If you're a high energy, quintuple A personality like me, then perhaps you can relate to my years of frustration, futilely embarking on countless quests to find a Holy Grail of inward bliss through meditation. I was a woman on a mission. Truth be told, I never lasted more than 10 seconds before I had to untwist myself from some distorted rendition of a lotus pose, hop up and run away. You'd think my years at Berkeley would have rubbed off, but my fellow pre-meds and I were more interested in acing the MCATs and getting into med school than chanting an 'Omm' or two.
Post traditional medical training, I found myself still stalking that illusive inner core of calm. I set about experimenting with what I considered fairly credible meditative rituals -- the tried and true gazing at breathtaking sunsets, staring at flickering candles, meticulously counting deep cleansing breaths and spending three hours mindfully chewing a single raisin. Each was fulfilling in its own right. But something was missing. I was carrying out activities with intention. I was consciously "doing." Where was my subconscious "being?"
Not giving up, I transitioned to moving meditation. I'd discovered that in order to generate some kind of deeper meditative experience, I had to be in motion, preferably outdoors. Eschewing cross-legged experiences on fancy floor pillows, I'd hop on a bike, cycling through miles of country roads, and revel in endorphin-laced euphoria. Happily high, this meditative athleticism served me well as I crossed the finish lines at the Boston marathon and the Iron Girl triathlon. But, where was the bliss when I wasn't in motion? The search continued.
Five years ago, I found myself running on the usual gerbil wheel of life, hopping on and off planes between Washington, DC and LA, where I was taping my Could You Survive? series for Discovery Health television. The irony of the show's title did not escape me as I sought to survive my own schedule. In the midst of this mayhem, my friend and colleague Dr. Norm Rosenthal called to share his excitement about a new book he was writing. Former National Institutes of Health collaborators, we enjoyed sharing any new news in our respective science careers. As the scientist who discovered Seasonal Affective Disorder, I assumed the next book was about depression. Instead, he surprised me by noting the book, Transcendence, would cover new science associated with Transcendental Meditation (TM), a meditative practice I knew almost nothing about. Norm encouraged me to take the time to learn and, without hesitation, I exclaimed "Are you nuts? I have to schedule breathing. Sorry, no time."
A year later, Norm sent me the book's manuscript and I was blown away by the growing body of science supporting the mental and physical benefits achieved with the regular practice of this form of meditation. But most importantly, Norm assured me that TM would help me achieve that deeper level of connection through the process of mental and spiritual transcendence.
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. My willingness to learn was tinged with trepidation. My teachers, Linda and Mario Orsatti, the directors of the Bethesda TM Center, recall with laughter my first session. Fresh off a triathlon and filled with myself, I declared my rules of engagement -- no handholding, candles or sharing. And, I didn't want another religion foisted on me. A recovering Catholic, I already had my hands full. Smiling, Mario reassured me that I was simply going to learn a form of meditation, and that it would require no effort. As Linda prepared to guide me through my first 20-minute meditation, I glanced nervously at the clock. If I couldn't make it through 10 seconds sitting still, how was I going to last 20 minutes? Resting in that chair, embraced by quiet, I murmured my mantra. Like a scuba diver in open water, I gradually descended into a deeper state of sub consciousness, or restful alertness. Thoughts came and went. Effortlessly, I allowed myself to open my mind to all possibilities. Creative ideas arose. Self-forgiveness and compassion emerged. Feeling an absence of time, space and body sense, I felt lighter, freer. Good God, was this bliss?
Linda gently ended the session, and upon opening my eyes, I realized with disbelief that 20 minutes had passed. Driving home that day, I recognized that I'd lucked out. This meditative technique seemed to fit. To each his meditation, but I felt like I'd gotten a package deal.
Research has shown that TM promotes longevity by prolonging cellular lifespan Neuroscientist Dr. Fred Travis published a study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences noting that the transcendental experience is associated with higher states of consciousness during waking, sleeping and dreaming. No wonder I feel as though my normally mindful lifestyle felt easier to maintain. Travis states, "Meditation techniques investigate consciousness from different angles and are associated with different patterns of brain activation." Focused attention, open monitoring, compassion-based or mindfulness practices all gift the meditator with unique benefits. TM, which is in the automatic self-transcending category, provides a state of pure self-awareness, rather than a thinking or doing experience.
Science shows that TM is also associated with increased blood flow to the frontal part of the brain. This prefrontal cortex houses the brain's "CEO" or command central for creativity, organizing, planning, vigilance and controlling impulsivity. I'm all for powering up my cerebral CEO. There are also promising studies in the field of epigenetics showing that meditation can alter gene expression, dampening or silencing genes associated with increased disease risk. Finally, on a professional level, as a scientist working in the field of food and addiction, there is growing evidence that TM is a powerful tool in the treatment and prevention of a wide spectrum of addictions.
So, how have I incorporated meditation on a practical level? Like everything in life, I customize. I still don't do candles. I do try to live mindfully. I enjoy the rush I get from reaching the top of a mountain. And I continue to treasure a glorious sunrise. But now I've also made time to experience transcendence by "checking in" with myself, optimally twice per day. Being human and delightfully imperfect, I may not hit the optimal 20 minutes, but I show up and do the best I can. What I get in return is the daily opportunity to jump off life's treadmill and cherish my bliss.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the David Lynch Foundation (DLF), a nonprofit organization that brings Transcendental Meditation to at-risk communities. On Feb. 11, DLF will host Meditation, Creativity, Performance and Stress, a panel discussion led by Andrew Ross Sorkin featuring Ray Dalio, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Mario Batali. For tickets and information, click here.