Is getting involved with Maharishi Foundation USA a bad idea?
September 3, 2019 2:48 PM   Subscribe

My husband is going through something very stressful. He said he wanted to learn meditation and I said that's great! He took some initiative and found this place near us and they want $800. Everything that I'm reading about it is pinging my scam/cult alarms like crazy but I don't want to discourage my hubby, since he needs something and this is something he found out about himself. Has anybody heard of this organization? Should I use my veto on this, or should we just see how it goes?

I have some experience with Buddhist-tradition mindfulness meditation but it's something I taught myself to do and I'm not an expert by any means. I would be more than happy to find a meditation center that was more in line with what I was familiar with but I also know that the one I know about is a skill that takes time to learn (I mean I still struggle with deep-seated anxiety that my mind can't get anywhere near, so I'm not the world's best spokesperson) and what he's looking for is something more like self-hypnosis, something that he can pick up right away that will start to show results as soon as possible. He likes this organization because he's heard of them, people he likes endorse them (David Lynch), and their marketing pitch is great. It sounds like exactly what he needs.

I want to be supportive, but I don't want to get involved with something like Scientology where once they get your contact information they own your whole life. From what I am reading it sounds like it's not exactly that dire, but I just thought I'd check and see if anyone has any personal experience or has heard stories that might be relevant. I like to think of us as pretty level-headed and practical and that it would take some shenanigans to actually get us into a cult, but that is probably what every cult member has ever said, and cults aren't above shenanigans.

I just kind of feel like if you have to ask if something is a cult you shouldn't get within 100 feet of it. But if they're offering something we need, and we can just take it, pay for it, and leave, then I guess that would be OK? I don't know!

This is the website:
This is the wikipedia article:
This is an article that is somewhat re-assuring and somewhat not reassuring:
posted by bleep to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't necessarily worry about him getting sucked into a cult, but I think of TM as being something that is mostly for rich people (hence the $800 fee). I would probably only be supportive of my spouse exploring this avenue to learn meditation if money was no object.
posted by cakelite at 2:51 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ah, money is not no object (hm)/I don't exactly have $800 to drop on something ineffective but I would see this as an investment in our well-being.
posted by bleep at 2:53 PM on September 3, 2019

I know a few people who have taken their intro class, gotten a mantra and instructions on using it, and walked away without being hassled. One of them started a lifelong meditation practice that way. So it's definitely possible to use their class as a safe one-time resource like that.

I do get the impression that when people stay involved with the movement beyond a class or two, things get weird. But I couldn't tell you whether that's abusive-cult-level weirdness or just harmlessly-odd-new-religion-level weirdness.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:04 PM on September 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

What is the $800 FOR?

I have similar feelings about TM. There are so many options these days that are low cost or free. There was a time, in the 70s, when TM was more or less all there was, or the biggest name. But now, that's not the case. I think there's always been a slightly, borderline scammy vibe about the whole thing, even though I imagine that whatever they're selling will be somewhat helpful to your husband. I'm of the mind that meditation instruction itself should be free or nearly.

I'm a longtime meditator. Feel free to memail me if you want more info about other good options.
posted by swheatie at 3:06 PM on September 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

I mean...he could probably get more bang for that $800 learning meditation from a therapist who teaches meditation as part of CBT-ish personal practice, especially if he's willing to pay direct instead of try to make insurance work. All the better if there's a local therapist who teaches meditation and these other techniques in a group setting.

TM isn't exactly a cult, in the sense that they don't make any real moves to cut you off from family or force you to change your will or anything, but it's...not special or magic, the training they give. They charge the money, technically, for the special customized secret mantra they give you. That seems a little ridiculous.

But you can learn meditation on youtube or Audible or your local library or the free Insight Timer app (plus they do courses, for a fraction of the cost). There's no reason to spend $800 on this. He could likely find a meditation teacher on youtube or Insight Timer and join their Patreon for individual lessons for significantly less money than that.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:09 PM on September 3, 2019 [18 favorites]

Ah, TM is having a revival.

Through its history TM has primarily served as a way for wealthy anxious people to learn about meditation. There's a small core of the leadership who can get pretty strange, but for 99% of people it's just a way to learn a useful skill.

They are definitely nothing like Scientology in the "do not even make eye contact" department.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:10 PM on September 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Before you come to any conclusions one way or another, I'll just throw a few things worth googling into the mix:

Maharishi University
yogic flying
John Hagelin
Transcendental meditation's "Washington Project"

Me, I'd stay way, way clear of these folks, but YMMV.
posted by cgs06 at 3:19 PM on September 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

I can't speak directly about TM, but have some things for you to consider. How often do you have to pay $800 or what do you get for it? What if you think about it in terms of a gym membership? In my area, a fancier gym membership would be $100/month, so TM might be "equivalent" to 8 months of a fancy gym.

On the other hand, there are probably other ways to spend the 800$ that may go further or seem less sketchy, some of them may be technology based (there are meditation apps, like Insight Timer mentioned above--most have free basic version and you pay a little for premium features). A friend uses glo yoga, and they have meditation too. She likes it, but I haven't tried it. A therapist might also be able to help with some of these issues, either with or without meditation.

Does your husband tend to stick with things or pick up and drop new hobbies frequently? If it's the latter, you might suggest a less costly way to try it out and see if it's really for him.
posted by kochenta at 3:21 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

My experience with TM is from some 50 years ago, back when the Beatles got involved with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (As I recall this was before the US-based Foundation had started up.) At that time the introductory cost was $80, which was a hefty sum for a college student. They make a big deal about how "natural" their practice is, and how easy it is to learn, but when I asked why they charged so much their reply was, because Americans value things they pay for more than something they get for free. Sounds like they still work on that principle.

What they teach is, in fact, a very simple meditative practice. It's not weird, in any sense, but it is different from something like vipassana yoga, or mindfulness yoga. I won't say anything bad about it, because I don't think these are dangerous people, in the way that I think Scientology and its perpetrators have demonstrably been.

I did not keep up with the practice for very long, tbh, and many years later did take up a more contemplative, mindfulness practice that worked better for me than TM did. Different strokes, and all that, of course. What I will offer a caution about, however, is to temper expectations of quick results. My experience has been that the changes I observed for myself took a long while, as in years (more than 1, less than 5, for changes I could really discern, and the longer I do it, the more I see.) Looking for a quick fix may end up backfiring.

If I were asked (which you didn't, but I'll offer this anyway) I'd suggest looking for a local Buddhist center that offers meditation classes. They are often offered for free, or for a small donation at each class. There will be experienced practitioners that can provide guidance and answer the questions that inevitably come up.
posted by qurlyjoe at 3:22 PM on September 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

A few years ago I took a mindfulness-based stress reduction class. The class met once a week for several weeks, with one day-long retreat. It's evidence-based, and I know my instructor was using this also with veterans and others dealing with PTSD. You might search for a MBSR class in your area. I can't remember the price, but it wasn't prohibitive. A quick searched turned up some classes in the Bay Area for less than $400. In any case, it might be worth it to you to look for options like this as an alternative, though I understand it's a delicate matter since your husband found the other thing first.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:30 PM on September 3, 2019 [14 favorites]

If you are thinking about learning meditation, I'd check out your local Insight Meditation Society. They are Buddhists in the Vipassana tradition, but their Intro to Meditation classes are pretty non-secular, and your local center should have a class that's a lot less than $800. I learned quite a bit.

I took a class in January at my local IMS in Seattle, and it just cost $90. If there's no classes, they usually have drop in meditations and dharma talks once/twice a week.
posted by spinifex23 at 3:37 PM on September 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

TM is legit. It's not a cult and they will teach you to meditate properly, then leave you alone unless you want further contact. Definitely not scientology. There are, of course, some odd/sad/weirdo people who will be attracted to it at various points in time... But you can say that about movement really.

If you want to get more into the Ayurveda part of it, or learn more about the teachings of Maharishi, you can. But it's not required if you just want to learn to meditate. TM practitioners for the most part just consider themselves meditators, not followers of Maharishi.

Most of my family members have been involved in TM since before I was born. I am not, and I don't meditate. But I have never felt any pressure whatsoever from them. As a teenager and in my 20s, being super-anti TM was my main flavor of rebellion... I made it quite obvious that I thought it was all bullshit, but everyone was very tolerant. That kinda annoyed me even more. But hey, I was a smug teenager.

Over the years I have learnt to respect TM more, because I've seen how my (male relatives especially) have benefited from it. (And I have come to appreciate that it's significantly more legitimate than most so-called 'mindfulness'.) Meditating daily helps them a lot. I still don't feel the need to do it myself, but I can appreciate what it does for them.

Most of my family members learnt once how to do it from a teacher, then carried on by themselves for the next few decades. Others have been more involved on and off in the movement over the years in a more serious way. But again, I have never felt pressured to participate and they moved in and out of it as they wanted without it being any kind of big deal. TM is really very come-as-you-are.

For a long time, the fee was based on your income. I understand that the fee was meant to be high enough that you would not undertake learning to meditate lightly: you were meant to be prepared to make a few sacrifices to learn to do this. But still something that was within reach of everyone (hence not having a set fee but a scale). The idea was that everyone should be able to learn to meditate, but equally everyone should have to pause first, and think about whether they were prepared to take it seriously and commit to learning.

Perhaps the fee-scale is no longer the case, but it might be that the cost is still relatively high for this reason.
posted by EllaEm at 4:21 PM on September 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Long-time TM meditator here (and former TM teacher).

First, it's not a scam. It's a legitimate meditation technique that's been taught for decades around the world.

Second, the $800 is probably negotiable. When I was a teacher, neither I nor any other teacher I knew would ever have turned someone away because they couldn't afford it. I think you should pay it if you can afford it, even if it hurts a little, because a) that will make it more likely that you'll give it a reasonable trial period--it definitely works, and most people see solid evidence of that fairly quickly, but it's not an instant makeover--and b) it helps underwrite the fee for people who really can't afford it. In any case, you should expect to pay something. I don't remember what I paid forty years ago, but I've more than got my money's worth.

Is it a cult? Meh. It's a pretty take-it-or-leave-it cult if it is. No one is going to pressure you to "join up." My impression, after many years of fairly close involvement with the TM movement, was that the cult-like elements--and there certainly are some--were kind of there for people who crave that kind of thing. Most of the people I associated with just thought it would be a really good thing for the world if more people did it.

The other thing is that, at the end of the day, the real, stated purpose of TM is not stress reduction per se; it's enlightenment. There, I said it. Yes, it will lower your blood pressure and clear your mind and mellow you out a bit. Those are considered desirable side effects. The mere fact that enlightenment is posited as a real and attainable outcome is enough to cause a lot of people to apply the "cult" label.

Fortunately for a lot of other people, though, you still get the desirable side effects regardless of whether you care about or even believe in enlightenment.

Feel free to memail me any specific questions.
posted by bricoleur at 4:38 PM on September 3, 2019 [16 favorites]

Ha, I should have read that last article you linked before posting. Based on my experience, very accurate overall.
posted by bricoleur at 4:55 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

What the buyer gets for $800.

similar question on quora

intense argument on reddit with no two people able to agree on absolutely any point related to TM

I googled "maharishi foundation" AND scam/pyramid scheme/lawsuit/cult. There are a few websites out there devoted to claiming that it's a cult. No major recent lawsuits popped up.
posted by bunderful at 6:41 PM on September 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine did TM and her experience was exactly as bricoleur describes.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:50 AM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I live by Fairfield, IA, and I don't think they're... bad... but... yeah, not a thing I would thumbs up about. I have known some odd ducks, but they're definitely not Scientology. I think they're just mostly rich people.

(Fairfield has a very large community/school for it is why I mention that.)
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:08 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I practice TM. I was taught by someone in the UK who had left the TM organisation decades earlier as they did not agree with some of its approach but firmly believed in the benefits of the practice. He charged a relatively small amount based on your income (for me at the time around £250) and purely taught the practical method of meditating. I was introduced to the teacher by my partner who had been taught by the same person fifteen years previously.

For me (and my partner) it is life-changingly good. It gives me perspective and energy and focus and calmness and much more. I've tried another couple of approaches to meditation and this is the one for me. As others have stated above, this doesn't mean it's perfect for everyone. But if he did decide to pursue this method, I strongly suspect there will be other tutors who operate independently of the TM organisation as my teacher did (he is easily findable via Google). Feel free to memail me
posted by Captain Najork at 12:47 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I got interested in TM a couple of years ago, in part because of this Buzzfeed "we tried it" video. I read a book on the science of TM, then went to my local center for an introductory talk. My impression was similar to those of other people in this thread; it seemed like you could take the intro class and never talk to them again and everything would be fine -- but that the further levels (yogic flying!) seemed pretty weird. I was unhappy with the price, so I did further research and discovered that you can pretty much learn the TM technique outside of the formal organization:

1. There's a small outfit called "natural stress relief", run by former TM teachers, which will send you a fairly low-fi audio version of the three-day TM class for $25;
2. There's an online video class called Ziva Meditation with an active, teacher-moderated Facebook forum, which currently costs $400;
3. And finally, there's a free app called 1Giantmind which turns the three-day class into twelve lessons, and never tries to get you to pay or sign up for anything else.

I tried all three (though Ziva was considerably cheaper at the time that I signed up). They all explained the same technique in almost exactly the same way. As I understand it, the Maharishi was obsessed with pedagogy and trained all the TM teachers to explain the technique in precisely the same language. Then, at various times, teachers split off from the Maharishi Foundaiton. One, a guy named Thom Knowles, taught the 1GiantMind and Ziva teachers; others, like the Natural Stress Relief people, just schismed directly off on their own. And the Maharishi Foundation sues people who claim to be teaching "TM-like" classes, so people are weird and coy about what they're teaching, but having taken those three classes, it was CLEARLY the same thing over and over again.

Depending on what your husband is like, there could be benefits to taking it at the TM center, mostly that the pomp and circumstance level is a lot higher (live teachers! an actual building! a "personalized" mantra! flower offerings! association with David Lynch! plus paying $800 for something gives in itself a powerful placebo effect). And if your husband took a formal TM class, he could always return to his TM teacher -- or any TM teacher worldwide -- for a "meditation check" if he feels like his practice needs a little sprucing up. (FWIW, I believe Natural Stress Relief offers "meditation checks" too for a nominal fee, and Ziva teachers will answer your questions online.)

Of the classes I tried, my favorite was actually the free 1Giantmind app. And my experience with this form of meditation was great. I've tried different forms of meditation, including a lot of Buddhist/mindfulness stuff, and always found it very challenging, and hard to keep a practice up. But the experience of doing nondirective meditation is pleasant; it feels like controlled daydreaming, or the pleasant feeling I get sometimes when doing something repetitive with my hands (like knitting). Because it's pleasant, it's easier to keep it up, and when you do it daily, the stress reduction is real. I recommend it.
posted by sockanalia at 1:06 PM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

Thank you everyone, this is all exactly what I was looking for, so I can support my hubby and not be scared of us being taken advantage of.
posted by bleep at 6:25 PM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm leaving this comment a month late, but I'm chiming in just in case it's useful:

A notable thing about Transcendental Meditation as a movement is that its founder explicitly aimed to target society's elites with it. His logic was that, given their relative power in society, introducing them to meditative practice might help ease the world's pains on a grander scale.

Since learning that—and I forget where exactly I learned it, so do take this with a grain of salt—I felt like the quoted $800 price tag made more sense to me. Meditation can and should be cheap-to-free, but if you're trying to reach a certain kind of would-be "elite", slapping a nearly-thousand-dollar cost on a single, secret mantra is a great way to market this thing you're preaching, not as a common-sense mental health practice, but as the key to something poshly mystical.

Mind you, I can't say for sure that that's their logic, and it could be that TM is just a cynical money grab, but looking at it as "meditation plus pitched appeal to the venal rich" has rung true in my encounters with it thus far. And everything I hear from people who've gotten involved with the Foundation suggests likewise: it's not bilking people beyond the weird initial price of it and the slightly-unusual structure, even if it's not the best or only route for getting into meditation.
posted by rorgy at 6:14 AM on October 18, 2019

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