Being that my job is to feature and review books on psychology, spirituality, and especially the intersection between the two, I receive my share of books on meditation. And as a person who has been trying to meditate for two years, but who just can’t seem to get the hang of it, I always open the cover a tad sinister, looking for a magic bullet.
The book Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation was on my decline stack until I read the short bio on Norman Rosenthal, M.D. and became intrigued. He’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School. He conducted research at the National Institute of Mental Health. And he was the one who first described and diagnosed seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Ironically, I knew of him through my good friend Michelle, who had been one of the case studies for him on SAD.
So, with those credentials I opened the book and began to read stories that inspired me and gave me hope that one day I might be a meditator too.
Rosenthal won my trust in that he clearly states in the introduction that Transcendental Meditation is not a stand-alone treatment for emotional disorders, especially when effective treatments are available and work (if not full proof). He writes, “The fact is that no single treatment works every time for any given set of symptoms. We often have to try several different medications or treatment approaches before we find the right mix. I am suggesting that TM should be part of that mix, especially when conventional approaches prove unsatisfactory.” Rosenthal would in no way advise a person to go off his meds and try this type of meditation. However, he believes that practicing it can be the difference between a life of coping and a life of living.
Before reading Rosenthal’s book, I was unaware of the ways different kinds of meditations activate neurons in distinct regions of the brain. For example, Mindful Meditation increases the activity of neurons not only in certain emotional areas of the brain, but also in frontal regions, which are responsible for decision making and other functions. In Transcendental Meditation, there is a more global effect. Characteristic brain wave patterns are seen in many different parts of the brain, so the meditator has a better chance of experiencing the effects of meditation long past the meditation session.
What, exactly, is this Transcendental Meditation? Rosenthal writes:
Transcendental Meditation is always taught one-on-one, at least initially, by a teacher who is a longtime meditator trained not only to instruct new students and provide follow-up, but also to customize the approach for each student. Initial instruction has seven steps: two lectures and a personal interview with a certified teacher, then four teaching sessions on four consecutive days. Each session lasts about ninety minutes. Ideally, the fledgling meditator then follows up with the teacher, perhaps weekly for the first month and monthly thereafter. These thirty-minute “checking” sessions give students a chance to ask questions and make sure their technique is still on track, so they will derive the maximum benefit.
Basically, TM is a nonreligious practice that involves sitting comfortably for twenty minutes twice a day, while using a silent mantra, or nonverbal sound, to attain a profound state of aware relaxation. And just like yoga or martial arts, says Rosenthal, in order to learn it correctly, you need ongoing guidance with a teacher.
A profound gift of TM is that regular practice increases brain wave coherence, meaning that the frequencies of brain waves in different parts of the brain work together as a result of TM. In seasoned meditators, brain wave coherence can be found throughout the day, not only during meditation. Electroencephalograms (EEG) indicate that TM calms the brain while organizing the prefrontal brain regions so that meditators can improve their focus, decision-making, and job performance.
Especially enlightening to me were Rosenthal’s chapters on how TM can help treat acute anxiety, major depression, and bipolar disorder. This psychiatrist and some of his colleagues obtained a grant to study TM in a group of bipolar patients. In the study, eleven people received immediate TM training, while fourteen people were placed on a wait list. Both groups continued with their previous medical treatments. A few from the TM group reported a drop in manic symptoms, however, depressive symptoms were especially relieved, as stated in the patient reports but also upon inspecting the results of TM by Rosenthal and his team. Explains Rosenthal:
Several patients reported increased calmness, improved focus, and improved ability to stay organized and set priorities–no surprise, given TM’s known effects on the prefrontal cortex. TM helped bipolar patients improve their executive function, just as it did for people with anxiety disorders and ADHD… All in all … our study study suggests that TM might be very helpful for bipolar patients. In fact, all the clinicians who worked on the study are now referring certain of their bipolar patients, particularly those with residual depression, for TM training–along with their other treatments.
Check out Rosenthal’s book, Transcendence, for more information on the science and benefits of Transcendental Meditation.