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TM and stress-free schools
by Patricia King--freelance writer, and former Newsweek San Francisco Bureau Chief

Common Ground    Translate This Article
San Francisco, California, United States
4 June 2004

Nick Fitts considered himself an unlikely subject for a study on whether Transcendental Meditation (TM) could lower blood pressure. Even when Fitts - an African-American high-school track and football athlete from Augusta, Georgia - learned that his blood pressure put him at risk for cardiovascular disease, he didn't think meditation held much promise as a remedy: 'I thought it was a pushover thing, a crazy idea I didn't believe in at all.'

Despite his skepticism, Fitts participated in a study run by the Georgia Prevention Institute of the Medical College of Georgia. He began a daily regimen of two fifteen-minute meditation sessions, one at his inner-city high school and a second sitting at home. During this federally funded study, Fitts' elevated blood pressure returned to normal.

But Fitts was most impressed with TM's effect on his personality. Fitts says he used to 'snap' easily when angry. Now he's more even-keeled when he confronts stressful family relationships: 'Some things you can't change. I'm learning how to deal with that and not have a problem or be angry.'

Fitts, who says he's committed to meditating 'pretty much twice a day for the rest of my life,' also believes that TM helps him handle his financial struggles better: 'I didn't have a silver spoon. I deal with plastic.' These days that means trying to get the money to buy a car so he can finish nursing school. 'I'm still pulling that rope to get to the top,' he smiles. . . .

TM is only one of a number of Eastern meditative techniques that are making significant inroads into secular, US institutions. A new report from the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Center for Contemplative Mind in Society titled 'A Powerful Silence' concludes: 'We are in the midst of a massive demystification and democratization of contemplative practice.'

Much of this demystification has been propelled by an explosion of increasingly sophisticated mind-body research. Since 1988, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded Fairfield, Iowa-based Maharishi University of Management (MUM) $22 million to study Maharishi Consciousness-Based Healthcare, the organization's trademarked name for remedies that include meditation and herbs from the ancient Indian system of medicine, Ayurveda.

Vernon Barnes, a physiologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute of the Medical College of Georgia, says that federal money has moved TM from the 'fringe,' where it was 32 years ago when he started meditating, to the mainstream. Barnes, who received his Ph.D. from MUM, was the lead author of the new blood-pressure study, one of the NIH-funded 'randomized clinical trials,' whose rigor, says Barnes, is winning over skeptics.

More than half the federal dollars that have come MUM's way have been earmarked for studies in underserved minority communities. MUM's Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention is one of 12 research centers funded by NIH's five-year-old Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the only one that focuses exclusively on high-risk minorities. In addition to a number of studies of African-Americans, the Institute is collaborating with the University of Illinois and the University of Hawaii to evaluate TM's effect on hypertensive Mexican-Americans and Native Hawaiians.

The Georgia Prevention Institute's Augusta study monitored 100 African-American adolescents, including Fitts, with high normal systolic blood pressure. One group of students meditated twice a day; a control group simply attended health-education classes. According to results published in the April issue of the American Journal of Hypertension, the meditators' systolic (top reading) blood pressure dropped 3.5 millimeters and their diastolic (bottom reading) pressure dropped 3.4 millimeters after four months. There were no significant changes in the control group. While the drop in blood pressure was modest, Barnes says: 'Even if your blood pressure comes down a few millimeters when you are young, if you can maintain that into adulthood, you can significantly reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease.' . . .

In addition to federally funded studies like those conducted at Drew and the Georgia Prevention Institute, private donations are also increasing TM's profile in the schools. In the last seven years, for example, TM supporters have raised $375,000 to bring TM to the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, an African-American charter school. The money has come from a variety of private sources, including the DaimlerChrysler and General Motors foundations.

About 100 Nataki Talibah middle-schoolers meditate for ten minutes, twice a day in the school gym. Longtime meditator Jane Pitt, who teaches TM at Nataki Talibah, says many adults have forgotten what silence is like, but 'the kids are at an age where they realize that we're supposed to have these moments when we can just stop.'. . .

Is TM a Religion?

TM originated in India, from the Vedic tradition. . . MUM's Institute director Schneider describes TM as a universal practice that is compatible with all religions and works for 'everybody with a human nervous system.' Nor should the fact that TM originated in the East be a barrier for Westerners, says Schneider: 'Penicillin was discovered in France,' Schneider adds, 'but that doesn't mean it applies just to Frenchmen.'

Many meditators say that TM is compatible with their non-Hindu religious beliefs. African-American public school principal George Rutherford says both he and his wife (who has a doctorate in Christian education) are meditating Baptists. In 1994, when Rutherford brought TM to the Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center, a public school located in a high-crime area of Washington D.C. religion was not discussed. What was discussed was the much-needed peace TM brought to the school: 'The building became very quiet,' Rutherford recalls. 'Our studies were able to go along better. We didn't have all the fights. Stress management is what we need in our schools.' . . .

At an April 2 press conference in Hollywood touting the Augusta study, director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive) spoke on behalf of the Los Angeles Committee for Stress-Free Schools, one of several groups around the country lobbying for TM in the schools. In a follow-up interview Lynch said he hasn't missed a meditation session in 30 years and has found TM to be a stress-buster that enables him to be more creative. 'You start seeing a bigger picture. Everything is easier,' he said: 'You have way more energy, way more awareness.'

At the Los Angeles press conference (speaking by phone from Holland), Maharishi sounded irked that TM has not been even more widely embraced: 'Research has no meaning in the United States. . . . absolutely no meaning,' he complained. Forty-five years after he arrived in this country Maharishi, who is in his 90's, is still goading his followers to make no small plans: 'Let's raise ourselves to enlightenment - and let's create an enlightened world around us. And let's do it quickly without delay,'

© 2004 Common Ground

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