By Colin Kirkland
Twelve of us—a strange little group—shuffled into the stuffy room, claiming our complimentary water bottles. We were curious to learn more about Transcendental Meditation, an ancient spiritual practice most of us probably discovered on YouTube. For me, it was a video made by filmmaker David Lynch. He holds up a half-eaten donut and says, “Transcendental Meditation is much sweeter than this donut; it gives the experience of the sweetest nectar of life, pure bliss consciousness.” Lynch then uses quantum physics to describe the feeling of transcending, and while I didn’t understand much of it, I liked that something spiritual could be explained with a confection. Perhaps the others were brought in by celebrity statements from Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, or Russell Brand, who have all expressed devotion to TM.
A man greeted us with a wide smile, introducing himself as Baruti. I assumed he was the instructor. Which made it hard not to linger while shaking his hand—he wasn’t what I’d expected. I thought a meditation guru would look a bit haggard, with a shaggy beard and multicolored prayer beads draped across his chest. Something like the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the man who buddied up with the Beatles and brought TM to the West in the 1960s: a plain robe, a band of orange flowers, and long flowing hair.
But Baruti was Black, bald, and clean-shaven. He stood over six feet tall with perfect posture. His monk strap shoes were polished and in style, his handshake firm.
Once we were all settled in rows of folding chairs, I listened to fellow attendees talk to one another about their reasons for seeking a TM practice. The sandy-haired woman suffered from insomnia; the young hippie had an adorable newborn and crippling anxiety; and the dark-skinned man in a red and white striped soccer jersey didn’t say anything when his neighbor asked how he was doing. No one invited me to share my reasons, but I wondered what I might have said.
My slender copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s On Booze came to mind. In the first entry, Fitzgerald reflects on his early twenties, writing, “Now a man can crack in many ways—can crack in the head—in which the power of decision is taken from you by others! or in the body, when one can but submit to the white hospital world; or in the nerves.” I suspected I had cracked as well—in head, body, and nerves. The kind of aches and nausea that used to visit my stomach after a bad meal, or an imminent deadline, now dwelled year-round, brought on by almost anything. At night, I’d place a bottle of Pepto and some half-smoked joints on a makeshift bedside table—a towering stack of self-help books—hoping to quiet my thoughts and stomach for a few hours of sleep. But The Art of Happiness, Notes to Myself, and The Power of Now could only offer so much reassurance to a 23-year-old who was totally cracked.
As Baruti closed the door and moved toward the front of the room, I noticed that he wasn’t showy, but put-together, defined, like he arose every morning totally refreshed. He wore a bow tie and an ironed white Oxford button-down tucked into pressed grey slacks. There was a sharpness in his look that exposed the tarnished reality of the surrounding space; everything, including me—my sweaty tie-dye t-shirt, my tattered Vans—seemed to exist through a foggy lens. When I looked up at him, I hoped Baruti always dressed this way, that he never faltered. I craved an infallible savior.
Gently tapping the mic, he began speaking in a deep tenor, his language quick, controlled, efficient.
“After practicing TM for several years on my own, I met my wife. We were standing in the dining hall of our mutual college, and I felt her presence. I was pulled toward her. TM helped me become susceptible to my emotions and all that surrounds me.”
I had trouble picturing someone experiencing a life-affirming moment while standing around a grubby salad bar, but I also wanted to know the rest of the story. Baruti continued.
“I introduced myself to her and everything changed forever. She is the love of my life. This level of intuition is what TM has to offer us—all of us.”
Baruti’s mention of his spouse surprised me; I’d never attended an info session steeped in romance. Along with my intrusive thoughts, I could feel the weight of my singleness, both from the lingering heartbreak of a college romance and the loneliness of being new in Boston. Like many recent college grads, I’d quickly resettled in “the real world,” away from family and friends, with no plan whatsoever. For me, this became serving pizza and drinks to screaming children and tipsy parents at a candlepin bowling alley up the street. During my down time, I drank with my coworkers and wrote music articles for a no-name blog based in Canada. There was an excitement in expanding my social connections, and interviewing bands was fun, but I always felt lost, distracted. Self-doubt ate away at my focus. I couldn’t tell who I wanted to be from who I didn’t.
One thing was obvious, though: Who I Didn’t seemed incapable of positivity. Who I Didn’t woke up with zero confidence and a bad hangover. Who I Didn’t had subpar sex with women he barely knew. Who I Didn’t called his ex and rambled on about rekindling a spent love. While riding the subway, Who I Didn’t feared vomiting on another’s feet, unable to separate his anxieties from reality. Who I Didn’t was plagued by questions that seemed to expand endlessly. Who I Didn’t was incredibly convincing.
Toward the end of Baruti’s presentation, he told us that our minds are a canvas. We get lost in the colors painted onto them, but the paint is actually erasable. “I can take turpentine and wash it all away,” he said. “TM helps us get back to the solitary canvas. We are not our thoughts.”
I was intrigued.
Weeks later, I’m sitting outside the same room, holding what was asked of me: six fresh flowers and three pieces of fruit. White tulips and purple plums, a choice I made haphazardly while rushing through the market across the street. City buses rumble through the intersection outside, their thick exhaust drifting through the open window behind my head. I glance at a few texts from my mom: “Are you sure about this, Col? What if it’s one of those creepy cults? 960 dollars is a lot of money—have you done your research?” I think about pulling up YouTube and sending her the donut video, but instead slide my phone back into my pocket.
The walls around me are lined with group photographs in old frames: a cherished timeline of freemasons, the apparent hosts of Baruti’s lessons here at the Somerville Masonic Lodge. Some of the pictures are black and white, yellowing at the edges. Glass cases display treasures and trinkets, mysterious swords and plates adorned with the classic “All Seeing Eye.” And while none of this has any relation to TM (at least I hope not), it feels directly linked to David Lynch. Specifically, his cult hit, Twin Peaks, which I’ve been running nonstop at home.
The show’s infamous hell-pit is deemed The Black Lodge. It’s a mysterious world that Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) enters, seeking a shape-shifting serial killer named Bob. Trapped, Cooper is faced with a suave satanic dwarf who dances slowly over black-and-white-striped floors, along with possessed victim Laura Palmer. All time fades in a chilling confusion, sucking Cooper deeper into his quest. I can’t help but feel stuck with a similar fate.
There’s one group photograph at the lodge that appears newer than the others. As I look closer at the stack of suited gentlemen, I notice a familiar face, looming in the back row. It’s Baruti’s.
I’m ready to bite into one of the plums when the door opens, followed by the echo of Baruti’s recognizable voice. “Good work today,” it says, growing louder as two people emerge.
“Thank you,” says an older woman with reddish hair and a cheetah print sweater. “I’ll see you next week.”
The woman gives me a slight smile as she turns down the stairs. Baruti pauses in the center of the landing and looks at me. “You must be Colin,” he says, beaming. His confidence nearly knocks me over. “I remember you from the information session. It’s very nice to see you again. Are you ready?”
“Hey,” I say nervously. “I think I am.”
He laughs and looks down at the offerings in my hands. “You forgot your handkerchief.”
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry, I—”
“Don’t worry,” he says, smiling. “We will provide one for you.”
Once inside the room, I notice the folding chairs from last week’s meeting have been removed. Except for one, which is propped up against the wall. A narrow table features a framed photograph of the Maharishi’s face in old age; the light blue background looks airbrushed, lending a cartoonish vibe to the image. Incense and multicolored flower petals rest at the base of the frame, where his torso would be.
Without warning, Baruti flicks a switch, shutting off the overhead lights, and walks to the windows, lowering each set of blinds with a crash. I take a deep breath. Slivers of sunlight break through cracks in the plastic and stretch across the opposing walls. Baruti strikes a match and picks up a stick of incense and I watch as spindles of sweet-smelling smoke surround him.
“You can place your fruit and flowers on the table,” Baruti says.
I should be relieved. Ever since leaving the grocery store, my offering’s offerings felt more like a burden. But following the trail of smoke as it spins off into darkness, there’s a pit in my stomach.
Twin Peaks aside, I’m surprised to be reminded of religious practices from childhood. Baptism. Confirmation. In our Protestant church, everything was simple, white, plain—even the congregation. These smells and colors—the darkness of the room—go against that tradition. Beyond early mornings and a limited attention span, my church didn’t involve offering much to God. Instead, I remember being taught to take what he provided: lukewarm grape juice and stale bread. I can’t say I ever experienced anything overly “spiritual.”
In the years since then, my family has given up the church, nursing other habits on Sunday afternoons. My mom finds peace in Pilates and a few glasses of wine, while my father sticks to Bud Light and a round of golf. I’m aware of no one who has sought out an ancient spiritual practice, especially one that originated in Hindu temples, long before Christ was born. Who am I to begin transcending? It all seems a bit insane.
“Do you have any questions before we begin?” Baruti asks.
Yes. What am I doing here? Can we turn the lights back on? What if I become possessed by ancient gods? How would I get them out? Do you provide exorcisms as well? Instead I ask about the length of this portion of the learning experience.
“The ceremony will take seven minutes,” Baruti says. “I will give you your mantra and then, afterwards, I will leave the room and you will use it to meditate. Let us start.”
Baruti positions himself directly in front of me. He closes his eyes and starts to chant. Words I do not recognize fill the room, another language, most likely one that originated in India, where the practice has existed for thousands of years. Eventually, he stops speaking and faces me, reaching for my hands. He’s even taller than I remember. I’m not aware of Baruti’s stature within the TM community, not yet. But several years from now, a basic Google search will reveal YouTube videos and articles on Medium. I will learn that he is Director of the TM Center in Cambridge, and that he teaches classes at Maharishi International University. He’s a big deal, the real deal. But at this moment, I am wondering how I can avoid holding hands with him. I feel like a child in his presence. He’s not only physically large, but something else—maybe it is his spirit—feels huge to me, too.
“My palms are very sweaty,” I explain.
“I don’t mind.” Baruti wraps his large fingers around mine. “Now we must maintain eye contact as I deliver your mantra, a specific collection of syllables.”
I nod. Baruti slowly mouths a sound; I try to catch it as it turns and flips in my mind.
“Now say it with me.”
I can’t help but laugh. My face flushes hot. Maybe I feel foolish—a sweaty fraud uttering words I don’t understand—or maybe it’s the sudden intimacy with a stranger, vulnerability between two men.
“We must make eye contact as we do this,” he reiterates. “The ritual demands it.”
I straighten my face and realize that if I am going to remain in the room, I must give in. I must stare into the whites of this man’s eyes, feel the warmth of his hands against mine and speak this strange, beautiful sound. When I do, something begins to click.
A circle of repetitive sound reverberates between us, its articulation becoming clearer and more precise, as if my vocal cords are a chisel, carving away soapstone in search of something pure. Finally, our pronunciations align as we chant the same sound, over and over. The true essence of my mantra is uncovered, a sonic statue. Maybe this is a gift; maybe the Maharishi has accepted my offering. Plums were a good choice.
“It is yours, and yours only,” says Baruti. His face glows behind a slight haze and the dark, outdated room becomes my current reality, separate from whatever remains beyond those cheap plastic blinds “Never speak it to anyone.”
I nod, unsure of what to say. Baruti walks into a shadowy corner of the room and grabs the metal folding chair. “Sit here,” he says. “Begin by saying your mantra aloud, as to personalize yourself with it, and then repeat it, softer and softer, until it becomes just a sound in your head. Focus on repeating it silently and I’ll come back at some point to get you.”
Baruti walks out into the hallway. I am alone again, caught up in the lingering sweetness of the extinguished incense, the smoky lens, the rhythm of two voices still circling the room. It reminds me of the aftermath of car sex in high school, how heavy the air felt when my girlfriend and I would blast the defroster and drive home. But here in this room, the real pleasure hasn’t yet hit.
An elevator shaft runs through my head, a cavernous pit that goes and goes. I step off the edge and fall through, a bursting rush of air, a flailing. As I fall, I can hear the buses passing by in long low hums. Bits of bright color and snippets of memory, faces I’ve known and voices I’ve heard over the years, images and inanimate objects—a feeling of connectedness to something beyond my conscious self.
When Baruti taps me on the shoulder, my head lurches to attention from where it’s been hanging, chin on my chest. My arms and legs tingle. I am relaxed in a way I haven’t been in years.
“How long do you think you were out?” asks Baruti.
Unsure, I answer with a question. “Five minutes?”
“It was more like twenty-five,” he tells me as I stretch my limbs and wipe drool from the corner of my mouth. “How do you feel?”
“Good,” I say, but my mind feels blank. For a few seconds, there are no thoughts. Then I tell him, “That was wild.” Baruti laughs, and ushers me out of the room.
When I sit down, lock my fingers, and close my eyes, I’m often faced with the same intrusive thoughts that once plagued me, that plague so many of us in a non-stop world, overloaded with information. Visions of Who I Didn’t try to prevent me from sinking slowly. But I no longer wriggle in fear. I simply stand in the eye of the storm, untouched, curious, calm. Who do you think you are? I ask silently, channeling a bit of Robert De Niro famously accosting his mirror image. Seriously, what are you? He doesn’t have an answer. I hold his gaze until he’s left with no other choice but to fade into black.
At 28, I no longer feel completely cracked. I sit and think my mantra on rigid park benches and frozen curbs, in public gardens and dingy hallways, in airport terminals and quiet train cars, in libraries and department stores, and most mornings beside my bed in a bamboo chair with soft blue cushions. The practice has given my life some much-needed structure. But it’s that sinking feeling I love, no longer a sudden drop, but smooth and dense like the quicksand I grew up seeing on Saturday morning cartoons. What often envelopes me is still rich with past experiences: faces, voices, and feelings I’ve known but forgotten. These make up the part of me I know to be true. Something to rely on.
Colin Kirkland is a Boston-based creative writer, educator, meditator, and journalist who spends most days vacuuming up cat hair. A third-year MFA candidate at Emerson College, he’s currently writing and rewriting a collection of essays. You can find his work in Atticus Review, The Boston Globe, and The Boston Globe Magazine.
Photo by Carlos Arthur M.R on Unsplash