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    The Apocalypse was Never in the Brochure
Special to The Vancouver Sun
    October, 1999


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I learned how to practice Transcendental Mediation 13 years ago. At the time, I was a student at the University of Victoria, and was attracted to meditate by a simple flyer somebody had left in a lecture hall.

On the cover of the flyer was a simple line drawing of a slim man gesturing towards an easy chair, the sort of thing Archie Bunker would hold court in. A fatter man stood beside him, clearly tempted to have a seat. A few brief sentences explained that learning TM could make my life nicer.

I went to a meeting, mulled it over, and said I'd go for it.

For $125, I was given my mantra and was treated to a private ceremony, after which I tried meditating for the first time. Thrown into the deal was the offer for help if I wanted it, a handkerchief, and an apple.

As I walked home, it occurred to me that I had just spent my monthly grocery budget. I ate the apple.

Subsequent meditation lessons were free, and so was the tea when I visited the TM centre. Anytime I felt my meditation was going nowhere, a nice guy who took his fashion cues from Mr. Rogers would meditate beside me for about 10 minutes. He barely said three sentences and sent me on my way.

You know what? After a few weeks, I started to feel like that chubby guy on the cover of the flyer. I was meditating twice a day in my own comfortable chair. My life got nicer, just as they had promised. In my opinion, the best thing I ever got out of practicing TM was that I smoked a lot less pot. It was easier to stay within my monthly food budget, too.

Contact with the TM movement was minimal. Occasionally I received mail from them. Photocopied newsletters offered listings of videos they were showing. They sold a few products like incense and books. Often they promoted weekend retreats in seaside hotels where you meditated more than normal and hung out with other people who'd seen the flyer and, like me, had written a cheque and sat in that comfy chair.

That was back in 1986. The TM movement had not changed much since its flurry of press in the mid-'60s. Today, however, something is up. This same group, which never asked me for another penny after my initial training, now warns me to pony up big time. Or else!

"You are invited to contribute to the Maharishi Global Yagya performances to protect your life, your family, and your wealth from destruction," a recent letter informed me. "Now is the time to contribute to Maharishi's effort to save the world from a catastrophe, for your own personal benefit as well as your country.

The performances, which they call Yagyas, involve hundreds of people meditating together, in groups all over the world, in order to calm down an overheated, but unspecified, global crisis.

The letter's intent couldn't be more clear: Go ahead and meditate in your chair, but if you don't cough up some serious coin, prepare for the roof to fall on your head. It then goes on to explain that appreciated stock is accepted. You'll save the world and avoid a nasty capital gains tax.

What's going on here is exactly what the TM movement has been up to ever since the Beatles marched up a mountain with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, wrote the White Album, and came home early because Ringo didn't like the food. It's called positioning: determine what the public wants, then try to get them to believe you are the best group to offer it to them. In the '60s they co-opted the Beatles. During the '70s it was anti-nuclear activities and a meditation group right in the heart of the Pentagon. In the '80s the movement promised better business management through meditation. VedaLand, a colossal theme park, was also on the books. This decade we've seen the Natural Law Party and the first-ever use of a magician to promote a political party.

The pitch changed, but the concept was always the same: sit in your chair, calm your mind, and help make the world a better place. To a lot of people, me included, that makes sense. To those who dismissed it all, TM was nothing more than a harmless cult which didn't mind being ridiculed for claiming that hopping around like a frog was actually "Yogic flying."

So why the sudden threats? Why the prediction of global catastrophe for those who don't phone in their Visa numbers?

I've got two theories. The first is that Maharishi is getting a little long in the tooth and no successor has been named. A leaderless cult always deteriorates into internal bickering, lawsuits, and a rush for the exits. If ever there was time for a cash grab, it's now.

The second theory is more in line with a movement that has a history of repositioning itself to exploit the public mood. There's a millennium coming up. Our computers are set on "fail." We just had a war in Europe. Plenty of reasons to start screaming. Whatever we might fear, it might be coming!

People are a little antsy and want to feel secure. The TM movement knows this and they've cooked up a way to get you grounded. Except now you don't even have to meditate! Just cut a cheque and others will do it for you! That's pretty clever, but it's a shill's pitch no different than a psychic hotline. Desperate folks hand over desperate cash. Every time.

I'm saddened and disappointed. Partly because I think the movement dropped the ball. If they really wanted to pull in the cash, a better repositioning would have been to replace Maharishi with Deepak Chopra; he's a well-liked guy with a lot of years ahead of him and he never hesitates to promote TM in his best-selling books.

Mainly though, I feel that this time they've gone too far. I could swallow their running for office to get the message across. I think some businesses would be better if they instituted programs where staff had a way to ward off stress.

But the Apocalypse was never in the brochure. Their metaphors were always about roses, not ruin.

I'll continue to meditate, though, because I like it. And I will try to remember the advice Maharishi once gave in a lecture. He said we should avoid thinking negative thoughts, or negative things will happen.

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