A Childhood Of Transcendental Meditation, Spent In The 'Shadow Of A Guru' Journalist Claire Hoffman grew up in a utopian community in Fairfield, Iowa. At first, she says, "it was entirely magical." Then doubt crept in. Hoffman's memoir is Greetings from Utopia Park.
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A Childhood Of Transcendental Meditation, Spent In The 'Shadow Of A Guru'

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A Childhood Of Transcendental Meditation, Spent In The 'Shadow Of A Guru'

A Childhood Of Transcendental Meditation, Spent In The 'Shadow Of A Guru'

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. Before we begin today's show, we want to say that our hearts go out to the victims of the shooting in Orlando as well as their friends, family and the community struggling to cope with this tragedy. NPR's national reporting team will keep you updated on developments throughout the day and evening. We hope to explore some of the issues raised by this horrific incident soon. Now on to today's show.

Chances are you know somebody, maybe a lot of people, who've at times practiced transcendental meditation. Our guest Claire Hoffman estimates she's spent 2,200 hours of her life meditating, but not because she became a devotee of the practice as an adult. Her mother was a follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. And Hoffman spent most of her childhood in a community devoted to transcendental meditation in Fairfield, Iowa, home of Maharishi International University. Hoffman has a new memoir in which she recalls ways meditation helped and sustained her family and times she became disillusioned with the demands of the TM movement and the self-delusion of some of its leaders.

Claire Hoffman has written for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and now writes for national magazines. I spoke to her last week about her new book, "Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving A Transcendent Childhood."

Well, Claire Hoffman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to begin by asking you to read from the very beginning of the book. This is Chapter 1. You were really young. Just - if you would, just share that with us.

CLAIRE HOFFMAN: Yes. And thank you so much for having me. In this scene, I was 3 years old. And I am at the Transcendental Meditation offices in Manhattan where we lived. And I - my brother got scared and didn't want to learn to meditate. And I wanted to.

(Reading) I want to be initiated now, I announced, staring into the eyes of the teacher. We were gathered at an office of the Transcendental Meditation center in Manhattan for the ceremony in which my older brother, Stacey, was meant to get his mantra, a secret phrase all his own to chant quietly to himself every day. This mantra would've been Stacey's first step in his path to enlightenment. But Stacey, 5 years old, seemed intimidated and overwhelmed by the ceremony.

And when the time came for him to be alone with the teacher, he was resolute. He wouldn't do it. I knew that this teacher could bestow special powers. I want to learn my mantra today, I told him. I wanted that power. And then I turned to my mother. I'm not leaving. Normally, I was a compliant child, eager to please and slow to speak up. But I was certain enough about this, even at 3, to take a stand.

DAVIES: And that's Claire Hoffman from her book, "Greetings From Utopia Park." So here you are as a preschooler getting a mantra and beginning to meditate. What is a preschooler's meditation like?

HOFFMAN: In the Transcendental Meditation movement, they have a special mantra for little kids called the Word of Wisdom. And it's just a simple sound that you say to yourself for about five minutes in the morning and in the afternoon. And you don't have to sit down. You can walk around and look at things or color. You can't read. You know, it's sort of an introductory mantra.

DAVIES: And you did it. And you practiced it from when you were a little kid.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, I started meditating when I was 3 with the Word of Wisdom. And then when I was 10 years old, I got the - what they call the sitting technique, which is the form of TM, Transcendental Meditation, that everybody is more familiar with where you do it for 10 to 20 minutes twice a day, sitting and repeating your mantra.

DAVIES: Now, your mom, of course, embraced Transcendental Meditation and made it a real focus of your lives. Her story is interesting. She'd had a very difficult childhood. Tell us a little about that.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, I mean, my mom - for her, I think faith and spirituality was this big part of her childhood, even, where both of her parents were Roman Catholic. But they were fighting all the time, drinking. They went through just a terrible divorce. My grandmother attempted suicide, and my mother had to clean it up - the blood. It was just ugly and very strict, you know? She wasn't allowed to chew gum. She wasn't allowed to read comic books.

And so it was this kind of version of - the religion and the faith that was in their home was very restrictive and very angry and judgmental. And for her, she's this sort of sweet, artistic person, very intelligent, who kind of carved out her own world, you know? And this is in the mid-to-late '60s. So she's listening to The Beatles. And she's getting interested in consciousness. And she leaves and goes to the University of Colorado, Boulder. Somebody takes her to a TM lecture. And she's just blown away. It makes so much sense to her, this sort of transcendental theory of the universe and this understanding that we are our own consciousness and that consciousness is layered. It really clicked for her.

DAVIES: Now your dad, her husband, was also devoted to Transcendental Meditation, but a very troubled man. And you tell some really heartbreaking stories of your early memories of their life together. What was - what were the issues?

HOFFMAN: Well, for my dad, TM actually was this escape from who he was. When he went to Southern California to go on a meditation retreat, he was trying to clean himself up, you know? He knew he had a drinking problem. He was smoking all the time. He knew that he blacked out when he drank. And he wanted to be a better person. He wanted to change.

He didn't really tell my mom any of that. So when they met, you know, my mom was just meditating all the time and loving it and this very, like, innocent sort of person. And my dad wanted to be that. I think he was really attracted to that in my mother.

But after they got married, my dad was drinking all the time. And when we moved around - he was in graduate school for writing. And then we moved to New York. And, you know, my mom says that we didn't really even see him the last year that he was there. You know, one weekend we went away. And when we came back, you know, I heard my mom talking to the landlord. And I heard him say eviction. And I saw that my mom was really upset. And we walked upstairs, and my dad had left a note on the table. And the note said, you know, I've gone to California. Love, Fred. And there was about $50.

DAVIES: And so you and your mom and your brother moved around a lot. And times were really hard. And you eventually make your way to Iowa, to Fairfield. Let's talk just a little bit about the origins of the Transcendental Meditation movement. What do we know about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's youth and the origins of the movement?

HOFFMAN: Yeah. I mean, it's an incredible story actually. He was from sort of a clerical caste. His father was, I believe, a local administrator. He was born around 1919. There's some debate about his age. And he went to college. He was a physics student. He really loved science and math, which you see later on in the movement. He had a real passion for science. He went to go see a guru. And he decided to drop out of college and become this guru's secretary. The guru was called Guru Dev. He was a shankaracharya. He was part of this long tradition.

And Maharishi - his name was Mahesh - he wasn't part of this sort of religious caste. He was from a clerical caste. You know, he wasn't sort of supposed to be a monk. He was supposed to - he just worked as a secretary. And after Guru Dev died, you know, the sort of story goes that he went and lived in a cave for a few years. And he came out and he sort of had this revelation that he wanted to teach the world to meditate.

And, you know, this is in the, like, mid-to-late '50s. Meditation had been sort of the stuff of spiritual people like monks and yogis and gurus. And his idea was to give it to the - what he called the householder class. And it was sort of a revolutionary thought that regular people in India or around the world could just meditate and then go to work and have a job and have a family, but also have meditation be a part of their lives.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Claire Hoffman. Her new book is "Greetings From Utopia Park." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Claire Hoffman. Her new book is about her experience growing up as a kid in a community built around Transcendental Meditation in Fairfield, Iowa. It's called "Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving A Transcendent Childhood."

So you were young. And you and your mom and brother were kind of financially struggling. And she announces you're going to move to Fairfield, Iowa, where the Maharishi International University, this utopian community, is. And you go. What was it like?

HOFFMAN: So I think, you know, we had lived for most of my life in New York City. So my image of moving to Iowa was this sort of rural paradise, where, you know, we would live on a farm. And there would be animals. I would be free to go outside and do whatever I wanted, which I didn't have in New York. I imagined, because my mom told me we were moving to this community, that everyone would meditate. And that had definitely been this part of our life, but not something that was shared with anyone else. So I was really excited to have this community.

We got there in the middle of winter, and it was very cold. And we drove to Fairfield. And I was sort of taken aback. I found it very crummy, you know - sort of old houses, dirty snow. There was a population of people there who had been there before the meditators showed up, who we called townies. And they called us gurus, or 'rus. And they weren't friendly to us. They were not happy to have us there. It was sort of all these city slickers or weirdos from California or the coasts as well as a bunch of Europeans who showed up in their town. And so there was a lot of hostility.

DAVIES: And - you - there was a school there for the kids within the Transcendental Meditation movement. But it wasn't free. And your mom couldn't afford it. So you went to the town school at first. How were you regarded by the kids there?

HOFFMAN: My first day of school, I was immediately asked - does your mom meditate? And I said yes. And they said - does your mother fly? And I said - no, but she - you know, that's why we're here. She wants to learn to fly. And I was (laughter) immediately categorized as a, you know, a 'ru.

And, you know, on top of that I had my sugar-free lunches with bagels and wheat bread and cream cheese and cucumbers. Everything I did was totally strange to them. You know, we would, during recess, play outside. And the kids from Maharishi School would walk past. And the townie kids would rattle the fence and scream, you know, guru or, like, sort of swearing and yelling and taunting them. And later on, when I did go to the Maharishi School, I would walk past my former friends, who would yell at me.

DAVIES: So now, you would eventually transfer to the TM school there at the Maharishi University. The adults had things that they did in common. I think you said in the afternoon they would all kind of migrate over to a certain part of the campus. What would they do? What would go on?

HOFFMAN: So a big part of life in Fairfield, in order to understand why everyone moved there and what the vision was, was that Maharishi had a theory that large groups of people practicing his trademarked form of meditation and his advanced form of meditation, which he called Yogic Flying, would create world peace. He had a scientific formula that he had come up with where it was, to be precise, the square root of 1 percent of the population. If that amount of people were meditating, it would radiate the sort of peace engine that would change the world.

So the people that moved there moved there to meditate together. And in the late '70s, early '80s, they built these two, gigantic golden dome-shaped buildings. There was a women's dome and a men's dome. And twice a day, people would go and meditate together. And, you know, in the '80s and into the '90s, it was thousands of people. And they would meditate for about an hour and a half to two hours each session. So it would be an hour and a half to two hours twice a day, so three to four hours.

DAVIES: And did the kids go? Or did you stay outside in fascination, wondering what was going on?

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) Yeah. I think there is this funny component where our parents were pursuing this - these higher states of consciousness. And they would leave us behind. You know, there was definitely this sort of wildness that happened while they were gone and, you know, throughout different ages. So, you know, we were either with a babysitter. Or when we were a little bit older, we would just run around with the other kids and play.

DAVIES: And misbehave (laughter) because the parents were all gone?

HOFFMAN: Absolutely. Yeah, it was - there is definitely - and I think we even knew it at the time - that there was this sort of "Lord Of The Flies" aspect of it. It's always - it's sort of an in-joke for kids who grew up in Fairfield that their parents were sort of going off with these blissful smiles to go meditate, and we would, you know, be trying to break open vending machines and shoplifting and God knows what else.

DAVIES: You mention flying. I think you said on your first Thanksgiving there, your mom said she was going to be going away learning to fly. What exactly what was she talking about?

HOFFMAN: A big schismatic moment for the Transcendental Meditation movement happened in the late '70s. Up until that point, Maharishi had been really advocating this 20 minutes of simple meditation twice a day. And he introduced something called the TM-Sidhi program. And sidhis, you know, loosely translated, means superpowers. And so there were advertisements at the time - you can still find them - that say, you know, the strength of an elephant - that you would get the powers of invisibility and that you could fly - that you could levitate.

And there's rumors - you know, I mean, there's all sorts of, like, crazy stories surrounding this that, like, the CIA tried to infiltrate and steal Maharishi's knowledge. But people did it. They paid thousands of dollars, and they did these advanced TM programs. So Yogic Flying is sort of the core of what people who moved to Fairfield were practicing. And I say that it was schismatic because TM was very mainstream in the '70s. And then he introduces levitation and he loses a lot of people.

DAVIES: But those who stay with it are deeply committed, right?

HOFFMAN: Deeply committed. So when we moved there, that first Thanksgiving, I saw my mom laughing with her friends and talking. My brother and I are eating our tofurkey and vegetables. And she comes over and says, you know, I'm going to learn how to fly. And I had sort of had an inkling of it. But it - the big sort of excitement was around the fact that somebody was paying for it. And that's because it was thousands of dollars. And somebody had donated it for my mom to learn.

And we were just so broke at this point. You know, I mean, my mom - you know, her father was an engineer. Her mother was a nurse. You know, she was a college-educated, middle-class woman. And we were, you know, just barely able to make rent. When we moved to Fairfield, we were on food stamps. It was a real sort of whiplash experience moving there. But she went away for two weeks on this flying course.

DAVIES: And why did it cost thousands of dollars? This is interesting.

HOFFMAN: It cost thousands of dollars because Maharishi said that Americans don't value things unless they pay a lot of money for them.

DAVIES: So this was this interesting kind of paradox in the movement, right? I mean, it was generating huge amounts of money. At the same time, it was, you know, offering personal fulfillment and this, you know, road to world peace.

HOFFMAN: As time went on, living in Fairfield, I felt like, more and more, there were all these different sort of trappings or accoutrements of enlightenment. So - and they all cost money. So it was like you had to have a special kind of paste before you went to go practice your Yogic Flying. And the paste cost like $150. And, you know, the Yogic Flying cost thousands of dollars to learn. And then your badge to get into the dome to practice the group meditation cost a hundred dollars a month. Everything cost money. And everything about our life there - it felt like it became commodified.

So by the time I was a teenager, it was, you know, there was a special form of medicine, Maharishi Ayurveda. There was a special form of architecture - Maharishi sthapatya veda. There was astrology to follow and have your charts done, which was Maharishi jyotish. There was special gemstones and gemstone technology. I don't even know what that is, but it was there.

DAVIES: Let's just come back to the flying for a second. I mean...

HOFFMAN: Sure.

DAVIES: ...Your mom went away for the two weeks and took the flying course. And then you write - there's a point later in the book at which the Maharishi was going to share this with everyone. And you learned a little more about what had actually happened when your mom was in this flying experience. What did you learn?

HOFFMAN: I would say, to start, that living in Fairfield as a little kid, when we first got there in those first few years, it was entirely magical. There was so much that was exciting and beautiful. Like, we believed that we were changing the world. And it was this sort of blissful experience.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, when I was around 9 or 10 years old, Maharishi decided that he would show the world Yogic Flying. He had kept it secret. You never saw anybody practice it. Up until that point, I thought my mom was levitating. I absolutely believed that she and my teachers and my friends' parents, my administrators - that everybody went to the dome and soared around. That was 100 percent what I believed.

And we had a school assembly. And we went to the domes. And they had men demonstrate for us Yogic Flying. And I was sort of crushed. It was humiliating to look at. I can't quite describe it. It was so embarrassing because it was definitely not levitating. And it was this sort of funny frog hop that they were doing across the room.

And for me, that moment of seeing this sort of awkward, ugly jumping was - as opposed to this incredible levitation that I, as a kid, had imagined was a first moment for me of doubt.

DAVIES: Claire Hoffman's book is "Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving A Transcendent Childhood." She has children of her own now. And after a break, we'll hear what she thinks about the value of meditation for her own family. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. We are speaking with Claire Hoffman. Her new memoir, "Greetings From Utopia Park," is about her childhood growing up in Fairfield, Iowa, in a community devoted to Transcendental Meditation.

Hoffman meditated from an early age, but says over time, she became somewhat disillusioned with leaders of the TM movement, including its founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

You know, he had grandiose plans. I mean, you're right about this - at one point, the notion of building the world's tallest building in the world's largest cities. These would be buildings in the shape of pyramids. And tell us about the theme park that was supposed to go up.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) So Maharishi Veda Land was this theme park that was an incredible pairing of two minds, which was Maharishi and the superstar '70s magician Doug Henning, who was, you know, like my family, a follower of Maharishi.

He moved to Fairfield around the same time we did, totally dropped out of his life. He had had a Broadway show, and he had been performing in Vegas. And he came and lived in Fairfield and dedicated himself to creating Maharishi Veda Land. And they bought land all over. They bought land in Orlando, near Disney World. And they bought land right outside of Niagara Falls. And they spent tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars on developing this project.

And basically the idea was that it would be a amusement park dedicated to Maharishi's teaching. And you would actually experience Maharishi's own consciousness - an enlightened consciousness - as you went through it. And he said, you know, go once, and you'll weep tears of joy. Go three times, and you'll be enlightened.

DAVIES: So this would be - actually there would be rides, that which...

HOFFMAN: Yes, rides would do that (laughter).

DAVIES: ...Enlightenment and conscious decisions occurred. It was never actually constructed, of course.

HOFFMAN: It was never constructed. The land is still there. Around 2003, shortly before Maharishi died, they estimated that his real estate holdings were between 2 and $5 billion. He really liked buying land.

DAVIES: Wow. And there was a long series of lawsuits and tax charges and other things that accompanied his long career. I'm just wondering how you regarded him? You never actually laid eyes on him. He never actually visited.

HOFFMAN: I never met Maharishi. I - my mother loved and loves him so much. And the people that I grew up with - my friends' parents - they loved him so much. You know, he was so important to them. And that does mean something to me.

And I think, in the process of writing this book, my opinion of him changed. I think, when I first started thinking about writing a book about the TM movement, you know, I was a youngish investigative reporter. And I thought, you know, I'm going to figure out what happened with all this money. I'm going to expose the hypocrisy. And over time and working on this book, I feel like it so much more complicated than that.

Because I think that what happened in Fairfield, we did to ourselves. You know, Maharishi never lived there. He was always somewhere else. And so it was almost like we were existing with the shadow of a guru. You know, so everything was like trickled-down knowledge. We wanted to do everything the way that he said we should do it. And we wanted to live life exactly according to his principles.

But he was never there, so it was this distillation of power which, you know, meant a lot of jockeying and positioning. And I think it created a very 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 such a more interesting question then, you know, was he a great man or was he a con artist? Who cares? You know, what I care about is why people do this.

DAVIES: Well, you know, apart from the benefits of meditation, which, you know, I think, are pretty much undisputed. And I know a lot of people who benefited from it over the years. But when you say what we did in Fairfield, are you saying that the leaders there financially took advantage of other people or exercised power in ways that were destructive and unhealthy?

HOFFMAN: I would say, I feel like, people there exercised power in ways that were destructive and unhealthy. I think there was a constant pressure of fundraising. We were always fundraising. There was never a day that we were not fundraising and that was to support these kind of global projects that Maharishi had.

He was going to build the world's tallest building. He was going to build these amusement parks. He was going to build these libraries to his knowledge all over the world. And I didn't see people in Fairfield with a lot of money, I more saw a lot of poverty.

DAVIES: You ended up in public school - high school in Fairfield and kind of hung out with townies and had your own life kind of questioning the Transcendental Meditation movement and doing stuff that maybe they wouldn't have endorsed. You went to college, had a career as a journalist, and like you said, meditated from time to time - got things out of it. And there's a moment in the book where you describe - you were with your brother Stacey, and you learned of the Maharishi's passing. I wonder if you would share that reading with us.

HOFFMAN: Sure, yeah, this is in 2008. And I was definitely very much a skeptic about Maharishi when this happened.

(Reading) It was a text message from a girl I knew from the Maharishi school. The Rish has dropped his body. I felt something electric and strange inside. In that moment, I realized there was some small part of me that never believed he would actually die. Her wording reflected the view shared by most everyone in Fairfield, that when Maharishi died he would simply shift from the human form to the magical, enlightened, omniscient ether.

Standing on my small deck, I took a moment to be alone with the knowledge that he was gone. For a moment, it felt like this was about just Maharishi and me. I had never met him, but he had entirely shaped my life. Some small part of me believed that he knew me, that he sensed me across the universe and that he understood the intimate, silent place TM had given me. And yet, for the previous decade, I'd felt an almost relentless contempt for him. It had been hard for me to talk about him or our movement without my lips curling into a knowing sneer. I had never used the word master to describe Maharishi despite this being par for the course in the guru-devotee relationship. The feeling I felt now was sort of like a slave unshackled, surprised to find an enormous sense of longing for her master.

I walked inside. Maharishi died, I said simply. Huh, Stacey grunted. Then he mumbled - guess he wasn't immortal after all and continued to stare at the TV. I felt heavy, almost like I couldn't move. I thought of all the people I was closest to in my life - my mom, my brother, my mother's ex-boyfriend Jeff (ph), my high school friends - Jiton (ph), Ingrid (ph), Wells (ph), Joey (ph). All these people I had treasured had been brought together by this faraway man. And now he was gone. Knowing that he'd left the world, I felt his loss as you would a loved one.

DAVIES: That's quite a moment. And you describe wishing you could attend his - you know, the services that were held in India. You know, it's - in that passage you refer to having kind of thought of him with contempt for so long. Was this a turning point? Did you kind of continue to revere and value him from then on?

HOFFMAN: No. No, I wouldn't say that, as an adult, I have ever revered him. I think, (laughter) in a way, Maharishi dying made me realize that he was human, which I know sounds absolutely nuts. But I think, as a kid who grew up with him as this sort of godlike character, having him die - it made me sort of reassess him as a human being.

And for me, that began the process of accepting that he made mistakes and that he had flaws, that he has vices and virtues and that, in a way, that was part of the problem - that he had been human, that he had - he had wanted things and not wanted things. And he had wanted to look a certain way and not look a certain way. And we had been assessing him as if he was godlike, that - as if he were perfect. And I think, for him, he tried to sort of - he did try to live as a god on Earth. And I think that is ultimately, you know, a very fraught position to assume.

DAVIES: Right. Claire Hoffman's book is "Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving A Transcendent Childhood." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Claire Hoffman. Her new book is about her experience growing up as a kid in a community built around Transcendental Meditation in Fairfield, Iowa. It's called "Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving A Transcendent Childhood."

There's a point later in the story, after you've married and you're a professor in college and you have a young daughter. And, you know, you're struggling with some of the stresses in life. And you return to Transcendental Meditation and yogic flying, this sort of controversial notion that you could achieve levitation through this intense meditation. Tell us about what happened.

HOFFMAN: So I would say in the first year after my daughter was born, I experienced something I wasn't expecting, which was I felt like something was really missing from my life. And, in a way, it was because I had everything that I needed. You know, for so long I had worked really hard to survive financially. I had been ambitious.

And it wasn't that I had achieved all my goals, but I was safe. I was comfortable. I loved my husband. I had a beautiful, healthy daughter. And I just felt this shallowness around me. It didn't feel like it had - there was value for me, even though I absolutely, you know, loved and valued my family.

And I think, you know, I started to think about my childhood and about how incredible it had felt for us to feel like we were changing the world. And to have this touch point of meditation in our lives. And, you know, for me, I wasn't meditating in the afternoon. I was, you know, drinking wine with my husband and watching TV, which was fun. But you don't feel that great afterwards. And so right around when my daughter turned 1 years old, I went back to Fairfield, and I enlisted in the city's program and signed up to learn yogic flying.

DAVIES: There was a class of 20, I think, you started. Some fell off along the way. You stayed with it. What did you experience?

HOFFMAN: You know, it was a very complicated experience for me. I mean, I - first of all, we were meditating at times about seven hours a day. And I think I'm pretty good at meditating after 36 years of meditating and starting at the age of 3. But seven hours a day is - you know, it can be a little maddening.

And I was very aware that I had left my daughter for two weeks to go do this, just the way that my mom had left me when I was 5. And I had felt enormously guilty about it. And I felt guilty about feeling guilty. But I really wanted this experience that I had heard my mom and heard everyone in our community talking about for so many years, of this really transcendent experience. And I wanted it really badly.

I struggled. I didn't fly right away (laughter). For me, those two weeks was really this experience of wrestling with doubt and understanding its part in my life. So they give you these different - in the advanced technique - they give you different sutras or mantras that - the idea that's a little different than TM is that it's supposed to sort of subtly adjust things on the physical realm - right? - as opposed to TM where you're just saying a mantra and kind of transcending. There's a sort of physical aspect of the city's program in some ways.

And I wasn't flying. You know, I was saying the flying sutra. I was not flying. And basically one day, a girl came up to me and was like, you know what? Just start moving your butt a little bit, like basically fake it 'til you make it. And I felt so opposed to that. You know, I was like a real purist.

But I did it. I tried it. And I had this incredible experience that was very, very brief. I said the flying sutra, and I went to a place of total darkness, this momentary cosmic blackness, a feeling of total oneness. And then I hit my head on the wall. And I sort of, like, opened my eyes and saw that I had moved across the room just like 2 or 3 feet.

And now, I knew from watching people practice yogic flying that I had not done something elegant or amazing or mystical - or at least it didn't look that way. But for me, it actually had been this incredibly profound experience. And it made me really understand why my mom had moved us to this little town in Iowa and why all these people had worked so hard for all these years and why people were so devoted to Maharishi because this experience was this kind of ineffable, intangible feeling that felt really true for me.

DAVIES: And you were unaware of how you got to the wall, right? You were just there?

HOFFMAN: I was just there. I wasn't trying to move my body. Now, I really want to say, like, I'm not trying to tell you that some kind of miracle happened or that you would've watched it and thought, wow, that's incredible.

But almost to me, that's sort of the point - that, for me, the experience was so interior. You know, that it looks sort of hideous and human on the outside but inside felt divine and cosmic. And that made a certain kind of sense for me.

And it kind of made me put things together, you know? I mean, we have an idea of what divine or superpowered or cosmic looks like. But I think it's something that is interior, and it is human.

DAVIES: Now, you have two kids, and all the stresses that come with that. Do you meditate regularly?

HOFFMAN: I do. I meditate probably once a day. I don't practice the yogic flying program. I felt like it just couldn't be a part of my life. It was sort of too out there. But I really enjoy meditating. And frankly, the space that that gives me from, you know, the stress of daily life is really important.

DAVIES: You had an early version of a mantra - a word of wisdom - when you were like - what? - 3.

HOFFMAN: Three.

DAVIES: Are you going to have your kids meditating as little children?

HOFFMAN: Yeah, I have two daughters. And my older daughter, who's 6, got her word of wisdom two years ago. And it was funny for me. I mean, it was this strange experience where I really wanted her to have it, you know? And I think I can be as cynical as anybody about the way that I was raised. But it's really part of my identity.

And for me, meditation is almost my sense of self, you know, for better or worse. Like, that ability to have that silence and have that space is who I am.

And the idea that my daughter wouldn't have access to that, that that wouldn't be part of who she was, just - it felt wrong. You know, she doesn't really like doing it. And I can't make her, given what I went through. Like, I'm incapable of forcing her to meditate. But I need to know that she can have it if she wants it, and it's almost tribal. I can't quite explain it.

DAVIES: Claire Hoffman, thank you so much. Thanks for speaking with us.

HOFFMAN: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Claire Hoffman's book is "Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving A Transcendent Childhood."

Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli reviews "BrainDead," a new series from the creators of "The Good Wife." This is FRESH AIR.

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