Stars' Mantra: Get 1M Kids to Meditate

Experts say transcendental meditation cuts stress and boosts performance.

April 5, 2009, 3:18 PM

April 6, 2009 — -- Picture yourself on a stage with a mission with "tangerine trees and marmalade skies," or so the song goes.

For the first time since the death of George Harrison in 2002, what's left of the Beatles sang together Saturday at a Radio City Music Hall concert -- "Change Begins Within" -- to promote transcendental meditation.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr joined a new generation of stars to support the David Lynch Foundation's goal of teaching 1 million at-risk children the practice developed by the Beatles' guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who died in 2008.

Research studies -- including many funded by the National Institutes of Health -- show the all-natural approach to de-stressing can improve brain function and cardiovascular health.

"It was a great gift," said McCartney of transcendental meditation as he joked with his former drummer at a pre-concert news conference about not remembering the band's trek to India during the drug-infused era.

"It came at a time when we were looking for something to stabilize us at the end of the crazy '60s," McCartney said.

Then, meditation was just one more way to tune in, turn on and drop out.

But today, when 10 million children suffer from depression and 4 million are being treated with the drug Ritalin for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, transcendental meditation -- or TM for short -- is seen as a way to lower stress and boost academic performance.

The Lynch foundation now teaches 70,000 students for free in 350 schools around the world; 15 of them are in the United States.

The cost to learn TM at a center can be as high as $750 to $1,000 per individual.

The brainchild behind the benefit concert was David Lynch, the abstract and often dark filmmaker who credits his creativity with 36 years of meditation.

For the fundraiser, Lynch recruited other musicians, including '60s icon Donovan and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, who also met the Maharashi in 1968.

Younger singers Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper and Moby and Def Jam's Russell Simmons also entertained, as well as shock jock Howard Stern and comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

"I feel like I'm at a meeting of meditators anonymous," Moby said jokingly during a news conference the day before the benefit.

The self-confessed son of hippies said he once associated the practice with "ritual animal sacrifice" but has now been "won over."

In four decades since the Beatles traveled to India, TM has attained more mainstream acceptance.

"Meditation allows any human being to dive within and transcend, which means to go beyond," said Lynch, whose signature salt-and-pepper coif is as wild as his famously surrealistic films including "Blue Velvet" and "Mulholland Drive" and his television series "Twin Peaks."

"When you experience it, you are infused with unbounded consciousness and an ocean of infinite intelligence, creativity, infinite love, happiness and infinite energy and dynamic peace. It's all positive and you start growing," Lynch said.

Meditation Lifts Stress

"You come out so refreshed, so blissful, you start seeing ideas flow more, negativity starts to lift away," he told in an interview in New York City last week.

Lynch, whose films include images of mutant children and severed body parts, had a much tamer youth. A former Eagle Scout from Montana, he was first struck by the perils of urban stress as an art student in a violent neighborhood of Philadelphia.

In his book on art and meditation, "Catching the Big Fish," Lynch says the experience was like descending into a "hell hole."

Lynch discovered TM in 1973, as he was making his first feature film, "Eraserhead." Despite a lush existence in Beverly Hills, Calif., and being on the cusp of success, he said, "I looked inside and felt hollow."

"I always heard the same thing, a phrase, 'true happiness is not out there, true happiness is within,'" he said. "But they don't tell you where the 'within' is or how to get there."

His sister introduced him to his practice.

"The most important thing I heard was the change in her voice, a self-assuredness," Lynch said. "And I said, 'That's it,' and went down to the center."

That twice-daily practice continued and in 2005, he established the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace -- a lofty mission that he hopes to expand with $50 million in fundraising this year.

In the United States, those programs largely serve disadvantaged or special needs children in public and private schools.

About 4,600 elementary-age children in 19 schools in Oakland, Calif., learn "mindfulness" in a stress-relieving meditation class.

School officials say it helps children regulate their behavior, control impulses and focus better.

At Ideal Academy in Washington, D.C., where daily shootings and poverty stressed out students and teachers, TM was introduced as a pilot program. But when test scores went up, it became part of the curriculum in grades 5 to 10.

In other schools from Massachusetts to Wisconsin, principals are using TM as a tool to calm students down and be better learners.

"People are desperate," said John Hagelin, chairman for leadership performance at the David Lynch Foundation. "The age we live in is increasingly stress producing. People need some way of handling and releasing that stress."

"But there is also a need to be more creative, not just more relaxed -- to use our potential better," he told

Despite meditation's associations with flower power, "it's not hard to convince a principal or a parent of the medical efficacy of TM," Hagelin said.

New studies also show that TM is a drug-free way to help children with ADHD.

Hippies once hailed TM for "expanding consciousness," but today experts like Hagelin say it increases the "orderliness of brain functioning" and helps students realize their "peak performance."

How the practice works is still unknown, but its key is the use of a mantra, a "smoothly harmonizing sound that you say quietly in your head," according to Hagelin.

Through TM, the brain is drawn into a deep state of rest and awareness, Hagelin said.

At Project MORE High School in Tucson, Ariz., about 25 of the 180 students have signed up for twice-daily TM sessions at no cost to the school.

Meditation for At-Risk Kids

The school takes at-risk students who have been thrown out of other schools for disciplinary issues.

Principal John Mackay was skeptical when he first learned about TM at a teachers' conference.

Now, he is a believer. Through TM, Mackay's blood pressure dropped 10 points.

"You hear of hundreds of millions of dollars being spent in schools, but this project could have a massive impact on public education," Mackay told

After TM was introduced to the students, Mackay said anxiety levels were reduced, arguments at home and school quelled and even drug use -- especially marijuana -- dropped.

"It just lowers the tension level," he said. "You can notice it."

John Izere, one of his students, arrived two years ago after attending a large school where he routinely got into fights.

The 19-year-old, who arrived in the United States in 1994, is a refugee from Rwanda where he witnessed genocide.

"Every time I heard anything loud like firecrackers, my heart used to drop and I found myself running, even if I was safe," Izere told

Since he started practicing TM, Izere's flashbacks have diminished and his school work has improved.

"It helps me with a lot of things I have in my head," Izere said. "It helps me relieve stress and concentrate and focus. It also helps me with my schoolwork and puts me in a good mood and gives me a good day."

When Izere graduates in May with plans to be an engineer, he said he will continue meditating.

"It's not a choice," he said. "It's a must for me."

At-risk students have complicated and stressful personal lives, according to Denise Gerace, program director for the Tucson Transcendental Meditation Center, which is funded by the Lynch foundation.

"But with transcendental meditation, they find more personal clarity and strength to deal with these issues," she told "They work out their problems by talking, rather than hitting."

"If a person has limited academic ability and a bad temper, they won't go very far," Gerace said. "But if their temper is under control and they work life out, there is more potential for accomplishment. Their path of life is organized."

But some misperceptions stand in the way of more public schools embracing TM -- not only its association with the '60s, but its religious origins in eastern religion.

In 1979 a federal court in New Jersey outlawed the practice because of First Amendment concerns. And as recently as 2006, parents at Terra Linda High School in California protested a meditation program claiming it was religious in nature, and funding was withdrawn.

But meditation advocates say those attitudes are changing as schools look for better ways to teach their students.

"It's a mechanical technique," Gerace said. "The idea that it's religious is left over from 50 years ago, when it was possible to disregard contributions from somewhere else by simply saying it must be a religious practice."

And Lynch who has three children of his own -- including a 16-year-old -- understands the importance of TM in today's stressful and violent school culture.

"You can kiss stress away," Lynch said. "You see these dogs who come out of the water and they shake all the water off. The stress just flies off."

ABC's information specialist Gerard Middleton contributed to this report.

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