Nearly 30 friends gathered with overwhelming support for a personal coming-out gathering, at yesterday’s 4 pm screening of “David Wants to Fly” for the German Gems Film Festival in San Francisco’s beautiful Castro Theater.
A mutual friend is convinced that I could save Mark from his confusing past. So, Mark sat next to me at our pre-film lunch. He was raised in Fairfield, Iowa’s Transcendental Meditation community, attending Maharishi schools. Like many second generation TMers, Mark also spent time on Maharishi’s segregated celibate “Thousand Headed Purusha Program” with prolonged mediations and accompanying indoctrination videos. Marks parents had alternately served as Maharishi University faculty and for David Lynch’s foundation to spread TM to the world. As a young adult trying to find his way, Mark’s inner battles continue to haunt him as tries to create an independent life. He struggles to sort love for family and community enmeshed with Maharishi’s world plan, and the insanities he saw around him.
Mark asked questions about Maharishi’s sex life and the Shrivastava family bank accounts, to which I could only respond, “Where there is smoke, there is usually fire.”
“But why won’t those former lovers of Maharishi come forth and talk?”
“They’re concerned about stigma, Mark. One them did write a book about her experience as Maharishi’s lover, called ‘Robes of Silk, Feet of Clay’. The rest remain silent.”
“But there isn’t stigma for this background, not today! I know.” Mark spoke emphatically. “When I tell people in New York about my background, they find it interesting, they don’t hold it against me.”
“Mark, you and I were raised in this. We didn’t make a seeming unwise choice. So society provides allowances for us to speak of the cult experience. However, the professional world often adversely judges those who joined a cult, viewing them as flawed, weak, insecure.”
Across the table, Joe added, “No one in my professional world knows my background with Maharishi. It could jeopardize my job. I’m very careful who I disclose this to. The professional world thinks I was old enough to know better when I joined.”
I turned to Mark, “There could be concern about their work stability or professional judgement. That is why former cult members are reluctant to speak forth. Maharishi University graduates often struggle with listing their cult education on a resume. Society overall still does not understand that anybody could be vulnerable for brainwashing techniques and social persuasion. In fact, ICSA found that the majority of those who join cults are actually above average intelligence, just caught at a vulnerable time of life.”
“But there are a lot of people who would want to know about those women who slept with Maharishi. This is big news!” Mark emphasized.
“No, Mark, it’s not big news. Outside the (TM) Movement, no one cares. The rest of the world does not care about the Movement. That’s why the Movement got away with their shenanigans for so long.”
“I disagree with you. And I really want to know where Maharishi’s family money is. I want to talk with someone who knows first hand about the Movement finances.”
“Probably in unmarked Swiss bank accounts.” I shrugged. “The only people who know are the account holders themselves, and they won’t talk. According to Maharishi’s former secretary, Maharishi sent his nephew to UCLA business school so he could run the Movement’s finances. Maharishi’s ex lovers don’t talk because they must continue with their current lives. Outside the TM Movement, sleeping with Maharishi does not carry a mystical connotation. Who would want to publicly admit they had slept with a slimy haired guy dressed in white silk and beads, even if he was the Beatles guru?”
I leaned over to Mark, “But his old secretary told me that one of the lovers stole Maharishi’s beads. He showed up for the next day’s lecture without beads to play with.”
Mark laughed, “Those would be worth a lot of money.”
“Sure,” I chuckled, “How much do you think Maharishi’s beads would fetch on eBay?”
I continued while Mark slowly chewed his lunch, wondering how much he was digesting, “One of the reasons that TM is a cult, compared to other meditation forms, is because of the secrecy. People are lured with promises of scientific method to deep rest to release creativity. In actuality, vulnerable people are brought to a supposed spiritual practice to lure them into an obtuse deceptive and expensive society – the one that you were born into. From the beginning with mantra instruction, the initiate is told to keep the mantra secret ostensibly ‘for your own good.’ A new initiate is trained to keep things secret. From that point on, the secrets continue to unfold, at higher and higher prices.”
Mark responded with calm dignity, “Hindu scriptures explain that a guru must sometimes deceive his disciple for the disciples’ own good.”
“Mark, I’m sorry. You’re not as aware of the recruitment process, because you were raised with this and are accustomed to the mythological society. But TM is not presented that way to the outside world.”
Joe, a former TM Initiator, interjected from across the table, “That’s ancient hinduism. This is modern America and Europe. Do you think such deception is appropriate? The validity of ancient mystical teachings is the study of philosophy. TM claims to be scientific, but it is anything but. TM teachers know they are lying. It is deception by omission. Their goal is to recruit people for increased involvement with the TM Movement. You know that. I know that. They know that. They speak in their trained semi hypnotic voices to reassuringly encourage someone to begin TM.”
Mark nodded in agreement, “I cannot disagree with you here.”
“Mark, it’s not normal. We were taught to ‘reveal higher levels of knowledge’ only to those who are ready. The TM insider definition of ‘those who are ready’ means those who’ve relinquished critical thinking so that they’ll slowly accept a alternative life paradigm, then pay Maharishi’s organization thousands of dollars to maintain their status.”
Mark added, “When I was on Purusha, rich kids like the Daniels’ kid could do whatever they wanted. They didn’t follow ‘Program,’ at all and never got into trouble. The rest of us had to stay strictly on ‘Program’ or be reprimanded.”
“That’s right, it’s about keeping the wealthy happy so they’ll continue to donate. You saw that. It’s not about spirituality. A valid organization does not hide their hierarchy to the outside world – whether it’s a business, church or political institution.”
Mark defended the Movement, with standard insider justifications, “Going into the future, if the Movement survives they might not need to hide the hierarchy anymore. It’s an early developmental stage of the Movement. Early Christianity probably kept secrets. The Catholic Church has a robbed monastic hierarchy too.”
“Mark, first off the Movement tells the world that Transcendental Mediation is not religious. You know differently. I’m not an expert on the history of the Catholic Church. I know that Catholicism began with a public alliance with Rome’s government under the Emperor Constantine. Today, anyone entering a Catholic church knows the existence of priests, nuns, convents, monasteries, the palatial Vatican, extremes of Opus Dei and their holy communion. The basic structure of Catholicism is not hidden, whether one accepts the teachings or not. The basic structure of Transcendental Mediation is hidden by presenters who try to bring this to school children, businesses and other groups. That is a classic mark of a destructive cult.”
Joe added, “The people who went psychotic on the long rounding courses are split inside themselves, from the trance technique and dissociation that can occur. That’s not higher consciousness, that’s an aberrant dissociative state.”
Mark almost whispered, “I know people who went crazy and others who committed suicide. Someone recently.”
“I know, Mark. I’m sorry.” I momentarily placed my hand on his, “We all lost loved ones in the Movement. I knew the Swarz family too.”
“You knew them?” He looked up.
“Yes, a long time ago, when Daniel was a baby. They are good people. It’s sad.” I sighed, “Mark, many of them did not need to go insane or die. They could have accessed real help.”
“But those who became schizophrenic already had a weakness toward that. TM didn’t make them that way.” Mark declared.
“Maybe some had a propensity for mental problems, But TM should not be marketed as panacea for everything. If TM teachers really helped, they could refer troubled meditators to appropriate professionals, rather than direct them more deeply into the Movement for solutions.”
“The Movement changed.” Mark returned to a defensive stance. “They don’t tell people to continue to meditate thought unstressing. You’re talking about the old days. Those old directions changed. It’s better.”
Joe looked momentarily surprised, he turned to me, “The Movement doesn’t encourage long rounding anymore?”
“Joe, they don’t push the long meditations as much as they used to.” I explained, “I think they tired of the law suits. Now they sell other products to keep the money coming. Untested Ayurvedic therapies, spa treatments, magical architecture plans for thousands of dollars, special gemstones, yagyas to balance the doshas, fundraising arms for donations to spread TM elsewhere and generate new recruits.”
“What are doshas?” asked Joe
“Some type of mystical body energetic tendencies. I refused to learn them. It’s a theory that creates a market for Maharishi teas and other magic for enlightenment. They changed products to suit a changing market. Have to maintain the novelty factor.”
I continued, “For example, yagyas were the big push some years back. For thousands of dollars a person could buy mystical prayer ceremonies performed by invisible Indian pundits. When I nearly died of a car accident in 1999, as a single mother of three with one in college, my mother was pleased to have purchased a $10,000 yagya for my recovery. My daughter was confused when her grandmother sent thousands of dollars to India while our family was in a survival crisis. We were were trying to keep our home and continue my daughter in college when I had almost died. I explained to my daughter that was the best her grandmother could offer. We shouldn’t take it personally, just pretend we don’t have a grandmother because she’ll never be able to provide real support.”
I turned to Mark next me, “That’s what a cult looks like. You’ve seen it. It’s not about deep rest, nor consciousness, nor spiritual growth. It’s money for Maharishi’s family.”
Mark quietly nodded; he didn’t respond.
At this time, I thought to myself, I cannot save Mark. I’m not a professional exit counselor. Bringing someone out of cult-think, without precipitating an identity crisis or anxiety attack is the purview of experts. Mark still self-defines by the fantasy. He wants to create his life outside of the Movement, seeing some insanity in his family’s behaviors. It’s not possible to live both worlds. Mark’s family and entire history are defined by Maharishi. What would be left for Mark if he leaves TM fully? He may awaken in his own time, or not. It’s not my responsibility to convince him.
We paid our restaurant tab and took a sunny walk to the Castro movie theater. Even more friends turned out at the movie! After keeping my family history quiet for decades, the acceptance and support of intelligent accomplished peers was overwhelming. What an odd way to unite my life’s first and second halves – on a sidewalk ticket line. The irony of my coming-out-of-the-closet in San Francisco’s famed tolerant Castro district did not go unnoticed.
Inside the beautiful theater, Eve spoke from the row behind me. “When waiting outside, I asked the person in line next to me ‘Why did you come to see this film?’ He responded, “Transcendental Meditation is being taught at my kid’s high school. I want to see the other side of the story.’ I told him about your family upbringing, how you helped prevent TM from coming to you kids’ high school; that’s why we are attending this film! It’s exciting. We’re proud of you, Gina!”
I smiled and laughed, not knowing how to respond. “Thank you for coming today. I really appreciate it.”
A master of ceremonies briefly introduced the filmmaker David Sieveking on stage. Then lights dimmed as the red velvet curtains pulled open, and the film began.
The audience watched Sieveking’s skillful and compassionate editing of his enthusiastic youthful journey to meet his idol, filmmaker David Lynch. At Lynch’s encouragement, Sieveking paid 2,800 euros cash for TM instruction. The film then follows Sieveking’s journey through images into some of TM’s global empire, New York, Berlin, Vlodrop, Iowa, India. After filming Maharishi’s memorial service on the Ganges, Sieveking was granted access to inner aspects of the Movement in Vlodrop, Netherlands. He filmed the lavish golden-crowned assembly of rajas in long white robes and gold chains during an early power struggle between Maharishi’s deemed successor, Maharaja Nader Raam, and the Indian factions of the Movement. In several instances, TM leaders directed Sieveking to turn off his camera. Several film clips include former devotees revealing bits of the Movement’s underbelly.
The post-film Q & A primarily revolved around film making. David Sieveking spoke frankly of the irony that he sought David Lynch and Transcendental Meditation to spur his filmmaking career. In the end, David Lynch and the Transcendental Meditation Movement demanded to censure the film. When Sieveking refused to allow the Movement censorship rights, David Lynch and the Movement refused further interviews with the young filmmaker who they referred to as “David from Berlin.” Both Lynch’s foundation and Maharishi’s organization had threatened Sieveking with law suits.
The audience laughed when Sieveking explained that meeting with an entertainment law attorney proved more beneficial for his stress level, than had the Transcendental Meditation technique.
Ironically, Sieveking’s pursuit of David Lynch and Transcendental Meditation did, in fact, provide the basis for a successful film. It’s just not the film that Sieveking had initially expected to make.
My friend Joe stood up, “Thank you, David, for making this film. I spent 15 years devotedly working for this organization. You’ve depicted that world eloquently and compassionately. The only thing missing was stories of the severe psychological and financial damage that occurred to many. The movie did not highlight those aspects, but you probably could not cover that. Transcendental Meditation is both manipulative and dangerous. Over all, your film was an excellent portrayal of the inside of that organization. Thank you.”
After the film, Mark (the young man struggling with family relation to TM) cornered David Sieveking in the lobby, discussing aspects of the TM Movement. David Sieveking politely spoke with Mark, while trying to work contacts for his filmmaking career. Sieveking is not a professional exit counselor, nor a cult expert. He is a talented young filmmaker who recognized when he had stumbled upon a story, and pursued that story with passion.
Over dinner later, I asked another girlfriend, “So, as an outsider, what did you think of the film?”
“Oh, Sieveking did a great job! I was not fully objective, because I know Gina and I’d heard her stories. In the beginning of the film, I was surprised because I’d expected a hard core expose’. In fact he presented TM’s sales pitch. He showed how wonderful it is to relax with meditation. It was all just lovely, in fact, really lovely. He had a break up, a psychological crisis, and retreated to the comfort of meditation with new friends. Then he slowly revealed the group’s cracks, and the cracks just got bigger across the globe. The viewer walks that road with him through cracks that seem ready to crumble. He also clearly alluded to the fact that there is more to those cracks, but he could not tell those stories because of legal threats. The film clearly shows there is deep ugly dysfunction in Transcendental Meditation. He is a brilliant filmmaker with a bright career ahead of him! The fact that he’s funny and handsome doesn’t hurt!”