Could meditation work with medicine by ‘upstreaming’ our health?

Articles | November 2020

Western systems – whether medical, political or judicial – tend to be big on treating symptoms but less hot on tackling causes. Take medicine, for example. Although modern science can work miracles, the focus is heavily weighted on the final stage of the illness spectrum, treating people once they have actually developed a disease. Whereas holistic health approaches such as Ayurveda tie together a broad spectrum of lifestyle factors – from nutrition to mental health, exercise to medicine – many in the West follow a more scatter-gun approach to staying well, only seeking help from a doctor once the worst has happened.

Efficacy is incredibly important when it comes to health, of course, and holistic wellbeing has been given a bad rep by snake-oil salesmen. “I think skepticism and cynicism about meditation is very healthy,” says Bob Roth, CEO of the David Lynch Foundation and one of the key figures in the revival of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement worldwide. “There’s so much garbage out there in the name of meditation or mindfulness these days. It’s become a fad; it’s become a trend. There’s mindfulness shampoos, there’s mindfulness teas… Success for me will be when there’s sufficient independent academic research that clearly demonstrates the profound benefits.”

Talking to strategy and innovation consultancy The Upside for their podcast series Frontiers, the suited-and-booted Roth couldn’t cut a more contrasting figure to the robes-and-beads hippies who first brought TM to the US and Europe in the 1960’s. With roots in ancient traditions being taught at the time by the great Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, TM gained rapid popularity in the US with as many as 4% of the entire population practicing by the 1970s, according to Gallup (helped in no small part by The Beatles’ advocacy). It wasn’t long before it became linked to the alternative New Age lifestyle and even cult-like religions, however, meaning TM no longer had resonance with everyday lives.

It would take decades before meditation, mindfulness and preventative mental health care would be rehabilitated, and a large part of this is thanks to the rigorous approach taken by Roth.

It would take decades before meditation, mindfulness and preventative mental health care would be rehabilitated, and a large part of this is thanks to the rigorous approach taken by Roth. “The focus of TM today – and particularly the focus of the David Lynch Foundation – is to treat it like a pharmaceutical company would treat the introduction of a new medicine, which is to say, to put it through three levels of testing,” Roth explains, of his tripartite human-trial approach borrowed from Big Pharma. Instead of locking horns with Western medicine as the first wave of the TM movement did, Roth is positioning it just upstream of treatment – working in harmony, not opposition.

The modern TM approach doesn’t require engagement with the ancient lore from which it is derived. At its simplest, it merely requires the repetition of a personal mantra (chosen for resonance rather than meaning) which acts as a focal point to help the practitioner move beyond the restless mind. Roth often uses the analogy of a tempestuous ocean here, where descending below the choppy surface soon gives way to deeper currents and eventually to total stillness. TM is based on the idea that every person has these unplumbed depths, which can be accessed through the simple twice-daily practice of gently repeating a mantra.

The research case for TM certainly seems to be growing. Stress-related illness is a ticking time bomb in modern society, where our essentially-monkey biology is being exposed to an almost constant barrage of triggers for fight-or-flight mode. While this may have been a useful adaptation to life on the savannah, where occasional threats required rapid reactions, it’s become a maladaptation to our overstimulated digital age. Recent research from the New Economics Foundation found that 74% of people in the UK have felt so stressed that they are unable to cope in the last year, while a third have experienced suicidal feelings. It also
estimated that 12.5 million working days a year were lost to stress, leading to a loss of economic output of up to £43 billion.

“I’m very concerned that we’re about to lose an entire generation. And it’s not a generation that’s going to be lost to opioid addiction or whatever. Actually, it’s more fundamental than that. We’re going to lose a generation to stress, to trauma,” says Roth. The David Lynch Foundation highlights reports that have shown a 40% reduction in psychological distress in schoolchildren who use TM, a 21% increase in high school graduation and 10% boost in test scores. For even more acutely traumatized communities such as veterans, TM has been found to reduce insomnia by 42%, and PTSD and depression by as much as 55%. Nothing New Age and woo-woo here.

The focus of the David Lynch Foundation is to bring TM to at-risk communities free of charge, whether that’s inner city schools, veterans or survivors of domestic abuse. At the other end of the privilege spectrum, TM has found huge popularity amongst celebrities and business leaders – everyone from Katie Perry to Oprah, Seinfeld to Ellen, have extolled its transformative powers. The case for rolling TM out in offices around the world is particularly compelling. Since work is one of the main sources of daily stress in modern life, offices may be the most powerful place to integrate upstream wellbeing. Although discussing mental health at work was once considered a sign of failing to cope it’s now being brought out into the open far more. This is partly being led from the top, with business leaders such as Lloyds CEO António Horta-Osório and media magnate Arianna Huffington making their struggles with mental wellbeing public (the latter being a vocal proponent of TM). It’s also being brought about by a grassroots shift in younger Millennial and Gen Z employees, however, who value their mental wellbeing as much as their salary or job title. From Oprah’s Harpo Productions to Apple, Roth is helping businesses transform their wellbeing offer with in-house TM courses.

Instead of seeing TM as an escape from the evils of modern life, Roth and his team are repositioning it as the perfect complement to our secular society. By foregrounding its efficacy rather than its mystical roots, it’s possible to present TM as a vital early stage engagement with our health and wellbeing.

To hear more from Bob Roth, listen to the full conversation on “Frontiers” by The Upside.

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