Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why I Believe The Transcendental Meditation Org Is Dangerous

I got an email from a reader recently that I thought — at first — was pretty flip: "hey john, what is the problem with transcendental meditation? please let me know. ciao." I figured we were making a pretty good case for the problems with TM and the Maharishi on this Blog,, Joe Kellet's site, and my cult counseling site.

But as I thought about my correspondent's question, I realized that to my knowledge, no TM critic has ever created a concise, one-page summation of just what's wrong with TM.

Well, here's my stab at doing just that.

I write largely about people who are, or were, deeply involved with the Movement: meditating for hours a day, practicing the TM-Sidhis, been on long "rounding" courses (with extra hours of meditation a day, for weeks or months at a stretch), becoming a TM Teacher or Governor. It's a rare occurrence among the over 2,000 people that I've worked with in the last 13 years that someone practicing the original twice-a-day, 20-minutes-a-pop meditation has developed serious problems. (Although some have.)

For starters, let's look at TM and the TM Org's effects on the individual. A word about anecdotal reports: Most of these specific damages come from anecdotal reports in my counseling practice. There is some documentation in the "German Study" — although the "snowball sample" methodology used essentially renders those findings anecdotal, as well. To my knowledge, no researcher has ever used a truly random sample: Because the TM Org does not publish a list of its members, it isn't possible for a researcher to poll them randomly. It's my understanding that researchers approach the TM Movement for meditating participants. The Org is glad to oblige, offering meditators with only "good experiences" and positive results.

No one experiences all damages listed below. In fact, it's not clear to me what percentage of TM meditators experience any of these effects. But having dealt with hundreds of cases myself — and compared notes with other critics and mental health providers — it's clear to me that nearly everyone experiences at least one negative side effect. If Transcendental Meditation were a drug, it would long ago been taken off the market.

Physical Health Effects uncontrollable fatigue; insomnia and hypersomnia; stomach and bowel complaints; chronic neck and back pain (especially among "Yogic Flyers"); chronic headaches; difficulty with the menstrual cycle; involuntary body movements (twitching; spasms; head shaking; etc. in, and out, of meditation); serious health effects, including death, when TMers turn to Maharishi Ayurveda and ignore traditional medical treatment.

Emotional Health: states of anxiety or fear; obsessive ideas; pathological guilt; dissociation and pseudo-identity (similar to multiple personality disorder); suicidal ideation, gestures, or successful attempts; "nervous breakdowns;" psychosis; depression; avoidance; secondary narcissism; delusional thinking; auditory and visual hallucinations; divorce, frequently multiple.

Cognitive Health: difficulty with memory and/or concentration.

Social Health: decreased job performance; decreased educational performance;

Spiritual Health: conflict with birth religion (Judaism/Christianity/Islam: puja, use of graven images, mantras are names of Hindu gods, yagyas to Hindu deities; Buddhism: conflict with tenets such as anatta or no-self); spiritual confusion; replacing birth religion with TM/Hinduism or other spiritual practices.

Problems with the Policies and Actions of the TM Organization
Lies and Fraud: TM Org claims to be a secular organization, but is in fact at least religious in nature, if not a religion; mantras are not meaningless sounds, but rather the names of Hindu gods; there has never been a demonstration of successful TM-Sidhis (levitation, mind-reading, knowledge of past and future, etc. — the maharishi was successfully sued for fraud over the sidhis in the 1980s); no one has ever been demonstrated to attainment enlightenment, despite past claims this state would evolve in TM practitioners within 5-7 years; world peace and invincibility are belied by the constant state of war in modern times, despite the Maharishi announcing world peace attained on numerous occasions; claims that large groups of TMers meditating together would cause a drop in crime, ending wars, or increase in stock market never been demonstrated in a way that passes scientific scrutiny (note that the Maharishi's organization predicted in summer 2007 that the stock market would hit 17,000 and is currently dropping precipitously).

Dangerous Practices
Centralized power, without oversight: The Maharishi centralizes all power and control in himself and a few trusted followers, with no oversight. Most religions have oversight by elders, the law, legislative bodies, and so forth.

Invasion of Schools, Courts, Prisons: Despite having lost the New Jersey Court Case in the 1970s and being kicked out of the public schools, TM is again attempting to invade the public school system, despite its obvious religious overtones. There is also conflict with the separation of church and state when people are sentenced to TM in American courts, or when prisoners are coerced into taking up TM.

Questionable Research: Much of the published research on TM is questionable in methodology, sample recruitment, and objectivity of researchers (who nearly always include TM practitioners).

Jealousy of Other Spiritual Leaders: Most New Age groups are quite inclusive; followers pick and choose from teachings of many authors and leaders. The TM Movement may ban members who seek out spiritual teachers beside the Maharishi. Members who seek out psychological counseling may be banned from attending "courses," similar to be cut off from the sacraments in a Christian church.

"Impermissible Experiments": The Maharishi has always taught that his meditation and advanced techniques were passed down as "perfect" knowledge from guru to disciple for thousands of years. Actually, it appears that the Maharishi either made up his techniques, read about them, stole them from other spiritual leaders (Yogananda, et al.), or taught common, entry-level techniques as "supreme knowledge." He then tested his eclectic techniques on participants in teacher training, "Six-Month Courses," or other courses to see their effects. In essence, course participants were paying thousands of dollars to be used as guinea pigs. Not being an experienced meditation teacher who could guide his students past the dangers of the meditative path, the result were thousands of TMers who experienced debilitating physical, mental, and emotional side-effects as outlined above. After World War II and the horrific Nazi human experiments, the international community developed the Nuremberg Code of Ethics, parts of which were later incorporated into the Geneva Conventions. International law made it illegal to perform any type of human experimentation without the informed consent of participants. Informed consent requires that "test subjects" be told in advance that they are taking part in experimental procedures – and the possible side effects. "Impermissible experiments" on humans explicitly included not just medical, but psychological experimentation as well.

Paranoid Thinking: In recent years, the Maharishi's thinking and policies have become increasingly paranoid. He rails about the Movement being in danger from Rakshasas (demons) — who can only enter buildings from south-facing entrances, while gods protect and enter buildings from east-facing entrances. He has claimed at various times that the TM Movement has been infiltrated by agents of the CIA, American Medical Association, and pharmaceutical companies. He has complained about poisoned food. When confronted with allegations of child molestations on his Indian facility, he claimed that these stories were planted by his enemies.

Constant Emphasis on Money and Empire The Maharishi charges $3,000 to learn the basic meditation technique, although it is learned in about 1 hour and is virtually indistinguishable from traditional japa techniques that can be learned from a book. He charges larger and larger amounts for succeeding advanced courses, the most advanced of which he charges $1 million dollars for. This is particularly ironic in that the Maharishi is not a Brahmin and is forbidden to initiate or teach the Vedas, most spiritual teachers throughout history have taught for the love of God, never charging their followers (for example, Buddha, Christ, Mohammed). In addition to the hundreds of millions raised through course fees, the Maharishi pressures his wealthy followers to donate millions to hundreds of millions of dollars to fund his dreams of empire. There are press reports that estimate the TM Movement's net worth in the billions of dollars.

Recruitment over Charity: Despite the billions of dollars collected, the Maharishi has never engaged in charity among the world's poor, choosing rather to surround himself with the ultra-wealthy.

Inherent Danger in Isolated Communities: The Maharishi pressures followers to congregate in isolated communities: course participants, often sequestered in out-of-the-way locations, may not mingle with non-participants or even sometimes family; TMers are encouraged to move to Fairfield, Iowa or other Movement enclaves where they can basque in the "purity" of an all meditator community; TM Sidhas are encouraged to attend courses in Third World countries to avert an impending "World War III." Any isolated community is subject to the tendency of "groupthink," making them susceptible to believe — and act on — the wildly delusional, grandiose pronouncements of the Maharishi without benefit of critical thought. Groupthink that contributed to the mass-suicide tragedy at Jonestown.

The definition of a cult remains controversial. In my psychotherapeutic practice, I tend to focus more on cultic relationships than developing a list of "known" cults. Nevertheless, many critics have labeled the Transcendental Meditation Movement a cult led by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Authors Lalich and Tobias, in Take Back Your Life (2006), outline the main characteristics of a cult. Decide for yourself if these characteristics are present in the TM Movement:
  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar — or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

I've done my best to summarize my major concerns about the TM Org. I'm sure that my fellow editors and our readers will have additions, deletions, and qualifications. You would do me a personal favor if you would note your thoughts in the comments section below.

John M. Knapp, LMSW

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