Saturday, December 11, 2010

Where the TM Program Clearly Resembles a Religious Faith

Krishna, as seen in the TM movement's
"Heaven is Descending" animated video
Anyone who's spent any time examining TM is probably familiar with the usual outlines of this sort of discussion. Is TM religious in nature if not itself a religious practice? The usual response is that critics and non-devotees point out the obvious - the pervasive use of Hindu/Vedic imagery and practices at all levels of the TM organization, right down to the elements of the initiation ceremony and TM mantras. The response by TM devotees is perpetual denial of those same obvious features, or to summarize very briefly, a futile attempt to recast "Hindu" to "Vedic," and "Vedic" as somehow "scientific."

I'm going to set aside all of that well-worn territory for the moment and talk about something a bit different. This is the aspect of religious faith that is both about the creation and perpetuation of a religious institution, and the role of "faith" in sustaining that process.

How do you perpetuate a religious faith? First and foremost, a group of people must be conditioned to stick with that faith no matter what. It doesn't matter whether there is any concrete, repeatable evidence to support the beliefs associated with that faith; the true believer sticks with the faith. It doesn't matter if those beliefs are shown to be outright false, outrageous, backward, harmful, or the rough equivalent of insisting, despite all the readily available evidence in a modern world, that the world is flat.

The interesting thing about the creation of such a group is that often the window of opportunity to do that can be rather small, in two ways. First, the members of the group are often recruited while young, while teenagers or young adults, and recruitment depends on obtaining access to pools of young people who may serve as candidates for conversion. The likelihood of conversion falls off as the prospect ages. Candidates must at least be those who suppress the "you must be nuts" sort of response to the initial presentation of the tenets of the faith and be willing to proceed, even if they harbor doubts about it. Second, broad cultural influences that supported the basic tenets of the faith, which might be relatively transitory in society as a whole, can be exploited to support recruitment for people to build an institution that will outlast those cultural influences, surviving while those elements of the surrounding culture, as they were, become a fond memory of the distant past.

Now, having written that, I can hear some grumbling out there at the words, "tenets of the faith." It sounds so Christian, Western, so inapplicable to what TM is, or its promoters say it is, about. But the tenets are in some ways not explicitly pointed to as tenets; they are the figures of speech, sometimes metaphors, that are used over and over by those who've in some way made it their life's work to perpetuate Transcendental Meditation.

One that comes to mind is in the words of Mike Love, who once was recorded for a radio program distributed by the TM movement. I can't offhand remember the rest of what he said in that program, but what stuck is four words: "just by simply meditating." It plays with the complicated relationship between what goes on in our minds and our imaginations, and the act of actually doing, of actually making a dent in our physical surroundings.

The TM faith says two things at the same time. It first says, meditate, then do. It then says that meditation has some magical direct effect upon the environment through some vaguely-described mechanism that exists outside any known and generally recognized scientific theory. These two things exist in tension, but there's an element of, you can have your cake and eat it, too. You continue doing whatever it is you're doing, while meditating and changing the world by exerting very little effort at all.

This is, of course, in the context of a grand plan; they even used to call it, back in the '70's, a "World Plan," fairly obvious to most since at the time the TM teaching organization was called the "World Plan Executive Council." In glowing terms, such as this from the beginning of "The TM Book," TM is, by implication, held to be more important than almost anything else: "The Transcendental Meditation program changes the quality of life from poverty, emptiness, and suffering to abundance, fulfillment, and happiness." This is the kind of broad claim that's generally only heard from the devotees of a religious faith.

All this sort of language was very much part of the context of the late 1960's and early 1970's. It fit right in with popular culture, attracted celebrities, and resonated among relatively affluent, and often young, Westerners with time and wealth, as it was basically a call to "change the world" by taking 45 minutes of individual leisure time each day and doing nothing with it. What a deal! Today, it just sounds rather quaint, particularly when you keep in mind that the TM movement has had 40 years or more to support such grand claims with overwhelming supportive evidence - not another set of flimsy preliminary studies, surveys and promotional videos - and it consistently comes up empty.

This week, we're about to see another round of celebrity-laced promotions for Transcendental Meditation organized by the David Lynch Foundation. Lists of alleged "experts" supporting the programs, who'll appear at these events, are circulating. The thing that strikes me is the degree to which many of these "experts" are so alike. Most are over 50 years old, were initiated into the TM program as teenagers or young adults sometime around 1975, the peak years of TM initiation, and over the years, many of them have participated in other promotional efforts including running as political candidates under the Natural Law Party banner. (The NLP was a thinly-veiled and ultimately doomed attempt to obtain governmental support and funding for the Transcendental Meditation program by direct involvement in the political process.)

They are examples of exactly how TM was both a product of its times, and a product of the youthfulness of many who were initiated. They're almost instinctively repeating the same tenets and metaphors I first heard back in the mid-70's; rather than accepting and adapting to change - one of the alleged named benefits of TM back in those days - they continue to support TM, almost in defiance of its ineffectiveness relative to their claims, and the devolving of the organization to the point where its leaders express open contempt for, and avoidance of, science and medicine. *

Few, if any, of these "experts" can be described as having been completely independent of the TM organization for most of their adult lives. Most use their practice of TM for more than thirty years as confirmation of TM's efficacy. On the other hand, that could be viewed as evidence of extreme stubbornness in the face of having become involved with an ultimately faith-based program that will never live up to the decades of hype created by its proponents.

I'll go into some detail on the background of all those people described as "researchers," who'll be part of the next David Lynch Foundation event, in my next article here.

* "We are not going to take help from medical Drs. as medical professionals give poison. So don’t engage any medical Drs. for anything—absolutely whatever it is—even if they are in our Movement family" - Kingsley and Leslie Brooks, "Governor Recertification Course Overview of Policies & Procedures May, 2005"

1 comment:

John M. Knapp, LMSW said...

I think that one has to realize that the TM movement is changing just like the rest of us, The TM movement that i Left in 1988 is no more. Well some of the people is still there, and some dogma is still there, but apart from that TMO is moving forward. I write this because when I vent revisiting TM I realised that the movement I once knew is no more. But still the same name, the same prices (Higher ;-)) and yet many things has changed.

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