Dr Gemma Beckley is a director and teacher with The Meditation Trust, a British charity working to make Transcendental Meditation (TM) — which originated in India and gained fame in the West after celebrities like The Beatles tried it and said it was transformative — accessible to more people, so that they can achieve the peace and harmony they desire.
The main reason people come to the trust is to deal with high levels of anxiety they’re suffering from, she says, but unlike with other disciplines, including yoga, it’s not possible to learn TM online. Dr Beckley, who is a clinical psychologist, discussed the appeal of TM with Furney Times, described how its done and its effects and talks about how many of us have become more mindful during the pandemic.
By William J. Furney
My first question is very simple, and it’s one you post on your website: Why meditate?
The body of knowledge of yoga tells us that the mind being established in silence, or transcendence, is the basis for effective activity in life. And it’s true.
We live in an age where stress is an epidemic. The feeling of pressure, strain, fatigue and the knock-on negative effects on our mental health, physical health and wellbeing are widespread.
More than 650 scientific research studies on Transcendental Meditation have shown significant positive results across a whole range of problems, and millions of people practising Transcendental Meditation around the world testify to its wide-ranging benefits.
These include alleviation of anxiety, depression, addiction, insomnia, migraine, PTSD, fatigue, IBS; also normalisation of blood pressure and weight, significant improvements in heart health, and much more. It’s very enjoyable to practice, can be done anywhere, and only takes 20 minutes twice a day. Why would you not?
What’s the big difference between usual meditation, where you might be focusing on your breath or an object, and transcendental meditation?
The word “meditation” is a very generic word. There are many different forms of meditation, and all have different processes, effects and outcomes. The type that you describe has become usual, because of online accessibility, but transcendence is a very natural experience which should be usual to everyone.
By studying all the results of all the different techniques, two researchers in recent years came up with three main categories to explain the differences. Transcendental Meditation was placed almost uniquely in a third category called Automatic Self-Transcending (AST), which describes any technique which transcends, or goes beyond, the steps of the meditation practice itself.
TM is the most effective technique at allowing the mind to transcend, or settle into silence. Unlike other techniques, it 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. 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.
Lots of Hollywood stars swear by transcendental meditation, saying it changed their lives and makes them feel great. Is it possible that transcendental meditation is elitist or elusive to the ordinary person?
Millions of ordinary — and extraordinary — people around the world, from all walks of life, races, religions, backgrounds and socioeconomic status, also swear by Transcendental Meditation, say it’s changed their lives and makes them feel great.
Celebrities just have a bigger platform to shout from and are more visible. And I think it’s great that many celebrities speak up and spread the word, as it inspires many of their fans. The Meditation Trust was established as a UK charity in 1999 to make sure that TM continued to be accessible and affordable for all — so whilst we teach celebrities and those on higher incomes, we never turn anyone away due to inability to pay. So I see no reason for it to feel elusive to the ordinary person, and the many thousands in our meditating community will testify to that.
The real purpose of meditation is not actively trying to quieten the mind or the body.Dr Gemma Beckley
During the high-stress times we’ve been living through this past more than one year when many of us were locked down due to coronavirus, people started doing yoga and meditation, because they suddenly had the time for it, and videos for both are freely available online. But there don’t seem to be any YouTube videos for transcendental meditation — that I’m aware of anyway — and it seems a kind of closed world where you have to pay big money for access. Is this true?
You may find some teachers or organisations charging higher fees but, as I said, The Meditation Trust was established as a UK charity in 1999 to make sure that TM continued to be accessible and affordable for all. So whilst we teach celebrities and those on higher incomes, we also teach those on income support.
We have a fee structure where people pay according to their level of income; we offer bursaries; and we never turn anyone away due to inability to pay.
There are many techniques which lend themselves to being able to be effectively taught online, and even by videos without a live teacher, which is great. But whilst Transcendental Meditation is very simple, as a result it is very subtle and delicate. So it can’t be learned from a book, DVD or online. Its effectiveness depends on the skilled instruction and guidance of a professionally qualified instructor who has meditated themselves for many years and undertaken extensive training, as directed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
This, plus free support and guidance for life, provided by The Meditation Trust, will ensure correct practice. Trying to take a shortcut to understanding will almost certainly end in disappointment. Because the simplicity of “doing nothing” is contrary to everything else we “do” in our lives, it is very easily misunderstood. Even a qualified instructor could not teach TM effectively by electronic means — it would cease to be Transcendental Meditation as it would lose a large part of its power to transform lives.
Transcendental Meditation is the oldest form of meditation, going back to Vedic times, around 3000 years or more BC. In those times, the yogis of India were having spontaneous cognitions in meditation about the origins of life, the universe and the effortless process of transcending — mind settling into silence — in which these glimpses of reality were gained.
Over the following millenia, much of this knowledge was lost to society, but it was revived again, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in the 1950s.Other forms of meditations based on less profound and subtle understandings, such as visualisation, concentration and mindfulness, can be successfully taught by online because they’re on a more surface level of understanding and practice.
We know from the effects of our own and our students’ practice, from current scientific research and from the knowledge passed down through the tradition of teachers, that the procedures of teaching TM are very subtle and very delicate, and the full power of the teaching method is only present with in-person instruction.
Maharishi said that teaching by electronic media was like giving someone a plastic flower — it may look the same, but lacks the vibrant life of the sap and the beautiful fragrance of the flower.
Can I teach myself transcendental meditation, and how long does a good session usually last?
You could not teach yourself Transcendental Meditation, as whilst it is very simple, as a result, it is very subtle and delicate. It therefore cannot be learned from a book, DVD or online. Its effectiveness depends on the skilled instruction and guidance of a professionally qualified instructor who has meditated themselves for many years and undertaken extensive training, as directed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
We recommend practicing TM for 20 minutes, twice a day, for optimum effectiveness.
Rather than silencing the mind, we are allowing it to transcend, or experience, its own, natural, silent state.Dr Gemma Beckley
What are the transcendental meditation mantras, and how do they work?
The mantras used in Transcendental Meditation come from the ancient Vedic tradition of India. They are Sanskrit sounds, the language which is the closest possible human imitation of the natural vibrations produced by the dynamism of the unified field — the field identified by objective modern science as the silent source of all creation, and by yogis in their meditation as the Self — the field of Pure Consciousness.
Some mantras have healing power for specific parts of the body, but the Transcendental Meditation mantras are for transcending, which has an enormous healing effect for the whole body and mind and much more.
The mantra does not act as a focus for the mind, as in other forms of meditation, but as a vehicle upon which the attention gently and innocently rests. This allows the mind to settle into increasingly subtle levels of thinking; and finally the mantra itself is transcended and we settle into silence.
The mantras should only be passed on by a fully qualified and experienced teacher who can not only choose one that is suitable for you but can also instruct you in how to use it correctly, how to understand your experiences, and give you free support and guidance for the rest of your life.
Any one of these aspects missing could result in incorrect practice, lack of progress and giving up on meditation completely — so missing a priceless opportunity to significantly enhance your life.
What would you say to someone who does the usual meditation and has heard of transcendental meditation but is not sure if they should try it?
We teach so many people now who have practiced other techniques but want to take their practice further and deeper. There are also many people who report absolute delight after learning that it is so easy and enjoyable to practice compared to other techniques they have struggled with for years.
It’s very common for people to wish they had learnt sooner. If you are 100% satisfied with another technique and your progress, then stick with that. But even if you are just curious, then give it a try. Rather than relying on the reports of others, or the scientific research, do your own research and see for yourself.
People often say they have “no time” to meditate. What do you say to that?
Twenty minutes twice a day is the optimum, but even if you don’t have time for 40 minutes a day, you will still get enormous benefit. Some people are concerned about finding time when they first learn but are pleased to find how easy it is to fit TM into their day.
TM is practiced sitting comfortably in a chair and does not involve concentration. It can therefore be practiced anytime, anywhere, in busy, noisy places if necessary. Many people do their twice daily practice on the tube on the way to and from work.
Maharishi used to say that if you are too busy to meditate, then you are too busy. When we start to appreciate the huge benefits to our lives, it becomes even easier to make time. We also start to realise that it’s an investment in time — frequently, very busy people remark after practising Transcendental Meditation for a short while that they have sacrificed 40 minutes a day and seem to have gained a couple of hours, because when we come out of meditation we tend to be more alert and creative and get more done in less time.
Is it possible that meditation can help us from our addictions to devices and social media?
All addictions, like all actions we take in life, stem from our desire for happiness. The ancient traditions of both East and West have long maintained that the deepest need of humanity is to “know the Self”, this level of universal consciousness, one’s own essential Being, which is a state of pure happiness.
The Eastern traditions had also pointed out that all cravings — or addictions — are misguided expressions of this fundamental desire for the experience of our own, ultimate, blissful nature.
By providing a natural, effortless experience of the sufferer’s innate inner happiness, Transcendental Meditation not only gratifies this unconscious craving for direct Self-knowledge but also holistically nourishes the levels of ego, feelings, thought and action that spring from this source.
It’s therefore capable of simultaneously relieving problems related to addictions on all these more manifest levels of life. There’s lots of research showing the very significant effects of TM in reducing addiction to substances but, as described, all addictions have the same ultimate root cause and so we tend to find the same results with devices and social media.
My experience is that the number one problem people are looking to resolve is anxiety.Dr Gemma Beckley
Can the mind really be silenced? Or is meditation not about quieting the mind but more about observing thoughts as they come and go and not allowing them to take over?
You are right that the real purpose of meditation is not actively trying to quieten the mind or the body — although this will happen spontaneously as a result of TM practice). However, neither is Transcendental Meditation practice about observing thoughts — this is a category of meditation called “open monitoring”, which includes mindfulness.
In the practice of Transcendental Meditation, there is no effort made to concentrate or control the mind because, just as much as it is the nature of the mind to be active, it’s also the nature of the mind to be still, given the opportunity. Any organism in nature that can be active must, by definition, be able to be less active and, ultimately, totally still. This includes the mind. So rather than silencing the mind, we are allowing it to transcend, or experience, its own, natural, silent state.
What are people who come to The Meditation Trust to learn transcendental meditation looking for?
My experience is that the number one problem people are looking to resolve is anxiety. It’s a huge problem. And from the very first day of learning, the number one reported result is already feeling an inner calmness, even when they return to work on Monday morning.
But people come for lots of other reasons: stress, poor sleep, high blood pressure, PTSD, addiction. Of course there are also people who feel well but just know there’s something more to be experiencing — increased creativity, wellbeing, optimal performance. Occasionally, some people will specifically state they are seeking higher states of consciousness, which is also a natural result, gradually, over time.
Is there a place for both TM and mindfulness in somebody’s daily practice? Is it like running and then swimming, or does one impact the other?
We never tell anyone not to practice any other techniques, only to keep TM completely separate — i.e. don’t mix them up. But we do often find that, once they have learnt TM, people decide to leave other techniques behind, due to the ease, enjoyment and benefits they find from this practice alone.
Some people learn TM having never practiced anything else at all, whilst others have tried everything available over many decades. It doesn’t matter, as there’s no progression in that sense — they’re different.
It’s also worth noting that mindfulness practice in the form of yoga asanas and pranayama — a process which can be learnt a little while after learning TM — are a very good preparation for transcendence. Also that increased mindfulness, which so many people are seeking now, is just one of the many spontaneous effects of TM, as indicated by research as well as experience.
Do you think we’ve become more mindful during the pandemic, and perhaps more meditative too?
I think many people have, yes. Partly because most of us have been forced to slow down, had time to take walks in nature, read more and to reflect and consider what life is about and what is important. Also, of course, because of the amazing number of different online courses and experiences which became available [and] started people on a path they wish to explore and pursue further.
- Main photograph shows The Beatles and their wives with TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, northern India, in 1968. (Courtesy the Hulton Archive)