Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thirty Years Later: What was all that about? (Part 7 of a series)

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

It’s often been said, often by those who are talking about Transcendental Meditation in a critical light, that TM is some form of Hinduism. But I take a somewhat different view; to me, TM is as American as apple pie, or at least, it is a Western product, reflecting aspects of Western culture. It is as Hindu as Chow Mein is Chinese: the result is something that came from the interaction of two different cultures. From the standpoint of the original cultural context, it becomes something tolerated and even embraced when dealing with tourists, particularly when the tourists are bearing dollars.

The TM program, as we've known it for the last few decades, is traceable to the intersection of a man of a foreign culture with the prototypical American suburbia of 1959: Los Angeles, California. It is likely the result of a man surveying everyday life around him - in what was probably a very alien culture, to him - and making certain observations about that lifestyle. He brought with him certain artifacts of his own culture, and presumably some sort of a reason for traveling if not a fully-formed plan, perhaps not necessarily the plan he publicly talked about; perhaps a general idea to set up an organization that would, first and foremost, keep him and his family comfortable for decades if not lifetimes. From that fusion of cultures came this product, and from that, came the marketing (if the product wasn't itself the marketing), the celebrity endorsements, and the global organization.

Let's take the marketing of TM, and, rather than accept it at face value as being reflective of some process of "scientific research" to benefit the world, flip the premise upside down. From the perspective of someone who devised significant parts of this program while sitting in suburban America, what is it about the American suburbanite that his program, and the marketing of it, seek to address?

Perhaps the feature of American suburban life that drew the attention of the founder of the TM program is its pervasive consumerism. A man who showed up in L.A. in 1959 carrying the most meager of possessions in a bedroll came face-to-face with the material wealth of the middle class. That material wealth provided a lifestyle of relative ease to the average American that's still inaccessible to a majority of the earth's population.

But it's not enough to simplistically suggest that consumption of material things gives happiness. To some degree, consumption brings some element of control to everyday life, some suggestion that the consumer can control aspects of their lives by purchasing the right products. This is true across the spectrum, from soap and deodorant to cars and homes; ownership of material goods gives one control over one's time, mobility and to some degree, social status, and here, that ownership is not limited to an exclusive few of upper caste. While these things may be obvious or trivial for those of us who've lived all our lives with them, they may have seemed extraordinary to a man described as a 'hermit' from India in 1959.

Meanwhile, there are the things over which the individual still has little to no control, starting with the perceived level of "stress" such a lifestyle produces. The marketing of the TM program promises yet another level of control over many of those things that aren't particularly controllable. The promises stretch from the everyday scale to the global scale: from reducing one's stress level and raising one's happiness to bringing about world peace. It is the consumer product to end all consumer products, giving the buyer (the illusion of) complete control of the uncontrollable. Far from being an example of the counterculture of the late 60's, at its core it was completely tailored to the needy, somewhat conservative suburban American of the early 1960's, so much so that the movement required that former "hippies" cut their hair, shave and wear a tie before they were allowed to learn how to be TM instructors.

(Continue to Part 8)

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