Transcendental Meditation Claims Benefits, But Where's the Proof?

Behind a well-kept lawn and plantings lies the enigmatic blank white face of the Transcendental Meditation Center.

Inside 33 Garden St., the atmosphere could not be less mysterious. There are no robed gurus here, but meditation teachers who wear jackets and ties. A full line of Maharshi Ayur-Ved products, from health-promoting teas to shampoo and massage oil, are for sale.

Transcendental meditation (TM) was founded in the United States in 1957 by Maharshi Mahesh Yogi. His foundation, the Maharshi Institute of Vedic Science, trains all TM instructors and governs the content and structure of TM centers. Local TM centers exist as franchises of the international corporation.

The introductory lecture for prospective students seems designed to put meditation in the context of normal life.

"It's not about 'lifestyle," says lecturer and teacher Patrick Pomfrey. "It's not a religion or a philosophy or a cult. What it is simply a mental technique."

The introductory film, which emphasizes the medical benefits of stress reduction through meditation, reinforces the success-oriented, mainstream atmosphere of the center. Three CEO's, a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, Joe Namath and a Harvard doctor endorse TM in the film.

"We should look at TM like a procedure," says a white-coated doctor in the film, "a mental procedure like any other procedure we perform."

A grey-suited CEO proclaims, "TM is for dynamic individuals. It's for people who want to be successful, who get things done."

The benefits of TM, according to Pomfrey and to Beth F. Kupferman, the center's director, are stress reduction, better health, improved concentration, learning, attention and relationships.

And while the center was forthcoming about the benefits of TM, no one there would talk about what actually happens in their method of meditation. In an interview, all the director of the center would reveal is that the TM student receives a special mantra the first time he or she meets the teacher. The mantra remains the meditator's secret, as does the meditation process.

The course of instruction costs $1,000 for adults, $600 for students--perhaps one reason the TM corporation wishes to guard the secrecy of the process.

Still, one former TM practitioner was willing to talk about the process.

"I think it's a heavy component of hype," says Bruce C. Atwood, who began TM with his wife in the early 1960s.

According to Atwood, the mantra is not specifically tailored to the individual. There are only six mantras, which he hypothesizes correspond to three age groups and the two sexes. In other words, if Atwood is right, every young woman would get the same mantra.

The process of meditation, as Atwood related it, is simple. A person sits quietly and lets his or her mind wander. The person says the mantra whenever it enters the mind, and then lets the mind wander again, repeating the mantra whenever it naturally enters.

"They're off the deep end," Atwood alleges. "They tell you that if you get good enough, you can levitate."

Atwood, an engineer at Polaroid who formerly worked at IBM, said he had seen photos of cross-legged men floating in the air--levitating. He said he believes the photos are created by meditation advocates who put a cross-legged person on a mattress. As the person bounces higher and higher on the mattress, a high-shutter speed photo captures the action, making the person appear suspended in the air. Atwood also said he recollected reading an article in Time Magazine that described the effect.

The Center affirms that levitation, or "yogic flying," is possible for advanced practitioners. During yogic flying, says Amy A. Ruff of the Cambridge TM Center, the left and right hemispheres of the brain achieve "maximum brainwave coherence," which, she asserts, has a positive effect on world peace.

According to Ruff, during the "sidhi," or "perfection," TM conference in Washington, D.C., last summer, the crime rate there dropped 27 percent.

But according to the Washington, D.C., police department's Office of Public Information, there were 35 more shootings and three more murders during summer 1993 than during summer 1992.

"If praying helps, that's wonderful," says Officer Anthony F. O'Leary of the Office of Public Information. "But that's not reflected in the homicide and [assault with a deadly weapon] stats."

The TM group asked Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly for six million dollars to continue to meditate, according to O'Leary, but the mayor declined.

Despite TM's questionable influence on crime, it does have personal benefits on health and well-being, according to doctors and meditators.

This summer's best-seller Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, by Dr. Deepak Chopra, recommends meditation, as does Bill Moyers' book Healing and the Mind. The stress clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center uses meditation, and the Mutual of Omaha insurance company reimburses policyholders for meditation courses.

The Cambridge center has a clinic for Vedic medicine, where several hundred patients a year come for treatment and health counseling.

The doctor who heads the clinic is Steele Belok, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. Belok says he became interested in meditation when he was a fellow in nephrology and realized that Western medicine neglected the emotional needs of his patients.

Belok believes Western medicine and Vedic medicine are not mutually exclusive, but work best "when they're shaking hands."

Vedic medicine, Belok says, is based more on health maintenance than disease prevention.

"This is not the fight with life," he says, "but to look deep within the self and find love...It's all about turning your life into a love story."

Individuals who practice TM attest to the greater spirituality and self-awareness they achieve through meditation.

J. Thomas Atwood, a junior on leave from Lowell House, asserts TM helped him decide to take time off. "I was meditating in my dorm room, and I realized my actions were not aligned with my unconscious life goals," Atwood said. He went to work for Monitor Consulting in Cambridge.

Before eventually returning to Cambridge, Atwood says he felt called to California, a place, he says, "where there is more acceptance for and understanding of the spiritual process."