One concern I often hear about meditation is how hard it is to clear the mind of thoughts. When I lecture on the Transcendental Meditation technique, it's not unusual for someone in the audience to sheepishly admit that their mind is too busy to settle down. I assure them that an active mind is no hindrance to meditation -- especially if you learn an effortless technique for transcending (going beyond thought). This brings us to our first common myth about meditation.
Myth #1: Meditation is difficult
It is often said that the mind is like a monkey jumping from tree to tree, always searching for more bananas. Most approaches to meditation involve degrees of effort or control, in hope that the mind can be steadied or subdued. Many earnest students of meditation tell me they have tried this and found it difficult.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to settle the mind and expand awareness -- one that anybody can learn, even children. The TM technique is based on the mind's very nature, on its inherent tendency to search for more and more. It is this natural flow of the mind toward greater happiness that leads attention to deeper, quieter levels during TM practice, and then beyond all thinking to where the quest is fulfilled -- the field of peace, energy, and happiness that resides deep within everyone. As Maharishi Mahesh Yogi once said, "We don't control the mind, we satisfy the mind."
Throughout human history, this experience of transcendence has been described by many great minds and sages and recorded in the texts of our most venerated traditions. It belongs to everyone. So why do we need a technique? Because the mind is habituated to be outward -- trained to be actively directed onto thoughts and sensations, out through the senses toward our goals, perceptions, and desires. It seems that our modern lifestyle demands and consumes most of our attention just to process information and stimuli.
Instead of starting our day with meditation, many of us begin our routine by checking our email or cell phone messages. Too few of us are aware of how easy and beneficial it can be to connect with the vast reservoir of energy, intelligence and creativity that lies beneath the surface -- at the depths of human awareness.
Myth #2: Meditation takes a long time to master
"How long is it going to take me to get good at this?" I might hear this question from a busy mother with little time or patience for meditation techniques that require rigorous discipline and many hours of practice to get results. People juggling career, family, and relationships often wonder if they could ever find time to discover how to meditate successfully. Even dedicated meditators can become frustrated with their slow progress in trying to achieve mindfulness or inner peace through practices that take years to master. Fortunately, neuroscience is showing us how quickly specific techniques can produce results.
Advancements in brain research have helped scientists measure what happens in the brain during various meditation practices. This research is exciting for me as a meditation teacher -- seeing how fast beneficial changes can occur.
Researchers have found that new meditators practicing the TM technique are likely to achieve the same orderly, synchronous brain activity during meditation as those who have been practicing the technique for many years.1 (However, people who have practiced the technique long-term show brain wave coherence not only during TM practice, but also outside of meditation, throughout their daily activity.)
Studies show that this increased brain wave coherence is associated with growth of IQ and creativity, faster reaction time, improved problem solving ability, better moral reasoning, and reduced neuroticism.2 Other benefits seen from just a few months of TM practice include normalization of blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and decreased depression.3
Myth #3: All meditation techniques are basically the same
A woman who works as a stress management consultant dropped by our local meditation center last night to gather some brochures. She said she wanted to encourage stressed-out executives to try meditating. Since meditation techniques were basically all the same, she said, she was gathering a smorgasbord of information for clients to draw from. She was surprised when I mentioned that different meditation techniques had been found to have different signature brain patterns, different levels of relaxation, and varying effects on mind and body.4 It's not an uncommon mistake to assume that research on one technique applies to all forms of meditation.
With the rise of more and more studies on different meditation techniques at universities and medical schools around the world, the belief in a single "relaxation response" common to the various practices is being laid to rest. You can access many of these studies on the U.S. government website PubMed.org.
Meditation is an integral part of many great traditions around the world. Its origins are buried in antiquity. How to interpret the original set of instructions can be a mystery. A practice may not have been passed down through the centuries in its completeness. This is another reason why meditation practices may vary in their ease and effectiveness.
Many people find effortless meditation to be the most natural and beneficial approach for mind-body health and spiritual growth. The Transcendental Meditation technique is one such effortless practice -- with a superb track record.
VIDEO: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi speaks on meditation practice (1:29)
1. Biological Psychiatry, 61: 293-319, 2002.
2. Intelligence 29: 419-440, 2001; International Journal of Neuroscience 13: 211 217, 1981; 15: 151-157, 1981; Personality and Individual Differences 12: 1105-1116, 1991.
3. Hypertension. 26: 820-827, 1995. Journal of Clinical Psychology 45: 957-974, 1989. Journal of Counseling and Development 64: 212-215, 1985.
4. Cognitive Processing 11:1, 2010. American Psychologist 42: 879-881, 1987.