Monday, June 02, 2008

Thirty Years Later: What was all that about? (Part 9 of a series)

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

While Transcendental Meditation today has a much lower social profile than it did in the early 1970's, there are still a few people being initiated into TM. One of these recent initiates is James Wolcott, social critic for Vanity Fair magazine. Matching my earlier observation that the organization is targeting relatively wealthy people through its high fees and marketing, Wolcott was reported to be one of the country's most highly paid people in the magazine business, earning $400,000 a year six years ago.

Wolcott has written about TM a few times on his blog. His first mention of it was before he was initiated, in February 2007:
I'm interested in [David] Lynch's evangelical efforts on behalf of Transcendental Meditation, however; it might be helpful to have a mantra to call my own.
I find this comment hilarious. You want a mantra, go check out the list and pick one! They're free! They're not special, they're just a few meaningless noises, and they're not yours to call your own! (And that list includes a big hint at the top: they're so meaningless, that list isn't even there for you to meditate with!) It almost sounds like he's going to go visit the pound and bring a puppy or kitten home. There's something so, acquisitional about the way he announces his intention. It's also, of course, another instance of something I noted earlier: the single most lasting legacy of the pervasive marketing of TM over many years is this bogus notion that the mantras are something very special, and over time as the "mantra mystique" has bounced around in popular culture, it's mutated into this form, that mantras are something that can be bought or sold.

Some months later, Wolcott evidently paid for his own special mantra (that's sarcasm, folks) and along the way picked up a few morsels of the TM organization's propaganda about 'invincibility' that was presented in a rather chaotic, unintentionally self-parodying fashion in Germany a few months later. Here he is, babbling nonsensically about the 'Global Financial Capital of New York' and some 'vision of a metaphysical umbrella of invincible defense' in September 2007:
Another pity about being in Cape May this September, apart from missing the Martha Graham performances (Joel Lobenthal has the latest), is that I won't be around to greet and extend a nervous hand of hospitality to Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he pays his not entirely welcome visit to Columbia U. ... I would guide Ahmadinejad to the recently opened Global Financial Capital of New York, the headquarters of positive thought and world peace in the financial district. It is where I received my instruction in Transcendental Meditation, and it's possible that the Maharishi's sun-toned vision of a metaphysical umbrella of invincible defense might strike a receptive chord in Ahmadinejad, or at least give him something to think about between snacks on the long plane ride home.
Wolcott's later comments seem to confirm what I wrote earlier in this series: that the primary focus of TM, with respect to the initiate, is the expenditure of time and money in the direction of the TM organization's products, and that's reflected in Wolcott's writings in the months after his initiation. Here in November 2007 he bemoans the 'valuable private minutes' spent by others on something other than TM:
Perhaps if Sam [Peckinpah] had discovered Transcendental Meditation, like David Lynch, he could have spent those valuable private minutes in his trailer attending to his mantra instead of practicing his knife throws. But TM was out of fashion then and couldn't compete with tequila.
Finally, in March 2008, he writes this paragraph in the wake of Elliot Spitzer's fall, and characteristically, it's all about making money flow in the direction of the TM program in lieu of other things:
The sad thing is that $15,000 could have underwritten the enrollment of six people into the Transcendental Meditation course and equipped them with training and mantras that help alleviate the stress and tension that compel some people into risky extracurricular activities. Six pulse nodes of radiating bliss whose benefits would have been exponential went unimplemented as the money was shoveled elsewhere for a few fleeting, emptying moments of rocks-off release. Such a waste of cosmic resources.
There are days when I seriously wonder why otherwise lucid, talented people reach some point in their lives where they throw all critical thinking overboard and lose their minds when it comes to things like this. No, James, it's not "cosmic resources," it's money. Here, it's money that, if we're going to argue over whether it's money well spent or not, could perhaps have gone toward keeping somebody fed or clothed or sheltered instead of "rocks-off release." Still, Elliot Spitzer's personal "rocks-off release" to my mind is something considerably more tangible than whatever's claimed in this line that looks very much like something cut-and-pasted from the TM organization's propaganda: "metaphysical umbrella of invincible defense."

And as with so much of the TM organization's language, the style of which is mimicked by Wolcott here, a few perhaps reasonable ideas are spun into the mix along with phrases that a friend once called "space-terms." Here, we have "alleviate the stress and tension" laid up against "six pulse nodes of radiating bliss." That's an example of how such movements subtly dehumanize and deindividualize people, it makes it sound like the point of TM initiation is to turn out vibrating tuning forks devoid of thought or action!

The fact of the matter is that what the TM organization is doing is collecting a vanishingly small number of people who are willing to spend money and time on what they sell, and who in some cases, participate in the selling. This is an organization that, collectively or through individual people, exerts no actual influence over "world peace" and very little power over anything else.

It does, however, target people who find that, despite having attained a certain level of material wealth, they have little control or influence over the direction of the planet. By claiming to be bringing about "world peace" through some kind of metaphysical thought process, sold with plainly silly phrases like "pulse nodes of radiating bliss whose benefits would have been exponential," it provides the illusion of control and influence through the mere expenditure of time and money. Wolcott's writings about TM reflect that basic fact, and also strongly suggest that the TM program is a means of personal therapeutic spending and acquisition more than anything else.

(Continue to Part 10)

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