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Let’s save some time here: Is there any real need, in the year 2023, to explain that meditation is good for you? That a regular practice of sitting still and quiet and clearing the mind, in one way or another, amidst a world filled with more and more distractions, from the micro to the macro, each of them seemingly demanding our attention 24/7, is probably helpful, welcome, soothing, beneficial, and all the other good things?
You’ve tried it, yes? I sure have. No, I’ve more than tried it —I’ve done it. I’ve meditated, in a million ways over a million days: on some odd impulse back in high school, I sat cross-legged in my bedroom in front of a candle, trying to, you know, just stare at the flame without, you know, thinking too much about staring at the flame; a few years later in college, when I studied zen, Buddhism, and Eastern philosophy and religion, I tried variations and permutations on the theme now and again; more recently, I’ve visited zendos and immersed myself in sound baths, tried out walking meditations, and various mindful apps.
Each one of these experiences seemed like a great idea, both before and after. Some of them even produced a vague (and short-term) sort of clear-headedness—in addition to the self-satisfaction that I had, you know, done it. None of them, though, seemed necessary and, none of them became a practice, a habit, a regular part of my life— likely for all the same reasons that are in between you and whatever kind of self-care you wish you were practicing, from going to the gym to becoming one with the universe. The zendo was just too inconvenient; the sound bath was fun but just too weird; and the apps, somehow, were almost too easy, too available, too anything-goes to deliver the kind of life-changing transformation I was after. I mean, please: Does anybody endure an hour-each-way commute to a zendo to sit in silence and excruciating pain among strangers, struggling to empty one’s mind and soul completely, to achieve a vague clear-headedness? No: Give me the revelatory transformation, the effortless mastery of time, space, and dimension!
Which brings me to Transcendental Meditation. I’d been hearing about it for years, always at a kind of arm’s-length: Friends of friends raved about it in a maddeningly nonspecific way; musicians, artists, and directors whose work I followed swore by it. But what was it? What’s “transcendental” about it, how do I achieve that, and why wasn’t I doing it already? My only understanding of it was that it required a secret mantra, delivered via some specialized and seemingly expensive personal training.
Enter Bob Roth, CEO of the David Lynch Foundation and author of the bestselling Strength in Stillness: The Power of Transcendental Meditation, who I meet at an old-school Italian restaurant near the UN on Manhattan’s East Side. (The director David Lynch, who’s been practicing TM for nearly 50 years, created the Foundation with Roth in 2005.) If you’ve heard of a celebrity who credits Transcendental Meditation for transforming their life for the better—from Oprah Winfrey, Katy Perry, and Lena Dunham to Arianna Huffington or Hugh Jackman— chances are somewhere near 100% that Bob was, or is, their teacher. (That said, scores of other people you know about, from Kendall Jenner to Laura Dern, managed to find their way to TM without Bob’s help.)
In some ways, Bob is a character out of TM central casting: He went to Berkeley in the late ’60s, took a semester off to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who created what we now know as Transcendental Meditation, and has spent the rest of his life spreading the gospel, as it were.
“I’ve taught TM to maybe 50 famous people,” Bob tells me before ordering a bowl of vegetables and pasta (“Yeah, surprise, I’m a veggie,” he says, laughing), but I’ve taught thousands of not-famous people—underserved children in countries all over the world, prisoners, corporate groups…”
But while ”Meditation Bob,” as Oprah Winfrey has dubbed him, exudes the same sort of easy-smiling, casually confident, radiant bonhomie that you may have seen in, say, the Dalai Lama, he does so sheathed not in Birkenstocks but in a bespoke gray narrow-lapeled suit. (“I have a meeting at the UN later!” he laughs, self-conscious in a minor-league way, when I ask him about it.) His big goal has less to do with turning actors, musicians, and titans of industry on to TM—though their collective public praise of their meditation practices has done wonders to spread the word. No: Bob’s out to take TM into the mainstream—not merely the mainstream of wellness-seeking affluent hipsters, but the mainstream of billion-dollar healthcare conglomerates.
What was once seen, a half century ago, as a kind of vague spiritual quest undertaken by hippies, seekers, and weirdos —and, you know, the Beatles, who made their famous pilgrimage to India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968—has become a movement of 10 million people around the world who rely on TM for its proven benefits (in hundreds of peerreviewed scientific papers and more than a dozen major clinical trials) in reducing stress, tension, and anxiety; improving sleep and reducing insomnia; lowering blood pressure and reducing the chance of heart attacks and strokes; and boosting neuroplasticity and cell rejuvenation in the brain, for starters.
“I think within a couple of years,” he says, “TM is going to be incorporated into the healthcare system, covered by both private and public health insurances—and we’re going to see more and more schools with meditation programs and corporations with meditation rooms as a matter of course.” (An hour earlier, when I arrived at the tastefully dimmed and spare midtown Manhattan offices of the David Lynch Foundation to pick Bob up for lunch, he was finishing up a Zoom with the directors of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital and the leadership of several large veterans’ organizations, whom he’s been working with on a long-term project to provide veterans suffering from PTSD with insurance-covered TM training.) One misconception Bob is eager to get beyond: TM’s supposed prohibitive cost. Yes, TM training can cost $980—if your annual income is more than $250,000. Make less than that? It’s a sliding scale. Can’t afford it? Apply for a scholarship through the David Lynch Foundation.
As with so many things in life, though, the trick isn’t in thinking about it, reading about it, making plans for it, or paying for it, but, maddeningly, in actually doing it. Bob arranges for me to be taught TM by Kelly Malloy, a senior teacher with the David Lynch Foundation and part-time house music DJ who herself has been practicing TM since she was 10, over four one-hour sessions on four consecutive days. In short order, I’m sitting with Kelly in a small room at the foundation’s offices, our shoes kicked off.
What follows is almost fantastically simple: I meet with Kelly, tell her a bit about myself and what I’m hoping to achieve (I leave out the mastery of time, space, and dimension). Kelly gives me my mantra—a secret, of course, but think of an Eastern-leaning one-or-two-syllable nonsense word. (My mantra, however, is not random: Kelly has taken professional instruction in choosing mantras for her students.) Kelly and I repeat this word out loud to each other, firmly but calmly, and then I repeat the word silently to myself a few times. There’s nothing magical about the mantra, no hocus-pocus, no special meaning: It’s just your mantra. (More on this in a bit.)
Next comes what’s the only potentially woo-woo-adjacent moment of the entire training: Kelly stands, turns her back to me and toward a table, the top of which is set with a candle, a vase of flowers, a bowl of fruit, and a photograph of the Maharishi’s teacher, Guru Dev. Kelly lights the candle and some incense and chants some words in Sanskrit in honor of Guru Dev, the Maharishi, and the rest of the lineage of teachers who have brought TM forward for decades. Then Kelly sits quietly in the chair opposite me, and the two of us close our eyes and meditate together silently for 20 minutes, each of us repeating our mantra to ourselves.
Is it really that easy? Yes—and, of course, no. If the eye, as Diana Vreeland famously said, has to travel, so does the mind have to wander. One moment I’m lost in my mantra, breathing quietly and deeply, the rest of the world pleasantly receding; the next moment I’m repeating the chorus from a pop song my 11-year-old daughter is obsessed with, and the moment after that I’m mentally scrolling through a professional and personal to-do list that encompasses mind, body, career, household tasks, childrearing, and beyond.
Never mind, Kelly told me earlier. Such is life, and such is early TM. (“It’s accessible; it’s forgiving,” Bob told me a few days later when he called to check on my progress thus far. “It’s not clear your mind of thoughts and don’t let your mind wander.”)
Simply ease those thoughts to the background and return to your mantra. Lather, rinse, repeat. I’m on-track, I’m off track, I’m back on-track, and after 20 minutes of all this, Kelly gently eases us back into the wakeful world, we sit together quietly, talk about the experience for a bit, and part ways.
And? And…that’s it: You sit for 20 minutes once in the morning, before breakfast, and once in the afternoon or before dinner. Every day.
What I’m hearing now, after the reverberating sound of the world’s biggest needle scratching the world’s biggest record, is a global chorus of no can do. Forty minutes every day!?!?
It’s a question Bob has spent a lot of time preparing to answer, and he is here for it: “Let’s put it this way,” he says, calmly but firmly. “There are 1,440 minutes in every day —we’re talking about 20 minutes, twice a day. Think about the time you waste, say, doom-scrolling. Ultimately, of course, it’s your call, but I think we all have to reprioritize how we spend our time. Maybe 20 years ago something like TM might have been a luxury, but we’re living in increasingly stressful times, and there’s no magical thinking wherein this is going to suddenly change. And when you look at the research of how stress affects the brain, and our cardiovascular and nervous systems…it really comes down to making the time, because the alternative is just not sustainable.”
It’s an argument, a rationale, and a world view that seems more and more plausible as our world seems to make less and less sense, and I buy into it enthusiastically. Literally overnight I—relentlessly a night person—am waking up before dawn to sit quietly and meditate for 20 minutes before my kids wake up and plunge the household into chaos; I’m racing up to the David Lynch Foundation to meet with Kelly for my remaining three sessions, in which we meditate together and discuss everything from logistics —the how and where of finding times and places to sit— to strategies for dealing with intrusive thoughts. (In short, treat them like a guest who’s overstayed your very polite dinner party. There’s no need to be angry with them; just find an elegant way to prompt them toward an easeful exit, wish them well—and then calmly close the door behind them.)
And now, for the big question: Has it changed my life?
It most certainly has—if not in the way I once imagined it might. I’m possessed of no new superpowers, nor have I been transformed overnight into the sort of calm, focused, unflappable, and effortlessly energetic person who spits out good life choices like so many sunflower seeds. Full disclosure: As a kind of benchmark, Bob told me to give TM three months or so to produce truly noticeable mental and physical effects and health benefits; I’ve only been in the game for a few weeks. But Bob was also careful to note that there is, really, no way to fail at TM: There’s really no such thing as a good session or a bad session. Sometimes you’re in the zone, sometimes you’re not, and sometimes it’s a mix. The process simply works, whether you even believe in it or not. (To cite just one study: Your body produces cortisol, a.k.a. the stress hormone, at a rate that’s 30 to 40% less than normal when you’re meditating— when you sleep, by comparison, it only drops 10%.) But there’s already been a subtle change, quite hard to describe, in my ease and calm in making some of the million microdecisions one makes every day, from which route to take home to how to order one’s time effectively. I’m sleeping much better. And—above and beyond any tangible benefits that may or may not come from a TM practice— the sheer value of taking 20 minutes for oneself, twice a day, in a quiet fashion, to sit calmly amidst a world (or a mind, a job, a household, an inbox, an Instagram feed) that seems to run at hyperspeed? It’s heaven.
It’s also worth noting, as long as we’re talking benchmarks, that during the time I was learning and began practicing TM, I was suffering from (as I later learned) pneumonia, processing the complicated suicide of an important childhood friend and the cancer diagnosis of my brother, and navigating my daughter’s difficult transition to a new middle school. I also spent a somewhat harrowing 24 hours in an extremely violent South American port city controlled by warring narco gangs, followed by a few days of bliss in a private cabin on an expedition yacht sailing the Galapagos Islands. So, yeah: If I haven’t yet achieved peak bliss, I’m not really ready to think of my mental or emotional state without TM. (Also, oddly: Amidst all of the above, guess when I had the most difficulty finding time to meditate? Yep: Onboard the yacht.)
Still, I’ve got this burning question: Why the mantra? If it doesn’t mean anything, why is it seemingly at the center of TM? My own pet theory is that the mantra is a kind of Trojan horse, a distraction at the center of it all to keep your mind occupied so that some other part of you can go deeper, or higher, or more free. I call Bob to compare notes.
“That’s almost it,” he says. “But it’s not a distraction—it’s a vehicle to engage your mind in an easy, effortless way. The mind wants to think—that’s why any meditation technique that requires you not to think is unnatural—but we’re used to thoughts that have meaning, whether errands, or the meaning of life, or what’s for dinner. The mantra keeps the mind engaged on the surface, on the level of meaning, but we don’t concentrate on it. That just creates more tension and stress. It’s this very effortlessness that allows the mind to settle in.”
As for the transcendence part of TM? Yeah: It’s a real thing.
Briefly put, there are three main types of meditation. Focused attention—say, the candle thing I did in high school—produces gamma brain waves of 20-60 cycles per second. Different kinds of mindfulness or open monitoring meditation, where you’re closely observing something like your breath going in and out, produces theta waves of 5-7 cycles per second. TM, though, produces Alpha 1 waves of 8-10 cycles per second, linked to a deeper level of rest, calm, and focused wakefulness. If you’ve been playing your favorite sport and suddenly found yourself in the zone, or what others call a flow state, you know this feeling: Hard to define, yes, and impossible to recreate. (You’re in it, or you’re not.) In my experience with TM so far, it’s a blissful, thought-free state most noticeable right after you’ve come out of it.
Do I always get there? No, but I’m working on it, 20 minutes at a time, twice a day. And if that’s not its own kind of superpower—well, what is?