People sometimes ask me my opinion of Transcendental Meditation. This is what I have to say about it:
As I understand it, the TM organization does a lot besides just teaching meditation. The Wikipedia page says that they provide ayurvedic medicine counseling, traditional Indian astrology services, “world peace” endeavors, publishing and media, home financing companies (!), and more.
My personal interest in them however revolves mostly around what I understand to be their primary offering – helping people to learn and practice mantra meditation.
Mantra meditation practice consists of repeatedly vocalizing a syllable or phrase. This repeated vocalizing is usually done internally and mentally, but is also sometimes done audibly and out loud. And when meditating on a mantra, a meditator not only intentionally has their attention fully merge with the repeated vocalization, but also lets go of thoughts, distractions, and anything else that is not the mantra.
Apparently, the way that the TM organization work is that they assign beginners a syllable or word to use as a mantra. The syllable is from Sanskrit, which is the ancient Indian language used today by yoga, Hinduism, and some schools of Buddhism. If you practice your mantra and stick with the TM organization, they will eventually assign you new mantras as the years go on.
Some mantras have an intelligible meaning for the person chanting them. An example of this would be an English speaker repeating the traditional Buddhist phrase “May all beings be happy“, or chanting the affirmation “I attract positive things into my life”. Many traditional Asian mantras however – for example “Om“, or the mantras assigned by TM teachers – do not have a simple literal meaning, and are instead considered to be perfect spiritual combinations of sounds and cadence. And many mantras that do mean something, for example the famous lotus compassion mantra “Aum Mani Padme Hum“, are in a language that the people chanting it usually do not speak.
Mantra practice with clear words is, obviously, intended to cultivate positive mindstates, like openness, strength, or love. All mantras, with or without meaning, however, are classically understood as concentration meditations. In other words, they are meditations that create a feeling of tranquility, calm, and peace (at least for the time that we are doing them). Concentration meditations have the additional benefit of helping us to develop the ability to focus on one thing, and to notice the shape of our mind as it tries to dance off that one thing, a self-awareness that is useful with all other meditation techniques.
In Buddhism, the main type of meditations besides concentration techniques are insight meditation techniques, which, for simplicity’s sake can be described as experiencing things in a deep, rich, and pure way, exactly as they are. Insight meditation is, broadly speaking, understood to be what provides ultimate spiritual liberation and “enlightenment”, and is therefore generally considered the ultimate point of learning how to meditate. Insight meditation is easier to do, however, when the mind is already focused and concentrated. For this reason, many teachers recommend engaging in concentration meditation first, and recommend concentration meditation as a good starting place for beginning meditators. It is similar to how playing beautiful music is the desired end point of practicing at a piano, but, for most people, practicing scales is an unavoidable, boring, mechanical intermediate step to get to playing heart-moving music gracefully.
Concentration techniques are also considered more entry-level and beginner-level than insight techniques because the instructions as to how to do concentration meditation are usually relatively straightforward, and are easier to conceptually explain and understand. “Bring your attention to an object like a mantra or to the breath, and, when your mind wanders away, gently bring it back.” – that’s often difficult to do, but it is, at least, simple to understand. In contrast, the instructions for insight meditations are generally more subtle, complex, and “trippy”, so they are usually more difficult for most people to even understand how to do unless they have been practicing concentration meditation for a while.
Again, most concentration meditations, no matter how easy they may be to simply conceptually understand, are, however, usually difficult and challenging to follow through and actually do. And the mantra meditation that TM teaches is, in keeping with that general rule, easy to learn, but difficult to master. So, the biggest thing that I understand to be good about the TM organization is that they apparently thoroughly train students with solid tips on how to set up and succeed at a beginner’s meditation practice. They have a large organization with decades of experience teaching students, so they have a system that provides good support for people traveling along the meditative path. Many people involved with TM strike me as spiritual and “good” people who sincerely want to work to help others to deepen, grow, open, and liberate.
Also, mantra meditation can eventually be understood on and practiced a more subtle level than the simple initial instructions – one can actually not just focus the mind using a mantra, but, also, with skill and determination, actually dissolve solidified self-structures and create genuine liberation. In traditional historical Asian religions, many meditators, saddhus, yogis, and monks would make an entire lifetime’s spiritual path out of only mantra practice. And, some people apparently stick with the TM organization for years, continuing to deepen and fine-tune their mantra meditation practice.
When people ask me, however, I advocate against starting up with the TM organization.
One reason for this is that, for most people, as I said, I see mantra practice is a limited technique that most meditators eventually outgrow. Generally speaking, after focusing the mind for a few years, most folks are best served by also taking on an insight practice that has a wider focus.
Sticking with just mantra meditation for one’s whole meditative career strikes me as similar to just eating beans one’s whole life. You could do that, and you could get more and more creative with making great bean dishes – but why would you want to, with all the other choices for food out there? People who stick with mantra meditation alone also seem to me like someone learning how to play the simple song “Chopsticks” on the piano, and then spending years perfecting how play it as beautifully and artfully as possible. Why not move on to Beethoven and Chopin?
Also, teachers reportedly say, when assigning a new mantra to a new student, that it is deeply personal and should be kept as a top secret. Teachers who have quit the TM organization, however, say that there is a simple formula for assigning the mantras to people. This is an apparently relatively minor example of the reasons one can find discussed on the internet as to why the TM organization has come under criticism, like Scientology, for being creepily controlling, culty, and secretive.
The TM organization also, like Scientology, comes under criticism for being strange and anti-science. Part of that rejection seems to me to be because the TM organizations’ offerings – ayurvedic medicine, jyotish astrology, Hindu vedic scriptures, and mantra meditation – maps pretty closely to Hinduism and Indian Subcontiental culture and religion in general, aspects of which sometimes don’t make much sense to people who haven’t spent a lot of time South Asia. But, still – learning how to levitate seems to be a big part of the TM culture, for example, and that, I agree, is pretty anti-science.
Also like Scientology, TM charges a big chunks of money for their growth teachings. It easy to enough to learn meditation elsewhere for a lower cost, or for free, however. It’s even easy enough to get on the internet and discover what the official TM mantras are, and how they are taught.
TM is a huge business and organization, reportedly with $3.5 billion in assets. My sense is that they got so big by being one of the first genuine Asian religious experiences to make a strong impact in the US. But I think that their financial success came about, like Scientology, by getting celebrities on board to testify for them, and by having an aggressive, wordly sense of business growth and profit.
There also seems to be a lot on the web where I could learn more about the TM organization, what they do, and how they do it. My level of interest is however satiated by what I already know and wrote about here. I do hope that what I shared here is helpful to any friends considering taking a TM training. My advice: look elsewhere.