Transcendence by Norman E Rosenthal
TM is one of the three different sorts of meditation and these are described in the first chapter: focused attention meditation (concentrating on an object); open monitoring meditation (concentrating on something happening but not reacting to it); and automatic self-transcending meditation(effortlessly thinking about a mantra which leads to another state of consciousness) which is the subject of the book.
The second chapter was particularly interesting. In it I learnt about something called 'The Watch'. It is only very recently, since electric lighting, that we have been able to use the hours of darkness. In the days of candles and oil lamps the light was so dim that as soon as it grew dark our ancestors used to go to sleep. In the winter, in high latitudes, this could be for fourteen hours. However studies have shown that they didn't continually sleep, but woke and spent some of the night in a state of tranquil wakefulness called 'The Watch' for a couple of hours before sleeping again. Dr. Rosenthal postulates that 'The Watch' resembles the state of transcendence in TM, and compares people's descriptions of both states. Prolactin levels rise in both. This induces serenity by making inactivity more tolerable (levels of prolactin also rise during breastfeeding and in hens that are incubating their eggs).
This state of serenity induced by TM can have important beneficial effects. For instance practising TM can actually reverse conditions such as hardening and narrowing of the arteries which can lead to coronary heart disease. Furthermore, just the process of learning how to do transcendental meditation can have lasting effect even if it is not actively practised thereafter.
As well as possibly helping to prevent diseases such as cancer and diabetes, TM helps fight mental disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress, bipolar and clinical depression, addiction and ADHD. Dr.Rosenthal illustrates this using a series of very interesting case studies, convincing statistical evidence, and various scientific explanations (which includes the improvement of the 'executive functions' (the ability to prioritise, organise and control emotions) in the front temporal lobe of the brain. Side effects of TM are considered in chapter six. These are rare and relatively minor and include headaches or dizziness, insomnia and disturbing flashbacks.
As a former teacher in quite a challenging school, I found the chapter on what happened when a 'Quiet Time' was introduced into Visitacion Valley Middle School (in a deprived area of San Francisco), both very interesting and moving. The pupils weren't forced to meditate (although some of them did) but they were obliged to be quiet for twelve minutes. As a result the behaviour of the pupils improved, staff absenteeism declined and the Principal's blood pressure dropped significantly. Further studies have indicated that meditation (or even just 'Quiet Time') can improve the pupils'ability to concentrate and learn.
Prisoners are another section of the population that can benefit from practising TM. Dr. Rosenthal gives some startling startling statistics: 3% of the US population is in 'correctional supervision' - a higher proportion than in China and that 70% of those prisoner released re-offend with in three years. TM is just one of the methods that might be used to lift some offenders out of a life of crime, and Tom O'Connor of Transforming Corrections in Salem, Oregon, has shown there can be an impressive reduction in recidivism. The idea comes from the successful micro-banking initiative of Muhammad Yunus in Pakistan, where small loans enabled specific communities made a big difference to their lives.
All of these case studies are interesting and thought-provoking, but I related to the case studies of chapter 10 the most. For example, Mindy had high levels of anxiety because she felt she never accomplished enough. Eventually she had a nervous breakdown, and it was only after she had been transferred to a spa that specialised in Indian medicine that she recovered. She learnt to meditate, which she says 'gave her room to rest and be quiet'. It has also extended her creativity as an artist.
Dr Rosenthal also outlines how TM has helped successful businessmen and people in showbusiness such as Laura Stern, Martin Scorsese and Russel Brand as well as, more famously, Paul McCartney and Ringo Star. All of these people give personal accounts on what TM has meant to their lives. A common experience is that extraneous thoughts and distractions die away which leads to greater creativity.
I found this very interesting because it seemed to me to chime with what I'd previously read about Henri Poincaré's ideas on insight, and in particular his idea that it was best to relax and stop actively working on a problem in order to solve it. He too reported a feeling of elation, although, in his case, he linked this with the thrill of discovery. Having read about the advantages of TM I now like to think that as Poincaré walked or simply sat on a bus in order to overcome his 'impasse' he too was meditating, clearing a way for the 'hooked atoms' of his mind to collide and produce an exquisitely beautiful idea.
Dr. Rosenthal emphasises in the last chapter that in fact little is known about the activity in the brain during transcendence; but the harmonising effects are clear - not only the meditator's individual life, but also society in which he lives. One very interesting and novel theory ( John Hagelin's) explains the harmonising effects of TM using particle physics.
Transcendence is a convincing book, one that could easily be life-changing, and I expect many people reading this book will be left, like I was, with an overwhelming desire to learn how to practise transcendental meditation as soon as possible. Dr. Rosenthal suggests that TM is best learnt through a course from the world-wide Maharishi University- there are centres everywhere. However, since these are expensive I have decided to investigate another route. I shall let you know how I get on.
Thanks to Tarcher Penguin for the review copy.