“Going to sleep so closely resembles the way I now must go toward my freedom. Handing myself over to what I don’t understand would be like placing myself at the edge of nothing. It will be just like going, and like a blind woman lost in a field.”

—Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.


Suppose you have a chair. Suppose that, whenever you sit in this chair, you experience uncharted levels of rest. You find an inner peace that extends into all areas of your life: your anxiety subsides, your muscles loosen, your relationship difficulties fade, your concentration sharpens. Picture a chair that assures you that, despite the chaos of the outside world, inside you lies an untouchable ball of purity. Picture a chair with all but magical powers. Wouldn’t you sit in it?

For Gail and Richard Dalby, the directors and principal instructors at the Transcendental Meditation Center at New Haven, this chair exists. Or, rather, that is the analogy that Richard frequently employs at Transcendental Meditation (TM) introductory meetings. “Just think of it this way: we’re giving you a technique where every chair you sit in could be that chair,” he explains to his attendees, usually over Zoom meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays. “You don’t have to carry it around with you, you don’t have to haul it when you move. Wherever you are, wherever you can sit with your eyes closed, you are in that chair.” 

I cannot afford the chair—even with a student discount, the four-session Transcendental Meditation course costs 420 dollars. I ask if there are any other options. Maybe I could start off with just one class? Gail says no. I never attend the full course, though I do try to meditate once on my own, in my room, following instructions from an article on the internet. But it doesn’t work. It just feels like sitting. So I spend a month wondering to myself what the secret is. I watch a Youtube video called “David Lynch explains Transcendental Meditation.” Lynch says that, since tasting “the sweetest nectar of life” that is pure consciousness, his negativity has receded. Had I bought the course, would I have felt the same way? Would I have understood all that Richard and Gail say about clarity and bliss? 


Gail and Richard Dalby are two of more than 40,000 certified Transcendental Meditation instructors in the world who—after having completed a residential course, the TM-Sidhi program in advanced techniques, and an in-residence Teacher Training Course that lasts several months—are officially certified to teach pure consciousness for a living. There are 180 Transcendental Meditation centers in the United States. All are branches of the Maharishi Foundation USA, a nonprofit organization named after its founder, Maharishi Yogi. His given name was Mahesh Prasad Varma; his chosen name, Maharishi, is Hindi for “great seer.” The website of The Global Country of World Peace remembers him as a “a cosmic figure caring for the well-being of all mankind.” David Lynch dedicated Catching the Big Fish “To His Holiness.” 

At the introductory zoom meeting, a picture of Maharishi sits at the top left corner of Gail’s screen background. She asks us all to introduce ourselves and talk a little about why we’re here. A woman with four children and six grandchildren seeks refuge from her stressful life. She says that she wants to take care of her mind as well as her body; she’s concerned about her heart problems. One man has trouble thinking straight at work. Another says he’s just interested in “spiritual stuff.” He’s working towards getting a real estate license but is ultimately interested in film—he’s writing a script. “Hopefully,” he says, “something will come of it.” I say that I’m here for David Lynch. Gail tells all of us that we have come to the right place.    

Gail also says, “Let’s just dive right in,” which later proves to be a double-entendre. Transcendental Meditation, she explains, is an effortless technique that brings the mind to increasingly subtle levels of awareness. It involves sitting comfortably in a chair for 20 minutes each day and repeating a mantra without meaning attached to it. That, they emphasize to us, is really all there is to it. 

But if the technique is simple, it still requires highly precise instruction. Richard likens Transcendental Meditation to diving. Diving, with the correct angle, is completely effortless: gravity is what pulls your body into the water. Transcendental Meditation is just the same: under the right conditions, your mind gravitates towards what is charming and pleasant.  I suppose that under the wrong conditions you may as well just be sitting on a regular chair: “If you learn meditation from anyone who’s not a certified TM teacher,” the TM website emphasizes, “you’re not learning the authentic technique.”

I learn through a New York Times article that the first session of a Transcendental Meditation course goes like this: you walk into a quiet room, you meet a qualified professional, and that qualified professional assigns a mantra, in Sanskrit, that is specific to you. They urge you not to tell anyone else your personal mantra, in order to preserve its purity.   

Throughout the introductory session, Richard and Gail tell us more about mantras. Meditators reach a state of pure consciousness, they explain, by listening to the sound rather than the meaning of a mantra. Unlike meaning, sound value is flexible, since “you can experience it quietly, loudly, quickly, on different melodies,” as Richard puts it. He thinks of a mantra as the most comfortable vehicle one could have—“it’s like a Rolls Royce.” Instead of driving you to work, it transports you to the innermost location of your soul. 

Gail and Richard explain pure consciousness in a multitude of ways, which makes me think that it is the type of thing you might just have to experience for yourself. Gail calls it “that field of intelligence which underlies, controls, and constructs everything in the physical universe, including us.” She adds that it is “more of our identity than this is,” this meaning our physical self. Richard says that it is a type of awareness that is even deeper than philosophical thinking. Gail agrees: “meaning is stagnant.” 

Later, when I ask again, they call pure consciousness “our full potential.” 

“But you don’t have to believe any of what we are saying,” Richard says at the end of the meeting—he assures us that the results will speak for themselves.  


In addition to managing the TM center at New Haven, Gail and Richard are national leaders of TM retreats. They have led over 600 retreats over the past 40 years, they tell me, with groups ranging from six to 420 people. The weekend before our interview they held a retreat at a Catholic facility called Our Lady of Calvary in Farmington, Connecticut. For seven years they had a house of their own, a 30-room mansion in Lancaster, Massachusetts. “It was great fun,” Gail says. 

Now they’re looking to build a new bedroom retreat facility in Hamden. They have already figured out the permits, the zoning, and the design—all that’s left is to raise the money. The layout is based on Vedic architectural principles that, as Gail puts it, “take into account a myriad of things.” The site of the house must have the correct slope and proximity to water. The house must be aligned with cardinal directions, and rooms should be placed according to the circulation of the sun. If a home is built correctly, these principles suggest, its inhabitants will enjoy prosperity both in their minds and their bodies. Gail adds that they “take a stand against electromagnetic toxicity,” so their home will not have Wi-Fi. 

“It’s a glorious gift to be able to build a building according to these principles,” Gail says. “And to have our retreats in a building like this would be heaven on earth.”


Gail and Richard believe that there is nothing out there quite like Transcendental Meditation. In fact, they distinguish between not two but three main types of meditation: concentration, mindfulness, and TM. What they do merits its own category. Other practices, Gail thinks, are too “surface-y.” I ask her if she has ever tried another kind of meditation. She says no.

A week later I speak with Milan Nikolic, a 47-year-old software engineer who has been practicing Zen meditation for about 20 years. He is a resident at the First Zen Institute of America, where he sometimes helps with basic meditation instruction. In meditating he has experienced—just as do many practitioners of TM—a kind of happiness that transcends his material conditions or his emotional tendencies. He has found, as he puts it, “a sense of inner freedom.” 

Zen meditation, Milan tells me, “puts a real premium on bringing the mind to a stop and seeing what’s there. Kind of turning the consciousness inward and not projecting a sound or thought or visualization, but just the mind itself, which is Buddha.” I wonder if this state is similar to pure consciousness. Milan believes that Zen meditation “guides us back to our original mind, our true nature, and the essence of who we are.” When I asked Richard about mantras, he said something very similar: they “allow the mind to follow its own nature.”

But Zen meditation, Milan thinks, operates on a fundamentally different philosophy than the one that Gail and Richard subscribe to. He tells me that Zen Buddhism emphasizes the importance of finding answers to life’s important questions on your own in order for those answers to be meaningful. A teacher cannot give those answers to you even if they know them themselves. TM, Milan feels, is different: “TM is saying: I know a secret and you don’t. Give me money and I’ll tell you.” He sees their approach to mantras as proprietary. “It’s like your own special formula, your own special secret sauce, and, you know, you pay for that.” 

Still, if Transcendental Meditation often has a consumeristic, transactional undercurrent, the benefits of the practice are not necessarily lessened by that fact. I ask Sumi Kim, the Buddhist chaplain at Yale, if she sees a problem with meditation often being marketed as a self-help product, and she says no. “I have not found a single case of someone becoming interested in meditation for superficial reasons,” Sumi says. “It is always coming from a place of trying to heal pain or address something that is bothering them. Usually from a place of suffering.” 

Sumi adds that she considers no form of meditation to be superior to others. She has practiced both Zen and Vipassana meditation, and finds both rewarding. She extends that sentiment to religion. “They’re all at a basic level aimed at helping us to be released from the grip of our self-centeredness,” she says. Whether it be through prayer, meditation, or pilgrimage, Sumi reasons, every robust religion offers a path towards transcendence. 


Both Sumi and Milan tell me that TM is a synthesis of other ancient practices. Transcendental Meditation practitioners “have tried to create an optimal system,” Milan says, “by taking things that work from various traditions and crafting them in a way that’s more palatable to a Western audience.” Sumi notes that there is a long tradition of Hindu Yogic practices where the sounds of Sanskrit invoke different vibrational levels, or different kinds of attainments. A book I come across in my research, The Transcendental Meditation Movement, describes TM as “an obscure form of Neo-Hinduism.”

When I ask Gail about Transcendental Meditation’s relation to Hinduism, she is already shaking her head. “We don’t ascribe to anything particularly Hindu,” she replies. “As a matter of fact, Transcendental Meditation allows every single person of any religion whatsoever to fulfill the goals and tenets of that religion.” Gail, like Sumi, believes all religions to share the same purpose: to, as Gail sees it, “elevate ourselves as human beings.” Transcendental Meditation serves that purpose. In evoking a state of pure consciousness, this simple and secular technique introduces meditators to their inner self.

Gail tells me about a time she went to a Bible class and experienced a sudden moment of spiritual clarity. She had realized that Transcendental Meditation is essential to understanding the Catholic scriptures she follows. “And I’m looking around the room thinking—no one here is getting this. Nobody in this room is understanding the true meaning of what he is saying.” 

That is, when Christ declared that “the Kingdom of Heaven lies within,” Gail believes that the kingdom he was referring to was pure consciousness. After all, pure consciousness is nothing if not the deepest level of bliss within each person. Gail adds to her interpretation: “that means that fulfillment of all desires comes from developing the inner self,” she proclaims, eyes wide. “And that’s precisely what TM has done.” 

Gail is not the only person who has found that TM has put into practice what she has previously only known in theory.  She has heard people from other faiths, such as Judaism and the Baptist denomination of Christianity, report experiences like hers. Bill Wilson, Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is reported to have said to his instructor that “I didn’t fully understand the 11th step until I started TM.” The 11th step of AA—to improve conscious contact with a power greater than ourselves through prayer and meditation—is often the most confounding for those in recovery. Bill must have felt that pure consciousness, in some sense, brought him closer to God than he had ever been before. 

Accounts like his suggest that Transcendental Meditation does not merely improve relaxation, health, or quality of life. Rather, the experience of pure consciousness proves to many people that fulfillment does not have to be arduously fought and searched for. If there really is a cosmic order to the world, then it makes sense that every person should take part in it. Gail’s Kingdom of Heaven, which encompasses all, exists within the bounds of your own soul. I figure that, regardless of your religious affiliation, that must be an incredibly powerful message to hear. 


Gail hopes that my article will inspire Yale to cover the price of Transcendental Meditation for all its students—especially, she emphasizes, since our student body produces future presidents and doctors. She says that she has met before with the head of the pulmonary department at Yale, to convince Yale to “get on this road,” but they did not listen. “That’s to Yale’s grave detriment,” Gail tells me. “And you can quote me on that.” Yale students are the most stressed people she has ever worked with. The pressure we are under has turned us into “walking zombies.” We are, as she sees it, caught at the surface of things and in desperate need of transcendence. Gail feels that humanity’s greatest tribulations may be linked to a disconnect from the self, and Yale students are no exception. “How are they supposed to learn,” she asks, “if they don’t know who they are?” 

I ask Gail what she thinks the world would look like if everyone practiced TM. Gail says that there would be “no cruelty, no poverty, no disease—or way less disease.” She pauses here to think. “Certainly no wars, certainly no environmental pollution, because when one is connected to the environment they understand that it is nothing other than yourself. Maharishi would call it Heaven on Earth.” 

Gail’s model for collective bliss, I notice, does not require any work, cooperation, or compromise. She likens peaceful individuals to green trees. Just as a collection of green trees makes up a green forest, a collection of peaceful individuals makes up a peaceful community. If every Yale student practiced Transcendental Meditation, the university would prosper. If every person in the whole world achieved inner peace, world peace would result as if by some sort of additive law. 

The togetherness Gail envisions relies on a concept of universal human nature. Each of us can be broken down to the same bare component: pure consciousness. Once you reach into this essential state of being, you ascend to collective understanding. At that point, unity is effortless–effortless, that is, after you have paid the course fee.