Transcendental Meditation is the most widely practised form of meditation in the West. Since it was first exported from India in the late 1950s, around 500 scientific studies have been conducted at more than 200 universities, and numerous claims have been made on its behalf: that it prevents illness, reverses disease, lifts depression, stimulates creativity, and so on. Above all, it is a technique: a simplified form of meditation developed by the Indian monk Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Transcendental Meditation, or “TM,” is renowned for its simplicity. And it is this very simplicity that partly explains its success. At the center of the practise is the mantra, a numinous sound one chants softly to oneself. When done without strain or effort, the mind settles into blissful, empty silence. This, argue its followers, is our natural state; beneath all the desire, envy and fear, lies happiness.
Maharishi himself identified 4 states of consciousness. First, thought is transcended and replaced by a sense of unity or wholeness, beyond the subject/object divide. In this state, consciousness is purified of thought and perception. The individual has reached the “unified field,” beyond both subjective and objective existence. Transcendental meditation thus leads to transcendental consciousness. Once you have reached this, three further states should unfold: cosmic consciousness, God consciousness and unity consciousness.
Beginners, eager to find such bliss, naturally ask what they must do, only to be told they mustn’t do anything, that the frantic need to be doing is in fact part of the problem. Human beings are trapped in an absurd situation: we seek happiness, sometimes desperately, even aggressively, and yet it is the very act of seeking that obscures it!
If you win a lot of money or meet the perfect partner, for example, no matter how happy you may feel, such happiness is transitory – money goes, relationships end etc. In other words, your happiness depends on some finite object out there in the material world. Real happiness begins when the mind is still and you stop seeking it.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the word “transcendental.” To transcend something means to rise above it. In the case of TM, the meditator wishes to get above and beyond the noisy chatter of the mind. But they do not do so through control or focus. Instead, they allow the mantra to do its work and free up the mind to seek its natural state, beyond thought, strain, effort, or time.
Formal instructions are followed by a short ceremony during which the beginner receives his mantra. This will be selected to suit his particular temperament. During follow up sessions, the beginner will often meditate under the supervision of his teacher, later doing so independently (twice a day for 20 minutes is the norm). Once you have been shown the basics and given your mantra, you can then meditate anywhere.
The TM technique was developed in India in the 1940s and 1950s by the monk Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. By the late 1950s, he was teaching it in India, and in 1959 he made his first tour of the West. Perhaps the most famous early converts were the Beatles, though even today several celebrities practise it, such as the movie director David Lynch.
Of course, Transcendental Meditation is not new. People have sought to calm and transcend the mind for thousands of years. Indeed, the roots of TM can be found in the ancient Vedic tradition. The Vedas were religious texts written in India around 5,000 years ago. They later formed the heart of the various religious systems known as “Hinduism.” But the Vedas themselves arose out of an older, oral tradition that gave us yoga (the art of living) and Ayurveda (the science of life).
Those interested in meditation often hesitate to explore it further because of these religious undertones. But defenders of TM are quick to point out that faith plays no part. You do not have to accept the literal truth of ancient myths nor commit to indefinite attendance at some hall or church. The English biologist Julian Huxley, made an important distinction between religions based on revelation and those based on practise and experience. TM is a technique, and its future survival or disappearance will depend on the effectiveness of this technique.
The mantra, or “sound,” lies at the heart of TM practise and is passed on by the beginner’s teacher. Of course, the mantra is itself meaningless – deliberately so. If the word had meaning, the mind would gnaw on it, conjuring up different images and associations. For example, give someone the word “cow” as their mantra and they will start visualizing cows in a field, which then reminds them of a summer holiday with friends etc.
The mantra is a vehicle for consciousness to rest upon. Ultimately, however, it must itself be transcended (which is why it is a nonsense word). However, though it is meaningless, the word will have some kind of resonant hum – a primordial, quivering vibration. Such mantras originated in the Vedic tradition, which sought to imitate the primitive, natural sound believed to lie at the heart of creation.
TM and Mindfulness
TM is often confused with mindfulness. Others, aware that they are different, assume that these differences are superficial and that both amount to the same thing. In fact, this is not true.
Mindfulness is based on Buddhist practise. In essence, it involves training the mind to focus on the moment, without resistance or effort. You learn to detach yourself from the mind, to observe it dwelling on the past or planning and worrying about the future. And when it does, you gently steer it back to the here and now, focussing on the sensations in the body, the sounds around you etc., anything to return consciousness to the moment, gratefully and without resistance.
In TM, it is the use of a specific mantra which liberates the mind. And the emphasis is on liberation. Whereas mindfulness involves focussing the mind on the now, TM seeks to liberate it instead. In any case, according to the 2009 Journal of Clinical Psychology, regular TM practise increases mindful awareness.
Of course, TM also has its critics. Some argue that the supposed benefits are nothing more than wishful thinking. After all, those drawn to TM are usually dissatisfied or unhappy in some way. They long to feel better. And when someone expects to feel a certain way, and has spent time and money learning how, they will often convince themselves that is how they really feel.
It has also been pointed out that the movement was created by a single individual, Maharishi Yogi, and that the man has his critics. In February 2008, for example, the British journalist David Jones wrote a blistering attack in the U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper, dismissing him as “a shameless old fraud” and drawing attention to the huge sums of money now involved in the movement. Jones claimed to have been one of the last journalists to interview Maharishi, and was clearly unimpressed.
To be fair to the TM movement, however, it isn’t its founder. And even if Maharishi Yogi was what Jones claims, that does not mean the technique has no value. In any case, TM itself is based on much older traditions and was not radically new. There also seems little doubt that many do benefit and that this cannot all be wishful thinking.