John M. Knapp, LMSW
What the Maharishi Meant
A Catholic Reflects on the Legacy of TM Popularizer
BY KEITH E. COBB
February 17-23, 2008 Issue | Posted 2/12/08 at 11:18 AM
MOUNT ANGEL, Ore. — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the technique known as Transcendental Meditation, died quietly Feb. 5 at his residence, a former Franciscan monastery in Vlodrop, Holland. He was 91.
The Indian meditation practice became popular in the late ‘60s and ‘70s when the Beatles and actress Mia Farrow trekked to India to sit at his feet.
His death brought back a flood of memories for me, for I too was once Maharishi’s disciple. Before entering the Church in 1995, I spent 25 years of my life serving him as meditator, TM instructor and ardent devotee.
My wife was also once a devotee and as a journalist helped to promote the TM movement.
Why did so many people (including Catholics) go for TM back its heyday? How does the teaching that surrounds TM differ from Catholicism? And why have some of these once ardent TMers left behind their meditation practice to return to their Christian roots?
There were the mundane reasons, of course, why many people, including Catholics, went into TM: lower blood pressure, stress reduction and so forth. Many people started for those reasons, happily oblivious to the deeper considerations. But there were deeper reasons as well.
In the ’60s, when Transcendental Meditation began to make inroads in the United States, many of us were shell-shocked by the barrage of life-changing events: the war in Vietnam, violent anti-war demonstrations, the Free Speech Movement, the Watts riots, the Woodstock festival, the advent of the drug culture, the free love movement, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which forebode impending ecological disaster.
In this climate, many of my generation were deeply questioning the values, institutions and power structures that had brought us to this time of turmoil and change. We were searching for answers, a deeper spirituality, an anchor — something that would bring peace, stability and meaning to our troubled and rapidly changing world.
When I heard the basic TM pitch — “It is a way to develop your full mental potential, achieve ideal behavior, develop better health and help promote world peace” — it sounded good, and I took it, hook, line and sinker. Many others did too, especially those like me who did not have a solid grounding in a religious faith.
But there is an even deeper reason why many came to Transcendental Meditation: New Age thinking was changing the way that people thought about themselves in relationship to God.
From a once theocentric view of life that put God at the center and recognized the clear difference between the Creator and his creation, many people began to see life anthropocentrically, putting man at the center and blurring the distinction between God and man.
Transcendental Meditation, which taught that through regular practice anyone could develop higher states of consciousness — God Consciousness and Unity Consciousness — appealed to this New Age mindset.
If one practices Transcendental Meditation for stress reduction or health reasons, he may not have a problem with the profound distinctions that exist between Catholic dogma and TM teaching. But although Maharishi made strenuous efforts to teach this technique as a non-religious, albeit spiritual, technique, the fact is that a great many of those who got deep into it, including me, treated it as a religion.
Philosophically and theologically, Transcendental Meditation and Catholicism are miles apart. In addition to the anthropocentric issue treated above, there are a few other significant differences.
Maharishi taught that God is purely transcendental and impersonal — a field of being, an infinite reservoir of energy and intelligence. The easiest way to know God, according to Maharishi, is to practice Transcendental Meditation.
Every time you transcend, you dip into that reservoir of Being. To Maharishi, this is “a very powerful form of prayer.” Unfortunately, this results in meditators who take Transcendental Meditation for their “religion,” with no personal relationship with God.
Additionally, there is no credence given to redemptive suffering or Christ’s paschal sacrifice. Maharishi once made the comment that he didn’t think that Christ ever suffered.
In another well-known quote Maharishi states: “Life is here to enjoy. Tell everyone. Nobody has to suffer any more.”
While these teachings sound wonderful, they simply do not meet with reality, and they downplay the infinite significance of Christ’s passion, crucifixion and resurrection.
So why have once-ardent TMers dropped the practice and returned to the Church?
To quote Maharishi, it is because “the nature of life is to aspire for more and more.”
Perhaps those who find their way into the Church will have a similar story to tell, but I would like to tell mine.
I started backing out of the movement in 1990 because I was suffering. The novelty of what I had first experienced when I started TM had long since worn off. And, on a deep level, I hungered for something the movement could not give me — an intimate, devotional relationship.
For a long time, I had idolized Maharishi. But my relationship with him was distant. I revered him almost as though he were divine, yet I could not touch him. I could not get close to him. I could not call him father.
When my wife and I were married in 1993, both of us were still meditating, but we went through some stormy times. As much as Transcendental Meditation is touted as a technique to develop ideal behavior, I can’t say that this is what we experienced.
Out of selfishness, we both caused each other to suffer. This suffering drove my wife, a cradle Catholic, back into the Church. I tagged along, though it was all very new to me.
When I joined the Church in 1995, things started improving, but we were continually saddened because there were so many meditating couples in our hometown of Fairfield, Iowa, the premier Transcendental Meditation community in the United States, whose marriages were going up in flames. That drove us out of Fairfield to Oregon and to our current home.
With the Eucharist to feed us and the support of new Christ-centered relationships that we were forming, we steadily grew in our faith. God was no longer a distant impersonal reality, but was becoming ever more an intimate personal experience.
We joined the choir, got involved in youth ministry, devoured literature on the saints, wrote three books on Pope John Paul II, and had a child. While all this was going on, our involvement with Transcendental Meditation slowly slipped away until one day we realized that it was no longer a part of our life.
It is clear to me that the Holy Spirit was working powerfully in our lives. In 2003, I enrolled in the Master of Arts program in theology at Mount Angel Seminary, where I have just completed my thesis.
Today, I am in love with Jesus Christ and in awe of the Catholic Church. As I absorb more and more of what the Church is and has to offer, I never cease to be amazed at the spiritual wealth that she holds: the depth of the prayer life she maintains, the richness of her traditions and spiritual practices, and the abundance of self-giving love that she manifests.
I do not begrudge the past. God has a way of turning everything to the good. Though I wouldn’t recommend anyone to walk the same path that I took to get into the Catholic Church, perhaps I wouldn’t be here writing this testimony today if it weren’t for Maharishi. And for that, I say, “God bless you!”
Keith E. Cobb writes from
Mount Angel, Oregon.
Send-Off For Guru
NEW DELHI — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the spiritual guru of millions of people across the world, who died in the Netherlands in early February, was cremated at one of Hinduism’s holiest sites in India’s northern city of Allahabad on Feb. 11.
Thousands of followers of the Maharishi, credited with introducing meditation to the West, witnessed the cremation at the Sangam, the confluence of the holy Ganges and the Yamuna rivers in Allahabad. His nephew, Swami Girish Chandra Verma, lit the funeral pyre made of sandalwood logs on which the guru’s body was placed in a yogic posture, state-run broadcaster All India Radio reported.
Earlier, the Maharishi’s body was carried by his relatives and disciples amidst Hindu chants to a specially erected platform near the Sangam in Allahabad, which lies over 600 kilometres south-west of New Delhi. After a helicopter showered rose petals on the body, uniformed police lowered their guns and the last post was sounded as a mark of state honour.