In early 1975 I transferred to Franklin College, a tiny Baptist school in central Indiana where I knew no one. I began slowly to win acceptance into the “hippie circle,” the small subset of the 700 on-campus students who smoked pot, read Kurt Vonnegut, and otherwise identified with libertine youth culture. It was through them that I learned Transcendental Meditation was coming to town. For $60 and a gift of flowers for the guru, I could be given a mantra and taught to use it for meditation.
I was coming off a crazy-making period of my life. That first semester at Indiana University had sent me spiraling into chaos, under the confusing influence of a course in Eastern Religions. The Zen-like simplicity of campus life at Franklin was starting to knit me back together. Surely meditating with a mantra would speed the process. And besides, all the kids were doing it. But where would I come up with $60 and the flowers for the guru?
The money was there if I scrimped; I received a monthly SSI check (due to my father’s breakdown two years before) and had no expenses to speak of, since girls didn’t need to buy their own pot—just drop by the boys’ dorm and find a circle toking up. But flowers? I was stumped by that request. I didn’t even know where a florist’s shop might be located in Franklin. On the other hand, it was late April, full spring. Beds of well-tended flowers were blooming all over the tidy little campus.
I dropped by the meeting hall and added my name to the list of applicants for the TM training, wherein I would be taught a meditation routine and, in a private session with the guru, given my own personalized mantra.
When the appointed time arrived, I put on my best bell-bottoms and embroidered shirt. As I left the girl’s dorm, I stopped in the bathroom and grabbed two paper towels, moistening one. On my way to the training, held upstairs over the chapel, I passed a big bed of daffodils in full flower. With an inexpert twist, I snapped one after another until I held a bouquet of a dozen yellow blossoms in my hand. I wrapped the bases first in the moist towel, then the dry one, and proceeded to the meeting room. My $60 were harvested at the door. I was told to give my flowers to the guru when my turn came.
Maybe a half dozen of my hippie peers were already gathered for the TM training. We were told to sit cross-legged and empty our minds. Then one by one, we were taken from the group and led to a small side room where the guru waited.
I handed him my bouquet. He spoke one word to me. It had one syllable. That syllable sounded like the crackle from a radio tuned between stations. It felt like the zing of hitting a funny bone. It smelled like frying electrical wires. It tasted like tinfoil and smoke. I couldn’t even see it on the blackboard in my head where perfect spelling always appeared; there was no equivalent in the English language.
I had a mantra now, and I hated it. I tried using it, tried meditating for 20 minutes, morning and evening. I gave it a good shot. But by the time the spring semester ended, so had my foray into TM. My mantra and I just could not come to peace.
Decades later I asked my husband Jim what his mantra was. About the same year I did, and for about the same reasons, he had ventured across Madison from the U.W. campus to a strange land known as Willy Street, to find an Ananda Marga house where meditation and mantras were being offered, free of charge or obligation. He brought no money and no bouquet of flowers, stolen or otherwise.
Even though all meditation training seems to include an injunction not to tell anyone your mantra, he told me his. I loved it at once. It had two syllables, one round and framed by soft stops, perfect for in-breath, and one loose like a sigh to carry the out-breath. It sounded like a horse’s gentle nicker. It felt like a warm blanket. It smelled like chai and tasted like a bran muffin. Its spelling appeared on my mental blackboard in a neat cursive script. When I repeated it I felt a pearlescent bubble form around me, like the inside of a genie’s bottle.
Did my guru know my flowers were stolen? Was his stinking lousy mantra my penalty for coming to TM with a tarnished heart? I had to wonder. Of all the lessons learned in college, perhaps the one that has stuck with me the longest is, Do not cheat on your mantra. And by extension, an even more important lesson—simply, do not cheat.