Growing Up in Meditationland

Photo: Aaron Seward

“I want to be initiated now,” I announced, staring into the eyes of the teacher. I knew he could bestow special powers. “I want to learn my mantra today.”

I was 3 years old, with my mother and brother at an office of the Transcendental Meditation Center in Manhattan. I knew even then that meditation connected you to another realm. Every evening, I watched my mom sit on our couch, covered in a paisley shawl, her legs folded Indian style, her eyes closed. She never moved, never made a sound. To me, she looked like a king from one of my books, seated on her throne. Receiving my mantra would be my entrée into the secret world she had been slipping into — away from me — throughout my life. This was my chance to follow her to wherever she went, to become like her, to be silent and majestic.

There, in front of a framed painting of our guru, Maharishi, my teacher whispered the secret sound of my mantra to me.

“I will tell you one Word of Wisdom — this will be your own private Word of Wisdom. You would like to have it?” he asked.

I nodded.

“And you want to become great and do great things? Yes?”

I nodded again.

“Yes, you will become a great lady with your Word of Wisdom and you will repeat it a few times each day; but do you know one thing, everyone keeps their Word of Wisdom very secret — you will keep it to yourself, you will not tell it to your friends or to anyone, yes?”

I nodded again. I knew that a mantra was the most secret of things and that everyone’s was different, like snowflakes.

Then he left me for ten minutes to roll the sound around in my head. I loved it. I felt my thoughts slow down. I sensed that I had tapped into something powerful and important. I stayed in that room with the incense burning, and when the time was up, my teacher returned and whispered, “Jai Guru Dev,” in a deep, serious voice. He told me this meant praises to Guru Dev, who had handed down my secret sound just so I could have it. My body surged with the specialness of it as I ran out of the room to give my mom a hug.

My mom told me her story of meeting Maharishi the way most people tell their kids about falling in love. It went something like this: On a crisp fall day in 1970, my mother stood near the back entrance of the University of Colorado auditorium, shyly clasping a pink carnation in her hands. She was a petite 19-year-old, with long shiny brown hair, glittering blue eyes, and an upturned nose that made her look forever baby faced. A cute boy from her art-history class had invited her there, handing her an extra flower and telling her that a group of them were going to wait to greet the Maharishi and catch a glimpse of a real live guru.

My mom didn’t even really know what that meant: guru. But everyone on campus seemed to be talking about consciousness, about how the world was so much bigger than it seemed, that life could be so much more expansive than their parents had ever imagined. She knew the Beatles had turned to something called Transcendental Meditation to alter their reality without drugs. So when a friend from class invited her to an introductory lecture on TM, she jumped at the chance.

In the crowded auditorium, a well-spoken man in a suit explained the experience of meditation as well as Maharishi’s transcendental theory of the universe. In simple terms, he told the standing-room-only audience that all of existence was consciousness. From consciousness sprang all of life. Meditation was a tool that would take you to that most fundamental layer of consciousness, what the instructor called “Pure Consciousness.” This was the source of all creation. The man explained that when you meditate, the mind acts like a pebble, floating down to the bottom of the ocean. The TM mantra took you down to this place of Pure Consciousness, and the thinking mind brought you back up. Diving down to that state of consciousness, he said, would make you happier, more relaxed, more creative, more intelligent, and a host of other good things.

It made so much sense to my mother — that all of consciousness and being sprang from an underlying layer of creation that served as the source for the universe. And the idea that life should be simple and joyous, without suffering, and that nature itself was inherently blissful — it was so organic and appealing, a comforting departure from the judgmental Catholicism that she’d been raised in.

A few months after that lecture my mother received her mantra. And a few months after that, she met Maharishi. (He’s so small! my mother thought, when he climbed from the back of a white car, dressed in a single sheet of white silk, his face wide open to the people who had gathered to bring him offerings.) And more than a decade after that, after my alcoholic father disappeared from our Upper West Side apartment, leaving us penniless and on the verge of eviction, my mother decided we would follow Maharishi to Iowa. This was where, in 1974, the guru had set down spiritual roots by buying a bankrupt college campus and founding the Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, a little town two hours southeast of Des Moines.

By the time I was 8, we were still broke but living in Utopia Park, a trailer park on the Maharishi University campus for meditators only. We were going to the Maharishi School on scholarship, learning to experience the world the way that Maharishi did. That seemed to be why everyone started every sentence with “Maharishi says …” Doing so seemed to shift your perspective a little, helping you imagine what things might look like if you were a super-powered Enlightened person instead of just regular old you who lived in a trailer.

Maharishi’s campus was a beehive of activity at the time, filled with men and women dressed in long skirts and suits rushing to and fro along the crumbling walkways. They were organizing retreats, printing brochures and books of Maharishi’s knowledge, designing classes and new curriculums and workshops to disseminate ideas that were going to change the world. This was the Global Headquarters for Heaven on Earth, and it felt like it. Maharishi was intent on making Fairfield — and our lives here — more closely resemble the ideal ancient Vedic civilization he was always envisioning.

Science, Maharishi said, was the language of the West. In order for Americans to understand something, it had to be scientific. On the walls of our classrooms and everywhere you looked on the Maharishi University campus, there were elaborate charts and diagrams showing how Maharishi’s interpretation of Vedic knowledge was scientific. What did scientific mean? It meant that you could prove that Maharishi was right. There were laboratories on campus where scientists worked for years, proving that Maharishi’s Knowledge was scientifically accurate. More and more, Maharishi’s Vedic Knowledge seemed to be flowing into our community at an unstoppable pace, codifying every aspect of life. There were special herbs, special food, special housing, special gems, special music, and so on.

Sometimes this brought true blessings, at least if you were a kid. That year, word was sent down that — in order to have a more blissful Vedic family experience — we should have a two-hour lunch break during the school day. Our teachers had seemed a little stunned when they delivered this news to us, perhaps wondering where that extra hour of class time was going to come from. Mom wasn’t thrilled either — there was panic in her voice when she got the sheet from school. “I get paid by the hour! That’s two less hours!”

I was, however, thrilled. After all, schoolwork was effort, and life, according to Maharishi, was meant to be effortless. The school administrators argued that we didn’t need as much “time on task” since our consciousness was being raised by Maharishi’s programs.

As I got older, things started to seem a little less clear to me. Sometimes, I felt like we were on a never-ending treadmill, trying and failing to reach enlightenment (and spending lots of money in the effort). Then, on November 10, 1989, we were all called in to the campus assembly hall for some big news.   

“Children,” said Dr. Bevan Morris, Maharishi’s most trusted messenger and president of the university. “I have something so beautiful to tell you. The Dawn of the Age of Enlightenment is here! World Peace is on its way!”

He had everyone’s attention. “As Maharishi has predicted, we are in a golden age of Ved. It is because of you — each and every one of you and your daily practice of meditation — that World Peace has come. It is here! This week the wall in Berlin was torn down. It is an incredible moment for humankind and a sign that the Dawn of the Age of Enlightenment is here, and it is all thanks to you students, the shining light of peace and Maharishi’s wisdom. We have toppled the wall with our meditation!”

Some girls from my class hugged each other and let out little cheers. Teachers gasped and laughed. But I shifted in the itchy auditorium seat and looked at my scuffed brown loafers. My meditations hadn’t been any more powerful than usual. There were times when my mantra could take me to a remote and still space inside myself. But more often, I told my mom I was meditating when instead I was hiding under my bedcovers eating sour-cherry candy balls and reading my Sweet Valley High books. There was no way that my meditations were responsible for monumental change on the other side of the world.

Then I met Jiten. Jiten was the smartest kid at school and the funniest. Pale and skinny, with a perfect Kid ’n Play haircut, he was different from all the other meditator kids. I started sneaking out during program time to spend more time with him. We would walk the railroad tracks and sometimes sip from the bottles of MD 20/20, the cheap table wine that he would steal from the local supermarket. We spent most of our time making fun of our teachers and our parents’ spouses or boyfriends, imitating their sanctimonious voices, parroting Maharishi’s knowledge. Then we’d abruptly start making out.

One day, I emerged from the afternoon meditation at school and found Jiten waiting for me. “How was your meditation?” he asked, mimicking the prissy voice of a teacher. “Was it easy? Was it smooth?” I laughed and said I’d been imagining the sex life of our rather shrill meditation teacher, barely remembering my mantra. “All the mantras are the same,” he told me, snickering. I laughed, but the idea felt like a missile going through my head.

“I thought they were all different, like snowflakes,” I said, trying to sound sarcastic.

But I was serious; the idea that my mantra was like anyone else’s was until that moment inconceivable.

“No, tell me yours. I’ll bet it’s the same as mine,” he said.

He leaned in close to me, his hand on my arm. His breath warm on my ear, he whispered my mantra to me. My mind moved slowly as I looked up at his mischievous grin. I hadn’t heard my mantra said out loud for years. What had felt special for so long was not.

Doubt became my constant companion as a teenager. Everything felt so binary. You were a townie or you were a meditator. Maharishi was a living saint and we were living out his vision of Heaven on Earth, or he was a con man and we were fools.

I felt stuck between those two worlds — the townies and the ’rus (short for gurus). I wasn’t either one, though I could successfully pretend in both. I could cross over by rolling up my T-shirt sleeves and drinking a beer, or I could speak slowly with lots of eye contact and assure meditators that I was still one of them, that I knew what god consciousness was and still aspired to it. But I felt confused about who I was. I really didn’t belong anywhere, and it was then that I started to form the idea that my identity was that of an outsider.

Where I felt most myself was during my weekly phone calls with my dad, who was sober now and had come back into our lives. He encouraged me to tell him about the kids at school, what I was doing. He loved hearing about the townies and their redneck ways and my descriptions of Maharishi’s plans to rebuild the world. He would laugh at my stories, as if I were living in the funniest place in the world. He’d send back hand-drawn cartoons and short plays that showed me as a puffy-haired diva, sophisticated and spoiled, who could barely be bothered by the rednecks and the weirdos who surrounded her. “It’s such a great story,” he would say, as if this were just a temporary chapter that would soon come to a close.

When my dad invited me to come finish my senior year in California with him, I jumped at the chance. The idea that I didn’t have to choose sides but instead could just walk away into another life seemed too good to be true.

And it kind of was. Even as I went to college, became an adult, married, and had children, I never fully resolved how I felt about the way I grew up. My very foundation was one of meditation, utopianism, belief. And as much as I rejected the all-encompassing demands of Maharishi and the complete devotion of his followers, sometimes I worried that in trying to be a normal person, I had let go of who I was.

This became more complicated as Transcendental Meditation became less fringe-y and more mainstream. Growing up, the people I knew who had sought out Transcendental Meditation had been former hippies — my mom and her friends who were interested in consciousness and creating world peace. But two decades later, people like Katy Perry and Russell Simmons and Rupert Murdoch and David Lynch were tweeting about how great TM was, how it had transformed their lives. And people I knew started asking me about it. Did I like it, did it work, would it make them happier?

I had to admit: It did work. As much as I rolled my eyes at the Movement, meditation was still a touchstone for me. For years I used it only sporadically, when I needed it. If my plane ride was especially turbulent, I would close my eyes and start meditating before I even consciously realized what I was doing. If I had a houseguest who was staying a little too long, I’d retreat to my bedroom and meditate for an hour — to be in a space that was all my own. When I had my daughter and became perpetually exhausted, meditation became something I looked forward to. It was then that I started to realize that meditation didn’t have to be everything for me — it didn’t have to be a Movement or a philosophy or the cure-all that I’d been raised to think it was. Just because the waters had been muddied didn’t mean I couldn’t still hold on to that which still felt real for me. After a lifetime of meditating, the quietness had become who I was. So what if my mantra wasn’t a secret special sound made just for me? If it worked, why would I let it go?

When I asked my 4-year-old daughter if she wanted to learn to meditate, she replied with an enthusiastic yes, as if I had asked her if she wanted candy or ice cream. But when the date and time were set, and we were on our way over to the TM initiation ceremony, she had a change of heart. “I don’t want to meditate,” she told me. “I don’t like sleeping.”

I laughed. Josie’s image of meditation was me hunched over, slacked jawed in my bed. No, I reassured her, her meditation wouldn’t be anything like sleeping. During her Word of Wisdom time, she could walk around and play or color. She just couldn’t talk. “That sounds hard,” she said pessimistically.

“Let’s see how it goes,” I said.

We drove to a busy residential street in Hancock Park, where we stopped in front of a small, Spanish-style house with a little sloping yard and rose bushes and a little blue sign that said David Lynch Foundation. We rang the bell, and in a joyous swoosh, Bobby Roth, the head of the David Lynch Foundation and former right-hand man to Maharishi, opened the door, squealing with glee.

“Hooray!” he said. “I’ve been waiting all day for this!”

His excitement was contagious, and Josie and I both bounced into the dimly lit living room. On the walls were large framed photographs of David Lynch with other famous meditators, among them Jerry Seinfeld and Russell Brand. Josie was spinning around in her new rainbow-colored dress and falling into my lap, snuggling her teddy bear. We had brought an offering: flowers from a street-side vendor on the median of Highland for ten dollars and two greenish-yellow bananas from Starbucks.

Bobby asked us to follow him down the hall and invited us to sit on the floor, as if we were just a group of friends hanging out. He asked Josie if she ever felt stressed — although what would toddler stress look like?

No, Josie said definitively. What about sad or unhappy? asked Bobby. No, she said again, perhaps sensing some sort of trap. Bobby quickly changed tacks. Hey, Josie, do you want to be great? Yes, she said, without pause. Okay, this is a special word just for you, a mantra that’s called your Word of Wisdom, and it’ll help you be great, okay? Okay, she said.

We stood up, and Bobby placed the bananas in a basket in front of Guru Dev’s photograph and then asked Josie to choose a flower from our street-side arrangement — she chose a red rose, and a lily for me. Bobby took the rest, crushing one of the roses in his hand expertly, gathering the petals, then began to chant, slow and gentle and soft.

I was sort of shocked at the swelling feeling I had. I felt deeply moved to think that the tradition my mother had learned four decades earlier, and then taught me, was now being handed down to my sweet, beautiful daughter. A family legacy of silence. My eyes filled with tears as Bobby lit the incense, put the petals in the water, and burned the camphor.

He then asked me to leave the room; Josie was unfazed by my departure. I stood in the hall, near a picture of Maharishi, feeling emotional and proud and confused.

A few minutes later Bobby came out beaming. “She went so deep, bam.” I rolled my eyes — he was of course being hyperbolic, but he assured me that she got it right away and that she was inside drawing by herself. He opened the door and there she was, sitting on the floor, happily drawing stick figures on a large sheet of paper. She looked up at me, her eyes bright, and I felt like my chest was going to crack open. This is who we are, I thought — meditators.

That evening I suggested to Josie that she go to her bedroom and meditate. I loved the idea of her being lost in her Word of Wisdom. “No,” she said flatly. What could I say?

Adapted from Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood (Harper, June 7, 2016).