The Difference Between Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation

The Difference Between Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation

Mindfulness and Transcendence – Yoga’s dynamic duo

Few could have failed to notice the mindfulness revolution which has swept the UK and other countries over the last 10 years – just google ‘mindfulness’ and you will be swamped with a wealth of information and articles. This practice of ‘present moment awareness’ ranges from 10 day Buddhist retreat courses, to less austere and challenging practices during local drop in sessions, or even an app to download at your convenience. This accessibility for both novices and potential teachers has introduced millions to the concept of meditation.

But not all meditations are the same. As a clinical psychologist and also a teacher of both mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation (TM) for the Meditation Trust, I have been approached by an increasing number of people wanting to know the difference between mindfulness and transcendence. Which technique should they learn in the first instance? Having learned mindfulness, will moving on to TM give them that depth or progression they are seeking? Or having learned TM, would they still benefit from learning mindfulness? What is the difference?

These questions can be answered by looking to science – both modern and ancient– in the form of Psychology and Yoga (a complete understanding of life and how to live it in its fullness, which includes the physical aspect of asana, or postures). By looking at the practices’ origins, processes, effect on the mind, body, and activity, and also how they fit into our modern way of living, we can start to understand what each technique can offer us.

Mindfulness, in current popular culture, encourages the cultivation of nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness both during the practice and in everyday life.

Mindfulness – the first stage of meditation – emerges in Modern Psychology

Mindfulness is not new – it has been around for thousands of years in the Yoga tradition, although it is more commonly recognised for its association with Buddhism which itself sprang from Yoga. But its sudden rise in popularity and move into the mainstream can be attributed to its ease of integration with popular therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as used in modern psychology.

CBT has been the most researched and widely available psychological therapy for many years, for reducing symptoms of everything from mild anxiety to schizophrenia, and has even been used in the business world to enhance success. A key aspect involves identifying our faulty thinking (with the use of a thought diary) and starting to challenge those thoughts and associated beliefs to create a shift in unhelpful emotions and behaviours.

Some years ago when psychologists were researching CBT, they came across Jon Kabat Zinn who described his use of Buddhist-derived mindfulness in his pain clinic in the USA as:
‘paying attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally, in the present moment’. With some exploration of this ancient technique they came to the conclusion that it is not the challenging of thought content in CBT which made it effective, but the changing of our relationship with the thoughts, i.e. a distancing which came from the process of recording. Mindfulness clearly had something significant to add to CBT in this respect, and so from here they started to be combined as a new programme – Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Mindfulness on its own then very quickly moved into the mainstream, and so started the mindfulness revolution.

Mindfulness, in current popular culture, encourages the cultivation of nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness both during the practice and in everyday life. By repeatedly returning our conscious awareness to the immediate present (e.g. the breath, body, an activity or object) we are able to observe anxious or depressive thought patterns, and empower ourselves to make conscious choices rather than being mindlessly controlled by them, and led into habitual negative behaviour. It also helps us to embrace whatever our current experience is (including emotional or physical pain) rather than trying to escape or get into a struggle and thereby amplify it.

The Difference Between Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation

The science of Psychology has made many great advances in the last 100 years or so to understand and alleviate our suffering.

The mind-body connection – another aspect of Yoga

Modern psychology has also in the last decade or so begun to recognise the role of the body in creating psychological symptoms and the limitations of addressing this on the thinking level only. A new area of approach known as somatic psychology attempts to influence mental states through treatment of the body. A leader in this field in its application to trauma, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, has noticed how ‘some experiences imprint themselves in the body, beyond where language can reach’.

He also advocates as therapy the preparatory aspects of Yoga in the form of postures as well as mindfulness, but another prominent psychiatrist, Dr Norman Rosenthal, in his book ‘Transcendence – healing and transformation through Transcendental Meditation’ recognises that Yoga has a lot more to say about getting to the root cause of all life’s problems.

The experiences which imprint themselves in the body and affect the mind, recognised by these psychiatrists, were called by the Yoga tradition thousands of years ago samskara (‘scars’ or impressions, the effect of karma or activity), and are what we now refer to as ‘stress’. Any overload of experience eliciting the ‘fight/flight’ or ‘stress response’ which the body has not had the opportunity to recover from, may leave a stress or impression trapped in the body in the form of distorted memories in the cells – it does not have to be a recognisable ‘traumatic experience’ – in fact we may often be unaware of this process going on!

The samskara, or stress, contains a quality of the original event which will cause us to respond to certain triggers associated with the stress response. We each have thousands of these automatic emotional and behavioural responses. We can decide intellectually that we will not have that reaction anymore, but good intentions are not enough. Our lives are ruled by this physiological stress which can embed our negative behaviours by overriding our intelligence and best intentions to change them.

The science of Psychology has made many great advances in the last 100 years or so to understand and alleviate our suffering. We have explored what would appear to be all levels of the mind from the thought filled conscious level to the subconscious, and more recently enhanced our understanding with practices such as mindfulness and physical postures from the ancient Yoga tradition. We have even started to appreciate the significance of the mind-body connection.

Whilst our ability to change habits or release impressions through talking and thinking is limited, mindfulness and Yoga’s physical postures have started to add greater power to this process. But even they are only the first stage of the process of Yoga, which in its entirety provides the antidote to stress in the body.

Contrary to popular understanding, Yoga does not just mean a set of physical postures for exercise, but is in fact a whole body of knowledge meaning ‘integration of life’.

Transcendence – the second stage of meditation and the fulfillment of Psychology

The missing knowledge which completes modern psychology’s quest for the solution to society’s suffering is again supplied by the Yoga tradition. With its complete understanding of the relationship between body, mind and consciousness, it provides one complete process for resolving all the problems of life through the second stage of meditation known as transcendence (going beyond the thinking process). Although this possibility was glimpsed by Maslow and Jung in the twentieth century, the discipline of modern psychology has so far failed to achieve any developments of their insights. This is not surprising, given that both the Yoga and Buddhist traditions have, through misunderstanding, themselves neglected this deeper, more powerful knowledge.

Contrary to popular understanding, Yoga does not just mean a set of physical postures for exercise, but is in fact a whole body of knowledge meaning ‘integration of life’. In this process there are many stages, and the second stage of meditation itself is preceded and nourished by the first stage, Asana (Yoga postures) and Pranayama (breathing techniques). Not only do these produce fitness and improvements in physical and mental health, but, most importantly, by full and innocent attention on first body and then breath, a state of Pratyahara (mindfulness), movement of attention inwards, away from sensory experience, is created.

The second stage of meditation that then follows to begin the completion of the Yoga process of full knowledge and integration of life (silence and activity joined together) is known as transcendence (going beyond the thinking process to the source of thought). If applied correctly, this is a simple, effortless and automatic continuation of the flow of attention beyond mindfulness (the present moment) 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 (TM).

Superficially the techniques of TM and mindfulness may appear similar, but in fact they are actually quite different. Rather than returning the attention to an awareness of ‘what is’ (via the breath, body or other objects as in mindfulness) it is the use of a specific mantra, or sound, in TM which acts as the most effective vehicle for transcending. This process liberates rather than trains the mind, allowing it to settle effortlessly into a silence more profound than the present moment.

It may be helpful for our understanding of transcendence to consider an analogy from Yoga that the mind is like an ocean. We are all very familiar with our active minds being thought -filled and turbulent, like the rough waves on the surface of the ocean. Jon Kabat-Zinn likens mindfulness to surfing – maintaining our awareness in a flow with the waves.

But Yoga also teaches that the surface waves that we can see are not the entire ocean. If like a submarine, rather than a surfer, we dive down below the surface, not engaging with the waves at all, we see that the turbulence becomes more and more settled until ultimately we reach the ocean’s silent bed. Similarly we all have a silent depth to our minds, the source of thought, energy and creativity, from which we have become disconnected due to stress in the body. Fortunately this problem is very easily solved.

When the mind, like a submarine, transcends, settling down in its spontaneous, innocent search for peace and happiness, it finds a unique state of ‘restful alertness’ (as shown by specific effects in the brain during meditation). The body automatically responds by settling down (because of the mind-body connection), enabling a profound level of rest to occur (even deeper than our rest during sleep) and the body is able to let go of even its deepest stresses.

The Difference Between Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation

Superficially the techniques of TM and mindfulness may appear similar, but in fact they are actually quite different.

Mindfulness is also one effect of Transcendence

As stress is gradually released from the body, an infinite range of mental and physical benefits are noticed, including changes in our emotional responses to life. Even freedom from anger can become a reality, for example, as we are no longer bound by the impressions of past experience (karma). This liberation to behave differently is actually a liberation of present moment awareness. Present moment awareness is the gift of a stress free nervous system – we can respond to the actual demand being placed on us in the present moment rather than being forced into reactions pre fabricated by our stress. So when we rid ourselves of the vast majority of these stresses, we’re at liberty to actually read the present moment. And the infinite silence, starts to support all of our activity on the surface, free of restrictions and with a greater range of choices for action.

This 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). And so practices such as mindful eating, which is recommended as a practice both in modern psychology’s mindfulness programmes, and by the ancient practice of Ayurveda which includes TM, tend to become spontaneous and automatic effects.

The Difference Between Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation

Many people come to learn Transcendental Meditation (TM) having already learned mindfulness because they wish to complete the yoga process, deepen their practice, and benefit in all areas of life from this most effective and easy method of transcendence.

So mindfulness or Transcendence?

As we have seen, mindfulness and transcendence are two important stages of the Yoga process. They involve different techniques and processes (as evidenced by different effects in the brain) and are working on two different but complimentary and mutually enhancing levels.

Many people come to learn Transcendental Meditation (TM) having already learned mindfulness because they wish to complete the yoga process, deepen their practice, and benefit in all areas of life from this most effective and easy method of transcendence.

Whilst regular transcendence produces an automatic and natural result of increased mindfulness (by liberating rather than training the mind), some people do choose to continue some form of mindfulness practice in their daily lives, e.g. walking mindfully; to approach its development from that level as well.

Also, after learning TM students are encouraged to begin incorporating a particular set of Yoga asanas (mindful stretching), and pranayama (mindful breathing) into their daily program of TM to enhance the process.

So, whilst these two stages of Yoga can be practised separately, they are most usefully practised together, one as preparation for the other, and each beautifully enhancing the effects of the other.

This article was written by Dr Gemma Beckley, Clinical Psychologist and teacher of Transcendental Meditation.

Comments
  • John
    The problem is that TM was deceptive. It turns out that nobody can really levitate, and there were only 16 bMantras given out by age,.OF course the technique works, but it is easily practiced without spending thousands of dollars.
  • James Barrow
    Dear Gemma Thank you so much for this article. I've been meditating since 1980 and doing TM Siddhis since 1983. I remember when the TM organisation was an inaccessible laughing stock. It is so refreshing to see your straightforward, factual presentations on this site. Congratulations.In your answer to Mandy, above, you site research on some of the measurable neurological effects of TM. Do you know of any similar research that has looked at the effects of TM - and especially of the TM Siddhis - on the endocrine system? My subjective experience suggests the intense bliss and energising effects of the siddhis is in some way related to (short term?) hormonal changes. Increased endorphins perhaps, or changes in serotonin levels? I am not a medical expert at all, just interested in any research out there you may be able to point to.Thank you again for this great website and organisation. I was planning on being a TM teacher at one point but was put off by the weirdness an d exclusivity. It is so great to see this fantastic technique being made available to all in such a straightforward manner. Thank you!
  • Eileen B
    I'd say, forget the analysis and just enjoy the beauty of TM experience.
  • Carwyn Sheavills
    Hi - very good article and appreciate the honesty. I practice the TM Sidhis Programme and unfortunately too often other forms of meditation are downplayed with the TM movement. I try to practice mindfulness as well and find that this enhances my TM practice. Thanks
  • Gemma Beckley
    Hi Mandy,yes it is the case that we find increased mindfulness spontaneously from regular transcending, because a lack of mindfulness, or present moment awareness is due to stress in the body. You might be interested in this piece of research which talks more about this: https://american.edu/cas/psychology/clinical-research/upload/article-Meditation-Tanner-Haaga-2.pdfRegarding the specific effects on the brain I was referring to: 1) with mindfulness we see Theta 2 brain waves in the front of the brain. and the Anterior cingulate gyrus (‘spotlight of awareness’) is most active. This reflects the technique of all experiences being allowed to pass through awareness without manipulation or control. 2) In Transcendental Meditation we see a reflection of the state of ‘restful alertness’ which are qualities of the 4th state of consciousness (transcendental or pure consciousness) – we see Alpha 1 brain waves and increased oxygen permeating the whole brain, and increased blood flow to the front while the core is more quiet. I am not a neuroscientist, but hopefully that goes some way to answer your question!Best wishes, Gemma
  • Gemma Beckley
    Hi Katia,yes, I would agree with what you say – with TM we are ‘transcending’, or ‘going beyond’the level of thought, and that is a completely natural and spontaneous process – we can spontaneously do this in all sorts of situations such as in sports (‘the zone’), or watching a sunset; but we have forgotten the ability to do this regularly. With the right technique it occurs naturally, systematically, and regularly and we start to integrate this state and all its qualities into our every day activity.. As we imply in the article, mindfulness and transcendence and two stages of the yoga process which complement each other, so we see mindfulness really as a first stage (as you have found, a very useful first stage with many many benefits). Many people learn TM having already practiced mindfulness techniques. And of course as we said, increased mindfulness is just one of the many natural benefits of transcendence.Best wishes, Gemma
  • Katia
    I have tried mindfulness and found it useful, having recently reconnected with it, but TM seems to be a deeper and more natural process?
  • Mandy Gaze
    Hi - I'm a little curious about the comment youmake about the different effects in the brain between mindfulness and transcendence - would you be up for clarifying a little , going into a little more detail with the brain science for that .My understanding is that the medial prefrontal cortex gets to work and is strengthened in mindfulness, through tracking interoceptive messages - are you saying here that transcendence allows mindfulness to flourish , almost as a byproduct ? My interest stems from the fact that I work as a trauma therapist and as you say mindfulness has become very popular and is routinely taught as a skill which can be applied for the aim of re regulating the autonomic nervous system . I've been TM meditating for many years and I get what you write about here regarding the benefits of TM and would love to understand more about this . Thankyou

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