Apr 30, 2009

Trance 101

Mel Bezalel
The Jerusalem Post
April 30, 2009

"It's a little bit like when milk is boiling over, you can take a drop of cold water and dip it in, and it all settles down. When stress begins to build up, it erupts into violence."

Perhaps it isn't surprising that when international director and raja ("administrator") of Transcendental Meditation in Israel, Kingsley Brooks, talks about the practice in which he's been involved for 35 years, he speaks using elusive terms and near-constant metaphor. After all, the specifics of the practice are only revealed to those who train in it - which requires three preliminary steps and four sessions spread over four consecutive days, taught only by qualified Transcendental Meditation teachers.

Benefits of the practice, based on the constantly quoted "600 research studies," are commonly noted to include a feeling of relaxation and respite from stress and anxiety, memory improvement and enhancing the brain's creativity. The organization's Web site also purports that TM improves the attention span, immune system, academic and job performance, tolerance levels and slows the aging process, reduces blood pressure and mortality rates. On a global level, it's also claimed that TM practiced en masse reduces societal stress and crime rates.

At the most basic level of TM, when members spend 20 minutes meditating twice a day - morning and evening - the practice involves a set of Hindu-inspired meditation techniques which are said to bring practitioners to a higher level of consciousness through reciting a mantra which is secret and unique to each meditator. While members practice it with their eyes closed, their bodies move into a deep rest called "restful alertness." It's described as a unique feeling not experienced during other levels of consciousness - such as being awake, sleeping or dreaming.

During his visit to Israel last month with his wife, Lesley - a "partner" in his work - Brooks dedicated much of his time to promoting TM in schools or "consciousness-based education." One test case is already under way at an Arab school in the North, that cannot currently be named due to the early stages of the program's development. The TM program has been running for 10 months and already the school (comprising 300 pupils) has reported a marked shift in its students' behavior. One teacher who previously worked as the principal reported: "You can say that largely the school had two periods - before the introduction of TM and after it. Before the project, the school was on the verge of a total collapse. We had many problems, a lot of violence, both verbal and physical. Today, the school's climate is better, the atmosphere is more relaxed. There is also improvement in the students' desire for achievements, which is expressed in better grades. There is more optimism... so much so that we received the education award as second in the country for reduction of violence."

Students in the school are not obligated to study TM, says Brooks. Although most do, those who don't wish to have "quiet time" instead - which is simply the observance of silence in the classroom while the other students meditate. One 17-year-old student from the Arab school said the program has made a real difference: "My behavior has changed for the better after learning TM. I am more relaxed and I am feeling that even in moments when I feel down there is an inner happiness that emanates from my body and dominates my behavior. I take things quietly, just the opposite than before when I was very nervous. I feel inner joy that controls my behavior all the time. TM is the best thing that happened to me in my life."

Alex Kutai, National Director of the International Meditation Society of Israel, says he has been approached by three other schools interested in adopting the program - one of which comprises 2,000 students.

The schools program is important to the movement, says Brooks. "We feel that the potential for everyone is great, but particularly for young people. If they have this technology to develop their full potential when they're young," he says, "then when they get older they're already ahead in being as ideal citizens as they can be."

The TM school project began in America and is now also notably popular in South America. Currently, 60,000 high-school students practice TM worldwide. TM views schools as "peace generators" that can be particularly effective in Israel, says Kutai, because of the immense amount of stress caused by the [Israeli-Arab] conflict. "People are feeling they need something to strengthen and relax them - to lose the stress accumulated every day."

Eighteen months ago, renowned film director David Lynch, who established The David Lynch Foundation to raise money for "consciousness-based education and world peace," met with Shimon Peres about the possibility of implementing TM in Israeli schools. "[Lynch] told Peres the only way we can improve the quality of life here [in Israel] is to create more groups in schools," recalls Brooks. "Mr. Peres was very impressed with the idea and said his only request was that it work for both Arab and Israeli kids."

One recent example of academic research that supports the movement's claims is a pilot study carried out by George Washington University in December last year on children with ADHD. Though the sample only included 10 children aged 11-14, findings revealed that after three months, twice-daily meditations produced improvements in attention, working memory, organization and behavior regulation. Co-author of the study, Sarina J. Grosswald, said: "Teachers reported they were able to teach more and students were able to learn more because they were less stressed and anxious."

However, despite the number of research studies conducted on TM, the introduction of the technique in schools is not always welcomed. Just two years ago, parents at the Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, California, protested vehemently upon discovering that the David Lynch Foundation was offering the school a $175,000 grant for teaching TM. One objector, Gina Catina, who grew up in the TM movement and was responsible for bringing the technique to two California schools in the 1970s, wrote a letter to the school board to voice her dismay. She accused the movement of being a cult, describing side-effects suffered by TM practitioners she knew and disputing the movement's identity as "non-religious." The funding was subsequently withdrawn by the foundation. Also on the theme of religion, in 1979, a federal court ruled that a course titled Science of Creative Intelligence/Transcendental Meditation could not be taught in New Jersey public schools because it "had a primary effect of advancing religion and religious concepts" and violated the First Amendment.

Many critics of TM take issue with the movement's supposedly "non-religious" standpoint, taking issue specifically with the allusions to Hindu gods that appear in the TM puja - initiation ceremony. Hindu gods such as Shakti, Krishna and Vishnu are all mentioned in the private ceremony, in Sanskrit, and some say their personal mantras include them, too. Bob Roth, spokesperson for the international TM movement and national director of expansion, states that the Hindu connection is purely "cultural" however: "The culture goes back thousands of years, and it's nonsense to say that mantras are names of gods - 100 percent absolute nonsense. It just creates fear and there is no basis to it whatsoever."

One TM critic is Mitch Kapor, who founded Lotus Software and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the international non-profit advocacy organization. Kapor was involved with TM for seven years until 1976 and trained as a TM teacher. "TM is heavily promoted as a scientifically-validated, secular method of stress reduction," says Kapor, "whereas in fact the TM technique is inextricably bound up in a religious Hindu tradition, as is obvious to anyone who considers the mandatory TM initiation ceremony and the supposedly secret mantras. Proponents of TM twist themselves into pretzels to deny or explain away these inconvenient facts, but the real reason they do such things is as part of a drive to recruit as many people as possible into the TM movement." Kapor has strong objections to the program being taught in schools, despite initially experiencing some relaxation benefits from TM himself. Kapor believes that the twice-daily sessions being introduced in schools are designed to recruit members to the movement, who will then become much more involved.

Those who do immerse themselves in the movement often go on to become TM teachers and many practice an advanced technique known as "rounding" - intensive meditation that can last for several hours at a time. It is with rounding that more issues reportedly surface with regard to physical and mental side-effects, though the movement officially states there are none, pointing again to its store of 600 studies.

Past practitioners of TM have publicly spoken out about the alleged side-effects, including American social worker John Knapp, who joined the TM movement in 1972. Although Knapp speaks with 23 years of his own experience in TM, his role as a social worker specializing in recovery from toxic groups, abusive churches and cults and his website about the alleged problems of TM, mean that he is in frequent contact with those suffering with problems related to their experience with the technique. After signing up for TM to boost his grades at the age of 18, Knapp recalls that he had "a cultic relationship with the organization." Soon, Knapp became more involved with TM and began practicing rounding. "I was spending so much time and money on TM that other very important areas of my life were being completely neglected," he says. "During the time I was most involved, for about 20 years I only saw my family a handful of times." Although he is clear to state that it wasn't a directive from the organization, he says it was "a non-stated judgment."

Knapp says he suffered several side-effects from his intensive meditation practice, such as head-shaking (which he occasionally still experiences), disassociation or "spacing out," problems with his memory and a movement where his head would rapidly flip left and he'd feel an energy surge in his spine. On visiting the doctor, it was suggested that he'd developed a kind of Tourette 's syndrome. Knapp says that past TM practitioners contacting him have also reported involuntary twitching, grimacing, shouting and other tick-like behavior.

Mentioning difficulties with the meditation was difficult in the movement, explains Knapp, because "to bring up any, what they called 'negativity,' meant that you were likely to be ostracized from the group. If you had any problems with the meditation, and people did, it was the kind of thing you did behind closed doors."

In Knapp's experience, many of the problems experienced by meditators were explained away by teachers with a concept known as 'stressing,' 'stress release' or 'body purification,' where the body experiences temporary ticks as part of the body's healing process.

TM spokesperson Roth acknowledges that this process can occur, but stresses that its occurrence is rare. "Just like if a person has a weak heart, they have to modify their exercise program. It has happened from rounding and that is why we are careful about who gets the additional practice." However, he denies that TM has any sustained adverse effects and responded, in reference to Knapp's experience, that complainants practicing TM in the 1970s are an exceptional case because of the popular use of drugs at that time: "People who have trouble with rounding are those who in the 1970s... many of whom had a history of taking hallucinogenic drugs. Since then, there have been thousands of people who have gone on to teach TM with no problems whatsoever. Now, to go on a teacher training course, one has to be shown to be healthy with no drugs in their past." However, Knapp asserts he's been in contact with those experiencing problems who learned the meditation after that period.

Despite the anecdotal discussion, Roth maintains that there is no scientific evidence to give any cause for concern: "There has never, ever, ever been a published study with a control group published in a [peer-reviewed] journal in America that has ever shown any negative side effects of TM. And that is unequivocally the case."

Part of the problem with determining the legitimate benefits and problems of TM is the conflicts within the scientific community. As with many areas of research, some of the studies offer contradictions. Although the movement quotes the "600 studies" in its favor, some have been criticized for bias and a lack of scientific evidence. For example, a research paper published in June 2007 by the University of Alberta Evidence-based Practice Center for the US Department of Health and Human Services, stated about meditation research (TM included): "We found the methodological quality of meditation research to be poor, with significant threats to validity in every major category of quality measured, regardless of study design."

Therefore, either Roth's statement regarding the lack of scientific evidence for TM side-effects is not straightforward, or he is simply uninformed. Such studies do exist, such as Stanford University's Leon Otis's 1984 study which revealed that although 52-64 percent of the subjects who practiced TM in the study did not list a single adverse effect, "adverse effects do occur in a sizeable percentage of those who take up the practice," and "the number and severity of complaints were positively related to duration of meditation. Of considerable interest," states the research, "is the finding that the specific adverse effects reported were remarkably consistent between groups and formed a pattern of people who had become anxious, confused, frustrated, depressed and/or withdrawn since starting TM."

There are additional studies that follow similar veins; however, it seems that for every study published, a counter study is produced to dispute the scientific claims. It is important to highlight that much of the criticism launched at TM is, on the whole, focused on the more intensive practicing of the technique.

If Kapor's suspicions are correct about the TM movement attempting to enlist pupils to the movement so they'll become devout members, should there be some concern about the meditation's introduction in schools, or is it pure conjecture?

Hana Shadmi, director of psychology and counseling services at the Education Ministry, says she is encouraged by the research on TM. "I think overall, based on my familiarity with it [TM], it can help give people tools for focus, calmness and healing, which are positive in a school. I know of work that has been done in schools that people said resulted in calmness and a decrease in violence. People have reported good results in schools."

Speaking about the possible side-effects, Shadmi added: "I cannot say anything bad about this... I am not familiar with enough literature that says it is addictive, but it is possible... anything that you overuse in any excessive way can take something that can be good and make it bad. I believe in Israel there are kids who will find it hard enough to do 20-minute sessions, [let alone] doing it excessively. Who [will take part] and how they will be trained, will it be supervised, who will supervise - all these questions, which I have no answer to, puts hesitation in my responses. There is a lot of uncertainty and lack of knowledge. The question is whether it is appropriate for school."

Aharale Rotshtein, principal of regional high school Shar Ha'Negev, near Sderot, has been practicing TM for around six years. He visited the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Iowa, the original TM school, eight years ago to see how the practice is applied in schools. Together with his staff, Rotshtein is currently thinking about introducing the technique into his school. "It's a wonderful way of having a little rest," he says. "During the busy, noisy day, it's 40 minutes you can be with yourself, clearing your head. It makes me think more effectively and physically be more effective."

However, despite practicing TM himself, Rotshtein emphasizes that there are points about the method that he finds problematic: "It becomes religious if you follow it to the end. As a free person I don't like this way; I like to use it as a technical way and not more. It's not ideology, it's only a way to give you rest. If you continue with it and it becomes religious, it becomes very dangerous in my point of view."

Other schools less familiar with TM, such as the Hebrew Reali High School in Haifa, remain open-minded about the technique despite claims from critics. School spokeswoman Galit Diamant commented: "Many educational initiatives were born in our school, later to be adopted by the Education Ministry. Our school has always been open to new and innovative educational concepts and will continue to do so, provided that they are congruent with our fundamental values: love of mankind, love for our country and contribution to society and tolerance."

Despite the issues that exist, the TM movement maintains that intensive "rounding" could hold the solution for wider societal betterment. "Having a group practice meditation in an advanced program of meditation," says Brooks, "creates a peaceful influence that spreads to the whole world. Just like individuals have stress, a country has stress."

According to TM research, when just one percent of the population is practicing TM, it's as if the whole country is practicing it - and crime rates and other social problems spontaneously drop. With the advanced meditation program, known as the TM-Sidhi program, just the square root of one percent of the population is needed in order to effect societal change - known as the "Maharishi Effect." In 1983, a group of Sidhi experts travelled to Israel, which resulted, according to one TM study, in decreases in war deaths, war intensity, crime rates, traffic accidents and fires, as well as increases in measures of well-being such as the stock market.

There are of course papers questioning the validity of the study, such as Barry Markovsky and Evan Fale's 1997 piece, which discusses the occurrence of Jewish holidays, for example, as a significant influencing factor on statistics that was excluded from the study. However, it is with the global effect of TM in mind that the Israeli TM movement hopes to establish, in addition to school programs, a new Center for Israel Peace and Invincibility - "a place where large groups of peace-creating experts can learn and practice the Invincible Defense Technology [in essence, Maharishi Effect]," according to its publicity pamphlet. This new facility will house 500 meditators and cost NIS 100 million. Funding is currently being sought from a single, unnamed donor.