Trying to Transcend

Illustration by Madeleine Witt.
Illustration by Madeleine Witt.

“Aim, aim, aim.” I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of my dorm room, eyes closed, chanting this word over and over in my head. I’m trying to practice Transcendental Meditation, which, among meditators, is known for being especially simple. But it doesn’t feel simple. Am I breathing correctly? Is my posture right? How will I know if I’m meditating? I worry that worrying about the best way to meditate is getting in the way of meditating, which is exactly the kind of paralyzing overanalyzing that caused me to consider meditating to begin with.

I shouldn’t have done this alone, I think. In theory, I’m not supposed to. Official Transcendental Meditation (TM) practice begins with a lengthy interview with a certified TM teacher. The teacher assigns the meditator a personal word, or mantra. Next, the meditator attends an introductory lecture and four classes. The total cost: $960.

I don’t have that kind of cash, so I turned to the Internet to soothe my soul. I found a website called www.tm.org, which calls itself the “Official Website” of TM. There, I found a chart of personalized mantras determined by age and gender. For men aged 35–40, the mantra is “shring,” for women, it’s “shrim.” But for me—a woman between 15 and 30—it’s “aim.”

I’ve been feeling especially anxious lately, full of a nervous, manic energy that makes it hard to concentrate. My hands shake, and I wake in the middle of the night with the after-images of vivid dreams. My hope is that experimenting with meditation could bring me some sense of calm and a more restful mind. I’ve decided to try TM because of its simplicity: as far as I can tell, it’s meditation for dummies, a minimalist practice. All I have to do is sit for twenty minutes twice a day silently repeating a single word. TM practitioners claim that it offers significant benefits, such as unity of being, heightened awareness, and self-control. That’s certainly appealing. What’s more, TM stresses that it’s not a religion. It doesn’t ask practitioners to change the structure of their lives in any significant way. No work. Just the word.

TM began in the late 1950s as the brainchild of Indian spiritual figure Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. By the 1960s, Yogi was serving as the spiritual advisor to the Beatles. Despite its unconventionality, TM has lasted into the twenty-first century largely because it has made itself into an institution—building schools, training teachers, and perfecting its publicity tactics. I’m suspicious of this system. But I’m also intrigued by the way TM instructors have taken a solitary, silent practice and turned it into something collective—an experience that is both private and, because of the formal TM training, shared by countless others. I read dozens of online testimonials, and find myself overwhelmed. They all use the same words: “stillness,” “unity,” “rest.” The rhetoric has a certain seductive, chatty quality; it combines subjective experience and supposedly objective science, and it constantly treads the line between earnest enthusiasm and syrupy kitsch.

I’m fascinated by the sheer mass of personal success stories. Celebrities are particularly enthusiastic. Russell Brand, a comedian, former heroin addict, and ex-husband of Katy Perry, gives a testimonial on the website for the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace: “I find TM very relaxing—it’s like a shower for your brain.” A shower for my brain sounds nice. So does reduced cortisol (“the stress hormone”), increased self-control, lower risk of heart attack and stroke, and a greater sense of companionship with my fellow human beings. According to what I read online, TM can make miracles happen. It could help me achieve everything from self-actualization to world peace: “the Maharishi effect,” part quantum physics and part social theory, claims that the “unified field of consciousness,” which TM creates, can calm violent communities. If one percent of the population in any given area practices TM, crime rates will, supposedly, fall dramatically.

This seems fuzzy and far-fetched, and I dislike how enlightenment has been turned into a commodity. But I’m willing to give TM a try. The TM center closest to me is in Hamden, a few bus stops up Whitney Avenue. It is run by Richard and Gail Dalby, a friendly, middle-aged pair who offer introductory lectures on Wednesday nights and more advanced classes every couple of weeks. They insist that the $960 fee is not exclusive, but actually democratizing: that money funds TM centers around the globe. TM, Gail Dolby tells me, “is a worldwide phenomenon; an established organization with millions of practitioners.” Part of what they’re selling is a connection to a larger network, but they create the network by selling you the concept of the network. This is how any successful large organization—from church to corporation—works.

But this collective experience also brings individual benefits. Judson Brewer, a Yale professor whose research is largely focused on the neuroscience of meditation, confirms that this kind of spiritual experience causes observable changes in the brain. At Yale, Dr. Brewer ran studies using functional MRI technology to map what goes on in the someone’s mind while he or she is in a meditative state. What Russell Brand can describe only vaguely, Brewer can illustrate via color-coded graphs and articulate in scientific language. In layman’s terms, the area of my brain associated with anxiety, depression, cravings, and lying, was probably deactivated while I meditated. This happens in the brains of novices and experienced meditators alike. “After a few tries,” he says, “there was very little difference in brain function between those who had just started and those who had been meditating for years.”

Brewer himself is a longtime meditator, following a Buddhist breath-based system that he was introduced to in college. He undertakes scientific study of meditation, he tells me, because, “cynically speaking, science is the new religion of the West. If we can develop a science of meditation, we can develop some faith for people who wouldn’t otherwise be open to it.” Like Richard and Gail Dalby, he sees the potential for creating institutions to help make an individual practice communal; in 2012, he helped start a Yale meditation group, YMindful, that still meets twice a week.

Meditation, advocates say, can be useful in confronting many of life’s difficulties. New Haven’s New Horizons High School—an alternative school for students with academic or behavioral difficulties—has introduced its students to meditation. Maureen Bransfield, the school’s principal, says that the techniques helps students “calm down, be more aware of their emotions.” Support systems that teach and encourage meditation, Brewer believes, can also improve the lives of those suffering from addiction and chronic pain. When he ran the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, he worked with recovering smokers who used meditation and mindfulness to fight nicotine cravings.

“It doesn’t matter what type of meditation you do,” he says. “Any type of mindfulness or breath-awareness will help focus the mind away from destructive self-referential processes.” Large institutions like the TM machine aren’t necessary; small, grassroots groups like YMindful can also help people achieve the same results.

A few minutes into one of my meditation sessions, my thoughts slowly become less frantic, less self-aware. There’s a subtle shift, a detachment. Instead of dwelling on the day’s anxieties, I begin to passively observe my emotions. I drift in and out of thinking about “aim,” but focusing even a small part of my brain on this three-letter pattern keeps me from being obsessed with self-reflection. I begin to feel my breath. I begin to incorporate that physical sensation into the progress of my thoughts.

Once, I have a powerful urge to open my eyes and check the timer on my phone. I think about how my back and neck hurt, the floor is uncomfortable, and my hands are sweaty. What if I forgot to set the timer? I am just about to quit when it occurs to me that I don’t have to. What else would I do? I let the boredom fill me. I consider it from all angles. The moment passes.

Eventually, I breathe deeper and slower. The silent chant of “aim” has aligned itself with the rhythm of my breath. I feel the breath pulling me, starting lower in my stomach, expanding my diaphragm, and traveling up my chest. When I exhale, I feel air rolling out of me, my chest deflating, my shoulders rolling backward.

I am very still. My arms and head feel simultaneously very heavy and very light. For a moment, I almost feel the blood moving through my body. I think, “Is this meditating? Am I meditating now?” The moment passes. I open my eyes and reach to turn off the timer, with hands a little less shaky, mind a little quieter.