Paying a Premium for Enlightenment: Why Meditators Need to Reject TM

I began meditating a year and a half ago. I practice a secularized mindfulness meditation that I discovered reading Dan Harris’s 10% Happier.

Growing up in Iowa I had long heard about the Transcendental Meditation (TM) Movement and its US epicenter in Fairfield, IA. This group practices a different meditation than I do. Oprah, Seinfeld, Katy Perry, and Hugh Jackman are just a few of the celebrities who endorse Transcendental Meditation. TM is a mantra meditation that has Hindu origins. Given that I will be moving to New England for graduate school soon, I thought I would visit Fairfield this weekend to learn a bit about their meditation technique and maybe try some of their mantra meditation while I am still nearby.

Before I visited I knew they were a little wrapped up in old Hindu meta-physical nonsense, but I came in with the assumption that they were probably pretty grounded in reality. They are known for their eco-friendly, vegetarian ways. How could a liberal like myself be too suspicious of a bunch of vegetarian, Prius drivers with solar panels on their roofs?

I have found great benefits in meditation through my year and a half of mindfulness practice. It has helped reduce stress, obsessive thoughts, and panic attacks. The meditation center where I often practice is quite secularized, but sometimes reads Buddhist texts or drops phrases in Pali (the language of the Buddha.) This slight node to meditation’s history is somewhat romantic and never bothered me much, but what I witnessed this weekend in Fairfield was truly horrifying.

When I visited their information center I kept trying to get the spokeswoman to explain how TM differs from any other mantra meditation or my own mindfulness practice. She consistently said that she “couldn’t get into the mechanics of the process before I began the program as it would ‘ruin my innocence’” She explained that the inital training program would cost $960. (I believe this price is a sign of their current struggles recruiting as they used to charge around $2,500 for the first training session.)

The pseudo-science that she employed in her appeal to me was laughable. Simply asking her the most basic questions regarding their “scientific research,” which the TM movement claims proves TM’s superiority to all other forms of meditation, produced cringeworthy non-answers.

When I asked the TM spokeswoman if I could simply go into their famous golden dome to meditate for 20 mins I was told that I would need to spend the $960 and get “trained” and even then I would not be allowed in until I reach a very “advanced stage.”

I persisted. I explained that I realized I had not been trained in TM, but why couldn’t I visit the dome and simply practice my own mindfulness meditation? She explained that this wasn’t possible because my practice produces “inferior brainwaves” to their TM style of meditation and my brainwaves would interfere with the superior brainwaves being produced by “advanced TM meditators.”

Needless to say, I did not sign up for their training course.

I find TM’s business practices so scary because I turned to meditation during a very difficult time in my life. I have OCD and Panic Disorder with agoraphobia and was desperate to find a way to help calm my obsessive thoughts. Thank goodness I found meditation through people like Dan Harris, Sam Harris, and my local mindfulness community, to which I have never paid a single cent throughout my entire practice.

I was assured this was all backed up by “science and peer reviewed journals.”

I found this article written by a former TM teacher online where he details the indoctrination techniques that they use.

The documentary David Wants to Fly by the German filmmaker David Sieveking is also a great look into the TM cult.

I’m glad that many universities are doing real research into meditation and it’s mental and physical benefits. The University of Wisconsin, for example, has an evidence-based mindfulness research center in their school of medicine and public health.

The meditation community needs to support real research being done at reputable universities and needs to expose groups such as the TM Movement that seek to use meditation as a means to enrich themselves by exploiting vulnerable people.