Levitating Over The Church-State Wall?

Hollywood Celebrities, Ex-Beatles Join Forces To Push Transcendental Meditation In Public Schools

Public school officials in Marin County, Calif., may have thought they were doing something non-controversial when they suggested starting a Transcendental Meditation (TM) club for students and teachers in 2006. Instead, they quickly learned they had stepped into a minefield.

Angry parents lined up to speak at school board meetings. Several threatened litigation. One agitated parent denounced TM as a “cult.”

Facing unrelenting public backlash, officials quickly dropped the idea of bringing TM to Terra Linda High School in San Rafael.

In Arizona, however, TM received a different reception. Officials at the Tucson Unified School District implemented the practice in several high schools and say there have been no complaints from parents. They insist the program has helped some students boost their academic performance.

Slowly but steadily, TM seems to be gaining a foothold in public schools across the country. The trend has alarmed some advocates of church-state separation, who point out that the practice is based in Hinduism and that the federal courts removed it from New Jersey public schools on church-state grounds in 1979.

This latest push for TM in public schools features a new wrinkle: It’s being backed by a formidable combination of star power and big bucks. Leading the charge is avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch, a committed TM devotee who claims the practice can lead to world peace. Backed by remaining Beatles Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and other celebrities, Lynch has formed a foundation that is offering public schools generous cash grants to implement TM programs.

The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, based at the American headquarters of the TM movement in Fairfield, Iowa, is a multi-million dollar entity. It exists to “provide financial support for Consciousness-Based educational initiatives at public, private and charter schools…to specifically enable all students…to learn the Transcendental Meditation Program and its advanced techniques.”

TM advocates are fanning out across the country, promoting the program as the solution for everything from poor academic performance and fidgety kids to unruly student behavior and gang violence.

How many public schools have taken the bait?

It’s hard to say, due to the decentralized nature of the U.S. educational system. Reporting on the spread of TM last year, Newsweek said Lynch’s foundation has provided funding for more than 2,000 students at 21 schools and universities.

A search of several news databases by Americans United uncovered references to TM being taught in public schools (including charters) in San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Hartford.

That may be just a start.

Lynch, director of such offbeat films as “Blue Velvet,” “Wild at Heart” and “Mulholland Drive,” has grand ambitions and is targeting public schools nationwide. His followers have recently proposed TM programs in Elgin, Ill.; Worchester, Mass.; Providence, R.I.; and Lexington, Ky.

News accounts about the proposals often cite an April 4 event titled “Change Begins Within,” an all-star concert featuring Starr and McCartney at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The music festival seems to have been the kickoff for a full-court TM press – with public schools as a big target.

A story in the Providence Journal noted that Lynch has vowed to raise $20 million to bring TM to inner-city school children considered “at risk” nationwide and that a $625,000 grant has been offered to Providence schools. (A spokesperson for the Providence school system told the Journal she has seen no such proposal.)

Americans United is urging school officials to turn down the money, reminding educators that TM in the schools can spark litigation. In 1976, Americans United and other groups joined with Roman Catholic and Protestant parents to bring a lawsuit against the use of TM in five New Jersey public schools.

Funding for the New Jersey program came from what was then called the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare and was pitched as an “experiment.”

A federal court struck down the TM classes in October of 1977, a decision that was affirmed by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February of 1979.

Ruling in Malnak v. Yogi, the federal appeals court declared that TM is grounded in Hinduism. Students, the court pointed out, were assigned the name of a Hindu god to chant, and even went through a type of religious initiation ceremony called a puja.

During the puja, a TM teacher sits before a student and recites in Sanskrit a long list of Hindu deities, stating in part, “Guru in the glory of Brahma, Guru in the glory of Vishnu, Guru in the glory of the great Lord Shiva, Guru in the glory of the personified transcendental fullness of Brahman, to Him, to Shri Guru Dev adorned with glory, I bow down.”

Have things changed in 30 years? Has TM somehow become secularized?

Americans United says that’s not likely. The roots of TM remain religious. The movement came to America in 1959 through the efforts of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian mystic whose popularity soared after he converted the Beatles in the late 1960s. (See “The TM Trip.”)

The Maharishi died in 2008 at age 91. He was living in semi-retirement in the Netherlands, but the movement he sparked now has a worldwide presence. Increasingly, TM adherents are seeking to ingratiate themselves with U.S. public schools and other government entities – an approach often duplicated in other countries.

TM officials have insisted all along that their movement is not religious, usually labeling it a type of science. In 1978, a TM attorney refused to concede that the group’s beliefs and practices are grounded in religion, calling TM a “true science.”

The 3rd Circuit Court didn’t buy it. TM practitioners, the court ruled, were attempting to “take a cow and put a sign on it that says ‘horse.’”

Today, TM’s Web site refers to it as “a technique,” an “experience” or a “process.” The site continues to link TM to science, calling it a series of “Maharishi Vedic Science programs.” The site steadfastly denies that TM is a religion.

But an academic who has studied TM believes differently.

J. Gordon Melton, a longtime scholar of religion and director of the California-based Institute for the Study of American Religion, says TM is firmly anchored in Hindu meditation.

“There is a specific way of doing Hindu meditation, and it’s supposed to accomplish certain altered states of consciousness,” Melton said. “It’s pretty much done in a religious context…. The religious practice is seen as basic.”

TM’s claims not to be a religion, Melton believes, are mainly a public relations ploy to make the practice more attractive to people – especially those who have been turned off by traditional dogmas.

“There is a certain group of people who want to do spiritual things but don’t want to be burdened, as they would call it, with religion,” Melton told Church & State. “They don’t want the religion they have left behind. Much of New Age religion is sold this way. People say, ‘We’re a spiritual teaching but not a religious teaching.’”

Melton, who frequently testifies in legal cases as to what constitutes a religion, said he believes courts would say TM fits the definition because it attempts to address what the philosopher Paul Tillich called the “ultimate concern” – questions such as why are we here and how are we to live.

What about TM’s claims to be a science?

Barry Markovsky, a University of South Carolina sociology professor, is skeptical of those. He points out that much of the research done about its alleged effectiveness does not stand up to scrutiny.

“They’re drawing conclusions about large-scale social effects of meditation using weak research designs and inappropriate statistics,” Markovsky said. “I don’t know anyone outside the TM organization who is qualified to assess the work and also believes it to be good science.”

Markovsky adds that the claims to be a science tend to be more common in the American branch of TM.

“This is sort of an American phenomenon, at least at the outset,” he said. “I think this was how they sought legitimacy in this country.”

In 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services commissioned a study on the effectiveness of a variety of meditation techniques, including TM. The report included a meta-analysis of various studies of meditation over several years. It concluded that most of these studies were of poor quality.

“Overall, we found the methodological quality of meditation research to be poor, with significant threats to validity in every major category of quality measured, regardless of study design,” asserted the report.

Aside from church-state concerns, TM has been criticized on other grounds.

Adult TM courses, for example, are not free. It costs $2,500 to learn the system. Many parents are wary of their children being drawn into a system through public school that will lead to more classes with expensive fees.

TM has also been scored for making hyperbolic, pseudo-scientific claims. Over the years, advocates have insisted that TM can reduce stress, lower the crime rate, bring down high blood pressure, lower the rate of disease, reverse the aging process, end gang violence, lower the number of auto accidents, reduce terrorism, assist people in finding jobs, stop inflation, help cardiac patients recover and foster world peace – among other things.

Last year, Lynch told reporters he hoped to bring TM to Rio de Janeiro, a large Brazilian city plagued by a high rate of violent crime. He vowed that TM “would end the stress among youths and free the country of violence.”

In 2007, Lynch said TM could bring peace to the Middle East. According to Lynch’s calculations, Israel would need 268 trained meditators – reportedly the square root of 1 percent of the population – to generate peace. He reiterated the scheme at a press conference last month in New York.

“I’m not going to back off until they get a peace-creating group. Tell them!,” Lynch snapped at a reporter from the Jerusalem Post.

(Despite the hype, TM advocates have a spotty record in this area. In the summer of 1993, a band of TM devotees promised to reduce crime in Washington, D.C., by meditating for eight weeks. Crime did not drop overall, and although the murder rate reached a record high, the TM advocates claimed success anyway. It was later revealed that an “independent scientific review board” was stacked with TM boosters.)

TM promoters even claim they can overcome the law of gravity. Supposedly, some practitioners can learn to rise into the air while sitting in a lotus position – a practice TM boosters call “yogic flying.” The Maharishi also claimed he could teach people how to become invisible, have supernormal powers of vision and hearing and to “bilocate,” that is, be in two places at once.

These claims may seem absurd to many people, but Markovsky said the TM followers he has talked to over the years are truly convinced that their system is effective. The zeal many practitioners feel, he said, helps explain why so many are eager to promote it in public schools and other institutions of government.

TM followers, Markovsky continued, are convinced that their system of meditation is affecting individuals all over the planet, whether people are aware of that or not.

“They don’t think of it as trying to take over the world, they think of it as enlightenment,” Markovsky said. “They will bring their enlightenment to the world. You can ask them, ‘What if someone doesn’t want to be enlightened?’ They will say, ‘There’s nothing negative about it, there’s no downside.’ Their response to me has been, ‘It’s all good, there are no possible negative effects from this.’ To call that presumptuous is an understatement.”

Most recently, TM boosters have been criticized for playing hardball with critics.

John M. Knapp, a former TM practitioner who broke with the organization and now runs a Web site called TM-Free Blog, had to drop a planned Web-based symposium titled “Tell TM: Hands Off Our Schools!” The event was scheduled to take place two days prior to the New York concert, but Knapp cancelled it after receiving a severe letter from William Goldstein, general counsel for the David Lynch Foundation.

“The listed presenters at your event appear all to have a similar negative mission,” wrote Goldstein. “Therefore, I wished to give you the courtesy of an advisal that we intend to review the global web presentation of the event carefully for any false, defamatory, tortious, breachful, malicious or otherwise unlawful statements or materials made or published by you or the presenters.”

Markovsky, who was scheduled to participate in the symposium, said he found the Lynch Foundation’s approach heavy handed. Although he has made statements critical of TM in the past, Markovsky told Church & State his relations with people in the movement have generally been good. He thought the letter from Goldstein went too far.

“It had that chilling effect of short circuiting the presentation, and nothing got out to the public at all,” Markovsky said. “I thought that was really unfortunate.”

Staff members at Americans United are monitoring the spread of TM in public schools. AU has received some anonymous complaints about the matter, but that’s not enough to go back into court. It may take new litigation to uphold the Malnak ruling.

Not all forms of meditation, AU points out, are religious. But if there is a tie to a larger religious movement, the practice can and should be removed from public schools.

“Public schools are not supposed to be in the business of promoting religion – and that means any religion,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Advocating for a Hindu-based religious practice in public schools is the same as pushing Christianity or another faith. It’s equally unconstitutional.”