For many of my friends, spending a year at home led to the discovery of delightful new pastimes: baking, knitting, reading — one of my friends even wrote a book.
Meanwhile, I had only discovered new ways to stress myself out. As the months wore on, I picked up a number of bad habits without even realizing it: constantly reading (and refreshing) the news, doomscrolling, reflexively checking social media, and letting my mind race about the implications of the pandemic and why I hadn’t found any hip new hobbies.
Most of all, I had difficulty focusing. On many occasions I would get myself all set up on the couch to read a novel I'd purchased in March. The cushion positioned just right, the house calm and quiet, I would crack open the cover ready to be transported to a faraway land on wings of literature ... and then I'd instantly fall asleep or check my phone. Several months later, my bookmark remained on the cover page. I'd even developed temporomandibular joint disorder, aka TMJ, a stress-induced jaw condition.
After a string of sleepless nights, a friend of mine (one of the annoying ones who'd recently learned how to sculpt) suggested I try meditation. I downloaded the most popular meditation apps and searched for guided meditations on YouTube, but I found myself unable to take any of it seriously. My inability to relax made me all the more stressed. Meditation, I decided, wasn’t for me.
A few weeks later, I saw a documentary about The Beatles and their fabled trip to India. In 1968, they visited a small city in northern India called Rishikesh to learn a specific type of meditation I didn't know much about beforehand: Transcendental Meditation.
In the interviews John, Paul, George and Ringo describe feelings of “complete inner peace,” “boundless creativity” and feeling “high on life.” This sounded slightly more appealing than my night sweats and teeth grinding. The next morning, I signed myself up for a Transcendental Meditation course.
What is Transcendental Meditation?
Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is a simple and easy process designed to help the mind settle down. It is practiced for 20 minutes at a time, twice a day, sitting comfortably in a chair with your eyes closed.
Bob Roth, a TM teacher and CEO of the David Lynch Foundation, offers this analogy: Imagine you are in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. You might see giant waves all around you — 60 foot swells crashing chaotically and rocking the boat — and you might think that the entire ocean is in upheaval. But the ocean is actually miles deep, and as you go down from the surface the water gets calmer and calmer and calmer until you reach the bottom where things are naturally silent and still. The entire ocean is not in upheaval, nor are those giant waves as giant as they seem; they only happen on the water’s surface.
The surface of the water is our active, thinking mind. Bob Roth calls it the “gotta gotta gotta” mind: “I gotta do this and I gotta do that and I gotta run this errand and I gotta get home because I need to work out today and I gotta make dinner…” and so on. TM enables one to spend some time beneath this frantic surface, to find inner depths of quietude and calm that are already there.
The difference between this practice and other forms of mindfulness or meditation is that TM is an independent, passive process. It is not guided by someone else who gives you suggestions about what to think; it’s entirely internal.
Transcendental Meditation is not about learning to do something that will your help your mind relax. It’s about learning to do nothing. In fact, teachers of TM often stress that the process should be absolutely effortless. Once you get into the right zone, it happens by itself.
I was intrigued enough to sign up, but also highly skeptical of something so simple.
“You don’t do anything?” I asked my meditation teacher. “So then what am I even doing?”
“Exactly,” he said.
I was worried again that this wasn’t for me. Nevertheless, I took solace in the fact that, in addition to The Beatles, TM is hailed by a number of reliable celebrities: Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks, Katy Perry and Jerry Seinfeld (the list goes on) have all cited TM as being an integral part of their success. Seinfeld has said in interviews that he has not missed a day of TM since 1972. Perhaps it’s no coincidence he created a show about nothing! And if it’s good enough for Oprah, there must be something to it.
I wanted to document my journey to see if I would experience the same benefits cited by these successful people, namely feeling more focused, more creative and far less stressed. Here’s what happened:
After the first day...
Although TM is a personal, individual practice, it has to be taught by a certified TM teacher because the practice revolves around what’s known as a “mantra.” The mantra is a special sound that you can intone in your mind to help you get into a meditative state. Keeping with the analogy of the ocean, the mantra is your submarine to travel beneath the surface’s crashing waves.
When you arrive for the first day of one-on-one TM instruction, you receive a personalized mantra that is unique to you and that you are not supposed to share with anyone else. I quite liked having my own a little secret, but as I tried to use it for the first time I also became self-conscious about it, wondering why that particular one had been prescribed to me. As I began meditating, this made me think about the scene in Harry Potter when Harry receives his wand. And that made me think about how young Daniel Radcliffe looks in the first movie, and how it must be hard to be a child actor, and then about children’s TV and is "Blue's Clues" still a thing or did that go off the air, and is Sesame Street still filming during the pandemic and why am I thinking about this and why am I so hungry I just had lunch I need to exercise more…
Needless to say, I hardly transcended consciousness.
...the first few days
The TM course lasts four days. After the first day, which happens in-person in a socially distant setting, you can meet with your teacher over a video call for a series of meditation check-ins. At first this seemed like overkill to learn how to do nothing, but I was glad someone was holding me accountable and making sure I wouldn’t skip a meditation.
As I meditated for a third and fourth time, I noticed something very surprising: I was exhausted. I was more tired than I could ever remember being. I was falling asleep in the middle of the day, and could hardly keep my eyes open even during meals.
This was curious to me, since I'd never heard someone say that meditating was a terrible decision. I (not so) politely asked my meditation teacher over Zoom: “What have you done to me?! This is ruining my life!”
He calmly responded that in Transcendental Meditation “the body takes what it needs,” and that feeling tired is common among people new to TM. It wasn’t that meditation was making me tired, it was that my mind and body were becoming more aware of just how tired I already was. Years of stress from school, from work and from the pandemic had all built up and I had never taken more than a moment to really feel it. This perspective shift opened my mind, and made me look forward to my next meditation (and my next nap).
...the second week
It wasn't until the second week that I started to notice positive changes as a result of meditating.
After every meditation check-in, my teacher would ask me: “Was that easy and effortless?” He wanted to know if I was letting the mantra work, and letting my brain sort itself out and settle down without trying to muscle it into a state of forced relaxation.
Ironically, being "easy and effortless" was the hardest part. But as I meditated every day, I became more accustomed to the feeling of letting go, of not trying to meditate or relax but simply letting myself be present with my thoughts and gently diving beneath those crashing waves. The exhaustion I felt in the first few days went away, and suddenly I had more energy. I started reading my novel in earnest. I found myself compulsively checking the news less. I still had urges to check social media, but right before I would open my phone, I noticed a new reaction: a split second of awareness where I would think about what I was doing and decide whether or not to open those apps in that moment.
...one month of meditating
After a month of daily TM practice, I haven't achieved a level of Zen mastery nor have I composed this generation’s “White Album,” but I have noticed a significant reduction in stress. In general, I just feel a bit lighter as I move through my day.
I confess that after meditating every day of the first month, I've missed a few days of meditation here and there. It’s often difficult to find two 20-minute pockets of quiet time during the day, but whereas I originally dreaded meditating, I now look forward to it whenever I get the chance. I try my best to keep it part of my daily routine.
While the course fee can be expensive (the price of the course depends on your income bracket), anyone who enrolls in a TM course gets lifetime access to free events, group meditations and a network of TM coaches for check-ins whenever you need. Signing up is easy, too. There are TM centers all over the country. You can find the one nearest you on TM.org and call to schedule an appointment.
I recommend meditating to anyone (like me!) who has gotten used to running off of stress and anxiety. I can’t claim to be a meditation guru now or pretend like I know exactly why meditating is so beneficial, but I do know for certain that those who don’t mind doing nothing are onto something.