Before Maharishi Mahesh Yogi stepped onto America’s shores in 1959, there was nearly no mention of “meditation” or “mantra.” Within 10 years he made these into household words. His brush with celebrities placed him in the spotlight. But his true legacy is his gift of Transcendental Meditation (TM).
Fifty years ago, when Mia Farrow, her sister “Dear Prudence,” The Beatles, Donovan, and Mike Love visited Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India, shock waves reverberated around the world. The result was the iconic record album The Beatles, a.k.a. the “White Album,” written in India, and Maharishi’s meteoric rise to fame.
In recent years TM has enjoyed a stellar comeback — becoming a cool club again due to efforts of film director David Lynch, and his Foundation, endorsed by dozens of superstars.
For 22 years I resided in Maharishi’s ashrams in the Himalayas, Swiss Alps, Fairfield, Iowa, and elsewhere. I served on his personal staff for six years. For extended periods, I enjoyed close proximity to the most renowned guru of the 20th century.
In the tradition of the East, chela (disciples) devote themselves to gurus, and gurus elevate disciples to higher consciousness. Starry-eyed seekers often view this path through rose-colored glasses. Yet there’s nothing romantic about it.
What isn’t widely known is that enlightenment means extinguishing the ego. That’s why it’s defined as “egoless.” Loyal disciples wouldn’t divulge how this occurs through a kind of “open-ego surgery” performed by gurus on their disciples. They wouldn’t risk soiling their gurus’ reputations—nor embarrassing themselves. And gurus generally don’t reveal their closely guarded methods.
Ego demise isn’t exactly lollipops, butterflies, and daisies. It can be devastating and shattering. Out of six million people who learned TM, only a handful spent any time in Maharishi’s direct presence. Those who witnessed his antics rarely understood his motives. Many scorched by his fire still remain baffled or consider themselves victims.
The perfect cliché of hippiedom — that was me in 1966. A “flower child,” I fully embraced the counterculture lifestyle. But it wasn’t all sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. We flower children were seriously seeking altered states of consciousness — specifically, nirvana. And under the madness of the Vietnam War, we were also desperately seeking world peace.
My story is the story of an entire generation that changed the world. In 1967, about 100,000 kids joined the hippie revolution in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. Many were runaways or tourists, but they found utopia, even for just one “Summer of Love.” The spiritual path started there for many baby boomers. Even if they didn’t participate directly, they were swept up in a spiritual revolution.
LSD led me to the edge of stark raving madness. But during my third, final, and only successful acid trip, I lay in the grass on a cliff overlooking the Pacific in Big Sur, grinning blissfully for four hours — completely unconscious. Where was my nirvana? What was the point of tripping while out cold?
Alan Watts’ books said we needed a “meditation guide.” In 1966, good luck finding “meditation” or anything remotely similar in the Yellow Pages telephone directory! So I tried doing it myself, lying on my bed (clearly, I didn’t even know meditation should be practiced sitting up), praying for a “meditation.”
Suddenly an electric shock jolted through me. A cord of energy rushed through my body in a perpetual stream, from my toes all the way up to my crown. I felt plugged into the electric socket of the universe, but in a most ecstatic way.
Entirely clueless, I figured this was meditation. Little did I know I’d experienced my first meditation and kundalini awakening both at once, without drugs. But I still wanted to learn to meditate properly, with a real meditation guide.
In autumn 1966, a fellow art student/pothead took me to the Transcendental Meditation Center. I entered what seemed to be a holy place. From a photo on the wall, an Indian guru smiled — or more accurately, beamed. With long black wavy hair, beard, moustache, and white silk robes, his most striking feature was his sparkling, radiating, magnetic, ebony eyes. If God wanted to visit earth and look like someone, I imagined this was how He’d look.
With no TM teachers in Berkeley, it would be nine months before I could learn. When I finally did, I was hooked immediately. I felt something I’d never felt before — HAPPY. Really happy. Then all I ever talked about was traveling to Rishikesh, studying with Maharishi, and becoming a TM teacher.
The first time I met Maharishi was in 1967 at the Los Angeles airport. We devotees formed a double line with a corridor he could walk through. He appeared like a sunray bursting at dawn — laughing, cooing, and receiving flowers. I stood on line in my ridiculous hippie attire, ugly raggedy junk-store dress, no bra, wild frizzy hair, hippie beads, hairy legs and underarms, and clunky leather hippie sandals, holding pathetic, sad wildflowers I’d picked beside the road. Increasingly anxious, I clutched my wilting bouquet harder as he drew nearer.
When he finally reached me, he stopped dead and looked me up and down. Then he scowled in disdain and snatched my flowers with a derisive gesture. Though he smiled at everyone else, it took him no time to fire bullets at me.
Later, when I reread Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, I figured maybe I was in good company. Though Yogananda’s first encounter with his guru Sri Yukteshwar began like violin strings, it quickly ended on a sour note. After just a few minutes, Yukteshwar told Yogananda to return home to Calcutta. When Yogananada obstinately refused, Yukteshwar informed him he would not easily accept him as a disciple. Then Yukteshwar mockingly asked whether his relatives would laugh at him. Twenty-five years passed before Yukteshwar expressed any affirmation of love toward his disciple.
I wondered whether Maharishi’s initial scowl was like hitting the play button again after the last pause, as if he’d known me for lifetimes and therefore such an immediate, familiar, fatherly reprimand was acceptable. Or was it just my appearance, which, admittedly, sort of resembled a Charlie Manson Family reject? In any case, this was the first of many tests Maharishi dispensed to me.
I spent over two decades spinning around the eye of the hurricane of this charismatic, bliss-bestowing, fear-inducing guru while he sliced away at my ego and ricocheted me daily from glorious heights of ecstasy to intense depths of devastation and back, all with just his glance. It seemed to make no rhyme or reason, but in the process, I became myself.
As I morphed from a painfully shy teenage hippie into a spiritually aware teacher, I finally broke free to find self-empowerment in my own spiritual pathway. Maharishi’s advice to me: “Don’t look to anyone. When you don’t look to anyone, then everyone will look to you.” So I discovered the inner guru, which anyone can access.
Author and spiritual teacher Susan Shumsky has 14 books in print. Her latest is her memoir, Maharishi & Me: Seeking Enlightenment with The Beatles’ Guru, in which she shares inside stories about her experience with the guru, his celebrity disciples, and ego. She will be speaking at Conscious Life Expo and Mystic Journey Bookstore. Visit www.drsusan.org and www.divinetravels.com.
This article is a part of the 2018 February / March issue of Whole Life Times.