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Bliss: an inner happiness that is enduring and lacks the transient quality of ordinary happiness.
The word “bliss” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in daily conversations. It’s an underused and underappreciated word describing a state that would have had no relevance to me as a lawyer, until my experience of it in 1972 when I was taught how to meditate.
As I said in the introduction to the first book I wrote on the use of transcendental meditation (TM) in business, TM* and Business, “I realized I wasn’t happy only after learning the Transcendental Meditation technique. Before learning to meditate, I considered my life to be as rich as possible. I was living in New York City, a senior associate at a large Park Avenue law firm, and I led an active bachelor’s social life.”
I had been a “jock” in college (a mediocre college basketball player at Rutgers), a “brother” in a jock fraternity, and not someone interested at all in meditation. As a lawyer I had been trained to be highly skeptical of the alleged benefits of anything being promoted, including meditation, which friends had recommended. But my resolve not to be a meditator was weakened after a day of furniture moving and tennis resulted in a slipped disc in my back. Hoping to relieve the stress, I decided to give Transcendental Meditation a try, and I never could have predicted what happened next.
After just a few meditations, I went from being a skeptic to a proselytizer. And the real turning point for me (in today’s terminology, my OMG experience) was not the relaxation during meditation, but the experience outside of the meditation practice. It wasn’t at all a flashy thing that happened. It was just a quiet, subtle experience of inner contentment during the day, but when it was there, it was, well, blissful is now the best word I can think of, and it made the ordinary events of the day as enjoyable as the big bangs in life that were previously necessary for happiness. Moreover, this inner experience was entirely practical, as I discovered, and I became a serious student of meditation, teaching and writing about it now for almost 50 years.
Bliss is a state of happiness, not a fleeting experience from an event or activity. And when it’s there, because it underlies all experiences, it enriches work, makes us more productive (increased productivity is well-known to be associated with increased job satisfaction), improves personal interactions, and is crucial to health, something scientists have told us for about 80 years now.
One of the oldest findings about our state of happiness or unhappiness dates back to 1938 when researchers began a long-term study of 238 sophomores at Harvard. They kept track of these students through the years and discovered that their health was significantly associated with their level of happiness. While the influence of happiness on health was a novel idea at the time, it is now widely accepted, and is part of our understanding of the mind’s vital role in health. Harvard’s Center for Health and Happiness continues to refine the understanding of the relationship of the two, and tells us that positive emotions such as happiness and optimism are very strongly related to good health. Conversely, negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression are associated with numerous physical disorders like heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and depression.
So, being happier is one of the most important things we can do for our health, as well as being valued for its own sake, raising the ever-recurring question of how we become happier.
What are the conventional strategies for promoting happiness and do they work? One website claims to understand that happiness is an inner thing (I agree), and it advocates seeing joyfulness as essential to life. Another tells us to feel the pain, but don’t mistake it for who you are, and it tells us to be bigger than our sadness. Other conventional wisdom says we need to take time for ourselves each day, to love our lives and see the positive side of things, to spend time each day on things that bring us pleasure, and to get involved in activities that serve others. Another says to create a book of images that make you smile.
These approaches may seem simplistic or superficial, but at least some of them will have partial success since seeing the positive and getting involved in helping others will be better for our emotional well-being than dwelling on the negative. But a good argument could be made that much of this advice is superficial, just makes a mood of being happy and positive, and something more fundamental is necessary. If that is the case, could a meditation practice really be the answer? For most of us, what we think we need to be happy is constantly changing.
When I was a teenager, happiness was making the high school basketball team and dating a cheerleader named Marilyn Finkelstein. Then it was getting good grades, getting into a good law school, and finding a mate. But even if we succeed in these objectives, it won’t set us up for life. There’s always something more we want or need. However, in contrast to the fleeting happiness that comes from the satisfaction of any particular desires, inner happiness can be a lasting game changer.
How does the TM technique succeed in producing this inner state, and can other forms of meditation do the same?
Other forms of meditation may succeed, and if you’ve tried meditation and weren’t satisfied, there are many available and you might try a different form. My experience, however, is with TM and what allows it to succeed. First is the nature of the TM technique itself. In the early 1960s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the TM program, said something interesting about our “monkey minds,” the wandering nature of our minds that most techniques try to tame in their meditation practices—a serious misunderstanding about meditation. Maharishi explained that the mind doesn’t wander aimlessly, but moves purposefully in search of greater satisfaction or happiness. This natural tendency of the mind to move to (and stay on) what is satisfying is an important part of the TM technique’s success.
During this meditation, when the mind is given the right inward direction, due to this universal tendency of the mind, it naturally, and spontaneously moves toward a most settled state because that state is so satisfying. And over time, as the person continues to meditate, the mind becomes familiar with this more settled and satisfying state, and it begins to carry over into activity after the meditation session, becoming a more permanent feature of the mind over time. The TM technique gets its name because at the deepest state of the practice, we “transcend” (go beyond) even the quietest thoughts and experience a perfectly silent state, which almost every ancient tradition understands is a blissful state that is the traditional goal of meditation.
Tony Nader, MD, PhD, and Maharishi’s successor as the adviser to more than 100 non-profit organizations teaching TM around the world, says the experience of bliss is called samadhi in the ancient Vedic tradition from which TM is derived, whereas in other traditions it may be called satori or nirvana, And most importantly, for many people, it increasingly becomes a reality throughout the course of the day.
Lasting happiness means being happy for no apparent reason.
Psychiatrists tell us that each person, whether or not a meditator, has a baseline level of happiness that is not related to the events of the day. Over time, TM meditators experience an increase in their baseline happiness as their physiologies become more settled and less stressed.
Anna Maria Bombardieri, MD, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. In a recent interview conducted by the TM organization, she said:
“I always share with Cecelia [an MD colleague] the joy TM gave us…When you are in the operating room and you have this joy, because it is an underlying joy, it’s a state that you have, then you bring it to the people around you. Whereas, if you are stressed or mad, the whole environment senses your emotions. TM gives you joy and you bring it to other people. This happiness doesn’t come from something. You know before TM, I needed extraordinary things to be happy. Everything had to be extraordinary. I had to be engaged in activity. Now, you are just happy out of nothing. You wake up and for no apparent reason, you are just joyful. And sometimes you think it’s a little weird. ‘Why am I so happy and joyful?’ This internal fulfillment that TM gives you, it’s just a state of being.”
Mr. Marcus is co-author of a book from which this article is adapted—The Coherence Effect: Tapping into the Laws of Nature that Govern Health, Happiness, and Higher Brain Functioning (Armin Lear Press, publication date of November, 2020).