met with Sharon Loshakoff, a UC Berkeley alumna, this week, to talk about her work with the stress-reducing practice of transcendental meditation, or TM. TM is a scientifically-researched mediation program that allows the mind and body to relax and has been studied at 250 universities and research institutions in 33 countries worldwide. Some of the effects have been published in scientific journals such as the Internal Journal of Neuroscience. Proven to decrease hypertension, cholesterol and stress, the practice nourishes one’s emotions and reduces anxiety. The Berkeley TM Center offers check-ins, refreshers, weekly group meditations, advanced lectures and programs and seasonal celebrations.
The Daily Californian: How did you become involved with TM at Cal?
Sharon Loshakoff: I did all my four undergraduate years at Cal. I graduated in 1971 with a major in anthropology and a minor in sociology. What happened in 1968 is really what changed my life. I had best friends from junior high and hadn’t seen them for a while in high school, and then I ran into them orientation here at Cal. I noticed immediately that something was much more positive about them. I was like, “What did you do?” And they were like, “I started TM.” They took me to what I thought was an introductory talk at 100 Lewis Hall, and there were a bunch of people all seated in a semicircle on the floor and we went and joined them. As it turned out, it was a group meditation and I remember everyone closing their eyes to meditate and remembering opening and looking at each person and thinking it was amazing and really powerful. The next introductory talk I had was at Pauley Ballroom, and so I took the next available slot to take transcendental meditation. At that time, we had a TM office in an old sorority house on Channing and I remember going to learn and there being a line all across College Avenue. I did learn TM and it did change my life in ways I never would have guessed.
DC: How has TM impacted your life?
SL: Nowadays, there are tons of scientific verification of the practice that talk about the benefits of TM, and I have found lots of particular ways that TM was very helpful (to me). One way was that when I was 16, I was very ill and it was a very difficult situation. I made it to Cal and was very determined that I was going to be healthy and all that and didn’t think too much about it. I was an occasional drinker and smoker but found that once I learned TM that those desires, particularly tobacco, just faded away. I didn’t have the desire to smoke any longer and there was no desire to experiment.
In Cal, the amount of freedom that I had and the lack of anybody telling me to do my homework threw me in a loop. What I started finding is that when you meditate, there is a coherence that occurs throughout the entire cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is livened, which is the center for measured rational thinking. All of the procrastinating that I used to do just began to go away. I didn’t have to think of it and it became more pleasurable to me was to get my work done. I found myself ordering my time and the work I had to do and it has lasted all this time.
DC: What do you hope UC Berkeley students will take away from this meditation? How will it improve their lives?
SL: TM is not a stress-management technique, but rather a stress-elimination technique. It works on surface fatigue — the type of tiredness that students have. It refreshes you, and you come out of meditation feeling relaxed and energized. When I would teach, the first mediation would give me the fuel to teach throughout the day, and I’d get home and then I’d meditate and do my work. For students, it’s the same way. We meditate twice a day, once in the morning and the other at the end of the day. Most people meditate for 20 minutes and it is really like getting a little vacation twice a day. When I was teaching school, we had waves of illnesses coming through and everybody would ask me, “How come you’re not sick?” and it’s because I’m strengthening my immune system every time I meditate. You become physically stronger and more refreshed and have better organizing and time-budgeting skills. As we’re meditating, we have a tendency to become more creative — that part of the brain is more enlivened. I taught a man who has OCD and he said he would check his door 200 times a day. After the sessions, he felt himself not checking the door and (rather) in conversation with people.
What begins to happen is that our whole physiology is strengthened. Whether we are doing papers or studying or doing projects, it becomes much more efficient and productive. And if whatever we’re doing becomes more productive, we’re going to feel good about ourselves. It doesn’t involve any sort of belief — it’s not a matter of positive thinking but purely physiological. We see things and instead of being stressed out, we see them as challenges and naturally become healthier.
I noticed immediately that something was much more positive about them. I was like, “What did you do?” And they were like, “I started TM.”
DC: What kind of experiences have you been able to collect throughout your work? Are there any that particularly stand out?
SL: We don’t meditate for the experience of meditating, but for the preparation of activity. It’s a very nice experience to have, and not to drop a name or anything, but Ellen Degeneres has been meditating for five years or so. She says that she hates to end her meditation because it really is the only time she has with herself: her little self and her big self — her universal self. We really meditate because it prepares us for whatever activity we do.
In February, a friend of mine organized a trip to India and it involved two weeks of meditation. I opened my email one day on the trip and I had gotten an email that my brother was in cardiac arrest. The doctor said you better come back and I changed all of my travel plans and got out the quickest way I could. It was definitely not a fun experience and nothing I would ever replicate again, but I just went and did it. I can’t really say I was stressed out — you just go and do what you have to do and that is it. It doesn’t overwhelm you and overtake who you are and what you need to do. I am very grateful I had TM — one of the nice things about TM is that when something horrendous like that happens, I don’t have to say, “Hold on I have to go meditate.” The effects of TM are cumulative. You meditate twice a day and are improving the nervous system. When something like that happens, your body just takes over. It really is a practical technique to have.
DC: How can UC Berkeley students begin TM meditation?
SL: Come to an introductory talk and it takes about an hour or so. We just talk generally about the benefits and how it is different from other types of meditation. TM is taught in four consecutive days about an hour to an hour and a half each day. You have the experience of meditation and more intellectual instruction about it. We recommend people come in for a check-in about once a month and we even have a young meditators group. I have been meditating now for 48 years and I am very grateful that I learned what I did.
DC: What made you focus on TM as opposed to other kind of meditations?
SL: It is so easy — anyone can basically do it. If you can think, you can meditate. It is just very effortless. The reason that it’s so easy is that it just allows your body and mind to do what they want to do — which is to get rest. In doing so, we come out feeling refreshed. I knew nothing about meditation when I was 18 — we used to have introductory talks in Dwinelle Hall on meditation when I was a student. I do have friends who do other techniques that can be categorized into either concentration or contemplation. I went to TM because it happens automatically and you feel so much better when you’re finished with the meditation.
DC: Do you find people encounter challenges?
SL: Everyone has a different nervous system and different life experiences. We teach military vets who have post-traumatic stress disorder and even during the first instruction of TM, we can see it starting to go. I have taught people who are bipolar and people with ADHD, and again, it’s like the brain begins to revert to more comfortable type of expressing yourself and taking in information. There aren’t any challenges in learning TM. It’s a lifetime program — I started when I was 18, and now I am just about 67 and everything is still open to me. It is available throughout the world too and so are all the services.
DC: What can meditation lead to for UC Berkeley students?
SL: You know, it is way more stressful now than when I went to school. My father went to Cal and when I was a little kid, I thought, “I’m going to go to Cal” and I did. Nowadays, you need to discover the cure to diseases in order to be admitted to great schools. There is a much higher level of stress in the world generally. I just am so grateful that I walked into TM without any intention — it took care of my physiological problems. When I started TM, I didn’t think I would see a physical difference in how I really felt — it is just a very easy, natural experience to have. We are not meant to be stressed out and upset — that’s not how to live our life. It really leads to a life of joy.
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