Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Thirty Years Later: What was all that about? (Part 4 of a series)

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

In asking "what was all that about?" I am looking for things of substance, something more substantial than meaningless sounds, alien rituals in foreign languages, and repetition of elements of the sales pitch for the practice. There are more substantial aspects to the program - but they aren't all that obvious unless one turns the tables and considers what the prospective meditator brings to the initiation.

The marketing of the TM program, all the way from product placement of the program in popular culture through the two evenings of introductory lectures that precede initiation, accomplishes two things which are both, in a sense, rather obvious. The marketing first serves to select for individuals who are receptive to certain aspects of the program, which might not actually be the meditation practice itself. Secondly, the marketing sets certain expectations even while being vague as to what the actual process of initiation is; "easy" and "effortless" are part of that expectation-setting, as well as the assumption that, after having spent a considerable amount of time and money, there will be benefits from the practice.

One example of the marketing is "The TM Book," a paperback written by two then-TM teachers in 1975 and distributed by the movement. It was given free to new meditators when I started. While the book is 221 pages long, it can be summarized with a quote from the beginning, and one from the end of the book. In one sentence on the first full page of the book is this remarkable summary of the program:

The Transcendental Meditation program changes the quality of life from poverty, emptiness, and suffering to abundance, fulfillment, and happiness.

The book is illustrated throughout with two cartoon characters representing a TM teacher and prospective meditator. On the next-to-last page of the book, the prospect gets out of his chair, stands up, puts his finger in the air and declares, "I'll take it!" as if he'd just finished the negotiations for purchase of a used car.

It's these two elements that I think epitomize TM, elements that have been central to the nature of the TM movement all along. First, the program is presented as being more important than pretty much anything else in life, can influence all aspects of one's life, and that acceptance of the program can cause profound positive change in one's life; in this sense, the program emulates religious faith, certainly a "born-again" faith hinging on a one-time "decision" as it often appears in American culture. Second, the program is a package, a consumer product, marketed as if it were any other product, where "I'll take it!" indicates a decision to buy. Nothing special is required - the prospect need not learn new skills or meet anything other than the most simple requirements. The "easy"-ness and "effectiveness" of the product are in the forefront of the sales pitch for it.

The prospective meditator brings two things: their expectations and the means by which they pay the purchase price for the product. Here is where things get interesting, because the TM movement offers an endless series of just this kind of purchase transaction, up to a scale that is hard to believe.

(Continue to Part 5)

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