In 1968, the Beatles went to India. They met with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram, where they received training in Transcendental Meditation. They brought their families and their assistants. Then they went back to the Western world and gave interview after interview about their experience and how transformative it was. They wrote more than 20 songs during their time in Rishikesh and some of them, notably “Mother Nature’s Son,” became advertisements for TM. People were curious about the reservoir of creativity Paul, John, George, and Ringo seemed to have tapped.
TM has been popular with the Hollywood crowd ever since, but in the last decade it has gone absolutely gangbusters. A-list celebrities and Wall Street one-percenters cite TM as the secret to their success without risking any professional standing. The David Lynch Foundation, which has become a de facto symbol of the method as well as a resource for practitioners, has evangelized to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. TM now claims more than six million practitioners. Bill Clinton practices TM. Rupert Murdoch practices TM. Oprah, Ellen, and, of course, Dr. Oz practice TM. Is this part of a broader cultural trend toward mindfulness? Perhaps, but no other technique or practice is having a moment quite like TM.
One of the reasons TM is thriving is that its proponents excel at presenting scientific evidence of its efficacy. There are hundreds of studies, testimonials, and peer-reviewed papers purporting that TM can do anything from extending your lifespan, to lowering your blood pressure, to curing your anxiety, to treating your depression, to soothing your chronic pain and insomnia, and overcoming your eating disorder. To accomplish these goals, TM teaches, you need a word or sound that serves as a stepping stone to transcendence: a personal mantra.
“You don’t pick it,” said Dr. David Vago, an instructor and associate psychologist in the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Harvard Medical School. “You have to pay for it. There’s a lot of politics and secrecy.”
TM remains fascinating as a movement, but it’s successful as a product, TM™
That transaction at the core of TM is what makes its ascendance in Western culture both significantly more and significantly less complicated. Fundamentally, TM works like any exercise fad. For a fee, practitioners are assigned a mantra designed to produce a specific result. And TM seems to succeed in large part because it is easy and because it does, in fact, provide real results — but not necessarily in the incontrovertible or peerless way many in the TM community would have you believe. TM exercises the frontal lobe and, for very specific reasons, busy professionals want or need that workout. TM remains fascinating as a movement, but it is currently successful as a product, TM™.
TM was pioneered by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ‘50s. Kind of like with yoga, practitioners often say it has its roots in ancient Indian tradition, while outsiders contend it’s a relatively modern invention. There are many kinds of meditation, but to hear a lot of the TM people tell it, theirs is simply … better.
The Maharishi died in 2008, but not before leaving behind a legacy of worldwide fascination with TM, from the time that he came into the public eye as the Beatles’ “guru” onward (they weren’t his only famous pupils — he also mentored the Beach Boys, and lectured at universities like UCLA and Harvard. He also left behind persistent rumors of sexual harassment, including against actress Mia Farrow, though you’re less likely to hear TM practitioners talk about that.)
“I think we’re seeing a resurgence of TM because it’s becoming clear to people how powerful the technique is,” said Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a renowned TM practitioner and the author of Super Mind: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life Through Transcendental Meditation. “Look, I’ve written two books on this now. You don’t undertake such a thing unless you’re really, powerfully convinced it’s worth it. Sure, I have a powerful bias toward TM — it’s transformed me. I’ve recommended it to my patients. Is it better than other forms of meditation? If you want to say Drug A is better than Drug B, that depends — for what? A might be better than B for anxiety, but not depression. With TM versus mindfulness that can be tricky … but so what? There’s a marketplace for everything, isn’t there?”
A cornerstone of TM’s appeal has always been the promise that practitioners need not slave away for years or even months before seeing results. TM provides mindfulness to those in a rush, without the asceticism of other practices. Practicing TM is not meant to feel like — or be — a sacrifice. All that is required to access a higher plane is a check and the willingness to show up. The TM community takes the check seriously, suing those who try to teach the technique without a license. For those outside the closed circle, what we know basically boils down to the following:
You do it for 20 minutes, twice a day.
You do it sitting down. You can be comfortable.
Your eyes are closed.
You repeat your assigned mantra silently.
You breathe normally.
You don’t have to believe in anything in particular — even TM — for it to work.
After taking off in the early ‘70s, TM petered out in certain circles, due in large part to its members’ ardent proselytizing. According to Vago, the scientific community’s initial inquiries into the practice yielded less than encouraging results, and that stripped the practice of some of its credibility. But the TM loyal soldiered on, pushing out a mixture of peer-reviewed and pseudoscience. TM researchers and practitioners began to present at conferences, almost invariably wrapping data in notions of “cosmic consciousness” and mindfulness that made it hard for other scientists to embrace their findings. This created a buffer between meditation researchers, who began to exclude TM from their work. This was a purely academic development until around 2003, when the mindfulness boom followed the dot-com bust. TM started growing at a remarkable rate, riding on several decades’ worth of available studies, whether based in good data or bad.
“It’s often not accurately represented,” Rosenthal said. “When you learn TM, within three months you’ll see changes in the brain, transcendence, the fourth state of consciousness after waking, sleeping, and dreaming. There are more alpha rhythms in the front of the brain, more coherence between different brain areas. This transcendent consciousness enters your everyday life. You feel a calm stability sitting there side by side with your active brain consciousness. It affects everything one does. It infuses you with creativity, with joy in living. It makes performance more effective, more efficient.”
Neuroscientists who study mindfulness meditation generally focus on three or four methods: Mantra meditation, of which TM is the best-known example; focused-attention meditation (FAM), which sometimes includes mantra meditation, depending on to whom you’re talking; open-monitoring meditation (OMM); and some sort of ethics-enhancement practice, like Loving-Kindness meditation or Compassion meditation.
“Some TM practitioners may disagree with me,” Vago said, “but I see TM as a focused-attention technique. Just something that doesn’t allow your mind to wander to something else. That’s the key, to allow your attention to be focused.”
“Focused attention” can be focused on anything. An object, like a candle. A deity. Your breath. Or a sound, like a mantra. In Vedic texts, a mantra just means a sound or syllable or word introduced to generate a specific energy. The classic, the platonic ideal of meditation mantras — om — is meant to be the sound of the whole universe speaking. We have no scientific understanding of the different effects of different sounds you’d find in people’s individual mantras — as far as anyone can tell, a sound is a sound. If you focus your attention on a sound, the effects on your cognition will be the same no matter what that sound it. Yet TM still wants to sell you one that is just yours.
In other mindfulness practices, a mantra is sort of used as a crutch for beginners, to be abandoned as the student improves and the real work of blocking out sensory input intensifies. In yogic traditions, they call this pratyahara, meaning withdrawal of the senses and an acquired mastery over the distraction of your surroundings. (Lululemon has had a field day with this.)
Dr. Rosenthal uses the same mantra today that he was given when he first began practicing in South Africa in the 1970s — he also says anyone who claims TM to be a focused-attention practice is “really, really not getting it. They’re incorrect. They are fundamentally misinformed.” Mantram practices activate different areas of the brain than other methods, such as OMM, in which you more or less clear your mind of all thought. Any attention-focusing task tends to activate the frontal lobes of the brain; it’s not unlike exercising, wherein if you lift weights, your muscles grow bigger and stronger. When someone meditates, there’s a reasonable amount of evidence that the brain gets bigger and stronger. Vago says the frontal lobes are sometimes literally thicker in people who have been meditating for a long time.
“Fred would say TM is not focused attention,” Vago said. “Maybe in the very beginning, but … we’ve had this discussion over and over, me and him.”
Fred is Dr. Fred Travis, director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at the Maharishi University of Management, the institution founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1973. Travis is an avid researcher and practitioner of TM; much of his work is featured prominently by the David Lynch Foundation, and pretty much every scientist I spoke to for this piece has cited his work at various points in their own research. In 2008, he coauthored a paper in Consciousness and Cognition proposing that the dichotomy between FAM and OMM be expanded by a third category: automatic self-transcending.
Just as Vago will tell you the data indicates TM to be focused-attention, Travis will tell you it indicates the opposite. This dichotomy between those inside and outside the TM held true across the board with everyone I spoke to.
Transcending, Travis says, is an automatic process that reduces brain activity. There can’t be any focused intention in the mind, any directing of activity to any localized process. Travis looked at data from electroencephalogram (EEG) frequency bands (an EEG is the process of attaching electrodes to the scalp to monitor and record the electrical activity of the brain; it comes up in TM research a lot) and found that as distinct as the EEG patterns were from FAM to OMM, TM produces readings — and, by implication, results — that were unique compared to any other method.
“To transcend, you have to use a natural process of the mind rather than using specific steps — and because of that you can master TM very quickly,” Travis said. “Other meditations have a novice-expert dichotomy. With TM, you’re using your mind’s natural tendencies.”
Travis currently has a paper in review arguing that TM does not involve focused attention, and that data is compromised when it’s not afforded its own category. The study used 87 subjects who had been practicing TM for various lengths of time.
“I looked at people who had been [practicing TM] for between one month and five years, and it’s basically a flat line of progress,” Travis said. “It shows you how quickly people master the process of transcending. Other methods teach you how to use the mind in a different way, whereas TM changes the whole nature of functioning in the mind. You can master it easily, and it has very profound effects. It supports everything else you do.”
Travis claims mastery could potentially come even sooner than the one-month mark, but he hasn’t measured any practitioners that fresh, so there’s no data.
“With TM, there needs to be a teacher.”
“The thing is, with TM, there needs to be a teacher,” he explains. “The reason for this — and it’s a subtle thing — is that other forms of meditation are a declarative knowledge. TM is more a procedural knowledge, like learning to ride a bike. You don’t learn to ride a bike from a lecture; you need to be taught. And the way you learn TM is, a teacher gives a certain instruction, and you have an experience, and then the teacher knows the next instruction to give you based on that experience. The natural tendency is to expand and be free of boundaries. And once you learn how to let the mind go there once — then it’s like riding a bike.”
It is virtually impossible to write both comprehensively and impartially about TM. Its members-only, secret-sauce approach perpetuates a pretty impassable catch-22, wherein no one who could analyze it objectively will ever be able to do so. TM.com’s “Evidence” page trumpets that “more than 380 peer-reviewed research studies on the TM technique have been published in more than 160 scientific journals,” but most of them are older than I am, left over from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Some of them are surely valid, but which? The data for the whole field is a mess.
In the battle to separate the science from the pseudoscience, rather than churning out more breathless TM-endorsing studies, it’s more beneficial to study the quality of the existing studies. There is no shortage of data supporting TM; there’s a surplus. But how to tell the propaganda from the data that actually means something? The biggest, most exhaustive, most comprehensive effort to date separating good meditation data from bad was published in 2014 by Dr. Madhav Goyal, an assistant professor of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins.
“People will tout certain studies to push their own agenda.”
“People will tout certain studies to push their own agenda,” Goyal says. “A lot of those studies are based on very weak evidence. Just being able to cite something that says, ‘Hey, these people had a little less anxiety,’ doesn’t really mean anything. But a systematic compilation of all the studies, weighing all the evidence and all the outcomes — that’s what we were going for here.”
Out of the 18,753 randomized, placebo-controlled trials Goyal and his colleagues reviewed — regarding not just TM, but all forms of meditation for psychological well-being, plus some physiological effects like changes in weight and pain — just 47 passed his criteria for what constitutes a controlled, viable study with valid results. That is about .0025 percent.
Goyal and his colleagues graded the 47 remaining studies on strengths of evidence — how confident could they be that the results they were reading were real and sufficiently unbiased? A high strength of evidence meant the data were consistent — good-quality studies, good measures of the outcome, his team could be fairly sure that a certain effect really had or had not been produced, and that further studies could replicate the data and add to what we know. After “high” strength of evidence came moderate, then low, then insufficient.
No meditation program was found to have a high strength of evidence for any psychological or physiological outcome.
Goyal did, however, find moderate effects of mindfulness meditation — including TM — at reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety (both at eight weeks and after three to six months) as well as the emotional aspects of chronic pain. Evidence for the effect of mindfulness — including TM — on every other outcome — mood, stress, attention, substance abuse, sleep, pain, eating habits — was deemed low or insufficient. They found no evidence in the studies that meditation was any more effective for psychological well-being than exercise.
“When I’ve looked into the TM philosophy, it seems like maybe they use this mantra to kind of clear up the mind and reach some kind of a new space, but after that they’re not longer focused on the mantra,” Goyal says. “They’re using the mantra to then lose it. And to try to get into some very deep subconscious state where they can elicit some kind of bliss. I don’t feel comfortable, never having done their practice, saying that that’s just not possible. And a little bit of what I’ve heard from my colleagues [who do TM] seems to substantiate that there is something going on.”
“The Null Domain”
In a Frontiers In Psychology paper exploring the confusing taxonomy of meditation practices, Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine classified TM as a method of reaching “the Null Domain.” As opposed to Affective or Cognitive domains, the Null Domain is “an enhanced empty state that is devoid of phenomenological content — a non-cognitive/non-affective state. This would align TM with Zen and Yoga, practices designed to limit sense of self.”
“For better or worse, the TM research tends to come from the TM people,” says Newborn. “So you have to take it all with a grain of salt because of that bias. But some of the data seems pretty reasonable, and I’m going to take their word for it that it’s not fraudulent. Every study out there is usually done with some degree of bias. The people doing the mindfulness studies like mindfulness; drug companies sponsor research and publish it. So I wouldn’t accuse them of any more or less bias, but there can definitely be a conflict of interest.”
Newberg and his colleagues published a study in Perceptual and Motor Skills showing that Franciscan nuns engaging in verbal, mantram meditation — prayer — exhibited increased cerebral blood flow in the frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex.
Kieran Fox, a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, led a review and meta-analysis of all the viable, quantitative functional neuroimaging studies (meaning fMRI and PET scans) on meditation he could find — 78 in all. His paper, which was published by Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews in March, analyzed mantra meditation as compared to FAM, OMM, and Loving-Kindness/Compassion meditation. It showed that different practices do indeed produce distinct patterns of brain activity. In fact, the differences between methods outnumbered the similarities.
“Commonality across meditation practices is the exception rather than the rule,” the study reports.
In a result that would surely please Travis and his peers, Fox and his coauthors found that mantra meditation did appear to be “associated with neural correlates separate from other related forms of focused attention practice,” but noted that, for the time being, this was only suggestive. Fox and his colleagues paid particular attention to effect size, or the difference in outcomes between various practices.
“Mantra did show the highest effect size, but we think that’s a spurious result,” Fox says. “The way the data was reported, [the TM researchers] didn’t really allow us to calculate the effect size the way it should be. They used a really, really, small sample — five meditators, which is way to small to get anything conclusive. But you get a huge effect size. It means they probably just got lucky, and then they published it and of course it looks great.”
“The claims are pretty extraordinary,” he added.
The frontal lobe is a region of the brain that’s taken an increased beating in recent years due to a modern affliction, one that didn’t exist when the Maharishi took the Beatles under his wing — the internet. The constant influx of information and time spent staring at a back-lit screen has created a new kind of stress, one TM presents itself as uniquely positioned to alleviate. As technology becomes inextricable from our lives, it should come as no surprise that the demand for TM grows concurrently.
“It’s the nature of the mind to go toward greater happiness,” said Dr. John Collins, an instructor at the MUM. “The mantra enables the mind to just settle in the direction of happiness. Memory, intelligence, creativity, problem-solving, moral reasoning, social relationships, everything improves. You have more energy. There’s relief for people with asthma, eczema, insomnia, depression, [high] blood pressure, PTSD … the mind enters a state of holistic functioning, coherence. This is how the brain is meant to work all the time, but modern living tends to develop one area of the brain over others and you get out of balance.”
Collins said that if one percent of a community’s population practices TM, crime drops. Political corruption, communicable diseases — they get rooted out. He explains it as a “unbounded field phenomenon,” like gravity. An advanced form of TM called Yogic Flying, he says, is so powerful that that effect is squared, so you need only the square root of one percent of the population practicing yogic flying to achieve the same effect. This is known in TM circles as the Maharishi Effect. Collins says he and others at MUM and in the greater TM community are installing such practitioners around the world, which will lead to “an amazing reduction in violence and an increase in global political harmony.”
It’s hard to believe something like that, at least from the outside. It’s hard to speak confidently about something you haven’t really been allowed to learn about. It’s natural to want to remain objective, but it’s also natural to be curious.
“You can assume bias. Just assume bias. But you still have peer-reviewed journals,” Collins said when I raised the state of the research, the various conflicts of interest and the seemingly outdated studies. “If you looked at quantum physics, you’d find lots of old research there too. A good study should be timeless, you know? The science is overwhelming, it’s just so strong.”
“The TM people just got in the business of assessing and pushing out some sort of empirical evidence for their particular form of meditation,” said John Horgan, Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. “Certainly since the ‘70s they’ve become better-organized. More vigorous. So there’s more money.”
TM has capitalized on our collective fascination with “wellness” and “self-help” and turn it into revenue.
Of all the meditation schools, only TM has managed to really capitalize on our collective fascination with “wellness” and “self-help” and turn it into revenue. The catalyst for meditation’s popularity explosion in the early aughts was arguably the Dalai Lama’s 2003 dialogues with MIT for the Mind and Life Institute; but the Dalai Lama and his school don’t even focus on formal sitting meditation; it was mostly analytical meditation. That didn’t seem to matter; it became wildly popular again.
And when people wanted to try meditation, they went for the practice with a reputation for offering quick results requiring little effort. Think of it a little like a diet — someone who wants to get healthy for the first time might swear by the miracle of going gluten-free or drinking activated charcoal, but in the end, it’s the underlying healthy eating and exercise that likely do the most good. It’s tempting to get sucked into a scam that promises effortless, immediate results while ignoring science and good sense.
While the marketing of TM may target the same part of our brains that diet pills and late-night infomercials do, it’s possible the similarities end there. Those products are designed to take your money once and promptly become a cartoon dust cloud before you can figure out what happened. Scams mostly don’t have lifelong devotees; fat-burning pyramid schemes do not produce a following like TM can claim. That doesn’t change the fact that the data is largely a vast wasteland of biased data and meaningless jargon. Researchers are moving it in a more helpful direction, but for now, it’s still a mess.
Here’s what we really know: There are roughly six million happy, self-actualized, transcended people wandering around this planet. Are they deluding themselves? No. If they think that TM is helping them, it probably is. The state of the science doesn’t change that.