Primly dressed and smiling in the doorway of her Hyde Park apartment, Carla Brown ushered me in with the warmth and familiarity of a grandmother. Sunlight made the hardwood floors of her apartment glow, and the pink couches in the living room looked cheerful and inviting. She showed off recent finds of reused lamps and rugs with unsuppressed glee. Her kitchen was amply stocked with Indian tea and ghee, and she proudly declared that her students feel free to use it as their own. Brown teaches transcendental meditation (TM), a technique based on reciting mantras that has attracted scores of followers for its purported positive effects. She spent the next hour describing it to me.
“We don’t need a new religion,” Brown said. “We don’t need a new philosophy. But we do need a way of transcending effortlessly. And by transcend we mean to go beyond thought, to experience the most profound, most powerful-energetic-creative level of our own awareness.” First started in India in 1955, and popularized in the US during the 1960s and 70s, TM has seen a revival in recent years, partly because of its implementation in educational programs. Film director David Lynch, an avid practitioner whose nonprofit foundation sponsors TM programs in schools across the world, calls it a means of accessing the “ocean of consciousness.”
On Saturday nights, students drive to Brown’s home from all parts of Chicago to sit together and meditate. One day, Brown says, she plans to bring all the meditators in the city together into a “peace colony,” which will use group meditation to calm crime throughout the city. The plan sounds implausible, but Brown, who holds a doctorate in sociology and education from Harvard, quickly cites numerous scientific studies supporting her claims. She wrote her dissertation on a study of transcendental meditators in the Middle East which found a correlation between the meditation practiced by approximately one percent of the population and a decrease in both war intensity and casualties in the greater population. Based on this research and other similar studies, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the transcendental meditation movement, called almost 500 teachers together in the United States in 2005 and asked them to begin spreading meditation centers throughout the country. The yogi warned that the country was in grave danger and only these centers of peace–like Brown’s utopian “peace colony”–could reduce the ambient stress levels enough to prevent catastrophe. So that year, Brown and her husband picked up and moved to the Chicago area to build a community of transcendental meditators here to fight crime with thought. Most of Brown’s students come to her because of the health benefits from meditation, not because they plan to stop crime in Chicago, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She envisions this meditation group expanding and becoming a “washing machine” for Chicago that will cleanse the city of social maladies.
While convinced that transcendental meditation could be helpful in troubled schools, prisons, and perhaps on the whole South Side, I still felt as though I was being sold a product. The going rate for an adult to learn transcendental meditation from a licensed teacher is $1,500. In theory, this sum will secure a lifetime of support for practitioners; in effect, it covers an initial four-day intensive training, and weekly and monthly check-ins for a few months afterward. Brown’s college students, however, pay only $750, and she has a reasonable sum available to grant partial assistance to students who can’t afford the tuition but show true interest in learning transcendental meditation.
Near the end of her presentation, Brown proposed hiring the underprivileged in society to meditate for the rest of us. When asked, “You mean outsource meditation?” she replied, “Well… you have to hire someone.” Until an army of meditators can be raised, however, the University of Chicago has a new, twice-weekly student meditation group, which Carla Brown is helping to get off the ground.
Brown is genuine, but at the end of her presentation I was doubtful. Do we really need a curriculum to access our inner selves? Is a “washing machine” of good vibes truly the best answer to Chicago’s crime rate? Leaving the apartment, loaded with articles summarizing scientific studies, and a DVD detailing the benefits of meditation in the San Francisco school system, I did not feel transcendent.