Feb 10, 2018

Top US meditation teacher brings his message to stressed-out Britons

Guru Bob Roth, who numbers Katy Perry and Hugh Jackman among his fans, is to set up a TM project in London schools

Rob Walker
The Guard
February 10, 2018

He studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ spiritual guru, and claims comedian Jerry Seinfeld, actor Hugh Jackman and designer Stella McCartney as fans. Now America’s most successful contemporary exponent of transcendental meditation is bringing his message to Britain.

Bob Roth’s new book, Strength in Stillness, is published this week and his promotional tour will bring him to Britain on 26 February. And Seinfeld, Jackman and McCartney are all set to host book launches – for free – in New York and London.

Roth, who is chief executive of the David Lynch Foundation, a charity set up by the film director in 2005 to promote the practice, has been teaching TM for 46 years. He’s aware his field is treated with scepticism in some quarters but says he hopes the book will make people take TM seriously. “A zillion books and apps offer a quick fix – “visualise your butterfly landing on a flower” kind of thing – but they don’t work. This book gives research about why you should take time to learn meditation from a teacher.”

Roth has been at the forefront of a growing and re-energised TM movement in the US. Twice-daily, 20-minute meditations have become the go-to stress buster for celebrities including Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry but the technique is also used with substance abusers, domestic violence survivors, war veterans, children and prisoners.

It is, says Roth, a way of coping with an epidemic of stress: “We mask it with alcohol and drugs, and we manage it with sleeping pills and antidepressants. But stress is like a tumour that grows, and it’s not getting any better. People want something else – they don’t want to take medication for the rest of their lives.”

Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles famously swapped sharp suits for flowing gowns and retreated to India to learn transcendental meditation. But Roth disowns the post-hippy connotations: “When you think what a meditation teacher would be like, I ain’t that guy. I’m a very sceptical person. I’m so not into woo-woo or new-age.”

To those who think the whole thing is “hogwash”, his stock retort is that TM works just as well whether you believe in it or not. “My passion has always been to bring TM to people who are most in need, who wouldn’t necessarily have access to it,” he says.

There’s no shortage of believers. Senators on Capitol Hill, Wall Street investors, generals, and more Hollywood stars than you can shake a string of love beads at.

There are testimonials in the book from famous fans including Seinfeld, who jokes that he initially struggled to understand the value of getting out of bed and then … resting. But the book also deals at length with the work Roth and the Lynch foundation have been doing with inner-city schools, and former soldiers living with “terrible nightmares and sweats”.

In Chicago, for example, TM teaching in some of the city’s toughest schools has been so successful, Roth says, that the University of Chicago Crime Labhas increased its TM training budget from a pilot $300,000 two years ago to $2.6m this year. “These inner-city kids had never heard of meditation, but now they love it,” Roth says.

The US defence department has invested $2.4m in a four-year study of TM for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Some of these guys haven’t slept for more than one or two hours a night for months,” says Roth. “But after their first or second day of meditating, some went home and slept through the night.”

Now the foundation is about to start a two-year pilot in London, at a secondary school in Southwark and a primary school in Islington. The idea, says Roth, is that half of the students will do two 15-minute periods of TM – called quiet time – each day while the other half are encouraged to rest or read. Researchers will compare the two groups in terms of educational attainment, attention span and stress levels. “We’re all about exercise for the neck up,” says Roth.

He is confident the schools project will be successful, and that quiet time will be rolled out across the country: “We want people in the UK, and the UK government, to look at meditation critically. TM is not like taking an aspirin – here’s my mantra, now all my problems are solved. That’s ludicrous,” he says. “It’s about how I use my mantra to access those deeper, quieter levels of my mind.”

Transcendental meditation

The technique involves twice-daily 20-minute sessions. A teacher gives students a personal mantra – a word or sound that has meaning associated with it – and they learn how to “think” it, silently. It differs from more recent mindfulness techniques in that there’s no pushing away thoughts, counting breaths, monitoring sensations, or visualising. It doesn’t require sitting in any particular position; practitioners simply sit comfortably in a chair, at home, at work, on a train, in the park – wherever they feel comfortable. They say it is designed to be 100% effortless and easy.

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