Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Mental Sinking" and TM

From "Adam".

I am against TM having had a bad experience of it. At the age of 14 I read a book called ‘Tranquility without Pills’ which was all about Transcendental Meditation. I was extremely inspired and set about trying to find someone who could initiate me into the technique. I found someone who could teach me the technique for about £300, and although this must have represented my entire paperound salary for ten weeks I don’t remember being put off by this (and have nothing to say one way or the other on this count).

Anyway, I went along to learn about it and was taught about the different levels of mind and how we normally sought to solve problems on the conscious level of mind which just ended in us going around in conceptual circles. Instead, I was taught, we needed to solve our problems by absorbing into an subtler level of mind.

TM, I was taught, was different from other forms of meditation in which the emphasis was on concentration in that it taught people to reach a subtler level of mind, which wasn’t possible with concentration alone.

I was taught a mantra which I was requested to promise to keep secret (a promise I have kept and I have no particular problem with this either), and I was taught to meditate on this mantra by relaxing into it and allowing it to become subtler and subtler.

Definitely TM induces and extremely relaxing state of body and mind, but it induces mental fogginess. From a Buddhist point of view it is basically training in mental sinking which is a state of meditative concentration in which we have hold on the object of meditation but in which our clarity of it is fading. Mental sinking is a form of faulty concentration and yet is the essence of the practice of TM.

The effect of TM on me was to make me increasingly angry and confused. I started shouting at my family more and more. Eventally after a year and a half or so I decided to give it up without knowing quite why – a decision I am very grateful for.

Subsequently I started going to Buddhist classes and was taught a very simple breathing meditation which has helped me far more than TM ever did. Although the money has never been an issue of me, it is perhaps worth noting that for the Buddhist classes I was only charged £4 per class – significantly less than I paid for TM.

What really was significant for me was that the simple breathing meditation taught to me through Buddhism was far better for me in terms of gaining a sense of clarity of mind than TM had ever been. Also of vital significance was that far from telling me that conscious though was the problem Buddhism taught me to use conscious thought to understand and resolve my problems, both in and outside of meditation.

People need to be discerning customers when it comes to meditation as not all meditations are the same. Any meditation technique can be harmful if practised over-zealously.

If people want a simple meditation that will enable them to develop and maintain peace of mind I would recommend that they try to attend introductory classes on Buddhist meditation which will introduce them to breathing meditation as taught in most traditions of Buddhism.

More Unimpressive Transcendental Meditation Research

A recent study published in the low-impact journal "Cognitive Processing" by TM Org employees Fred Travis, David A. F. Haaga , John Hagelin, Melissa Tanner, Alaric Arenander, Sanford Nidich, Carolyn Gaylord-King, Sarina Grosswald, Maxwell Rainforth and Robert H. Schneider claims to (once again) establish significance for that which is well known to be insignificant.

In other words: another typical TM "scientitific" study in a journal most people will have never heard of.

The paper, A self-referential default brain state: patterns of coherence, power, and eLORETA sources during eyes-closed rest and Transcendental Meditation practice, attempts to draw conclusions about the nebulous "alpha power" much talked of in TM literature as some magical brain wave signature.

Alpha EEG waves (or more commonly simply "alpha") is a common artifact of everyday human life. Coherent alpha is needed for everyday function of our brains and in no way represents anything extraordinary. We all have it, if we are healthy. The TM organization researchers would like us to think different. Thus we see numerous studies over several decades trying to convince us of the magical, consciousness expanding qualities associated with this brain signal. No one else seems to buy it except these guys, as they still keep talking about it long after their scientific peers have called such speculations "exaggerated" or "premature" [2007, The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness].

Despite the collective yawn in the scientific community these TM scientist-fans keep pumping out more unimpressive material than just about anyone and make sure we all hear about how important they think it is by pushing it to every media outlet that will listen to their sales pitch and every web site that will allow them to post it.

The problem is many of the tasks associated with TM, esp. listening to or for a faint sound (in this case a mantra), are known to cause fairly long (several minutes long) bursts of alpha coherence. So I don't know if the question of whether or not the alpha power is greater with TM is therefore explained with the current study design.

Even if it was, the significance and relevance of "increased alpha power" in TMers is pretty low. They might as well be investigating bums on Skid Row. They're relaxed too, so they probably exhibit many of these same miraculous TM features, as will any relaxed person.

As the great pioneer in EEG interpretation, Barbara Brown, states "Concluding anything about alpha is perilous."

But conclude they do. Their latest spin on the TM alpha craze is that it represents the "ground state" of the human brain. (One would have thought the unusual flat EEG seen in some advanced meditators would have been the best candidate for this claim).

Unfortunately the subjects they chose and their timing does not make for a good baseline, let alone any sort of "ground state". Academic neurologist James Austin [Zen and the Brain] points out:

"When TM meditators were studied, it was found that they were relatively tense to begin with during the control period. This initial “tension response” was prompted by the mental stress of their entering the artificial experimental situation itself. Thereafter, although their metabolic rate did fall during meditation, most of this drop could be attributed to their subsequently becoming more at ease and reducing their muscle tension."

Measuring college students during finals week, would quite obviously enhance this same effect (tension response vs. relaxation response). The fact that researchers placed the student is a deliberately "tense" situation (college finals week) and then induced a relaxation response with TM, just makes the change in relaxation and alpha power appear greater, because the difference compared to baseline is thereby exaggerated.

Classic TM researcher manipulation of baseline. An old TM Org trick. Didn't fool me. The real question is how many people will they fool?