Some people want to transcend the “self” and become one with the gods. Others simply want to relax. Either way, meditation is a long-lasting tradition in many cultures.
According to Psychology Today, wall art depicting meditation was found in the Indus Valley and is believed to be 5,500 to 7,000 years old. Since then, meditation has spread globally, and has diversified into numerous practices and belief systems.
Despite centuries of widespread practice, meditation was not introduced into American society until the early 20th century, according to Psychology Today.
Meditation in the United States increased in popularity when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began teaching Transcendental Meditation [TM] to the Beatles in the 1960s. The wave of popularity faded in the late 1970s, when Mahesh’s organization began “promoting a more advanced form of TM” which claimed could lead to the ability to levitate, according to The New York Times.
Mihir Munshi, a devotee of the Hindu Sri Lakshmi Temple in Ashland, Massachusetts, said the Hindu culture also believes meditation can lead to miraculous feats, such as levitation, walking on water and out-of-body experiences. Munshi attributed this to the meditator becoming a vessel for the gods, which speak through the meditator and allow their words to become reality.
Sufism, which is a form of mysticism which has been practiced for centuries internationally, believes meditation is a way of clearing the veil of ego that separates the individual from the oneness of God. The Nimatullahi Order, a sect of Sufism that came to the United States from Iran in the late 1970s, advocates against any religious leader claiming miraculous powers.
Despite criticism, the TM organization continues to operate through many international branches. Several celebrity figures are advocates of TM, including David Lynch, Russel Brand and Jerry Seinfeld.
In a room lined with old photographs on the third floor of the Masonic Temple in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a free introductory course is offered weekly.
The introduction does not include details about the TM technique, which is kept secret by the organization. Instead, the leader of the introduction discusses the organization’s claims about TM’s health benefits, which include decreased stress and increased mindfulness.
At the end of the introduction, the TM instructor passes out an interview form which asks the attendees how they heard of TM, why they are interested in meditation, whether or not they have taken hallucinogens or other drugs and several other questions. Each attendee is then pulled into a separate room for a private interview with the instructor.
The TM instructor is not allowed to divulge any information about the technique until the attendee has paid $960 (or a 50-percent-off student fee.) Anyone who pays the fee must then attend an initiation ceremony followed by five instructional lessons to learn the technique.
When told about the price of TM, two members of the Nimatullahi Order of Sufism broke out in laughter. The Sufis do not charge a fee for their biweekly meditation practices.
After attending the lessons, participants will be given a mantra, which the TM organization claims is personalized. When asked how a mantra is chosen for each individual, a TM representative declined to answer because the process is kept secret to the public.
Munshi said TM is a Hindu practice that was given a label by Mahesh due to a lack of knowledge in the western world about the Vedic scriptures that certain forms of meditation derive from.
While the representative of TM claimed that the process had no ties to Hinduism and that the Vedic scriptures were not attached to Hinduism, Munshi said the Vedic scriptures were definitely Hindu texts.
Munshi also said meditation can be achieved alone and that many different forms are effective.
TM is controversial and certainly has a lot of competition, but its followers are devout and it seems the organization is here to stay. As the organization’s website says, “Anyone can do it – even children with ADHD and soldiers with PTSD.”