You might like my video on the top four damaging Meditation myths.
This is a guide to transcendental meditation and a sober take on its effects and ultimate purpose. I hope to inspire you to practice TM with maturity and realism, while being fully aware of its potential.
There are myriad misconceptions out there about transcendental meditation. TM proponents make extraordinary claims to swell student rosters, and those with vested interests in the other direction will make equally ludicrous claims, attempting to debunk all contemplative practice.
To be sure, Transcendental Meditation has faddish elements that are mostly ignorable, but under all the hogwash is a precious gem that real practitioners ought to treasure.
TM Guide: My Position on TM
Before we look at the core technique and form an idea of what Transcendental Meditation really is, I want to concisely state my view on it. Please keep this in mind as you read on!
- Reports from TM beginners and unexperienced critics are useless.
- Its apparent short-term effects are important but secondary.
- The mantras and their spiritual significance have a long heritage and appear across the world, even though they appears shiny and new to Westerners.
- Fantasy, deception and misconception have obscured and tainted the powerful core of TM.
- Though we obsess over quick effects and external associations – sleep, relaxation, refreshment, good vibes, or ritual – its core purpose is to cultivate spiritual awareness.
Your Guide to Practicing Transcendental Meditation
For those of you who just want to learn the technique and try it out, here’s a basic guide.
- Sit down in a quiet area in a comfortable posture
- Let your mind go and drop your resistance to it
- Introduce your mental mantra to replace thought. Start with “One” or “Om”, or seek a personalised mantra
- When you realise you’re lost in thought, go back to the mantra
- Do this for 15-20 mins twice per day
Pretty simple, huh? Stick around for more advice on practicing it. For now, let’s look at the background of TM.
Guide to The Background of TM
Transcendental Meditation and The Beatles
Though this school of meditation has a long spiritual heritage, I want to focus on its explosion in the 60s and 70s in the West. This will help us better distinguish the real from the hogwash.
Transcendental Meditation exploded when The Beatles attended a Maharishi Mahesh Yogi seminar in Bangor. This led to their famous trip to the ashram in Rishikesh, where they wrote much of the White Album. They stayed in simple chalets, spent much of the day meditating, and did meetings and Q&A sessions with their guide, the Maharishi.
Paul stated in an interview with David Lynch, the head of the modern Transcendental Meditation movement, that the Fab Four were looking for inner stability at the end of the 60s, and TM grabbed their attention. Indeed, Paul himself reports having experienced blissful moments – during which he felt like a feather floating in hot air – while on retreat in Rishikesh.
Ringo Starr has sporadically meditated since he met Maharishi. He considers his first encounter with him a watershed moment: “The man was so full of joy and happiness… it just blew me away. On my best days I never felt like he looked.” Ringo says his guide Maharishi seriously helped him with his issues in the late 60s.
John Lennon also claimed to be able to tap into an energy that remains regardless of outside conditions. And he saw meditation as way to contact one’s own divinity: “That’s what meditation is about – experiencing God.”
And it seems that George’s meeting the Maharishi and Ravi Shankhar led him to lifelong spiritual practice.
Transcendental Meditation in the 21st Century
Nowadays, it’s taught globally in schools, prisons, corporate offices and factories, to people as varied as soldiers with PTSD, kids with ADHD, and at-risk youngsters. Much of this activity run by the David Lynch Foundation, which has sponsored hundreds of thousands of abused schoolchildren.
And despite its questionable scientific beginnings, it seems that Transcendental Meditation is now a respected subject of study.
Dr Sidney Weinstein, long-term editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Neuroscience, which has accepted several papers on Transcendental Meditation, believes “this is an area of scientific study that’s here to stay.”
And Normal Rosenthal MD, former researcher of National Institute of Mental Health, said some time ago: “If Transcendental Meditation were a drug, conferring so many benefits with a few, if any, side effects, it would be a billion-dollar blockbuster.”
And in 2012, there were 40,000 trained teachers across 170 countries. Here to stay indeed.
The BS Behind Transcendental Meditation
Sadly, this practice has been both blown up beyond all proportion by pseudoscience and viral effects, yet also hopelessly watered down and misunderstood. Here’s a quick guide to distinguishing the real from the BS.
The problem with much of the criticism aimed at this form of meditation is that its authors have no experience of altered states or immersion in spiritual practice. Sure, they’re respected scientists or popular writers with interesting and diverging views. But they’re not qualified to judge, and they end up spouting a loud of BS.
For example, they often reduce the whole endeavour to “counting sheep”, “dozing off”, “relaxing”, or a “substitute for aspirin”.
Commenting on the effect of focusing on a mantra, William J. Petersen states: “the meditator becomes brainwashed. He has lost the ability to make independent judgements.” Say what now? This is one of the many unfortunate, ignorant hiccups that such critics make.
The Bullsit of TM Fanatics
On the other hand, its proponents have believed their own myth, promising a swathe of benefits for TMers.
They’ve claimed that Transcendental Meditation – big breath in – boosts creativity and restfulness, reduces tension, relieves depression and anxiety, improves job performance, relationships, health, and self-acceptance, reduces blood pressure, migraines, smoking and drug use – and ups your sexual performance. Phew! Maharishi even promised students they’d be part of the 1% that would bring world peace within 200 years.
The whole movement has many properties of a fad, especially in the days of Maharishi. The Hollywood appeal. The exaggerated claims around its benefits. Its promise to end world peace. We all want peace, happiness, health, and to feel that we’re special. It claims we can satisfy all those desires in one fell swoop, just by practicing a simple exercise on a cushion twice a day.
In reality, those starting out with TM bring positive expectations, which play an enormous role in how we perceive TM. Besides, the beginner period in any field is usually one of excitement. Who hasn’t experienced that sudden rush of joy and enthusiasm when signing up to the gym or a language class? Doesn’t it seem that life is rosier, that we’re expanding and growing? It’s a real emotion, but it doesn’t mean the exercises – or TM – are actually effective in any way.
As such, I tend to be skeptical of these reports from novice meditators. Only after several years of committed practice do the effects stabilise and become reliable.
The Shoddy Science Behind TM
What’s more, Transcendental Meditation often doesn’t stand up to rigorous testing; this was true even back in the 1970s, when scientific standards were flimsier. Many studies lack adequate control groups, and staff at Maharishi University of Management, part of the organisation that promotes Transcendental Meditation, have carried out most of the research into it. Interests couldn’t be more vested.
In my go-to reference guide to the science behind meditation, Daniel Goleman and Richie J. Davidson mention that a JAMA meta-study didn’t include TM research because it lacked gold-standard studies, thereby preventing solid conclusions. This is syntomatic of the research into this form of meditation.
On the other hand, Goleman and Davidson also mention a legitimate study. Dr Herbert Benson from Harvard demonstrated TM can produce a pattern of significant physiological changes, called the Relaxation Response. This includes lowered blood pressure, reduced oxygen consumption, and decrease in arousal. He also claimed that regular doses of the RR could have positive influence on health and protect us from stress.
But even Benson’s research was taken advantage of in its time and blown up beyond proportion. So if you do go out researching, my advice is to look for high-quality studies that respected names have deemed valuable, and always have a skeptical mindset.
Transcendental Meditation Ain’t So Special
With all that said, let me elaborate on my view of TM, which I believe is more sober than that of the zealots while more empowering and informed than that of dismissive skeptics.
We can get a better grasp of TM by realising that it’s just one of hundreds of meditation systems that have existed throughout history, East and West. It’s not just a whimsical scheme concocted by some physicist-turned-hermit-turned-saint. It has a rich heritage, and many of its apparently highfalutin claims are remarkably normal when viewed in the context of contemplative practice.
Transcendental Meditation is really an adaptation or elaboration of ancient tried-and-tested spiritual technologies, even though it appears shiny and new to raw Western eyes. Mantra meditation has been around for thousands of years. To give just one example, in Sufism chanting and mantra serve much the same purpose as in TM.
That’s not to discredit TM – just the opposite. The fact it’s nothing special helps us realise its validity.
A Guide to Altered States
Another point – though the idea of altered states proported by TM seems fantastical, our own disbelief proves nothing but our ignorance. Read literature from any serious spiritual school, and you’ll realise their methodology aims to induce altered states of consciousness. Altered states, however otherworldly they seem, are also very ordinary.
The claim that there are several states of consciousness runs throughout spiritual literature, the documented states show remarkable parallels across traditions, and neuroscience of the highest quality is beginning to confirm their existence. The problem is that only yogis and veteran spiritual practitioners have reliable access to them, meaning they’re hard for ordinary people to grasp.
Besides, these spiritual states largely outstrip our current ability to measure and capture them. As Richard Davidson says when commenting on science’s ability to understand seasoned meditators:
Science’s view of these yogis’ altered traits is akin to the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The gamma finding, for instance, seems quite exciting, but it’s like feeling the elephant’s trunk without knowing about the rest of its body… these are but glimpses of a larger reality we do not understand.Goleman and Davidson in The Science of Meditation
My point? First, since we associate meditation with the East and countercultural hippies, we’re apt to see it as wacky and exotic. So we stand on our self-proclaimed Western pedestal and use our limited methods to reduce and patronise spiritual techniques, not realising that we’re massively deceiving ourselves. Second, we dismiss concepts like altered states and mantras not because we’re informed, superior bastions of knowledge, but because we’re mighty ignorant.
With that said, let’s look at what I consider the core purpose of TM, beyond all its claims of health gains, performance boosts and sturdier erections.
Guide to the Ultimate Purpose of Transcendental Meditation
Let’s discuss the ultimate purpose of transcendental meditation, which by necessity parallels that of all serious meditation practice. As mentioned, this purpose might seem outlandish or imaginary to the novice, but it runs throughout all spiritual traditions. And my description below is just a tiny summary of the topic. In any case, the place to start is with our ordinary state of consciousness.
Your Guide From Mind to Nothing with TM
When we begin meditation, we soon discover a daunting reality: the wildness of our own mind, which unceasingly jumps from one event, fantasy, and memory to the next.
Maharishi taught that the mind wanders in search of fulfillment. But in its self-created world of images and scenes, it never finds it. Only when the mind finds what it’s looking for, which is ultimately its own nature, does it rest.
“Only within, in the unchanging field of life which [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi] called Being or pure consciousness, will the mind find fulfillment of its quest.”Jack Forem
In Transcendental Meditation, we don’t repress thought. We simply replace thinking with the mantra. In this way, the mind learns to stop seeking out there and turn inside. It slowly perceives more subtler forms of thought, gross thoughts quieten, and surface activity subsides.
And with further practice, we realise our human self is not who we are. “It’s just a bag of bones,” as George Harrison put it. At this point, it’s worth noting what the Transcend in Transcendental Meditation means.
Transcend = beyond the intellect and duality into pure unbounded infinite consciousness.
Eventually, we reach a state of no thought. The boundaries of thought and perception give way to pure, free awareness.
Transcendental meditation gives the experience of the sweetest nectar of life: pure bliss consciousness.David Lynch
In this way, this meditation takes us experientially into the unmanifest field of no-thingness that mystics have spoken about for millennia: The Dao, Heaven, Atman, Self.
Qualities of Nothing and Its Embodiment
Consciousness is the I AM ness of life, the Kingdom of Heaven that lies within. This consciousness has infinite creativity, intelligence, energy, love, power, bliss.
As we practice TM, we grow into those positive qualities and negative traits like tension, stress, anxiety, sorrow, depression and anger start to recede. As we rest in that deeper self, we tap unconditional happiness, a key goal of long-term TM practice.
There’s also an emphasis on purity and goodness. As David Lynch says, the purity spoken of in religion is a physical and mental purity we cultivate through practice. You’re anchored to the bottom of the ocean, not to the surface, self-centred ego, and you see that all other humans are part of that same awareness, radically changing your relationship to them.
Those who don’t know, they don’t know. Those who know, they enjoy.Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Sticking Points: Quick Guide
Before we wrap up, let’s look at some traps present in Transcendental Meditation. These also apply to meditation as a whole.
Blanking Out During TM
In the famous Lennon–Harrison interview, George states you can blank out during TM and gives a kind of spiritual explanation for it. I would suggest that he wrongly reinterpreted the attentional blink using the language of TM. The goal is quite the opposite: meditation is about continuity of attention. In particular, TM is about retaining your focus on the mantra. While blanking out is normal, it’s not a goal.
Expecting Too Much From TM
The problem with speaking about the benefits of TM too much is that it creates expectation in new meditators, who often want quick results. This leads to short-term thinking and placebo effects resulting from expectation. Research shows that before 1000 hours of formal practice, changes tend to be fleeting and flimsy.
I follow John Kabat-Zinn and Shinzen Young‘s advice on this point: have a strong, motivational vision, and if any grasping comes up, apply your meditation techniques to it. In that way, you don’t get overly identified with your targets. And if you’re striving mightily to be somewhere else, replace it with your mantra and keep practicing.