Getting Started with a Meditation Practice
After 30 years of travelling the world and exploring many different types of yoga and meditation and even becoming a qualified Iyengar Yoga Teacher myself, I discovered Transcendental Meditation (TM). I now realise that all the other practices I have explored along the way have been in preparation for TM. This effortless technique is the most profound I have come across to date; yet, it is so easy that anyone can do it. Before you can get started with establishing a daily practice, certain common myths about meditation need to be dispelled:
Myth 1: A ‘Good’ Meditation is One in which We Manage to Control Our Thoughts
In TM, there are no good or bad meditations. As long as we sit down with the intention to think the mantra innocently, whatever happens next is useful. When new students share that they have had a good meditation, they usually mean that they have had a deep or pleasant meditation and when they complain that they have had a bad meditation, they usually mean that they have had a shallow or less pleasant meditation in which they have experienced lots of thoughts. As thoughts are a recognised and valued part of TM, we cannot have too many thoughts when we meditate. It is our resistance to thoughts during meditation that make them so unpleasant for us. We think we are not meditating properly. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought TM to the West from India almost 60 years ago, used to say, “every thought is a blessing,” because thoughts are a sign that stresses in the body are being released. Both deep and shallow meditations are equally valued as the deep ones allow the release of deep-rooted stresses in our bodies and the shallow ones indicate that those stresses are coming to the surface, creating physical activity which stimulates thoughts. Thus, bliss at the silent depth of the mind and thoughts on the surface resulting from stress release are two sides of the same coin.
As thoughts are a recognised and valued part of TM, we cannot have too many thoughts when we meditate
Perhaps so many people hold this misconception that we must control our thoughts when we meditate because many other techniques advocate mind-control. Most concentration techniques have been developed by monks who live reclusive lives, unlike anyone reading this blog; i.e., anyone who is engaged in daily activity in an increasingly stimulating world. Concentration techniques are used to focus an active mind on a point like a candle, statue or photograph of a guru. In TM, we do not to try to focus or still the mind and whilst we agree that the mind is very active on the surface, we also recognise that ‘the mind as active’ is only half the story: there is also a silent depth to the mind.
The reason the mind is so active, moving from one thought to another, is because the mind is looking for greater happiness. If I look behind many of the thoughts that I have ever had, whether I have been thinking about a new car, job, relationship, or spiritual practice, it is because my mind is looking for greater enjoyment, greater satisfaction, greater happiness. Through practicing TM, I have learned that the thoughts I have during meditation are natural and when I do not resist them, the mind can settle into subtler states which lie beneath the surface. I have experienced, first hand, that whilst it is true that it is the nature of the mind to be very active, it is also the nature of the mind, if given the opportunity, and the right approach, to settle into silence (transcend thought). Therefore, if we want to achieve greater happiness, we do not need to look very far. We simply need to take it easy and innocently; rest our attention on the correct mantra, or meaningless sound; and before we know it, we are experiencing finer levels of thought far more charming than our thoughts at surface level. Finally we reach the silent level of the mind where there is infinite happiness. At first, the process of moving into and out of transcendence might be so fast that we might not even notice it. What we will notice is qualities like calmness and clarity that we carry with us out into activity, which come from regularly dipping into that silence.
Myth 2: Exercise is for the Body, Meditation is for the Mind
When we start practicing TM, we become more sensitive and deeply aware of the mind-body connection. Not only do we experience this symbiotic relationship when we meditate, we also become more sensitive to what our body needs when we are engaged in activity. We spontaneously let go of many patterns that no longer serve us. To explain what is happening beneath the surface to give us these results out in activity, we need to understand certain aspects of our nervous systems, specifically the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
When we start practicing TM, we become more sensitive and deeply aware of the mind body connection.
We can learn a lot from our more primitive ancestors about the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response. They relied on the fight or flight response to survive, being pursued by predators on a regular basis. To prepare them to fight or flee, cortisol, epinephrine and other hormones were emitted, releasing fats and sugars into the blood stream; muscles tense; the heart rate increases; the executive function of the brain, digestion, immune function and other non-urgent systems are all put on hold. All of these automatic functions of the body were essential when there was often real, impending danger. Unfortunately, the fight or flight response is just as active today; e.g., when we feel emotionally challenged by targets we have to hit and the idea that we will lose our jobs if we do not continually perform well at work. However, unlike our ancestors who burned off most of the unhealthy hormones through the activity of fighting or fleeing, in our sedentary jobs, these hormones tend to stick around in our bodies and can cause a toxic overload. Fats and sugars left in the blood stream can clog the arteries and lead to heart disease. The whole body can remain out of balance, causing a range of mental and physical illnesses. Clearly, unhealthy brain function does not help us to perform well at work. And if our digestive and immune systems are not functioning well, we are susceptible to the various illnesses making the rounds; i.e., we will not have healthy bodies to get us to work in the first place!
The good news is that the body holds its own solutions and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our ‘rest and digest’ (sometimes referred to as ‘stay and play’) response that helps bring our body back into balance or ‘homeostasis’ after the shocks of fight or flight. Herbert Benson, M.D., at Harvard Medical school, called this deep rest ‘the relaxation response’ and conducted studies demonstrating how TM was even more effective than his own relaxation technique at eliciting this deeply rested state. In this day and age, as we have forgotten how to rest, homeostasis is becoming more and more elusive. Our ancestors did not have electricity or electronic devices beeping at them all of the time, so when it was dark, it was time to sleep! These days, many of us stay up late watching television or looking at our computers or handheld devices, stimulating our brains, and then wonder why we cannot sleep. When we practice TM and transcend thought, studies show that the breath slows down, oxygen intake decreases and the rest we get is twice as deep as that we get in deep sleep. One concrete example of how TM heals the body, is found in a 2013 study conducted by the American Heart Association, which shows that TM is the only meditation technique to effectively reduce blood pressure. And, all of us who regularly practice TM know from our own personal experience that the longer we practice, the more aware we become of our mind-body connection and of the habits that no longer serve us, so many health improvements happen spontaneously; e.g., our sleep improves as we naturally want to engage less with technology and go to bed earlier. After some time of being attuned to our mind-body connection, there are even studies showing that the ageing process actually reverses! So, whilst it is very true that TM rests the mind and improves brain functioning, it is actually the deep relaxation of the body, elicited by TM, that is key to our obtaining overall holistic health.
When we practice TM and transcend, the rest we get is twice as deep as that we get in deep sleep
Myth 3: You Have to Sit in Cross-legs or other Complicated Yoga Postures to Meditate
Whilst the ‘art of sitting’ is central to many forms of yoga and meditation, sitting in cross-legs or more advanced yoga-postures like lotus pose for long periods of time requires effort and practice. In TM, it is important for the body to be as relaxed as possible, so we sit comfortably. For most people, sitting comfortably will mean sitting in a supportive chair with our feet on the ground, our backs upright and supported and our hands loose in our lap. We preferably do not lie down or sit in chairs or sofas that will swallow us up and make us want to sleep. In TM, the only rule is not to make an effort, so if sitting in cross-legs is more comfortable for us, that is fine too, as long as we are not straining in any way. If the body is comfortable, the mind will have the chance to settle.
Myth 4: You Need Time to Meditate, Time which Most Busy People Do Not Have
The TM technique gives us more time, not less, because we get deep levels of rest when we regularly dip in to reach the silent level of the mind. More oxygen floods the whole of the brain; the executive function of the brain, or pre-frontal cortex, works more effectively; and the right and left hemispheres of the brain work together, so that we have more energy and creativity. To learn more about left hemisphere dominance and the benefit of synchronising the hemispheres, watch Harvard trained scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, on TED talks who has had first-hand experience of how the left and right hemispheres work. When our brain works in concert, the old adage ‘less is more’ becomes a reality and we can concentrate, prioritise tasks and become more efficient, effective and productive throughout our day.
Myth 5: You Can Learn TM from a Book or Online
Whilst TM is very simple, it is also very subtle and delicate and, therefore, cannot be learned effectively from a book, DVD or online. Support and guidance for life is available to every single TM student to ensure they have:
- the correct mantra;
- an understanding of how to use their mantra; and
- an understanding of how to interpret correctly the experiences they have during meditation.
The continued effectiveness of the technique depends on the skilled instruction of a professionally qualified teacher who has meditated for many years and who has undertaken an extensive and rigorous training programme. As explained above, TM is different from other forms of meditation in that it is about releasing stress and bringing about a mind-body balance or holistic health. Meditators who are releasing stress and are uncomfortable need the support of a teacher, so that adjustments can be made. Any attempt to take a shortcut to an understanding of TM will almost certainly end in disappointment because the simplicity of ‘doing nothing’ is contrary to everything else we ‘do’ in our lives and is very easily misunderstood.
Because the simplicity of ‘doing nothing’ is contrary to everything else we ‘do’ in our lives, it’s very easily misunderstood.
Once all these myths have been dispelled, perhaps you feel ready to give meditation a go? Those of us who have become daily TM practitioners already have had our lives transformed. Personally, I can say that it carried me through the most difficult period of my life. What do you have to lose?
Written by Margaret E O’Grady, Meditation Trust Teacher:
Meditation has been an essential part of Maggie’s daily practice for 12 years and has anchored her during the most difficult time of her life, the passing of her husband to whom she had been connected for 20 years. She participated in the Meditation Trust’s Teacher Training Course in France and holds courses in Crouch End, Muswell Hill, Hampstead, Highgate and Oxford. Maggie is also a Mum, Executive Coach, Facilitator & Iyengar Yoga Teacher. She sees the yogic path as a journey full of wonder and delight, and this enthusiasm is palpable in her teaching style.
The Meditation Trust has no connection to any other organisation.