A Heart Full of Prayer | Learning Transcendental Meditation in the Netherlands

Maharishi taught me how to pray.

As a small child, I was very dismayed that my parents did not belong to a church. I loved the quietness inside churches, the way the light slanted inward through colored glass, the hymns I heard drifting out of church windows on Sundays, the faces of angels and saints printed on pamphlets tucked into Bibles, the figure of holy Mary carved out of wood or stone with her beatific expression and lovely long hair—the air of sanctity and simplicity that made me tumble into myself even if I only entered a church as a tourist. I was known to drag my parents into churches on our vacations throughout Europe. They found me annoying and at times obsessive, I’m sure: a small girl with a religious fixation among an atheist, or at best agnostic, family.

From a young age I built flimsy temples in the garden made of leaves and twigs, worshiping earth and my ethereal notions of beings I was sure must exist: fairies or elves. My father and mother did not recognize my refined constructions half tucked away under bushes, and stepped in the middle of twig altars and flower petal offerings on the way to the store or work.

I sat mesmerized in attendance when classmates performed in Christmas pageants, dancing like flames around the altar clad in dyed-orange sheets, gold paper crowns pressed down onto their foreheads. I wanted to be a flame wearing a gold crown. But most of all I wanted to learn to pray.

I made up prayers in my head before bed, but in the vacuous dark they became incantations to ward off evil spirits, witches, and ghosts. I imagined what prayer might be like, but could not fathom the idea. I would sit at the table at friends’ houses and kind mothers would ask, “Do you take a moment of silence before meals?” I would nod, but I didn’t know what to do. The family would clasp hands, including mine, and close their eyes. As I watched their softening, quieting faces I wondered about this secret transaction with a God I knew nothing of.

When I was eleven, my most beloved grandmother passed away. I was named after her and my birth had lifted her out of heavy depression, which had formed a strong attachment between us. I asked my parents where she had gone—where dead people went—and they said, “O, nowhere. After death there is nothing.” This threw me into an existential crisis. I could not imagine nothing; it was both too small and too vast, and because I knew so little, this vast smallness began to fill up with darkness like a night. I began to fear the end of life as much as life itself. Nothing anyone did made sense to me, for what was it all for if someone as beloved as my grandmother could one day just be nothing, and if everyone—including myself—would someday disappear?

A few months after my grandmother’s passing, my father went to the doctor to get help for the chronic headaches he’d been struggling with for years. The doctor gave him two options as a last resort: a raw egg diet or meditation. My father opted for the latter. I don’t know what drew my parents to Transcendental Meditation. I think they happened to see a poster somewhere. My father liked to read books on reincarnation, the physics of the universe, and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy. My mother had never pondered spiritual subjects, though as a child she’d discussed God with her best friend Hennie Keizer, clutching the handlebars of her bike with hot hands by the water tower of Zaandijk. She said she thought Maharishi looked wild with his long hair, which kind of made her laugh. She was sure she’d feel silly offering flowers and a handkerchief and fruit to a person in white robes, but she figured that she and my father might grow apart if she would not join him in this endeavor. As soon as my parents told me about Transcendental Meditation, I said, “I want to do that, too.” I didn’t know why I said it, and I did not know what Transcendental Meditation was. My parents started in March of ’75 and I in November. My whole body was thrilled on the morning of my initiation as I put on my velvet dress. I knew I was going to learn to pray.

I was initiated in a room with white stucco sculpted high ceilings and midnight blue velvet curtains. This was at the TM center in The Hague, in the Netherlands, about half an hour away from my home. My teacher was a woman named Emmy Bakker, who embodied my human ideal: beautiful, with ringlet curls and a full moon face, a gentle voice that suddenly erupted in song as she took my white freesias from my hand. I watched her fine-boned fingers as they performed small, sacred rituals involving rice, fire, and golden miniature bowls in front of a portrait of an older man with a serene yet somewhat stern expression on his face. This was the first time I saw a picture of Guru Dev. I had just turned twelve, and I had only attended a child’s introductory lecture held by a friend’s mother. I hadn’t seen Maharishi or heard any of his tapes. I didn’t yet know the familiar giggle of his voice, the way his sentences curved upward, the words travelers lightly bouncing up the mountains of their meaning. I didn’t know the way his large hand could take a rose and slap it enthusiastically as he spoke, while the flower never seemed the worse for wear. I had never seen his small body, his deeply kind and inquisitive face, the simple drapes of his silken robes as ironed and pristine as his thoughts. I had prepared by picking out an apple and two pears, and the small bouquet of white freesias, plus a tiny white lace handkerchief. I didn’t even know what for.

I paid with one drawing for my initiation—a picture of a rabbit surrounded by three red tulips. Emmy said she’d hang it above her baby’s bed. I was in a state of adoration and exaltation. I realize now that I was an exalted child born into a no-nonsense, sensibly pragmatic Dutch family. My mother used to send me to the store accompanied by my two-year younger sister as a child because I’d invariably dream my way off into the wrong direction or forget what I needed to buy. My small sister would hold my hand and lead the way. From birth, she was familiar with the world of earth in ways I was not.

I had no trouble bowing down. I think I wanted to bow down and fold my hands in front of my chest from very early childhood, naturally. This week I have felt such an urge to bow down and fold my hands, offer them empty yet full of prayer and devotion to my guru, who has passed into the emptiness I used to fear but that now is no longer dark and small, but vast and light and so full that there is nothing it cannot contain.

As a small, twelve-year old girl I kneeled for the first time, folding my hands. I heard my mantra wrong at first. I had no idea what it meant or what it could do. I loved holding this tiny word in the box of my mind on the blue velvet of my soul’s longing. I sat alone afterward in a chair, surrounded by light, and I tumbled into myself as I had done as a tourist in churches. I effortlessly fell into a self that was mine, while I didn’t recognize its dimensions. Its luminous quiet hung about my shoulders like a shawl. I felt all my Nynkeness drain away, yet I was present; I existed. I was more at ease losing my personality—as a sky might lose and gain colors for different portions of each day—than I’d ever been living it, living in my body as myself: doing well in school, talking to girlfriends, helping my parents, studying, reading books, holding my sister’s hand, playing dress-up in the attic.

All of my life suddenly seemed a play of dress-up, as the sky dresses in colors, in weathers, in different wild or quiet types of clouds—cumulus or cirrus. And here I was, so undressed, so bare. I had come home to myself, to a temple of Nothing, sacred and present, already built within my heart.