The off switch

Transcendental meditation has enlightened and divided since it made it mainstream in the 60s.

Written by Medibank

Transcendental meditation has both enlightened its followers and courted controversy since The Beatles made it mainstream in the late '60s. Writer Luke Ryan takes a deeper look at what it means to transcend.

It's Saturday afternoon and I’m waiting outside a brightly painted schoolroom in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. As per the instructions, I’ve arrived bearing a bunch of flowers, three pieces of sweet fruit – an apple, a pear and a peach – and a white, unused handkerchief. Standing there, I feel like the world’s most confused ball date.

My teacher today is a softly-spoken guy in his mid-60s named Larry. Larry has a goofy way of laughing at his own jokes that makes you want to laugh along with him. I find myself smiling a lot, trying to be helpful. He’s not quite what I expected from a transcendental meditation spiritual guide.

Larry ushers me into a room decked out with a low-key shrine. He takes my offerings, turns to me and says, “The teaching of transcendental meditation is that what is given in private should be kept private. To this end we do not tell others what occurs in this room. Do you agree?” My journalistic ethics waver for a second. “Yes.” “Good. Let us begin the ceremony.”

If there is a rock star of the meditation family, then transcendental meditation – or TM as it’s more commonly known – is it. TM is the meditation of the celebrity set. Clint Eastwood, Lena Dunham, Oprah Winfrey and even Rupert Murdoch do it. George Lucas was so taken by its teachings he reportedly based the character of Yoda on TM’s founder and spiritual leader, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Jerry Seinfeld has been using TM for more than 34 years and is unequivocal about its role in his success. “I’ll describe it very simply: it’s like you have a phone, and somebody gives you a charger for it. So now you can recover from this exhausting experience of being a human, twice a day. It’s deep rest. Now that’s something that can help people.”

TM is a form of so-called ‘mantra’ meditation, where a single Sanskrit word is repeated over and over until you are conducted into a state of heightened relaxation. TM’s success can largely be traced back to the simplicity of its concept. Whereas other forms of meditation often demand hours or days of concentration and commitment, TM offers practitioners a straightforward formula: two 20-minute sessions a day, conducted when and how you chose. Simply find somewhere comfortable to sit, close your eyes and silently repeat a personal mantra. The emphasis is on ease of use and practical integration within your everyday existence. TM doesn’t want to change who you are, it wants to make who you are right now better at life.

The teaching process is similarly straightforward. Across four 90-minute sessions over four consecutive days, students are given a unique mantra and then shown how to repeat it mentally in such a way that they reach a transcendent state. There is no ongoing teaching required, no weekly sessions or annual retreats to attend. Once you’ve been shown how to do TM, you are set for life. This knowledge is just going to cost you $1500, or $750 if you’re a student.

Thanks to the undeniably expensive tuition costs and a string of controversies surrounding its finances, teachings and the Maharishi himself, TM has always courted claims of charlatanism and out-and-out cult-like behaviour. It cites impossible medical benefits and, in its more extreme moments, the ability to bring about a new age of global enlightenment. The TM empire is worth a reported $3 billion, a substantial amount for an organisation that trumpets its altruistic, not-for-profit credentials. So, where does the truth lie? Is TM a scam or a super cure? Would I feel enlightened or just ripped off? I hoped Larry would have the answers.

Since being developed by the Maharishi in 1955, over 10 million people in more than 130 countries have been taught the principles of TM, primarily in the West. So pervasive is its influence that when most of us think about the act of meditation we’re thinking about transcendental.

Transcendental meditation offers practitioners a straightforward formula. Simply find somewhere comfortable to sit, close your eyes and silently repeat a personal mantra.

We can thank The Beatles for this. While the teachings of the Maharishi were already becoming countercultural touchstones in the early 1960s, it wasn’t until The Beatles travelled to the Maharishi’s ashram in 1968 that the movement went mainstream. Over the following decade, the Maharishi trained tens of thousands of teachers, often in classes of a thousand or more. He opened schools in more than 130 countries and fled from India to Italy due to tax problems. By 1975, more than 40,000 people a month were learning TM in America alone. TIME magazine called it a “full-blown craze”.

Nonetheless, by 1977 this number had dropped to 3000 a month and many of the million or so converts reportedly ceased their practice. The glowing media coverage evaporated. Whenever TM did hit the papers, it was due to controversy over its finances, allegations of impropriety against the Maharishi, or straight-up mockery of TM’s claims that with enough people meditating together they could single-handedly bring about world peace.

When the Maharishi died in 2008, it looked as if TM might go the way of hippies, crystal healers and paisley clothing – slightly embarrassing new age artefacts that we’d all prefer to forget. Instead, TM is experiencing an unexpected renaissance and people are once again signing up in droves. Between 2008 and 2011, enrolments in TM courses reportedly tripled.

The recent return to favour can be partially attributed to the efforts of filmmaker David Lynch, who in 2005 established a foundation dedicated to introducing the principles of TM to underprivileged communities, refugees, HIV patients, prisoners, military veterans, the homeless and even students in poor public schools.

After spending so long as a punchline, the David Lynch Foundation gave TM a sheen of legitimacy. This was TM stripped of the spiritual and financial excesses of the Maharishi’s later years and repackaged as a practical mental aid. Mixed in with its ever-growing list of celebrity evangelists, the world seems once again prepared to find out what it actually means to transcend.

TM’s supporters claim rewards that border on the miraculous, from increasing IQ, creativity and concentration, through to combating anxiety and depression, lowering blood pressure, reducing rates of heart disease and even slowing down the ageing process. The pitch sounds like something from a late-night infomercial: “Want to be more creative, sleep better, feel happier, healthier and have more energy? Try transcendental meditation! For just $1500 we can teach you the secret to living a better life.”

The litany of benefits offered by enthusiasts might be enough to make even the most generous listener roll their eyes, but a large number of claims have at least some scientific backing. As its many glossy pamphlets attest, TM has been the subject of more than 350 peer-reviewed studies over the past 40 years – more than any other single form of meditation – and many of these studies appear to back up TM’s broader health-giving claims.

Still, it could be wise to take these findings with a hefty pinch of salt. Unlike testing the effects of a new drug, long-term studies on practices such as meditation are particularly prone to error, imprecision, sampling bias and straight-up conflict of interest. A 2014 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that of the 47 meditation studies sufficiently well designed to be taken seriously – in a field of almost 19,000 – none found any particular health-giving benefit associated with mantra meditation, although there was some evidence to suggest meditation in general was helpful in reducing anxiety and situational depression.

Perhaps the more interesting work being done on TM happens in the field of neuroscience.

Electroencephalography (EEG) scans have shown markedly different brain activity when one is practicing TM, as opposed to when one is simply resting. These scans suggest that TM reactivates the pre-frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with judgement and decision making, and the region most likely to shut down when we’re under stress.

This is not ‘stress’ as we usually understand it, but rather the stress of having to absorb stimuli and react to our surroundings. One side effect of our constant connection to computers and smartphones is we’re now dealing with more information than ever before. Every notification, every tone, every half-read status update is a new thing that our pre-frontal cortex needs to decide upon. The result: we finish the day feeling mentally exhausted, as if we’re unable to do anything more demanding than sit on a couch and watch reality TV.

By refreshing this overtaxed area of the brain, the theory goes, we can undo some of the ambient stress that fills our lives. Even if its more grandiose claims cannot be borne out, maybe TM is precisely what the modern age calls for – a designated ‘turn-off’ time that recharges our batteries and leaves us ready to stride back into the digital swarm once more.

My brain simultaneously feels both switched-on and cloaked in cotton wool. It reminds me of the boundary point between wakefulness and sleep, where thoughts drift with unfamiliar ease.

The ceremony is now finished and Larry has left me sitting alone in a deceptively comfortable armchair, eyes resting shut as I silently intone my mantra over and over and over again. After 20 minutes, Larry brings me out of my meditation. “Now, slowly open your eyes.” I do. The world feels fuzzy, slow. I regain awareness of my fingers and toes and realise that, somewhere along the line, my breathing had become so soft as to be almost unnoticeable.

“Was it easy?” “Yes.” “Did it feel natural?” “Yes.”

My brain simultaneously feels both switched-on and cloaked in cotton wool. It reminds me of the boundary point between wakefulness and sleep, where thoughts drift with unfamiliar ease, making unlikely connections in the pre-dream haze. There’s a certain sharpness to the world. I startle as a car drives past the window.

In truth, the 20 minutes felt closer to 10. After a while, the mantra seemed to take on a life of its own, revolving through my brain like a CNN news ticker. There was a curious sense of opening, like I was descending into some deeper blankness hidden within my own cognition. I immediately wanted to go back, to try and discover how deep the rabbit hole goes.

To its detractors, TM is a ready reminder of the old adage that “a fool and his money are easily parted”. For your $1500 you get little more than a one to three-syllable mantra and sit-down sessions with someone telling you to repeat it over and over for 15-20 minutes. Voila. Instant transcendence.

There’s also the more pressing question of “why TM?” There are dozens of other schools of meditation available, both spiritual and secular, and half of those you could probably learn with a YouTube tutorial or two. There are guided meditations, mindfulness exercises, breath-focused meditation, relaxation tapes and silent retreats. Buddhism alone can point to hundreds of different practices designed to achieve higher levels of mindfulness, concentration and being, and most of those don’t ask for a wad of cash up front.

But perhaps expense is the point. Perhaps you need to have some skin in the game if you’re going to commit to the lifestyle shift that meditation represents. One only has to look through the graveyard of forgotten New Year’s resolutions to realise the gap between intention and action can be insurmountably large. Maybe a substantial contribution – the Maharishi originally envisioned it as two week’s income – is what we need in order to infuse TM with the weight required to weave it into the fabric of our lives.

I still haven’t found out what’s at the bottom of that rabbit hole. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps it is all a sham, nothing but a handy way of wasting 40 minutes each day. The course is certainly filled with enough pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo to make you believe that perhaps there’s nothing hiding behind the curtain. But I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying the dedication of it. I’m enjoying the slow-burning bolt of energy afterwards and the fact I no longer feel tired in the afternoons. Most of all, I’m enjoying being able to leave everything behind, ever so briefly. To simply sit, comfortably, with my eyes closed, and feel the worries of the world drop away, thought by empty, ephemeral thought. It’s 20 minutes, but in its own quiet way it feels a bit like freedom.

Written by Medibank

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