We regularly hear that meditation is the key to reducing stress and clearing the mind. Recently, transcendental meditation has become part of the conversation, as many celebrities have shared their experiences with this practice. Both Roth, author of STRENGTH IN STILLNESS, explains what transcendental meditation is and how we can incorporate it into our daily lives.
Here are two questions I get a lot: How is Transcendental Meditation different from “regular” meditation? And what does the word transcendental in Transcendental Meditation mean? Let’s start with the first question. Meditation means thinking. So different meditations utilize different techniques of thinking. As I said, there is thinking that keeps the mind focused and controlled (Focused Attention), thinking that keeps the mind in the present (Open Monitoring), and thinking that allows the mind to access inner stillness, or transcend (Automatic Self-Transcending).
So what does transcendental mean? What is transcendence?
For some people, transcendence has a strange sound to it—almost mystical or otherworldly. Merriam- Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines transcendence as “extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience.”
In truth, it’s not strange at all. In fact, we seek transcendence all the time—whenever we seek to break boundaries, whenever we test our limits. We want to run faster, jump higher, learn more, earn more, see more, feel more. We love routine but, over time, it can stifle, suffocate. We seek change. We step out of our comfort zone in large and small ways. We take a new job that is more challenging and creative. We do something we’ve never done before such as join a theater group or take a spin class. We go to an exotic location for a vacation. We experiment with new restaurants, new cuisines. We do something that injects the extraordinary into the ordinary. We feel excited, alive, energized. But only for a while, because eventually extraordinary can become ordinary, too. We’re seeking transcendence, but it doesn’t come simply by making changes in our daily routine on a horizontal level, like replacing one wave with another on the surface of the ocean. Real transcendence is more profound than that. It’s vertical. It’s going beyond the waves and accessing the unbounded stillness that lies deep within. And when you experience that pure stillness within yourself, at the source of thought, even for a moment, you remember it for a lifetime.
Great athletes call it the zone. The crowd noise and the big-game pressure dissipate for the pitcher in mid- windup with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning, the guard on the free throw line with no time left, the quarterback reading the onrushing defense as the clock winds down. What these gifted performers are left with is the game itself, as if in silent slow motion—a seamless sequence of flawless events in time.
Tennis great Billie Jean King captured her experiences of the zone eloquently in her autobiography Billie Jean. “I can almost feel it coming,” she writes. “It usually happens on one of those days when everything is just right, when the crowd is large and enthusiastic and my concentration is so perfect it almost seems as though I’m able to transport myself beyond the turmoil on the court to some place of total peace and calm. I know where the ball is on every shot, and it always looks as big and well de ned as a basketball. Just a huge thing I couldn’t miss if I wanted to. I’ve got perfect control of the match, my rhythm and movements are excellent, and everything’s just in total balance. It’s a perfect combination of a violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility . . . And when it happens, I want to stop the match and grab the microphone and shout, ‘ at’s what it’s all about.’ ”
But it’s not just for athletes. Brain surgeons, trial lawyers, schoolteachers, musicians, and stay-at-home moms can experience transcendence as well. In fact, it can happen, to one degree or another, to anyone. Like when you hug your newborn child, and time slips away. Or when you connect deeply with a beloved partner, and you are enveloped in a moment that seems to last forever. It’s the kid in the backyard shooting hoops when magically, when no one is looking, he or she hits ten impossible jump shots in a row: swish, swish, swish. Or the author who has been battling writer’s block suddenly finds all the right words owing, page after page.
These are glimpses of the zone, or transcendence. Different experiences at different times but all sharing the commonality of action infused with silence— effortless, timeless, and satisfying way beyond the norm. e important thing is it starts from inside. You take note of these moments because they are meaningful and indescribably fulfilling.
Some of the greatest poets have done justice to the experience. The closest description I have seen in writ- ing is William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”:
[T]hat serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, Until the breath of this corporeal frame, And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
But for the rest of us nonpoets, transcendence can be a challenge to put into words. What does it feel like? It’s like trying to describe happiness in words. Or telling someone who has never eaten a kiwi what it tastes like. “No, it doesn’t exactly taste like an orange, a peach, or a strawberry . . .” You can try to say what it is: “ The bright-green flesh has a juicy texture and sweetness, and the tiny seeds within can add just the slightest grit . . .” But you will never fully convey the experience precisely through words. It must be experienced firsthand.
The Transcendental Meditation technique has many purposes: reduce stress, clear the mind, raise performance. But foremost among them is to experience transcendence. And not on rare, once-or-twice-in-a- lifetime occasions but whenever you want, to one degree or another, every day. Does it always feel like the ways that Billie Jean King or William Wordsworth describe it? Of course not. Sometimes the experience in meditation is profound; oftentimes it can seem mundane. But each time you meditate, even if your mind is filled with a million thoughts, you do settle down toward levels of the mind that are deeper, quieter, more satisfying. And when you do that, the equanimity you experience during meditation naturally comes out to be lived more and more in every moment of your life. And that is a very good description of the zone.