I know is not just an exercise. Anything else about yoga you want to learn, TM has answers for too. It’s a curriculum that never ends. At one point, Ryan demanded a refund on the advanced program that taught yogic flying. The organization refused, so he sued and eventually settled with it. So I assume they’re bankrolled enough to handle lawsuits. If this blog post ever goes down, you’ll know why.
- A leader who isn’t questioned. Even though Maharishi isn’t around any longer, it makes sense now why his presence is still so revered. If you go deeper into the organization, you’d likely see those videos where he talks more nonsensical, but if they showed those in an intro, people probably wouldn’t sign up. I think there’s also a huge misappropriation aspect of TM in that the root of the practice might be in Hinduism, but if what Maharishi was telling his followers (who subsequently grew the organization to the size it is now) was true, he was spinning the religion into his own lifestyle empire. Whether it was Ayurvedic workshops or the talks on the Bhagavad-Gita, most of the TM speakers I heard from were white and did not have religious practices. Of course, TM isn’t supposed to be religious—it’s supposed to be for everyone. How Ryan described Maharishi’s plan of spreading TM around the world sounds a lot like how cult leaders have operated, and it helps when the organization has money to pay people to recruit and teach students and get them into the sales funnel.
As I said in the headline of this post, I 100% believe in meditation and its benefits, and plan to continue my daily practice forever, but now I don’t believe you need to be part of a group to learn it. There are so many free tools out there to teach you. I’ve not mentioned any of my TM colleagues here because I don’t think they’re bad. They just may not be aware of how deep this organization goes and what it does and teaches that’s harmful.
Are you currently practicing TM or have an experience of leaving? Comment below.