Meditating and making money

The Times (London), March 10, 2000

In 1972, for a mere £8, a young Michael Durham became an eager follower of Transcendental Meditation. Relearning the technique today, at £490, he found the whole experience less satisfying

I will never forget the expression on the face of the young woman who initiated me. Her name was Rosalind and it was kind of seraphic, questioning look, as if she had passed on a great secret and wanted to know if I'd got it. She was kneeling close to my right shoulder and whispering something in my ear (which I am duty bound never to reveal).

It was the spring of 1972 and Transcendental Meditation (TM) was all the rage. I had become a follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The initiation took place in a university seminar room. I arrived clutching an apple, a handkerchief and a bunch of flowers, and listened to Hindu chanting. Then Rosalind gave me my secret mantra. I still have the receipt to prove it: "Initiation, TM. Life membership. £8."

It worked for a while. Each morning and evening I meditated for 20 minutes and life's little wrinkles seemed to iron themselves out. It was fun. Then life got busy, somehow I stopped. But I never forgot my mantra and I never told.

Today, amazingly, the Maharishi is still purveying bliss - only to the gentry, not below stairs. He has become a fashion icon. His sly smile no longer looks down from a thousand college notice boards, but he is the pin-up of politicians, accountants, doctors, businessmen and journalists. In this era of anxiety, his New Age message is the antidote to executive stress. So when I found that receipt in the attic this year, I decided it was time for me, too, to catch up. It was 27 years since I learnt my mantra (which I must never disclose) and I had heaps of stress to eliminate: one marriage, two children, eight different employers, redundancy and part-time house-husbanding.

I made an appointment with Jonathan Hinde, a TM teacher, and one afternoon I knocked on the front door of 24 Linhope Street, a terraced house behind Baker Street station - this is the London HQ of the Maharishi's vast global enterprise. A young woman opened it. The first thing I noticed was her seraphic smile.

Jonathan greeted me and took me upstairs to a sitting room decked out with flowers, comfy armchairs and a flip chart. We chatted. And then, after a dispute with a motorist who set off a car alarm outside the window, silence reigned and we both fell into a deep trance. Waves of calm floated in. I could still do it. I was back to the University of Kent, 1972. In those days everyone was meditating. At college people bragged about the highs they obtained, the stress they'd had and debated whether they had achieved cosmic consciousness. Most people agreed it was cool, it worked, it did make you calmer, more "together". No one thought it was strange that it involved a lot of mumbo-jumbo in Sanskrit, joss sticks or kneeling in front of an altar with a picture of an Indian holy man. No one doubted you had to keep your mantra secret. Andy, now in the car business, described how when he meditated he had muscle spasm and his arm crept towards the ceiling, like Dr Strangelove on acid. My friend Trevor meditated in trains and claimed people in his compartment would all have put their cigarettes out by the time he opened his eyes.

I meditated for two years, twice a day, through finals and job interviews and into the wider world, through girlfriends, relationships, flat-shares and everywhere I met people who'd learnt, too. I meditated because it worked - up to a point. You sat down and cleared your mind and let this word (never to be disclosed) into your consciousness and waves of calm would float in. You felt great afterwards. I decided to relearn. What cost £8 in 1972 costs £490 today. There were five people in the group: Kate, Sandra, Ellen, Phil and me. They had learnt TM four days ago and seemed surprised that it worked. Kate reported that she was calmer; Sandra said she had stopped smoking; Phil said he had experienced something. Only Ellen was troubled by feelings of self-destruction. Jonathan told her the stress had to come out.

Learning TM is no different now from how it was 25 years ago. After being initiated (the bit with fruit, flowers and the Hindu altar) and learning your mantra (never to be disclosed), you have three nights of lectures. They are like management seminars, except the buzzwords are "pure consciousness" and "transcending". I rushed home to meditate and I felt clear-headed and energetic. But after a few days I wasn't sure I could be bothered. The rot set in as I left the TM centre and noticed leaflets and Ayurvedic medicine. Once, TM was one man and his comfy chair, but today it is meditation, the Maharishi and marketing. It is also off-the-wall. And here was the evidence. The room was filled with pamphlets, some extolling meditation's stress-busting properties, as Jonathan explained. But there were many leaflets Jonathan had not showed us, and they offer a different picture. Suddenly it was obvious that TM was bonkers.

Did you know that an Important Planetary Transit of Guru in Mesha Rashi will occur in May 2000 (Jupiter moves into Aries), but that for a minimum of $1,000 Maharishi will arrange a Global Yagya performance to make everything OK? "Many large contributions are needed."

How many realised that Maharishi Gandharva Veda Music is "the language of bliss" and is available in 17 collections of CDs? That a Maharishi Jyotish Birth Reading is available for £180? That Maharishi's audio-book is available in 12 audio cassettes in a boxed presentation case for £64.95? Then I noticed the herbal medicines. Shelves of Maharishi Ayurveda, "the gift of perfect health", also available by post. Samples include: Ayurdent (Ayurvedic toothpaste); Peace of Mind tea; Blissful Joy aroma oil; Golden Transition herbal compound (for women in midlife). And Maharishi Amrit Kalash - sarcastically dubbed "bliss in a bottle" (one month's supply £25.95).

That evening, energised by a meditation in which I seemed to be falling down a tunnel of light, I logged on to the Internet and searched Transcendental Meditation.

I came upon a site called Trancenet, from an American, John M. Knapp. On his site were accounts, allegedly posted by former TM practitioners and teachers, of ill-effects, such as a tendency to drive through red traffic lights, psychological ill-health, marital breakdown and psychological addiction.

Trancenet also contained a lot of material about why TM should be regarded as a cult and a profit-orientated marketing machine. Why all the mumbo-jumbo in Sanskrit, the translations of the Baghavad Gita, the levitation, the pictures of the Hindu guru and the "holiness" of Maharishi, none of which was ever explained to us? "TM is a Hindu religious practice and this is concealed from the public in a deceptive fashion," Trancenet alleged. The site also claimed there were only 20 TM mantras, allocated by age, each a Sanskrit word based on the attributes of a different Hindu deity - and it got mine right.

Next I consulted a colleague, Duncan Campbell, the investigative journalist. "It's a cult, based on personalities and the usual hierarchies," he says. "A repackaging of Hinduism for the West. If you want to learn to meditate, then buy a book."

Dr Susan Blackmore, a reader in psychology at the University of the West of England, and a Zen meditator, was equally dismissive. "At the heart of TM is a technique which can be of enormous benefit. But behind it there's a huge hierarchy which is making lots of money. You'd be better off going to a retreat."

Rattled, I contacted my old friend Trevor, who'd meditated on trains and once went on an Advanced Course. Did he still meditate? "Certainly not," he replies. "I started at college in 1969. I got a tremendous burst of energy, which enabled me to do the first-year natural science course in four weeks. I continued to do TM for five years. Nearly everyone I knew had given it up in six months. I was assured that I would attain Cosmic Consciousness in three years, if I continued. If I did, I failed to notice it." When he gave up, he felt better than ever. Years later, he got an interesting story from Idries Shah, the Indian-born author and philosopher, who died in 1996. Shah told Trevor that years ago, he had met two brothers in India who ran an import-export business. As a joke, Shah offered to help the older brother to found a new religion, and taught him a meditation technique, using a mantra. The other brother nicked the idea and took it to Britain. Unfortunately, he couldn't remember the mantra, so he invented the idea that everyone had to have a different one."

"So he's hijacked an old Indian tradition, stripped out most of the boring old philosophy, made it trendy and marketed it to gullible Westerners?" I ask Trevor. "I think your assessment is accurate," he says. My image of TM as a force for good was smashed for ever.

I am going to sit down in a darkened room now. But I am not going to meditate. I am going to get comfy and have a good laugh at the clever old Maharishi, who has outmarketed the marketing men and anticipated the New Age. Bravo, you have given us bliss in a breath, in a bounce and in a bottle. And we have bought it.

And I am going to do something else - I am going to reveal my mantra. It went something like "ay-oom". There, I said it. No ill-effects, I hope. Excuse me, I must just close my eyes for a minute.

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