On the top floor of a Soho office block, 14 of us sat in a circle, on sofas and armchairs, with our eyes closed, each silently repeating our own personal mantra. And as I sat, I felt my face muscles loosen, my eyes relax, my focus expand. Then the teacher spoke and suddenly, I was back in the room. Twenty minutes had felt like five. I am not a spiritual person, but whatever happened in those minutes, it felt as if the barrier between me and the rest of the world had melted, like being in a warm bath of light.
Sounds hokey, right? But I didn’t need much help to reach this altered state, called “transcendence”. All I needed was to be given a personal mantra and to repeat it. This is the standout feature of a kind of meditation called “Vedic meditation” and its close cousin, Transcendental Meditation (TM).
I’d wanted to try it for years, since so many people told me how incredible they’d found it. Having struggled to do any regular mindfulness, including Headspace and calm.com, I was told this was less effort. All you have to do is sit down, for 20 minutes, twice a day, and repeat your mantra.
Then, a few months ago, after spending an evening at a TM party, bathed in the unrelenting positivity of TM aficionados, I knew I wanted some of what they were having (and not the champagne). Every person I met – from the organic-food supremo to the charity boss – said their energy and success was founded on twice-daily meditation.
The party was in honour of a Bob Roth, a big cheese in the Transcendental Meditation organisation, and his book, Strength In Stillness. You’ve likely heard of TM – the Beatles learned it from the organisation’s white-robed founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who first revived this kind of meditation from ancient texts. Those texts, thousands of years old, also gave us ayurveda and yoga. Now, TM is a global organisation with a focus on scientific studies to prove meditation’s brain-changing benefits and charity work via the David Lynch Foundation, taking meditation to those who can’t afford it, in prisons and education, for example.
Vedic meditation started as a breakaway from TM – you could think of them as estranged siblings. As a punter, the similarities are more obvious than the differences. Both require you to do a course; you can’t just DIY. For the Vedic meditation course, I did at the Will Williams centre in Soho. On day one, you have a one-to-one, when you are given your personal mantra. On days two and three, you work in a group with a teacher to ask all the questions and smooth out the kinks that are stopping you reaching transcendence.
You can’t get this kind of mantra meditation wrong – know you will have thoughts, you will get distracted, but no matter
I chose this particular centre as I’d liked Williams’ book, The Effortless Mind. Our softly spoken teacher was Bill and his main point over all three days seemed to be: repeating the mantra can become effortless, let your thoughts come if they will, just keep going back to the mantra and it will do its work. You can’t get this kind of mantra meditation wrong – know you will have thoughts, you will get distracted, but no matter. Bill put it well: he compared refocusing on the mantra to turning back from a great conversation at a party (your thoughts) towards a beautiful sunset (your mantra).
By using the mantra, Bill told us, your historical stress unwinds and, over time, you become more like the true, core, you. Big promises, but worth trying, right?
There are thousands of mantras – they are sounds that connect you to the universe (stay with me here!). And you can’t tell anyone else your mantra, because apparently it would dilute its power. I can tell you mine is a two-syllable sound. And I can tell you I failed to get its correct Indian pronunciation the first 10 or so times I tried, so Bill and I ended up like a Monty Python sketch, with him saying it correctly and me repeating it slightly off each time, giggles rising. In the end, Bill told me to pronounce it the English way – “Don’t be too precious about it.” That first day, there’s also a Puja ceremony, where Bill chanted a prayer over our offerings of fruit and flowers.
So far, so alien. But on days two and three, the group was tutored in the basics and shared experiences; most of the people there didn’t seem to be chasing spirituality, more a practice that works to give them peace and calm. Group meditation is apparently more powerful, taking you deeper; clues are feeling an absence of time and noise, and not being able to feel your body. Dreamlike experiences and visions are not uncommon and mean the “mantra is doing its work”. This unwinding process is not always going to be pleasant, we were told. I certainly found that; besides flashing lights and feeling melty, I saw the face of a baby I’d miscarried six years ago.
Bill told us to be careful after the end of the course, as over the next few months and years we would be “reconfiguring” ourselves, “opening up”, so it’s easy to end up making bad decisions.
Three weeks later and I have meditated at least once a day, usually at 6.30am and 5pm, my longest mind-run streak by far. I spent a week on holiday in Spain and, opposite to what you’d expect, found the 20 minutes way harder to fit in (I couldn’t bring myself to get up at 6.30am on holiday and although Bill told us you can meditate anywhere, I felt silly sitting with my eyes closed at the airport and by the pool).
But I am doing it. And what I have noticed is I’m no longer ruled by emotions – I can sometimes see when I’m angry or frustrated without being in that feeling. Over the next year, Bill promised more empathy and softness, clarity and warmth. “This form of meditation brings the whole brain into active coherence,” he says. “The more you do it, the more you get.” I’m going to keep doing it. So far, I want what I’m getting.