Thursday, October 17, 2019

Ashley's story: My experience of my husband's journey into Transcendental Meditation

Stock photo of a generic young couple, not the contributors.
Here's the second of the personal stories contributed by Tony and Ashley (not their real names), a couple who were challenged by Tony's involvement with the Transcendental Meditation program. This is Ashley's recounting of her experience, in which she explains how she watched her husband both gain some benefits from TM practice, while his behavior and beliefs changed in ways she found uncomfortable and disturbing. She describes in detail how an individual's priorities can radically change over time through TM involvement, beginning with simple twice-a-day TM, to the point of threatening their marriage. All of this occurred despite the frequently repeated claims by TM teachers that TM doesn't involve a change in beliefs or lifestyle. Fortunately, as Tony recalled in the first part, he disengaged from the TM program and they're now working to bring their relationship back to normal.

My experience of my husband's journey into Transcendental Meditation: 
A few years ago my husband Tony announced that he would like to learn Transcendental Meditation. He'd been looking into various mindfulness apps and still hadn't found what he was looking for. At this time he suffered from crippling social anxiety to the point where it was difficult for us to even have a normal social life, so I agreed that this was worth a try. The cost seemed pretty exorbitant and part of me was skeptical, but if this form of meditation worked the way it said, it would it all be worth it. 
There were a few odd things about the course: Despite being "non-religious" it started with a ritual involving prayer, fruit and a handkerchief but this was no big deal really and he did love what he learned. Despite my doubts, my husband threw himself into this new regime of meditating morning and night for 20 minutes, and indeed it did seem to be working. We could now go to a dinner party or drinks with his colleagues without him becoming agitated and withdrawn on the way there. In this one small way TM had changed both of our lives for the better and it had all been worth it. The daily meditation continued like clockwork. 
My husband started going along to weekly meetings at his local TM center which was only 10 minutes walk from our house. He'd found an exciting new interest and wanted to meet others who practiced TM. He went along to an advanced course which would set us back about an extra US$ 600. I didn't mind the cost but I was quite surprised when he seemed to be back from the course within an hour or so each day. Surely a weekend course costing that much money would be all weekend? 
He continued his meditation through the following months and there were more advanced courses and a few weekend retreats. These were very regimented programs of relaxation which sounded awful from an outsider's point of view but he loved them, so I was keen to be supportive. 
I can't pinpoint at exactly what point in the process my husband began changing his belief system, but I remember some very uncomfortable discussions where he was telling me things that just sounded plain crazy as non-negotiable facts. Some of these facts were: 

  • That if he did enough advanced courses he could learn "yogic flying," a basic form of beginner levitation that would eventually lead to him being able to fly.
  • That a certain number of people doing yogic flying together could stop wars and car accidents in other parts of a country where yogic flying was happening.
  • That some kind of a forcefield of goodness was created by meditators, especially those practicing yogic flying.
  • That everyone in the world must do TM in order to live fully to their potential.
  • That TM was the answer to climate change. 

We live in an extremely culturally diverse society and have friends who are Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, mainline Protestant, Buddhist. It's important to me to support others in whatever system of belief they need, but even so something deeply troubled me about my husband's new apparent belief system. I was torn between needing to respect him and knowing something wasn't right. Also what wasn't right in my head was his belief that TM would solve everything for everyone. If a friend or family member was going through any kind of rough time he'd recommend TM or say afterwards, "Man, they really need to do TM." As a friend was telling us about his alternative meditation practice he just shook his head at this "non-effective wrong meditation." 
At one stage he had decided that he wanted to teach TM. This in itself wasn't surprising given he has a passion for both TM and teaching in general. What was surprising was that in order to teach TM we would have to live in a house that faced a certain direction. He'd checked online and our house did not fit the requirements. Before he could train as a TM teacher we'd have to move. I was furious. We loved our house. We'd nearly paid off the mortgage and we'd put so many hours into decorating it in a way that was completely unique and "us." This time I really put my foot down. I wanted to support him but we were simply not leaving our house for TM. He dropped the subject and we didn't speak of it again. 
He mentioned someday wanting to visit the "worldwide home of TM" and Maharishi University in Iowa. This seemed reasonable. I wanted to visit an animal sanctuary in Tennessee so we decided we could do another tour through there sometime. 
TM continued to be a uniform and in my case slightly uncomfortable part of our lives but the next time that it really popped up as a problem in our relationship was after he completed his final "advanced technique." He came home from the course on an unnatural high, talking non-stop about how wonderful TM was and how inspiring it was to be around "TMers." He hinted that he somehow thought that people who did TM were in some way on a higher plane than people who didn't. He told me that people who did TM looked younger than people who didn't. Because this hit such a nerve with me, I unfortunately didn't question where these thoughts came from. I just argued back. This would be one of the many sources of guilt for me down the track as I missed an obvious opportunity to question what was going on. 
Another thing that happened around this time was that he started exchanging messages with a girl in his TM group. He was truly on top of the world but there was a giant wall between us and it was getting harder and harder to communicate. Despite my husband being trustworthy and our relationship being strong, my previous experience tells me that when this big of a communication breakdown happens in a relationship there is somebody else so I tried to put 2 and 2 together. This would also become another major regret in the months to come because it distracted me from what was actually going on. I became jealous and unsettled. During this time the Sidhis course became available and my husband jumped at the chance to throw US$ 4500, not including some hundreds more for flights and accommodations. This would take up 3 weekends and then part of our summer vacation. The day that he got the dates of the Sidhis course he decided to enroll in a weekend retreat on the holiday weekend before the Sidhis course started. This was becoming out of control. 
His daily meditations had become longer so despite our mutual belief in equal gender roles in a marriage, I was doing all of the cooking, and nearly all of the housework as he simply had to fit in his meditation no matter what. He kept trying to reassure me but I just knew something was amiss. I kept trying harder in our marriage as did he. He tried to end any suspicion or jealousy I felt by showing me the string of messages between him and the other TM participant. Of course there was nothing to suggest him being unfaithful but what did really shock me, however, was part of the conversation where they were talking about the draw of the "Purusha" and "Mother Divine" programs, where you essentially pay many thousands to go overseas and become a celibate monk or nun meditating full time with no contact with the outside world. How do two talented and successful people with lives and careers sign up to learn a relaxation technique and end up even considering such a thing? 
It also unsettled me from a personal level. What was missing in our relationship that my husband would even be tempted by such a prospect? 
I had been trying to meditate with him (using a phone app rather than the actual TM method) and had some success but I got to the stage where I just couldn't continue. Even the thought of meditation made me mad. This "relaxation technique" was rapidly wrecking our lives and our marriage. 
We went through a number of ups and downs. I went to our good friend's birthday dinner alone while he went to a talk by a visiting "Vedic physician" at the TM center. He also paid nearly two hundred dollars to see the Vedic doctor for a brief appointment only to be given a list of vegetables he shouldn't eat as they "aggravated his dosha." I was even more annoyed - not only was I on dinner duty alone but I was limited by the TM center by what I could cook. We already had a cupboard full of expensive Vedic herbs that hadn't worked last time which he dutifully went back to taking. (These I would later gleefully empty into the trash bin while singing "Na na na na… Hey-Hey.... Goodbye!") 
The breaking point came just when we thought we were really fixing things between us, I suggested asking his TM contacts on Facebook how others manage their relationship with a "non-TMer." Funnily enough nobody really seemed to know anything about having a non-TM partner but they all offered "support" talking about having had their families "initiated" (how creepy!) and insisting that the Sidhis course would strengthen our relationship and that I must learn to understand how important it was to do the full Sidhi program of 70+ minutes twice a day. WHAT?! He was also told that cutting the program short wasn't an option and would have terrible effects on him. HUH? This was a life sentence? We'd mutually decided not to have children as we didn't want our lives together to be so restricted. Now our lives would be permanently restricted by TM with no holidays, no days off, no retirement, yet somehow this was something he needed and couldn't not do? 
I tried to keep it together for a bit but got overtaken by anxiety and grief for the easy happy future that we wouldn't have. On my worst day I cried so much that I had to tell co-workers that I had hay fever to explain away my red eyes and sniffles. After I got home from work that day I told my husband that I could no longer be married to a TMer. I'd never thought to leave him for a moment but at the time I couldn't see another way forward. As soon as I said it and saw his face I regretted having even said the words I couldn't unsay. I didn't mean it. I wanted us and our life together, so did he. We'd make it work somehow. We just didn't know how yet. The fear of losing each other was a wake up call and in some ways bought us closer at least but things still weren't right. We didn't know how to get through the Sidhis and for me asking him to give up his favorite thing wasn't an option. 
We muddled through our next few weeks. In a move unusual for me, I reached out to my two best childhood friends for support. Not only were they understanding, but one of them actually had an ex partner try to involve her in an indoctrinating course based on Scientology. She really understood my predicament in a way I hadn't expected, and she got me thinking of a new problem. Was TM a cult? Obviously not, how ridiculous. Everyone kept telling me that meditation is a good, scientifically proven, beneficial thing to do. 
The next morning on a whim I googled the words "Is TM a cult?". 90% of entries said "absolutely not, it's a simple and effective relaxation technique." Ok. But how had my husband changed his entire belief system? I kept googling and found information about Gina Catena, her escape from a TM life in Fairfield and the blog she contributes to, the TM-Free Blog. I was intrigued but still didn't quite believe it in my own mind. Maybe TM was a cult if you were living in Iowa, but here it was definitely just a relaxation technique with some wacky ideas about flying. 

I tried to show my husband some of the articles on the TM-Free Blog. He was upset and hurt. "Why are you only looking at the negative?!", "Why are you making me sound crazy?". He was so certain on the "science" of TM that I actually started to question my own reality. Am I just a horrible cynical atheist who's trying to burst his bubble? He started meditating less (or so I thought - he was actually just mediating when I was asleep or out) and things seemed to be improving so I let it go, however something still didn't add up. I couldn't sleep and I couldn't stop worrying. On a whim I contacted Gina through the TM-Free Blog and she offered the names of a whole bunch of cult exit therapists.. I honestly thought that was a bit dramatic, there was no question that I needed to get my husband away from this but surely it wasn't an actual cult? I didn't know anymore. 
During this period of time I somehow had to function as normal. It's easy to get time off work for an illness or a family bereavement but because you're trying to get your husband out of a cult? They don't have special leave for that and I couldn't even imagine telling anyone this. I didn't know where to turn or who to talk to. I searched the TM-Free Blog and found a link to the documentary, "David Wants to Fly." Amazingly my husband agreed to watch it with me. The content was absolutely shocking to both of us but somehow he still wanted to go ahead with the Sidhis course. He felt like the organization was questionable but the techniques he was learning were everything. 
I couldn't believe he would pay money to this corrupt organization. The indoctrination was strong. I started to feel like we were getting somewhere and for the first time I had hope. Life doesn't stop, however, and I also had a 5 hour long work session scheduled that day, I was scared to leave my husband on his own. I was completely distracted during the session and had my phone in front of me and messaged him throughout. My mind wasn't in it and I had to redo some of my work, but I got home exhausted and pulled out the TM-Free Blog again. 
I found the link to "" by Joe Kellett, former TM teacher, where the brainwashing techniques are explained in detail and we both read it. Every time I think I've learnt the worst of this organization I find something even more shocking. I had to stop reading as it was too upsetting. My husband read the whole thing. He kept bargaining with me. "Can I just do the first half of the Sidhis course?", "Can I just do the retreat? I really need a break." I gently stood my ground and we took most of the night either talking or reading or just holding hands while his brain started to un-fog. Finally there came a point where he started to come back to reality. He looked so confused, exhausted and heartbroken that I didn't know what to do. We fell asleep and the next day I knew he was different because I woke up next to him. I hadn't woken up next to my husband for years - he was always meditating. I had the relief of all of this being over but still the nagging fear that he might regress. I couldn't do this alone anymore so I called my Mom and promptly burst into tears admitting that my husband had been taken in by a terrible cult. We talked to close family and friends who were all loving and supportive. He said he felt like he'd woken up after being drunk. I was afraid to let him out of my sight. I was giddy with relief. 
I will never entirely understand how a cult could warp the mind of the best person I know but I do have some insights, some from the suggestibility page and some from my own perception. 
Meditators initially do receive genuine benefits from meditation and won't necessarily see any ill effects with their initial twenty minutes twice a day. This helps them develop a sense of trust with the organization and a willingness to continue on a journey. 
Meditators are in a vulnerable "trance-like" state post meditation at the weekly meetings, courses and retreats. This is when the indoctrination happens. I liken it to the time my perfectly intelligent Aunt got woken up during a nap by a telephone scammer. In her vulnerable confused state she obediently read out her credit card number to the scammer as she was told. At any other time she would never have done that. The TM meetings and video showings all happen post meditation when the participants are in that state almost like the state between sleep and waking. 
TM participants are flattered into believing that they are superior to others. They are bombarded with suspect "scientifically proven research" about higher brain coherence and amazing benefits on their lives that they start to believe it. Studies are mentioned showing the brain coherence of "Top Musicians," "Top Athletes" and "Top Business People." My husband is an incredibly talented pianist and a superb athlete as well as a successful professional at a well known company. Of course he would have subconsciously related to this. Likewise, participants are subtly told that non-TMers don't have the right brain coherence to understand the wackier concepts in the TM dogma. We don't understand levitation, not because we're skeptical and grounded in reality. Simply put, they say, we're just not smart enough to get it. 
I can also personally relate to this. When I was studying at school I had one (largely unsuccessful) instrumental lesson with a popular music teacher. It was immediately clear that we weren't a good fit, however at the end he said to me "You are the ONLY person in this school who actually makes the changes. No one else does this, they don't have a clue." I was flattered into thinking I'd had a successful lesson and should consider changing to this teacher. An hour later I was horrified, realising that I'd been subtly manipulated and so I stuck with my favourite teacher who was great, with no regrets.

TM participants have this in a much more subtle and on-going way, the indoctrination that they are better than others happens over a long slow period. It's truly cruel and ironic when a corrupt organization can tell its members their brains are at a higher level and at the same time make them believe they can fly. 
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I genuinely don't believe that the TM teachers even understand that they are manipulating or indoctrinating anyone, which is precisely why it works so well and is so incredibly dangerous. They really do believe that they're creating world peace through yogic butt-hopping. They are sincere and genuine. Their insistence that this actually works is contagious. 
As to our future, it will be a slow road to recovery for both of us with many ups and downs. I love my husband more than ever and now have so much enthusiasm for our future free from indoctrination and nonsensical dogma to live by. It's heartbreaking to watch him go through and question everything in his reality. It's a hard thing for anyone to do and I think he's the bravest person I know for coming forward and admitting that he was wrong on this one. One day he'd still like to be a meditation teacher. I think he'll be a brilliant teacher but only once he deals with his confused relationship to meditation and separates the TM dogma from the genuine simple benefits of a daily meditation. It will be a long time before I'm willing to try meditation again but when the right time comes I will be his first student. 
I will never blame my husband for what happened to him with TM but I am trying to let go of the guilt that I let my him join a cult right under my nose. I also had my reality warped, in a lesser way than he did. (At what time could I have ever considered it normal for my husband to spend his vacations and multi-thousands, learning to levitate?). I'm also trying to let go of the fear and shock at how our lives could have turned out. Mostly, though I'm just pleased to have a promising future with the man I love. 

Continue reading: Tony's story of his journey through, and out of, the TM program

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