FAMOUS: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi probably did more than anyone else to make traditional Eastern beliefs fashionable in the West. Even the Beatles followed his teachings for a while


In his continuing series of articles, ALEX HANKEY recounts how he and his wife Debbie, entered deeper into the world of meditation, starting a lifelong quest to understand Vedic wisdom…

Earlier, a first article in this series explained how I began to learn nuclear physics aged 12, when I visited an early nuclear power station under construction. The engineer I had met answered all my questions on the physics of reactor design and construction. I began to gain skills in a vital aspect of research: learn to ask the right questions. If one is to extend human understanding to previously unknown fields, one can only do so usefully by coming up with constructive ideas; however, the universe will only give you those ideas if you place well-posed queries. You may then learn far more than you will ever have time to explain in detail.
A second article then explained how my mother’s passing when I was ten, and other events when I was at university led me to take up meditation, and how I gained a rare enthusiasm for it, something that my wife, Debbie, shared with me. To such an extent that soon after our marriage, we learned the delicate art of guiding practitioners in and out of deep mediation, a process that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi referred to as ‘checking’ meditation.
It took us a couple of months to become ‘Checkers’ of meditation, and we would each go into the Cambridge, Massachusetts TM Center, about 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening once a week, (on different days) and ‘check’ the meditation of anyone who came and requested — mostly by appointment, so that we did not get overwhelmed. It was quite compelling to see people come in uptight, and leave some 20 to 25 minutes later all smiles with their problems cleared up.
It certainly gave us the enthusiasm to go to a one-month course with Maharishi the following summer. Even in 1971, our work brought extraordinary experiences that we could not have hoped to have gained without such seva to the Master. We both experienced it.
Sometime during the night following our checking people’s meditations at the TM Center, we would wake up, but only on the inside — we would experience being awake but knowing that our body was asleep in bed. The experience is well recognized by advanced practitioners of Yoga meditation techniques, and is called ‘witnessing sleep’. It is indicated in the Mandukhya Upanishad, at the centre of which is a description of pure consciousness, Turīya, essentially an experience of the ‘pure witness’ state, Sakshi. It is because of that property of pure consciousness, that experience of it develops the ability to witness other states of consciousness as well.
The verses following that reference to Turīya describe the development of the witness in the three states of waking, Jagrat, dreaming, Swapna, and deep sleep, Sushupti. To be precise, it explains that to one who becomes able to witness deep sleep, that state becomes ‘A Mass of Bliss’, something to which Debbie and I could both attest.
A Greek scientist working at the Stanford Research Institute, Dr Demetri Kanellakos, had become a great enthusiast for Maharishi’s wisdom. This was partly because he saw in it parallels to writings from the philosophers of ancient Greece, particularly the earliest ones, the pre-Socratics who had lived before Socrates and his disciple, Plato. He offered Maharishi the following beautiful analysis showing that the state of ‘pure consciousness’ is as fundamental as the three ordinary states of waking, dreaming and sleeping, allowing one to reason that it should be considered equally fundamental when discussing states of the mind.
If, considering the three states of consciousness, waking, dreaming and deep sleep, we ask the two questions, (a) “Is there outward sense perception?”, and (b) “Is there wakefulness?”, the answers for the three states Waking, Dreaming and Deep Sleep are different. For Waking, we find (a) Yes, and (b) Yes; for Dreaming, we find (a) Yes, and (b) No; and for Deep Sleep, we obtain (a) No, and (b) No. We thus find that the three states get arranged in a table, technically known in statistical analysis as a Contingency Table, (see diagram)
Remarkably, the table’s empty space provides a gap, which naturally fits the state of pure consciousness acclaimed by India’s ancient Rishis, for which the answers to the two questions are (a) No, and (b) Yes, but for which western philosophy and scientific thought have no name, and apparently no overt knowledge.
Debbie experienced it to a greater extent than I did, particularly during the years when we did many months of longer meditations under Maharishi’s personal guidance in 1976 and again in 1977. She had experiences of ‘witnessing sleep’ of three distinct kinds.
In the first, as I have described above, she woke up inside and knew that her body was asleep. In the second, she also had the experience of seeing the bedroom around her, and knowing what, if anything, was going on. The third level of experience of witnessing sleep was even more profound. She would find herself above the bed, looking down on her body asleep below her, what is known in the western literature as an ‘out-of-the-body-experience’, or OOBE for short.
Such experiences bring a kind of familiarity with the life of the soul, which can be aware of things around it, but without any overt organ of vision directing the sense of sight, or receive physical rays of light.
In later years, we heard many similar stories from our friends in the Transcendental Meditation organisation. Most had had some such experience, at least occasionally. On an advanced course in 1976, one couple even had the experience of travelling during such a state to listen to Maharishi giving a late-night lecture in his room. Though invisible to all the people in the room, Maharishi had nodded to them to acknowledge their arrival. Master Yogis are well-known to have the power to ‘see’ things on a subtle level. These kinds of ‘subtle experience’ were probably what made me interested in gaining a deeper physical understanding of a range of subtle phenomena. How do they relate to our understanding of the physical world, in terms of known laws of physics? How might we extend the laws of physics so as to include such possibilities?
Such experiences leave a permanent impression. In 1971, they brought me the realization that the Vedic wisdom given in the Upanishads contains things that are either almost unrecognised, or completely unknown in the west. It was my first realization that the Vedic sciences are a resource and a treasure beyond anyone’s imagination.
This was confirmed very intimately for me when Debbie and I attended a weekend course on the Fourth of July Independence Day weekend with Maharishi himself at the University of Amherst in western Massachusetts. Before performing Guru Puja on the Saturday evening, Maharishi told the 600 teachers who were present to make sure that they sang it in a whisper. The effect was overwhelming: it was the softest and sweetest sense of the Divine calling that I could possibly have imagined, more direct and personal than I had ever experienced. The decision to pursue longer courses with Maharishi was instant for both of us.
In 1972, we therefore went to northern California, and took a One Month Summer Course, as it was then known, in the city of Eureka in northern California, where Maharishi’s organisation had taken over the local college during summer vacation. We joined the group from Palo Alto, because we intended to live there while I was on my Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Stanford, which I had been awarded courtesy of London’s Lindemann Foundation. Here we learned a great deal about Maharishi’s approach to the theory and application of Vedanta philosophy, what he called his, ‘Science of Creative Intelligence’, of which his system of Transcendental Meditation formed the practical aspect.

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