Ever wondered how A-listers manage to appear so Zen despite the stressful lives they lead? Forget spa treatments, it’s all down to finding inner peace. Hordes of celebrities, including Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman, have praised the transformative effect of transcendental meditation (TM), a technique brought to the West in the 1960s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a spiritual guru who travelled the world teaching people meditation and whose students famously included the Beatles.
The movement attracted millions of fans, but it also sparked controversy. While Maharishi had stated that his aim was to create world peace through meditation, this humble quest grew into a multi-national organisation run like a business empire, and critics alleged that it in some ways resembled a cult.
Today, TM continues to enjoy popularity among celebrities as well as busy professionals, who describe the technique as an effortless form of stress relief and a way to gain greater clarity, wellbeing and personal development.
I arrived at a community centre in Pimlico one cold evening in February curious to learn more about TM. Around ten of us had signed up for the free introductory course presentation; most seemed to be professionals in their thirties. Welcomed by a lady who introduced herself as a TM teacher and asked us what had brought us there, a few people explained they had tried other forms of meditation in the past, others were new to it but thought it might help them manage their busy lives. “I work long hours in the City,” a man said, “and a friend in the US recommended TM to help deal with the stress.”
The teacher explained the benefits of TM—in what was certainly a hard sell. TM transforms lives, she said, by releasing any pain or stress we may be holding on to. She drew a graph to illustrate how using a meaningless mantra helps the mind transcend thought until it reaches a state of pure consciousness. This state of “deep rest” allows the body to heal itself and ultimately leads to enlightenment, she explained. There seemed no end to the wonders of TM. For example, did we know that large-scale group meditations help lower the level of crime and violence in the world? This is all scientifically proven, she added. I noticed I wasn’t the only one shifting uncomfortably in my seat.
Towards the end of the hour-and-a-half talk, a couple of people voiced their scepticism, and one or two made a beeline for the exit. Would I have done the same had I not committed to writing this review? I’m not sure. My gut feeling was that what I heard was essentially marketing spiel involving a hefty dose of pseudoscience and anecdotal evidence. Yet I was prepared to believe that there is genuine merit to TM, like all forms of meditation.
So off I went to buy some fruit, a bunch of flowers and a white handkerchief. Before you ask, these were needed for the initiation ceremony, during which I would be given my personal mantra, which must be kept private. This was a vital point. My course mates and I had to sign a document stating we would never reveal our mantra or the details of how to use it to anyone. According to the Maharishi Foundation, this is to ensure that the technique is taught only in unadulterated form by qualified teachers. Personally, I think it may have something to do with protecting the organisation’s business interests as well.
The first half of the four-day course took place at the teacher’s own home in northwest London. She saw us individually for the initiation ceremony, which involved Sanskrit chanting and kneeling before pictures of Maharishi and his own guru, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, paying respect to their wisdom. I then sat down with the teacher and practised my mantra before she left me to meditate on my own. I was surprised by how sleepy I felt and kept nodding off.
The following three days we met for group sessions, which began by reviewing the progress of our meditation, now that we had started our twice-daily routine of twenty minutes of TM in the morning and another twenty minutes in the afternoon. Not only I found fitting these commitments into a busy schedule something of a challenge, but our teacher explained that we simply had to find a way.
Like everything else about TM, the details of when and how to meditate were incredibly prescriptive. We were not allowed to set an alarm to alert us to when the 20 minutes were up, but told we must glance at our watches instead. “But that means having to open our eyes during meditation, and that kind of interrupts the flow,” a girl pointed out. Could we really not set an alarm? No, we couldn’t. I increasingly noticed that the framework around TM seemed quite rigid.
It was also difficult not to notice how references to the “advanced” programmes were woven into the teaching, and on the last day of the course the teacher was back in hard-sell mode, handing out brochures for residential retreats and explaining that if we wanted to fast-track our progress, we really ought to sign up for one within the next six months. The first advanced programme is taught in three stages and will set you back £3,200 in total—but before you baulk at the expense, consider that you’ll learn the art of yogic flying. This technique helps clear the mind, according to the Maharishi Foundation. Personally I’m not convinced, but look up “yogic flying” on YouTube and make up your own mind.
While I enjoyed the routine of sitting down and closing my eyes in a quiet place twice a day, and found it particularly helpful just before an important meeting, I wouldn’t say it had much of an effect beyond providing a welcome breather from my sometimes hectic life. My fellow meditators seemed to be having either profoundly deep and meaningful experiences (“I think I’m beginning to really transcend,” one guy revealed) or reacting rather badly to what was in effect a mild self-induced trance. Headaches, nausea and having trouble concentrating the rest of the day were some of the complaints.
I later found out that critics argue that too much TM (for instance hours of it during retreats) can actually lead to serious psychological side effects, such as anxiety, nervous breakdowns, chronic dissociation (feeling constantly spaced out) and, in extreme cases, depersonalisation (a mental disorder that can affect sect members).
Taking the TM course was certainly an enlightening experience, albeit not in the sense intended. It also served as a reminder of the importance of critical thinking, trusting your gut instinct and doing independent research before buying into something. Will I keep meditating? I think I’ll opt for a few moments of mindfulness when needed.