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A Childhood Of Transcendental Meditation, Spent In The 'Shadow Of A Guru'

Author Claire Hoffman estimates that she's spent at least 2,200 hours of her life meditating — but not because she became a devotee of the practice as an adult. Her mother was a follower of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Hoffman spent most of her childhood in a community in Fairfield, Iowa that was devoted to Transcendental Meditation.

Hoffman, who writes about her unusual upbringing in the new memoir Greetings from Utopia Park, tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies that moving to the utopian community from New York City when she was kindergarten-aged was idyllic — at least initially. "Those first few years, it was entirely magical," Hoffman says. "We believed that we were changing the world, and everybody was meditating. ... It was this sort of blissful experience."

Maharishi, the Yogi whose teachings inspired her mother, specialized in "Yogic Flying," a practice that he claimed would infuse practitioners with the power to levitate. He charged Hoffman's mother and other devotees thousands of dollars to learn it.

Because Yogic Flying was practiced in secret, Hoffman believed for years that her mother could, in fact, fly. Then, when she was 9 or 10, she attended a demonstration of the practice and was crushed.

"It was this sort of funny frog hop that they were doing across the room," Hoffman says. "For me that moment of seeing this sort of awkward, ugly jumping, as opposed to this incredible levitation that I as a kid had imagined was a first moment, for me, of doubt."

Interview Highlights

On Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the origins of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement

His father was, I believe, a local administrator. He was born around 1919. There is some debate about his age. And he went to college. He was a physics student. He really loved science and math, which you see later on in the movement. ... He went to go see a guru and he decided to drop out of college and become this guru's secretary. The guru was called Guru Dev. ...

The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, seen in London in 1961, taught Transcendental Meditation as means to world peace. When Claire Hoffman was a child, she and her mother moved to a utopian community that Maharishi started in Iowa.
Keystone / Getty Images
Getty Images
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, seen in London in 1961, taught Transcendental Meditation as means to world peace. When Claire Hoffman was a child, she and her mother moved to a utopian community that Maharishi started in Iowa.

Maharishi ... he wasn't part of this sort of religious caste, he was from a clerical caste. He wasn't supposed to be a monk, he just worked as a secretary. And after Guru Dev died, the sort of story goes that he went and lived in a cave for a few years, and he came out and he sort of had this revelation that he wanted to teach the world to meditate. This is in the mid-to-late '50s. Meditation had been sort of the stuff of spiritual people like monks and yogis and gurus and his idea was to give it to what he called "the householder class," and it was sort of a revolutionary thought that regular people in India or around the world could just meditate and then go to work and have a job and have a family.

On moving to Fairfield, Iowa, so her mother could go to the Maharishi International University and live in the utopian community

We had lived for most of my life in New York City, so my image of moving to Iowa was this sort of rural paradise where we would live on a farm and there would be animals, I would be free to go outside and do whatever I wanted, which I didn't have in New York. I imagined, because my mom told me we were moving to this community, that everyone would meditate, and that had definitely been this part of our life, but not something we shared with anyone else. So I was really excited to have this community.

We got there in the middle of winter, and it was very cold, and we drove to Fairfield and I was sort of taken aback. I found it very crummy, sort of old houses, dirty snow. There was a population of people there who had been there before the meditators showed up, who we called "townies," and they called us "gurus," or "rus,"and they weren't friendly to us. They were not happy to have us there. It was sort of all these city slickers or weirdos from California or the coasts, as well as a bunch of Europeans, who showed up in their town. So there was a lot of hostility.

Claire Hoffman's writing has appeared in <em>The New York Times</em> and <em>The Los Angeles Times,</em> among other publications.
/ Harper
Claire Hoffman's writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications.

On being sent to the town school, because her mother couldn't afford to send her to the Maharishi school

My first day of school I was immediately asked, "Does your mom meditate?" and I said, "Yes." And they said, "Does your mother fly?" and I said, "No, but that's why we're here. She wants to learn to fly." I was immediately categorized as a "Ru" and on top of that, I had my sugar-free lunches with bagels and wheat bread and cream cheese and cucumbers. Everything I did was totally strange to them.

We would, during recess, play outside, and the kids from Maharishi School would walk past and the townie kids would rattle the fence and scream, "Guru!" sort of swearing and yelling and taunting them. Later on, when I did go to the Maharishi school, I would walk past my former friends who would yell at me.

On the idea that meditation could create world peace

A big part of life in Fairfield — in order to understand why everyone moved there and what the vision was — was that Maharishi had a theory that large groups of people practicing his trademarked form of meditation and his advanced form of meditation, which he called "Yogic Flying," would create world peace. He had a scientific formula that he had come up with where it was to be precise, the square root of one percent of the population — if that amount of people were meditating it would radiate this sort of peace engine that would change the world.

So the people that moved there, moved there to meditate together. And in the late '70s, early '80s, they built these two gigantic, golden dome-shaped buildings. There was a women's dome and a men's dome, and twice a day, people would go and meditate together. In the '80s and into the '90s it was thousands of people and they would meditate for about an hour and a half to two hours each session. So it would be an hour and a half to two hours, twice a day, so three to four hours.

On Yogic Flying

A big schismatic moment for the Transcendental Meditation movement happened in the late '70s. Up until that, Maharishi had been really advocating this 20 minutes of simple meditation twice a day, and he introduced something called the TM-Sidhi program and "sidhi," loosely translated, means superpowers, and so there were advertisements at the time — you can still find them — that say the "strength of an elephant," or you would get the powers of invisibility and that you could fly, you could levitate.

[People] paid thousands of dollars and they did these advanced TM programs. So Yogic Flying is sort of the core of what people who moved to Fairfield were practicing. I say that it was schismatic because TM was very mainstream in the '70s, and then he introduces levitation and he loses a lot of people.

On why the Yogic Flying Course was so expensive

It cost thousands of dollars because Maharishi said that Americans don't value things unless they pay a lot of money for them. ...

It cost thousands of dollars because Maharishi said that Americans don't value things unless they pay a lot of money for them.

As time went on living in Fairfield, more and more there were all these different sort of trappings or accouterments of enlightenment. They all cost money. So you had to have a special kind of paste before you went to go practice your Yogic Flying, and the paste cost, like, $150, and the Yogic Flying cost thousands of dollars to learn, and then your badge to get into the dome to practice the group meditation cost $100 a month. Everything cost money. Everything about our life there, it felt like it became commodified.

By the time I was a teenager there was a special form of medicine, Maharishi Ayurveda; there was a special form of architecture, Maharishi sthapatya veda; there was astrology to follow and have your charts done, which was Maharishi jyotish; there was special gemstones and gemstone technology, I don't even know what that its, but it was there.

On what she thought this project would be and what it turned out to be

I never met Maharishi. My mother loved and loves him so much, and the people that I grew up with, my friend's parents, they loved him so much. He was so important to them. That does mean something to me. He gave them these incredible experiences, he changed their lives. He really shaped my life in so many ways.

In the process of writing this book my opinion of him changed. I think when I first started thinking about writing a book about the TM movement I was a youngish investigative reporter and I thought, I'm going to figure out what happened with all this money. I'm going to expose the hypocrisy. And over time and working on this book I feel like it's so much more complicated than that, because I think what happened in Fairfield we did to ourselves.

Maharishi never lived there. He was always somewhere else. So it was almost like we were existing with the shadow of a guru. So everything was trickle-down knowledge. We wanted to do everything the way that he said we should do it and we wanted to live life exactly according to his principles. But he was never there, so it was this distillation of power, which meant a lot of jockeying and positioning, and I think it created a very kind of screwed up community for a number of years. But I think that was our fault. ... I think by the end of doing this book, I feel like we do it to ourselves and why do we do it? I think that's such a more interesting question than, "Was he a great man or was he a con artist?" Who cares? What I care about is why people do this.

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