I’ve had an interest in meditation and Buddhism since school and it wasn’t until I spent a couple of years in Japan that I was introduced to Zazen (sitting meditation) and started to try it myself. I’ve been mainly self- taught over the past 10-15 years and discovered books such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘You are here’ and Shunryu Suzuki’s ‘Beginners mind’ among others, that have inspired me with their clarity of thought and penetrative wisdom.
While practicing, there have been lots of times where my mind has been a whirling maelstrom of scenarios and worries and I have ended practice feeling more stressed than I started. There have been other times when I’ve thought if I can just consciously take one breath in the moment then it will have been worth it for that day. On other occasions, usually when I have been practicing more regularly, I’ve felt my thoughts drift apart, with my breath effortlessly washing back and forth like waves and my mind has settled in a clear space of calm and beautiful quiet.
I have persevered with Mindfulness and really love it for its beauty as such a simple practice to touch the universal nature that lies beyond our daily thoughts and cares. Practicing mindfulness has improved my relationships with friends, family and I cope much better with the stress at work and all the other issues that life can throw at you. I have also learnt over the years, that the right intention and expectation level, are key to a good meditation practice.
I came to hear about Transcendental Meditation (TM) quite recently. I was amazed I hadn’t heard of it before, given the large number of celebrities that are apparently doing it, including, somewhat bizarrely, football manager Sam Allardyce.
My first experience was on the podcast, 10% Happier. One description was that many people who practice mindfulness say how hard it is, whereas people who practice TM say how easy it is. This interested me because I know quite a few people who I believe would benefit massively from meditation, but have given up quite quickly because they’ve found it too difficult or couldn’t stop the tireless river of thoughts.
If this is an easier way for people to get into meditation with all the physical and mental health benefits, then it seemed to me it was definitely worth exploring.
So I arranged to go for a free talk. Arriving at the centre in Dubai, where I now live, I was greeted by an Iranian lady called Mahnaz. She’s been practicing TM for 30 years and runs classes and meeting sessions out of her apartment.
As the door opened, I was met with a waft of incense and the inviting hum of a sitar and Indian flute. There was a group meeting taking place and people were sat around watching one of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s lectures from back in the late 60’s, where he had travelled from India to America to share his meditation technique.
I am absolutely not into any kind of religious or ritualistic window dressing. The appeal of meditation has always been its pure practicality. Nor am I interested in any kind of bells and whistles. Yet I quickly discovered that I clearly have a weakness for a sitar, incense and a wise man with a long beard. The scene conjured up some kind of hippy image of an exotic Shangri La style paradise and part of me was ready to sign up, grow a sage looking beard, quit my job and join the commune!
Whilst the group meeting took place, I was ushered into a smaller room, where a young woman was sat on a cushion. The only chair was right next to her, so I sat down, introduced myself and asked if she was here for the free talk too. I gradually realised my pleasant ‘chit chat’ wasn’t entirely welcome as she had been trying to meditate. So I sat, uncomfortably for a minute, while she closed her eyes and continued. I’ve never sat in quite such close proximity to someone meditating before, especially a total stranger, so feeling slightly awkward, I decided that rather than let her think I was staring at her like a crazed lunatic, I grabbed a magazine and made a few pointed turns of the page to indirectly communicate that I was happily occupying myself. When she re-emerged, she told me she’d been practicing TM for 1 month and found it hugely beneficial, particularly in work. Where she’d previously responded to certain situations with stress and panic, she now reacted more calmly and thought more clearly when making decisions. It confirmed my hopes. I seemed to be on the right track with TM.
My reservations and queries about TM
Once the group meeting had ended, I met with Mahnaz. I had a lot of questions about TM.
Mindfulness, has number of techniques, but predominantly focuses your mind on the movement of the breath. TM on the other hand is based on the repetition of a one word mantra that is given to you by a qualified TM teacher. I had a number of reservations.
For a start it’s $1000 for a course, which is a lot of money. It seemed a bit elitist and the idea of packaging, branding and commercialising something like meditation seemed to me to be slightly counterintuitive to what it’s all about. This view is shared by many critics of TM who feel it is overpriced and unnecessary to take the full course. I raised this with the Mahnaz who explained to me that the cost of the course is actually pro-rated against earnings. So if someone is on a lower pay scale they won’t pay as much as someone earning more. Also a lot of the money is put into projects to promote TM in schools in Africa and to help soldiers with PTSD, among other things.
She also explained that when the founder of TM, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to the US from India, he wanted to spread the teaching and his practice to the whole world. He believed in the transformative effect of TM to help us learn to love ourselves and love others. A noble ideal which achieved some notoriety when he met celebrities such as the Beatles. Yet TM has never really taken off in a major way, although there are signs this is really changing.
In the modern world, to spread a message effectively you need a commercial machine with a brand that can engage people on a multimedia level. TM is backed by hundreds of independent medical reports that have proved the physical and mental health benefits of this form of meditation, although medical research has also proved similar health benefits for mindfulness and other types of meditation.
My other query with TM was that it claims to be more effortless compared to other types of meditation. I personally disagree with this in that a lot of mindful practice is not always done with the right understanding or intention. And the intention and expectation are very important to good practice. Mindfulness does not intend to stop thoughts, its intention is to change your relationship to those thoughts. It’s a bit like stepping out of a river where you are being bombarded by boats and sitting on the river bank and gently watching the boats go by. To me, mindful practice is a calm effortless exercise, though not always, but I think some proponents of TM seem to miss this point when comparing the two.
So I decided to take the plunge and do the course. I can’t say exactly why, but I felt that there was clearly only one way to understand TM and its effectiveness, and that was by experiencing it for myself.
The course consists of four – one and a half hour sessions, which involve being given a mantra at the beginning. There is a fairly brief ceremony (with some fruit, flowers and incense thrown in) and then instruction and guidance on the meditation practice which is recommended as twice a day for twenty minutes, first thing in the morning and later on in the afternoon.
The key with TM is to follow meditation with activity, as it is often in the activity after that you experience real clarity of thought, unclouded by the usual stream of worries and concerns.
During the TM mantra, which is repeated in your head, not out loud, thoughts will come and go but the key is not to try and do anything but just gently acknowledge the thought and then come back to the mantra. As the mind and body reach a state of deep relaxation thoughts will arise as the body begins to release stresses that have accumulated.
There are a number of videos by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that date back to the early 70’s where he gives lectures on the theory of his meditation technique and some of the philosophy in a very lucid way.
Within the first few days of practicing TM I felt periods of real clarity, I felt a lot more relaxed meeting people at work and dealing with situations. I was surprised at the quick impact it had. The next day at work I was cracking, what I thought were, hilarious jokes and getting on really well with colleagues. I even noticed in one weekly meeting, where I’m usually in the habit of eating at least 6 biscuits, I only ate one and was quite happy to sit within arms reach of a large plateful and not feel any real desire to eat them. Totally out of character for someone with such a sweet tooth!
Later on, whilst driving home from work, I felt like the city around me was somehow more real and I was noticing things I felt I hadn’t seen before. If I didn’t know any different I’d have thought someone had spiked my drink! I briefly felt a bit nervous at the dramatic change I was experiencing, but I did feel great.
This did settle within 48 hours, after a few days of continued practice the change did not seem anything like as extreme as that first day. I am interested to know if this is similar with other people’s experiences.
Another woman I met at another class at the centre, said that she had been struggling to find the time to do it and with 2 small children she often fell asleep during meditation and sometimes felt she wasn’t doing it right. I often fall asleep during meditation, this happened with both mindfulness and TM. I also have 2 small children and a hectic job, meaning I get really tired. So once in a relaxed state with meditation, I tend to nod off, so I don’t think I’d last very long in a monastery!
Two weeks on, I’ve continued to feel much better within myself. I am more relaxed in situations, less stressed and able to think and make clearer decisions, although the intensity of my experience is not nearly like that first day, it is much more subtle. It feels a bit like some of the negative chatter that was in my head before has calmed.
Of course, my experience is totally subjective and very personal, of course to me. I think the key with meditation is always to engage, without any expectation of any particular outcome. Each person may well have a very different experience from another. The main thing is to keep up the practice, even if there are days when it doesn’t feel very effective.
Mindfulness or TM?
So, will I stick with TM or go back to mindfulness? I don’t have an answer to this yet, nor am I in a rush to decide. I see there are a lot of parallels between the two, the wisdom and philosophy that underpin each type of practice seems, to me, to be the almost same. It is expressed very clearly by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and equally so by people like Thich Nhat Hanh.
In my view, whatever your practice or reasons for practicing, the core message from each of these people and other writers on this subject will only help to illuminate your meditation and life experience further.
Mahnaz was clear that TM does not say you should only practice TM and I see no reason why I cannot practice TM and try to act and live mindfully throughout the day. Practice is not just for ten minutes on the cushion in the morning, the effects of meditation (TM or Mindfulness) is something we carry with us throughout our day. It could be said that TM will help you to become a more mindful person, or just more of the person you want to be.
I can’t say whether one practice is better than the other, it really is for each person to find out for themselves. I am continuing with regular TM practice for now. My attitude is to be open and curious and explore different techniques, find what works best for me and most importantly enjoy that process of exploration.
In the words of Shunryu Suzuki
“In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, in the experts there are few….”
By Richard Ballentyne, a member of the Learn Shed community, based in Dubai.