WE’RE all probably pretty familiar with the concept of meditation, but have you heard of ‘transcendental meditation’?
Well, it’s having a moment as the current stress-busting buzzword of choice (and with four out of five of us feeling stressed during a typical week, it might be worth a try).
Billed as a simple and effortless technique —that can diffuse negative thoughts and promote a state of relaxed awareness — it’s become a go-to solution for more than six million people worldwide, with everyone from business leaders and scientists, to students and politicians giving it a go.
Bob Roth, one of Hollywood’s most sought-after meditation experts, has just written a book on the practice, called Strength In Stillness: The Power Of Transcendental Meditation (Simon and Schuster).
He trained with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, counts stars Ellen DeGeneres, Katy Perry and Russell Brand as fans, and he even taught Jerry Seinfeld to meditate (“Jerry told me that if he’d been meditating twice a day when he was writing Seinfeld, it would still be on the air”).
Roth wrote the book — a no-nonsense guide to the technique and how it works — to illustrate that you don’t need to be a ‘spiritual person’ to tap into the stress-relieving benefits of meditation.
“Stress is a very real deadly epidemic. You can’t just blow it off by saying, ‘I’m just going to muscle through’, because it’s killing us. We mask it with coffee and alcohol, and we self-medicate, but there’s no pill that will magically get rid of it,” he says.
According to Roth, the health benefits of building a daily practice of transcendental meditation are bountiful.
Research funded by the National Institutes of Health in the US suggests the technique could be the most effective mind-body practice for reducing stress and its related disorders, including hypertension, high cholesterol, stroke and atherosclerosis.
“It’s been shown by research to reduce high blood pressure, risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, eating disorders, bipolar disorders — basically any disorder that caused or exacerbated by stress,” says Roth. “And on the positive side? You can experience more creativity, more energy and more focus.”
This growing field of scientific research, Roth says, is the reason why ‘TM’ (as it’s known) is now being offered in some schools, military bases and companies — the US defence department has reportedly just invested $2.4million into a study on the effects of TM on soldiers with Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) .
If you’ve tried the popular Headspace app and mindfulness meditation before but didn’t get on especially well with it, don’t write off TM too soon. It differs completely from other forms of meditation, as it does not involve concentrating, or trying to empty the mind, or be really ‘in the present’.
Roth says it’s best to seek out a course with a certified teacher, who will guide you through personalised instruction and present you with a mantra to concentrate on (a meaning-free one, or two-syllable word that comes from the Vedic traditions of India).
The TM technique involves repeating this mantra over and over, until all meaning melts away and the mind stills into a state of inner silence. Once you’ve mastered this, anyone can adopt the practice at home, ideally meditating for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night.
Aside from his celebrity following, Roth is passionate about teaching at-risk groups, like survivors of domestic abuse, inmates and inner-city students, the life-long skill.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about meditation,” he says, “because anyone, whether they’re a celebrity or kid living in New York, can pick it up like that.”
Roth is chief executive of the David Lynch Foundation (davidlynchfoundation.org), a charity set up by the celebrated film director, who has been practising TM for more than 40 years.
The non-profit organisation works with children and adults in the US, particularly those who are disadvantaged and at greater risk, to manage stress-related disorders that can fuel violence, crime and ill health, and compromise the effectiveness of education, healthcare and rehabilitation.
Now the foundation is launching a pilot in the UK with two schools in London, to illustrate the benefits of meditation on young minds. Researchers will measure the students for changes to attention span, stress levels and academic performance.
Roth’s hope is that he can successfully roll out the practice to more schools across the UK.
“If adults are swimming in an ocean of stress, our children are drowning in it,” says Roth. “The child’s brain is sculpting the adult brain, so if they’re anxious and not sleeping well, it can become a bigger problem later in life. It’s just like we teach physical education; I think within two to three years, this is going to be part of school education. “
Roth doesn’t exactly look like a typical meditation guru. When we meet, he’s dressed in a suit, with a smart, business-like haircut — he wouldn’t look out of place on a commuter train.
It turns out, people are often a little surprised when they meet him. “I got a call that Tom Hanks wanted to learn to meditate,” says Roth. “I met him at his house and he was was visibly shocked at my appearance. When I asked why, he said, ‘I thought you were going to be wearing yoga pants and have a man bun’.
“I’m a very sceptical person,” he says, adding: “I’m not into ‘woo woo’ stuff, but the great thing about transcendental meditation is that you can be thoroughly sceptical and the technique will still be fully effective, kind of like how you can be sceptical about gravity —but we are still sitting here.”
So how does a 67-year-old sceptic feel after practising meditation, every day, for 45 years?
“Resilient is a good word,” says Roth. “I feel good; I have more energy now at 67, I sleep better, I’m more focused now then I would have been 30 years ago.
“The benefits keep growing. I don’t sleep that many hours at night — it’s not because of insomnia, but all these years of meditating, my body is just more resilient.
“I am just more me and I enjoy life more. I wake up excited for the next day”