(Massive disclaimer alert! I am not a medical professional so take what I say below with a giant pinch of salt. I’m also discussing my experience with one particular form of meditation that I’ll acknowledge right off the bat is pretty expensive, so please don’t take this as an endorsement. It’s just my own personal experience).
Until around three months ago, I don’t think I’d ever heard of transcendental meditation (or TM as it’s often abbreviated to). If I had, I’m sure I dismissed it as some sort of hippy woo-woo that required the ingestion of copious amounts of LSD (and I can’t even handle copious amounts of caffeine). In short, I probably assumed it wasn’t for me.
But then Ray Dalio happened.
Ray Dalio, for those of you who don’t know, is a flippityjillionaire (oh, and a philanthropist), who founded Bridgewater Associates. He also wrote a book called Principles that my boyfriend Richard read and enjoyed. It was through this that he first found out about TM, the meditation technique that Dalio credits with his success. Seriously, Google it. He talks about it a LOT.
Richard quickly fell down the rabbit hole, absorbing hours worth of testimonials from everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Clint Eastwood. One thing they all had in common: they all say that TM was transformative and made their lives better.
We decided to try it.
I’ll stress that this decision did NOT come lightly. If you’re in Canada, the cost of the TM course is approx $1200 per person plus tax, and as yet I don’t think it’s covered by any benefits/health insurance plan. So it’s a LOT of money to fork out. The only reason we were in the position to do so at that time was because we had been saving for a long time for our travels and decided that, if it truly was the life-changing experience we heard it was, it was worth taking that chance.
What is Transcendental Meditation?
Quite simply, it’s a technique of meditation that you practice twice a day for twenty minutes at a time — once in the morning (generally the first thing you do after peeing), and once in the late afternoon/early evening (just after work is a good time because it gives you that space to transition from your work-life to your home-life).
It relies on a mantra, but unlike other mantra meditations, the goal isn’t to focus on the mantra incessantly, drowning out all thoughts; instead, it’s a tool to allow you to “transcend” or go beyond thought.
During the meditation, the practitioner sits upright, closes their eyes, and after 30 seconds begins to softly and quietly repeat their mantra in their mind. For me, it was helpful to imagine it as a kind of background noise, like a radio in a cafe — something you can just about hear but aren’t necessarily concentrating on.
And that’s basically it. There’s a lot of scientific stuff about alpha brain waves that I won’t get into here, but I’m sure you all know how to Google!
O…K… if it’s that easy, then what does your $1200 buy??
I asked myself this question a lot. Why should I spend so much money, when most meditations are cheaper or even free? My only answer is that you’re paying for the time of the instructors. Throughout the course, we got around 12 hours of instruction, which works out at around $100 per hour. Still not cheap by any means, but a little more understandable. You also get free lifetime access to TM centres around the world so you can join in weekly group meditations or request a personal “checking” if you feel like you’re struggling with your practice.
In broad strokes, this is what happens when you sign up to learn TM:
Firstly, you attend a two-hour introductory lecture that introduces the concept of meditation in general and TM in particular. The presenters run through the science behind TM, its history, benefits, and what you can expect from the course itself. Afterwards, you have a short one-on-one interview with one of the TM teachers to talk about any health issues you have, your reasons for wanting to meditate, as well as any concerns you might have.
Next comes the one-on-one instruction which lasts around 90 minutes. In this session, you learn your mantra and the technique for meditating. There’s also a ceremony at the start to honour TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teacher Brahmananda Saraswati and, OK, this definitely felt like the most woo-woo part. But you know what? It was also really nice and calming. For this ceremony, you’re required to bring two sweet fruit, six long stem flowers, and one white cloth. Other than that, you just stand there and watch.
After the one-on-one session comes three days of group instruction, each of which lasts two hours and after THAT, there are two more follow-up group sessions coming a few weeks later as well as another one-on-one session with your teacher.
So yeah, learning TM is a bit of a commitment. But is it worth it…?
My experience meditating
I’ve had anxiety for most of my life, and over the last decade or so I’ve tried meditating with little to no success. I knew that meditation was good for managing anxiety, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t stick with it. Going into my first TM session I was nervous. After all, I had forked out a LOT of money and my track record for sticking with meditation was poor. Could I really commit to meditating twice a day, every day, forever?
Day 1: I arrived for my one-on-one coaching session a tad early, and as I waited on the street to be let in, I saw a guy emerge from the building looking very chilled out. He spotted me clutching my flowers nervously and said, “TM?” I nodded. “Oh man!” he said, “You’ll love it.”
In hindsight, I don’t know whether bumping into this guy was a good thing or a bad thing. It certainly raised my expectations and made what came next feel all the more crushing.
My first session turned out to be not at ALL what I expected. After the ceremony, I was given my mantra and told what to do. For a few minutes, everything was fine but then I started to get really upset. And I mean really upset. My eyes started filling with tears and my throat was closing over with panic. Eventually, I couldn’t hold it in anymore and sobbed. Luckily, my teacher Sarah was absolutely amazing. She taught me a technique to help me calm down and explained that meditation can often bring up deep-seated feelings and it’s not unusual for people to occasionally feel overwhelmed.
I left my session feeling a little embarrassed and a lot drained. Not at all how I thought my first TM experience would go.
Day 2: The first group coaching session. This was where I REALLY started to feel the benefits of signing up for the course. Listening to other people’s experiences validated my own — for example, another woman felt an increase in her anxiety too and several other people were struggling with “thinking too much”. I learned that the goal of TM isn’t to drown out thoughts and you should never use your mantra as a hammer to beat thoughts away. Realizing I wasn’t “doing it wrong” allowed me to experience my first really good meditation (although in TM they urge you to avoid categorizing your meditations. There’s no good or bad. You either do it or you don’t.)
Days 3-5: My mood was great. I was so cheerful and pleasant that I think my coworkers were growing suspicious. Weirdly though, I was also really anxious. I checked my heart rate a few times and it was pretty elevated (for me. I have bradycardia and normally have the resting heart rate of a slug). It’s a really odd experience to simultaneously feel mentally happy but physically messed up. Sarah and David (the other TM teacher for the group sessions) assured me that this is normal and lots of people go through a period of physical adjustment.
Day 9: Anxiety came back with a bang with my first full-blown panic attack in a long time. I injured myself lifting weights and maybe it’s some kind of newly-heightened connection with my body that made me more aware of it than usual but day 9 was a low point. I felt awful.
Day 20: Returned for another group session. I was momentarily thrown because there were more people in the room than I expected and not all of them were from my original group. I’d grown attached to my group so seeing strangers was mildly distressing. However, it ended up being a great session. We were able to hear from a man who was almost six months into his practice and had already gone through all of the bumps in the road us newbies were currently experiencing. He seemed super zen so I’m hopeful that in six months’ time, I’ll be some kind of paragon of cool too (stranger things have happened I’m sure).
Day 27: Final group session. Mostly strangers this time and a different instructor with a different vibe. I didn’t love this session as much as the others, but I find that even a mediocre group session leaves me feeling invigorated.
Day 40: Getting the hang of this whole meditation thing. And honestly, I love my morning meditations. They wake me up and set me up for the day… usually. This was the first day I actually felt EXHAUSTED after my meditation and almost fell back asleep. Even so, it’s still cool that my body can react so differently depending on the day/the mood I’m in etc.
Day 60: Two months in and meditation has become as much a habit as brushing my teeth. Every single session feels different. Sometimes I “transcend” and weird stuff happens (losing my proprioception, i.e. the sense of where my body is in space; hands going numb; feeling like I’m spinning; feeling an absolute sense of calm and peace), but honestly, those times are rare. More often than not, my mind is still racing from thought to thought and I sneak a peek at the clock every five minutes. Even these sessions leave me feeling better though. By and large, I end my meditations feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle the next part of my day.
So is it worth it?
Yes. But with a caveat. As I’ve mentioned multiple times already, this type of meditation does not come cheap. You can probably look it up somewhere online and learn the technique yourself, but I honestly wouldn’t because I guarantee you’ll do it wrong. It’s a deceptively easy technique, but I needed those group sessions to fully get a handle on it. It was those sessions, more than anything else, I feel were worth every penny.
So while I think pretty much everyone could benefit from meditation, I’m by no means suggesting that everyone should try TM. There are a lot of great cheaper (or free) resources out there to help you learn a variety of techniques from Mindfulness to guided meditations (the Headspace app, for example) and if you can find success with those, great!
Personally, I can’t ever see myself stopping. I’m going through an extreme life-upheaval at the moment and despite that, my mood has generally been more even and my anxiety is easier to manage. It’s by no means a panacea, but I dread to think what a state I’d be in right now without it.
While it hasn’t changed my life (I harboured vague notions that I might become a clean living exercise freak but instead still eat too much bacon and watch too much Netflix), I did not expect meditation to become such an integral part of my day and I’m excited to see where it takes me next!