Learning to keep calm and carry on with Transcendental Meditation

Nov 29, 2017
Linda Overton (center) and Olubusayo Obayan (right) attend a Transcendental Meditation class Nov. 15 with instructor Adrian Ionescu at Impact Hub, a co-working and event space in South Austin. Erika Rich for American-Statesman

In late 2016, I had an inkling that 2017 would be annoying. I had no idea.

But, in anticipation of what lay ahead, I pondered the options that might keep me from starting each day screaming, “Noooooooo!” and ducking back under the blankets. Constant Xanax, vats of alcohol, moving to Newfoundland … each had too many drawbacks. So I decided to study Transcendental Meditation.

A year later, I’m managing the madness more mellowly. It’s not that I don’t still hate a lot that I see going on and don’t still want to do something about it. TM doesn’t sow complacency. But I’m doing a better job of handling what can be handled and coping with what I can’t do anything about without losing my mind. I’m no paragon of peace, but I am more peaceful.

“It’s almost like you’re chipping away the stress like layers of granite,” says my TM teacher, Adrian Ionescu, a native of Romania who learned Transcendental Meditation in 2010 after moving to Austin to work for Dell and becoming a parent. He and his wife were taking a class on shifting a child’s thoughts to avoid conflict. When an old acquaintance who happened to be a TM teacher, leadership trainer Jim Bagnola, turned up in Austin, Ionescu saw it as an opportunity to try to shift his own thinking away from conflict.

He and his wife learned Transcendental Meditation, an ancient practice brought to the West in the late ’50s by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (The Beatles practiced it. Remember?) Now, according to a National Health Interview Survey, TM is practiced by about 17 percent of the U.S. population, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, talk show host Howard Stern and director David Lynch. In fact, there’s a video of Seinfeld and Stern talking about the benefits of TM at a diner. (Google it; it’s on YouTube.) I kept waiting for the punchline. There was none.

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Ionescu describes TM as “like another level inside of me had opened up. With Transcendental Meditation, the inner dimension becomes the reality, your true nature, and nothing outside can throw you off.”

There are other types of meditation practice, but Ionescu chose TM because he’d heard about its health benefits. A few science-based examples: The National Institutes for Health concluded in 2008 that there is evidence TM decreases the risk for cardiovascular disease because it lowers blood pressure and stress and leads to reduced use of alcohol and tobacco. A 2012 review published by the American Psychological Association credited TM with reducing anxiety and boosting memory.

In September, the American Heart Association acknowledged that scientific studies on TM “suggest a possible benefit on cardiovascular risk,” principally by reducing stress and depression and improving sleep. The statement made clear you can’t just sit on the couch, meditate and eat cheeseburgers and expect to live longer, but it acknowledged TM might help the heart.

For the record, my husband, who took up meditation when I did, recently registered excellent blood pressure when he squeezed in a quick meditation in his doctor’s waiting room immediately after barely avoiding a car wreck. His heart was pounding, and he’d feared a bad reading. His numbers: 108/78.

Why did I choose TM? I was impressed by my brother and his wife, who have meditated since their college days and are the calmest, most self-possessed people I know. So I decided to attend a free, no-pressure (I promise) introductory TM session on Monroe Street, not far from my house. There Ionescu told me what TM is and is not.

TM is neither a cult (you can follow up with retreats and advanced study or not; nobody bugs you), nor is it religious, although prayer and meditation aren’t incompatible. Transcendental meditation invokes no deity, nor does it demand a focus or any mind control. It’s a pulling inward, a settling of my mind. I emerge from a meditation (the standard is two 20-minute meditations a day) feeling invigorated and ready for action, yet calm.

Another thing TM is not is cheap. It cost me $960 to learn the technique; my husband, as the second of a couple, paid $720. There are discounts for students, and they’ll split payments.

Given the expense, there was some hesitancy on the part of one guy at my intro sessions.

“So I pay $900 for a mantra,” he said.

Well, no. You can get a violin, but you still need to be taught how to play it. Everyone knows TM involves a mantra, a sound that has no definition. But TM’s a technique, not just a mantra.

Part of learning TM is agreeing not to try to tell anybody else how to do it. Ionescu quit his job for a five-month residential immersion to become accredited in teaching it. It’s not something that can be written down in bullet points. But I can tell you the four sessions required to learn TM were enjoyable and easy. Every month, Ionescu, who prefers to call himself a conduit rather than a teacher, sends an e-mail inviting us to a (free) group meditation, and we can go or not. My experience is that meditating with a group yields an extra depth of relaxation.

Beyond not losing my mind over chaos and tragedy, I’ve been calmed by TM in some daily-life ways. I sleep better, so I’m in a better mood in the morning. I can more easily deal with rambunctious grandchildren and turbulent airplane rides. I’m more likely to observe annoyance without being a rattled participant, a process Ionescu likens to “cleaning the windows of perception.”

My idiosyncrasies seem less pronounced. I have always been almost pathologically punctual. My husband likes to say that I consider being on time as almost late. That has not changed, but the stressful imperative behind it has eased.

An example: I recently met my daughter for lunch in Grapevine. As I was preparing to head out to this lunch, the thought flitted through my mind: What if she gets there first and has to wait? Then, immediately, I thought: Well, what if she does? Somebody has to get there first and wait, at least a moment or two. It might as well be her as me. Strange as it sounds, that concept had not previously entered my mind. I immediately relaxed — and was merely five minutes early. For me, this is progress.