The most inscrutable problems sometimes have the most simple solutions. The problem of the nervous system's susceptibility to stress has been exhaustively charted and analysed but the knowledge gained has yielded no effective and easily applied remedy.
Over half the deaths in England and Wales are from heart and other circulatory diseases which have stress as a common factor: of every 100 middle-aged men, two are suffering from untreated hypertension. And so on.
What seems to be happening is that as the proverbial pace of life increases the pressure of everyday experience is becoming so intense that the repairs and adjustments which the nervous system carries out during deep sleep and dreaming cannot always keep pace with the input of stress.
The overload causes physiological abnormalities to develop on the structural and material level of the nervous system, hindering its normal functioning and reducing still further its ability to cope with stress. If this vicious circle cannot be broken it results in psychosomatic disorders such as hypertension and circulatory disease.
The need to cultivate greater resilience to stress is not just an individual problem. Those who experience the most acute stressful stimuli are often those entrusted with the safety and well-being of others - statesmen, businessmen, teachers, airline pilots.
Recent studies of the transcendental meditation (TM) of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi have stirred the American academic world because they have shown that TM is the exact opposite of the process by which the nervous system accumulates stress. The technique works on the material sand structural level of the nervous system, neutralising stress as automatically as the nervous system accumulates it.
Whereas stress tends to cause excitement, hyperactivity, TM is a form of rest deeper than sleep. Stress raises the oxygen intake: TM lowers it to a level below that of sleep. Stress constricts the arteries: TM expands them. And, interestingly, during meditation the mind is not held rigid as it is in panic situations, nor dulled as it is in sleep, but becomes increasingly alert.
These findings indicate that deep sleep and dreaming can no longer be regarded as the nervous system's only means of carrying out repairs and adjustments. They show TM as an innate but hitherto untapped ability to neutralise stress effortlessly and at will. It therefore has exciting potential as an effective and easily applied solution to the problem of stress.
Maharishi, the monk and teacher who brought the ancient Vedic technique to the west from North India 14 years ago, explains: "there is nothing that can be said so certainly about stress except that the amount of rest produced will neutralise the corresponding intensity of stress."
Meditators claim that the benefits of meditating for the recommended 20 minutes twice a day are cumulative because the amount of rest produced is almost always greater than the intensity of the daily dose of stress. This means that by tipping the balance against stress the style of functioning of the nervous system becomes progressively more refined and even the most deeply rooted stresses can be eradicated.
Sleep, by comparison, lacks M's quality of alertness and the quality of stress which it dissolves is that of physical fatigue. Maharishi, who uses little physical energy, sleeps for two hours a night.
When he refers to the normal functioning of the nervous system he does so with a smile because he is referring to that state in which the last stress, the last obstacle to the unfoldment of maximum energy, intelligence and creativity, has fallen away. He teaches that stresses alone are the obstacles to such full development. Which implies that man's "normal" state is way below his potential.
The physiological tests, notably those by Benson and Wallace at the Harvard Medical School, established that during meditation a complex of changes takes place indicating an integrated combination of rest and alertness which can be found only in practitioners of TM. The nervous system functions in a way quite different from that of waking, dreaming, and sleeping: the changes are also clearly distinguishable from those occurring during hypnosis and operant conditioning.
There are difficulties in quantifying the effects of regular meditation on everyday life. But studies of psychological stability and perceptual ability have added weight to meditators' claims that they experience a cumulative growth in calmness and alertness as co-existent qualities.
Five of the research reports have shown that meditation greatly reduces the craving for drugs - even hard drugs - and for alcohol and tobacco.
The bulk of the research and the fact that the standardised technique can be learned in 2 1/2 minutes followed by three hour long "checks" on consecutive days have made TM an irresistible lure for American Businessmen, students, and educators. There are about 10,000 new meditators a month in the US and the total there has just topped 200,000.
TM's potential as an anti-drugs device made the breakthrough in winning Maharishi official support in America. A resolution passed by the general assembly of Illinois in May not only approved the use of TM in schools but asked the drug abuse section of the state's Department of Mental Health to consider incorporating TM in its rehabilitation programme.
The technique, the resolution said: "Shows promise of being the most positive and effective drugs prevention programme being presented in the world today."
The first teacher of meditation to be put on the US Army's payroll at Fort Lewis, Washington, last October, is working with the base's alcohol and drug council. (The contract stipulates that the army will not interfere with the way the technique is taught.) All army bases have received an official army circular recommending TM as a useful self-help device for dealing with drug and alcohol abuse. It was drug addiction among the Eskimos which prompted the US Health Service to send a TM teacher to Point Barrow, Alaska, in October and pay him scholarship money.
The weightiest government support for TM in America came last August when the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare paid $21,540 to send 125 high school teachers on a four-week course in the theory and practice of meditation at California State University.
This tear marks the beginning of a big drive for Government support as part of Maharishi's World Plan - first objective: set up 3,600 teacher training centres, one for each million of world population.
But up to now, TM's biggest successes have come as a result of informal contacts by individual meditators. major General Franklin Davis, the commandant of the US Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, began promoting TM in the army after his daughter persuaded him to learn the technique. Walter Robbins, the staff development officer for the Cabinet of Manitoba, Canada, began promoting TM as a Civil Service management training aid after only three month's meditation. Emperor Hailie Selassie, who has approved the introduction of TM into Ethiopia's secondary schools and is to set up a meditation academy for students from OAU countries, learned about TM from Kibre Dawitt, a girl member of his court circle. The Illinois resolution was piloted by W. J. Murphy, majority leader of the general assembly and a meditator.
Britain's 20,000 meditators have kept a low profile since the Beatles episode. Interest in TM has spread by word of mouth and in October the monthly total of new meditators passed the 500 mark for the first time.
American college students treat their 45 dollar fee for learning TM as an investment and hope to get better grades. In Britain, where education is free, the 8 pound student rate seems a small fortune and the 15 pound adult rate is beyond the pocket of many working men. No TM teacher has so far been able to support himself on a commission basis and in the last financial year, the London-based headquarters of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, a charity, was in the red.
The low profile looks like ending pretty soon. Vesey Crichton, an Old Etonian, aged 23, will be landing in Britain this weekend as one of 108 volunteers trained by Maharishi to promote TM at Government level. One wonders what Mrs Thatcher and non-meditators as a whole are going to make of TM.
HOW TO MEDITATE? The delicate technique is taught individually: it involves an intimate interchange of knowledge and experience between teacher and would-be meditator. Although everyone has an innate ability to meditate it still has to be taught, for much the same reason that a child's innate ability to speak will remain latent unless it is spoken to. The technique cannot be learned from books because the concentration that would involve would hold the mind on the conscious level of thinking and prevent it from experiencing the refinement of thought which occurs spontaneously during meditation.
Nevertheless, TM's principles can be outlined. The broad principle is one which applies to all living things - they grow and progress through alternate steps of rest and activity. By incorporating TM's deep rest into this cycle everyday activity is enlivened. The meditator can achieve more by doing less.
What is temporarily "transcended" during meditation is simply activity - the interdependent activity of the mind and nervous system. The innate ability of the mind which TM has rediscovered is its natural tendency to diminish thinking activity and flow towards more subtle and powerful aspects of thought. As mental activity is refined and therefore diminished, so is physical activity. Deeper and deeper rest is gained and stresses begin to dissolve.
When the mind finally transcends thought it reaches its maximum alertness. The entire physiological condition is described by Benson and Wallace as a state of "restful alertness."
It is a fundamental principle that during meditation everything goes by itself, automatically and effortlessly. Maharishi says "Effort should be left in the hands of the basic force of life." The effortlessness of the technique is the basis of his claim that the release of stress is a natural function of the nervous system.
To create the conditions for the mind to experience subtler aspects of thought and finally transcend thought, the would-be meditator is given a mantra by his teacher. A mantra is the thought of a sound, a delicate impulse which is soothing to the nervous system. Each mantra is individually chosen by the teacher and the technique lies in the way of using it. Maharishi describes the mantra as a comfortable vehicle for the natural tendency of the mind to ride on.
In order to stress - sorry, emphasise - that TM functions in harmony with natural laws, Maharishi has framed the expression "creative intelligence." Creative intelligence is the basic force of life which conducts all the diverse forms and phenomena in creation. It has an infinitely wide range - from its unmanifest phase to the activities of fine energy particles, the individual and "the extragalactic processions which articulate the pulse of the universe." Creative intelligence naturally also conducts the process of meditation.
By the unmanifest phase of creative intelligence, Maharishi means its inactive, non-expressed, non-changing phase. Just as the ability to rest is contained in the ability to be active, so the unmanifest aspect of creative intelligence is at the basis of all the different forms and phenomena of manifest creation.
He teaches that during the deep rest of TM, meditators open their awareness to creative intelligence in its unmanifest phase. As a result, he says, they find that the nervous system becomes capable of incorporating the whole range of creative intelligence, making it possible to live its full value in daily life. The qualities of creative intelligence spontaneously emerge into the field of activity.
Maharishi uses the flowers which meditators give him to illustrate this principle. The colourlessness of the sap represents the unmanifest quality of creative intelligence. "What we find is that the colourless sap forms the basis for all the different aspects of the plant - the red petal, the green leaves.
The test of other systems of development, says Maharishi, is: do they transcend activity? For only by naturally transcending activity and gaining deep rest by contacting the unmanifest aspect of creative intelligence will the stress release mechanism be brought into play. Any system which does this will simple be - TM.
The best known record of the physiological changes which occur while the "unmanifest aspect of creative intelligence" is being contacted is by Dr Herbert Benson, assistant professor of medicine and Dr Keith Wallace, an independent researcher, at the Harvard Medical School. Their research was published in the Scientific American, February 1972.
They confirmed the lessening of physical activity during meditation by establishing that the metabolic rate falls to a lower level than during sleep. The most convenient measure of metabolic rate is oxygen consumption. They found that this fell by up to 20 per cent, about twice the usual reduction during sleep. The heart rate fell by 25 per cent compared with 20 per cent during sleep.
Apart from the intriguing discovery that the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system - that is, heart, lungs - can be varied at will, they also found a fall in the concentration of blood lactate four times faster than its rate of fall during the period of rest prior to meditation.
Research into the biochemistry of anxiety by Ferris Pitts at Washington University had previously established that infusions of blood lactate produced anxiety symptoms in patients. lactate is the end product of the process by which muscle cells starved of oxygen break down glucose and extract energy from it. Hypertensive patients have high concentrations of blood lactate.
So, far from starving the muscle cells of oxygen because of reduced oxygen consumption, the process of meditation has actually increased it. The reason, they found, was that the flow of blood (carrying oxygen to the muscles) had actually increased. The forearm blood flow was up 32 per cent. They took the view that meditation reduced the activity of the major part of the sympathetic nerve network so that it secretes less norepinephrine, a biochemical which causes the blood vessels to constrict.
The combination of a decrease in respiration and heart rate and an increase in blood flow corresponds well with Maharishi's claim that during TM activity is both reduced and refined. In his terminology "The integrative quality of creative intelligence unites the opposite values of rest and activity."
Benson and Wallace also recorded a fivefold rise in electrical skin resistance - which declines in anxiety states. They concluded that the "wakeful hypometabolic state" of TM was unique.
Dr Peter Fenwick, a psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital, London, has for five years been using an electroencephalograph to study the effect of TM on the brainwaves of a group of volunteer meditators.
He found marked changes in the brainwave patterns which could be picked out at a statistically significant level by a group of "blind" raters. His researches have shown that during meditation the dominant rhythm at the back of the head - the alpha rhythm - tends to slow slightly and spread forward but never disappears. So long as the alpha rhythm is present, the subject is alert and not asleep.
He also found that in the temple area, which deals with the memory and the synthesis of emotion, and also in the frontal area which deals with personality and the control of basic autonomic functions, theta waves appeared. Theta waves are usually seen during sleep and are always spread across the hemispheres.
From this he concluded that some of the changes which we expect during sleep were occurring in the presence of alertness. By studying heart rate and indirect measure s of the level of arousal he showed that the meditator's nervous system was more relaxed during meditation than that of his control subjects.
He concluded that the patterns were unique to transcendental meditation. There was no other technique known which could produce these two apparently contradictory states at the same time.
Maharishi's familiarity with the unmanifest aspect of creative intelligence has led him inexorably into the realm of atomic physics. He looks to the principles of physics - such as the law of least action - to provide objective validation of the experience of the mental technique of TM.
He draws a parallel between the principle located in the third law of thermodynamics - that as activity decreases, order increases - and the practice of TM. "As the stresses dissolve, what is happening is that order is increasing. As the metabolic rate is being reduced, orderliness is being increased and with this, whatever disorder has been existing must naturally dissolve."
The benefits of stress release have been monitored by Dr David Orme-Johnson of the University of Texas department of psychology (1972), who reported that meditators appeared to have more stable nervous systems. He measured the ups and downs in anxiety by recording the changes in galvanic skin resistance (GSR). For every 10 changes observed in meditators during a 10-minute period of rest with eyes open, non-meditators showed 34. There were only 2.6 changes for every 10 minutes of meditation. His subjects had an average of two years experience of TM.
Meditators recover more quickly from stress, Orme-Johnson found. He blasted meditators and a control group with a "stressful tone" of 100 decibels through earphones at irregular intervals. The meditators GSR responses showed that they got used to them after only 11 blasts compared with the non-meditators' 28. Graphs of the responses showed that the meditators produced smooth curves and the non-meditators wobbly curves, indicating that the meditators nervous systems functioned in a more stable way.
At the University of Sussex, John Graham, an undergraduate thesis, investigated the effect of meditation on perceptual ability. He found that although meditators' ability to discriminate between different frequencies of a warble tone deteriorated by 15 per cent after 20 minutes spent reading a book it improved by 37 per cent after 20 minutes meditation. Amplitude discrimination showed the same pattern.
Karen Blasdell of the University of California (1971) tested the speed and accuracy of meditators and non-meditators in a hand-eye co-ordination test - tracing a start shape by looking at its mirror image so that a visual motor conflict had to be resolved. Meditators made nearly three times fewer errors per second.
The best known research into the effect of meditation on drug abuse is still Benson and Wallace's questionnaire survey of 1,862 subjects, mostly college students and graduates. These are the percentage falls recorded in heavy use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco before learning to meditate and after 22-33 months of meditation. Marijuana: 22.4 to 01.. LSD: 7.1 to nil. Narcotics: 0.6 to nil. Amphetamines: 1.0 to nil. Hard liquor: 2.7 to 0.4. Cigarettes: 27 to 5.7.
Among a sample of 570 meditators in a controlled research project by Dr Leon Otis of the Stanford Research Institute (1972) were 49 opiate users, 35 of whom gave it up after six months of meditation. Dr Otis considers this result noteworthy since the prognosis for successful treatment and rehabilitation of opiate users is poor.
A pilot study by Allan Abrams of the University of California has shown a trend towards a cumulative improvement in meditators learning ability. Meditators with two years' experience performed short and long-term recall tests better than meditators with a year's experience, who performed better than non-meditators.
It is in education that TM has spread fastest. Courses in the "science of creative intelligence" qualify for degree credit at seven American universities including Yale and Harvard. Maharishi is booked to appear before 3,500 educators at America's National Conference on Higher Education, the major higher education conference, in March. His academic symposiums - eight so far held - have attracted some of America's best known brains.
The application of TM to education is summed up in the motto of Maharishi International University which has 205 World Plan centres in the US. It says "Knowledge is structured in consciousness." Which means roughly that you can throw as much information at a pupil as you like: whether he makes use of it, or even remembers it, depends on his level of consciousness. Traditionally, education has been communicative rather than creative. Which is where creative intelligence comes in as the direct means by which intelligence and creativity themselves can be developed. The missing subjective element.
Maharishi's critique of consciousness is of equal interest to psychology and philosophy. His basic postulate is that existence - which conducts the objective phase of life - and intelligence - which conducts the subjective phase - are the same at their most fundamental level. And that during TM this integration of opposites is directly experienced.
This experience - elemental, omnipresent, and the same for everybody - is the ultimate stable basis for the philosopher's affirmation: "I am." It is hardly surprising that in their search for an objective expression of the nature of life, both Maharishi and Western philosophers have been drawn towards physics and its investigation of the subtle states of matter and energy.
The irony is that Maharishi needs objective evidence only as a means of illustrating that the basic nature of the life - the philosopher's Absolute - can be cognised subjectively during TM. For generations, both philosophers and scientists have clung to objectivity as the only invariable means of gaining knowledge. (The fact that the philosophers in particular have never been able to agree amongst themselves shows that in a way they were right.) What Maharishi is now offering is a subjective invariable as a means of gaining knowledge.
He says "Knowledge gained by objective means will always be specific and not total. The abstract, unmanifest value of the pure field of creative intelligence can never be determined by the objective means of gaining knowledge. But until knowledge of that is gained, knowledge will remain incomplete."
The prospect of gaining complete knowledge, in Maharishi's teaching, lies in the ability of the nervous system to incorporate the full range of creative intelligence. On our part, we just meditate regularly, watching the benefits as the knots of stress are untied and wondering what it would be like to have no knots.
Maharishi, with his two hours' sleep a night and his silence every Thursday morning, has said that his wakefulness is more restful than other people's sleep. Since he came to the West 14 years ago he has personally instructed 4,500 teachers of meditation on ten-week courses and the world total of meditators has grown to 350,000. It is no exaggeration to say that no businessman or statesman could equal his energy.
One of his prime concerns is to keep the teaching and the technique pure and unmixed. He will not have it taught as part of any system of belief, religious or otherwise.
His direct predecessor in the vedic tradition of masters through which the technique has been preserved was Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, who innovated a spiritual renaissance in Northern India. He died aged 84 in 1953. Meditators refer to him as Guru Dev and at the traditional ceremony during which TM is taught, flowers and fruit are offered in thanksgiving.
It is the triumph of these two masters that they have been instrumental in bringing out the teaching and the technique in a form untainted by corrupted Yogic practices of concentration and coercion and which can be practised by everyone. They have restored the basic knowledge that fulfilment is not achieved by strain and suffering but by the natural tendency of life to grow and to progress.