Transcendental Meditation (abbreviated TM) is promoted as a method of meditation that is supposed to be able to bring a number of benefits such as relaxation or stress reduction, and possibly enlightenment. It is more controversial than other meditation methods mainly because the TM movement as a whole has its detractors. I stand somewhere in the middle on the controversy, since although I think the movement preaches or promotes various ideas that I regard as a load of rubbish, and stretches credibility with some of its claims, the meditation technique itself does seem to me to be a valid meditation technique, in that it can be used to silence and train the mind. In my experience, it is not as effective as the Buddhist Mindfulness of Breathing technique, but it may work better than that for some people as each person is different, after all.

Before describing the technique, I feel I should say something about the controversy surrounding the TM movement. I will keep this brief as you can read more elsewhere if you are interested. So, in short:

  • It is claimed that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was not, as claimed by him, a leading student of (Swami Brahmananda Saraswati) but was an assistant;
  • The movement claims not to be a religious movement, but the mantras given are based on prayers to Hindu gods;
  • The Maharishi spoke a lot about the “vacuum state” and other concepts from quantum mechanics, claiming that they prove that the divine is in all of us, that ancient Vedic knowledge corresponds to it and so on, but they are in fact just theories from physics and bear no relation to spirituality or the Veda at all. As a trained physicist myself, I think I can safely say that any such connections can only be bogus (the mentioning of quantum mechanics or the latest flavor of the month from science in connection with any religious or pseudo-religious movement should be a Big Red Flag to anyone, really, saying “nonsense ahead: watch out!”). At best what you have is an interesting metaphor, but certainly not even the tiniest particle of proof.
  • The “scientific studies” quoted by the TM movement are not scientific as they typically lack proper controls and are conducted by people who support the movement. They are also mostly funded by the movement. Actual studies show “the following actual effects from TM, especially from its long-term practice or from its more intense daily use, called rounding: 1. No specific or broad scale special benefits. 2. Partially impaired mental faculties. 3. Depersonalization. 4. Loss of self-determination and motivation. 5. A high percentage of psychological disorders. 6. Adverse effects in social relationships. 7. Aggravation of pre-existing mental illness.” Teachers of TM usually claim such side effects are “unstressing” as your body learns to relax, and that it will pass, but the previous link indicates that in fact advanced meditators suffer even more from such effects.
  • There are reports of students being charged big sums of money to learn the technique, but I have to say I was not charged more than about £20 (I don’t remember the exact sum but it was of that order).
  • For what it’s worth, The Beatles left the TM movement after a short time, saying the Maharishi was “addicted to cash”. They also suspected he fancied Mia Farrow, but I suppose you can’t blame him for that.

I am somewhat sceptical of the benefits of TM myself since it didn’t work for me, indeed I found it began to trigger migraines after a year or so of regular meditation, but in case you would like to learn how to do it despite the above caveats, here is the method, step-by-step.

  • Before you start, you will need a ‘mantra,’ a short word or phrase that you will silently repeat in your mind continually during the meditation. It is best if the mantra is meaningless (at least, in your language, so you don’t understand it) but beyond that it doesn’t apparently matter.  Samples could be any one of: “ing,” “im,” “inga,” “ima,” “aying,” “ayinga,” “ayima,” or one you might make up yourself. Some are available online on some sceptic sites: Mantra List 1. Mantra List 2. Note that the TM movement claim that mantras are personal and should be kept secret or the don’t work, but if you look at those lists you will see that they are systematic rather than personal, varying according to the meditator’s sex, age, and which year it happened to be that your teacher was trained.
  • Begin by sitting comfortably with your back upright if possible. You can use one of the traditional ‘lotus’ or cross-legged postures or just sit on a chair; it doesn’t matter as long as the position is comfortable enough not to be a distraction. It is best if the back is upright to help you to stay awake!
  • Sit quietly for a couple of minutes, letting yourself relax.
  • Gently, begin repeating your mantra in your mind, at a moderate rate, with a short pause between each repetition of maybe a second (basically, just repeat it, silently, at a natural and comfortable rate).
  • Every time you are distracted and realise you have forgotten to focus, bring your mind back to repeating the mantra.
  • Try to make the repetition effortless: it is supposed to be a relaxation exercise so don’t frown or concentrate hard. After a time (and practise), repeating the mantra will become almost automatic. Also, it does not have to be mentally pronounced accurately, or distinctly: while you should do this at first to ingrain the habit of mentally chanting it into your mind, over time, the mantra can blur and weaken and become little more than a gentle mental buzz. It can even fade out altogether and your mind can settle into total silence, which is indeed the ideal state, ultimately. Don’t hurry to reach this state: it could take days, weeks, months or years.
  • At the end of 20 minutes, sit quietly with your eyes closed for 2-5 minutes, returning to normal consciousness slowly.
  • Slowly open your eyes.