On Transcendental Meditation: An Interview With Bob Roth

By Cathy Margel 08/31/15

The Fix Q&A with renowned meditation teacher Bob Roth about the benefits of Transcendental Meditation for people struggling with addiction.

Bob Roth
via Author

Thanks to Bob Roth and the David Lynch Foundation, I started Transcendental Meditation (TM) eight months ago and it changed my life. At the time, I was close to four years sober but still dealing with a lot of anxiety and it was holding me back in my life. Since starting TM my anxiety has gotten so much better. It is by far the most effective technique that I have found to manage my anxiety. I am calmer, happier and more peaceful. I reached out to Bob to help better explain TM and how it can help people struggling with addiction. 

Before I learned TM, I had a hard time sitting in meditation for even five minutes. What I immediately loved about TM is that it was so easy. I was able to sit for 20 minutes without a problem and it didn't feel like a struggle. Can you explain what TM is and the difference between TM and other meditation techniques? 

Most other meditation techniques require some degree of effort or concentration or control of the mind. These practices often involve attempting to clear the mind of thoughts or focus intently on the breath or a point in your body. In Transcendental Meditation there is absolutely no effort at all. It is a completely natural, effortless technique that uses a specific meaningless sound (or mantra) to allow the active, noisy thinking mind to settle down deeply within to experience a level of the mind that is already completely peaceful and yet awake within. The technique cannot be learned from a book or CD. It is always taught in one-to-one instruction by a certified TM teacher to be sure you are practicing it correctly and gaining maximum benefit.

I read that you didn't use drugs, but were dealing with a lot of stress when you first discovered TM. Can you talk a little bit about that time? How did TM help you? 

It was 1968 and I was a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley. I had come from a relatively stable middle-class suburban high school to a world in complete chaos with riots in the streets, massive anti-war marches and National Guard tanks parked outside my dorm. It was like my whole external world was in a free fall. I was a kid and desperate to find some internal locus, some internal stability that I could count on. I was not particularly drawn to alcohol and I didn't take hard drugs but I did smoke some marijuana. But it just didn't do the trick. Any relief I gained from the turbulence was just too ephemeral. I just came back to the same angst and uncertainty. A friend I knew, who I trusted deeply, told me about Transcendental Meditation.

I was highly skeptical at first because I am not a "joiner" and I was not looking for some new-age philosophy or religion. He assured me that Transcendental Meditation was nothing like that. It was just a simple, easily learned technique that did not require any belief or change in lifestyle. I could just learn it and take it home with me and practice it on my own terms. That was (gasp!) 46 years ago, And I have been meditating ever since: 20 minutes, twice a day. I value the time spent meditating immensely. It gives my body a state of rest deeper than sleep, which neutralizes the stress and tension of the day, instantaneously. I feel at peace inside but super energized and focused and creative and ready to take on the world, from the moment I finish meditating.

In the videos I have watched of the Maharishi (founder of TM) he seems to be so filled with joy. What was studying with him like?

I was very fortunate to spend some time with Maharishi. He was just as you would intuitively expect a genuine, wise meditation teacher to be. He was extremely wise, but not in an ethereal way, but in a most down-to-earth manner. He was a physicist by university training, so he brought a probing, scientist's inquiry to everything he encountered, and yet he was a master meditation teacher so he was incredibly blissful, compassionate, patient and visionary. I very much enjoyed learning from him in his presence but I was always eager to go back home so I could keep teaching TM to the people who needed it the most: at-risk youth, abused women and veterans with post-traumatic stress.

What do you like best about teaching TM?

I love to be able to teach someone a simple, highly effective tool they can practice on their own for the rest of their life that will, within a few days or weeks, allow them to heal trauma and the stress, and overcome the overbearing challenges we all face in our daily lives that otherwise could send us into a tailspin of sickness or addictive behavior. The world is not going to slow down, or get less stressed anytime soon. But with TM we have a way to access the calm that lies dormant within us so we are more resilient, more stable, and more effective facing the challenges that come our way. 

How can TM help someone struggling with addiction?

Research shows that TM can help someone who is struggling with addiction in a very real and profound way by giving him or her the unique, direct experience of a state of inner calm and happiness that is far more satisfying and far longer lasting than any drug or drink or experience one could hope to have through the senses. And that subjective experience of inner calm or bliss, according to research, reduces stress and anxiety better than any other meditation technique, heals the traumatized brain and resets life quite naturally and spontaneously in a healthier, more productive direction.

Can you explain how TM lowers cortisol levels and what does that mean to someone with high anxiety?

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands (which sit atop the kidneys) and has been called the "stress hormone." There are high levels of cortisol when we are stressed, fearful or anxious. And it becomes a vicious cycle. High levels of cortisol fuel high levels of anxiety, which then spur the adrenals to secrete more cortisol, so then we feel even more anxious. The whole process becomes a vicious cycle—and can even lead to a panic attack. A good night's sleep may drop cortisol levels by 10% to 12% but 20 minutes of TM reduces cortisol levels by 30% to 40%. TM is not magic. We are just accessing a mechanism in the nervous system to take profound rest at will. That allows the body to reset, or "reboot" itself. As a result, we are naturally far less anxious and tense and far calmer and happier inside throughout the day—and sleep much better at night.

What does the research tell us about the effects of TM?

Oh my! That is a huge question! In the past 40 years there has been more than 340 studies published in independent, peer-reviewed medical journals, including the American Medical Association, documenting the wide-ranging benefits of TM for all areas of mental and physical health. The studies have been conducted at top US medical schools, such as Harvard, Stanford and UCLA, and many of the studies have been funded by tens of millions of dollars in grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration. The findings repeatedly show TM to be highly effective for reducing stress and stress-related disorders, including heart disease, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, insomnia, ADHD, and PTSD, while simultaneously improving creativity, IQ, problem-solving, decision-making, and other cognitive capabilities. Because TM reduces stress and optimizes the way the brain functions, it pretty much improves every aspect of our life.

What do you say to people that are skeptical? 

Skepticism is a very healthy attitude! There are a lot of claims made about TM, and yes, there is an enormous amount of independent research supporting those claims but nonetheless it's natural to be skeptical. Fortunately, with TM, skepticism is not an obstacle to learning and practicing and gaining all the benefits. Being skeptical about TM is like being skeptical about gravity. It doesn't matter. You drop a tennis ball and it falls, no matter what. In the same way, TM is natural and it works no matter how skeptical you may be. No matter what!

What is the mission of The David Lynch Foundation and how can people find out more about TM?

The great filmmaker and 40-year meditator David Lynch started the David Lynch Foundation in 2005 to bring Transcendental Meditation to any child or teen anywhere in America who wanted to learn to meditate. Particularly kids attending underserved, inner-city schools where few of them will ever get a break, or a chance to overcome the violence and stress of their environment. Well the idea and the foundation just took off! And now, 10 years later, more than 500,000 at-risk students have learned to meditate and we are also working with thousands of veterans and their families and women and their families who are victims of trauma and stress. But now we are poised to really expand our outreach to millions of adults and young people all over the world. The problem of trauma and stress and its effects on mental and physical health, including addictive behaviors, can now be more effectively addressed through TM—and we are committed to making that happen in a big way as soon as possible. 

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Cathy Margel lives in New Jersey with her husband and two little boys. Learn more about her journey at www.naturallysober.com

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Cathy Margel lives in New Jersey with her husband and two little boys.