Maybe you already know how to meditate but do you know how to do transcendental meditation?
Meditation was first developed in India many years ago (around 5000-3500 BCE). It took quite some time to become popular in the western world, but today it is celebrated as a therapeutic tool to ease stress, anxiety, depression, and addictions. In the past years, it has also become recognized to improve mental performance, and it consequently became a multi-billion dollar business.
When we think about meditation, we usually think about what’s called “mindfulness meditation,” but there are seven different kinds of meditation that are being practiced all over the world:
Over the past decade, Transcendental Meditation® (aka TM® or T.M. Meditation®) has become extremely popular, scoring a staggering 5 million followers that practice it every day. You may have heard about the benefits of T.M. and wondered what it was all about.
T.M. is a type of mantra meditation that has been introduced to the Western world in 1950 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He taught the practice all over the world for 40 years to spread its movement, touching anyone from politicians to The Beatles.
Today, many celebrities such as Jerry Seinfeld, Hugh Jackman, Ellen Degeneres, and Howard Stern publicly stated that T.M. changed their lives. The popular movie director David Lynch even created a foundation to help spread transcendental meditation around the world.
These big names certainly contributed to the success of this practice (together with the large body of studies proving its benefits), but the main reason for the popularity of T.M. is its simplicity.
If you’ve tried to meditate in the past, but you couldn’t stick to it long enough to experience its benefits, keep reading.
In this article, I will highlight the main differences between mindfulness meditation and transcendental meditation, and why some people like one type better than the other. I will explain how the T.M. organization teaches it to their students, and I will also give you a step-by-step guide on how to do T.M. on your own.
To understand why T.M. is unique, we need to take a step back and examine how mindfulness meditation work. All the other types of meditation use a similar mechanism to the mindfulness one except for T.M, so I’m going to describe only the difference between those two types for the sake of simplicity.
Mindfulness, in current popular culture, encourages the cultivation of nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness both during the practice and in everyday life.
We all experience a multitude of thoughts that distract us from what’s in front of our eyes. Maybe we’re thinking about our to-do list, or simply hearing the sound of a song brings back an old memory; in any case, we tend to spend more time in our heads than in the present moment.
With mindfulness meditation, by repeatedly returning our conscious awareness to the present moment (for example focusing on the breath, body parts or an object) we are able to observe our anxious or depressive thought patterns.
In simple words, this means noticing your thoughts and learning to let go of them by shifting the mental focus from that thought to something like the movement of your breath.
The act of actively observing thoughts without judgment, and the effort of letting go of those thoughts by focusing on the body, acts as a sort of brain-training exercise. The more successfully we do that (both during our meditation and in normal life), the more we empower ourselves to make conscious choices rather than being mindlessly controlled by our negative thoughts.
To better understand this concept, you can imagine your mind being like an Ocean. On the surface, you have waves of any height and shape, but deep down, there is nothing but complete calm and stillness. Your thoughts are the waves.
In normal life, you would swim around the waves of your mind, trying to face them head-on. Sometimes you can climb them and swim through, sometimes you feel overwhelmed by their power and end up drowning or feeling beaten up by their strength.
Mindfulness meditation is like having a surfboard that allows you to ride those waves effortlessly. The more you practice, the better you get at surfing, and the easier it becomes to manage your thoughts.
Sometimes, while going through this process, people may eventually get to a state of complete mental stillness. This state is “the second state of meditation” or transcendence.
Note that the goal of mindfulness meditation is not to reach this state. Instead, its goal is to actively train your mind in letting go of thoughts and develop the ability to make mindful choices in everyday life.
I have personally practiced thousands of hours of mindfulness meditation and taught it to many of my clients with fantastic results. What I’ve noticed though, is that some people are simply not able to stick to it and enjoy its brain training process.
Usually, these people have a very active and buzzing mind, and not being able to “shut their thoughts” with the mindfulness technique drives them crazy. For those people, transcendental meditation works magic because of its totally different method.
Coming back to the example of your mind being like an ocean, imagine having a submarine instead of a surfboard. T.M., just like a submarine, can safely take you to the deepest depths of your mind, where it’s calm and peaceful.
Now that I’ve got you curious, let’s explore how transcendental meditation work. If the goal of mindfulness is to train the brain in conscious awareness, the goal of T.M. is to go beyond the thinking process. If done properly, this can be a simple, automatic continuation of the flow of mindfulness meditation. The vehicle T.M. uses to reach this state is the mantra. (I’ll explain in depth how it works later.)
If we come back to the example of the ocean, now that we have our submarine (the mantra), we are able to slowly reach the depths of the ocean, where there’s nothing but calm and stillness.
In there, there is a state of restful awareness, where you can tap into the source of energy, thoughts, and creativity (also called collective unconscious by Carl Jung).
When we get to these depths, we experience a profound state of rest and let go of even the deepest stresses.
The beneficial effects of T.M. happen spontaneously (not consciously) when you are able to reach the state of transcendence. Those who regularly practice T.M. report an increase in mindfulness and a very deep relief in stress.
T.M. teachers emphasize the fact that the mind has a natural tendency of going into this tranquil state. Unfortunately, the mind also has a tendency to always look for what’s interesting around us. This is why, with mindfulness meditation, having its focus on actively observing thoughts, it is harder to lean on this tendency of the brain to settle into deep tranquility.
The question now is: “how do I get to this state of transcendence?” The answer is way simpler than you may think:
By chanting a mantra.
Before we get into what exactly a mantra is and how it works, I want you to get an idea of what a standard transcendental meditation practice looks like.
All that is required to practice T.M. is to sit and have your eyes closed; that’s it. You don’t need any particular pose or posture. Surely being alone, in a quiet room with a comfortable chair, will help facilitate the process but once you get a grip of it, you could do it anywhere, even while sitting at your desk or in a bus.
All you need to do is to keep your eyes closed and silently chant your mantra.
The general advice is to chant for 20 minutes, twice a day. This is partly due to the natural clock of our body (circadian rhythm) but also to the fact that the more you get into the habit of blocking time to meditate, the more likely you are to make it a habit.
Despite this advice, there are no set-in-stone rules on how often and how long you should do your T.M. session. Everyone is different and has a different schedule, so whatever fits in your diary should be your choice.
Now, let’s get down to business and let’s talk mantras.
A mantra is nothing but a meaningless sound. There is no real secret behind the mantra except for the fact that it should have no meaning, and it should “sound positive.”
People tend to get too caught up in what type of mantra is right for them. I have interviewed several seasoned T.M. teachers, and they all stated that “the more we don’t know about our mantra, the better.”
This goes back to the fact that our mind is always making mental connections. If we try to chant a word that sounds too much like a word that we know the meaning of, we will automatically connect that word to images, sounds, smells, and memories. If we’re chanting a totally meaningless word, it’s easier to lean on the tendency of our mind to get into a tranquil state.
You can imagine a mantra being like a seed. If you want to grow a plant, you won’t look for “the perfect seed.” You would simply pick one, plant it, water it and see it germinate. Getting caught up in “picking the right seed (mantra),” won’t do you any good.
At this point, if you are like me, you would think “OK, but I still need to know what a mantra looks like and sounds like,” and that’s why I’m going to give you a few examples of mantras to chant.
The most common mantra is the Homm. Teachers tend not to use this mantra because of the wholeness of this sound. In Hinduism, the sound Homm reflects the sound of all vibrations combined, both positive and negative. The Homm mantra seems to be mainly practiced by monks, and every teacher I’ve interviewed said that “apart from that, any other mantra can work well.”
Other examples of mantra could be:
Chanting a mantra sounds something like this:
You should vary the length and tone of each letter of your mantra while you’re chanting, so that it would be easier to induce this “trance” effect on your mind. Once again, how you do that doesn’t matter. As long as you chant it for the whole length of your session, it should work.
Most teachers told me that both they and their students have been using the same mantra they’ve been given on their first T.M. sessions for their whole life. Once again, the point of the practice isn’t to find the best possible sound for you but, to develop the habit of melting the stress in your mind by chanting a meaningless sound.
On the flip side, if you’re trying to do T.M. on your own and you notice that the mantra you choose reminds you too much of a real word, go pick another one that is totally meaningless. People that speak several languages may find this a bit harder than people that only speak their mother tongue, but it is still quite easy to find a meaningless sound.
If you learn T.M. from a teacher, they will choose the mantra for you on your first meeting after you fill a questionnaire. After that, you’ll chant it with them and progress into a personal, silent meditation practice. During the practice, the teacher will give some feedback and let you experience the mechanics of T.M. on the spot. This process is followed by another meeting with the teacher and two group meditations.
The teachers themselves openly state that you can do T.M. on your own. The rules are simple, and all it takes is some practice and being consistent with it.
What a T.M. course gives you (that you can’t get on your own) is the accountability of a teacher and the support of a group of like-minded people.
Most people that pay for a T.M. course are not simply looking to learn a system. They usually look for support in their healing journey to fight stress, insomnia, addictions, or relationship problems.
If you tried mindfulness meditation, and simply want to try T.M. to experience first hand the difference between the two, there is no need to take a course. A very good way to go about could be simply this:
If you find that T.M. makes you feel better than when you’re doing mindfulness meditation, and you want to learn more about it, you can then decide to invest in it and take the T.M. course.
Nobody can tell if T.M. is better than any other type of meditation. Everything works differently for each individual, and it’s our duty to try and discover new things before judging them.
If you’re into meditation, I highly suggest you try T.M. on your own or with a teacher to broaden your mind. The same goes for the people that are new to meditation, but, in this case, I would recommend starting from mindfulness meditation with an App like Headspace. T.M. can be quite tricky for a beginner without having the proper guidance, and the course itself is quite expensive (from 250 to 1000 dollars or even more depending on your income).
Whatever the type of meditation you decide to try, I encourage you to commit to a minimum of 30 daily practices. Doing this will give you the time to start experiencing some tangible benefits in your day-to-day life.
Learning about your mind is truly a delightful experience. The more you learn about the mechanics of your brain, the more you can experience personal growth and happiness.