Friday, November 11, 2011

No girls allowed in the treehouse! Oprah, Ellen, and Transcendental Meditation

It's getting to be TM silly season again. The first reports have just begun to arrive, of famous talk-show hosts having visited the Fairfield, Iowa, epicenter of almost all things TM in the US, and the formal announcement of David Lynch's yearly fundraising gala. Soon we'll be treated to a small stream of mentions of Transcendental Meditation in various media, usually involving some marginally-famous or once-famous movie star, music legend or other public figure.

As always, though, they'll only be repeating one tiny little piece of the story: about how this particular form of meditation is allegedly the cure for almost anything that ails you, and how some supposedly "at-risk" population group - usually a group that's also vulnerable to manipulation by various hucksters and quacks - stands to benefit by learning TM through the fundraising efforts of the David Lynch Foundation.

Oprah Winfrey, "His Majesty Maharaja Adhiraj Rajaraam," head of the global TM movement, and Ellen DeGeneres.

Those of us who've been involved in some way with TM for some time, or watched the movement's gyrations for some years, have seen it all before. The marketing of the program has for decades focused on recruiting prominent individuals to the cause, who may then support TM publicly, recruiting others personally through their connections, or through the media, promoting it on television or in print. Today, though, it's inexplicable why intelligent and resourceful people, who you might think would know better, and who have a reputation to protect, would bother getting anywhere near TM or the organization that sells it.

A few minutes with Google should reveal to most anyone that the TM sales pitch actually says very little about the organization and the people doing the selling; there's an anti-scientific, anti-medical and extraordinarily odd, if not just plain bizarre, social structure that lies behind the façade used to sell the TM program to the world, where its devotees profess habits and beliefs that many would find repugnant if not positively medieval.

Today, we hear that Oprah Winfrey has been seen meditating at the movement's university campus, and is preparing to air a segment of her show promoting TM in January. Oprah, as most people know, is a billionaire and has been called the world's most influential woman. The David Lynch Foundation is also promoting a December fundraising gala featuring Ellen DeGeneres, who is also no slouch in the wealth and influence department.

Why are these two women endorsing a program that can only be purchased from a blatantly sexist organization, that allows no women in leadership positions, and that enforces a strict separation of the sexes when administering its programs?

His Majesty and rajas in India at Maharishi's funeral, February 2008.

The hierarchy of the "Global Country of World Peace," which offers Transcendental Meditation as its flagship product worldwide, excludes women entirely. Women serve in support roles and as wives of the leadership, but no women serve as a "raja," as they call their regional administrators, or "minister" of the "Global Country." An instant spent viewing the list of royal crown and robe wearing "rajas" and "ministers" at Wikipedia, sourced to a TM movement newsletter, makes it clear that women are nonexistent and may not participate in the management ranks of the organization that teaches Transcendental Meditation worldwide.

But there's more. The TM movement regularly excludes women who are pregnant or menstruating from its events, and, it's rumored, from advanced TM or teacher training courses. While this instruction might reference "the "Vedic tradition" to justify these restrictions, this comes right back to the unscientific, and many would say, religious underpinnings of Transcendental Meditation and the movement that teaches it, that are habitually denied in public by its spokesmen.

Seriously. I can't imagine these women agreeing to any monthly restriction on what they may or may not do in any other context. Can you? Why are they endorsing a product that is only available from an organization with such practices, giving it almost priceless free publicity, and in Oprah's case, paying substantial sums to it for her employees to participate?

No discussion of the TM movement's sexism and attitudes about all things sexual is complete without mention of its enforcement of sex segregation throughout the program, and the fact that two, geographically-separated, groups of celibate individuals that resemble religious orders - "Purusha," for males, and "Mother Divine," for females - are part of the organization. The most prominent member of the "Purusha," to outsiders, is TM movement spokesman Bob Roth. It's ironic that the movement's founder, despite public appearances, was quite sexually active in private, while these exclusive groups within the TM movement insist upon complete celibacy of all participants.

While old-timers may have been taught TM by a member of the opposite sex, that is no longer permitted. Internal TM movement "policy and procedure" documents dated 2005 stipulate, "Ladies always teach ladies and men always teach men." "Refresher" courses are to be taught with men and women on opposite sides of the room. It's hard to imagine these restrictions as part of a modern, science-based, rational, secular organization; they are easily understood as the customs of an unscientific religious tradition.

The apparent indifference of the latest crop of Transcendental Meditation's spokesmodels to the underlying facts about the practice and the organization presents a bit of a puzzle, but I'll throw out one possible explanation. The whole sales pitch for TM is designed to appeal to the individual's immediate self-interest: the tendency to want the "free lunch" of a cheap and effortless means to improve one's life, to want it delivered right now, disregarding any other concerns about all the other problematic aspects that might eventually come along with associating oneself with the program. Here, two incredibly powerful women have become involved with, and are actively promoting and endorsing, an entire system in which keeping women powerless has been demonstrated to be at the core of its tenets and beliefs. This spectacle should serve as a warning to anyone considering the program.

Every dollar spent on fees to learn TM goes to promote and support the entire program - including this "no girls allowed" club of guys running around in royal crowns and robes; they are inseparable from the teaching and practice of Transcendental Meditation today. In fact, this organization is the only one on earth that is composed exclusively of people who practice the TM program, most for decades now. Any claim that this meditation is also somehow distinct from the doctrine of the organization that teaches it is also shown to be dubious when every aspect of learning TM - including the introductory lecture - is packed full of over-the-top claims for the perfection of its products, and by implication, its underlying doctrine.

Prospective meditators should be asking: will involvement with TM eventually change my basic attitudes towards the world, my neighbors, and my family? Are key aspects of the program, including the values and beliefs clearly held and demonstrated by its leaders, completely at odds with my own values and interests? Does the fact that people like Oprah and Ellen are promoting an organization that's so clearly at odds with even their own everyday existence suggest that there's something unusual about the way TM is taught ("a deliberate strategy of progressive revelation") that somehow makes people unwilling to rationally consider these problematic aspects of the program? These and other questions are best asked long before one begins the process of learning Transcendental Meditation.

Photo credits: From Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. Alan Light; Public domain; © Glenn Francis,

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