Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Triumph of the Incurious: Oprah Visits Fairfield's Pandits

Previously: Oprah Winfrey's Transcendental Meditation episode airs Sunday, and open thread

Update: An Alumni's Response to Oprah's Visit to Maharishi School

Remember when reporters actually practiced something that used to be called "investigative journalism?" When they used to ask embarrassing questions on TV shows like "60 Minutes" and not let go until they got an answer - or, when the subject's silence made it clear they had something to hide?

Yeah, I'm idealizing the way TV used to be, and it's easy to forget that that sort of ambush-style reporting wasn't always the norm. Today, though, there's Oprah and her new series, where something like the reverse is true. An important question gets asked - and it just sort of sails off into thin air, forgotten, while the subject gets to divert the viewer's attention to something else completely innocuous. Perhaps it's just the cost of doing business, when one's remaining career has devolved down to making the rich and famous but utterly bogus look good. Very good.

Maharishi Vedic Pandit barracks. (Google Maps)
In my post over the weekend I mentioned that Oprah's "Next Chapter" episode focusing on Fairfield, Iowa, and Transcendental Meditation might be noteworthy if only because it would be the first time a videographer from the outside world would visit the relatively "mysterious" pandit compound two miles outside of town - a clear manifestation of the religious inner core of the global Transcendental Meditation organization. I'd asked, what kind of spin would the TM movement's spokespeople need to apply, to reframe those images into something innocuous, that wouldn't serve as a complete show-stopper to prospective meditators?

It turns out, no spin is necessary, if the questions never get asked - or, if asked, answers are never pursued.

I am, of course, talking about an episode of a program that was little more than an infomercial for Transcendental Meditation, along with plenty of supporting advertising material and links on the show's own website. The hour was filled with the usual personal testimonials, bracketed by footage provided by the David Lynch Foundation and a documentary filmmaker long associated with the DLF. By the end of the next-to-last segment, the address of the tm.org website was prominently displayed, after most of an hour of Oprah being easily impressed and "shocked" about everyday life in Fairfield, and the idea that both children and adults would take time out of their day for other things besides work.

(It was interesting watching this program with someone who'd attended Quaker boarding school in the midwest, where working in silence for long periods, and silent group meetings twice a day were the norm. Perhaps Oprah needs to do a little more research into obscure corners of American life before insisting that Fairfielders and their embrace of TM signifies something completely unique.)

Threaded through the program was the usual insistence that TM had very little to do with religion, that "Jewish, Catholic and Muslim" students attend the Maharishi school and their featured testimonials for TM came from a "good little Presbyterian girl." At the same time, throughout the program there are signs that what is being presented sits well outside the usual bounds of rationality, that many of the things associated with TM, in this very TV program, flickering by one after the other with little comment, questioning or basic fact-checking, stem from that of a religion.

The first major indicator something's not quite right: a digression into "Vastu architecture" five minutes into the program. Jonathan Lipman, the TM movement architect, makes the preposterous claim that  "when our house faces east, then we get the influence of nourishment from the sun, it may be hard to believe but it's completely measurable, it's real." Like most everything said by TM promoters that contains the word "real," there is no such evidence to support this specific claim made for building orientation, but since this is little more than an infomercial for all things connected with TM, this sort of blatant lie is presented as fact. Rather than being an obvious point of contention or perhaps ridicule, it becomes part of Oprah's subtle exercise of authority throughout the program: these may be unbelievable things, but she believes them, and you should believe them because she believes them, and she won't even be curious enough to ask if there's even a grain of truth to them at all.

A few minutes is spent with the Winer family, whose claims supporting TM are entirely predictable: her migranes went away (watch carefully where she says that those headaches stopped by simply lying down next to her meditating husband, not by practicing TM herself), and just like every religious convert, everything good in their lives - even things that would otherwise come naturally through their, or their childrens' growing up experiences - is automatically attributed to TM.

Then we're off to the "Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment," where again, things fly by that are worth questioning, but are completely unexamined. Why is there a textbook in Sanskrit in their high school? What, exactly, are the students being taught with that textbook? Odds are, that's a chunk of one of the Vedic texts, and yes, those are some of the scriptures of one of the worlds' major religions sitting there. But we won't ask about that. No, not today. Onward we go, no curiosity about any of that at all...

We get to follow children walking aimlessly through the corridors of the Maharishi school as they silently practice a "walking meditation." We look down from a balcony, and what do we find here? It's a model of the Maharishi Vedic Observatory!  Why is it there in a prominent location? That's because it  has magical positive effects upon anyone whose gaze falls upon the model: "Simply by observing the instruments, which in their form reflect the orderly movements of the starry world, one gains balance." That, and apparently it's placed in the "brahmasthan" to keep students from walking through it. What's a brahmasthan? It's "the area of the building where silence is kept lively," or in other words, where the Vedic devata hang out and make good things happen to the building's occupants.

Again, the completely incongruous or unlikely goes by without comment, because an in-depth conversation about how that model is placed there to avoid disastrous collisions between students and Vedic devata might be rather embarrassing for the school's reputation.

So after another commercial break, we're off to the women's dome. Again, no mention of why the domes were originally constructed, or why there's foam rubber all over the floor: the domes were constructed for group practice of "Yogic Flying," and after Oprah leaves the place after this carefully organized photo opportunity, that's what will be happening on those piles of foam she calls "beds." It's a carefully sanitized picture of what happens in the domes, and Oprah meekly goes along. It would be a lot more interesting if a glimpse of what normally happens here were demonstrated, as it was in "David Wants to Fly," but that might throw a wrench into the organization's hoped-for recruitment surge after the program airs, so we're out of luck on that one.

Time out for the obligatory plug of the organization's website, and after another break, while the truly enthralled will run over to their computers and ignore the rest of the program, we get to the part that might be a bit more than the usual sales pitch for TM: the visit to the pandit compound. Billed as "professional meditators" who were brought from India in the name of "world peace," this segment is much like the pitch for the TM program itself: it's a bit peculiar, and we insist it'll be good for you, and for the planet, but we won't really tell you how or why.

The whole premise of the pandit program is dependent on magic words and magical thinking: that by gathering large groups of people who are meditating and chanting, they'll "transmit positive energy across Iowa and ultimately the globe." This idea, of course, defies all known physics and biology, but what it actually is, and where it comes from, is not explicitly disclosed.  Rogers Badgett, Oprah's host, calls the chanting a "custom and tradition of India." Oprah asks the question: "What are they chanting and what are they chanting for?" The reply: "They are chanting for the world peace."

Then Oprah fills time with a pretty picture of a waterfall and repeats the TM teacher's patter about how certain sounds having a "calming and peaceful effect," how "sound nourishes nature" and how repetition of those sounds supposedly creates peace throughout the entire world.

Those of us who've watched the promoters of TM for a long time are familiar with this gambit, and it goes way, way back to the earliest days of TM teacher training courses led by Maharishi, who in those courses would observe: "Every question is a perfect opportunity for the answer we have already prepared." The answer given will be no more than that. Here, Oprah specifically asked, what is it that is being chanted? The response is, "we do it for world peace." In other words, "we aren't going to tell you what's being chanted, because you don't need to know right now."

Instead of a bit of investigation as to what pandits actually do (hint: Wikipedia helps a lot with that) we see, instead, pretty waterfall pictures and Oprah repeating the usual dumbed-down, supposedly secular-sounding word-substituted sanitized bits of Indian spirituality as they're presented by TM teachers worldwide: "sound nourishes nature." (In fact, they sing to plants, too!) There's no curiosity on her part, as there's a very long backstory about what the pandits are doing, and why, but nothing more than this evasive and sanitized simplification - the official public statements of the TM movement - will appear on her program.
Vedic devata, from the Maharishi Channel
"Today in the Vedic Calendar" feature

As I wrote some time back in "Is it a religion, or a dessert topping?" a more detailed explanation of the inner core doctrine of the TM movement sometimes emerges. It's not just a matter of "sound nourishing nature." It is that they believe that the "laws of nature" are governed by "devata" (more commonly known as "gods") and those "devata" may be positively influenced by human activity, through the use of sounds that "enliven" those "devata." Some of those sounds are the mantras issued during the learning of TM. Others are the Vedic recitation, or chanting, or formal rituals called "yagyas," that are being peformed by those hundreds of pandits in their compound two miles out of Fairfield, Iowa.

Oprah asks, who's paying for the pandits? Yes, wealthy people really do believe this stuff, and they're pumping cash into this operation, and likely, some of it is going home to support the families of these participants, effectively supporting a particular Vedic sect back in India. But it's not only that; as was mentioned at another point in the program, many other programs are paid for from TM fees, and a small part of the initiation fees Oprah herself paid for her and her staff's instruction into TM likely went to support these pandits.

Again, though, digging out all these interesting details is not difficult - in fact, a lot of it is in plain sight, if not right there before Oprah's eyes, it's easily found on the web. But it takes a bit of curiosity, of inquisitiveness, an unwillingness to simply continue shoveling what's been shoveled in front of you, but to ask more questions and get some real answers. Unfortunately, that's not what Oprah seems capable of doing today.

Revealing the TM movement's pandit project through a famous public figure like Oprah might have been an interesting vehicle to come clean with the rest of the world and finally fess up: yes, what we do stems from a religious root, and yes, every claim we make about our effectiveness at every level, from the individual to the world, is a claim ultimately made from faith, not from science.  As expected, though, that's not what happened, and as usual, every claim TM promoters ever make - Oprah among them - is suspect until and unless they rationally deal with this obvious contradiction.

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