Age of enlightenment
The Transcendental Meditation movement’s goals were utopian but life for its followers wasn’t always blissful, Claire Hoffman, AM’05, writes in a new memoir.
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Fairfield, Iowa, was a city divided. There were townies, and there were “’rus,” short for “gurus”—followers of the spiritual leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation movement. The ’rus flocked to Fairfield, the movement’s headquarters, to meditate in newly built golden-domed structures for hours a day, believing they would usher in world peace. Reactions from the townies ranged from acceptance to rock throwing.
Caught between these two worlds were Claire Hoffman, AM’05, and other children of Maharishi’s followers. For second-generation ’rus like Hoffman, Transcendental Meditation, or TM, was a lifestyle they were born into, not one they chose. Many grew disenchanted with TM and its leaders.
In her memoir, Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood (Harper, 2016), Hoffman, now a journalist, looks back on a movement that offered its adherents a sense of purpose but strained under the weight of its own grandiosity. An alumna of the Divinity School who studied American religious history, she sees what happened in Fairfield as “a kind of fundamentalism,” though she stresses that no one was ever prevented from leaving the community, and TM practitioners weren’t cut off from nonbelieving family or friends. (It was a softer, “super-fun, nonthreatening fundamentalism,” she says wryly.) Still, “there was a definite orthodoxy.”
“I was living on the edge of two worlds, not quite belonging to either one,” Hoffman writes of her childhood in the Transcendental Meditation movement. (© Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)
The phrase around Fairfield was “Being on the Program,” which “meant that you were following Maharishi’s directions to become Enlightened,” Hoffman writes. This involved twice-daily visits to the golden domes, built in the early ’80s to facilitate group meditation. “Over time it came to mean more—that the way you ate, slept, built your home, wore your jewels, and looked to the stars were in accord with Maharishi’s vision.”
That vision extended back to the 1950s, when Maharishi first started teaching Transcendental Meditation around the world. (In the ’60s and ’70s, he was the guru of the Beatles and the Beach Boys.) The TM technique consists of silently repeating a mantra—a word, phrase, or sound. Studies show it’s an effective stress-management technique, but Maharishi came to believe it could do much more.
The late ’70s brought what Hoffman calls a “schismatic moment” for TM, when Maharishi introduced the TM-Sidhi program. He said the new program could give practitioners superpowers like levitation or invisibility. He also believed regular group meditation could bring about world peace. (In Fairfield the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated as proof of the movement’s success.) Eager students handed over thousands of dollars to learn Maharishi’s techniques. Hoffman’s mother, Liz, was one of them.
Liz, a single mom, strove to keep her family on the program. At three, Claire learned the TM style of meditation, and she practiced it daily throughout her childhood. At the prviate TM school she attended, students were taught to embody Maharishi’s Sixteen Values of Creative Intelligence, among them: “Active, takes a / Direction toward / Progress, and / Transcending, / Accelerates the / Integration of / Stability and / Adaptability, and / Enjoys / Evolution.” Over the years, instruction in conventional subjects like math and spelling gave way to lengthy ruminations on the guru’s teachings.
In different ways and at different times, Liz, Claire, and Claire’s brother, Stacey, chafed against the restrictions of TM. Liz secretly took Claire to Chicago to see Ammachi, another Indian spiritual leader. Stacey’s and Claire’s rebellion took classic teenage forms—drinking, drugs, bad grades. From her first boyfriend, a fellow ’ru, Claire learned that the mantra she’d been given when she learned to meditate, which she’d always thought was unique, was the same as his. “Yet another fundamental truth of my meditation had been a lie. … What had felt special for so long was not,” she writes.
After leaving Fairfield to attend the University of California, Santa Cruz, Hoffman parted ways with the movement and stopped meditating regularly. She went to graduate school, first at the Divinity School and then at Columbia Journalism School, certain that writing about religion was her calling.
Her year at the Divinity School gave Hoffman a new sense of perspective about her family’s experience with TM. “Places like the Baptist Church or the Methodist Church or the Lutheran Church were institutional and very normative to me,” Hoffman says. But in their early days, some of these cornerstone churches were seen as “just as outside and fringe-y as the TM movement.”
In her years away from it, Hoffman came to regard TM with a journalist’s skepticism. To her, the movement reveals “how really intelligent people can believe really kind of crazy things,” she says. When she first contemplated writing a book about her family’s experience, she envisioned it as an exposé, unearthing Maharishi’s hypocrisy and financial mismanagement.
The birth of her daughter prompted Hoffman to reevaluate her experience. As a harried working mother, she found she missed “the aura of magic and hope that had surrounded” her early years. She returned to Fairfield for an intensive meditation course, longing to “believe in believing again.”
Today she’s returned to regular meditation practice, though she’s still wary of TM as a movement and exasperated when she sees news articles touting meditation as a cure for every ill. In fact, Hoffman considers herself “kind of a messed up, anxious weirdo,” despite meditating for 36 of her 39 years. “It’s not going to save you,” she says.
Yet by writing the book she came to understand why people like her mother were drawn to TM, and how powerful their sense of purpose must have been. They took Maharishi at his word when he told them they were creating a utopia—a feeling she is more able to appreciate after her years away. “It was really kind of moving and beautiful to understand what it’s like to be a pioneer and a believer in something,” Hoffman reflects. “It’s, as far as I can tell, a really incredible feeling.”