Elevate Difference

Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion

Although I don’t do it every day, yoga and meditation help me manage physical and mental injuries that I received from previous trauma. It certainly calms my chaotic mind and keeps pain at bay. I have bonded with other practitioners, but I’ve never gone on a retreat or invested time in training beyond basic poses or ten minute meditations. My expectations of what Lola Williamson’s book about meditation movements in the U.S. were modest at best, as a result of my limited experiences with it.

The practice of meditation, and following a guru, to the point of making it a lifestyle is commonplace in America. It’s been going on for far longer than I had assumed, and suffice to say, Transcendent in America breaks down a lot of my previous assumptions. Mainstream media gives so much press to the evangelical Christians that there is little room for other faiths. Williamson does not create a polar comparison of traditional American Christian denominations and the Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements (HIMM), but provides similarities along with differences, and suggests that the definition of religion itself is changing.

HIMMs, like institutionalized Christianity, are no stranger to corruption and the sexual abuse of followers (particularly minors). Like the Roman Catholic Church, HIMMs have a history of either covering up or downplaying cases of child abuse within its groups. Religious or spiritual organizations need to devise systems of checks and balances to deal with their hierarchies and potential corruption.

The issue of spirituality is gray, not black or white, and Transcendent in America argues this point well. Each individual is the determining factor in whether to embrace HIMM, traditional religion, or none at all. Interview excerpts are provided to show the diverse nature of people in America who succeed or fail at their perspective choices of faith. Whatever they choose, followers look to religion for similar reasons, including a sense of security, collective inclusion, and direction.

Decisions are based on so many uncontrolled variables—such as environment, background, and mental health—that even current science cannot measure or validate individual experiences involving meditation. Williamson shows that is okay, because it isn’t about clinical research, it’s about finding balance between the material and spiritual worlds.

I do not foresee myself exploring 'Eastern'-style meditation further by reading some of the writings of various gurus or joining an ashram any time soon, but thanks to Transcendent in America, I have developed a better sense of the complexities and history behind the Westernized form of yoga I participate in. It’s also given me a deeper understanding of how diverse America’s spiritual tapestry has become and how it continues to grow.

Written by: Nicolette Westfall, May 7th 2010