Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a cult-like organization built around the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Hindu meditation techniques. He began the organization in 1956, but it ﬁrst became widely known in the 1960s, thanks to his ability to attract celebrities to his ashram (the Beatles were his followers for a while). TM involves chanting a mantra, a special word or phrase allegedly chosen especially for the individual meditator, and for which the meditator pays hundreds of dollars. Proper meditation will bring the meditator to a special union with “universal consciousness” known as bliss or enlightenment.
TM promotional materials, including an array of Web sites and a university (Maharishi University of Management, formerly Maharishi International University, in Fairﬁeld, Iowa), represent TM as a scientiﬁcally validated way, based, apparently, on the Science of Creative Intelligence, to improve health, eliminate stress, increase creativity and intelligence, and achieve inner happiness and fulﬁllment. These claims of scientiﬁc validation are fascinating, given the nature of what advocates claim that the practice can do. Take yogic ﬂying, for example. Since the early days, transcendental meditators (TMers) have claimed that, with sufﬁcient experience at meditation, levitation would be possible. They’ve gone so far as to allow themselves to be ﬁlmed ﬂying. The practice, however, looks to the untrained eye as though the TMers are simply hopping around on the well-cushioned ﬂoor while in a lotus position. Most advocates have now distanced themselves from this claim, but the claim has been replaced by others that are both more ludicrous and more difﬁcult to disprove. Some TMers, for example, now claim to be able to make themselves invisible.
Another widely made TM claim is the existence of something called the “Maharishi effect.” They claim to have demonstrated scientiﬁcally that collective meditation, deﬁned as a large group of people meditating together, reduced crime while increasing crop production in the area of Iowa immediately surrounding the Maharishi University of Management. The data used to back this claim appear to have been wholly invented, as they don’t match up with what either the Fairﬁeld Police Department or the Iowa Department of Agriculture have been able to ﬁnd out. In one of the most cynically capitalistic responses to the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, the TM organization sought to raise 1 billion dollars to set up a group of 40,000 young men in India to meditate in unison, claiming that this would bring about world peace and prevent future terrorism.
Plenty of research shows that relaxing more provides various health beneﬁts, and this evidence is widely touted by TM as proof that their practice is the best way to achieve those beneﬁts. However, no scientiﬁc research actually shows that the physiological results obtainable through TM are any different from those obtained by simply learning to relax more effectively. Relaxation can be learned fairly cheaply, however, and the mantras turn out to be not so special after all. They are assigned from tables, based on age and sometimes, depending on the instructor, gender, that can be found online at www.minet.org/mantras.html.
TM’s health claims have actually moved well beyond those associated only with relaxation, as the group has also moved into the world of medicine. Ayurvedic medicine is a Maharishi invention, and Deepak Chopra, its best-known advocate, is a former Maharishi employee. As if this were not enough, the TMers have also moved their agenda into the political arena. The Natural Law Party, which has mysteriously appeared on many U.S. ballots in the last decade or so, including presidential ballots in a number of states, is TM’s thinly veiled attempt to work its ideas into the American mainstream, with ofﬁcial policies on the usual things like health, education, energy, the environment, as well as policies on more unusual areas like health foods (and, yes, the beneﬁts of widespread meditation).
- Randi, J. Flim-Flam! The Truth about Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1988;
- Roth, R. TM—Transcendental Meditation: A New Introduction to Maharishi’s Easy, Effective and Scientiﬁcally Proven Technique for Promoting Better Health, Unfolding Your Creative Potential, and Creating Peace in the World. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1994.