Wasting away in Maharishi-ville

Will importing 1,600 teenage Indian meditators make Vedic City fly?
National Post (Canada), Feb. 22, 2003
Brian Hutchinson, National Post

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the 92-year-old inventor of Transcendental Meditation, has reached enlightenment and is running a business-like empire from Holland. Deep in the U.S. cornbelt, thousands of his yogic fliers are trying to create Utopia. World peace, they say, is definitely around the corner. Brian Hutchinson reports from Fairfield, Iowa.

– – –

It’s a frosty Friday night in southeastern Iowa and a crowd has gathered at the local gym to watch some high school basketball. The boys from the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment are set to battle the visiting Warriors, from nearby Waco. I pay the small admission charge and make my way inside.

“We’re in tough tonight,” sighs the Maharishi School’s headmaster, Ashley Deans. The Waco Warriors are the top-ranked team in the Southeast Iowa Super Conference; the Maharishi Pioneers, meanwhile, are foundering near the bottom of the standings.

Their school is named for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the 92-year-old Indian physicist and founder of the auto-relaxation technique Transcendental Meditation. Deans, a Canadian, is a meditator. All his staff are meditators. Every one of his students, from Kindergarten tykes to Grade 12 seniors, are meditators; they practise TM twice a day, inside the “Hall of Bliss,” a large attic space at the school.

A third of Fairfield’s 10,000 residents — including its Mayor and two members of its city council — are meditators. The city was dying a slow death until the first TM practitioners arrived nearly 30 years ago. They bought a local university that had gone bankrupt and built a pair of massive, yellow meditation domes on campus.

Now 750 students are enrolled at Fairfield’s fully accredited Maharishi University of Management (MUM), which shares with the grade school a sprawling campus, the hub of meditator society. While enrolment levels have been stagnant over the years, the university has received nearly US$20-million in state and federal funding for TM-related research.

MUM graduates have launched a dozen successful high-tech ventures here. A large retail book company run by Fairfield meditators was sold in 1999 to Reader’s Digest Co. for US$380- million. Primus Telecommunications Group Inc., an international long- distance telephone carrier, operates a North American subsidiary in Fairfield; it, too, was founded by meditators. Both businesses are housed in large, new buildings constructed according to “ancient” architectural principles refined and packaged by Maharishi.

A handful more Maharishi-styled office buildings dot the landscape; so do sumptuous new Maharishi mansions with private swimming pools and tennis courts. An organic food store that would make the largest city proud does a booming business, seven days a week.

Indeed, Fairfield is something of a success story, the centre of what the state government describes as Iowa’s “Silicorn Valley.” Even Iowa’s governor has credited the meditators for replacing Fairfield’s terminal dependency on agriculture with other businesses.

All of this demonstrates that TM is as mainstream as vanilla, as American as apple pie, or so I am told, again and again, during my four-day visit to Fairfield. TM is nothing more than a simple technique, aimed at unlocking the individual’s “inner genius” and clearing a path toward enlightenment.

“It’s also great for athletes,” chirped my perpetually sunny TM minder, Mario Orsatti, who then dropped the name of a Canadian hockey star seen last summer on the MUM campus, honing his TM. “You ever notice how he has such great composure?” Orsatti asked me. “That’s from meditation.”

But could it save the Maharishi Pioneers?

They hit the hardwood flat, toss some bricks and are quickly at the mercy of the bigger, taller Warriors. After the first quarter, the Pioneers are down 22-2. By halftime, they are clearly doomed. Ashley Deans shakes his head. “This is a rebuilding year,” he says.

Over on the Waco side of the gym, I strike up a conversation with Eric Hultquist, a local high school ref and “definitely not” a meditator. Not that he has anything bad to say about them. He has heard about yogic flying and seen the meditation domes, but he doesn’t know that much about them. One thing is certain, however: He hates visiting the Maharishi gym.

“I can’t stand the food,” he says, grimacing. “There’s no meat. All they sell at the concessions is tofu this, and tofu that, and this awful-tasting organic soda. You’d think for us visitors they could fix up a good ol’ Mountain Dew and a hot dog.”

But the atmosphere, he concedes, is much the same here as it is at any other high school gym in Iowa.

“The Maharishi kids are getting more competitive. When they first started playing basketball [15 years ago], none of them ever yelled at us officials. That was strange. They didn’t even have cheerleaders. Now look at ’em,” he says, nodding at a set of perky Maharishi girls bearing pompoms. “Their skirts get shorter every year, just like anywhere else.”

But this is not like any other place at all.

A few kilometres north, off Highway 10, lies Maharishi Vedic City. Capital of the Global Country for World Peace, home to North America’s only Vedic Observatory and governed by a council of middle-aged yogic fliers, this might be the strangest city in America.

Incorporated 18 months ago and set on 445 hectares of cornfield, it is almost certainly the smallest, with just 50 buildings and a population of 200.

The Mayor, Bob Wynne, greets me on his doorstep. A heavy-set man wearing sagging trousers and socked feet, he ushers me inside his sprawling, pink-hued home. Naturally, it conforms to a city by-law requiring that all buildings adhere to Maharishi’s architectural system, called Maharishi Sthapatya Veda.

Among other things, the system demands that all front doors face eastward and that all toilets point south. Every roof in Maharishi Vedic City is topped with a signature, dome-like conceit called a kalash, which, according to a Sthapatya Veda architect I met in Fairfield, strengthens the connection of a building’s inhabitants to the heavens.

We walk into a large living room and settle on a sofa. The Mayor launches into a long, boosterish speech. To hear him tell it, Maharishi Vedic City is Heaven on Earth.

“The residents are so cohesive,” he says. “We have no problems. There is no crime here. Everything is oriented to produce people who live very fulfilled lives. We are healthy, happy and wise.”

Just yesterday, he adds, the city council banned all non-organic foods. “Institutions inside the city can’t sell poison to people,” the Mayor says. Volunteers will ensure that “all area restaurants and groceries” adhere to the new by-law.

That shouldn’t be too difficult: There are no food stores in Maharishi Vedic City and only one or two restaurants. In fact, apart from a couple of affluent-looking subdivisions, a hotel and spa, the outdoor observatory, a tiny private school called the Ideal School for Girls and something called the College of Maharishi Vedic Medicine, the fields are empty.

Development stalled after an initial building boom, the Mayor admits. Plans to develop an organic golf course and botanical garden are on hold. He blames a lousy economy. His own enterprise, a $5-million hotel called the Mansion, is now in the hands of the Global Country for World Peace, established by Maharishi to, well, create world peace. It boasts its own “king,” Raja Nader Raam, described by Maharishi as “the greatest scientist of any age,” and 40 ministers, each in charge of different departments.

When I drove by, the Mansion looked deserted. The lights were out, and the king was not in sight.

– – –

On Saturday morning, like every morning here, two hundred adults rise early and head for Fairfield’s massive yellow domes — one for women, the other for men. Inside the dimly lit structures, they do some light stretching, settle on to mattresses, and begin to meditate.

The session lasts about an hour and a half and culminates with some “yogic flying,” the advanced, bum-hopping stage of TM practice that has brought the meditators notoriety. When performed by large groups, yogic flying can supposedly rid society of terrorism and war, by “purifying the collective consciousness” of the entire human race.

Fairfield meditators claim this so-called “Maharishi effect” will prevent a looming conflict in Iraq. A campaign, led by Maharishi, is under way to raise a US$1- billion endowment. The money will be used to train, house and feed 8,000 yogic fliers in Vedic City. (Maharishi believes world peace can be achieved if the square root of 1% of the world’s population practises TM together — hence the 8,000 target figure.)

That’s if all goes according to plan, of course. Maharishi has announced grand schemes before — building the world’s largest office towers in South America, opening a $1.5-billion Maharishi Vedaland theme park in Niagara Falls, Ont. They never panned out.

Apparently, enough cash has been found to import 1,600 teenage boys from India, the first phalanx in this bizarre peace corps. Assuming their visas are in order, the boys will soon be on their way to Iowa, “hopefully by early summer.”

Why Indian boys? “It’s a cost issue,” says Robert Oates, a former football player who helps run Fairfield’s TM information centre. “We’re going to import Indians because they don’t require a great deal of money. An American family would be very expensive to maintain.”

Wynne and Oates are typical of most meditators I encounter here, with strikingly similar stories. They heard about TM in the late 1960s, when the Beatles’ brief infatuation with Maharishi made the guru — and his technique — famous. They came to Fairfield and they never left. Many of the ageing Boomers in Fairfield now have children enrolled in the Maharishi school, or at MUM.

Few have actually spent much time with Maharishi. He’s seldom seen in these parts. Maharishi lives in Vlodrop, Holland, where he oversees an international empire called Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation, with myriad arms and subsidiaries.

Maharishi’s name is attached to a line of health and beauty products, a string of health centres in the United States and Europe, an astrology consultation service, a yoga program, music and publishing enterprises, and a design company, Maharishi Global Construction, LLC, which markets Maharishi Sthapatya Vedic buildings.

Assisted by 20,000 instructors whom he has groomed personally, Maharishi claims to have taught TM to five million students around the planet, and 1.5 million in the United States alone.

By no means is he an ordinary chief executive. Born into an northern Indian family of military caste, Maharishi graduated in physics from Allahabad University and then studied for 13 years with Swami Brahmananda Saraswati (also known as Shri Guru Deva), the world’s foremost exponent of Vedic science, an ancient philosophy of consciousness that says everyone’s soul is the ocean of knowledge, power and bliss.

In 1957, after leaving his master and spending two years in isolation in the Himalayas, he set out into a troubled world with an appealing pitch: that the basis of life is unbounded bliss and that everyone can experience this without effort. It did require instruction, however, and Maharishi offered a tidy little system with a catchy name: Transcendental Meditation.

Maharishi brought TM to the United States just as military tensions with the Soviet Union were peaking, and the country was speeding towards a conflict in Vietnam. With its secular message of peace, TM found a market among members of the educated middle class. TM learning centres appeared in most major cities in the United States and Canada.

He presented TM as a method, not as a religion, which enabled him to maintain proprietary control, and to fend off accusations that he was running a mind-bending cult.

The entry-level course is the exactly same today as it was then (although it now costs US$2,500). The student attends several one-on-one sessions with a qualified instructor, learning the basic mechanics of TM before receiving a mantra, a single, secret word that is not to be shared with anyone. The mantra is used to settle the individual into a unique state of “restful alertness,” twice a day for 40 minutes. As the body becomes deeply relaxed, the mind transcends all mental activity to experience the simplest form of awareness, transcendental consciousness, where consciousness is open to itself and enlightenment is possible.

TM gained some credibility when Robert Keith Wallace, a young meditator with a doctorate in physiology, published articles in Science and Scientific American about TM’s physiological effects and its stress-busting capabilities. The articles were widely read, and were followed by dozens more published studies that attempted to quantify TM’s effects. Essentially, they argued that the method allowed humans to reach what Wallace had called “a fourth major state of consciousness,” a “wakeful hypometabolic state.”

For most, TM seemed like a healthy alternative to dropping acid, or simply dropping out. By the early 1970s, Maharishi claimed a million students. This seemed no idle boast, because the organization had money. Maharishi branched out, launching the university, first in California, with Wallace as its founding president. A year later, in 1974, the school moved to Fairfield, where a failed local college had just abandoned a fully equipped facility.

The meditators snapped it up for $2-million. Initially, there was shock in Fairfield, but most locals grew to accept their zany neighbours. They seemed polite, after all, and they brought business to the community.

In the 1980s, Maharishi rolled out his most advanced meditation program, which he called TM-Sidhi. This required more commitment, at least two hours of meditation every day, and higher tuition fees (today, approximately US$5,000), but Maharishi claimed that successful graduates would be another step closer to enlightenment. (They might even levitate, he advertised, until a former meditator sued, pointing out that students learned only to “hop with the legs folded in the lotus position.”)

Funds were raised to build the meditation domes, which still dominate the university campus. In 1986, the women’s dome hosted Fairfield’s first and only “celebrity wedding,” when Doug Henning, the bubbly Canadian magician, married fellow meditator Debby Douillard, and then promptly retired from the entertainment business to become TM’s most famous spokesman, after Maharishi.

Henning joined Maharishi’s political organization, the Natural Law Party, and ran as a candidate in the 1993 Canadian federal election. While he received just 839 of 55,928 votes cast in the Toronto riding of Rosedale, he attracted scads of media attention and used the opportunity to tout TM. He then fronted Maharishi’s proposed theme park in Niagara Falls. News reports and magazine profiles poked fun and the park never came close to becoming a reality, but Henning succeeded in publicizing the movement all the same.

He died three years ago, of liver cancer, at the age of 52. The organization misses him. These days, finding celebrities willing to endorse TM is next to impossible. “Lots of actors meditate, but they all say it’s Zen,” gripes Wallace, now a co-director of doctoral programs at the university. “No one famous wants to be associated with TM.”

This despite all efforts to present it as a credible, acceptable and entirely helpful exercise, backed by serious scientific inquiry. At least 600 “research studies” into TM have been conducted in the last four decades, according to Maharishi’s promotional literature, and published in sober-sounding publications such as The Journal of Mind and Behaviour and Journal of Clinical Psychology. These are offered as proof that TM is valid and its effects measurable.

Citing recent studies, Robert Schneider, dean of the College of Maharishi Vedic Medicine, told me TM “causes regression of hardened arteries” in humans, and the Maharishi’s simple diagnostic techniques — such as checking one’s pulse with three fingers — make modern medical equipment obsolete. There is no need for expensive MRI machines, he added, when Maharishi’s methods are available, for far less money.

A local businessman told me his revenues doubled the year he built a new US$3-million Maharishi Sthapatya Veda office building and his employees have never been happier, or more productive. Ashley Deans called his school “the most creative in the world … almost miraculous.” Robert Oates told me 25 Fairfield meditators were living in enlightenment. I asked around. No one could name any.

Peddling bliss is nothing new, but Maharishi has raised the bar to impressive heights. Last year, in exchange for US$1-million, Maharishi offered meditators “the most amazing course in history,” which he called “Enlightenment: Total Knowledge and Experience of Higher States of Consciousness.” Those with considerable assets but lacking the required cash were encouraged to contact the “Enlightenment Course Financial Liquidity Board” in Fairfield.

There was no shortage of takers. According to a glossy TM brochure, 35 meditators raised the fee and flew to Holland to sit with Maharishi, who promised “intimate sessions going late into the night,” during which he would answer “all impossible questions.”

“We are not giving Maharishi a gift,” remarked one happy participant. “Maharishi is giving us an opportunity to accept a gift.”

– – –

Now the focus is on building the $1-billion endowment for yogic fliers and lifting Maharishi Vedic City from the doldrums.

Chris Johnson is a land developer and a meditator who amassed a fortune building housing in California. In the early 1990s, he moved to Fairfield so his children could attend the Maharishi school. Soon, he was building Sthapatya Vedic homes in the cornfields north of town.

He now has US$10-million worth of capital tied up in Maharishi Vedic City, including 19 houses and one hotel. It’s a big investment and, unless something can be done to attract new residents, Johnson stands to lose a whack of it.

“I never expected to be in so deep,” he says. “Things have been tough, especially in the last year and a half, when the market dipped,” he says. “But there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

For the past several months, Maharishi Vedic City council has been working on its new master development plan with a US$1-billion endowment, aimed at boosting the population to 8,000 yogic fliers. Importing 1,600 teenage Indian meditators is just the first plank in the strategy, Johnson says. A “major national construction company” is willing to finance the first few buildings needed to house the Indians, he adds. He refuses to identify the generous benefactor, saying only that its principals “like the idea of world peace.”

But where will the remaining 6,400 yogic fliers come from? The new development plan has targeted a growing base of Indo-American retirees, some of whom, it is hoped, will embrace the idea of living in rural Iowa and practising TM.

Bill and Fran Matkin say they would welcome them. Originally from Vancouver, the retired couple live on the edge of a corn field, on the fringes of Maharishi Vedic City.

The Matkins have practised TM for four decades. “My mother and father learned meditation from Maharishi in 1961,” says Fran, a slender, pleasant woman with a shock of silver hair. “I started right away, and Bill a year later. We kept doing it because it feels great.” In 1986, they moved to Fairfield, where their two eldest children attended MUM. Their two youngest were placed in the grade school, where Fran helped teach. Bill, an engineer, helped build a new addition to the school.

Now that their children are all grown and have left the community, the Matkins are alone. They have built a brand new Maharishi Sthapatya Vedic house, facing east, of course, with marvellous heated floors. It’s off the grid; the Matkins rely on wind and solar power for electricity. The water quality is poor and can’t be drunk without being boiled.

The house cost them a small fortune and is still not quite complete. For the first time in their lives, says Fran, they are in debt.

“It’s all been worth it,” she adds. Bill nods gently, and gazes through the window, past the emptiness outside.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday February 24, 2003.
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