Three years ago, as a part of its mission to teach Transcendental Meditation to a million at-risk kids, the David Lynch Foundation partnered with the University of Chicago’s Urban Labs and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to test whether Transcendental Meditation (TM) could reduce crime and improve school performance. Two thousand students in five high schools located in high crime Chicago neighborhoods participated in the $3 million study through its “Quiet Time” (QT) program.
Earlier this month, in response to a direct email inquiry, RD was notified by a CPS official that “CPS is no longer allowing for the official Quiet Time Program through David Lynch Foundation to be offered in CPS schools.” But why would CPS quietly drop such a high-profile program?
Though CPS decline to elaborate further, a July 26, 2019 article in the Chicago Tribune provides a clue. Hannah Leone’s article includes some disturbing information about the program based on the harrowing recollections, before the Chicago Board of Education, of Dasia Skinner, a substitute teacher, and Jade Thomas, a fourteen-year-old high school student.
After hearing their testimony, the CPS chief education officer noted that while she personally visited the QT program at Bogan High School, none of the information reported in the presentations was shared with her. So what didn’t they tell her about this “simple… non-religious technique,” as the David Lynch Foundation’s brochure describes TM?
According to Skinner, the 60 students she spoke with shared a similar experience, Jade Thomas among them. Thomas told the Chicago Board of Education that her experience began with a mandatory “initiation into the meditation program” (elsewhere in TM materials referred to as a puja, a ceremony performed by Hindus, as well as many Buddhists and Jains). Students are taken by a QT “facilitator,” two at a time, to a dark, incense-filled room with all the windows covered.
According to Thomas, they were made to hold flowers in their hands while the instructors “chanted in a foreign language, threw rice, seasonings, [and] oranges on a pan in front of a picture of a man,” after which they were to place the flowers on the pan. Following the ritual, they were given their mantras and were told “don’t tell anyone else your word.” (Keeping one’s mantra a secret, it should be noted, is common in some sects of Hinduism.) Thomas also notes that students were told they would be sent to the dean’s office if they declined to participate and that they would be threatened with reduced grades if they talked during the twice-daily QT sessions. She describes feeling uncomfortable about her participation because the ceremony went against the Christian religion she practiced in her home.
Unless this ceremony departed from the standard TM puja, as described by Business Insider, the man in the picture was likely Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, or ‘Guru Dev,’ with whom the founder of TM, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, “studied the Upanishads, the segments of the four ancient Sanskrit books of scripture known as the Vedas that focus on the self and its relationship to God.” And yet this is “an act that the Maharishi did not consider to be compromising to his practice’s secularity.”
TM’s spotty record in public schools
According to Professor Candy Gunther Brown, author of Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools, the federal appellate case of Malnak v. Yogi (1979) ruled that teaching TM in public schools constitutes an impermissible “establishment of religion.” Indeed, the court’s ruling against TM left little room for debate:
Although defendants have submitted well over 1500 pages of briefs, affidavits, and deposition testimony…defendants have failed to raise the slightest doubt as to the facts or as to the religious nature of the teachings of the Science of Creative Intelligence [TM’s Hindu underpinnings] and the puja. The teaching of the SCI/TM course in New Jersey public high schools violates the establishment clause of the first amendment, and its teaching must be enjoined.
TM appealed the decision to a higher court and lost again. According to Dr. Brown, it’s “remarkable” that TM is still being taught in public schools given how little public-school TM practices (e.g. assignment of mantras associated with personal gods, initiation through pūjās that invoke divine aid with chants, bowing, and offerings) have changed since Malnak.”
TM proponents argue that the case is over 40 years old and no longer relevant. In an exchange in the Wall Street Journal 3 years ago, Lynch Foundation CEO Bob Roth wrote,
“TM is not a religion. Over 8 million people of all religions practice TM. It is taught in public schools, on military bases, and in large and small businesses. In each case, a team of legal experts has done due diligence and researched the accusations and claims and found them to have no basis.”
When I pointed out in response that the puja ceremony is exactly the same today as it was in 1977, and that the establishment clause has not changed, Roth responded, “In the nearly 40 years since the 1979 court case you cite, tens of thousands of students have learned to meditate as part of voluntary Quiet Time programs with the full support of school boards and parents.”
That may be strictly true, but given what we’re learning about the Chicago case, that support may be largely due to the fact that TM isn’t entirely forthcoming in what it shares with school boards and parents regarding the explicitly religious content that permeates the program.
But not all is bliss in the TM world. For example, TM teachers created “checking notes,” as a guide to handle pain and discomfort that might arise even within the first days of TM instruction. The existence and use of the checking notes document that the TM organization is well aware of these potential problems. Shaking and body movements, as well as overpowering thoughts, are frequent enough even during the first few meditations that an entire section of the checking procedure is devoted to these severe symptoms.
More generally, a non-profit called Cheetah House, which is affiliated with Brown University, Harvard, and a number of other prestigious institutions, exists to provide “information and resources about meditation-related difficulties to meditators-in-distress.” And this is a major part of the mission of a proponent of meditation. In addition, while the UK’s National Health Service notes that meditation can be very helpful in many cases, “The serious, long-lasting nature of some of the negative experiences reported [in a recent study], however, are cause for concern.” These potential issues may be perfectly acceptable for adults voluntarily participating in TM workshops, but for children and adolescents required or even urged to participate it hardly seems appropriate.
It took three years for CPS to conclude that TM is more than a secular relaxation method to reduce stress. And while it’s still unclear whether they dropped the program due to issues with the establishment clause, potential risks to students’ health, or both, one thing that is clear is that TM proponents will not be deterred from approaching other school systems and institutions. You might say that their belief in the benefits of TM is… religious.