Robert Keith Wallace, PhD
This article is adapted from 16 Super Biohacks for Longevity: Shortcuts to a Healthier, Happier, Longer Life.
What can you do when you are feeling stressed, tense, not enough sleep, and too much coffee? How about a few chocolates to ease the anxiety? Nope, can’t do that because your gut is too upset. It’s like everything in you is running on fast, not a moment of relaxation. You check your social media for the latest news: no good, more mass shootings. What about a walk or a massage? Not enough time or cash. Turmoil inside and out, uncomfortable all over.
Stress is our number one killer today. Heart disease may be listed as number #1 but it is the stress that underlies most heart disease that is the real problem. And that same stress causes you to adopt bad habits just to feel even a little bit better for a while even though these habits also put you at risk for heart disease and other disorders. Stress is also the basis of poor mental health and probably cancer too. Stress is constantly increasing in our modern world and we’ll do almost anything to counteract it.
Meditation is the natural antidote. You might also take a walk on the beach or in the woods, but meditation is even easier and more immediately accessible. The problem is that most meditation techniques are hard to do; people start them but then stop. Of course, you can get a meditation app and be guided through a session and there may be some calm, but is it enough for you to make a habit of meditating twice a day? Because that is what it really takes to manage stress and anxiety.
My research has focused on the Transcendental Meditation (TM) program for much of my life and it has become clear to me that it is by far the easiest and most effective meditation technique. Volumes of research data support it, clearly showing that TM produces a state of restful alertness which counteracts the effects of stress, while improving our ability to adapt to challenging situations. There are so many studies that I will only mention a few here: In one extremely well-controlled clinical trial study there was a 48% reduction in heart attacks, strokes, and deaths in the TM group as compared to controls. Several studies have shown that TM reverses the effects of aging and extends lifespan. It improves creativity and intelligence, and more. It even changes the expression of genes in our DNA.
How is TM different from other techniques? The practices of Zen, Compassion Meditation, Quigong, Diamond Way Buddhism, Zazen, Kriya Yoga, and more recently practices of Mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) are different from Transcendental Meditation. Scientists Dr. Fred Travis and Dr. Jonathan Shear have published a paper in which they identify three major categories of “meditation” out of more than a hundred different practices. These three are summarized as follows:
Focused attention: The first type of practice can be described as concentration meditation, since in this case, the practitioner puts his or her attention intently on something (it might be a word, an emotion, a candle flame, etc.). The changes in the brain are in the gamma range (20–50 Hz), which is known to be associated with this type of focused activity. Some forms of Zen, Compassion Meditation, Quigong, and Diamond Way Buddhism are in this category.
Open monitoring: This second of type of practice can be described as contemplation meditation. In this process, the practitioner watches himself or herself do something, such as paying attention to thoughts or the breath. This category includes Zazen, Kriya Yoga, and more recently developed versions of meditation like Mindfulness. The changes in the brain from these meditations are in the theta range (4–8 Hz), known to be associated with imagination and creativity.
Automatic self-transcending: This third type of practice can be described as transcending meditation. In this practice there is no trying, no concentration, and no contemplation—only effortless transcending. The changes in the brain are in the alpha 1 range (8–10 Hz) and are correlated with an eyes-closed, relaxed state of restful alertness. The third type of meditation is Transcendental Meditation.
The Transcendental Meditation technique is a unique, simple, and effective mental procedure that takes about twenty minutes, twice each day, sitting comfortably with your eyes closed. It involves no belief or philosophy, no mood or lifestyle. Most people begin the technique for practical reasons, such as a desire for more energy or to decrease tension and anxiety and over ten million people of all ages, cultures, and religions have learned TM. We hear a lot about famous movie stars, business leaders, athletes, musicians, scientists, and talk show hosts who all practice TM. But hundreds of thousands more —homemakers, teachers, veterans, bank clerks, farmers, small business owners, students of all ages, from every imaginable walk of life—are quietly and effortlessly practicing the TM program, benefiting from the proven release of stress and increasing their success and happiness at work and at home.
Some people think they can’t meditate because their minds are too active; others think they can’t do it because it will be too hard. TM uses the nature of the mind to go to fields of greater happiness—to go within. No “trying” is involved. If you try, your mind remains on the surface and cannot dive deep. Transcendence is a real experience that isn’t based on a mood or emotion. Transcendental Meditation is for everyone. Anyone from any educational background or no educational background, can easily learn TM.
The following is a quote from the book The Coherence Effect by Jay Marcus and Dr Chris Clark and myself. It is from a woman who entered West Point in 1976 as part of the Academy’s first class with women. She graduated, was commissioned an officer in 1980, served in the military for five years, and then became a nurse. Since the moment she entered the academy, she experienced severe anxiety and went through many years of therapy, medication, and stress management techniques until she eventually learned TM.
“Over almost twenty years I tried all the other meditation techniques: Siddha Yoga, Forest Zen, Japanese Zen, Buddhist and Christian contemplative, mindfulness meditation. TM [Transcendental Meditation] is the best!
I tried all these other practices and was only partially successful. Some of them worked, but again only partially. With mindfulness I had a lot of trouble with it, and I just didn’t find it very helpful. I couldn’t actually settle down and relax. It didn’t get rid of all the thoughts in my head. It wasn’t what I wanted.
TM was different, and it worked from the very beginning. It is much deeper than the other practices and really helps me put my body into a restful state and then at the same time, it clears out my head. I really look forward to the calmness it brings, and I seem to tap into inner resources that I did not know I had. The mood swings that were prevalent in my life are gone. I’ve acquired a new ability to respond to situations in a healthy way, instead of feeling confused or angry and reacting in that state. My physical health has improved too. I have more vitality, and 50 percent of the chronic pain is gone, and I can recover from illness in days instead of weeks or months. I think this should be a program in every VA Medical Center. I see mindfulness-based meditation courses all the time. But I have tried all these meditation techniques and they just aren’t the same as TM.”
TM cannot properly be learned from books but must be taught through the personal instruction of a thoroughly trained and certified teacher. Correct instruction helps the meditator avoid any “trying,” straining, or expectation, all of which, according to Maharishi, hold the mind on the gross level and prevent the experience of more delicate and subtle levels of the thinking process.
Your brain is incredibly flexible and active, and these are the properties which account for the word neuroplasticity, as they describe the brain’s ability to change as a result of any life experience. Neuroadaptability is a special type of neuroplasticity that refers to the brain’s activity as it adapts itself most effectively to experiences which you perceive as challenging or threatening.
To illustrate how neuroadaptability works we will take a look at the brain of someone who encounters a threat. Before any action can take place, you would normally use logic and reason to decide if the threat was real. In an emergency, however, your brain takes a different path. A small and potent part of the brain called the amygdala becomes activated. The amygdala is the seat of your greatest fears and phobias and is connected to a structure called the hippocampus, which has access to memories and emotions. These two areas are connected to the higher centers in your prefrontal cortex where information is interpreted. Is that a life-threatening snake in front of you…or is it a piece rope?
Nature has created what neuroscientists call the short path, which allows the amygdala and hippocampus to act immediately, without waiting for prefrontal processing to arrive at a decision. In a situation in which we must be alert and ready to move we use this short path. Bypassing the prefrontal cortex, urgent threat signals are sent to a number of areas in the brain and body, including the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands. The fight or flight response is turned on and our heart beats faster, our blood pressure rises, and we shunt blood flow away from digestive organs to muscles. There is a sharp rise of certain neurotransmitters and hormones. For instance, with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system there is a surge of the neurotransmitter noradrenalin (norepinephrine). There is also the release of the hormone adrenalin (epinephrine) along with the secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone, from different parts of the adrenal glands.
The fight or flight response gave humans a huge evolutionary advantage when they were being chased by a wild predator. But what happens to our brain and body when this response is repeatedly turned on in situations which do not require it? It can be as simple as being stuck in a traffic jam, or having to endlessly hold the phone as you wait to speak to a human customer service agent. The result of such apparently harmless situations is far from simple—a constantly elevated level of cortisol which is harmful to both your physical and mental health.
Unremittingly high levels of cortisol can depress your immune system, shut down your digestion, and result in long-term gut problems. Over time, high cortisol levels also have negative effects on parts of your brain. The cells in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, for example, become less responsive and/or damaged, while cells in the amygdala become functionally and structurally modified so that they continually overreact to stress. These changes occur on many levels, including the molecular mechanisms that regulate genes, the number of receptors in our neural membranes, and even the shape of nerve cell pathways.
The destruction of cells in the hippocampus is especially debilitating since this area of the brain is critically involved in emotion and memory. You need your hippocampus to be able to realistically compare present and past dangers, and help to actually dampen the stress response, limiting the secretion of cortisol when there is no real threat.
Chronic stress eventually causes or exacerbates a number of disorders, such as high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and depression. In the case of high blood pressure, it is as if your internal blood pressure regulator becomes stuck on high, even when the supposed threat no longer exists. Such side-effects are only the tip of the stress iceberg. Poor neuroadaptive behavior can also be seen in drug, alcohol, and other addictions, and involves long-term changes which cause genes to be turned on and off.
Our environment will always throw challenges at us, but learning neuroadaptability techniques such as Transcendental Meditation, can help us become more flexible and effective. We need to be able to react most appropriately to stressful situations, and we also need to return quickly to a healthy normal state. Restful alertness and coherence are the basis of appropriate positive neuroadaptability.
More than 600 studies at over 200 research institutes and universities have been conducted on the Transcendental Meditation program, and over 380 of these studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals (“peer-reviewed” means scientists with equivalent qualifications and competencies to those of the authors of the study). These methods are the gold standard of science, employed to guard and maintain the highest standards of quality and credibility.
Drs. Harold Harung and Fred Travis have studied the EEG brain wave signature of individuals functioning at the highest level of performance in business, sports, and music. This EEG signature consists of coherent alpha brain waves being produced in the frontal areas of the brain. Alpha waves reveal a relaxed state of awareness, and increased coherence indicates greater integration between different parts of the brain. This pattern is also seen in long term practitioners of Transcendental Meditation who have high levels of neuroadaptability. More importantly, TM research shows that it is possible to reach an optimal state of brain functioning, with better physical and mental health.
The US National Institutes of Health has awarded over $25 million to study the effects of TM on health, particularly on heart disease, and a statement from the American Heart Association concluded:
The Transcendental Meditation technique is the only meditation practice that has been shown to lower blood pressure.
Because of many negative studies or mixed results and a paucity of available trials, all other meditation techniques (including MBSR) received a ‘Class III, no benefit, Level of Evidence C’ recommendation. Thus, other meditation techniques are not recommended in clinical practice to lower BP at this time.
Transcendental Meditation practice is recommended for consideration in treatment plans for all individuals with blood pressure > 120/80 mm Hg. Lower blood pressure through Transcendental Meditation practice is also associated with substantially reduced rates of death, heart attack, and stroke.
Studies have documented how TM can slow and even reverse the aging process One early study showed that long-term TM meditators had a biological age which was roughly twelve years younger than their non-meditating counterparts. Another important study on aging involves the measurement of one of the most reliable biochemical markers of the aging process, serum dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) by Glaser and coworkers. DHEAS declines progressively with age. Peak levels occur in one’s mid-twenties; by the eighth and ninth decades of life, one’s DHEAS level may have declined 80 percent. The mean DHEAS levels in meditators were significantly higher than in the controls. The levels measured in the older meditators were generally comparable to levels in control groups five to ten years younger.
Another study conducted at Harvard showed that the TM group had significant improvements in cognitive functioning and blood pressure as compared to control groups. The most striking finding was that the TM practice reversed not only age-related declines in overall health, but also directly enhanced longevity. In another study, TM subjects showed an increased telomere length, again suggesting a reversal of the aging process.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique and its advanced programs. Maharishi’s genius was his rediscovery of certain time-tested procedures for the development of consciousness. Maharishi was also responsible for encouraging researchers at leading universities around the world to conduct physiological, psychological, and sociological studies on the effects of the TM program. For more information about TM and detail on where you can learn go to TM.org.
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