The military allocates untold monies and resources to treating post-combat stress. Now, for the first time, research is being conducted at the nation’s oldest, private military college, Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, to determine whether the Transcendental Meditation technique may provide an important addition to the promoting of resilience among military men and women to prevent the trauma in the first place.
Norwich is the birthplace of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and was the first military school in the nation to accept women.
Click on the orange play button below to listen to a report by Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Zind on the progress of this important research.
Here are excerpts from Steve Zind’s VPR report:
It is not easy being a “Rook.” Freshman cadets at the nation’s oldest military college are overworked, sleep-deprived, and are way, way down in the campus pecking order.
“I would kind of like freak out every day—‘Oh man, what’s going to happen. I have to deal with the cadre, be around all the upper classmen—I have to go to classes—I have to do homework.”
That’s how Ray Witkowski felt until he started meditating.
“Practicing TM, it’s made me calmer. It’s made me better able to deal with the everyday stress here.”
Witkowski’s platoon of freshmen cadets spends twenty minutes twice a day meditating. They’re part of a research project to measure the effects of Transcendental Meditation. TM has been around for years. It generated a pop culture buzz when the Beatles went to India in 1968 to study with the Movement’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Over the decades there have been scores of studies showing TM’s ability to reduce stress and improve performance. That appears to be true for the Norwich cadets too.
Associate Professor of Psychology, Carole Bandy, is one of the Norwich researchers:
“Basically we’ve found that negative kinds of affect or feelings like anxiety or depression, perceived stress or bad moods, all of that decreased significantly for the TM group but not the control group.”
Bandy is surprised though by what she calls positive growth indicators that show a level of personal development among the TM users.
“I expected that this would be something that would show up after a year of practice. It showed up after only nine weeks, and very strongly at that.”
The Norwich study is using electronic imaging to quantify the changes that TM brings about in the brain. To do that, cadets don what looks like a black bathing cap bristling with wires. Their brain activity is measured as they respond to audio stimuli and images, like a photo of a car accident. In the coming months the brain patterns of the meditating cadets will be compared to a control group to chart the differences.
TM has already been studied as a way to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. In the 1980’s, one study concluded that it reduced depression, anxiety and substance abuse in a group of Vietnam vets.
Last year a pilot study showed a reduction in PTSD symptoms among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Bandy says that the Norwich University study will break new ground by following these cadets into their military careers as officers. Tracking the students for seven or eight years might provide clues whether TM can used as preventative medicine, essentially inoculating soldiers to protect them from the most severe effects of combat stress.
“If it can prevent combat trauma, or if it can help veterans get over it more quickly, it’s big, very big.”
Before signing on to the study, Norwich University president Richard Schneider says he took some convincing.
“You know, I thought it was a little hocus-pocus, but the more I read about it, and got to talk with other people, I thought there was something there.”
Schneider says he went through the TM training himself. He acknowledges that the technique conjures up stereotypes of some kind of magical mystery tour in the minds of people his age.
“They think it’s ‘feel good, smoke something, and love everybody.’ That’s not where I am. I’m all about performance-based, evidenced-based outcomes.”
The experiment has aroused some curiosity at Norwich. When word got around that his platoon was practicing TM, cadet Ray Witkowski said he took some ribbing.
“We hear a lot about it. They call us the ‘Omm Platoon’ or they call us ‘The men who stare at goats.’”
The platoon sergeant is Sam Lieber. He sees a difference in how his group of freshmen handle the rigors of cadet life in comparison to the Rooks that aren’t doing TM.
“My cadets were much more professional in how they dealt with the day-to-day activities of a recruit at Norwich University.”
Freshman Richard Wells is also a member of the meditating platoon. He says that TM has helped him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder which has hampered him all his life.
“It’s like I feel myself being more calm. I can sit down and study. I’ve never felt I could just sit down and study before, but now I feel like a different person.”
The potential benefits of TM to blunt the trauma of combat are a central part of the Norwich study. Researchers are also interested in determining if these young will perform better when they’re active duty military. Norwich President Richard Schneider quotes one Army general who speculated how TM might benefit them in combat.
“If you’re a sniper and you’re hyperventilating, that is not a good place to be in. You are not going to be a good sniper.”
And this is where you might imagine some tension between the military’s goals and the ideals of those who teach Transcendental Meditation, which has long been touted as a path to both inner tranquility and world peace.
Bob Roth is vice president of a foundation established by filmmaker David Lynch who is a long-time TM practitioner. The David Lynch Foundation is providing training and financial support for the Norwich study. Roth says that there is no conflict between TM’s ideals and using the technique to make better soldiers.
“A better soldier is a soldier that doesn’t act out of anger, revenge, violence, fear. If an individual’s job, their duty—their ‘dharma,’ as they say—is to safeguard the country, then we want people who are going to behave prudently. So I don’t think that there is any discrepancy.”
Roth points out that TM’s origins go back thousands of years to a time when it was used by warriors to prepare for the rigors of battle long before the Beatles helped bring Transcendental Meditation to the attention of the western world.
For VPR News, this is Steve Zind.