Mansions of meditation
San Francisco Chronicle, May 10, 2003
Erin Hallissy, Chronicle Staff Writer
Devoted followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi want to lower crime rates, improve the economy and enrich everyone’s quality of life in communities around the Bay Area.
All it will take, they say, is the construction of “transcendental meditation around the globe.
The Maharishi is pushing followers to build 200 Peace Palaces across the United States and 3,000 worldwide. Last month, the first U.S. center opened — a $4 million Peace Palace at the University of Kentucky in Lexington paid for by a local businessman. Earlier this month, another center was inaugurated in Bethesda, Md.
In the Bay Area, TM leaders are trying to find spots for the palaces, each with about 12,000 square feet of space that will include meeting rooms, day spas and small stores, in Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and Marin counties, and in San Francisco and Santa Rosa.
“Doing TM in a group is more profound, and it also has profound effects on the environment,” said Valerie Janlois, who has taught TM in her Danville home for years and is trying to find a location for a Peace Palace in Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill or Danville. “The people who are practicing in groups will be purifying the collective consciousness . . . so the quality of life for everyone will improve.”
But TM followers have reached a common hurdle in the Bay Area — finding available, affordable land.
“We want something somewhat accessible and visible in Santa Clara County,” said John Briganti, 56, of Saratoga. He estimated the palace could cost from $2 million to $4 million, depending on the cost of land.
“We have a lot of people looking,” Briganti said. “We’re contacting people to see if they might be inspired to donate land or work with us.”
Walnut Creek Mayor Gwen Regalia said Janlois recently asked her if the city would be able to donate land, but Regalia told her that would be impossible because it would be a gift of public funds.
“They’re idealists, which is fine,” said Regalia, who said the plans seem be be “pretty preliminary.” “If they find property and start the planning process, I presume they’d be able to move forward.”
Other Peace Palaces in Northern California may be built in Sacramento, Stockton and Fresno, said John Black, director of the Maharishi Vedic School in Palo Alto.
Over the decades, tens of thousands of people in the Bay Area have learned the meditation technique of opening their minds and relaxing their bodies to achieve inner peace and eliminate stress.
Black, 58, who has taught TM for decades, estimates that at least 20,000 to 30,000 people in the Bay Area practice TM regularly. He said it is so respected as a stress-reducing technique that cardiologists and employee- assistance plans refer patients to him for training.
The palace-building campaign will take TM out of homes and into centers built according to ancient Hindu principles. Along with the meditation, the palaces will be places where groups of people practice so-called yogic flying, which appears to the cynical eye more like bouncing than flying.
TM followers assert that group meditation and yogic flying has been proven to reduce crime and enhance the general well-being of communities.
CALM CITIES ON MAP
Janlois cited a study by TM followers showing that FBI crime statistics in 1974 and 1975 pointed to crime waves around the country except in 11 cities, most of them with large college populations such as Boulder City, Colo.; Ames, Iowa; and Iowa City, Iowa. She said TM was practiced there by at least 1 percent of the population — a figure the Maharishi considers a threshold to create the beneficial effects.
“We know it works,” said Larry Chroman of Tiburon, who is looking for a location for a Peace Palace in Marin County. “We’ve done a lot of research that has shown when groups of people are practicing within an area, crime rates go down, accident rates go down. It’s a gift to the local area.”
People working on the Peace Palace idea in Contra Costa County don’t want to pay more than $500,000 for land, which Janlois acknowledged was low. She said because her organization is set up as a nonprofit, a landowner could donate part of the cost of the property and receive tax advantages.
The buildings, which will be similar, will require about one-half to 1 acre of land, which would include room for parking. They will follow modular designs and will be laid out according to ancient Vedic principles, which include orienting buildings to the east, using natural building products and having natural light and cross-ventilation in all rooms.
Similar Vedic design has been used in Vedic City, Iowa, which incorporated nearly two years ago just north of Fairfield, Iowa, home of Maharishi University.
Palo Alto has long had a Maharishi Vedic School where TM and other related practices such as Vedic medicine and vibration therapy are taught. Because the school isn’t built according to the Vedic principles, TM practitioners are looking elsewhere on the Peninsula, possibly in Foster City or Sunnyvale, for a Peace Palace location.
BENEFITS OF VEDIC BUILDINGS
“People living in (Vedic buildings) and working in them report that life’s better,” Black said. “It’s not just wishful thinking. There’s some concrete results that people can tell you.”
Meeting those Vedic principles will be even more challenging in San Francisco, said Art Konrad, who has practiced TM since 1969 and is trying to find a city location for a Peace Palace. The city’s location between the ocean and bay causes problems because some Vedic elements deal with placement of buildings in location to water.
“We are looking, and we do have ideas,” Konrad said. A member of the group there tried to see Mayor Willie Brown but hasn’t been able to get an appointment yet.
Chroman said no one has approached any city leaders yet in Marin County, although they’ve been looking for land in places like Corte Madera and San Anselmo. He also wants the building to be visible and not hidden in a secluded area, and he said he expects some opposition.
“I think people will naturally have questions,” Chroman said. “People will think very seriously about it and see it has good for all. I think we’ll be able to overcome anyone who puts any hurdles in our way.”
Janlois predicted that even in a place like Walnut Creek, where new developments spark outcries over increased traffic on congested streets, people will be open to a Peace Palace.
“We’re putting in something that’s really going to benefit the whole community,” Janlois said. “It’s not like a Burger King or Macy’s. It shouldn’t increase traffic that much because most people would visit it before or after work.”
But once they’re built, it may take awhile for the beneficial effects to be felt. Paul Page of Lexington, who was working the reference desk Thursday night at the University of Kentucky’s William T. Young Library, said things seem about the same since the Peace Palace opened there.
“I haven’t noticed a thing, but we’re kind of insulated on campus, so we don’t experience a lot of things,” Page said. “The quality of life is good, and crime here is very low anyway.”
Anatomy of a Peace Palace
— A large meditation room, equipped with mats, where users can practice TM and yogic flying.
— A lecture hall and a meeting room for classes, seminars and a monthly open house.
— A spa that offers massage ($95 for 1 1/2 hours), facials ($125 for 1 1/2 hours) and a “Royal Beauty Treatment” package of massage, facial, steam bath and clay body pack ($375 for 3 1/2 hours).
— A library that includes more than 500 studies on the TM technique.