The Secret Health Weapon I Have in Common With Ellen, Oprah and Seinfeld
Transcendental Meditation can ease many of the physical and mental challenges of midlife
Back in 1976, I was a college sophomore, juggling a demanding academic load with a full-time job and a host of social activities. By the end of my third semester, I was physically and mentally exhausted, not to mention confused — I was facing critical decisions regarding my major and a junior year program, and didn’t quite know which way to turn.
One day on my way to class, I spotted a poster promoting a lecture on Transcendental Meditation, or TM. Two descriptive phrases immediately jumped out at me: "achieve calm" and "cultivate mental clarity."
Like most people at the time, I had heard of TM, a mantra-based form of meditation that originated in ancient India and was introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The press had written extensively about the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India, where the guru taught them the technique and they wrote numerous amazing songs (most ended up on the White Album.)
The intense media focus on the Beatles' experiences and their stunning creative output prompted legions to learn the technique; medical studies were launched soon after. I recall having read about Harvard physician Herbert Benson’s work, which affirmed TM’s ability to produce calming alpha waves and counteract the instinctual fight-or-flight response to stress.
A Decision That Changed My Life
While scanning the poster, I made a quick decision — one that has had a huge impact on my life — to attend the introductory lecture. What I heard there led me to learn the technique, which is extremely simple and free of any religious underpinnings. (That was essential to me: I was in it for the relaxation and mental sharpness it could produce).
Apparently, I was not alone. Four million people have learned TM since its introduction.
The benefits of meditating 20 minutes twice a day were apparent to me from the outset. During my first session, I experienced a deep sense of stillness and calm. Afterward, there was a heightened sense of mental acuity. From that moment on, the technique became a potent way for me to neutralize (or at least reduce) the negative aspects of daily life and enrich the positive ones. It also bolstered my interest in learning about and adopting other healthy behaviors.
(MORE: 2 Magic Words That Can Change Your Life: Hard Fun)
But perhaps just as important, regular immersion into a quiet inner realm fuels the creativity and insights required for my daily work. Each morning and evening, I dip into a bottomless interior well that grounds and rejuvenates me in ways that no other action I take can match. I’ve found that I’m able to remain on an even keel in churned-up waters if I meditate regularly.
Not that I always have.
As with exercise, there have been times when I haven’t adhered to a consistent schedule. The lapses always occurred during highly stressful periods when I let the demands and chaos around me crowd out the very behaviors that could have helped me most.
Other People Also Saw Reason to Take Up TM
I’ve been practicing TM pretty regularly for the last 10 years and recently learned that I'm in good company. Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Clint Eastwood and George Stephanopoulos are among the big names who meditate. Some have been doing TM for a short time, but others have been at it for decades. Seinfeld recently told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Good Morning America that he has been practicing for 40 years and described the technique as “a charger for your whole body and mind.”
Film director David Lynch is another longtime meditator who became so convinced of the power of TM to alleviate the most extreme repercussions of stress that he launched an eponymous foundation dedicated to bringing the technique to at-risk children, prisoners and war veterans with PTSD.
According to The Washington Post, the Veterans Administration is spending about $5 million on a dozen clinical trials and demonstration studies of three meditation techniques involving several hundred veterans from a range of conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Physiological and Mental Benefits of TM
Over the years, TM has been the subject of numerous health studies, many of them financed by the National Institutes of Health. The practice has been shown to be of greater benefit than other relaxation therapies for those with risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
In this video, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the popular heart surgeon, speaks to TM’s capacity to significantly reduce cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, obesity and the incidence of fatal heart attacks and strokes.
Why the 50+ Population Needs to Reduce Stress
Many historical clinical studies have confirmed the harmful impacts of psychological stress and new discoveries are building an ever-stronger case.
Given these negative effects and the fact that midlife is chock full of challenging transitions and decisions, it seems particularly important that those of us in adulthood’s second phase adopt as many effective approaches for reducing and coping with stress as possible. The following are but a few of the potential stress inducers you may confront: contending with kids leaving home while helping them financially; dealing with job loss or finding and adjusting to new work; financial planning for retirement; moving to a new home or locale; redefining relationships with adult children; and managing health problems and caregiving.
(MORE: 9 Worst Things About Being Over 50)
Exercise, naps, hobbies, friendship, faith and community all go a long way toward helping us handle life’s difficulties and staving off mental and physical decline. I wrote about these and other solutions in this Next Avenue article.
But I think our arsenal for battling aging’s downside should also include meditation. While numerous techniques exist and many can help you safeguard well-being, I want to underscore the value of TM. I have firsthand experience with its benefits, which have been widely studied and confirmed.
Now that I’ve spoken out, I’ll be heading for my couch to meditate. I began looking forward to that 20 minutes of precious stillness as soon as I started writing.