Monday, May 19, 2008

Thirty Years Later: What was all that about? (Part 3 of a series)

(To read this series from the beginning, start here.)

Today we can easily go back and inspect the movement's "secrets," all those things we were told during the initiation process we weren't supposed to go talking about, even among other meditators. With the dawn of the Internet, such secrets don't stay that way for long, and as the 'net became popular in the mid-1990's, so did the accessibility of information, analysis and commentary on the TM programs and organizations.

Perhaps the single most widespread and enduring cultural artifact of the TM movement is that of "mantra mystique." It's the notion that the sounds given to meditators to silently repeat in their heads are somehow special, private, special, and uniquely selected to be suitable for the initiate. Did I mention that the mantras are supposed to be very special?

A list of many if not most of the mantras distributed by TM teachers has been available for more than thirteen years online, on the website I created to offer as a base for critical examination of TM, the TM organizations, and its associated programs. It's just a list of sounds, and it's rather obvious that the means by which the particular sounds are given to initiates has had very little consistency over the years. There's a lot of variation across sets of mantras that differ depending on when the teacher was instructed. But given all the fuss over mantras, and the seemingly random changes through time, the list doesn't suggest that the mantras are of any particular value except perhaps as some device to fill the initiate's expectation that they're about to receive something of value.

The same goes for other aspects of the initiation. The prospective meditator must witness a ritual, a "puja," performed in a language they don't understand. Even if the prospect were given a translation of the ritual, it would probably be meaningless without an explanation of the culture and terminology. But this is just the start of an obvious pattern, first pointed out to me years ago by a former meditator: the TM movement offers pieces of India's culture, disconnected and decontextualized, that are fed, piecemeal, to paying customers. It doesn't matter if the customer doesn't understand what's going on: the mystery is part of the product, it inflates its apparent value. Why else does the prospective meditator have to sit through such a thing, except to be disoriented and perhaps a bit confused by it?

There's also something called "checking," where a meditator allegedly has their meditation practice "checked" by an instructor. The checking notes are also readily available, and what's clear is that the checking ritual is something of a flowchart, with scripts of exchanges between the instructor and meditator. An interesting feature of the flowchart is such that the meditator doesn't get to leave until agreement with the instructor is obtained. There is, again, not a whole lot to the "checking" ritual of substance other than the reinforcement, through repetition, of the same ideas and expectations that are present even before meditation instruction, in the introductory lectures. Meditation is supposed to be easy and effortless, and we'll stick you in an endless loop of our checking flowchart until you agree.

(Continue to Part 4)

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