The Movement and the Power of Myth

The centrality and limitations of myth in the TM movement and other major movements
May, 1994

A longer, older essay, originaly published in 'Survival in Paradise,' a charmingly disruptive journal about life in Fairfield edited by L.B. Shriver.
A few terms probably require definition. A 'sidha' is a practitioner of the advanced TM programs, said to have especially powerful effects even on the collective consciousness when practiced in large groups. Krishna and Arjuna are the major characters of the Bhagavad Gita, India's most revered book of spiritual wisdom. MIU is Maharishi International University, the original name of the institution that has grown up in Fairfield. 'Mother Divine' and 'Purusha' are groups of women and men respectively who have fully dedicated themselves to pursuing the spiritual path Maharishi has laid out. And 'Group for a Government' was the name of the then current program to assemble large groups of 'yogic flyers' to influence the direction of whole societies. A large such gathering in Washington DC is reputed to have dropped the crime rate in that city in 1993.

Every movement of historical importance is driven by a set of powerful core beliefs. People have to want something very badly, and believe they can achieve it, in order to put out the kind of efforts required to actually move the world. The more revolutionary a movement's goals, the more powerful and cohesive the beliefs must be.

Such beliefs are rightfully called "myths." Common speech associates myth with falsehood, which is unfortunate. When we say "That's just a myth," we mean that something is a story or a fable that is not true and not worth serious consideration. This usage completely misses the point of what cultural historian Joseph Campbell called "the power of myth."

Great myths embody the meaning of life and its possibilities. They are in fact the only way that such profound ideas can be effectively transmitted. Effective myths capture our imaginations, engage our energy, and galvanize our action. Myths unify people (often from every corner of the globe) in shared quests of ultimate importance. They supply the psychic energy that moves a movement.

Myths are not rightfully judged "true or false" in the conventional sense. They are neither logical propositions nor statements of fact. Rather, myths should be judged by how well they resonate with human experience, how well they draw out and lead us toward the richness and potentiality of life. Myths are pragmatic; they are "true" if they work. And their "work" has, for millennia, been to unify the longings of the spirit and to form channels for the ongoing evolution of life.

Consider two examples of preeminent myths, one from the field of religion, the other from politics.

Christianity has been the dominant force in Western culture (and much of the rest of the world) for nearly two thousand years. At the core of Christianity is a myth of unprecedented power. It has endless ramifications, but could be summarized in this way:

God has arranged for our salvation, through his grace and through the sacrifice and resurrection of his only son. To fulfill our purpose, we must believe in him and love one another, and our ultimate reward will be to be with him in Heaven.

Communism seized upon the Twentieth Century and divided the world, mobilizing some of the most populous nations on earth to tear apart their societies and attempt their recreation. Communism was driven by a myth of transformation, a vision of an ideal society to be born from revolutionary changes in the economic relationships between men. It proclaims:

Place control of the "means of production" where it belongs, in the hands of the working people, and society will rise to its true glory, offering dignity and freedom to all. This will unfold with the power of historical necessity.

Most of us grew up believing that Communism was evil. However sad and disastrous a movement it turned out to be, Karl Marx's original myth laid out a path for the fulfillment of the masses of mankind, and that was a source of its tremendous power.

I will come back to these two examples later. With this background we can consider the myth at the heart of the TM movement.

I want to focus on the form of the myth that created the worldwide TM movement in the 1970's, the vision that convinced thousands to transform their lives and their goals to become TM teachers, to spread out and set up centers in every city in this country and around the world, to work for years without pay, to flock to advanced courses in all parts of the world, to fulfill the demands of endlessly ambitious projects, and to build this University and community far from home in the fields of Iowa. The teachers of TM, and many thousands of meditators as well, were galvanized to change the world. They were certain of their success, and willing to do whatever it would take to achieve their goals.

But what really galvanized us in the 1970's? Was it a mythic vision -- or was it not rather our experience that moved us? Our experiences in meditation were profound, primary, and absolutely crucial; nothing would have happened without them. But it was the myth that gave shape and direction and ultimate meaning to the experience. The myth produced a direction for unified action; it created a movement, an effective force in the world, out of quiet individual experiences of transcendence.

It was Maharishi, of course, who created the movement and forged its direction. No one else could have accomplished what he has. But Maharishi created his movement by first creating a myth to drive it.

The myth at the heart of the TM movement is rich and many faceted, like all important myths. But we can discern strands of its historical essence, like this:

1. TM, by accessing the deepest and most nourishing levels of our own being, is the solution to all problems.

2. TM produces a state of enlightenment.

3. TM accomplishes these things quickly and effortlessly, utilizing the natural tendencies of life itself.

We are so used to these points that we sometimes forget how spellbindingly fantastic they are. My own assessment, amidst the intellectualism of Harvard in the early seventies, was that these were the most revolutionary ideas in history.

Nothing had ever before been offered to the world that claimed to eliminate all problems from every area of life in a single stroke. Nothing had ever claimed to produce enlightenment in a systematic and reliable way, and for anybody. And above all, no one had ever claimed that such results could be obtained quickly and without great effort.

How could one not want to believe this? The clinchers were the profundity of our own experiences in meditation and the unsurpassable quality of Maharishi as teacher and seer.

And so we believed. We extrapolated from our initial experiences, trusted the vision of our teacher, and rode the myth into the future. A great deal was accomplished.

But it is now 20 years later. What has happened to the myth? One would hope to find it as strong as ever, or stronger, for there is still a great deal to be done. Instead we find the myth diminished in its effective power, diluted. We are still here (many of us at least), and we have not lost our desire; but the strength and simplicity of our belief has been eroded.

It goes without saying that I do not speak for everyone. But I do speak for a large number of long-time veterans, people who helped build the movement and wanted more than anything else to see the fulfillment of its goals.

I expect that most readers will not need a litany of evidence to justify the claim that the myth at the heart of our movement has been diminished and diluted in the hearts of the faithful. Instead, let me offer this summary observation: The sidhas and meditators in Fairfield (and everywhere else) have become increasingly thirsty. They are searching for new knowledge, for help and healing in every area of life, for new sources of spiritual experience. By now it is old hat to point out that Fairfield is the New Age and Self-Help Seminar capital of the Midwest, with per capita participation probably exceeding that of major California cities. Traditional spiritual teachers have also gained a sizable following.

Had the myth been true (that is, "working"), who would have predicted such thirstiness after 20 years? Maharishi himself always told us that the most fundamental quality of the mind is its desire for "more and more." But the vision that promised "more than the most" has not been able to satisfy this most essential longing. And so people have been looking elsewhere, for more and more kinds of nourishment on the spiritual, emotional and physical planes.

For most people, the search is not for something to replace TM (the experience continues to be far too valuable for that), but for techniques or practices to help in particular areas of life that have not been sufficiently improved by years of our essential practice.

It is not just the thirstiness that is disturbing. There is also a gnawing sense of disappointment, of unmet expectations, of frustration with endless grand claims and self-congratulations. I have seen people in our community wrestle with these feelings for years, tossed by thoughts of guilt and betrayal ("Maharishi has given us so much, and asks only for our one-pointedness in return"). They are reluctant to admit what they have come to feel.

Others have realized that they must above all be true to themselves, trusting their own judgment about what they should pursue, whether it is "officially acceptable" or not. Some are searching because of an urgent personal need; many more are searching because their hearts are naturally leading them towards new kinds of expansion and experience.

The movement was based on bold utopian predictions. The problem is that the predictions had timeframes attached to them (implicit or stated), and so they could "come due." As each person's own notion of the "due date" for these promises comes around, the pressure on the myth increases. It has been cracking under the strain for a number of years now.

The Christian myth has a great advantage in that its ultimate fruits have traditionally been promised to arrive after death. Hence its ultimate promise cannot be disproved, or shown to have been "late" or otherwise lacking in any way. If one is inclined to believe in the myth, there is no possible evidence to the contrary, at least about the final fruits. (It is interesting to note that the cohesive power of the Christian myth began to break up, in this century, as a generation arose that was not inclined to wait for its rewards, but wanted to have them now, in this life.)

Communism, on the other hand, had no choice but to promise fruits in this world; Communism, as pure materialism, believes in no other world but this. When it became obvious that the expected fruits were not forthcoming, the myth, its movements, and the empires they built began to unravel with startling speed.

Nothing is more dangerous to a myth and its movement than to promise fruits in this world, and then have them not appear according to the promised or perceived schedule.

One waits a few extra years, a decade or two, but eventually the gap between promise and achievement becomes disturbing. "Cognitive dissonance" arises, in the language of the psychologists, and the dissonance produces friction, whose energy must eventually have out.

Over the years, Maharishi has emphasized (sometimes to our chagrin) the importance of science and experimental verification, and has called up experts from all disciplines to help testify to the validity of our practice. This has encouraged a tendency to compare the "hypotheses" set up by the myth with the "experimental results" delivered in our own lives and in society. As scientists, we ask: "Did it happen like we predicted it would? Exactly? Why not?"

Through the ages, myths have not fared well when subjected to scientific scrutiny. Ours has courageously encouraged such scrutiny, but it is finding some difficulties holding up under bright lights.

I admire and honor those for whom what I say next is not true. But for a great many of us, the reality is that we are far from seeing all problems solved in our own lives (much less in the world), and far from a state of full, established enlightenment as it was originally defined.

One more element of our myth needs to be addressed:

4. Any problems one experiences on the path are just clouds passing, and do not deserve serious attention.

This, too, was revolutionary, like nearly everything that Maharishi has ever uttered. Given the meticulous insights Maharishi supplied about how the nervous system is purified through deep rest and exposure to pure consciousness -- and given that we believed that this "unstressing" phase would in any case not be a long one -- the idea that problems are nothing but temporary distractions was attractive, practical, and consistent with the rest of the knowledge about TM.

But if the sky stays overcast for a very long time, and thunderheads and extended monsoons make their seasonal appearances with no evidence of disappearing, one eventually reconsiders the forecast. More importantly, if the problems that "pass through" are painful or frequent enough, one longs for relief. Or at a minimum, one longs for someone who will take the problems seriously, and provide guidance that addresses the question "Why? Why still after all these years?"

Christianity, more than other myths of its stature, embraces the reality of suffering in human life, giving it a new kind of divine sanction in Jesus' ultimate compassion and his personal participation in the experience of pain. For Christians, suffering is real, and it can have cosmic significance as part of the process of redemption.

Communism sees class struggle, sometimes violent and requiring dislocation and revolution, as a necessary part of man's present evolutionary path.

"No one said it would be easy," says the collective voice of experience. No one except Maharishi.

Joseph Campbell says in The Power of Myth:

I can't think of any [myths] that say if you're going to live, you won't suffer. Myths tell us how to confront and bear and interpret suffering, but they do not say that in life there can or should be no suffering.

He was obviously not aware of Maharishi's promise: "Tell everyone, no one needs to suffer anymore."

Maharishi's vision is nobler, to my mind, than any other, because only he has offered to move the entire race beyond suffering, here in this world and in this lifetime.

But what was greatest in the myth begins to seem like an Achilles heel. Maharishi took suffering seriously in this most important sense: He set out to eliminate it. But he also taught us that problems are beneath our true dignity, that they are distractions, that they are ephemeral and do not deserve our attention. As decades passed and problems of various kinds continued, this approach, however valid from the perspective of full liberation, simply began to break down. It began to feel like a denial of reality.

Admittedly, the "reality" that is being denied would be written with a small "r". But this is the level of life that many of us continue, at least at times, to be bound by. We crave guidance that directly addresses what we are going through now, at this stage of our development, as we move toward a Reality worthy of the name.

It is becoming common to hear people say "We are no longer like children. We are strong enough to work these things out for ourselves." Was Arjuna, the greatest archer of his time, "strong enough" to work through his own problems on the battlefield? Krishna chose to give focused attention to the particular illusions that paralyzed his student and held him in darkness, teachings appropriate to the blinders that kept him from the light.

By no means do I embrace suffering. I have at least as much aversion to pain as the average man. Nothing attracts me more than the prospect of bliss firmly established in daily life. But the "prospect" of such bliss is no longer enough. More than a beautiful and far-off visions, we need a vision that resonates with our lives as they are actually lived, and guidance that speaks directly to the challenges of our own experience.

Many of us are finding a particular type of meaning in times of suffering. We have learned lessons that we have been unable to learn in other, gentler ways. But just as often, the meaning is impossible to fathom.

I do not want to leave the impression that everyone is beset with problems. Some, perhaps many, have attained unabated serenity and freedom, and some may have risen to full enlightenment. But not enough of us have done so, for the sake of the myth and the movement.

The Prospect of a New Myth

Having said all this, what can be done about it? I believe that we need a new formulation of our core mythic vision. It goes without saying that I am not competent for myth-making; this is the province of people far beyond my stature. But I can offer my opinions about some of the elements that a new myth might contain.

The "new" vision would inherit all the precious essence of the original, leaving the purity of the teaching uncompromised. The proper mechanics of transcending, the rich Vedantic understanding of the Absolute and Relative fields of life, the stages of growth of consciousness -- all that is purest and deepest in our knowledge would remain untouched.

Outside these essential areas, however, two things in particular cry out for revision: We (as a movement) incessantly claim far more than we can deliver, and we erode our authenticity and honesty by refusing to acknowledge the experience of problems and the diversity of our lives.

What would we lose if our claims tracked reality more closely? If our predictions and promises (stated or implied) corresponded to the timetable of results in our own lives?

Instead, we pile promise upon promise (about flying through the air, perfect health, immortality, heaven on earth), and congratulate ourselves endlessly, hoping people will continue to believe that soon all this will dawn upon us. I can't help but think about the straw that broke the camel's back. Won't there come a time when one too many promises is made? Which of them has yet been fulfilled?

Why not say this, instead:

Here is a vision of what life can be. It includes more than most have ever hoped for: Enlightenment, bliss, freedom, world peace, holistic health. Here is a supremely effective technology to work toward achieving these things. How will we get there from here? The road we travel will be wonderful, not because it will always be blissful (it may sometimes be deadly hard), but because of where we are going and why. The road may for some be quite long; it may even cross deserts and jungles and mountains. But help will always be close, in the form of unparalleled knowledge and guidance and the support of a caring community of fellow-travelers. There is no journey more worth taking, for ourselves or for the world.

Are we afraid that it would be too hard to "sell" a vision like this? Certainly, a myth that says "everything will be easy and all your dreams will very quickly come true" can be easier to sell than one that admits difficulties. But in the long run, you also have to keep your customers.

What will happen if we do not reinvent the myth? Some of us may drop away. Many of us will forge our own personal renditions of the myth, to ease the dissonance. (This is already well under way. I have run into dozens of individualized variations on a theme. It is fascinating how we try to explain to each other "what is really going on", as we spin sub-myths of infinite inventiveness.) More and more of us are making our own decisions about what is appropriate for us to pursue in our own spiritual quests. Our community is becoming a maze of individually blazed paths.

A shared collective myth that works is infinitely more effective than a collection of similar but different private myths.

There may be no hope of recreating the kind of unified myth and uniform practice that characterized the first decades of the movement. It may also be that this is no longer necessary or even desirable. People have acted, more and more openly, on their thirst for new avenues of knowledge and new kinds of evolutionary practice. It is hard to imagine all that being given up, to collapse back down again to a single, one-pointed, uniform orientation.

It may be that we must embrace a myth that is itself embracing, that encompasses freedom and the diversity of individual needs, that unifies the diversity with profound foundations of knowledge, essential techniques of unique value, and the sharing of ultimate goals. The structures spawned by our movement until now have been hierarchical, closed, and strictly autocratic; what we create next may need to be broad-based, open, and -- can we even imagine this? -- fundamentally democratic.

My wife attended the recent Ladies Assembly at MIU. When it was over, she recounted the weekend with tears in her eyes -- tears of joy from experiencing, once again, the ineffable profundity of the experience of meditation, and tears of gratitude for Maharishi and the knowledge he has given us. I know, we all know, exactly what she was talking about. There is within us a deep bedrock of thankfulness for what Maharishi has given us, and love for him as our teacher. Nothing I have said here is meant to detract from this in slightest measure (as if anything ever could touch that depth of knowledge and feeling).

But this raises a critical point. Some will respond to this essay: "If people were just more 'on the program', they wouldn't be having these difficulties." If only that were true. Such a claim is too often a vain (or even desperate) attempt to reassert the truth of the myth in the face of a growing body of contradictory experience. Yes, our program is powerful; yes, attending a rounding course can be extremely profound; and yes, experience-devoted programs like Mother Divine infuse its participants with bliss. But all that, however wonderful, is no answer to the questions at hand. For it is also true that the problems outlined in this essay have been visited upon devoted members of Purusha, upon long-time governors with meticulous regularity, upon the dedicated sidha on the street, perhaps just as much as upon the dreaded "irregulars." Experience shows that our path is more diverse than we have admitted.

Others will say: "If only we could establish a Group for a Government; we have not fulfilled Maharishi's plans." I sincerely applaud such devotion and such persistence. But Maharishi's vision will always stay ahead of our ability to fulfill it; such is his greatness as a leader. Sooner or later, it is not enough to say "if only." Sooner or later we must build a sturdy bridge between the mythic vision and our lives as they are actually lived.

I am concerned about the staying-power of our current myth and our movement, and so I was moved to speak. A new, most welcome spirit of open communication has dawned in our community in recent months. My hope is that these thoughts will be taken in that spirit, as part of the process of discovery, as we continue to create our future together.