On Powers Of Mind
by Adam Smith

In the interstices of work life, when company politics or grueling schedules get me down, I tend to pick up hobbies. Lately my hobby has been Transcendental Meditation. Could it be that there really is some higher state of consciousness, samadhi or pure awareness or whatever you want to call it, that yogis and Zen masters attain regularly but which is beyond the reach of the rest of us? The phrase alone, "higher consciousness," reminds one of faded counter-culture theories that few people use more than 4.2% of their brains. Could it be that there's something to it?

TM seemed the easiest way in. I have friends who swear by it, and it has a rep as the McDonalds of meditation methods: reach standard enlightenment for a relatively low fixed price. So I went to an intro class. Everything seemed fine, if you ignored the claims that advanced TMers can fly (without a plane, natch), and that it's been scientifically proven that the mental Field generated by groups of experienced meditators reduces surrounding crime levels. Those things were no problem; but the $1000 ticket price was.

So I went to the library and found this book, which turned out to be far more complete than I could have hoped to do for myself. Adam Smith is a hard-nosed high-finance stockbroker, well known for his best seller The Money Game. After his rise to success in his field, he too wanted to know, is there anything more? So he spent a year trying biofeedback, TM, yoga, I Ching, EST, Zen, LSD, sensory deprivation, and a whole bunch of other altered consciousness techniques I've never heard of. He had the entire enchilada.

Mr. Smith does a good job of documenting the undocumentable, describing his forays into higher consciousness. It seems that all the techniques lead to similar mental states as shown by alpha rhythms in one's EEG. TM-like variants involving meditating in the presence of a mantra, as easy as one-two-three. Smith quotes physician Herbert Benson's four elements:

  1. Mental Device: a constant stimulus, e.g. a sound, word or phrase repeated silently or audibly, or fixed gazing at an object. The purpose is to occupy the ever-thinking part of the mind.
  2. Passive Attitude: Don't worry about how you're doing, and if thoughts come, go back to the technique. Floating away is what you're after, don't pursue it.
  3. Decreased Muscle Tonus: Sit in a comfortable posture and take it easy.
  4. Quiet Environment: Shut your eyes (except for meditations in gazing at an object).
This covers a wide variety of techniques Benson analyzed: autogenic training, progressive relaxation, and in some forms of the following: Christianity, Judaism, Islan, Subud, Hichiren Sho Shu, Hare Krishna, Meher Baba... In other words, many "mystic" methods have the same underlying technique for reaching altered states. And it worked in unadorned form in Benson's lab with volunteers.

What is this altered state? Benson and associates wrote in Psychiatry: "During the experience of one of these states, individuals claim to have feelings of increased creativity, of infinity, and of immortality; they have an evangelistic sense of mission, and report that mental and physical suffering vanish. Subjective and objective data exist which support the hypothesis that an integrated central nervous system reaction, the 'relaxation response,' underlies this altered state of consciousness." Or, in Smith's words, after a TM meditation he "was no good at anything competitive, for an hour or two. You just watch whatever ball it is go by and say, oh, nice shot. It's okay with you, like you've had two beers."

So, there is something to it. It's not real clear what it does for one, other than that it definitely is tension reducing. TM instructions say to meditate two times a day for 20 minutes each, but not just before bedtime; who knows? Maybe I'll give it a try.

Substantive changes:
    August 10, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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