Church, State, or Meditate?


By Nitaisundara dasa

Recently the ongoing issue of practicing meditation, specifically the “transcendental” variety, in schools has been receiving more press. This is due largely to the outspoken comments of celebrity director David Lynch and the public support his foundation has received from other high-profile characters—particularly Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who recently headed a three million dollar fund-raising event for Lynch’s cause. Aside from his desires to take Transcendental Meditation to the Middle East and Rio de Janiero (in an effort to decrease violence, amongst other things) Lynch hopes to spread TM throughout U.S. public schools.

Some reports currently claim that there are already over 2,000 students in 21+ schools practicing TM as part of their school day.  From what I can tell, both the students and many of the teachers seem to see the practice in a positive light. But, as would be expected, there are some who are adamantly against the integration of “cult” practices into the already fantastic American school system. To them, the promotion and practice of TM in public schools constitutes a breach of the separation of church and state. Whether this is truly the heart of their objection, or the true concern lies in the embrace of a weird, “new-agey,” Indian “thing,” I remain skeptical. Add to that the fact that most of the protest seems to come from Christians, and the whole “separation of church and state” assertion becomes even more suspect. We then find ourselves in the age-old fundamentalist battle that is really saying, “Separation of your church and my state,” which itself is a compromise from the ideal: “eradication of your church entirely.”

TM proponents seem equally adamant that TM is not a religion, but a science. They cite scientific studies that support their claims that TM benefits both mind and body. While I have read in multiple places scholars disregarding these studies as flawed, I am yet to see further elaboration. I personally do not doubt the potential of such a practice to be beneficial in some scope, for both adults and children.

There is another side to TM though, one that proponents perhaps play down in the public and more so than in the past. Firstly, enlightenment ain’t cheap. For adults it costs about $2,500 to enroll in a TM course. This has always been a part of the TM process and for many, including myself, it calls into question the authentic spiritual nature of the “science.” Of course, being a “science,” I suppose there is no conflict here. Secondly, while it is safe to assume that all parties want the youth to be able to rise above petty conflicts and violence, never before has this been interpreted to mean levitation.  Perhaps the fact that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi offered levitation and other siddhis through TM is another reason why people object to its public school application. Indeed, this aspect of TM is likely to be seen as demonic and laughable by Christians and secularists, respectively.

It seems to me that TM both is and is not Hinduism. It is Hinduism in that incorporates mantras to Hindu gods and even a superficial exploration of Maharishi’s teachings quickly reveals them to be some form of Advaita Vedanta. But in the context of the public school debate there is nothing I have come across from students that hints towards religion at all. Rather, this is what students experience: “I meditate and it calms me. It helps me to focus on schoolwork,” “I did my breathing and felt really calm,” “it makes my mind clearer¬—and my day so much smoother.” This is the TM of the classroom. No enlightenment, no bliss, and no merging of any sort, simply mental and physical results which the students seem to like. Then again, in as much as the majority of people in any religious tradition are engaged in it on a fairly superficial and self-serving level, perhaps these minute benefits are religious. Maybe this is the actual issue at hand for Christians: TM is assisting the goals that many of them engage in their own religion to accomplish.

Rather than squabbling over what does constitute a violation of the separation of church and state, perhaps we should endeavor to nurture the youth’s ability to recognize and rise above dogmatism and hypocrisy, which absolutely spreads across all varieties of religions and political institutions. Then we might really find ourselves “rising above” in a way that is infinitely more substantial than levitation.

Related links:
TM in schools on CBS Sunday Morning Show
TM in schools on the “TM-Free Blog”

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14 Responses to Church, State, or Meditate?

  1. Nice analysis of a live issue. In the Chicago Public Schools there has been a movement to introduce yoga-influenced breathing and stretching exercises into a number of classrooms. Inevitably, the main proponent of the “calm classrooms” technique will be accused (probably by evangelicals) of introducing a kind of Hindu “trojan horse” into an arena of impressionable young minds. Indeed, that invidual is a student of the late Swami Satcidananda.

    At the same time, the results are essentially empirically proven. It’s tough to argue against civil behavior in classrooms, or diminishing the stress experienced by young people. Even the most stripped down version of TM, Integral Yoga, or whatever, has some demonstrable effect mental and physical effects (maybe more?). So even if a “trojan horse,” it’s one that is, at worst, benign.

  2. I think that yes introducing yoga and meditation in schools might open doorways to Hinduism that probably would remain closed otherwise. But why is that an issue? I suppose religious people other than Hindus don’t want their children to see Hinduism as a viable path. And secular parents don’t want their children to see any religion as viable. That is why I think it boils down to dogmatism and hypocrisy, because those things underlie both of these objections. If we were oriented towards life in a more essential way than differing religions would not be such an issue.

    It is just silly to me to worry about your child taking on your worldview when you yourself only take it on a most superficial level, as is the case with many Christians.

  3. Syama Gopala dasa

    Nice article, like the conclusion. I think regarding the discussion of seperation of state and church, free will is important. And can this be accomplished by one set of ideas? Been given exposure to different streams of thought, as you mention, is most helpful.

  4. Yes, this is an important topic which in my opinion also points to the hypocrisy of separation of church and state in our country’s public schools. As a public school teacher and a parent of public school students, I often witness Christian influences seeping into the public school environment without as much as a peep of injustice. From the obvious recitation of the pledge of allegiance to more covert forms such as using Christian faith based abstenance curriculum for family life cources. Christian religious holidays, prayer, church, etc., are discussed openly. God forbid if a person complains about that! It just goes to show that it may be more a question of a vocal majority than constitutional rights at the root of this issue.

  5. Most people in Gaudiya Vaisnavism strongly deprecate yoga and jnana anyway and would oppose any exposure to anything other than Vaisnavism. And if one is open, then one is accused of being politically correct and not following the strong mood of BSST and SP.We ourselves have to correct our house before pointing fingers on others.

    • I think there is a large number of Gaudiyas who do engage in yoga, either professionally or recreationally. Perhaps yoga as an independent spiritual path is what you mean to say.

      I am not totally clear what “we ourselves have to correct our house before pointing fingers on others” really means. Surely no one person or group can be held responsible for the dogmatism of an entire sect. At what point is it allowed to acknowledge shortcomings elsewhere, because, let’s face it, there is no such thing as entirely correcting any “house.”

  6. It is as bad as the christians; that is what I said

  7. There are Christians who engage in yoga too. But that does not stop the fundamentalist people from being dominant. It is better to stop the fundamentalism in one’s own sect and train one’s fingers there instead of just complaining about others. That is my view.

    • Yes exactly, it was this point that my original reply was addressing, and I think it was a good point: At what point can one actively critique other traditions given the undeniable fact that no entire sect (or minor branch of it, for that matter) will ever be free of fundamentalism?

      I did not simply “complain” about Christians either. I offered a general alternative, and I noted that the same issues at play in this situation spread across all religious borders. I don’t really see what is objectionable.

      • Syama Gopala dasa

        Fundamentalist christians are much more powerful than fundamentalist vaisnavas. And the last seem to be fed by the first. So I do not see any reason why we could not confront that, Gaura Vijaya.

        • I think there are many places where fundamentalist vaisnavas join camps with fundamentalist christians.
          I agree that my statement is not exactly helpful and your and Nitai’s point is well taken.

  8. I can see how a certain sector would squawk. Mantras and Hindu icons can be explained in a universal way but I strongly doubt that’s how it’s being presented. I think it should not even be an issue as long as meditational techniques are presented without specific cultural elements. Or at least a variety of meditational traditions could be presented and students could choose which one(s) work best for them.

  9. Its a very interesting topic. I agree with Citta Hari, so much depends upon the presentation and what they are actually doing. There is obviously a need for teaching children techniques of relaxation and concentration taking into account current drug and behaviorial problems in schools. I think this kind of instruction empowers children.
    In my school (a Steiner school) we try to instill some awe , reverence and gratitude in the children (preschool) through songs and verses, stories and our own personal example. We also celebrate a variety of religious/cultural festivals in a very simple, joyful way. Steiner believed giving children these broad positive experiences in youth prepared them to make moral choices and be open to spirituality (whatever path) as adults.

    • Tara Guber, who is a pioneer in teaching yoga in public schools and who developed the “Yoga Ed” curriculum has said,
      “I stripped every piece of anything that anyone could vaguely construe as spiritual or religious out of the program,” This was after much resistance from parents and school administration when she asked to teach yoga at a public school in Aspen,Co in 2002. By 2007, more than 100 schools in 26 states have adopted Guber’s program.

      Of course this not to say that although stripped down it is still not considered controversial. It has however spawned other meditative programs to sprout up like, “Powermoves Kids Program for Public Schools” and the Christian version, “Praisemoves: The Christian Alternative to Yoga.”

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