Real MagicTranscendental Meditation through the eyes of its most devoted illusionist © Sebastian Cestaro
Illusion and Reality: A lecture and demonstration on magic and the expansion of consciousness by DOUG HENNING: First Magician of the Age of Enlightenment. So read the posters that began appearing around Chicago advertising an event to be held at Northwestern University by the student meditation society. It was the late seventies, and Doug Henning, an internationally acclaimed, Winnipeg-born magician with his own Broadway show and regular television special, had not appeared in public for months. News of the event quickly traveled among the Chicago magic community, who showed up en masse to see their MIA superstar in a rare live appearance.
They left the event feeling somewhat puzzled. After a half-hour set by Jay Marshall (an American magician and ventriloquist known for an act involving a glove-puppet rabbit called Lefty), Henning—a squirrelly looking man with a Peter Pan demeanor, a handlebar mustache, and a twinkle in his eye—emerged on the stage wearing a white three-piece suit. He had just returned from Northern India, where he had spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement and favored guru of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Donovan, and Mia Farrow. Henning spoke at length of having witnessed amazing feats of “real magic,” including people who levitated or possessed superhuman sensitivity of sight and hearing: miracles that would baffle even the most experienced illusionists. Toward the end of the evening, he whipped out a few old tricks.
As a magician, Henning was loved and admired throughout his career for leading magic “away from the tuxedo approach” and reinjecting the craft with a sense of mischief and wonder. Having initially studied psychology (with an emphasis on hypnosis), he abandoned medical school to train with magic greats like Dai Vernon (“The Professor”) and Tony Slydini. By the late 1970s, Henning’s star was rising. His magic-musical theatre show Spellbound had been a Broadway hit. He performed Harry Houdini’s water-torture escape trick live on NBC for the first time since Houdini himself pulled it off, and made a live elephant disappear and then reappear onstage. He did magic for the Reagans, and designed illusions for Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind and Fire concerts.
But those who worked with Henning directly were growing frustrated with the magician’s increasingly obsessive interest in Transcendental Meditation. While preparations for his new stage show were underway, Henning would frequently pause all activity so that he could mediate for hours on end. Often he would instruct everyone else to pause and meditate too, so that the collective energy they generated together might allow him to successfully levitate in the air; a feat he hoped to perform as part of the show. Exasperated, his long-time technical director Glenn Priest walked out mid-rehearsal in 1983. Three years later, to the chagrin of his fans, Henning himself sold his illusions to David Copperfield and other magicians, and permanently quit the world of fake magic to devote himself, full-time, to the real magic of Transcendental Meditation.
Transcendental Meditation (or TM, as it is widely known), is a now widespread mantra-based meditation technique, loosely based on Vedic principles but formulated primarily for a Western audience. The technique was first popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. Today it reappears mostly in conjunction with the name David Lynch, whose frequent mention of TM in interviews ensured a new wave of its popularity among young Lynch fans hoping to explore the “deep seas” of consciousness and tap into their own latent reserves of creativity. (In 2005, Lynch founded a global charity to teach TM in schools and to other “at-risk populations,” including war veterans, refugees, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and those struggling with addiction.) I first learned TM earlier this year, having had several friends claim unironically that learning the technique had “changed their life.” For a flat fee, charged according to a means-dependent tier system and ranging from four hundred to a thousand dollars, you get a four-day course made up of both in-person and online sessions, as well as the “lifetime support” of your teacher. The first session is a private consultation and ceremony, during which the teacher gifts you your personalized mantra—a “meaningless” word made up of sounds derived from Sanskrit—which must not be shared with anyone.
My TM teacher was a white yoga instructor from North London and the ceremony took place in her flat. I’d already joined the obligatory onboarding Zoom call, in which she’d taken me and others through a whistlestop PowerPoint of studies backing up the multiple benefits of TM. She asked us to guess her age. She was forty, she revealed after someone placed her in her thirties, but her biological age was at least ten years younger, thanks to TM. On the day of the ceremony, I arrived at her house with the objects I’d been instructed to bring with me: several pieces of fresh fruit, a bunch of fresh flowers, and an unused, plain white handkerchief. She led me into a small room, bare except for two chairs and a table, atop which sat a white tablecloth and a picture of the Maharishi in an ornate golden frame. Chanting in Sanskrit, she performed the pujawhile I stood by holding a flower from my bunch.
At the end of the ritual, she whispered my word to me, and asked me to repeat it back to her. I kept getting it wrong. “Good enough”, she said on my tenth try, and instructed me to continue repeating it, quietly, more quietly still, until it was just a silent whisper in my mind. I still wasn’t sure if I was saying the word right. I sat in the chair, thinking my mantra. At a certain point, I heard her get up and leave the room. I became very aware of my breathing and was horrified to remember that I was a sack of meat. After some time had passed, she returned to the room, and asked me how long I thought it had been. “Fifteen minutes?” I guessed. She looked disappointed and said it had only been ten minutes. This suggested that time had been dragging for me. I asked her whether that meant I was doing it wrong. “No,” she responded. “It’s not possible to do it wrong.”
In the days that followed, I took myself through the TM course via an app on my phone. The filmed tutorials were led by Tony Nader, the clean-cut Lebanese neuroscientist who assumed leadership of the TM Organization after the death of the Maharishi in 2008. These were interspersed with questionnaires and short archival videos of the Maharishi, in which the guru sat cross-legged atop a gold-draped couch, dressed in white robes, behind him an arrangement of flowers laid out in front of a portrait of his own teacher. I was instructed to meditate twice a day for twenty minutes. I was told repeatedly not to share the technique with anyone, as I was not trained to do so and might inadvertently ruin their experience.
During this period I had daily check-ins with my teacher and a twenty-something-year-old photographer who was learning TM at the same time as me. Each evening the teacher would ask us how we were doing. “Amazing,” the photographer would say. He’d never had more energy. He was starting to experience brief glimpses of transcendence. He described the feeling as a sort of sudden dipping, as if he’d been dunked in a great well of energy. “And you?” the teacher would ask me, thrilled with his answer. “I don’t think I’m doing it right,” I said, and explained that I was having trouble shutting off what I think I described as “the skeptical part of my brain.” In response, I received the smile reserved for the unenlightened. “As long as it’s easy,” she said sympathetically. Ease is perhaps the central principle of Transcendental Meditation, which is where it differs from most other popular techniques. By reciting the mantra, TM teaches, the mind will automatically journey inwards towards “pure consciousness.” You simply have to trust that it will do so on its own. Having thoughts is not a hindrance; this is a sign that the body is releasing stress. The only obstacle to transcendence is effort.
Before beginning to teach TM in 1955, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had learned the technique from Swami Brahmananda Saraswati (also known as Guru Dev), who reportedly entrusted him with the task of spreading Vedic knowledge to the masses. In the 1950s, he began teaching what he then called a traditional meditation technique around India and took on the title of Maharishi, which translates from Hindi as “great seer.” By the 1960s, he was setting up international meditation schools and touring to promote the program. It was on one of these tours, in 1967, that he first met the Beatles, who in 1968 would famously travel to his then-residence in Rishikesh. There, they wrote much of the White Album and were joined by Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence. Over the course of their stay, however, the band began to doubt many of the Maharishi’s claims, including his avowed celibacy, especially after Mia Farrow attested that the Maharishi had made unwanted advances on her—claims that the Maharishi and his followers vehemently denied. The Beatles’ disillusionment with their beloved guru became the rumored basis of the song “Sexy Sadie,” which was initially entitled “Maharishi.” Maharishi, what have you done, you’ve made a fool of everyone.
Farrow’s reports and the Beatles’ disillusionment tarnished the Maharishi’s reputation but did little to halt the growth of the TM empire in the years that followed as it expanded into education, medicine, media, politics, and real estate. At the time of the Maharishi’s death, the Transcendental Meditation organization—officially a nonprofit—was estimated to be worth over £2 billion. The TM headquarters were established just outside Vlodrop, Holland (now the Maharishi European Research University), an elaborate compound ringed by a barbed wire fence and patrolled round-the-clock, where the Maharishi himself resided in a suite on the first floor. From there, he headed a largely volunteer staff of around twenty-five thousand people and broadcast TM courses to subscribers via a satellite television channel that reached 144 countries.
The history of TM is a warren of rabbit holes. Here’s an example: in the late 1980s, the movement founded a for-profit real estate development arm called the Maharishi Heaven on Earth Development Corporation (MHOED), which bought up dozens of old hotels across the United States and Canada in the hopes of building “Peace Palaces” (retreat hotels) and fifty low-density “Cities of Immortals.” One of these, the Maharishi Vedic City in Iowa, was named the “Capital” of the “Global Country for World Peace” (an organization that has repeatedly tried, and failed, to obtain sovereignty). In 2002, the Maharishi Vedic City, or MVC, began printing its own currency, called the “Raam Mudra.” Its mayor, Rogers Badgett, is a relative of the mining mogul of the same name, and was involved in coal mining operations and oil exports before opening an Ayurvedic Spa in MVC with his wife, Candace. The story of Maharishi Vedic City is doubtless a fascinating one, as is that of any of the wealthy, famous, and powerful people that have coalesced around the movement in the past six decades. But it is the story of Doug Henning, the Winnipeg-born Magician, that seems to me to get to the heart of the puzzle that is TM.
A couple of years after Henning walked away from his magic career to the horror of his fans, TM announced one of its most publicized endeavors: the Maharishi was going to build a massive Vedic theme park in Niagara Falls, and Henning was going to design it for him. The Niagara Falls “Veda Land” would be the first of a chain of such theme parks across the United States and eventually worldwide. Henning’s talent for illusionism would not be wasted after all: it would be put to use designing elaborate rides, exhibits, and attractions for Veda Land, all of which would be based around fifteen patentable “illusion technologies.” Veda Land had the humble ambition of impressing upon each of its six million anticipated yearly visitors an understanding of the “unified field of all the laws of nature.” There would be a levitating building. A magical chariot that journeyed into the molecular structure of a rose. Another ride that journeyed down the “corridor of time.” And, in a Mike-Teevee-like stunt, people who peeled themselves off video screens and appeared in real life.
Veda Land was to be an apotheotic moment for Doug Henning, who once said that it was the magician’s responsibility to “renew our wonder for the world.” To the magician, Veda Land was far more than an exercise in spiritual showbiz; it was an opportunity to give its visitors a taste of what Enlightenment was “really like,” thus initiating them to the vision of the organization and ultimately creating what Henning believed would be a kind of heaven on earth. The project was received with bemusement by the international press. In 1992, Wayne Thomson, then-mayor of Niagara Falls, was flown out to the Maharishi’s compound to view the plans for the park. “I saw forty or fifty people working day and night,” he told the New York Times. “It was all very high-tech, you know, very spectacular. They spent millions on this plan, just millions.” Years passed, and by 1998, Thomson still hadn’t seen any of the required permits. “I’m starting to wonder if the Veda Land folks are working on a different time frame from the rest of us,” he mused.
But Doug Henning had been busy. In 1992, he surprised his fanbase yet again by appearing on the public scene only to represent TM’s political party—the “Natural Law Party”—in the 1992 UK general election, contesting the constituency of Blackpool South in Lancashire, where he finished last out of four candidates. Henning was not discouraged by this loss. The following year, in the Canadian federal election, he ran as the Natural Law Party’s candidate in the electoral district of Rosedale. There he had more success, finishing sixth out of ten candidates. The Natural Law party wasn’t as fascist as it sounds. It operated, rather, on a strange conflagration of magic, science, and spiritualism. “The only government that governs perfectly is the government of nature,” Henning explains in a clip that aired on CBC in 1993. “We never see the sun going into debt and borrowing light from the stars.” This logic then gives way to an abstract theoretical explanation of his strategy, involving “energy fields” and “supergravity.” Finally, he ends on a simple metaphor, reviving one of his most famous tricks from his days as an illusionist. “Problems will disappear like magic . . . just like this elephant!”
For Henning himself, the equation of magic with Transcendental Meditation was no mere marketing tactic. It is unlikely that he would have been so seduced by the movement had he not been so convinced of the fact that not only was TM compatible with his aims as a magician, it represented an apotheosis of the art form, a way for him to finally achieve every magician’s dream: “real” magic. No tricks; no curtain that could be pulled back; no wires or beams that could be exposed. A genuine experience of wonder; one that was shared between both performer and audience. Though his faith in the possibility of “real” magic was real, his explanations for how it might be accomplished was vague, especially considering he had actually obtained a PhD in the “Science of Creative Intelligence” from the Maharishi European Research University in Switzerland in the 1980s. Of achieving invisibility through TM, he said, “You can disappear at a high state of consciousness because your body just stops reflecting light.” In 1992, in an interview on a British program called Man Alive, he explained that “when you experience pure consciousness you become the laws of nature, and you can control them.”
The Man Alive episode, entitled “‘Spellbound’ The Magician and the Maharishi,” concluded with a frank and unforgiving assessment of the situation: “The master of tricks and sleight of hand has been spellbound by an even greater magician.” Its portrait of the Transcendental Meditation movement was a terrifying one. It featured interviews with former “TMers” who had left what they described as something akin to a cult. It chronicled the lawsuits that had been leveraged against the movement by several people who had previously bought into its claims. One of these, Pat Ryan, who went on to work as a cult deprogrammer, likens the experience of TM to a form of self-hypnosis. The consequences of this, he warns, are dire: “When people are put into altered states of consciousness through trance or hypnosis, the ability to contra-argue gets disengaged.” Another describes waking up every morning—even years later—to find herself involuntarily in a “kind of hypnotic, tranced out . . . state,” one that she then struggled over the course of each day to overcome. The program struck paranoia into my soul. I began to reinterpret my own experiments with the technique in a darker light. What if all this time I thought I was meditating I was actually self-hypnotizing? Dampening my critical faculties? Cauterizing my ability to contra-argue? Several prior members of the TM movement have criticized David Lynch’s charitable endeavors on similar grounds.
The alarmism of the Man Alive report was the culmination of a decade and a half of suspicion that had begun to accumulate around the Transcendental movement, which began in the late 1970s, when the Maharishi came up with an advanced course, called TM-Sidhi, to accompany the regular TM course. A key element of TM-Sidhi was Yogic Flying: an experience whereby people would gather in a room laden with mats, and, as they reached pure consciousness, begin to hop cross-legged across the room, thus losing contact with the ground in the brief moments between their hops (these brief moments were often photographed and circulated as examples of the levitation that was possible through yogic flying). There is an illusionism at work here: having been told that they would experience the sensation of floating or flying, that’s really what the yogic flyers began to feel and to report. Not hopping on their bums in a large padded cell, but really flying.
Previously, the Maharishi had claimed that for quality of life to improve, at least one percent of the population had to practice TM; an equation that was known as the “Maharishi effect.” After the introduction of the TM-Sidhi program, he proposed that if the square root of one percent of the population practiced Yogic flying at the same time, noticeable benefits would be seen in society. This was known as the “extended Maharishi effect.” Doug Henning did the math and incorporated it into his 1993 federal election campaign in Canada. “Seven thousand yogic flyers can create a perfect government with the ability to satisfy everyone,” he explained to his would-be voters. “All of our national problems are basically caused by stress. And the best antidote is Transcendental Meditation and seven thousand yogic flyers.”
This kind of language is typical of TM, which promises change at both the level of the individual and the global. Eschewing any concrete political stance in order to ensure a wide appeal, it deals in vagaries: world peace, widespread happiness, perfect government. The Maharishi’s failure to outline the specifics of how the “world peace” he advocated for might come about frustrated Kurt Vonnegut, who—in an essay for Esquire—labelled TM “a very good religion for people who, in troubled times, didn’t want any trouble.” Vonnegut cited a question that was asked of the Maharishi about civil rights at a public appearance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968. The Maharishi reportedly asked for “civil rights” to be explained to him, after which he answered that any oppressed person could improve their station by practicing Transcendental Meditation. “In other words,” wrote Vonnegut, “[the oppressed person] should quit bitching, begin to meditate, grasp his garters, and float into a commanding position in the marketplace, where transactions are always fair.”
Such failures are not unique to Transcendental Meditation, but are inherent in contemporary self-help and self-care strategies more widely, which—in response to the challenge of squaring an ethos of surrender with a world that demands most people are always fighting for their lives—have for the most part given up trying to engage with happiness on a societal or global level at all, opting for an individualistic emphasis. After the death of the Maharishi, the TM movement too abandoned its prior emphasis on Vedic scripture in favor of a more scientized and corporate public face. It continues to be popular among the highest echelons of society (among those professing to be regular practitioners are Lena Dunham, Lindsey Lohan, and Kendall Jenner). On the TM app, Tony Nader explains what is happening in my brain with the help of a whiteboard. He wears an expensive-looking, well-fitted suit. He speaks from what appears to be a hotel conference room.
But the edgier sides of the TM movement continue to quietly simmer away in the background. It masterminds a website called “Global Good News” and a web channel (the “Maharishi Channel”) that hosts what it calls “global family chats.” In these broadcasts, top TM figures continue to claim that the square root of one percent of the population practicing yogic flying is enough to raise global consciousness. They speak of “news of rising invincibility around the world.” The videos are slow, repetitive, almost hypnotic, and target a very different audience than that reached by the slick, headspace-like TM app, which has an inbuilt timer for daily meditations. In one of these “global family chat” videos from 2020, plans are announced to finally construct VedaLand (the “first-of-its-kind Vedic theme park”) in Pune, in the Western state of Maharashtra, India. For the new VedaLand, many of Doug Henning’s original proposals have been abandoned in favor of more prosaic offerings: meditation caves, agro-tourism, a Vedic sports academy, a shopping market, luxury hotel rooms, and villas. The project is headed by entrepreneur and Pune local Shri G.S. Kale, who—in the promotional video featured on the Maharishi channel—hovers around what appears to be an empty plot of land. The VedaLand website is made up of digital renderings of grandiose exhibits. In a section on how to “participate,” it offers the options to “acquire a villa,” “provide funding,” “become an investor,” or—through donations—to “leave a legacy of peace.” Like the original Veda Land, there is little sign that anything has yet materialized on the designated plot.
Is TM extracting money via false promises to potentially vulnerable people? Most certainly yes. But is the whole enterprise one big sham? It depends on how you look at it. Over the years, TM has grown and splintered. Some of its branches are undoubtedly rotten. Others perhaps remain well-intentioned. All things considered, I regret giving money to the organization, and wish that I had trained with teachers who situate themselves outside of the official TM umbrella, as some of my friends have done. At the same time, I do not regret learningTM. I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling that my mind and I weren’t the best of friends. The central principle of TM—that every person’s mind has a natural tendency towards a state of happiness and tranquillity, and need not be viewed as an enemy to be subdued—is deeply reassuring to me.
An emphasis on how one experiences the world is where illusionism and transcendental meditation intersect. In all fairness, from what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like the Maharishi ever promised his yogic flyers that they would actually fly; he merely promised them the feeling that they were flying (a sensation he described as “bubbling bliss”). On a societal level, this difference is vital: one can’t eradicate oppression or end climate change by simply choosing not to see them. But perceptive worlds do matter. It would be hard to survive life without finding a bit of magic in it, whether or not that magic can be objectively proven to exist. According to one version of events, Doug Henning was lured away from his stellar trajectory and transformed by cultic coercion into a lesser version of himself. But according to Henning’s own version of events, he succeeded in fulfilling his lifelong ambition. Henning had spent his whole life in pursuit of that elusive feeling: wonder. As a performer, he could locate it in the faces of his audience. With TM, finally, he could locate it in himself.
In February 2000, the Peter Pan of the magic world lay dying of liver cancer in Los Angeles. Fellow magician James Randi all but blamed TM for Henning’s death, saying that he had been so immersed in the “cult” that he had “abandoned regular medical treatment.” Obituaries paid tribute to Henning’s playful spirit and childlike demeanor, crediting him with offering an alternative to the stuffy, formal styles of illusionism that previously dominated the magic world and inspiring a general resurgence of interest in the craft. In some ways, Henning did for magic what the Maharishi did for meditation in the West; TM is a very different method to the austere self-discipline of other meditation and mindfulness techniques I have tried in the past. The Maharishi, who was sometimes known as “the giggling guru,” famously maintained that laughter is “the highest state.”
I tend to think of Henning now, rather than Tony Nader or the Maharishi, when I occasionally pick up my TM app and sit to close my eyes in the corner of my room. When a thought arises, I tell myself that it is only a sign of the body releasing stress. I don’t really believe that this is how the mind works, any more than I believe Henning ever really managed to turn an elephant into thin air. As illusionism demonstrates, though, it is possible to experience something without believing in it. I think of the pictures I’ve seen of Henning surfing a giant butterfly with his assistant second wife, Debbie, or materializing dressed in spandex out of a brick wall. I sit and diligently recite my mantra, welcoming the strange half-dreams that come to me. Sometimes I get bored and give up. But sometimes I succeed in suspending my disbelief and accepting the narrative framework I’ve been given. The little kernel of “pure consciousness” that may or may not exist within me makes itself known, and whatever it is that’s happening, it feels good.
This article would not have been possible without The Doug Henning Project, an online archive of material related to the magician’s life, collated by Neil McNally.
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