Imagine a pill that is proven to reduce the risk of heart attacks, stroke and death by 49%; significantly reduce blood pressure, rates of anxiety/depression, and substance abuse; statistically improve academic performance, creativity, and the length/quality of life. Additionally, this pill has no side effects, is available to anyone at any time, and is free of charge. Fortunately for us, this pill does exist. This wonder drug is called Transcendental Meditation (TM). TM was founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who developed the practice to be independent of a belief in Hinduism or any other religion. There are over 350 peer-reviewed publications investigating the effectiveness of TM on reducing stress related disorders, improving cognitive function, lowering risk of cardiovascular events, and leading a higher quality of life. The research behind TM is so robust that the American Heart Association issued a scientific statement specifically endorsing TM as “the only meditation technique that has been shown to lower blood pressure and that this reduction in blood pressure has been associated with substantially reduced rates of death, heart attack, and stroke”. The scientific statement goes on to state that as an additional advantage, TM may provide a wide range of health and psychological benefits beyond blood pressure and cardiovascular risk reduction.
Given all of the documented benefits, why aren’t all physicians practicing and recommending TM? If TM were in a pill form, it would create a billion dollar industry with pharmaceutical sales reps visiting every physician practice. In our world of instant gratification with minimal effort, practicing TM takes more work than swallowing a pill. Moreover, meditation still has a religious connotation as a practice rooted in Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Even with these challenges, TM is practiced by millions of people world-wide including many famous celebrities such as Howard Stern, Ellen DeGeneres, and David Lynch.
As I struggled to balance competing roles as a father of four children, husband, son/brother, and physician executive, I have known that meditation would probably be good for me. I have tried to meditate off and on for many years with little success. I have attempted different techniques of mindful focus on my body and breath but have struggled to achieve the desired state of stillness or quiet in my mind. All of that changed with TM. The use of a mantra for me was the key to finding the “calm” I was after. Rather than focus or concentrate on breath or a part of the body, simply returning to and repeating the mantra allowed me to go deeper into a relaxed state. I cannot overemphasize how much my TM practice has helped me at work. In an environment with constant demands on my time and difficult interactions with others, I have found that TM makes me less aggressive, more empathetic, less stressed and generally better able to live each day according to my “best” self. This is not without effort. My morning meditation usually takes place in my car before I head upstairs to my office. I enter the office feeling (knowing) that one of the most important tasks of my day is already complete. On the weekends, I will often meditate in my car at sporting events for my children. During many trips to baseball tournaments out of town, I would welcome the early arrival time for warmups as an opportunity to meditate. This was especially useful for the baseball season given my heightened anxiety and stress about my son’s performance and playing time/position.
One aspect of TM that I have not been able to consistently complete is the afternoon/early evening meditation session. I will often do an abbreviated 10 min session as I am putting my youngest to sleep but this is not the same deep experience as the morning practice. It is all a process – I am a more consistent meditator than I was two years ago and hopefully will continue to improve in my practice. One idea that has been helpful for me is to let go of any expectations or results when I meditate. During some sessions, I will enter such a peaceful stillness with little effort and other times will struggle to keep returning to the mantra. Both types of experiences are useful. I can’t predict whether the restless session may, in fact, be more beneficial precisely because my mind appears to be so unsettled at that time. The key with meditation, like any other rewarding endeavor, is deliberate practice. Meditating consistently even when you have other things that you could be doing is critical.
Another interesting experience I have had while meditating is the feeling of refueling myself similar to the filling up of a gas tank in a car. I feel a rush of solitude float throughout my body as tension is replaced by calm. I lose tactical sensation of my hands and feet. I am floating above my body as it is being recharged completely. It is a unique and rewarding experience. I believe with all of my heart that our schools, workplace, society and world would be greatly improved if everyone started their day with meditation. Most of our family is trained in TM and I can’t begin to express the feeling I have when I see one of my kids meditate. While their practice is often prompted by me and is far from a daily occurrence, the fact that they know how to meditate and have experience in quieting the mind is a skill that they can carry with them throughout their lives. A significant amount of research on the benefits of meditation in schools is currently being conducted and the results are astounding. Improved academic performance, reduced behavioral problems, increased resilience and lower anxiety/stress have all been associated with meditation programs worldwide. Of course some of these are called Quiet Time or something other than meditation to ensure the secular nature of the practice. Regardless of the name of the program, teaching kids to be able to go inward to find a place of calmness and acceptance rather than looking externally to friends, alcohol or drugs is a tremendous achievement.
There are many useful websites, classes and books on how to meditate. For me TM has worked well but I know several other people who practice mindful meditation or loving-kindness meditation with great success. In a world filled with constant stimuli, effective and efficient methods of relaxation are difficult to find. Being able to bathe one’s mind in stillness each day may be one of the greatest returns on investment ever known to man. Whatever form ultimately works for you, I urge you to begin experimenting today. It is well worth the effort to become addicted to this wonder drug!