Joan Bakewell: Meditation is more than flower-power indulgence

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So farewell then, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, you taught The Beatles about meditation, then used their fame to boost your business. They came home and you went on to extend your international movement with a university in Iowa and headquarters in, most recently, Amsterdam. Now you are dead, some commentators seem eager to dismiss your teachings, along with all that 1960s flower-power indulgence, as a phase of naïve childishness that seized the youth of the time and sent it in the wrong direction.

They are almost entirely wrong. The world needs meditation more than ever. Just ask Heath Ledger's family. The actor had complained for weeks of insomnia, anxiety and stress before his death last month. He turned for help to prescription drugs, none of which would have harmed him on its own, but taken together had a fatal result. "I can't stop my brain thinking..." he is rumoured to have complained. How much better if he had learned some simple meditation techniques that would have calmed the stress and given him space to rest his overactive mind.

I'm not suggesting the Maharishi's brand of Transcendental Meditation was what Ledger needed. It's hard to understand what the so-called giggling guru's specific teaching amounts to, other than that it requires substantial fees, results in bizarre bouncing activities, and has created a trust worth some £600m. Perhaps the trust's role is to spread the message, whatever the message is.

I understand that the pop star Donovan, a long-time devotee, and film-maker David Lynch are currently proselytising for the cause. I am not sure I want the man who makes spooky films, and created the nightmare vision behind the 1986 shocker Blue Velvet, to be my spiritual guide.

Whether the Maharishi was a genuine inspiration or simply an old fraud is beside the point. Meditation, as part of Eastern philosophy, has an ancient and respectable past, and in bringing it to the attention of young people in the West thrown into confusion by the 1960s drug culture he did something worthwhile. The West already had its tradition of meditation too, of course, but it was falling out of favour. It is known as prayer.

By contrast, I learned what I know of meditation for nothing more than the cost of a book, called Teach Yourself Meditation. I was planning to visit India for a second time and already knew that the density of that country's spiritual life has a strange and disturbing effect. So I took the book along with me just in case. And when the moment came – a calm and beautiful place, a restful time – I sat cross-legged on a cushion and opened its pages.

I learned one thing fast that day: meditation isn't easy. For hectic, busy minds living in a turmoil of thoughts and ideas it is seriously difficult. I persisted throughout my Indian visit and slowly began to have a different sense of things from what I had before. It was entirely rewarding, offering some small sense of the cosmic nature of things and the immediacy of our place in time and space. It could easily be written off by cynics as holiday euphoria. But I didn't believe it was and I have persisted intermittently ever since. I can now manage to meditate properly for as long as five consecutive minutes: after that some sneaky idea, some distracting thought, wriggles its way into my consciousness and spoils that vast canvas of quiet that is what meditation aims for. And I have to start all over again.

Would the world benefit from meditation? Up to a point. The Maharishi believed his movement could bring about world peace, and John Lennon went on to write the beautiful but fanciful "Imagine". They both make the illogical leap from the individual to the community. Meditation is essentially personal, internal and even narcissistic. It aims to overcome the force of the ego but it is primarily self-regarding. It can clear clutter and confusion from the individual mind. But communities don't work like that. That's why saints don't fight each other, but countries have gone to war under holy banners.

Transcendental meditation imagines a world where everyone is so spiritually calm and at peace that wars become redundant. That is to suppose that tyrants and despots will be chilling out too. Whereas, we know full well they would welcome a meek and submissive population as being so much easier to subjugate to their will. The dangers of universal quietism is that it would abandon all the outrage we bring to our sense of injustice. There is a proper place for anger at the state of the world, for resistance to the forces of oppression. But meditation can help temper the anger.

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