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Meditation: for old hippies or a better way of life?

I once told a taxi driver that I meditate, and was intrigued when he said he was into that sort of thing too. For him it was watching tropical fish and for his wife it was taking a nap.

I once told a taxi driver that I meditate, and was intrigued when he said he was into that sort of thing too. He said that for him it was watching tropical fish and for his wife it was taking a nap, and I conceded that there are many ways to relax and recharge.

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Now I believe one method is superior. I learned transcendental meditation (TM) in 1998, while a student at Oxford University, six months before my final exams. I paid £140 for the privilege, and was struck by how easy it was to practise the technique. I suddenly had more energy, concentrated better and felt warmer towards other people. Shortly afterwards, I earned a first-class degree, which had not previously been on the cards. In fact, TM was by far the best thing I learned at Oxford.

I am now a professional chess player, the current British champion, and wouldn't dream of playing a serious game without meditating beforehand. After meditating I feel calm, centred and ready to compete - but, more importantly, the technique allows me to "just play" and enjoy the game without worrying about the result. These kinds of positive effects are well-known to thousands of practitioners of TM and have been documented in more than 600 scientific journals.

Transcendental meditation targets "stress", which is a slippery concept to define, but it generally amounts to a gnawing gap between how we would like our lives to be, and how they actually are. TM is a singularly powerful way to dissolve stress, and it also reduces blood pressure and the severity of heart disease. It is not surprising, therefore, that the US government has invested $20m to further investigate the health benefits.

Describing the experience of transcendental meditation is a bit like describing chocolate to somebody who has never tasted it. A close analogy is the feeling you have when neither fully awake nor asleep, but pleasantly suspended somewhere in between, in a state of "restful alertness". I am not very familiar with other forms of meditation, but my impression is that TM requires relatively little effort. I sometimes even wonder if it should be thought of as meditation at all, because the process is not meant to be personally challenging or revealing, and you do not learn to observe or control your thoughts. You just sit comfortably with your eyes closed, and the de-stressing and re-charging happens almost automatically.

You do learn a mantra to settle your mind down, and other minor elements of the technique, but within a few weeks the process goes by itself. Indeed, TM feels so natural that I don't think of it as an exotic hobby or elaborate spiritual practice, but more like eating, sleeping or brushing my teeth. In this sense, TM feels like part of our natural repair kit.

However, Transcendental Meditation (note the capital letters) is also a lucrative commercial product, trademarked by an autocratic organisation. Learning TM in Scotland now costs £1280 if you are an adult - which, to put it kindly, keeps away the casual buyers. Children can learn for £320 as part of a school programme, without any obligation for parents to learn, which seems more reasonable but is still not cheap. Although I believe the life-long value of the technique is well worth the cost, I feel ashamed of the movement for charging so much. Although they administer TM very well, I don't think they rightfully own the technique, which has existed for millennia and been known by many different names. Their justification is that the extant knowledge of TM is precious and delicate, and can be adulterated or lost if not carefully controlled and disseminated. There may be some truth in this claim, but I understand why it makes some people suspicious, and others angry.

I should also say that I find some elements of the organisation rather embarrassing. It is important to understand that you can learn TM without having anything more to do with the organisation, but it is worth pre-emptively dealing with a few issues in case they put you off learning in the first place. Perhaps the most troubling feature is the unquestioning veneration of the leader Maharishi (literally "the great seer") Mahesh Yogi. The technique has an Indian pedigree, and within the organisation you can discern Vedic structures and practices. However, TM is not a religion and requires no change in belief or lifestyle.

Moreover, the TM movement is not a cult. Although members of the organisation are fond of wearing creamy suits to "reflect enlightenment" and speak earnestly of yogic flying in the global country of world peace, they are not as strange as they seem. Yes, they operate on different axioms concerning the relationship between matter and mind, but these axioms are grounded in their own experience, and hold up to scientific scrutiny rather well.

Although TM is always at the heart of the movement's message, they frequently shift emphasis, and education is the priority of the moment. Indeed, the buoyant Dr Ashley Deans, director of the Maharishi School in Iowa, has just presented the case for "consciousness-based education" in Scotland as part of a worldwide lecture tour. He did not propose any policy overhaul, but simply that children should practise TM in school for 10 to 15 minutes twice a day. This change alone would apparently be enough to transform education in Scotland, making children feel, behave and perform better. Deans's message is supported by references to numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies and gushing testimonials from students and teachers around the world.

There is definitely something attractive about the idea of getting children to sit quietly and look inwards for a few minutes twice a day. However, as any teacher knows, just telling children to sit still and be quiet rarely works, because their minds and bodies are too restless. The important claim here is that the experience of TM is so charming that children do it willingly, and their bodies and minds quickly settle down.

Ashley Deans tells me that the logistics of school learning normally entail the teachers learning first, then sending letters to parents. Then groups of students learn until most of the school meditates twice a day. It sounds rather extraordinary, but apparently 21 schools, private and public, big and small, have already gone through this process in the US, and the results have been extremely positive.

However, certain things trouble me about this message. For one, "consciousness-based education" is contrasted with "fact-based education" where children just learn about "the known" but are not made aware of "the knower" or "the process of knowing". With this crude juxtaposition, Deans creates a straw man to knock down, and thereby does not do justice to the potential strength of his argument. Scotland is rightly proud of its education system, which amounts to much more than "fact-based education".

The second point is more subtle, but important because "whole-brain development" and "brain coherence" are central selling points of consciousness-based education, and it is not clear what they represent. When students practise TM, "wholeness" and "coherence" (as registered by electrical activity or blood flow) are above the norm, but this doesn't necessarily mean they are making use of these states throughout the day, or moving towards them in any progressive way. Nonetheless, whatever is happening at the level of brain physiology, it seems to work.

At the very least, the growing field of neuroscience and education should critically engage with consciousness-based education. There are clear causal arguments about the experience of certain brain states leading to improved wellbeing and performance - and, if they are as valid and compelling as they seem to be, it would be irresponsible to ignore them. I hope that at least one courageous school gives consciousness-based education a try. I expect it to be a huge success.

A sense of wellbeing with scientific support Transcendental meditation is an easily learned technique that allows the mind to settle down to experience a profound sense of wellbeing and nourishment for about 15 minutes, twice a day.

Some proponents of the technique believe it has the power to transform the world for the better. This is why people refer to the "TM movement", although many learn the technique without having anything to do with the "movement" at all.

Although traditionally an Indian spiritual practice, TM has been secularised and repackaged as a scientifically validated, stress-busting technique. In the 1960s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the leader of the movement, befriended the Beatles, and was instrumental in popularising TM. In recent years, Maharishi has sounded increasingly patriarchal and religious, speaking out against democracy and lambasting Western leaders for their ignorance of God and science. Indeed, in 2005 he closed down the movement in the UK "in protest" over British foreign policy. However, it reopened a few weeks ago north of the border, because Scotland is now considered "a relatively peaceful part of the region".

The benefits of TM have been widely validated in peer-reviewed journals, and endorsed by various famous people. The director David Lynch has attributed his success to TM. However, the movement remains highly controversial, mainly due to the cost of learning the technique. It is taught only by qualified teachers and the normal charge is £1280. For further information call 0131 668 1649 or visit www.tmscotland.org.

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