Transcendental Meditation Appears in the Classroom
ALEX COHEN, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick.
The new school year is starting. And all this week DAY TO DAY is asking what's new with programs and experiences for students and teachers this fall.
COHEN: This year, some schools are introducing a spiritual practice called Transcendental Meditation, or TM. TM first gained popularity in the U.S. during the '60s when celebrities like Mia Farrow and The Beatles started meditating.
Reporter Alison Brody dropped by a public school in Washington, D.C. where teachers hope Transcendental Meditation will lead to better grades.
(Soundbite of school)
ALISON BRODY: It's 8:40 in the morning and the halls of Washington, D.C.'s Ideal Academy are alive with activities.
(Soundbite of school)
BRODY: Ten minutes later, the soundscape at Ideal is transformed.
Unidentified Man #1: Okay. Now, let's get ready to meditate. Sit comfortably. Close your eyes after 30 seconds. Start repeating your mantra.
BRODY: This is what the intercity charter school calls quiet time - when students stop talking, close their eyes, and begin to practice Transcendental Meditation, or TM.
Ms. JAMIE JONES(ph) (Student): It feels like you're floating on clouds.
BRODY: That's how fifth grader Jamie Jones describes the 10 minutes in the morning and afternoon when she sits at her desk and quiets her mind.
Seventh grader Rico Richardson(ph) explains it this way.
Mr. RICO RICHARDSON (Student): We do our quiet time as we try to be calm as we can and close our eyes and think of our mantra so we can be relaxed.
BRODY: Rico fist got his mantra, or secret ritual word, when the school's pilot program started last year. This year the program expanded to include all students, grades five through 10. The goal is to reduce stress, increase focus, and bolster achievement.
Dr. George Rutherford is Ideal's principal. He says his students are as smart as any he's seen, but the stresses of poverty hold them back.
Dr. GEORGE RUTHERFORD (Principal): There are neighborhoods that my students come from that a lot of folks who would not even want to go in, you know, and that brings about a lot of stress. If a child come in and they are stressed out, how do we expect them to learn?
BRODY: He says the answer is TM. He first used the technique in a classroom in 1992 on a different campus in D.C. Back then, he told no one about his unorthodox curriculum choice.
Dr. RUTHERFORD: If anyone knew we were doing TM, they'd probably fire me. Okay? It wasn't accepted then. It was not like it is now.
BRODY: Now, Rutherford says, he feels like he's part of a movement. Last year, 25 public, private and charter schools across the country adopted TM programs. Next year the number will likely reach a hundred, with quiet time popping up in cities such as Los Angeles and Boston.
Mr. EDWARD TABASH (Americans United for the Separation of Church and State): It's not the business of the public schools to lead kids to inner peace through a spiritual process.
BRODY: Edward Tabash is a lawyer with the organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He also meditates, but he says Transcendental Meditation isn't appropriate for public schools because it has its roots in ancient Hindu practice.
Mr. TABASH: So if you teach Transcendental Meditation, it will open the floodgates and allow any religious or spiritual group to have access to formal teaching of its edicts in the public schools.
BRODY: And to keep those floodgates closed, some have even threatened to sue. TM supporters say it's all a misunderstanding.
Mr. DAVID LYNCH (Filmmaker): Some people say it's a religion. Some people say it's a cult. Some people say it's a sect. It is so much baloney.
BRODY: That's filmmaker David Lynch, promoting TM at a recent event in Los Angeles.
Mr. LYNCH: I don't want another religion, I don't want to join a cult, and I would have stopped meditating if it didn't give me, you know, something very, very special.
BRODY: It's also very, very expensive. TM-trained instructors charge $625 per student to teach the technique. Some of the money goes back to Maharishi University, the school in Iowa founded by the man who brought TM from India to the United States. To offset costs, Lynch has created a foundation. So far he's raised $5 million. His goal is to raise $7 billion so he can make TM an option for schoolchildren around the world.
Mr. LYNCH: Let them develop their full potential. Let them start unfolding bliss. Let them be happy. Happy.
BRODY: Back at Ideal, principal Rutherford said he's happy with the program so far, but he thinks that real changes will come a year or two down the line. And as for the church-state issue...
Dr. RUTHERFORD: First of all, I'm a Baptist, okay? My wife is a Baptist, so if it had anything to do in any other kind of religion, I would not be doing it. I got one God.
BRODY: And for kids like 10-year-old Lea Smith(ph), religion doesn't even enter the picture. For her, TM is just a tool to help her get by.
Ms. LEA SMITH (Student): It makes you feel better. It makes you stop being frustrated. It makes you feel good about yourself.
BRODY: For NPR News, I'm Alison Brody.
COHEN: Alison Brody comes to us from the News 21 Project at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.