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14 Things You Need to Know to Talk About Transcendental Meditation

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Transcendental Meditation is having a moment. After making a big splash in the peace ’n’ love era, it largely faded from view, but now everyone from Lena Dunham and Lykke Li to Oprah and Dr. Oz is into it. David Lynch has had a foundation dedicated to it since 2005, and earlier this year Jim Carrey’s commencement address at a TM university went viral. But what is TM? Is it some kind of Scientology-like cult? A trendy thing to add to your self-improvement agenda? Could it be something actually worth trying?

To help you decide, or so you can simply prep to be a TM aficionado the next time the topic comes up at a cocktail party, we turned to Dean Sluyter, who taught TM from 1970 to 1993. Sluyter, who has practiced extensively in Advaita Vedanta, Tibetan Buddhism, and Bhakti Yoga, is the author of The Zen CommandmentsCinema Nirvana, and Natural Meditation: A Guide to Effortless Meditative Practice, and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Here, Sluyter gives a rundown of what you need to know about the suddenly hot-again practice.

It feels good. TM allows the mind and body to settle into a quiet state of “restful alertness.” Usually, people come out of it feeling refreshed, energized, and at peace.

Its benefits have been proven … kind of. Forty-plus years of research has shown that TM can do everything from slowing or reversing the progression of changes that underlie cardiovascular disease (including the thickening of the tissue in the heart’s main chamber and impaired blood flow within the heart); to easing asthma; to improving cognitive function, including analytical ability, creativity, and problem solving; to lowering blood pressure. True, some of the studies look a tad shaky close up (and were done by TM advocates), but even if half of them are bogus, what’s left is still impressive.

No, the Beatles didn’t invent it. TM was developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an amazingly energetic, 5’4” white-robed holy man who left India in 1958 on a mission to “spiritually regenerate the world.” Educated in physics, he taught a user-friendly meditation technique that he presented in nonmystical, scientific terms. He traveled the world, giving lectures and, eventually, training teachers and building centers. In 1967, things blew up: The Beatles, Mia Farrow, and other celebs followed him to India, and he wound up on the covers of TimeLife, and Newsweek, and all over TV. Droves of people — the suburban bourgeoisie along with hippie types — started queuing up to learn.

Later, Maharishi started moving in more grandiose directions, opening schools and universities, offering expensive “advanced” courses (including one that more or less guaranteed enlightenment — for a million bucks), printing his own currency, launching a line of health supplements and his own TV station (featuring all good news all the time, read by skinny guys in white silk suits), ranting against world leaders who didn’t support his programs, ignoring recurrent allegations of financial and sexual improprieties, and trying to build a meditation theme park. His original organization is still around, but these days most of the action is in the David Lynch Foundation, which promotes TM in schools and throws all-star benefit concerts featuring the likes of Russell Brand and Sarah Silverman — and sometimes Ringo and Sir Paul McCartney.

Yes, you need a mantra. The technique consists of resting your attention on a mellow, meaning-free one- or two-syllable mantra in an effortless way that allows the mantra to gradually melt like a cough drop, leaving a state of inner silence. The mantras come from the Vedic traditions of India, and are assigned by the teacher at the time of instruction. While many articles refer to “repeating” or “focusing on” a mantra, the method is actually more subtle and easygoing than that.

No, the mantras aren’t magic. People who talk about going to the TM center “to get my mantra” — like picking up a carton of milk — miss the point. As do those who get excited about finding lists of mantras online. The mantra is just a vehicle for the settling-down process; the crucial element is how you drive it. These particulars you learn in a one-on-one session with a teacher that takes about an hour; then you’ll return for three additional sessions with a group.

It’s about not doing. The magic’s not so much in the mantra, but in the effortlessness of the practice. This was Maharishi’s genius: He figured out how to take just about any stress-puppy who comes through the door, walk her through a few steps, and get her effortlessly meditating. Effort in meditation is self-defeating, like trying to turn a jar of muddy water clear by shaking and stirring it. If you just let it sit, the mud settles to the bottom and the water turns clear.

You don’t have to change your beliefs or lifestyle. Bacon? No problem.

Except … If you’ve been using weed or anything stronger, there’s a 15-day drying-out period before the initial instruction session. (No restriction on booze.) After that, you don’t have to take any vows to stay drug-free, but many people lose the desire.

It’s portable. You can meditate on a chair, on a couch, on the subway, in a cubicle, in a church — anywhere you can sit with your eyes closed. Some TM-ers also do yoga and meditate cross-legged on a cushion, but that’s optional.

It’s quick. You do 15 to 20 minutes in the morning and another 15 to 20 in the evening. In between, you do your thing at work or wherever, and whatever the results are, they’re there.

It’s pricey. As TM gained popularity over the years, the “donation” to learn it gradually rose from $35 to $2,500. Since Maharishi’s death in 2008, cooler heads in the organization have prevailed and brought the price tag down to a grand or so.

It’s not the only game in town. It’s true that many meditation techniques use effort and concentration. But there are others that employ the same principle of not trying as TM, whether with a mantra or some other method such as following the breath or gazing into the sky. And they generally don’t have the hefty price tag, the keep-your-mantra-secret fetish, and the our-way-is-the-only-way attitude of the TM organization.

It’s normal at the bottom, weird on top. Thousands of people over the years have simply learned TM, done it twice a day, and gone on with their normal lives, only happier — as advertised. But for TM teachers and those higher up in the organization, there’s a fair amount of weirdness, including generous helpings of true-believer-ism, levitation programs, question marks about where all the money goes, and guys with gold crowns who’ve been appointed “kings.” Go figure.

If you stay with it, there are bonuses. In their public lectures, TM teachers emphasize the practical benefits like mental clarity and better health. Those benefits are real, but they’re side effects. The ultimate goal — of TM as well as the many other equally effective approaches — is enlightenment, awakening, realization: permanent transcendence. This doesn’t mean you become a grinning, drooling vegetable parked somewhere in a cave. You can be a billionaire hedge-fund maven like Ray Dalio (who does TM) or a king-of-the-hill NBA coach like Phil Jackson (who does Zen). But gradually, even as all the waves of doing and experiencing rise and fall as usual, your consciousness expands to include the ocean of Just Being that underlies them — and is always blissfully silent. You’ll come for the stress release, you’ll stay for the nirvana.

14 Things You Need to Know to Talk About TM