|at the feet of the maharishi|
A few years ago, people were playing a social version of the game “six degrees of separation.” The object of the game is to identify a celebrity, then determine who has the closest social connection to said celebrity. So, someone names a celeb—say Drew Barrymore—and since she was in Motorama with Irwin Keyes, who was in Adventures in Dinosaur City, which your friend Rob worked on, you are 3 degrees of separation from Drew. Like that. Thanks to my childhood, I almost always won.
My parents followed the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement. Yes, the Maharishi—the one who the Beatles, Mick Jagger, and the Beach Boys all went to India to hang out with in the 70s.
So, I had met Maharishi, who John Lennon had visited at his ashram. Two degrees. I won.
* * *
My parents became involved with TM when I was three. They were increasingly more active in the movement, until our lives were saturated. They practiced TM, took courses, went to potlucks and picnics with other “TMers”, then started teaching courses, hosting events, and running the local TM office.
When I was four, I was “initiated”—I was taught to meditate, using a method customized for children. I was offered a mantra, which I could say to myself while walking or playing. I was not supposed to tell my mantra to anyone. I think it was an exciting novelty for me; I had been given a secret.
* * *
The fall of my fourth year, we spent part of the summer at an extended course for TMers, held at a college on the East Coast. I have vivid memories of fragments of that summer. I still remember the spring green and white fields of Queen Anne’s Lace; the piece of glass that sliced into my toe when I tripped while wearing sandals; and the lighthouse the campus day care took us to visit on a field trip.
Maharishi was in residence for the course. He conducted some small classes and discussions, but most of his time was spent giving lectures to the whole group of attendees. Usually, I was in day care, but sometimes the children attended, too. I don’t remember anything he said, but I will never forget his voice. His heavily accented voice was very high for a man, almost squeaky. Despite his squeak, he had a very lyrical manner, complementing the vibrant metaphors he is known for using.
One day, he decided—I have no idea why—he wanted some small children sitting with him as he spoke. My friend Lee and I were drafted—or chosen—I’m not really sure, and we spent an hour sitting on cushioned stools next to Maharishi’s feet. I often think I only remember it from the picture someone snapped and sent later to my parents, but in my mind’s eye, I am looking out at the auditorium, at all the people watching us. And, I remember Lee being mad because someone made him spit out his gum first.
* * *
As I grew older, and Mom and Dad’s involvement grew, so did my embarrassment. As they took on greater roles in the TM community, the local spotlight pointed toward them more. Shortly after I started school, the local newspaper wrote a feature on our family. I don’t really know the angle it took, although I’m sure mom has the fading, crumbling clipping somewhere. All I remember is they published a picture of me with the article. I was walking along a curb, and the caption alleged I was practicing the children’s version of TM. I think what I was really doing was wishing I wasn’t having my picture taken.
After the newspaper article, people looked at us differently. “Oh. Aren’t your parents . . .” was asked of me more than once. I had no choice but to look down, study my shoes, and nod.
“Uh-huh.” There went that veneer of respectability.
I’m sure the neighbors started watching our visitors with more interest, too. While the TMers were probably no wilder looking than the hippies anywhere else in the country, hippies still stood out in our town. Farmers and bankers, the cornerstone businessmen of the Midwest, didn’t have long hair, ponchos, or tie-dyed bell-bottoms. Even through my childhood innocence-shaded glasses, I knew they were a scruffy looking lot.
Later, Maharishi encouraged his meditators to take on a more conservative appearance to try to change this impression of the movement. It coincided with the rest of the world adopting casual Fridays; all through my teen years, I could recognize many a TMer by his slightly ill-fitting 3-piece blue suit.
And, they certainly didn’t engage in normal sounding conversation. In some circles in the Midwest, “Hmmm, looks like rain.” is considered scintillating small talk. Mom, Dad, and their newfound friends were actively discussing how to attain bliss consciousness, how meditation could help them lower their resting heart rates, and harmonic convergence.
* * *
Later, when I was first grade, my father got special permission for me to be taught the adult TM technique. Usually, they required children be at least ten.
The initiation ceremony involved a ritual with incense, flowers, and some fresh fruit. I never understood what the fruit was for, even when I witnessed the ceremony—but whenever they had a teaching weekend, the kitchen would be full of apples and oranges and carnations. The spicy smell of carnations—the least expensive flowers the students could easily buy—will always remind of TM.
By this time, my father was trained to teach TM and did my initiation himself. I was then expected to meditate, quietly sitting and repeating my mantra mentally in my darkened room, twice a day for 6-minutes at a time. I think I was supposed to add a minute a day, every year I aged. All I know is it seemed like forever. It was boring. And, there was nothing to read.
Soon, I found a remedy. I would hide a book—a well-worn one so the pages would not be as crinkly—under the comfy armchair in my room. I would settle in, with the book held close to my eyes, to peer at the letters in the dimness of the draped room. The other advantage of well-worn books was I wouldn’t be left wondering what happened next, when my time was up. I could taste the story, stave off boredom, and slide it back under the chair until the next time. I re-read A Little Princess and A Wind in the Door at least 5 times each, this way. To this day, I still associate Sara Crewe’s attic garret with my childhood room, where I spent meditation time in darkness.
* * *
Whenever Maharishi traveled to a nearby location, we would pack up and go to see him. I don’t know if he ever actually came to our town, but I have several memories of greeting him. Once, we drove two hours just to see him off at an airport. Or at least, that was my understanding.
We would queue up, holding beautiful flowers we had brought with us—just a bud or two each—and would stand with our palms together, fingers pointing upward, in the fashion common with some sects or religions in India. The flowers would be loosely held between our hands and offered to Maharishi as he walked by. We would greet him with the phrase “Jai Guru Dev”, some reference to his mentor, I think, and he would stop and talk with each of us briefly.
He was a rock star.
* * *
I stopped meditating—and pretending to meditate—when I was a pre-adolescent. By then, my parents had divorced, and my mother was not as immersed in the movement. She stayed involved; we still hosted potlucks, and I remember fondly many of the people who visited our home and helped form the person I am today: the art student who paid me to help her make beautiful, avant-garde quilts, the man who looked like John Travolta and taught me to disco dance to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the two Southern psychiatrists who sounded like twins but looked like opposites, and the goofy bachelor who always seemed to bring the same box of crackers to the potlucks.
I am sure, despite my rejection of the TM movement and many of its tenets, that it is part of me nonetheless. The sense of family, among friends, the spirit of sharing, the quest for a greater spiritual good, and the desire for peace all have shaped the adult I live as today.