Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Transcendental Meditation's Attitude on Mental Health

This essay is yet another of my trips down memory lane - this time, my memories of the TM organization's (i.e. Maharishi's) attitudes about mental health.

Back in 1970, before I ever learned TM, I had meditating friends who liked to tell me anecdotes about how rapidly TM improved mental health: "One man walked into the TM initiation room looking stressed and miserable; he walked out one hour later looking radiant," or, "This woman showed up at her therapist's office one week after learning TM, and the therapist said, 'My goodness! You seem so much better! What's happened to you?!' " I was 19 years old at the time, and I was very impressed. Now, with 40 years more experience under my belt, I would be less impressed. I would ask, "Did those benefits continue? Were there any harmful side effects?"

Back in 1970, the TM introductory lecture consisted of four speakers, each one speaking on a different topic: TM for mental potential, TM for health, TM for social behavior and TM for world peace. TM was presented as the solution to psychological problems.

After I was initiated, there were three days of follow up. We filled out forms that asked if we saw benefits in our lives yet. Almost all the people in my class had. The implication - which no one questioned - was that these changes were permanent, these benefits were from TM, and more benefits would be forthcoming soon.
The implication was that TM was both faster and more effective than psychotherapy.

My initiator had a condescending attitude towards psychotherapy. I think the rule back then was that if you were seeing a counselor more than once a week, you couldn't learn TM. My initiator said, "Either decide that the therapy's done what you wanted it to do, so you don't need it anymore and stop; or decide that the therapy isn't working, and stop. Either way, you can learn TM after you stop therapy."

Psychotherapy seemed to be a step down from TM. TM research was coming out showing that practicing TM produced mental health, and it produced it faster, less expensively and more holistically than psychotherapy.

This condescending attitude towards psychotherapy was explicit at the 1972 Humboldt College, Arcata, California, USA one-month course which I attended. Someone asked Maharishi about the value of psychotherapy. He replied that in the old days, people would go to their grandparents for advice, but nowadays, since families didn't live near each other, if you had problems you paid someone to listen to you. "Psychotherapy," he explained, "just stirs up the mud." It just made people worse. "Carl Jung's brother said that Carl was such an unhappy, miserable person. So how good could psychotherapy be?" Maharishi posited. (Someone in the audience pointed out, "Maharishi, Carl Jung was an only child." "Oh," Maharishi replied.)

If you were seeing a psychotherapist, you wouldn't be accepted for a TM teacher training course, or for an advanced teacher's course, (ATR), or for the TM-Sidhis course.

I had an initiator friend who was seriously depressed. I advised her to get professional help. She refused, saying, "But then I won't be accepted for an advanced course!"

What was the reason for this policy? Was it to keep meditators away from psychotherapists? Was it to keep meditators coming back to TM courses? Was it to keep meditators ignorant of the benefits of other methods? Was it to prevent unstable people from flipping out during rounding? Was it to keep knowledge of TM out of the hands of psychotherapists? I don't know, but it kept many meditators away from the help they dearly needed.

It also turned some meditators into liars. "Have you seen a psychotherapist?" asked the TM-Sidhis application form. "Well, I did see someone for career counseling," responded a friend of mine who received psychotherapy from a career counselor/psychotherapist. "Was he a therapist?" asked her TM interviewer. "Well, he did have a master's degree in English," she replied honestly. (And a doctorate in counseling, she omitted.) She was accepted for the course. "Filling out TM applications is an...'art form'," an initiator friend of mine wryly advised me.

Meanwhile, more scientific research continued to come out of the TM movement, showing that TM improved all areas of a person's life, including their mental health. These "independent scientific studies" have been criticized for inaccuracy and bias. For a critical analysis of TM research, click here:


By 1975, Maharishi's "World Plan" was in full swing, promising that once a certain percentage of people around the world practiced TM, seven goals would be achieved, two of which were "to develop the full potential of the individual" and "to solve the problems of crime, drug-abuse and all behavior that brings unhappiness to the family of man." In other words, TM led inexorably to mental health.

Meanwhile, some people were attending TM Teacher Training courses and meditating for over 6 hours a day. Rumors were coming out that all that meditating was harmful for some people. Despite Maharishi's assurance that all manner of discomfort was "unstressing" and that "something good was happening," there were rumors of suicides, of people who became mute, of mental hospitalizations....

I was also starting to hear stories of people who after learning TM became more and more withdrawn and unsociable, and just sat in their houses all day and did TM.

In 1975 I visited my sister who was working at the Academy for the Science of Creative Intelligence in Livingston Manor, New York, USA. To thank the facility for letting me stay a few days, I offered to put their free lending library in order. The director at Livingston Manor instructed me to remove all books about psychology and self-help (and about other spiritual paths, too).

In 1977, I applied for the TM-Sidhis course. At that time, I had just been laid off from my job, my boyfriend had just broken up with me and had kept the apartment, leaving me homeless, and an accident had left me on crutches. I told my TM interviewer that I was a stressed out due to these pressures, and she replied that "TM should have strengthened you enough so that you would handle these challenges with calm and equanimity; therefore I have to conclude that you aren't emotionally stable enough for the course." (In retrospect, I wonder if she meant that this demonstrated that TM didn't work, or that I was somehow deficient.) The official cure for "emotional instability" and/or "unstressing" was to get your meditation checked, do more pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) and do more yoga asanas. That would set things right.

Another initiator friend of mine - I believe he got his Ph.D. in physics from an Ivy League college - gave me this thoughtful analysis of the genesis of mental illness: "People talk themselves into mental illness. I knew this woman who decided she had problems, and she just talked it into herself and talked it into herself, til finally she did become mentally ill."

In 1978 I got some counseling, and I became sufficiently "emotionally stable" that I was accepted for the TM-Sidhis course. In addition to learning the TM-Sidhis, the instructors used to read the English translation of the Ninth Mandala of the Rig Veda (a Hindu holy book) aloud to us for 15 minutes at a time. Jerry Jarvis (the former director of the Students International Meditation Society, U.S.) informed us that "the Ninth Mandala dissolves emotional hang-ups." Maharishi also helpfully explained that most mental illness was caused by not bathing frequently enough.

On the last day of the TM-Sidhis course, Maharishi begged us all to immediately move to Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, USA. He explained that our "flying" together on this recent course had prevented the outbreak of war, but the end of the course would create a sort of vacuum where there was even more chance than ever for war. I - and hundreds of others - moved to Fairfield that month.

I was depressed and anxious in Fairfield, doing my TM-Sidhis program two to four times a day. Was I unstressing? Was I simply too emotionally unstable? I felt that I needed counseling, but unfortunately there was no counseling department on campus. I had heard a rumor that such a department had once existed, but that Maharishi had told them to shut it down, as it just led to increased "negativity". I believe the counselors were transferred to the "academic counseling" office. So I contacted the academic counseling dept. and asked for an appointment. When I told the academic counselor of my emotional state, he encouragingly replied, "The only thing wrong with you is that you need a buddy!" (The buddy system was a TM tradition whereby you went everywhere with your buddy, and let them know if you were "unstressing.") One of the women in my dorm agreed to be my buddy, but since she continued to spend all her time with her friends from home, I never did find out if the only thing wrong with me was the lack of a "buddy." I did cheer up, however, when I moved to a dorm where I knew the people, and got a job I liked.

Several months later, an MIU friend confided to me that she was miserable, near tears, anxious, depressed, "unstressing." She went to a higher up and "confessed" that she had lied on her TM-Sidhis application form, and maybe she wasn't really evolved enough or stable enough to be worthy of living at MIU. The supervisor consoled her with, "No, if you're here, you were meant to be here."

A year and a half later, I started having anxiety attacks when I did the sidhis. These attacks were spilling over into my daily life. I left Fairfield about this time. Back home, I phoned the TM-Sidhis Administrators to ask them how to deal with the anxiety during my program. They never called me back. Eventually I stopped doing the TM-Sidhis.

A few years later, I read that several MIU students had ended up in the county mental hospital. How could that be, since TM improves mental health? An MIU professor explained, "Going to college is very stressful."

Others in Fairfield were also being hit with bouts of anxiety and depression, which was called "roughness" or "unstressing." When they complained about their condition, they were chided, "You're purifying the whole earth of its impurities, and you complain about unstressing!"

Slowly, counseling slipped into the Fairfield TM community. People kept it a secret if they were receiving counseling - after all, they could be thrown off courses, and their friends might look down on them for "stirring up the mud" and for not following Maharishi's wishes. But as one Fairfield TMer apologetically explained, "Of course we don't want to go to counselors. But if there's a n\crisis - you know, like your husband's having an affair, or your kid's on drugs - well, then, you do it if you have to." She never did explain how a husband could be having an affair or a child could be on drugs if they were all practicing that mental health-producing technique, Transcendental Meditation.

Well, those are my memories of the TM attitude towards mental health. Anyone have any memories that they would like to share? (Anonymously is fine.) Or any other comments?

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