Most of the people I knew in the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement were ex-hippies who had a conversion experience in young adulthood and ran off to join a charismatic guru. Not Claire Hoffman, author of Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood. She never met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian spiritual leader who popularized TM in America, although his unseen presence permeated her life from an early age.
Claire’s mother was part of the counterculture generation that discovered Eastern religion and made TM a huge fad in the 1960s. She took her children to a TM center for initiation while Claire was still a preschooler. When Claire’s parents divorced, the struggling family moved to the center of the TM movement in Fairfield, Iowa, where Claire and her brother grew up immersed in Maharishi’s world.
The Hoffman family arrived on the campus of Maharishi University in the early 1980s, a few years after I left. (Full disclosure: I’m the author of another memoir on this topic: The Maharishi Effect: A Personal Journey Through the Movement that Transformed American Spirituality.) By then, the guru’s teachings went way beyond TM.
At first, young Claire believed Maharishi’s claims that meditation would unlock magical powers and bring world peace. Doubts crept in, however. The “support of nature” that was supposed to make Maharishi’s followers wealthy never arrived for most of them. Claire’s mom struggled to make ends meet, especially with financial demands from the movement like the increasing monthly fee to meditate for world peace.
Claire was thrilled when her class at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment took a field trip to the Maharishi Golden Dome of Pure Knowledge for a demonstration of “yogic flying.” Claire expected to see the adults zooming around like Superman. Instead, they were bouncing on foam mats. Claire’s magical fantasies ended for good.
As she grew into a teenager, Claire’s doubts blossomed into full rebellion. When her mom and the other parents left home for hours of “flying” in the Golden Dome, Claire and her friends ran wild. They left enlightenment behind for booze and shoplifting. She dated local guys who didn’t even meditate.
One of the best parts of this book is the insightful portrayal of the two cultures within Fairfield. Has there ever been a town/gown gap wider and more poisonous than the gulf between the “townies” and the “gurus” in this small Iowa community? In my day, there was little interaction and it was easy for the two sides to demonize each other. Claire Hoffman took a much harder path of working to blend in with the local Iowans. She gives us intimate details of life on both sides—the totally opposed beliefs, diets, dreams, body types, and destinies. Her bridge of understanding is an achievement that borders on the heroic.
When she was old enough and she couldn’t stand life in Fairfield any longer, Ms. Hoffman moved to California to join her father. From there, her story becomes more familiar—a talented and ambitious person who works hard and attains success in her profession. That’s not the end, however. Like most of us who come out of a fringe religious sect, the past never goes away.
Ms. Hoffman returned to Fairfield as an adult when the pressures of career and motherhood left her dried out and empty. Perhaps, for all its craziness, the TM movement could offer some peace of mind. She learned the “yogic flying” technique, had her daughter initiated into meditation, and found closure of a sort.
When I reviewed this book on Amazon I gave it four out of five stars because of the questions that Ms. Hoffman leaves unanswered. Every author has to end the story somewhere, of course, but I think she closes the door for the wrong reasons.
In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Ms. Hoffman says that the problems in Fairfield were due to a power vacuum left by an absent leader. “I think it created a kind of screwed up community for a number of years. But I think that was our fault. I feel like we do it to ourselves and why do we do it? I think that’s a more interesting question than was he a great man or was he a con artist. Who cares?”
As I see it, Ms. Hoffman’s “Who cares?” is an eerie echo of the excuse she quotes Maharishi giving for his astronomical prices: “Americans don’t value things unless they pay a lot of money for them.” Maharishi was very good at convincing his followers that everything he did was for their benefit and any problems were of their own making.
We were so wrapped up in our inner lives that we gave a pass to the person who issued the orders. Yes, we enabled him, and that’s a fascinating story, but it’s just a small fragment. What happened to the money? How did a simple meditation program evolve into a spectacular train wreck? What are the effects of unlimited power on a spiritual leader with no accountability? How can we prevent it from happening again? We won’t answer these questions until we look beyond ourselves.
I question Ms. Hoffman’s conclusions, but that’s a minor quibble compared to her very great achievement. As a second generation member of one of the most influential new religious movements in America, Claire Hoffman’s story is unique, valuable, and extremely well written. I hope you’ll buy this book, read it, and discuss it with your friends.