Just a casual conversation about the meaning of life—or something close to it
The skeleton of Claire Hoffman’s story is a familiar one to any person who’s ever wanted to more fully understand who they are and What It All Means. She is a successful freelance journalist, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, and an overall multifaceted human. She spent her early childhood in New York City before moving to the gentle Midwest. She was raised with the faith her mother gave her, rebelled against it during her teen years and then, as an adult, went on a journey through her past to more completely understand the whole of her life. In other words, hers is a story of being a person.
But where Hoffman’s life differs from almost everyone else’s is that she spent her formative years living in the heart of the American Transcendental Meditation movement—located in Fairfield, Iowa, of all places—studying the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. She lived in a housing development specifically for devout followers of TM, the practice’s short-hand designation, and participated in mass meditations meant to generate world peace. When you were questioning your parent’s staid taste in music, Hoffman was questioning the efficacy of Yogic Flying.
And then she wrote a book about the entire experience.
Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood, which came out this June, is Hoffman’s uncommon take on entirely common shared human experience of self-discovery. It is a deeply researched personal account of the power of belief and what it was like to grow up in the epicenter of a new religion while encountering the timeless desires to shape oneself within and against a given circumstance. Hoffman, who serves on the board of the Goldhirsh Foundation, has been all over the place talking about her new book—NPR, New York Magazine and Rolling Stone, to name a few—but we had a few more questions we wanted answers to.
So here are seven questions with Claire Hoffman, because when someone says they’ve survived a transcendent childhood, you just can’t pass up the opportunity to ask: What now?
What was your purpose for yourself in putting this record of your life together, and did the process of writing it and its completion serve you in the ways you’d hoped?
Ha. Oh, that’s just a small question! I think the purpose for me was that I sincerely believe that my experience taught me something that I wanted to share. And that is that belief is powerful and transformative and also illusive for people like me. And by that I mean skeptics and doubters. I think that tension between skepticism and mysticism, belief and doubt, is vital. I didn’t feel like I had read that anywhere; I hadn’t seen the story of someone who was raised believing in unbelievable things, and who then doubted but who then wanted it back. And when I was writing it, I had so many friends from different backgrounds open up to me and say ‘Yes, I left religion behind but I long for it.’
Also, I think Maharishi and the transcendental meditation movement is a great story and an important story, and I guess I’m an egotistical enough writer that I felt like I was the one to do it. In the days since it has come out I've gotten about seven letters from kids who grew up with me, who went to the Maharishi school, who have thanked me. They have all said they feel like they’ve lived something, that it was deeply cathartic, that it was a release to have it laid out both emotionally but also factually. So I have to tell you, that feels really good. I like a sense of catharsis.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]This country is actually built upon fringe spiritual idealists who think they are making the world a better place. And that all these religions that seem dusty and dowdy and part of the establishment, were all once considered bizarre and fringe.[/quote]
In the later parts of your book there is language from the outside calling the transcendental meditation community of cult. At this point in your life, how does that language sit with you? Is it offensive, considering how closely your family and the movement are linked, or does it have any type of effect on you at all?
I don’t like that word. I've studied religion academically, and at the risk of sounding prissy, people who study religion don’t use that word. Historically it has been wielded to sort of define insiders and outsiders. Methodists might have been called a cult at one point. They were seen as fringe and fanatical. What was going on in Fairfield in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with the really devoted followers of Maharishi, I would say it was a new religious movement. But you know, I get why people ask; there are some religious movements out there who are abusive to their followers. Honestly, this wasn’t like that. We weren’t abused or forced to stay. I mean shit, we had to meditate, eat a lot of Indian food and wear pastels. That's like somebody’s fantasy!
Are there common misconceptions or assumptions you find people have about transcendental meditation that you get asked about a lot?
Hmmm, people always ask me if I'm really good at meditating. I have no idea what that means. What would being good at meditating mean? I mean, I jokingly will say yes, because sure I can sit there for an hour and meditate. But am I good? It’s sort of like the opposite of the point.
How, if at all, has your study of religion affected the way you see or contextualize your upbringing?
Divinity school made me see that this country is actually built upon fringe spiritual idealists who think they are making the world a better place. And that all these religions that seem dusty and dowdy and part of the establishment, were all once considered bizarre and fringe. And now, I see this happening with meditation and Eastern thought. It’s suddenly very much in the zeitgeist. I was a freak when I was kid. I had other kids rattling chain link fences at me every day shouting and calling me names. Now Rupert Murdoch practices TM.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]I think one of the things I miss the most is what we used to call group consciousness. That feeling when we were all together, celebrating or meditating together. There was a way in which it lifted me up that I crave. [/quote]
It seems as though you have found a peace with transcendental meditation in your life, and have incorporated it into your home with your family. In many ways we are sort of given our faith—in whatever form it takes—by our parents at the start of our lives, and based on your experiences, how will you give your children theirs? The book ends with you introducing meditation to your daughter, and I wonder how the maturation of meditation looks in your life considering your unique interaction with it.
Absolutely—there are ideas baked into me now about karma and dharma and the unified field that are there forever. I loved studying Christianity and Islam when I was in divinity school because they are so exotic to me. And yes, when I talk to my kids about the universe or where life comes from and where it goes, I definitely am coming from a transcendentalist, advaitan place.
I can’t make my kids meditate but I really would like them too. It’s a work in progress. They are little. For now I do it and offer them the space to do it. We shall see!
Beyond the meditation, are there aspects of the community you grew up in that you still see as valuable practices or strategies in your life today? And if so, has that been a point of conversation in how you will raise your own children?
Well I think one of the things I miss the most is what we used to call group consciousness. That feeling when we were all together, celebrating or meditating together. There was a way in which it lifted me up that I crave. I feel it sometimes at musical concerts in the crowd, or rarely for an instant at an exercise class or something. It is rare though. And I don’t think you can have it when you don't have a community with a shared belief system. But so far, I haven’t found one that I feel comfortable with. So I will be out here in the cold, alone, with my doubts and my meditation. And you know—friends and family and a nice bottle of wine and great art and music and literature.
The conclusion is an open-ended one. What were you hoping to impart with that?
There’s a part of me that wanted to sort of subvert the happy ending, or the idea that here are The Answers from the Lesson of my life. History repeats itself and the best we can do is examine our history, ask questions and try to do better. I also think a part of Utopianism is the love of the dream itself. So why not end with my fantasy, my utopia?