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Yoga and Transcendence

Meditating girl

Maybe it was the Beatles who led me to Transcendental Meditation, like so many others back in the early 1970s. Meeting up with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968, the Fab Four gave meditation a mainstream image it hadn’t had for hundreds of years, at least in the West. All of a sudden, meditation was cool; it wasn’t solely for those of an ascetic, contemplative nature, wanting to give up all worldly goods and desires. The Beatles? Ascetic?

The final push for me came a little later, as a student at Lancaster. I discovered research published in Scientific American showing that Transcendental Meditation produced deep physical rest (dissolving tiredness and stress) combined with increased wakefulness (boosting alertness and learning ability). I was intrigued, and learned the technique over a weekend in a course held on campus.

The first thing that surprised me was that it is a technique – which implies reliability, repeatability. The traditional image of meditation didn’t fit this at all. In those days, meditation was thought to be difficult or tedious, with results hard to measure and taking many years to achieve.

Not this one.

Transcendental Meditation turned out to be effortless, and produced a state of deeply restful alertness within a few minutes; to my surprise, it continued to do so, time after time. I was thrilled to access, easily, a state I had rarely glimpsed before. Yet TM’s very effortlessness was hard to get used to at first. I kept thinking: ‘Shouldn’t I be actually doing something?’ Surely it couldn’t be this easy?’

Yet it was, and, all these years later, remains so.

As I discovered, transcending thoughts happens by itself under the right conditions. Our attention will naturally go towards greater happiness, like a ball rolling down a slope; and the source of thought, a silent, vibrant field of infinite wakefulness and energy, is more enjoyable to experience than even the most creative thought.

The trouble is, spontaneously experiencing transcendence in our busy, stimulus-filled world is very rare.

I wanted to learn how to transcend anywhere, anytime, no matter how I was feeling or where I was – even on a bus or train. And that’s what Transcendental Meditation is all about. It involves learning a mantra, chosen for each individual as a vehicle to experience quieter levels of the mind; and having initial meditations monitored by the teacher to ensure proficiency in the technique – after which, you’re self-sufficient for life.

Integration

Meditation, I came to realise, is at the heart of Yoga, a tradition I already had respect for having had some experience with simple asana routines. All aspects of Yoga aim at the same result – the integration of individual and cosmic life to produce personal fulfilment and a peaceful world.

Transcending thought with meditation is highly compatible with and complementary to, all the physical practices of Yoga. US entrepreneur Russell Simmons, for example, is a keen student of Jivanmukti Yoga, and an equally keen practitioner of Transcendental Meditation.

Asanas and pranayama refine the body so that it can support the experience of samadhi, silent, unbounded consciousness; in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Yoga is defined as “the cessation of movement in the consciousness.”

Taking the mental approach works the other way around. Transcending produces deep physical rest, and hence purification. ‘Cessation of movement in the consciousness’, experienced regularly, means that inner silence and happiness become established during daily activity, providing an armour against stress and a reservoir of energy to achieve goals. With TM, samadhi – transcendence – is not the end of the process of enlightenment; it is the beginning, and with repeated experience, becomes permanent.

Vedic tradition

Transcendental Meditation was quietly safeguarded for centuries in the Vedic tradition of India by one or two custodians in each generation; from 1957 it was introduced throughout the world by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the foremost student of Brahmananda Saraswati, one of the greatest-ever masters of this tradition. By now, over 6 million people have learned the technique.

I wanted to be able to pass on the benefits to others, and so trained as a teacher with Maharishi in 1975. As with the thousands of teachers he trained, my own enjoyment from meditation has been added to by seeing similar benefits in those whom I’ve taught, of all ages and backgrounds.

I experienced some of those benefits within the first few weeks of twice-daily practice; they, and many more, have grown ever since. Greater happiness, alertness, energy; and an experience of greater connectedness with everyone and everything. It’s difficult to calculate all the results, just as it would be hard to describe the benefits from any natural state of consciousness – sleeping every night, for instance. Transcendence is significantly unlike waking, dreaming or sleeping; yet, underlying all three, it is equally vital to human wellbeing. The source of individual and cosmic intelligence, all strategies of Yoga are focused on restoring it to human awareness. When awareness grows to incorporate transcendence, however gradually, no area of life remains untouched.

All Yoga practitioners know this; and interestingly, modern science is coming to the same conclusions.

Mainstream

Those first few research studies which impressed me about Transcendental Meditation have grown to over 600, many published in the world’s leading peer-reviewed scientific journals. Universities and medical institutes around the world have measured and documented a huge range of mental and physical health benefits from the technique.

Even for brain functioning itself, long a closed book, neuroscience is making fascinating inroads. For example, meditation practices involving focused attention have been shown to produce increased activity in the gamma wavebands (20-50 Hz); those involving mindfulness-style “open monitoring” of thoughts or breathing display activity in the theta wavebands (4-8 Hz); while transcending thought altogether with Transcendental Meditation produces a different style again, that of alpha 1 wavelengths (8-10 Hz) and full-brain coherence.

Perhaps most interesting of all, studies strongly correlating falls in crime rates and even war deaths with large groups practising Transcendental Meditation may provide validation of the statement in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that “in the vicinity of Yoga, hostile tendencies are eliminated.” The research, and the Yoga texts, suggest that the most settled state of human awareness and the most fundamental and powerful level of nature – the “unified field” of quantum physics – are one and the same.

Nowadays TM is once more entering the mainstream, propelled by science and by glowing endorsements from high-profile practitioners including Katy Perry, Oprah Winfrey, Moby, David Lynch and Russell Brand. Many more are quoted in the recent bestseller Transcendence by Dr Norman Rosenthal, one of America’s most respected psychiatrists and the discoverer of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

And 37 years on, what would I say about Transcendental Meditation? Well, I’d echo one of those who first alerted me to its existence. Sir Paul McCartney described what TM means to him at a benefit concert in 2010 for the David Lynch Foundation, which has funded TM courses for 100,000 students.

“It’s a lifelong gift,” he said, “which you can call on at any time.”

Indeed it is.

 

Original article by David Hughes for Yoga & Health magazine

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