Half a block from the rush of Rockville Pike, just across from the weekend shopping frenzy of White Flint Mall on a recent Sunday afternoon, two dozen men sit on the padded floor of an upstairs room, eyes closed, in a silent search for inner peace.
Among them is Ken Steben, a Rockville stockbroker who refers to his practice of transcendental meditation as ”lightening the load.”
”At the end of the day,” says Steben, ”it’s like your body is taking off weight.”
Steben and dozens of other Washington area residents often gather on weekends and weekday evenings at the Maharishi Vedic Medical Center, which opened in October in a gleaming $1.8 million building in North Bethesda.
The center announced recently that it is one of five research facilities across the country to take part in a National Institutes of Health study on the effect of alternative medicine, including transcendental meditation, on cardiovascular disease. The Maharishi University of Management in Iowa will guide the study, which NIH funded after a scientific review of the university’s application.
More than 30 years since flower children were inspired by the Beatles’ flirtation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India and his method of self-relaxation, transcendental meditation these days is being pitched at professionals looking for relief from the nerve-racking stresses of modern life.
Nancy K. Lonsdorf, a doctor who is the Maharishi Vedic Center’s medical director, said the center is particularly popular among Washington’s baby boomers.
”I think the older the baby boomers get, the more they’re looking for something that’s going to help their health without prescription drugs,” Lonsdorf said.
They are people like Alma Johnson, a beginning meditator from Laurel who worked for 30 years for the federal government and is now a wedding organizer. After a month of meditating, Johnson had nothing but praise for it, calling it ”a state of pure euphoria.”
”It’s like a 360-degree turnaround for me,” Johnson said.
Karen Schilling, a stay-at-home mother of an infant in Olney, said she began TM recently in her quest for self-improvement. ”I think it helps me be a better mother,” she said. ”I don’t get stressed.”
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Such results are modest compared with some of the things longtime meditators claim TM can accomplish if enough people do it: lowering the crime rate, for example, or even putting an end to war. All this by just sitting down twice a day, closing your eyes for about 20 minutes and following the TM method into a state of deep rest.
In the early ’90s, 4,000 of the Maharishi’s followers spent eight weeks in Washington holding large-scale group meditations. They claimed they helped reduce crime during that time. But the District’s police department was unconvinced.
In fact, the TM movement has inspired skepticism over time, and some former meditators have voiced disappointment with TM. Over the years, some have even likened the movement to a cult, a comparison practitioners dismiss. A plan by the Institute of World Peace–which is tied to the Maharishi University of Management–for a 38-acre ”think tank” retreat in Calvert County has concerned some residents there.
Several studies have shown that meditation can have positive health effects, though many of those studies were conducted by Maharishi supporters and not everyone believes that TM is superior to other relaxation methods.
James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist who is the director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in the District and a professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, said that TM is just one among a variety of relaxation therapies that have been shown to reduce stress. ”We find that different kinds of relaxation techniques are good for different people.”
Still, TM practitioners believe their method is unique. Lonsdorf says well-educated city dwellers are often drawn to transcendental meditation as a way to relieve urban stress–from work, traffic, crime, the battle to find a parking space.
What better location, then, for the 8,000-square-foot, Maharishi Vedic Medical Center than the Washington suburbs, which have plenty of residents who can afford the $1,000 one-time cost of learning TM? Spokeswoman Kathleen Skevington said that fees are used to cover expenses and that the center operates as a nonprofit organization. Another center is in a rented commercial town house in Falls Church. There are more than 100 across the nation, and others internationally.
Lonsdorf said the North Bethesda center attracts 500 to 1,000 regulars, who come for meditation or consultations or to purchase herbal medicine, skin care and other products. The center has about 6,000 Washington area residents on its mailing list, which largely consists of people who’ve taken meditation classes over the years.
Jeffrey Abramson, whose family owns Bethesda-based Tower Companies, a real estate developer, said the positive effects of TM persuaded his family to contribute $1 million toward building the center. Abramson said TM has helped him ”be balanced and peaceful in a fast-paced world.”
”Every day, you’re renewing yourself,” he said.
Officials say the building on Edson Lane was built following the principles of Vedic architecture–principles derived from the Vedas, ancient texts of Hinduism, to promote tranquillity. It faces east toward the rising sun, even though the street is on its north side. To ensure its position was exact, satellite images of the lot were taken before the building was erected.
In addition to the group meditation rooms–in which men and women meditate separately–there are smaller, more intimate rooms with easy chairs for consultations for those just learning TM. Downstairs, there is a meeting room, clinic and day spa. From the cream-colored walls to the soft lighting to the hushed tones in people’s voices, everything seems muted. It is, indeed, a contrast to the outside rush.
David Lonsdorf, Nancy’s husband and a marketing executive for the center, said the building was designed with ”a silent, inner spiritual core,” a squared-off open space that runs from the ground floor to the roof in the middle of the building through which no electrical, plumbing or other conduits pass. ”Because of its design, the entire building has a very peaceful quality,” he said.
”We did a lot of looking around. There are a lot of places where you can’t orient the building from the east,” he said. ”But we found the right place.”