How is Transcendental Meditation Different?
A common mistake made by the casual observer is to think that all meditation is basically the same. It is now clearly shown by scientific research that the various techniques of meditation differ not only in the actual mental process being used, but also in the very different effects that have been measured in the brain and their effect on our lives.
In essence, there is one fundamental difference between TM and other approaches:
Most meditation aims to control or train the mind by a way of thinking.
Transcendence, on the other hand, involves no concentration, control, or training. (It is counter-productive to try to force the mind to go somewhere it already wants to go naturally!)
TM allows the mind to go beyond surface level thinking towards silence (the source of thought) and concentration, focus and control as well as freedom and creativity are the spontaneous results.
A recent review of research has suggested three main categories of meditation:
1. Focused Attention or concentration techniques (e.g. Zen, Qi gong, Vipassana) require effort to sustain controlled attention on an object, and therefore are characterised by high frequency activity in the front and core of the brain.
2. Open Monitoring includes mindfulness-based techniques, in which all experiences are allowed to pass through awareness without manipulation or control, but the mind is generally being trained to return to the present moment by using an object, breath, or body as an anchor. These are characterised by theta activity primarily in the front of the brain. For more about how TM differs from Mindfulness, please see below…
3. Automatic Self-Transcending (AST) involves neither concentration nor training the mind. ‘Automatic’ means innocence is the key here. Evaluation, control or manipulation will leave you caught up in thinking and prevent transcending. ‘AST’ includes TM, and the occasional expert in other techniques. It describes any technique which transcends (goes beyond) the steps of the meditation practice itself. Alpha brain waves (characteristic of reduced mental activity and relaxation) permeate the whole brain, which receives more oxygen. Increased blood flow to the front (which is coordinating activity) while the core of the brain is more quiet, indicates alertness in the midst of deep rest, the state of transcendental or pure consciousness (pure silence!).
So is Transcendental Meditation the best?
Each meditation technique has its own benefits. The first two categories use the conscious, surface level of the mind, training the mind to produce specific outcomes. TM, however, is the most effective technique for transcending, which means ‘going beyond’ this relatively surface level of thought to experience its source. From here we spontaneously return to activity with the dynamic power of nature’s silent, restful alertness which then supports all our thought, speech and action (experienced briefly as the “zone” in sport) and thereby produce a potentially much greater range of mental, physical and spiritual benefits.
Meta-analyses (statistical analysis of multiple research studies) have found that TM is more effective than other meditation or relaxation techniques in producing a range of results. Examples include:
- Reducing anxiety (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1989)
- Increasing self actualisation (Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 1991)
- Decreasing blood pressure (e.g. Current Hypertension Reports, 2007)
- Reducing addiction (drug, alcohol and cigarette use) (Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 1994)
The purpose of mindfulness, deriving from Buddhist traditions, is gently training the mind to be in the present moment. Whilst superficially appearing similar, TM and mindfulness are actually quite different. Rather than returning the attention to the breath, body or other objects, it is the use of a specific mantra, or sound, in TM (see transcendental meditation mantras) which liberates rather than trains the mind, allowing it to settle effortlessly into a silence more profound than the present moment.
Increased mindfulness is just one of the many spontaneous effects of TM, as indicated by research: A 3-month randomised controlled trial found that those practising TM reported significantly greater increases in mindfulness than waitlist participants (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2009).
The full practice of meditation in the Yoga tradition was prevalent in India before and during the life of the Buddha. In this practice, the meditation itself is preceded and nourished by mindfulness in the form of Asana (yoga postures) and Pranayama (breathing techniques) when, most importantly, attention on first body and then breath create a state of Pratyahara, movement of attention inwards, away from the world’s distractions.
The practice of meditation that follows is then, if properly applied, a simple, effortless and automatic continuation of the flow of attention towards peaceful, blissful silence, like a river flowing spontaneously towards the ocean. This understanding of effortless meditation was revived in India in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as transcendental meditation.
“I have studied or taught many different systems of meditation; with breathing, counting, visualisation, use of chanting and gongs, choosing one’s own English language mantra etc. It was only when I learnt TM with [The Trust] that I have finally discovered the true benefits.”
John Davis: Former Vice-Chairman and Trustee of the British Wheel of Yoga