When I was in the midst of my tortuous decade trying to write Country songs in Nashville, I reached the point that if I heard one more song celebrating poverty and ignorance, I was going to lose it. I was in desperate need of stress relief and TM* was literally the only game in town. Encouraged by a friend who had even moved his family up to Boone, N.C. to live in a TM* community, I signed up for a course. I knew nothing of meditation or its Eastern origins, and unlike the wizened sage you now witness before you, I had everything to learn. I don't think I'd even had dinner in an Indian restaurant. My particular impression of Hinduism was a religion with multitudes of goofy looking gods and goddesses with animal characteristics standing in awkward positions. And because of cow worship, the faithful went hungry while cattle roamed the streets. Since TM* is rooted in the Hindu faith, I approached my lessons with some apprehension. The six-day course cost $250 at the time and could only be taught by a certified TM* instructor, in my case a soft-spoken young man lousy with serenity.
The meditation classes were easy enough, based on a repetitive phrase that centered the mind. Practicing for twenty minutes, twice a day, was prescribed to ease stress and anxiety. The big payoff, or mystic goody, was the mantra, a sacred incantation chosen exclusively for you based on your personal interview with the teacher. For initiation day, I was instructed to bring a clean handkerchief, flowers, some fruit, and naturally, the course fee. A makeshift alter was erected with a peach crate and a bedsheet. On the wall above was a creepy photo of an old, white-bearded man, who was the Maharishi's guru. I was admonished to never utter my mantra aloud, lest I tarnish it and strip it of its power. The Maharishi said, "Using just any mantra can be dangerous. Mantras commonly found in books can cause a person to withdraw from life." When the big finally moment came, I was asked to bow before the guru's photo and receive my mantra. I immediately balked at bowing before anybody but I figured I'd come this far, so I lowered my head. I was hoping for something cool, like "Shanti," but the teacher leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "Hrring." Since it was chosen especially for me, who was I to disagree? I chose a comfortable chair in my bedroom and began to practice. Focusing squarely on the third eye, I began to silently recite, "Hrring, Hering, Herring." I just spent two-hundred and fifty bucks so I could recite a word that sounded like Jewish smoked fish. I told my teacher that my mantra was making me laugh and could I please have another but I was assured that this was mine and to work with it. Sometime later, I received a call from my old friend Mac, who said, "I heard you took TM*, what's your mantra?" I was appalled, "I can't tell you my mantra. I was sworn to secrecy." Mac said, "If you tell me yours, I'll tell you mine." I reluctanty agreed saying, "Mine's Hrring." Mac burst into laughter. "What's so funny?" I asked. He replied, "Mine is Shrring."
I came to realize that there are a multitude of ways to meditate and the Maharishi had turned TM* into a for-profit, international franchise, much like Weight-Watchers, or psychiatry. TM* was quick to reassure its customers that their fees covered not only the initial training, but a lifetime follow-up, like a Kenmore warranty. Even financing is available. In 1984, Omni Magazine published an article by "disaffected TM* teachers" listing sixteen mantras used by the organization, contradicting the fable that the result was dependent on a trained teacher's choice. A 2007 study found that details of training and knowledge for TM* teachers are kept private and potential franchisees are required to sign a "loyalty-oath employment contract." Fortunately, effective meditation doesn't require the $960 dollars currently being charged for TM* classes. By the time of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's death in 2008, TM* had become an empire worth an estimated four billion dollars, including the Maharishi International University, now The Maharishi University of Management on three-hundred eighty-one acres in Fairfield, Iowa. The compound in North Carolina called "Heavenly Mountain" unfortunately went bust. Built as a TM* community in 1998 for forty million dollars, the site sold at auction in 2012 for $3.9 million and is now the Art of Living Retreat Center, offering weight loss, detox, yoga, and meditation for an all-inclusive fee. Just YouTube "meditation," and you don't have to pay for it. Meditation really works, but it takes the sort of consistent self-discipline that I utterly lack. Which reminds me, there's a Xanax prescription that I need to refill.