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Transcendental Meditation

Thoughts from a New Meditator by Tegan O'Neill

I sit down to meditate and my thoughts jump around from this to that. She said this, he did that. Before, I did this and later, I’ll do that. After about 10 minutes, though, I feel a shift in the meditation. Like dust that is riled up when a car passes on a dirt road, my thoughts eventually come to rest. The technique that I am using is called Transcendental Meditation or TM. With a name like, “Transcendental Meditation,” the method sounds like practitioners probably float around with their legs crossed in lotus position. You might be thinking: “This sounds a little too out there for me.” At least that is what I thought when I learned of TM. Despite my yoga training, which included meditation, a part of me was always hesitant to believe that sitting in silence wasn’t a waste of time. Meditation always felt like something that I should do more of, that I knew had to be good for me, but that never organically developed as a regular practice.

The tides turned this year as I learned about the importance of evidence based practices in my social work graduate program. The coursework emphasized that in order to be implemented, social work practice and policy must be researched using the scientific method and interventions must be backed up by evidence. After two semesters of grad school during which I was hit on the head with the importance of evidence based practices, I listened to an episode of the podcast 10% Happier featuring meditation teacher, Bob Roth. The podcast was the last nudge I needed to get my feet in the meditation waters. The episode offers a thorough explanation of TM and hashes out various concerns skeptics may have about meditation by going into the science backing it up. I learned that TM has been studied extensively and this, I now realize, was the piece of the puzzle that I was missing: I had needed the scientific assurance that meditation could be worth it.

TM stands apart from other meditation practices because it is standardized, which makes it possible to study objectively. It is more difficult to examine the effects of mindfulness, for example, because your yoga teacher’s idea of mindfulness is most likely different than my self-help book’s outline of what mindfulness is and how to practice it. TM, though, is taught in a specific way so that it can be done uniformly. The practice has its roots in the Vedic tradition of India, which dates back several thousand years and is at the core of the Yoga system. It has been passed down through various teachers and more recently brought into popularity in the Western world by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950's. Celebrities from The Beatles to Ellen DeGeneres have learned the technique and have become proponents of it.

TM isn’t just a celebrity fad, though. Researchers have looked at TM’s effect on a range of variables from blood pressure, to PTSD symptoms in veterans, to academic achievement in inner city schools. To give a very brief summary, studies have shown that TM can reduce stress and anxiety, as well as symptoms of depression and insomnia. Particularly interesting to me as a clinical social work student, research demonstrates that TM can be an effective intervention for PTSD, ADHD, and for treating addiction. As if that were not enough, studies have also highlighted TM’s ability to lower blood pressure, reduce rates of heart attack and stroke, and decrease cholesterol. Basically, everyone could benefit from the practice! I recommend checking out the official TM webpage to get a glimpse at the research behind TM or the book Transcendence by Norman E. Rosenthal for a more complete look at the technique.

For the purpose of this blog, I will give a rough outline of how to practice TM, but as previously mentioned, the technique is standardized; therefore, learning the true version of TM needs to be done with a certified teacher. With that said, TM is quite simple: twice a day (morning and afternoon) find a comfortable seated position. You can sit on a chair, a bed, on the floor-- whatever works for you, just not lying down (although it is tempting to do so). Close the eyes and get settled for a few moments. Then, gently let your mantra surface as if it were just another thought coming to your mind. The mantra is a one or two syllable sound that carries no meaning and that, through repetition, serves as a vehicle to reach a deep, relaxed state. In the TM course, the teacher provides a mantra for you to use in your practice. It is expected that the mantra will change in pace and volume and may even morph over the course of the meditation. Sometimes the mantra may coincide with the breath, other times the two will be on different rhythms. It is natural for the mantra to ebb and flow in this manner.

During the meditation, if you need to move or alter your posture, do so. If you need to sleep, do so, and when you wake up, continue meditating. I like to think of the technique as very understanding. After 20 minutes have gone by, you can leave the mantra, but remain with the eyes closed for 2 minutes more to prepare to transition out of the meditative state. This part, akin to Savasana in yoga, can be done lying down or doing subtle stretches before slowly opening the eyes. In TM, you do not set an alarm to mark the end of the meditation because an alarm can be jarring. At first, I was anxious about not knowing how much time had gone by, but I have gotten used to checking the time and if it is not time yet, I just keep going. Sometimes 10 minutes have passed, other times it has only been a minute when I look. It almost feels like there is a natural point to disrupt the meditation and look.

Proponents tout TM as being effortless; the mantra is a tool that is meant to bring you to this effortless space of no concentration and yet, paradoxically alertness. Although I cannot say for sure that I have arrived at this dichotomous state, I have been surprised that it is relatively easy to slip into the mediation. TM differs from other techniques in that it is not focused attention or open monitoring meditation. It lacks the self-flogging component of other meditations that require the practitioner to focus on the breath or an image and return every time the mind wanders. This relentless back and forth gets tiring, and takes effort to stay focused. The TM practice accommodates for this ambling of the mind. You will find that you stray from the mantra and time passess without repeating it. The idea is that the mantra will eventually drift back into place. The difference with TM is that just as thoughts bubble up and distract you from the mantra, the mantra can percolate as well and take you away from the thoughts.

I have had a couple of times, and when I say a couple, I do mean two, that I felt like I took the dive and slipped into a meditative--dare I say transcendental--state. I felt like my body had become distorted; my torso felt extra long and my arms and hands farther away than they really were in my lap. I am aware that this sounds a bit kooky, but I was reassured by my teacher that this experience also fell into the category of ‘correct’ meditation. When I checked the time, 19 minutes had gone by.

Don’t get me wrong, even though the technique is simple, it can still feel a bit like a chore to fit in the twenty minutes twice a day to meditate. It can be tricky to find an ideal time and place to meditate while also avoiding meditating on a full stomach or too late in the evening. Full disclosure: I haven’t had a perfect attendance record, but the simplicity of the technique does make it easier to leave excuses at the door. It has been over a month since I learned TM and I am curious to observe its effects as I continue with the practice. For now, I’ll just have to keep meditating.

This blog post was written by Tegan O'Neill