Transcendental Meditation - My Experience
Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is a meditation technique which claims to:
- be effortless
- improve concentration and productivity
- relieve stress
- be easy to fit into your daily routine.
But are these claims true—and is this type of meditation for you? As someone who practiced TM for 17 years, I can vouch for its many benefits, but it's important not to ignore the downsides, too. In this article, I'll share my personal experience of both—and explain why I gave it up.
Yes, TM is effortless. In fact, some people find it hard to accept just how effortless it is. That's why you need a TM teacher to instruct you. If you just take the mantra and repeat it, you'll try too hard—and it won't work.
TM's ability to improve concentration was the reason I decided to learn.
At the time, my (very stressed) boyfriend was struggling at university. He started TM, and I was stunned by the difference in his academic performance. He said he found it so much easier to absorb information, and he just seemed more focussed. I was so impressed, I learned TM myself.
Those were the days when managers still dictated letters for a secretary to type up. My boss used to dictate all her letters to me on a Monday, then go off travelling. When she returned on Friday I had to have the letters typed up for her signature (it seems unbelievable now that a letter could wait that long, but business was different in the 70's!).
Before I started TM, it used to take me all week to type up Monday's dictation. The week after I learned TM, I got the whole lot done in two days!
Better Reaction to Stress?
I'm also a good example of how TM reduces anxiety and helps you react better to stress.
Before TM, I was best described as "highly strung" - if a nasty manager barked at me, I'd flee to the ladies loo and sit there in floods of tears. TM helped me feel less anxious almost at once - but I didn't realize quite how much until a few years later, when my boss of our frantically busy office referred to me as "the calm in the eye of the storm" - and everyone agreed!
Easy to Fit into your Routine...
Transcendental meditation involves sitting in a chair with your eyes closed, and meditating using a special TM technique. You do it twice a day, for around 20 minutes. That's all there is to it!
Because there's no concentration involved, you don't even have to be in a quiet place - so a lot of people meditate on the bus or train on the way to work. Other commuters will just assume you're asleep.
I learned TM when Maharishi was still regularly giving lectures. He always called TM a "householder's meditation", designed to be fitted into a busy life.
While I was practising "ordinary" TM, I was happy to recommend it to anyone. I was leading a more confident, stress-free, happy life because of it. Yes, learning was expensive - but in return, I had lifetime support and access to (free) weekly or monthly get-togethers and lectures.
When I learned TM and for many years after, Maharishi consistently refused to tell meditators what to eat, what to think or how to behave.
Maharishi was at great pains to stress that TM was a meditation to fit into your everyday life, not take it over. If you wanted to do your two 20-minute sessions on your daily commute, Maharishi was just fine with that.
He used to say, "Different people need different things at different levels of consciousness. You know, deep down, what is right for you. That will change as you evolve, and you should let that happen naturally."
He also emphasized that although it had its roots in Hinduism, TM was not religious in any way. He warned against "polluting" TM by mixing it with other practices.
But then a strange thing happened.
The Siddhis - Two Hours a Day!
The Siddhi program was introduced in 1976. It promised to enhance the meditation experience. TM had been so effective for me, why wouldn't I want to make it even better - so off I went to the first weekend course.
At the course, we were each given a new mantra, which was a variation on our existing one. That was fine, but that was far from all! We were sent home with the following:
- A set of yoga exercises to do morning and evening
- A copy of the Bhagavad Gita
- Strict guidelines on diet (vegetarian, but no mushrooms or onions)
- Instructions to control our thinking and shun negative thoughts.
We were also encouraged to embrace Ayurvedic medicine including regular massages, special supplements, and horoscopes. We were told that if we practiced the Sidhis conscientiously, we would start developing supernatural powers.
I was uncomfortable with it all - I kept thinking of Maharishi's original words. The Sidhis felt disturbingly like a religion, and it was dictating my life (which Maharishi said he would never do).
However, I was married to a man who enthusiastically embraced TM and so I swallowed my misgivings. It wasn't easy: I could no longer meditate on my daily commute, because I had to do the exercises and read aloud from the Bhagavad Gita as well. And the whole sequence of exercising and reading and meditating took a full hour each time. By the time I'd done the program in the evening, there was barely enough time to eat before going to bed - and I had to get up at the crack of dawn to be sure of making it to work on time.
It really worried me, too, when I met some of the most respected members of the TM community - the individuals who welcomed Maharishi when he first arrived in the UK in the 1960's - and discovered they had declined to take part in the Siddhi program. But it was impossible to get reassurance because by this time, Maharishi was rarely giving lectures or Q&A sessions himself, everything was run by other leaders.
But then the wheels started to fall off...
Soon after starting the Siddhi program, I started to lose the serene happiness I'd got used to. I felt disconnected, tired and irritable, and life wasn't smooth sailing any more.
I blamed the Siddhi program and was tempted to give it up - but the TM teachers persuaded me to keep going.
Their explanation was this: when you meditate normally, small amounts of old stresses and bad karma are released from the mind and body, and dissipate so gently that you barely notice. Because the Siddhi program is so powerful, they are released faster and in greater quantities. So you may feel anxious or afraid, cry or laugh a lot, feel aches and pains, or find bad things happening in your life. You may also have difficulty "resurfacing" from the meditative state, so you feel disoriented or irrational.
The teachers gave me extra practice to "smooth it out" - extra breathing and yoga exercises, Ayurvedic massages, residential courses, etc. I ended up doing more meditation, not less.
I believed this explanation and persevered - until my mother took ill and I spent six weeks in Scotland while she recovered, away from my husband and my TM instructors.
There, I didn't have two hours a day to spare, so I started missing sessions - and guess what, I felt much more like my normal self! I started to question whether I wanted to go on enduring this awful "roughness" - after all, I didn't learn TM to reach enlightenment, I learned it to relieve stress.
So I stopped - and my life started to turn around.
Living in a Bubble
When I gave up TM, I made another discovery.
When TM was working well for me, it created a protective shell around me, shielding me from the world.
That sounds great, and in many ways it was. Stress and anxiety rolled off me like water off a duck's back. Grief and sadness were things of the past. I was contented, and life was smooth sailing.
TM insulates you from everyday life. That means you're not hurt by the stresses - but you're immune to the joys of life, too!
It wasn't until I stopped meditating that I discovered the shell worked for the ups of life as well as the downs. There's a big difference between contentment and pure joy. I spent 17 years living my life on one note - yes, I missed out on the lows, but I missed out on the highs, too.
The shell also meant I couldn't connect to people as well as I should have. Yes, I loved my husband and my family - but until I gave up TM, I didn't realise how muted that feeling had become.
I had always planned to start doing my basic TM practice again, but after that discovery, I decided not to. I'm not prepared to miss out on the high points of life any more, even if it means I end up in the Slough of Despond occasionally. That's what life is!
If you want an outsider's unbiased view of TM, this tells you the lot. But don't try to learn TM from this book, even though it gives you the mantras - they're useless unless you understand the right way to use them, and you need a meditation teacher for that.
The Flying Siddhi
The Sidhi program promised to develop several special powers. Looking back now, I wonder why I believed such a thing. The ability to fly - the "Flying Siddhi" is the one most people have heard of - so in anticipation of questions, here's my experience.
I was at the Siddhis introductory course, sitting cross-legged in a room with other meditators, repeating the required words and waiting to levitate.
I was a slow starter. Other people were hopping around and nothing was happening to me. Most of them were fitter than me, so I suspected they were cheating (or maybe that was sour grapes!).
Then it happened. I felt a powerful, hot current of energy shoot up my spine from base to tip, propelling me off the ground - and dumping me on my back on the floor just as quickly.
I was amazed. Sure, I hadn't "flown" - but If someone had told me I could jump several inches with my legs crossed, I'd have said they were dreaming! Sit down cross-legged and try to lift your bottom, and you'll see what I mean. Without that mysterious surge of energy, I would never have got off the ground. So clearly, something did happen. But I attended several courses, and I never saw anyone do more than hop, and I've never met anyone else who has.
All the photos of meditators "hovering" in the air were simply taken at the top of the jump.