Transcendental Meditation

The Art of Not Doing Anything for 20 minutes.


Originally published 12th April 2013 on jasonchatfield.com/blog

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It’s hard enough for anyone in my wonderful huddling mass of simpering derpamine-fiends to sit still and not do anything for more than a few minutes without grabbing for a smartphone, a TV remote or a book. For the longest time I was the worst guy at that, so it comes as a surprise to friends when they discover my wife and I both do Transcendental Meditation, 20 minutes a day, twice a day, every day.

So what the heck is Transcendental Meditation?

Very simply, it’s a specific form of silent mantra meditation which was introduced in India in the mid-1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918–2008). It’s the most widely researched meditation in history, and after a brief purge period at the start, it’s like defragging your brain, reorganising your thoughts and lowering your stress levels by enormous levels.

Jerry Seinfeld described it really well when in an interview with Alec Baldwin. (Seinfeld started doing it in college in 1972 and has been doing it every day since.) He said:

“I found it in ’72. It has this great energy and focus, and I’ve been doing it for the rest of my life. This is a nice energy. Here’s how I describe it; You know how three times a year you wake up and go ‘Boy that was a really good sleep’? Imagine feeling like that every day. That’s what it is.”
— Jerry Seinfeld

How is Transcendental Meditation different than regular meditation where people sit around after Yoga and breathe, or the one where people make that “Ohmmm” sound?

TM isn’t easy to learn. You can’t learn it from a book, or YouTube a ‘how to do TM’ and just get it. It requires one-on-one training from a trained TM instructor who prescribes your own personal mantra, a meaningless sound which is to be kept secret and never spoken aloud. (Except… obviously when they tell it to you.) You repeat the mantra to yourself quietly in your mind until you dive into a deep meditative state without the necessity to labor or struggle.

It takes a few sessions to learn the technique, which is followed by a few check-ins to assess whether you’re doing it correctly. And yes, you can do it wrong.

Is it religious?

No. It’s based on science, which is excellent; I’m not a religious person. There’s a spiritual element to it, which is more of a cultural tradition than a religious one.

It’s not like a cult. That said, the technique has been described as both religious and as non-religious by sociologists, scholars, and a New Jersey court case. Governmental agencies have both criticized and supported the Transcendental Meditation program depending on the time period and country.

TM is a very personal thing you usually do alone. You don’t have to meditate in groups, although it did have some pretty remarkable effects in Washington DC in the summer 1993, when a combined meditation of 4000 people led to a city-wide crime drop of 23.3%. (Source: New York Times.)

It seems like something really new-agey, but there’s nothing LESS new-agey about something this old.

Why start doing it?

Before I go on, I know there’s nothing worse than reading or listening to someone with this insufferably indignant tone, subtextually just bleating “Really, why doesn’t everybody just live like me?” People are all different and everyone lives the way they want to live. Here’s how I do things. It may not suit you, but this is why I started doing TM.

Personally, my stress levels hit an insane high when I had a million things on my plate, a tonne of commitments and no time to process them all- I hit a breaking point and had to let go of a lot of things. Through a long process of elimination, I managed to find a workable lifestyle that wouldn’t give me a heart attack by the time I hit 40. Like I said above, I also found it really hard to just sit still and just be for any length of time. It sounds silly, but it’s not that uncommon.

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what phones are taking away, is The ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.”
-Louis CK

That sounds nice and everything, but who really has the time to meditate twice a day?

Fitting two 20-minute meditations into your day can be difficult, especially when you don’t have a regular daily routine. One thing, it doesn’t feel like 20 minutes at all. You actually lose time if you do it right. It feels like barely any time has passed. You kind of get to know after a while what 20 minutes feels like though, so you know when to come out of it. Which brings me to the most important bit you can screw up:

Coming out of it.

Coming out of a deep meditation wrong can be like waking a sleepwalker. You need to take at least 3-5 minutes to come out of it properly. I screwed this up a bunch of times when I started and it gave me headaches, made me really irritable and gave me bad insomnia. It was the thing that made me realise this was a really powerful thing, and not just some hippy dippy imaginary crap.

I’m 4 months in, and my brain has completely changed. I’ve literally changed my mind. There’s a lot of scientific research about what TM does to your brain, and what it does for your health, emotions and creativity if you’re interested. It just changes the way your mind works.

Fig 1: Effects of TM on the human brain after 2 years.

When you sleep, your brain is more active than when you’re awake. It’s consolidating memories, making sense of things, processing lots of information. Think of TM as doing all that stuff while you’re awake. It makes you sleep a lot better.

My productivity’s off the charts, my sleep is deep and restorative and I’m calmer than ever. I get places on time; I’m not racing around like crazy. There’s something about the way your brain works after you’ve just let it do what it wants. Time slows. It has a natural tendency towards stillness- Your mantra takes it there.

It also cures the most epic of FOMO addictions, among others. I’ve read a couple of great books by Dr. Norman E Rosenthal, who writes:

“In my attempt not to miss out on anything — by being continually plugged in — I was in fact missing out on something very important: the art of being. From Baby Boomers to Gen Y, the “need” to constantly refresh social media is erased, as meditation releases the obsession, so that in each precious twenty-minute session, I’m recharged, reset, and rebalanced. There is nothing as pure and inspiring as my evening meditation. And, with each session, the benefits expand upon one another, so that this ball of consciousness grows and grows, and I am continually evolving into my truest self.”

A surprising list of world-changing people do TM. That’s not a good reason to do it, but it’s a pretty great endorsement for the practice.

I’ll leave this with a video from David Lynch, whose foundation is for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, funding TM programs to be taught in schools.If you click to watch this on YouTube, you’ll hit the inevitable YouTube wormhole of TM

…Get comfortable.

Update: 
When I first moved to New York I lived in Inwood. There’s a 20-minute block of time between 125th street and Columbus Circle on the A-train where I used to meditate to pass the time. I came out of the meditation drooling more than once. It was the A train. I fit right in.