Writer Claire Hoffman on Growing Up in a Transcendental Meditation Community

As an adult, Claire Hoffman rejected her childhood experiences living in a Transcendental Meditation community in Iowa. But little by little, some of its lessons came back to claim her.

When I was 5, my father, an alcoholic playwright, left less than $50 on the dining-room table and vanished. My mother quickly found herself broke, unable to keep up with the rent for our Upper West Side apartment in New York.

She had no money, but she did have something else very precious to her: a guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who earlier that year had issued a call to his followers around the globe. Come to Iowa, he’d said, to meditate and create world peace. So after a tumultuous year of moving, getting evicted, and living with my grandmother in Florida, my mother decided that our path to stability would be found in the endless cornfields of Fairfield, where Maharishi was founding a Transcendental Meditation community, complete with a university and a private school for the children of his followers. My mother, my brother, and I moved to the heartland along with thousands of others. It was 1983.

The idea of living in Iowa thrilled me. I imagined an existence somewhere between Little House on the Prairie and Charlotte’s Web. Barnyard animals would dance, and I would roll through lush meadows and learn to ride a bike. At long last, I might also finally have friends who, like me, meditated twice a day.

I tried it for the first time when I was 3 years old, in the back room of the Transcendental Meditation Center’s Manhattan office. Incense burned in front of a framed painting of Maharishi. My teacher, a young man in a butter-yellow suit, whispered my mantra to me. By the time I was 5 this secret sound had become an essential part of who I was, and I’d taken to repeating it to myself to push away the chaos of my rupturing family.

As the plane descended into the Burlington airport, I saw a dull checkerboard of brown fields and farmhouses. Plumes of smoke rose from the factories below. I gazed intently at this sad-seeming ant-farm world. It didn’t look anything like the picture of Iowa I’d had in my mind—where were the bright-green fields, the picket fences, the chorus line of singing farm animals?

The drive to Fairfield dragged on forever, through endless stretches of barren cornfields. We finally arrived at the house we would be renting, just a block away from the campus of Maharishi’s university. Perched on a busy corner, the Pepto-Bismol-pink house seemed to tilt to the side, almost as if it were going to fall into the vacant lot next door. “We’re here!” Mom said cheerfully. I closed my eyes and wished that my mantra could magically return us to our sun-filled apartment on West 97th Street.

My mother had come by herself to Fairfield a few weeks earlier to scout out our move. She had met Boris, a man who promised her a job where she could use her degree from F.I.T., working as an artist for his gift company. He’d told her he had a house to rent to us. She’d come back and boasted about the new life we would have—our own home, a yard. But now that we were here, Boris put Mom in a basement workstation making less than minimum wage crafting trinkets. Within days of our arrival, Mom laid out a budget on the back of an envelope and realized that we wouldn’t break even. She applied for food stamps and she sent us to the public school, just two blocks away from the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, where wealthier acolytes sent their children.

My mother was determined to make things better for us. She placed much of her hope for doing this on learning Maharishi’s most advanced form of meditation: levitation. If she could become a “Siddha”—an ancient Sanskrit word that meant someone with superpowers—she said, her consciousness would be heightened and she would garner the elusive “Nature Support” that the other members of the community endlessly talked about. Nature Support, my mother said, would mean more money and more happiness for our family. The thing was, she didn’t have the thousands of dollars the course required. The expense of enlightenment made me feel uneasy.

On our first Thanksgiving in Fairfield, we went over to my mother’s friend’s house for a vegetarian feast of Tofurky and trimmings. My brother and I quietly filled our plates and found a place to sit in the corner of the crowded living room. I watched my mom from across the room. To me she was the most beautiful woman in the world—petite, with long silky brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. She had been whispering to her friends all afternoon, and as I watched I had a sense that something was about to change for us. She sat us down on the couch for a talk. “I’m going to learn to fly,” she said.

Hearing her say this made me think of Peter Pan telling Wendy that all you had to do was close your eyes and believe. Breathlessly, she explained she was taking a course to learn even more secret mantras, as well as how to levitate. I asked my mother why it cost so much money—after all, wasn’t it just about truly believing? She explained that, according to Maharishi, Americans didn’t appreciate the value of things unless they paid for them. Then she excitedly added that someone had anonymously donated the money to pay for her tuition. (I would later find out it was a man in the community who clearly harbored a crush on her.) Mom said that now she would be able to spend time each day at the Golden Domes, two giant round buildings on campus created for levitators.

It wasn’t long after my mom learned the flying technique that another donor—a kind, monkish trust funder—paid for my brother and me to go to the Maharishi private school, which cost $3,000 each a year. Here nobody called us stupid gurus. We sang songs about the unified field of all being and spent much of the day learning Maharishi’s philosophy of living. Special guests such as Deepak Chopra visited and taught us about Ayurveda, while men from India sat with us cross-legged in our classroom and we learned to play the tabla and the sitar.

My family soon moved to Utopia Park, a 200-home trailer park exclusively for Maharishi’s followers, situated on the university campus. We went to group celebrations in the men’s dome—the grander of the two—and applauded as Maharishi’s face appeared on giant screens, Oz-like, telecast from the other side of the world.

One evening, Mom came home and told us that there was going to be a flying competition, open for all to attend. “I’m still at the hopping phase,” she said. “Most of the people in the dome are in the hopping phase. Although some people are really good, they can really move across the floor.” She laughed, but this didn’t seem that funny to me. People weren’t flying?

Mom assured me that hopping was pretty incredible, and that it defied the laws of physics. But the next morning when we drove past the Golden Domes on the way to school, I couldn’t look at them in quite the same way.

Maharishi was constantly updating his knowledge on how to live an ideal life. According to our guru, there was a time to wake up and go to bed and a time to eat. There were prescribed things to consume depending on our dosha, or body type, and the season. There were trademarked CDs to listen to, gemstones to wear, herbs to take—all sold by one of Maharishi’s myriad companies. We could barely afford any of it. My sense of doubt grew and grew.

By the time I was 14 I couldn’t wait to leave Utopia Park. At 17, I would get my wish. By then, my daily meditation had been replaced by pot smoking, reading magazines, and fantasizing about a faraway future, filled with cocktail parties where people had sophisticated, cynical conversations. So when my father invited me to live with him in California, I said yes. He was newly sober, painting houses during the day and hammering out bleak poetry on his typewriter late into the night. He took antidepressants and scoffed at the idea of levitating. He told me I should be a writer.

I spent the decade after college chasing the fantasy of adulthood I’d fostered as a child. I sought out adventure, working as a waitress in Paris and apprenticing on a farm in Switzerland. I maintained an affect of low-key nihilism all the while. If asked, I’d describe my childhood with a knowing sneer. Meditating to create world peace? Absurd. I had a harder time dealing with my mother’s decision to remain in Fairfield. I wanted to rescue her and bring her back with me into the real world, to insulate her from any more of the unattainable pursuit of enlightenment or self-perfection.

But even as I felt firmly grounded in my new life, the truth was that an unshakable earnestness lay beneath my triple-layered cynicism. I tried to funnel it through academia—at 28, I went to Divinity School at the University of Chicago, where I found myself drawn to focus on the history of religion in America. My studies were littered with utopians.

After graduate school, I moved back to California to work for the Los Angeles Times. I reported on Scientology, Hollywood talent agents, and the pornography industry. It was all very worldly—and as far away from the incense-scented mobile homes and domes of Fairfield as I could get. I rarely meditated, but I regularly visited my mother, and my closest friends still came from Iowa. Most of us had moved away to the coasts in search of our own dreams that didn’t look much like those of our parents—artists, academics, lawyers, publicists. When we got together, we’d stay up late into the night, buzzed on wine and nostalgically singing the countless songs about Maharishi’s unified field and 24-hour bliss from our childhood.

Yoga, vegetarianism, meditation—so much of what I was teased and bullied about for the six years I spent in public school has become a part of mainstream America now. In Los Angeles, where I live, my friends go to Saturday workshops at Wanderlust to hear Moby talk about his mindfulness practice. They take breaks from their workdays to dial up their Headspace app. The David Lynch Foundation has even somehow done what had always seemed to me unfathomable—made meditation cool. Now Katy Perry and Rupert Murdoch tweet about TM, and technocrats in Silicon Valley cite their daily practice as an essential part of their success. My husband, Ben, a magazine publisher who works 12-hour days, is delighted with himself when he gets his 10-minute meditation in.

When Ben and I got married, I meditated from time to time, but mostly in case of an emergency—a panic attack over a deadline or during an especially turbulent airplane ride. It was more a habit than an act of faith. I’d also become a master of skepticism, and took pleasure in skewering the kind of hypocrisy I’d first seen in Fairfield. For me, unwinding at the end of the day meant drinking a crisp bottle of Sancerre with friends, not repeating my mantra alone in a room.

But as my marriage progressed and motherhood became my focus, I began to feel the clench of adult life closing in on me. About a year after the birth of our first daughter, Josie, Ben and I had reached the point where many of our evenings were composed of monosyllabic conversation over microwaved meals while binge-watching Game of Thrones. I was meant to be happy and urbane, and yet I felt a funny sort of hollowness.

One night, as Josie cried in her crib and our dog barked and Ben couldn’t be bothered to look away from the television, I felt that chasm inside widening. I’d been in the house all day, tacking between nursing the baby and grading papers for the journalism class I taught. I was eager for human contact, some reminder that I was still the interesting and sane person I’d been before becoming a mother. So this is it? asked a quiet voice in my head. Is this what your life is now?

I was scared of how I felt, frightened of hurting my marriage or my daughter. A part of me wanted to run away from this adult life, to vanish like my father had done decades before. Though Maharishi had died a few years earlier, my mother and many of the friends and families who had helped raise me continued to believe, and to devote themselves to, the same beliefs and rituals that had shaped their lives for decades. I kept thinking about what it had been like to be a child in a utopian community, always caught up in a global plan to change the world, our every action supercharged with meaning. That time full of magic and promise, long shoved away to make room for my ambivalence and doubt, was now beckoning me back.

On a Saturday morning not long afterward, I was in Fairfield, one of a handful of women sitting on the floor in a dimly lit basement of a building at Maharishi’s university. I’d set myself up close to the door because I wanted to be able to escape quickly if necessary. On the wall above my head a sign read “Yogic flying competition.” I’d come because I thought I might be able to pick out the value from the rubble of my childhood convictions. I didn’t want life to be an eye-roll anymore.

Our group had started out with 20 women, but now, a few days into the course, we were down to eight. Once you had attained “flight,” you could go meditate alone. I felt bad for those others who were left here with me, imagining they were surprised by their failure, even if I had prepared for my own.

But I felt pressure to get something out of it—Ben was back in Los Angeles taking care of our baby while also running his company. He had been generous if dubious about my leaving him and Josie in order to take this course. Just don’t call it flying, please, he said.

Three weeks in, I was still sitting on that basement floor with my eyes closed, repeating my mantra and waiting to levitate. By now I wanted some sense of shift more than anything. One afternoon, when it came time to say my flying mantra, I rocked my body a little and felt the mantra taking over. A spunky college girl who had also enrolled in the course had told me I should just “let” my body bounce. So I did. What happened next was beyond coherent explanation: My brain went totally silent, and I nearly blacked out.

For a moment, a giant pause button had been hit, and the muttering anxiousness of my being went quiet. And then my head slammed against something hard. I opened my eyes and saw that I’d moved forward and hit a pillar at the center of the room. I was probably about three feet from where I’d been sitting against the wall.

Did I defy the laws of physics? Did I swoop across the space in some sort of enlightened swoosh? Maybe not. But none of that mattered to me then. I began to cry. I understood in that moment what my mother had been chasing, and why the pursuit of that purity had taken us to a trailer park where people spent hours a day meditating and modifying their every urge.

“It just feels good,” my mother would always say when I asked her about flying. She’d smile as if she knew something that I didn’t. Now I saw that she did, that the silence inside us was much deeper and more dynamic than I’d ever fathomed.

It is different for me than it was for my mother and her peers. Now that I am financially comfortable, I cover the tuition of a boy who attends the private school in Fairfield. I no longer practice the levitation technique, but I try to meditate once a day. It isn’t just meditation, though, but the quiet glories—my toddler’s round cheeks, the smell of the grass after a rainstorm, my mother’s warm blue eyes—that ground me in this noisy world and remind me that life is more beautiful and strange than logic will ever allow.