Review: The Skeptic's Dictionary on Transcendental Meditation

“The reader is forewarned that The Skeptic’s Dictionary does not try to present a balanced account…” —Skeptic's Dictionary author Robert Todd Carroll

by Tom McKinley Ball

The Skeptic's Dictionary offers a hardcore skeptic's usual denouncements of God, angels and other so-called “myths and dangerous delusions,” but also targets a surprising variety of more earthly subjects—from vitamins and organic food to psychology and chiropratic.

I doubt if very many readers find solace knowing that "professional skeptics" are on guard to protect us from the likes of Sigmund Freud, Big Foot or the Mothman (yes, the Skeptic's Dictionary addresses these very topics and throws Western Psychology right in there with UFOs). Nonetheless, such skeptical evaluations may prove useful for the slam-dunk debunking of certain ill-founded or outlandish beliefs.

However, readers seeking an honest assessment of the Transcendental Meditation technique may find The Skeptic’s Dictionary appraisal frustratingly biased. The author cites no empirical evidence to support his criticisms of the TM program, uses inaccurate, non-science sources as references and disregards the body of peer-reviewed scientific literature that supports the program. The fact that millions of people around the world have learned the TM technique and reported benefits in their daily life also seems to carry little weight in the Skeptic's Dictionary evaluation.

Is the TM program scientifically validated? Is it truly non-profit?

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: "The Transcendental Meditation program is a spiritual business whose proponents claim is scientifically validated."

Fact: After 40 years of independent research, the scientific validation of the Transcendental Meditation program is extensive, by any rational measure. More than 600 published research studies comprise the body of scientific literature on the TM technique, along with scores of theoretical papers and critical reviews. Over 350 of these research studies have appeared in peer-reviewed scientific and academic journals, verifying benefits for mind, body, relationships and environment. All the major findings have been replicated — and over 50 of these studies are randomized clinical trials. Scientific research on the TM program has been conducted at 250 independent institutions worldwide, including Harvard Medical School, Yale Medical School, UCLA Medical School, Stanford Medical School, University of Virginia Medical School and many others. More than 350 scientists around the world have conducted research on the TM technique, the majority of whom were unaffiliated with the TM organization.

Fact: The Transcendental Meditation technique is taught in the United States by Maharishi Foundation, a non-profit educational organization, designated 501(c)(3) by the IRS — it is not a for-profit business. In its 50-year history, the TM organization’s non-profit status has never been legally challenged. All of the revenues from course fees go entirely to support the organization’s educational and philanthropic activities around the world, such as teaching meditation to at-risk populations. There are no shareholders, board members or individuals who profit financially from the organization’s programs, beyond modest salaries paid to employees. All this is a matter of public record. Course fees from the U.S. and other wealthy nations support the organization’s teaching activities in places such as Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, where there are minimal or no course fees to learn the TM technique.

An overview of scientifically validated benefits

Why is there a course fee for learning the TM technique?

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “Trainees pay hundreds of dollars for their mantras.”

Fact: The Transcendental Meditation course fee covers a seven-step program of personal instruction and classes (12-15 hours) with a highly trained, certified TM teacher. Instruction in the TM technique does involve learning a mantra — a “vehicle for transcending” that allows the mind to settle inward — but the TM course involves much more. The student learns correct use of the mantra, gains a thorough understanding about the mechanics of the practice and receives comprehensive knowledge of higher stages of human development.

Everyone who has taken the TM course has free access to an ongoing but optional followup program of knowledge and instruction to insure correct practice and a lifetime of benefits.

In the context of the Transcendental Meditation program, the term “mantra” has a specific use (as described above), referring to a sound that has no association with meaning, not to be confused with other uses of the term referenced by “The Skeptic’s Dictionary.”

Are the TM program's mantras unique?

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “Novices may be led to believe that their mantra is unique, though many practitioners will share the same mantra.”

Fact: At no point during the Transcendental Meditation course is it stated or implied that students will receive a mantra that is individually unique or "one of a kind." The mantras, derived from the Vedic tradition, are unique in the sense that they are special sounds whose effects are known to be powerfully harmonizing and beneficial for mind and body. The student receives the correct mantra according to the time-tested and scientifically proven knowledge in which TM instructors are trained.

Is there proof that the TM technique is effective in schools?

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: “It may be true that [TM instructors] really believe that TM can do all these things [improve student test scores, reduce violence and drug abuse, reduce student anxiety and depression, and diminish teacher burnout], but they do not have strong proof that TM in the schools will accomplish any of these noble goals.”

Fact: The Transcendental Meditation program’s effectiveness in education has been demonstrated by 40 years of scientific research and classroom experience. Researchers studying the application of the program in the classroom have published findings such as improved grades and academic skills, reduced anxiety and depression among students, increased intelligence and creativity, improved performance on standardized test scores, increased self-esteem, improved memory, reduced behavioral problems, and increased tolerance and appreciation of others.

Scientific research on the effects of the TM program in the classroom

A new standard of academic excellence: Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment

The Transcendental Meditation Technique Reduces ADHD Symptoms Among Students: New Study

"Millions of followers?"

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: The Transcendental Meditation program claims “millions of followers.”

Fact: While it is true that over 5 million people have learned the Transcendental Meditation technique over the past 50 years, the organization and Maharishi himself boast of no followers. Transcendental Meditation is a simple, natural technique practiced for 20 minutes twice daily—it is not a belief system or lifestyle that one is asked to follow. As Maharishi has said, “I have no followers. Everyone follows their own progress.”

Is the TM technique the same as ordinary relaxation?

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: Some of the studies on the Transcendental Meditation technique merely show “the same physiological results you can achieve by relaxing completely.”

Fact: Scientific research studies show that a wide range of beneficial physiological changes commonly occur during the Transcendental Meditation technique, distinguishing the practice from mere relaxation or other forms of meditation. Studies indicate that TM practice produces a state of rest much deeper than resting with eyes-closed, and also much deeper than other meditation practices.

Research consistently shows a natural decrease in breath rate during the TM technique that is 25-30% greater than controls, and an increase in basal skin resistance (a standard measure of relaxation) up to 70% higher. Physiological indicators of a deeper state of rest also include marked changes in respiratory volume, minute ventilation, tidal volume, blood lactate and heart rate. Studies suggest that this unique state of physiology promotes regulation of cortisol and other hormones associated with chronic stress, resulting in a healthier regulation of serotonin (a neurotransmitter associated with mood). EEG measurements show increased alpha coherence and integration of brain functioning, further differentiating the Transcendental Meditation technique from ordinary relaxation and other meditation practices.

Discovery of the fourth state of consciousness: According to many researchers, the unique physiological changes found to occur during the Transcendental Meditation technique constitute the discovery of a fourth state of consciousness—known as Transcendental Consciousness, a state of restful alertness unlike waking, dreaming or sleep. The repeated experience of Transcendental Consciousness through twice-daily practice of the TM technique has been found to produce a wide range of rejuvenating effects on mind and body, stimulating growth of intelligence and creativity and leading to a state of heightened well-being.

Many scientists have lauded the Transcendental Meditation program as a historic scientific discovery with profound implications for health and human potential. World renowned quantum physicist Dr. John Hagelin has equated Transcendental Consciousness with the Unified Field currently being researched by modern physics—theorizing that the silent source of nature’s limitless creativity and organizing power, the Unified Field, is directly accessed subjectively through the Transcendental Meditation technique.

Scientific research on the physiology of Transcendental Consciousness

Does the TM organization maintain real estate holdings worth billions?

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: Maharishi’s organization maintains real estate holdings “worth more than $3 billion in the late 1990s.”

Fact: The founder of the Transcendental Meditation program, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, was not the owner of the TM organization and himself maintained no financial holdings. This is a public fact, easily verified on any country’s government website that lists the assets of nonprofit or educational organizations.

The TM organization's real estate assets are teaching centers, schools, Maharishi Ayurveda Health Centers or properties under development for these purposes. The author of “The Skeptic’s Dictionary” references Britannica Encyclopedia as his source for the claim that the TM organization’s net worth "is more than $3 billion.” However, Britannica itself fails to produce a citation or credible source for this figure, which was apparently picked out of the air or from other non-credible websites. Officials of the TM organization state that the "$3 billion" figure is exaggerated many times over.

Complete listing of all nonprofit organizations in the United States, including the non-profit TM organizations

Summary of "The Skeptic's Dictionary"

The Skeptic’s Dictionary's assessment opens with a misquote from Maharishi, taken out of context to convey, presumably, that Maharishi's aim was simply to raise money. A closer look would reveal that Maharishi was advocating something very different: if the amount of public funding now being spent on war were to be spent on constructive measures, such as proven programs for world peace and eradication of poverty, then we would have a different world.

A further sampling of The Skeptic’s Dictionary’s unfounded pronouncements:

• The TM organization made false claims about Yogic Flying, and then recanted.
• Former meditators maintain a support group for others who have quit the practice due to negative side effects.
• Claims for the Maharishi Effect (societal benefits through a "field effect") have been disproved.

The author shows little interest in details that could confirm or deny the truth of such statements; he merely links to a few other naysayers’ non-science, opinion-based Websites.

"The Skeptic Dictionary" assessment of the Transcendental Meditation program is based, seemingly, on two pre-existing assumptions:

1) The TM organization’s aim is to make money.

2) It is impossible that the TM technique could produce the wide range of benefits commonly reported.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
presents selective items that appear to reinforce these assumptions; because the author brings no other evidence to the table, because the items are placed one after the other, he magnifies his "skeptical" effect. However, if one subjects The Skeptic's Dictionary's account of the TM program to even moderate critical thinking, its analysis and assertions break down.

One wonders why The Skeptic’s Dictionary features the Transcendental Meditation program among this eclectic mix of items to be "debunked." Perhaps the website’s author should consider how many of his other topics have been:

• Awarded over $26 million in research grants by the National Institutes of Health
• Validated by hundreds of peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals, including the AMA's Archives of Internal Medicine
• Approved by the self-same American Medical Association for continuing education study for physicians
• Shown by research published and promoted by the AMA to improve high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
• Regularly featured in brain research presentations by the American Psychological Association
• Highlighted in American College of Cardiology’s press releases for benefits to cardiovascular health
• Learned by six million people over the past 50 years, including hundreds of thousands of students and teachers in public and private schools in the US and throughout the world, with a 40-year track record in education.
• Offered as a corporate leadership/wellness program in large and small businesses—including Fortune 500 companies—to reduce health care costs and improve productivity and performance.

For his own credibility, I urge the website’s author to examine the Transcendental Meditation program more closely. His evaluation leaves one skeptical about the overall reliability and usefulness of The Skeptic's Dictionary.

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