The Sunday Times Magazine
London, December 11 1988

'IT CHANGED MY LIFE'

HEALTH

Continuing our occasional series in which people describe how an illness, operation or revelation has given them a new outlook, the journalist John Harding describes the benefits of meditation.
Photography by Sandy Porter

John Harding Meditating.

HELLO JOHN, GOT A NEW MANTRA?

It was a Saturday. A fine day; the sun was shining, the birds were singing. I was floating across Eaton Square, my feet barely touching the ground. And I had arrived at this state simply be sitting in a chair doing next to nothing.

It lasted all day. Normally a reluctant shopper, I dazzled my girlfriend with my willingness to browse and buy. I positively enjoyed driving through West End traffic, opening doors for others, giving way to them in queues and apologising when they trod on my toes.

Some time before, while researching an article, I had found myself increasingly interested in transcendental meditation, the technique based upon ancient teachings, introduced to the West from India in 1958 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

TM, Associated with the sixties when the Beatles embraced it, has outlasted the trappings of kaftans and beads. Today some three million people practise it worldwide, 140,000 in this country [the UK].

It entails sitting quietly with eyes closed for 20 minutes twice a day, and mentally repeating a single word, or "mantra". I was originally intrigued by some of the claims made for it. It is said not only to reduce stress, but actually to help with a whole host of stress-related illnesses from allergies, asthma, migraine, and pre-menstrual tension, through to high blood pressure, heart disorders and cancer. One American study of 2,000 meditators over five years found that they were half as likely to fall ill as non-meditators. They spent 70 per cent fewer days in hospital, had an 87 per cent lower incidence of heart disease and 55 per cent fewer tumours.

Professionally I treated such statistics with caution, but I was impressed by the fact that some 600 British GP's who practice TM had written to the government urging that it be made available on the NHS. One doctor told me how she had prescribed TM for her patients over several years and had found it efficacious for a range of persistent problems. But what most impressed me were the interviews I conducted with a number of meditators, who had in common an enviable exuberance. They cited benefits including the ability to handle stress, feelings of calm, relaxation and general well-being, resistance to colds and flu, and the ability to think more clearly, to get down to things and accomplish more.

For some time I had been finding it hard to motivate myself to work. I was frittering away my time, neither earning money nor enjoying myself. I often felt engulfed by the stress of meeting deadlines and, on top of everything, I had developed allergy problems in the form of year-round hay fever induced by anything from pollen or dust to stroking my cat. On the face of it, TM seemed to have all the answers. What did I have to lose?

What I had to lose was 145 pounds. That is what the World Council of the Age of Enlightenment, the Maharishi's outfit, charges for tuition in the technique. [That was back then, rates have since been hiked to aim TM at successful people. For those wil less cash and strong motivation, doctors now sometimes prescribe TM - DS] Moreover, you are expected to buy a panacea in a poke, because no one will actually tell you exactly what it consists of until you sign up to learn.

Then you must undertake not to reveal it to others, which limits what I can tell you about it.

If that kind of secrecy is not enough to put you off, the introductory talk which you have to attend certainly could be. The presentation was painfully naive, delivered by two blandly smiling people who failed to reveal any more facts than those in the organisation's literature.

I signed on regardless, though with some misgivings that this is how people became Moonies. Such fears were groundless. TM is not a religion; people of all persuasions practise it.

Tuition comprised an hour-long session during which I was taught to meditate, followed by three further sessions on consecutive days to fine-tune the technique.

It is completely effortless. You are given a mantra which remains your secret. Twice a day you sit down, close your eyes and repeat it mentally. During that time, thoughts come, and when you become aware of them you simply return to the mantra. Sometimes there are periods when you are neither repeating the mantra nor thinking anything, so-called "Pure consciousness", accompanied by a feeling of great happiness. During meditation I am aware that I am in an altered state of consciousness quite unlike anything else. It is blissful. Breathing becomes shallow and slows along with the metabolism.

While meditation is itself enjoyable, the real benefits come afterwards. Some people feel them immediately, others over a period of months. The euphoria of my first week soon levelled out, but since that time I have not for one moment felt depressed, nor have I suffered negative thoughts. My partner noticed immediately that I had become happier, more thoughtful, calmer. My concentration has improved, I have amazing energy and am capable of long hours of physical work without fatigue. After a fortnight I realised that I had stopped biting my fingernails, a lifelong nervous habit. Meditators usually report a decrease in tobacco and alcohol consumption, often to nil. I sailed through the hay fever season on reduced medication with practically no reaction.

Often I feel a surge of energy sweep through my whole body. I can be walking along the street and be overwhelmed by a spontaneous burst of happiness. I have a sense of organisation which I have lacked all my life. I feel more patient and tolerant. At the same time I have all the normal emotions. The difference is that I am now able to control my anger and frustration, to resolve them in a rational manner.

Meditation is said to slow the ageing process. That I cannot assess, but after a couple of weeks I met an acquaintance of 15 years. "You look well," she said. A pause while she studied me intently. "I haven't seen you looking so well in ages." Another pause. "In fact, I've never seen you look this well before."


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