Friday, May 30, 2008

Thirty Years Later: What was all that about? (Part 8 of a series)

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

Helena Olson, observing the reception given to the founder of TM in 1959, made this comment in her memoir of the events of that year, a book originally titled "A Hermit in the House:"

It seemed to bother some people that we were receiving pieces of wisdom from a man from India, since from our viewpoint America was a more progressive country than India.

Here in one sentence is an apparent paradox inherent to the marketing of TM. By the reasoning of "some people," at first glance, TM should have been universally dismissed as useless, as a throwback to a backward land. While some clearly rejected TM based upon its source, many embraced it, in ways that I think reflect America's often complicated relationship with the rest of the world.

"America... a more progressive country" also implies that Americans, secure in some notion of supremacy versus the rest of the planet, can't be conned by foreigners. This notion lies in tension with certain desires, that poverty, unhappiness, stress and other ills will allegedly be remedied by something relatively exotic, in the form of the TM program. These are things that often lie in areas where some feel the West has reached a dead end and has nothing to offer. By this line of thinking, there is no domestic product that addresses these areas - fields that, before encountering the TM program, people often didn't think would have anything to do with paying for meditation instruction packaged as a consumer product.

It's into this realm that the decontextualized pieces of Indian culture presented in the TM movement's programs came into play. The entire movement took on an appearance that was just alien enough to clearly support the assumption that it wasn't from here. TM instructors dressed in formal Western clothing and with otherwise conservative appearance accepted money and performed a ritual that clearly came from somewhere else, in front of an image of a dead Hindu monk, in a language most people here couldn't understand, while being told not to disclose what they've been taught. These collisions are deliberately created, sending a series of messages: "Your Western lifestyle is basically lacking. You will pay us to fill that need. You think all your Western science, medicine and technology still doesn't address those needs, so you'll accept something alien you don't understand on the flimsy promise that it'll eventually satisfy you. Finally, since we know you think you can't be conned, you'll accept our instructions and our non-answers to your questions, otherwise you might suspect that there's a lot less to this program than you think there is, and you wouldn't want to feel foolish about what you're doing and all the money you're spending, would you?"

Over the years the TM movement has evolved, and the Indian cultural aspects of the movement have moved from the background to front-and-center. A standard photo of the movement's founder is now likewise always present on websites and materials. The movement's products have also evolved from simple meditation to astrology, herbs and architecture, clearly identifying them as being of Indian origin. References to the Vedas, a text generally considered to be of Hindu religious or spiritual origin, are recast as "scientific" in a further decontextualization of their original meaning to be successfully sold to a credulous audience.

All of these contemporary aspects of the TM movement reflect an underlying strategy: to frame itself as an external source that supposedly addresses the alleged shortcomings of Western life. It is designed to exude a level of strangeness that enhances its attractiveness, but not so much strangeness as to be completely irrelevant or repulsive.

(Continue to Part 9)

No comments:

Post a Comment