Transcendental Meditation: The Om-School Connection

transcendental meditation

“Mom! Dad! I have a new mantra!”

“Lemme guess: i before e, except after c?”

Not exactly, folks.  Like, a mantra mantra. We’re talking om.

Yoga is ubiquitous in the culture, popping up in strip malls, at Target, and in schools. Organic lunch choices are slowly but surely making their way into the lunchroom. And now it seems the next movement making a play to move from the commune to the classroom is Transcendental Meditation. TM practitioners devote two twenty-minute sessions daily to silent meditation, the goal of which is to access deep reserves of energy, clarity and intelligence. So the idea of rolling TM into schools begs the question: Are we ready to ask our students, teachers and families to think about… not thinking?

Transcendental Meditation entered the cultural lexicon about 50 years ago when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced it to a global audience. Ancient Vedic traditions of India were distilled for thousands of years, stripped down to their essential components, rendered practicable for the masses and presented by a charismatic teacher. It gained traction in popular culture when a number of 60s luminaries journeyed to India to meet with the Maharishi; images of his visits with the Beatles are iconic. TM is the trademarked name of a very specific meditation practice and since the 1960s its followers have quietly grown in number and, more recently, in wattage. A new advocacy movement, made visible by a high celebrity quotient and reputable by piles of scientific study affirming the value of TM, aims to bring TM to a school near you.

The David Lynch Foundation was founded in 2005 by the eponymous Hollywood director with the goal of delivering TM instruction to at-risk populations, including inner-city students. The non-profit also funds research into the effects of TM on physical and mental health, academic achievement and community well-being. The group has implemented its Quiet Time Program in hundreds of schools in the US and around the world, and seeks funding to roll it out into more schools.  Certified TM instructors promote the program as a physiological practice which calms the mind and the nervous system, resulting in measurable improvements in mental and physical health and cognitive function. Advocates of school-based TM position it as a learning readiness tool that prepares both students and teachers for intellectual and creative achievement.

Brass tacks time: Why TM? The CBEA and the David Lynch Foundation both cite a wealth of independent research that affirm its benefits in educational settings, for both students and teachers. We’re talking major university and medical studies finding, among other things, reduced levels of stress, anxiety and hyperactivity; reduced high blood pressure among high school students; increased happiness in middle schoolers; improved brain functioning and memory; increased creativity; anger reduction; and greater job satisfaction among teachers. A few minutes each school day to dive into silence and tap into a reservoir of concentration, energy and intellect sounds too good to be true, no? David Lynch doesn’t equivocate. “This is the way to save the coming generation.”

On some level, major initiatives by government and academia seem to agree. Indeed, the National Institutes of Health has granted over $20 million in the last decade to study prevention-related health benefits of TM. The New York State Committee for Stress-Free Schools , a group that promotes TM for New York students and faculty, is helmed by Dr. Gary Kaplan, neurologist and associate professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine.

Years after yoga and vegetarianism have become mainstream, TM still has to fight the fear of the unknown to win over the public. Step one in the PR campaign has been one of syntax. To wit, the in-school practice delivered to public, private and charter schools is named Quiet Time; another research and advocacy group is called the Consciousness-Based Education Association. Anyone prepared to agitate against ‘quiet time’? Is anyone opposed to consciousness in schools? All aboard the TM train, right?

Not so fast, say opponents. Critics argue that TM is nothing more than sanitized and slickly-marketed Eastern religious practice trying to establish a bulkhead in public schools. In a 2008 Newsweek article, Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said, “TM has always been rooted in the religion of Hinduism…People, including conservative Christian parents, will say if Christianity can’t be taught in the public schools then Hinduism can’t either.”

Simply put, the Eastern roots of the practice, as well as the use of mantras, and perhaps even a Western discomfort with silence, lends the whole idea a New Age “ick factor” that many just can’t get past. In fact, parent protests led the Lynch group to withdraw funding from a California high school in 2006. Interestingly, the protestors’ attorney concern was not, in fact, about religion per se, but rather that TM was a cult of personality. Referring to the recent death of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ford Greene said, “TM is not really Hinduism. It’s an amalgam of beliefs that puts Maharishi – or whoever his successor will be – as the ultimate arbiter of all things spiritual.”

Anti-TM groups rely on the kneejerk reaction against religious exercise in schools to attract support. But the scientific evidence lines up pretty impressively on the side of consciousness-based education promoters. Administrators, teachers and students who have opted-in to the voluntary Lynch-funded Quiet Time program have reported benefits in ADHD-management, creativity and even (the holy grail for number-crunching education analysts) higher standardized test scores. Of particular interest to the social-action minded are the scientifically reported benefits in inner-city settings, including violence reduction and higher levels of self-reported happiness.

Where does the time come from? Participating schools simply replaced time in their daily schedules that had already been reserved for quiet contemplation or independent study with Quiet Time TM. But in high-achieving schools in college-bound districts, expect to hear competitive parents up in arms about inviting students to spend 20 precious minutes of the school day studying…silence.

Funding for TM instruction is another matter, and one that has been taken up with rigor by both the David Lynch Foundation and the CBEA. Lynch’s group budgets $60,000 per year to place one specially-trained and certified TM instructor in a school to educate at-risk students and their teachers in the practice. Thus far, much of the fund-raising success has come from a small but wealthy and high-profile group of TM-practicing philanthropists. Russell Simmons is a spokesperson for the cause in inner city schools, and TV doctor Mehmet Oz has lent his name and professional efforts to the cause as well.

But pedestrian concerns like time and money hold no truck for administrators and educators who claim that TM is, quite literally, life-saving. Washington, D.C., middle school principal George Rutherford said that in the 1990s, years of school violence and turf wars between drug dealers and school administrators led him to roll the dice on TM. Teachers and students meditated in the classroom twice a day for 20 minutes. A churchgoing Baptist, Rutherford told Newsweek, “I feel it is the greatest savior other than Jesus Christ that I know. Fights stopped breaking out on the third floor, test scores went up.”

Detroit principal Carmen N’Namdi also credits the program with a turnaround in her school’s culture. “Our staff was taught the TM technique for the mental and physical health benefits that result in the work environment with the release of stress. In students, we have seen the TM program enhance study skills, academic performance, critical thinking skills, interpersonal and social skills—all because of the deep rest the body is receiving. We are looking forward to the years to come when more and more schools and work environments will realize that not much will get done until the stress is out of the way.”

TM, or not TM? That is the question.