Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Everywhere you look

Everywhere you look you see
The Happiness Business
By Robert Fulford
Star staff writer
He entered slowly, smiling a gentle smile, a tiny Indian in a white robe and flowing hair, carrying flowers. He walked past his acolytes to the throne they had prepared for him - a chair draped in white, banked with flowers. He took one of the flowers from his own bunch and sniffed it absent- mindedly as a young man introduced him.

This was in a rented public room at the Inn on the Park last September. On the night before the same room had held a fashion show, and in a sense this was a fashion show, too. For the Maharishi Mahesh
Yogi, inventor of the cult of Transcendental Meditation, had just now become the latest fashion in Instant Happiness.

The Beatles had only recently announced their conversion, so some of their followers were there to find out what it was all about. But among the several hundred people in the room there were also representatives - as the question period later demonstrated - of various competing cults.

The acidheads
were there in strength, and the astrology people, and the people who worry about whether you cast good or bad vibrations, and the ones who concern themselves with reincarnation. There were some Scientologists, too; but not, so far as I could gather, any Flat Earthers.

All of these people were involved in a
phenomenon of our time, the search for a new way to happiness. The old security-providing institutions of the past have, as almost everybody has noticed, begun collapsing around us - community, family, church, whatever people relied on in the past, are no longer enough. City people, thousands and thousands of them, are reaching out of their loneliness, for something, anything, to grasp. You can hear them at night on the radio, phoning in, enduring some boorish announcer's insults just so they can get in touch. You can see them at the social clubs, longing for a new contact, a new meaning. You can see them at the night schools (anyone who teaches a night course realizes quickly that half his students are there just so they won't have to be alone) or the modeling schools or the dance schools. They are the consumers of the products of the Happiness Business, in which the Maharishi is now a leading figure.

Now they had come to see him, to find out whether he had, in fact, an answer. The man introducing him said the Maharishi wouldn't explain his system (for that you had to join up, and pay), but he would tell us why we needed it. The Maharishi then began to point out that the world was in trouble. There was all this tension, he said, and strain. We were sacrificing life for the standard of living.

"Somehow," he said, "we have to face this situation ... it is very easy to face it, because nature is in our favor."

He spoke in a light, relaxed, confident voice, his remarks punctuated, frequently by giggles. His
accent occasionally gave his words an extra comic dimension, as in, for instance, his inability to handle "th". When he tried to use the word "thought" in a sentence, the sentence came out "Where is the tought before you tought it?" (Giggle.)

At one point he gave us what I sometimes think of as The Swedish Lie. "Sweden," the Maharishi said, "has the highest standard of living in Europe but also ... the highest suicide rate." (No it doesn't" In the UN statistics, Sweden has a lower suicide rate than Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Finland; it's tied for fifth place with Formosa, Denmark, and West Germany. A small point, perhaps, but
someone has to defend those poor Swedes.)

The Maharishi's answer to the problems of Sweden and everywhere else was a series of statements so simple-minded and so banal as to make the average United Church preacher sound like Socrates himself. They went like this:
"Action is based on thinking. On what is based the thinking? ... We must at least be ... Being is the basis of thinking, as thinking is the basis of acting."

"Weakness is due to lack of strength." (He actually said that.)

Some psychologists, he said, claim stress is necessary, But no: Stress is the greatest enemy of man, the greatest enemy of progress. What is necessary is to gain that state of mind in which we are never in stress or strain. The way to do this, he said, is Transcendental Meditation, "
which makes one so profound in his thought and action that everything goes on without stress and strain."

(Elsewhere he has explained how it works: "They (his students) have to sit in meditation. This transcendental meditation, and each one is given a thought, a thought without meaning: this is the mechanics of meditation. We don't meditate on any specific point of love or God or this or this or this.")

In the question period the Maharishi slowly revealed his attitudes. When a young man asked how Transcendental Meditation could cope with the potency of the fact that we must die, and die alone, the Maharishi laughed in his face, very hard.

"Have you read some book on existentialism?" (giggle). the Maharishi said. He then reported that he himself, had first heard of existentialism two years ago. He told a long, meandering anecdote about someone he described as a famous Canadian professor of philosophy specializing in existentialism. He wouldn't name names, but this professor had confronted him with the same sort of question. He had said to the professor: "Is this existentialism or is this deathism
?" (Laughter.) The man had submitted himself to Transcendental Meditation and had been converted almost overnight. Next question.

The story had exactly the same structure, and the same point, as one of Norman Vincent Peale's infinitely retellable
anecdotes about businessmen finding success through faith. Indeed, the Maharishi answered all his questioners in the Peal style: Pat, final, finished. He knew the answer to everything, and the answer was always the same. As one of his acolytes said, Transcendental Meditation "makes obsolete all attempts to improve mankind up to now".

And then a curious thing happened. A young man holding a paper flower rose from the audience and asked: "Is space translucent or transparent?" A meaningless
question, of course, but no nuttier than some we'd heard already. I didn't at first realize that it was intentionally meaningless. It took me a while, watching the questioner's face, to realize this was a put-on.

The Maharishi never did get this point, so far as I could see. He tried to answer seriously. It "depends on how we see," he began. "We put on dark glasses and ..." But this wasn't leading him anywhere. So he said it "depends on our state of consciousness ... This is a
relative world and nothing is the same for everyone ..." And on and on, as the young man with the flower stood there, watching and smiling. The Maharishi himself finally realized that he just wasn't saying anything at all - that he was in fact saying even less than he had been saying all evening - and finally he ground to a halt. There was a sense of embarrassment in the room.

By the end of the evening - the meeting lasted more than two hours - at least a third of the audience had left. Of those remaining, a good many were grumbling in a quiet, disenchanted way, Some had
come as true believers, and perhaps some others were converted during the course of the Mararishi's [sic.] remarks (anything is possible), but most of us, I suspect had discovered the evening's central truth: The Maharishi hasn't got the answer, either. Whatever the Beatles may think, the high priest of pop meditation is a meandering, annoying old bore.

The Toronto Star, 11 November 1967, pages 29 and 31.
"Reproduced with permission - Torstar Syndication Services"

A friend of mine was at this talk and told me about Fulford's write up (and helped me proofread my faulty typing). He has this to report about the young man with the paper flower:

Robert Fulford is a very sharp writer and has been at it for years. The guy asking the question about the translucency or transparency of space had wafted in carrying gigantic paper flowers on very long stems. He was wearing white robes and sandals, and he had long hair and a long beard. He looked like Maharishi except that he was Caucasian and taller. He handed the flowers to his attendant just before they sat down. During Maharishi's talk he stood up to ask a question. In the midst of Maharishi trying to fumble an answer to his question the guy smirked knowingly (because he knew the question was meaningless and too stupid to deserve an answer, let alone one from a supposed "yogi:). took back his gigantic flowers from his attendant and then he immediately paraded (or strutted) out with the attendant in tow just after Maharishi stumbled to a halt.

I thought the whole story, Fulford's and my friend's, was wonderfully funny. But, plain as the sun at noon on a clear day, it was obvious to the writer and probably the guy with the paper flowers, that the giggling guru was far from what we believed he was. We fell for him like pheramones. If Mahesh could, indeed, do magic, if he was the kind of yogi who was capble of tricks, this was it.

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