(Non-)Masonic Book Review: Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation

Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation is about the many benefits of Transcendental Meditation, presented through cases studies, anecdotes, and medical studies. The benefits range from addiction recovery and managing mental health problems to self-actualization, enhancing creativity and professional development.

This post is a longer one, but don’t worry, I’ll pull it back around to Freemasonry at the end, even if briefly.

On the whole, the book does a great job of selling the benefits of Transcendental Meditation (TM) and it definitely sold me on the fact that TM is distinct from other meditation practices like mindfulness. You can read a bit about those differences here or from many of the search results on the topic.

TM is a very specific meditation practice taught in a strictly prescribed way by teachers certified by Maharishi Foundation USA. It is taught in a class, with one or more (typically free) group introductory presentations, a one-on-one ceremony of ritual instruction and training, and followup group training, usually on consecutive days. Any practice taught by an uncertified teacher, in any other manner, or with variations in the practice is not TM, as TM is a trademarked (a strictly enforced trademark at that) term that applies only to those specifics.

As for the contents of the book, Dr. Rosenthal presents a thorough combination of cases-studies, anecdotes, and peer-reviewed medical literature that demonstrate the benefits of TM. Some of the areas touched on include stress, anger, and anxiety management; attention and focus, prioritization and improved executive function; mood stabilization; addiction recovery; reduced recitivism and violence in prisons; reduced absences and violence plus improved academic performance in schools; and self-actualization.

The main concrete (and measurable) benefits that stood out to me were improved brainwave coherence between disparate regions of the brain, decreased cortisol levels and other indicators of stress, and physiological changes in the brain – primarily a decrease in the size of the amygdala after long-term, consistent TM practice. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” response, and an overactive amygdala is associated with anxiety disorders and diminished executive function.

Most of the information in the book is very well backed up, but one trend stood out as problematic. In most cases, the stories presented were either of controlled studies themselves, or were at least supported by other studies and existing literature. There were cases though, where the author’s opinion was shared on the promise of studies showing trends that lacked statistical significance. While the whole area of statistical significance and the current state of scientific publication is a huge topic on its own (edit: see this article on statistical significance, published just a couple days after this post)given the trend toward p-hacking, this concerned me for the implications it may have to an uninformed or suggestible reader.

My Path

Prior to reading Transcendence my only knowledge of TM was that it is a practice utilized by Tim Ferriss and other high-performers. I’ve always had difficulty with meditation due to a combination of ADD and aphantasia (a blind mind’s eye, no ability to visualize, making meditation that incorporates visualizations meaningless), so the promise of an “effortless” meditation technique was alluring. I bought Transcendence primarily in the hopes of learning how to practice TM to see if it was right for me. While the author is a TM teacher, there is no instruction given in the book, given the rigid constraints under which it is taught (one-on-one instruction/ritual and in-person group sessions). It makes sense, but was disappointing none-the-less.

While reading Transcendence, I became interested enough that I began doing research. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow on the process of discovery, but will say that while the practice seems demonstrably beneficial, the organization behind TM raised a lot of alarm bells for me.

Now, I know first glances can be misleading, especially on the internet; a cursory search for information about Freemasonry is rather damningly misrepresentative after-all. I didn’t particularly care for the flavor or degree of mysticism apparent in the organization, or the cult-like atmosphere many claimed it had, but those seemed like avoidable aspects of an otherwise potentially beneficial practice. What really swayed my opinion was the information out there about the economics of the organization, and some of the deception used in the marketing and teaching of the principles, and specifically that this information was supported by so many first-hand accounts. I won’t go into those things here for a variety of reasons. With a holistic view of the organiztion and its practitioners, these aspects may not be inherently bad, but they seemed distasteful to me. The information is out there if you care to look for it (such as with a search for “criticisms of TM”).

I’ll also mention that the cost of TM training was prohibitive for me, even considering the potential for grants and scholarships offered to offset that cost. The instructor that serves my area also serves a very wide area and would not be available for a class near me again for 4-6 months from the time I first made contact, and then may be an hour away, on four consecutive days.

So, with a desire to learn the practice, or one that may offer similar benefits (and ideally at a lower cost), I went looking. There is a great deal of information out there on a great many meditation techniques. I found the nondirective subreddit particularly helpful and enlightening (in particular check out the sidebar with a table of information on different courses of meditative instruction).

Natural Stress Relief (NSR)

I settled on Natural Stress Relief (NSR). NSR was created by ex-TM teachers, and appears to have much in common with TM. Right up front, it has to be said that NSR IS NOT TM, nor can it be claimed that it has the same benefits. To compare –

  • NSR uses a single mantra for everyone, while TM instructors assign mantras individually.
  • NSR is taught through a written course of instruction, accompanied by a short audio recording, while TM is taught by an instructor with both group and one-on-one instruction (more on the potential impact of this difference later).
  • NSR has removed some of the cultural ritual from TM training.
  • NSR is intended to be practiced 15 minutes, twice per day, while TM is intended to be practiced 20 minutes, twice per day.
  • NSR provides personal assistance over the internet for a small charge, while TM offers lifetime ongoing support from TM instructors at no cost.
  • NSR is offered by a small organization, while TM undoubtedly has a more solid footing for the future (which is of course relevant to support)
  • NSR has some scientific literature supporting its benefits, while TM has a great deal more literature supporting its benefits.

While there may be other differences I am not aware of or haven’t thought to mention, having not received TM training, the two practices seem fundamentally similar, and functionally equivalent.

How TM May Be Better (If It Is)

If TM is actually superior to NSR, I have some theories as to the mechanisms behind those differences. It seems to me that the higher cost may help in assigning value to the practice, may motivate the student to practice it more dutifully, or may lend some additional placebo effect (which should not be underestimated and is not a bad thing or meant in a derogatory way). The informational sessions that precede the training probably also help establish the instructor’s credibility/authority and the suggestion of a variety of possible positive outcomes in this setting may make them more likely.

The personal instruction will likely also be a better fit for some in getting the hang of the technique, and in motivation to form the habit, by way of accountability; likewise, the lifetime support from instructors is a nice benefit.

It is also entirely possible that the ritual training may serve as an initiatory experience that may create a more receptive state of mind that is more conducive to the training that follows, or which helps create a separation in the mind of “before TM” and “after TM” and a personal identity that incorporates TM. An initiatory experience may help jump-start the practice and help move the student along faster than they would without it, or it may precondition the student to be able to achieve higher levels of success with the practice.

There may also be a benefit to the group setting used in portions of the TM instruction, benefit from having others meditating with you, both as it applies to your own state of mind in the moment and to the instruction given to other students present or answers to questions brought up by other students. The other students in your group, and others in the area that you can undoubtedly be connected with can probably also serve as a support network in developing the habit of meditation via social pressure and accountability. Belonging to an “in-group” centered around TM practice may increase desire to keep the practice up, or to relate to the practice differently.

It is worth stating again that the body of evidence of the benefits of TM do not exist for NSR. Differences in the specifics of the practice and the method of training really may make them distinct, and it is entirely possible that TM is superior. It is also possible they have the same benefits, or that NSR is superior, but neither of those possibilities have any concrete evidence behind them.

With all of that said, I still chose to go with NSR because it SEEMED on its surface to be similar enough that I was willing to take the leap of faith that I would receive many, if not most or all, of the benefits of TM in time. I know there will be those in the TM community that disagree with that decision and don’t believe I will receive the light I’m looking for, and maybe someday I’ll go back and take TM training if they’ll let me. I’m not going to lie, cost and timeliness were also major factors, as mentioned above. The $25 cost to get started with the downloaded NSR materials, and the ability to start on my own schedule were both very appealing.

So Far So Good

So far my NSR practice has been going well. As they warn in their literature, the first two or three times I used the technique I did get headaches and actually felt an increase in anxiety. In theory, this is due to the release of stress, both physical and emotional. I’m not going to lie, I’ve had a lot of stress lately, hard to say if that’s what’s going on.

After those first few sessions though, it opened up and has become a very pleasant experience. I’ve now practiced consistently for a few weeks now and plan to continue to practice with the same consistency and see how things go. As mentioned above, I’ve never had good luck with other meditation practices due to ADD and aphantasia, but this is doable. 15 minutes doesn’t seem that long when meditating this way. While doing it, I feel a peace and calm I don’t find at other times and I feel a great deal of physical relaxation, including some mild tingling, loosening of the muscles, and mild analgesia, particularly in my upper back, shoulders, neck, and back of my head – the areas where I have the strongest and most consistent physical stress response.

Coming out of a session, I don’t often find myself to be that much calmer, but I do have an improved clarity of thought. The depth of the experience has improved day-by-day, as has the benefit of the lingering after-effects – I’m optimistic about long-term practice.

Final Thoughts on Transcendence

On the whole it was an interesting read, and valuable for me in finding the motivation to begin a meditative practice. It was worth having read, but is probably one I would have tried to find in a library rather than buying had I known that it didn’t actually offer any instruction on meditation.

Masonic Applications

HA! You thought I was going to forget to pull this back around, didn’t you? Nope! Here we go –

As Masons we are taught to seek to improve ourselves. Various forms of meditation are powerful ways to apply our tools to shape our ashlars – chipping away at our vices and superfluities. We are taught to pursue “such a prudent and well regulated course of discipline…” The smoothed temperament and inner calm that develop from regular meditation practices can also help us to apply the compasses in circumscribing our interactions with our Brothers and with all mankind – “… every human being has a claim upon your kind offices. Do good unto all, and finally, my brethren, be ye all of one mind, live in peace …”

For those that have given thought to the way Freemasonry works as an initiatory experience to improve our lives, I would hope it is apparent that my speculations on the nature of TM training above would clearly be flavored by parallels within the craft. Initiations can be powerful tools in self-transformation in any variety of contexts.

Coming up in my reading list is Contemplative Masonry. I’m really looking forward to adding the practices from that book to my routine.

 

The idea of this (Non-)Masonic Book Review series of posts is to take a look at books from all sorts of genres and see what can be extracted and applied to Freemasonry, or how the ideas can be coupled with those from Freemasonry for an enriched Masonic experience or personal development. In most cases the ideas in the books are extrapolated upon from my own personal experience in the craft. These reviews are not necessarily endorsements of the books (as tastes may vary), but are an attempt to extract value from them for a Masonic audience. This content is my own and is not endorsed by nor necessarily representative of my or any other Grand Lodge or other Masonic body.

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