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The Cult of Meditation (and Why You Should Join)
If for some reason you ever decide to drive through the state of Iowa, you might want to consider making a stop in Fairfield, on Route 34, about two hours southeast of Des Moines.
At first glance, Fairfield might seem like any other quaint, Midwestern town – surrounded by rolling corn fields and home to a few thousand working-class white people. You’ll happily get out of your car and pump gas and eat some chicken fingers and maybe inquire about the clock museum; but you’ll wonder how someone could possibly live here without going batshit from irremediable boredom.
Pick up a pamphlet from the Visitors Bureau, however, and you’ll quickly discover that there’s more to Fairfield than meets the eye.
With an eclectic arts and entertainment scene, Fairfield has been called one of Iowa’s Great Places, named by Smithsonian Magazine as one of The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit, and recognized as one of the 12 Great Places You’ve Never Heard Of by everyone’s favorite publication, Mother Earth News. Even Oprah Winfrey herself dubbed it America’s Most Unusual Town on a 2012 episode of her show, Oprah’s Next Chapter. And, while these designations might strike you as completely arbitrary, there is something else you should know:
Fairfield was once home to Parsons College, a private liberal arts school founded in 1875 with one building and 34 students. Parsons operated in virtual anonymity for 80 years, until the school appointed flamboyant football player-turned-Presbyterian minister, Millard G. Roberts, as its president.
When Roberts took over in 1955, Parsons had just 350 students and an administration plagued by financial hardship. But, Roberts had grand plans to promote the college, raise money from donors and substantially increase enrollment – all of which he achieved. By 1965, the student population had surged to 5,000, while faculty salaries were some of the highest in the nation.
The problem? Roberts pooh-poohed the idea that colleges should only admit well-performing students and turned Parsons into a “second chance” school, letting in everyone from draft-dodgers and delinquents to just plain idiots.
In a 1966 article, LIFE Magazine called Roberts “The Wizard of Flunk-Out U” and described Parsons as a “college for students who can’t get into any other – or have been thrown out of another college.” The article went on to explain that, “nobody on campus feels slandered when Parsons is called Flunk-Out U” and “nobody resents the description of Parsons as a college for rich dumb kids.”
Not long after LIFE published its article, Parsons lost its accreditation and Roberts was – unsurprisingly – asked to resign as president. Enrollment soon plummeted, leaving Parsons with insurmountable debt and no choice but to close its doors under bankruptcy in 1973.
Less than a year later, however, one man bought the entire campus for just $2.5 million, hoping to turn the defunct college into a thriving institution once more. That man’s name was Mahesh Prasad Varma, otherwise known as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual guru to The Beatles and the founder of Transcendental Meditation [TM].
Yes, Parsons College – once known as a refuge for dummies and drunks – is now the Maharishi University of Management, which features “consciousness-based education” and aims to “engage students in a personal journey of evolution and growth.” Subsequently, little old Fairfield, Iowa has become known as a “national magnet” and “the world’s largest training center” for practitioners of TM. Twice a day, in fact, thousands of residents stop what they’re doing and make their way to one of the university’s two giant golden domes – the first structures ever built specifically for group meditation.
Walk leisurely around Fairfield, and the first thing you’ll notice (aside from the massive twin domes) is an eerie stillness to the air – a subtle indication, perhaps, of TM’s various cult-like qualities.
Many of Fairfield’s residents moved there specifically to participate in the group practice of TM, while pursuing Maharishi’s vision of bliss and enlightenment. Some have even advanced to the TM-Sidhi Program, the central aspect of which is Yogic Flying, a “mental-physical exercise of hopping while cross-legged” that ultimately results in the ability to levitate.
Around campus, TM practitioners are often called “roos” (slang for gurus), while Yogic Flyers who aren’t part of the university are identified as members of the “Town Super Radiance.”
Oprah was right. Fairfield might just be America’s most unusual town. And, just the conversations you’ll overhear make it worth a visit.
Of course, TM’s reach extends far beyond southeastern Iowa, with training centers popping up in cities all over the country.
The TM technique is taught in four sessions over consecutive days, and can be learned only from a certified TM instructor. When you enroll in the TM program, you’re asked to bring to your first class a white handkerchief, a sweet fruit, and some flowers – all of which play a role in your initiation, or your “trance induction ceremony.” The ceremony takes place in a small, dimly lit room and in front of an altar, at the center of which is a shiny brass tray and a picture of the Maharishi’s long-dead teacher in a yellow robe.
During the ceremony, your instructor places your flowers, fruit, and handkerchief on one side of the altar, lights a stick of incense, recites something in Sanskrit, and then assigns you a secret mantra – which you are to never share with anyone under any circumstances. And, by the way, all of this will set you back about a thousand dollars.
Despite its hefty price tag, the required four-day commitment, and a slightly creepy vibe, the TM program continues to attract droves of eager new students looking to master meditation, achieve inner peace, and find some version of enlightenment.
Undeniably, TM has become something of a national phenomenon over the last several years – due in part, perhaps, to its seemingly endless string of celebrity endorsements.
Touted by everyone from Cameron Diaz and Katy Perry to Hugh Jackman and Jerry Seinfeld as a completely transformative and life-changing habit, TM has infiltrated the homes of many of Hollywood’s elite. Howard Stern, in fact, was the one who convinced me to give it a try, after discussing TM with great candor on both his own show and the Late Show with David Letterman.
But, nobody advocates for TM more than eccentric filmmaker, David Lynch, whose namesake Foundation hopes to “prevent and eradicate the all-pervasive epidemic of trauma and toxic stress among at-risk populations through promoting widespread implementation of the evidence-based TM program in order to improve their health, cognitive capabilities and performance in life.”
In an interview with the New York Post, Lynch explained that students who meditate will “start shining like a bright, shiny penny and their anxieties will go away. By diving within, they will attain a field of pure consciousness, pure bliss, creativity, intelligence, dynamic peace.”
Through his foundation, Lynch also intends to create super groups of 8,000 meditators across the globe, who will chant simultaneously for peace and harmony. Each group must have 8,000 participants because “it’s the size of the square root of one percent of the world’s population.” Furthermore – and this should come as no surprise – Lynch himself is a yogic flier and believes that, one day, he’ll be able to levitate.
If this all sounds a little bizarre, well…that’s because it is.
And, the more you explore the world of TM, the more bizarre it seems to get. In fact, you may find yourself disturbed at times, like when you discover that TM-specific research is often tied to TM employees, or that the TM organization has been accused of using brainwashing techniques, or that Fairfield has an alarmingly high suicide rate. And, should you choose to venture down the TM rabbit hole, you’ll probably stumble across a remarkably dense website with the title, “Falling Down the TM Rabbit Hole.”
At this point, you might be wondering: What does all of this mean?
Do these people truly believe they’ll levitate, completely defying Newton’s law of universal gravitation?
Is TM a cult?
Is David Lynch just a straight-up wackjob?
Well, you’ll just have to figure that shit out on your own. But, nothing should deter you from integrating TM or another meditation practice into your daily routine. Meditation has positively changed my life in more ways than one, and it can do the same for you.
WHY YOU SHOULD MEDITATE
One year at sleepaway camp, I took an afternoon walk through the woods, only to discover my bunkmate, Jared, sitting cross-legged under a tree, eyes closed and palms facing the sky. When I asked him what the hell he was doing, he moved not a muscle and whispered, “Shhhh. I’m meditating.”
Looking back, I wish I’d had a more open mind, and asked Jared to teach me his ways. Instead, I called him a weirdo, and refused to talk to him for the rest of the summer.
Had I started meditating as a teenager like Jared did, I may not have spent most of my 20s plagued by anxiety and morbid thinking. Of course, meditation is, by no means, a panacea for life’s woes. But, meditating regularly can have tremendous benefits, and there’s a shitload of very cool research to back this up.
Here are just a few of the reasons I meditate, and why you should too:
MEDITATION TAMES YOUR MONKEY MIND
Like it or not, friend, you’ve got a “monkey mind.” You know, the seemingly endless stream of mental chatter and varied thoughts swirling around in your head every goddamn day. At best, these thoughts can be inspired and entertaining. At worst, they can be morbid and destructive. Most of the time, they’re just pesky and inconsequential. Either way, this is your “monkey mind,” which is a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.” In recent years, however, neuroscientists have officially named it the default mode network (DMN).
Your DMN is active when you’re not really focused on anything in particular, and your mind is wandering from thought to thought. Unfortunately, a wandering mind is often an unhappy mind, and a lot of us wish we could just fucking turn it down a smidge. Several studies, including one from Yale University, have shown that meditation has a quieting effect and decreases activity in the DMN. Plus, when the mind does start to drift, those who regularly meditate are much better at snapping out of it.
MEDITATION REDUCES SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION & ANXIETY
Countless studies have shown that meditation can boost neurotransmitters, increase serotonin levels, fortify the hippocampus, build up prefrontal cortex gray matter and create alpha and theta waves. I know that sounds like a bunch of neuro-scientific mumbo jumbo, so, to put it more simply: meditation does some really good shit to your brain that can help fight depression and anxiety. In fact, a study conducted at Johns Hopkins by researcher, Madhav Goyal, found that the effect size of meditation is the same as the effect size for antidepressants. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”
MEDITATION IMPROVES FOCUS & CONCENTRATION
Hey. You. Yes, you. I know you probably have ADD or ADHD or at least think you do because you live in the age of technology and you can’t sit still or go 12 seconds without checking your Instagram feed or swiping on Tinder or sending a text to your bestie because if you don’t you might totally miss something and your head will explode. I mean, for fuck sake, you probably won’t make it to the end of this article without opening a new window in your browser so you can see if you have any Facebook alerts. Thankfully, there’s help for you yet; and it doesn’t come in the form of a pill.
Research shows that one of the primary benefits of meditation is that it improves focus and concentration. In fact, one particular study found that just a few weeks of meditation helped people in a big way during the verbal reasoning section of the GRE – the score increase was equivalent to 16 percentile points.
MEDITATION PROMOTES BETTER PHYSICAL HEALTH
Several studies have highlighted that meditation can have significant effects on physical health, linking regular meditative practice to changes in immune and cardiovascular functioning, as well as pain perception. In fact, meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of diabetes, increase life span, reduce the risk of heart failure, improve sleep, lower heart rates, relieve tension headaches and even help manage the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
MEDITATION MAKES YOU MORE SELF-AWARE
Because meditation requires an exploration of your subconscious mind, it’s probably the single best way to connect with your true self. And, research suggests that, with a greater self-awareness, you’ll develop a superb intuition, become a better listener, act more compassionately towards others and adopt a more positive attitude.
TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION VS. MINDFULNESS MEDITATION
If you’re even remotely familiar with TM, then you’ve most certainly heard of Mindfulness. It’s nearly impossible to visit your favorite online news magazine without seeing a listicle about Mindfulness. And, mindfulness meditation apps like Headspace are raising tens of millions of dollars in funding.
There’s no denying that Mindfulness is a worldwide trend and many are cashing in on it. The New York Times even ran a piece called “The Hidden Price of Mindfulness, Inc.,” describing how, “these days it seems as if everyone is peddling mindfulness.”
But, as ABC news anchor and author of 10% Happier, Dan Harris, was quoted as saying, “It’s not enough to purchase the right product to be mindful. Mindfulness is a practice, and it’s worth doing.”
So, what’s the difference between TM and Mindfulness? Is one better than the other? And, why do the TM people seem to sneer at the Mindfulness people while the Mindfulness people seem to sneer at the TM people? It’s all a bit silly, and there’s no reason to think that one form of meditation is superior to another. As someone who has practiced both TM and Mindfulness, I can assure you that they both provide the same positive benefits. But, if you’re interested in the technical differences between TM and Mindfulness, here’s a handy little chart:
HOW TO MEDITATE
This may surprise you, but you don’t need to pay $1000 to the TM organization or read books on Mindfulness or hire a spiritual guru to learn how to properly meditate. You don’t need to be a hippie or become a monk or believe in a higher power. You don’t need a spirit animal or magic crystals or chakra beads or a Pure Moods CD. You don’t even need to put on pants.
In fact, if you’re new to meditating, all you really need to do is follow the steps below:
STEP ONE: Stop making excuses. If you’re interested in meditation and you’ve been thinking about trying it, then just start. I once gave a presentation on TM to a group of about 50 people, and almost all of them had one of two excuses: I don’t have time or I can’t sit still for that long. Both are ridiculous, and I’m going to tackle them here:
I don’t have time. If you can’t carve out 15 minutes in your day, then something is wrong. And, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got pets or kids. Your pets will be fine, and you can tell your kids to watch cartoons and shut the fuck up for a bit.
I can’t sit still for that long. if you can’t sit still for 15 minutes, then something is wrong. Plus, how would you know this if you haven’t tried? And, furthermore, the whole point is to train yourself to sit still for that long.
STEP TWO: Decide what you’re going to focus on. You’ve basically got two options: a mantra or your breath, and both work just fine. The most commonly known mantra is oooooooommmmmmmmm. But, you can choose anything that works for you. Positive affirmations are good because they seep into your subconscious. Tony Robbins used to say I am fucking unstoppable to himself over and over again until he truly believed it. Either way, you do need a focal point. Don’t overthink in. Just pick something.
STEP THREE: Find a quiet space, preferably in your home.
STEP FOUR: Sit comfortably. You don’t need to sit Indian style with your palms facing up. Just make yourself comfortable. You can even lie down, although this might result in an accidental nap.
STEP FIVE: Close your eyes. Take a few seconds to get settled and then begin focusing on your mantra or your breath. If you’ve decided to use your breath as a focal point, you can even say to yourself: I am breathing in, I am breathing out.
STEP SIX: At this point, your mind will go bonkers. You will start thinking about how hungry you are or how you should have asked out that cute barista or how your boss is a douche or how this meditation shit is stupid and it’s not working. Once you realize that your mind has drifted, bring your focus back to your mantra or your breath.
Now is a good time to point out two common misconceptions about meditation: The first is that meditation requires you to think about absolutely nothing. The truth is, it’s damn near impossible to go more than a few seconds without some thoughts arising. Meditation is more like exercise for your brain, and the goal is to learn how to simply quiet your thinking. The second misconception is that during meditation you’ll feel indescribably good and reach some higher level of consciousness. In my experience, it’s not about how you feel while you’re meditating, but how meditating makes you feel while you go about the rest of your day.
STEP SEVEN: Continue meditating for 15 or 20 minutes. Whenever you catch your mind drifting, bring your focus back to your mantra or breath. And, by the way, don’t set an alarm. If you’re in deep meditation, the sudden sound of a squawking alarm can be jarring. If you feel like you need to check the time, gently open your eyes, peek at the clock and then resume meditating.
STEP EIGHT: When your time is up, stop focusing on your mantra or breath. Keep your eyes closed for just a few extra seconds so you can ease out of your meditative state. Then, get up and continue your life as normal.
Tony Endelman is an author, blogger, entrepreneur, certified transformational life coach, certified No More Mr. Nice Guy Coach and the founder of The Integrated Man Cave.