I recently read an Arizona Daily Star article about how Transcendental Meditation® is being taught in an alternative-minded school.

Now, since I teach meditation myself, you might expect I’d be happy about this, particularly since the article reports positive results.

If only it were so easy. Let’s examine why it’s not. To start, here is a part of the article…
School sees quiet gains as its students meditate
By Rhonda Bodfield
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 12.02.2008

For 10 to 20 minutes twice a day, some students and teachers at alternative education programs in the Tucson Unified School District close their eyes and shush their minds.

There are no chants or incense sticks or burning candles, although some will use a mantra — a phrase repeated over and over to themselves — to help slow their thoughts.

Despite its simplicity, the practitioners report they're seeing significant benefits from Transcendental Meditation®, the trademarked technique created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi more than 50 years ago.

Priscilla Ramos, an 18-year-old senior at Project MORE High School, said she was only passing some classes before. Now, even though she's carrying 10 classes in an attempt to graduate on time, she's focused and making A's and B's.

Favian Marquez, a 17-year-old at MORE, said he used to "blow up really fast." Last month, some guy picked a fight with him on the bus, he said, shoving him and ultimately punching him in the face. "I got mad, but I controlled myself. I just said, 'It isn't worth it.' It's just helped me with my anger a lot."

David Tran, 16, said he immediately felt the calming effects after his first session, even though he'd scoffed at it beforehand. Even his mother noticed he was less anxious and sleeping better, he said; she even asked him if he was feverish.
The director of the district's alternative education department, Robert Mackay, acknowledges it all sounded a bit far-fetched to him when a teacher came back from a conference talking it up.

Mackay said the students who come to him often are troubled, some with severe family and academic issues. In some cases, his programs are their last hope of graduating. "I had grave doubts because I had never seen some of these kids ever stop moving or talking. I expected that we'd have a 15-minute discussion and that would be it," he said.

Instead, he heard the pitch, including testimonials from schools around the nation using it with populations no less difficult than his.

Mackay went through the training first in fall 2006, along with his teachers. His blood pressure dropped so much that it was the equivalent of what he would see with a prescription pill. His teachers have been known to ask before launching into a discussion if he's done his meditation for the day — and if the answer is no, will postpone the discussion for another time.

As for the students, he found them less aggressive, less anxious, even happier. And they didn't go right back into wild mode after it was over, either.
The program was offered as an elective last year, and 40 more students signed up. This year, because of a new focus on academics, it can't be fit into the school day, but there are still more than 20 students who regularly come before and after school to meditate. "That's saying something," Mackay said. "It's hard to keep a kid here. When the bill rings, you almost have to get out of the way."

Meditation also is being offered as an elective at the Museum School for the Visual Arts, with about 20 students enrolled. In January, the Drake Alternative Middle School will begin the program schoolwide, and staffs at the TeenAge Parent School and the Broadway Bridge alternative schools are both getting training.
Dynah Oviedo Lim, a TUSD number-cruncher, said preliminary achievement results with only one year of data are inconclusive. But some of the findings on its social aspects are encouraging, she said. The meditators began the year with higher anxiety than a control group of students but ended with lower anxiety. Their happiness increased from mildly happy to pretty happy, while the control group reported no change in happiness levels. They also reported higher self-esteem.

Okay, what’s wrong with this picture?

Let’s begin with the last paragraph, which displays a very common error in logic. The "researcher" made a comparison between non-meditators and meditators and decided that TM® was the reason for the differences between these groups, even though there were other significant differences besides the fact that the kids in one of the groups were meditating.

To start, those who meditated got together twice a day for ten to twenty minutes each session. While most of that time was spent meditating, these kids were also impacted by:

1. A chance to take a break from their daily routine.

2. The opportunity to connect with other students (one of the only proven ways you can impact kids’ behavior and feelings.)

3. Doing something – anything - that was relaxing (Might they, for example, have gotten similar results from a twenty minute shoulder massage or from watching twenty minutes of comedy TV twice a day?)

In addition, everyone in the group voluntarily chose to participate. The fact that they signed up to be part of the study meant that they were somehow different from those who weren’t interested in signing up.

So, what else? They report that the kids’ self-esteem rose. Woo hoo! Let’s ignore for the time being the research that shows kids with really high self-esteem don’t do as well in school and aren’t as well-liked as those who don’t have such high self-esteem. But think back for a moment – did you ever suddenly become part of an in-crowd in school? It happened to me once when I started dating a cheerleader (unfortunately, this was right before she blossomed into one of the prettiest girls in school). By dating her, I was assumed to be cool as well and this fed my self-esteem. So it’s possible that the mere fact the students were a part of a group was a factor in their level of self-esteem.

As for the other claims in this article, the rest of what is cited as evidence is mostly just anecdotes. Unfortunately, stories like these often have a large fictional component. We are great at making up ideas about what caused what. A large part of human evolution has been spent generating these kinds of cause and effect theories. Quite often, these theories panned out - we figured out what to eat and what not to eat by asking, "Og, did that plant taste good? Og, are you okay? Og, talk to me! Oh dear. Og not breathe… plant make Og sick?"

The article says Priscilla is doing better in school and taking more classes… Well, that’s nice for her, but it’s also an exceedingly common occurrence – think about how many true-life books and movies you’ve seen featuring an underperforming kid who got inspired to do better in life even without meditating twice a day.

So there was one instance where Favian didn't start a fight. Great, but is that really a big deal? How many stories of your own do you have where you did something different - whether you meditated or not – without knowing why, other than it seemed like too much trouble to do it the old way? Instances like these often cause our storytelling human brains go into overdrive as they suddenly try to figure out exactly why something was different so we can make sure to do it that way again.

They also report that David, a high school student, suddenly began sleeping a lot more. Call the papers! A teenager sleeping a lot? What an unusual result! (never mind that TM® theoretically is supposed to restore you to the point that you don't NEED as much sleep and can accomplish more, like David’s friend Priscilla).

Don’t get me wrong - I think there might be some real benefits to bringing meditation into the schools. At the same time, I don't want to be so eager to validate meditation that I stop using basic critical thinking skills when looking at studies like this one. I also think we should be careful not to confuse press releases from those promoting Transcendental Meditation® with actual reporting.

(BTW, TM® and Transcendental Meditation® are registered trademarks of the Maharishi Foundation, Ltd.)

Author's Bio: 

Steven Sashen began meditation when he was eight years old, was one of the first biofeedback pioneers, and researched cognition and perception at Duke University. In addition to a successful career as an entrepreneur and entertainer, Steven has taught transformational techniques around the world and developed the Instant Advanced Meditation Course, which Dr. Gay Hendricks calls, "Perhaps the fastest and easiest way to relax, expand awareness, and find deep inner-peace."

Additional Resources covering Meditation can be found at:

Website Directory for Meditation
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Steven Sashen, the Official Guide To Meditation