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Becoming a Transcendental Meditation junkie rewired my brain

My mom pulled over in the Walmart parking lot, handing each of us three kids some small bills from her purse. “I just need 20 minutes,” she pleaded. “Why don’t you go find some snacks and games?” 

We all knew the drill. Mom needed to meditate before she could drive any farther on our road trip. As a doctor, she was chronically sleep-deprived and had found meditation gave her the energy she needed.

“Whatever, weirdo!” I shouted, grabbing her money as I ran gleefully across the parking lot, dreaming of the Rolos and glossy Seventeen magazines I was going to buy while she found her Zen.

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Who knew, out of everything I learned from my mom growing up, her insistence on taking 20 minutes to herself when she needed it most would be the best thing she’d ever teach me?

Flash forward 15 years. I’m organizing all of the cans by alphabetical order in my cupboard. My boyfriend is staring at me in total disbelief. It’s as though an alien engrossed in organizing everything humanly possible had suddenly replaced my formerly messy self. The day before I had thrown a bunch of old cat toys (we don’t even have a cat anymore… ) and camping equipment into one of our kitchen cupboards in a half-assed attempt at cleaning before guests came over. “Don’t worry! Nobody looks in that cupboard,” I’d said.

But Transcendental Meditation, or TM as it’s called these days, has totally rewired my brain.

You’ve likely heard of TM. It first gained popularity in the 1960s with The Beatles, who spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, the guru who developed the Transcendental Meditation technique. And now it’s having a moment again. Lots of Hollywood A-listers are doing it: Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, David Lynch, Laura Dern, Clint Eastwood — the list goes on! And Oprah has said she’s a 1,000 percent better person when she does TM. What bigger endorsement is there?!

Despite all of the buzz about Hollywood’s TM craze, both my sister and I were a little reticent when we headed to our first TM class. Mostly I worried about whether making a commitment to meditate 20 minutes twice a day was actually doable. For a woman who struggled to find time to hit the gym and found herself constantly having to reschedule coffee meetings, it kind of seemed like a big time suck.

“The people who endorse TM are often the people who are so busy that they couldn’t imagine ever finding 20 minutes to do it,” explained my meditation instructor Peter Cameron. When you take the time to do TM, “your mind becomes clearer, and you suddenly realize you just invested 20 minutes of meditation and got back an hour or two hours worth of clear thinking,” he says, promising that TM will actually help you get way more crossed off your to-do list.

I certainly needed to mellow out and find some focus when I met with Cameron, who’s been teaching TM since 1972. My life had been turned upside down by construction workers jackhammering around my place all hours of the day. Sleeping and getting any work done in my home office was impossible. Plus, my younger sister was living with me and my partner, and we’d been bickering a lot. She’d just graduated from art school and was on the hunt for a job in a city where you have to compete with people with master’s degrees to work in a coffee shop. So as we drove to meet Cameron, we were both total stress bags.

I’d also been Googling TM and had come across some super weird and kind of amusing videos of grown men sitting in the lotus pose, bouncing up and down on a runway of mattresses in yogic flying competitions. Apparently, students can go into a meditation so deep that their bodies begin to lift off of the ground. This made me panic a bit, too. Did people expect me to devote my entire life to blissfully defying the laws of physics? Because um… clearly not happening. Thankfully, this was far from the case. The majority of practitioners seem to be busy people, like me, who use it to find more hours in the day.

I’d expected we’d meet Cameron in some sort of Zenned-out temple with incense and pillows on the floor, but instead, we met for our group meditation lessons in several different living rooms, sinking into comfy couches and armchairs as we learned to calm our minds. And what is TM? TM instructor Bob Roth, the executive director of the David Lynch Foundation, which promotes TM around the world, explains in a video that TM teaches you to silence “the gotta gotta gotta mind” and basically chill your stressed out brain.

More: I tried a meditation challenge for 30 days, and this is what happened

I can’t tell you all the details about what goes down in meditation class because I signed a nondisclosure agreement. What’s important, though, is that my instructor taught me that by effortlessly repeating a mantra — basically a meaningless word that you bring to mind when you want to enter a deep state of meditation — you can find 20 calm minutes that will re-energize you.

I’d tried other forms of meditation before and failed miserably. I tried mindfulness meditation once at a Buddhist temple and found myself squirming uncomfortably, all too aware of everything that was wrong with the moment, from my itchy elbow to my suddenly too tight shoes. The guided visualization meditation CDs I’d tried didn’t work too well, either. “Imagine you’re at a beach,” a calm voice said. My inner dialogue went a little like this: Wait, is this a cold East Coast beach, or can it be a Caribbean beach? How can I afford to go to a Caribbean beach? Why is there a dirty seagull at my beach? Remember the time a seagull pooped on my head? Does my meditation visualization-self get to be skinnier and more tan than my current self?

TM was different than other forms of meditation I’d tried because I didn’t have to exert any effort to meditate. In fact, they tell you not to. You basically train your brain to quiet down, and your mind learns to automatically begin repeating the mantra when it’s time to meditate. It’s kind of like discovering that there’s a warm bath waiting for your brain that you can easily dip into whenever you need a timeout. You don’t have to focus on staying perfectly still  (which is impossible for me) or timing your breaths like in some other forms of meditation I’ve tried. Usually, your breath slows down naturally, though. And you can sit however you feel comfortable, as long as your neck is unsupported. Plus, you don’t need anything special. You can meditate in your bed, favorite La-Z-Boy chair, on an airplane or in your parked car.

TM meditation
Image: Lizzy Hill

TM worked for my brain. I felt so high on natural energy after my first session that it was like discovering a new drug. And the more I meditated, the more I noticed positive changes in myself. As I learned how to deal with my day-to-day anxiety, I began to lose my desire to drink in the evenings. Sometimes I’d go out to the bar with friends and sip a glass of wine the entire evening — something I’d never been capable of before. As I woke up less and less hungover, I suddenly felt compelled to exercise regularly. This made me less restless at night, so I began going to bed while the clock still read p.m. (a major accomplishment for me). After my morning meditations, I found I could power through my work, and I began procrastinating less and less on tasks. Experts say TM has a slew of health benefits as well. For example, the American Heart Association links Transcendental Meditation with a decrease in blood pressure.

TM doesn’t come cheap. It can cost up to $1,500 for an adult to take the course. There are discounts and payment plans available, though, so you can pay in monthly installments, much as you would with your local gym. Although I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes at me for taking such an expensive course, for me, it’s been worth it. Add the fact that, for the rest of my life, any TM instructor in the world will meet with me when I need a little help with my meditation practice, and I feel like it’s not a bad deal. Just the other day, I FaceTimed Cameron because I’d briefly fallen out of the habit of meditating due to a hectic schedule and needed to get back on track.

Now that my mom, sister and I all meditate, I’ve noticed that my family and I argue less when we’re together. Amanda Lakhanpal, a mother of three boys aged 13, 10 and 7, tells me that TM has positively impacted her family dynamic as well, as all of them practice TM in some form. “We still have our moments like other families, but there are fewer, and the stress dissipates quickly,” she says. “My boys are very peace-loving, intuitive and compassionate (many people have commented on this). They love being at home together.”

At 30, I’m now discovering a more efficient, higher-functioning version of myself. Sure, I still stay up till 4 a.m. sometimes watching the X-Files or find myself singing Toni Braxton at karaoke into the early hours of the morning — I’m still the same person! — but my regular meditation sessions have helped me find more balance in my life.

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