Well, there's weird... and then there's the 2-hour drive from the Quad Cities to Fairfield, Iowa. Weird doesn't begin to cover Fairfield. Fairfield TRANSCENDS weird.
"There isn't another story like this anywhere in the country," says Fairfield mayor Ed Malloy with a smile.
Once upon a time, Fairfield was just like any other small Iowa town. Throughout the 60's, it's shining beacon was the ever-growing Parsons College. The school had recently implemented an aggressive development program dubbed "The Parsons Plan," and enrollment had skyrocketed.
That all changed in 1966, when Life magazine published an article highly critical of the school, spotlighting the college as a safehouse for Vietnam draft dodgers. Within a year, the school had temporarily lost its accreditation and the ringleaders of the Parsons Plan were removed. In 1973, Parsons College celebrated it's 99th year by closing its doors for the final time. With the closure of Parsons, Fairfield could have become just another rural Iowa town past its heyday. Little did they know the town's future was about to be shaped by a giggling guru from halfway around the globe.
In 1974, the campus of the Parsons was bought by an organization fronted by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Iowa was about to meet a world of Eastern philosophy, Yogic flying, and "bubbling bliss."
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was an Indian sage who, in 1955, began teaching a technique that supposedly could develop the creative potential and quality of life of its practitioners -- a technique he called Transcendental Meditation (TM). TM is derived from ancient Indian Vedic literature -- some of the oldest sacred texts in existence. Followers claim that through the practice of TM, the mind is brought to a heightened state of awareness known as Transcendental Consciousness - the source of all thought, energy, and being. It is said that following the simple practice for twenty minutes twice a day can activate parts of the brain normally dead to the world.
TM was first exposed to the West in the late 1950's, but really didn't catch the imagination of the Western World until the Maharishi found four new fans named John, Paul, George, and Ringo. In 1968, the Beatles made a highly publicized trip to the Maharishi's ashram in India to study TM and write the songs that would later become The White Album. While the band eventually had a falling out with the guru (the song "Sexy Sadie" is widely acknowledged as a jab at the Maharishi,) the world had been introduced to the practice of TM and the Maharishi found himself a legion of followers.
That legion now includes folks like Oscar-nominated film director David Lynch, techno savant Moby, hip-hop empresario Russell Simmons, and even Jerry Seinfeld. An estimated six million people now practice Transcendental Meditation on a regular basis.
In the summer of 1974, the former Parsons College was relaunched as the Maharishi International University, now known as the Maharishi University of Management (MUM). A fully accredited college, MUM offers twelve undergraduate programs with a focus they call "consciousness-based education." Alongside a standard college curriculum, the university's students also learn and practice the daily art of TM. All meals are organic and vegetarian. Smoking and drinking are forbidden on campus. Students are encouraged to have lights out by 10 p.m.
The Maharishi passed away earlier this year, but the college carries on his work and even takes things to another level -- namely, quantum physics. Behind the leadership of noted physicist Dr. John Hagelin, the University has applied ancient Vedic Science to the quantum theory of the Unified Field -- what Hagelin refers to as the "universal field of intelligence in nature," the primordial sea of everything that exists. When a practicioner "dives deep" into Transcendence, it is claimed that they touch this Unified Field, creating ripples of positivity not just for the meditator, but for the universal intelligence of all mankind. Through TM, the university hopes to accomplish nothing less than world peace.
Quantum physicist Dr. John Hagelin lectures about the Unified Field to the crowd at the 2008 David Lynch Weekend at the Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, IA.
The university's impact on Fairfield is hard to miss. Fifteen ethnic restaurants surround the small town square. Everywhere in town, the roofs of homes are topped by an ornamental golden domelet called a kalash. The smell of curry is almost inescapable. It is the ultimate marriage of Iowa charm, Eastern philosophy, and progressive thought.
"The cultural diversity of the school spills out into the community," explains Mayor Malloy, himself a practitioner of TM. "There's an entrepreneurial culture in Fairfield that has everyone discussing new ideas, thinking boldly, and being unafraid of risks."
From the mid-80's to the present, 400 companies and 3000 jobs have been created in Fairfield. In 2003, the National Association for Small Communities dubbed Fairfield the most entrepreneurial small community in the nation. It's a reputation the townsfolk wear with pride, and the advances keep coming.
Just to the north of the city limits is the newly incorporated village of Maharishi Vedic City. Created by followers of TM as a model of ideal city life, every home in the small community is built in accordance to Maharishi Sthapatya Veda design "to promote health, happiness, and good fortune." Each building faces east and has a central silent space called a Brahmasthan. At the heart of Vedic City is The Raj, a luxury health center and spa based on the Maharishi's Vedic approach to health.
Just a short drive from The Raj is the construction site of the Abundance Ecovillage, a project separate from the school but definitely impacted by its teachings. When the Ecovillage is complete, 30 modern state-of-the-art homes and some 100 residents of Fairfield will live entirely off the grid -- powered by the sun and the wind, cooled by earth tubes, heated by fireplaces and home-captured methane, and fed by co-op farming and filtered rainwater catch mills.
"TM gives us the direct experience of how things in life are connected," explains Lonnie Gamble, the project's co-founder. "The Ecovillage gives us an intellectual application of how things in life are connected."
Gamble is also a faculty member at MUM, where 60 students are currently enrolled in the world's first undergraduate degree program in Sustainable Living. Students can choose course tracks in renewable energy, architecture, or agriculture.
"The overall idea is to give students the know-how to design, build, and maintain sustainable communities," says Gamble.
Mayor Malloy touts the town's credo of "buy fresh, buy local," and recently created a Commission on Sustainability to discuss expansive green programs for Fairfield.
"It's something for everyone to get together on regardless of views," says Gamble. "We want to make sustainability a thread that runs through our whole community."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that a town as liberal and diverse as Fairfield also plays host to an astonishing arts scene. You almost need a database just to keep up with the town's calendar of events. Every day and night, you can find concerts, art exhibits, poetry readings, and live theatre. The population of Fairfield is only 9700, yet the town boasts over 300 working artists and 22 art galleries.
Fairfield's art walks, held on the first Friday of every month of the year, attract visitors from around the globe and was named the Iowa Tourism Event of the Year in 2005. June's upcoming event pays homage to the food, art, dance, music, song and games of Italy around the Central Park square green.
The jewel of the town's art scene, though, is the newly constructed Fairfield Arts & Convention Center -- a 32,000 square foot center devoted to serving the diverse culture of the town. Housed inside is the state-of-the-art Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts, the first theatre ever to garner the name and approval of the famed composer and lyricist.
The proscenium theatre boasts 522 seats and plays host to a smattering of local and national theatre and music productions. We were able to catch a recent production of "Godspell," complete with a climactic scene featuring an illusion donated by the estate of legendary magician (and TM follower) Doug Henning. The show was top-notch and brought the house down. Future summer events include the Iowa premiere of "Open Heart," written by and starring 80's film icon Robby Benson.
As we left Fairfield, my mind swirled. In one short day, I'd been exposed to meditation, philosophy, quantum physics, conservation, culture, and, well, some pretty weird vegan food. I don't think I've said the word "wow" more times in one day in my life. Fairfield seems intent on expanding people's minds -- instead, they simply blew mine away.
One of the most well-known proponents of Transcendental Meditation and the study of ancient Vedic Science is acclaimed film director David Lynch. Such a proponent is Lynch, in fact, that his foundation just donated a cool million dollars to Fairfield's Maharishi University of Management to help defray the costs for students to learn the TM technique. During the university's recent David Lynch Weekend, we were able to sit down with the three-time Oscar nominee to find out more about his passion for meditation.
You're one of our nation's most respected directors. Yet instead of hob-nobbing with the Hollywood elite, you're in smalltown Iowa. Why is Fairfield so important to you?
Well, I love transcendental meditation. I started in 1973, July 1st, on a Saturday morning about 11:00. And I've been meditating twice a day for over 34 years. This university is the flagship school for consciousness-based education. Education which develops the full potential of the student -- enlightenment. And the way to do that is to experience that deepest level of life -- the Transcendent. The technique of TM will get you to that level -- easily, effortlessly, first time, every time. It's a beautiful, beautiful blessing. And so I was asked to join the Board of Directors for this university. It's a very special place. I think it's the future of universities. I don't see self-centered, tormented, stressed, anxiety-ridden students. I see very strong powerful brilliance. And so I like supporting this university and I like supporting the peace-creating groups here in Iowa. I think it's the future, and a bright future. So I'm with it.
Are you seeing changes in the public's reception to TM?
The receptivity is changing. As human beings, we get into certain rigid patterns. Anything new coming along is not always welcomed with open arms, and a lot of misunderstandings can arise. Misunderstandings about meditation are going away. It's not a religion, and people are getting hip to that. It's a mental technique to open the door to the deepest level of life -- the eternal level. And life gets better when you experience that deepest level.
Have the ancient principles of Vedic Science adapted in order to evolve into the new millennium?
No, no. The new millennium has evolved into it. "Veda" means total knowledge. Vedas are the laws of nature. How the un-manifest manifests into everything that is a thing. Vedic Science, the science of consciousness, explains it in the greatest detail -- surpassing physics, surpassing quantum cosmology. The Vedas can be interpreted many different ways, just like the Bible can be interpreted many, many ways. But hiding in there is the truth, and this is where enlightenment comes in. An enlightened human being is living the truth. And it's possible that it's our birthright. We're going to one day unfold the whole thing. It's waiting for us. It's just a question of time.
In the course of this, you've sort of become the de facto recognizable celebrity face of TM. Is this a role you're comfortable with?
I don't like being in the public. But like I said, I believe in these technologies for peace and enlightenment, so I find myself talking about it.
The school seems to emphasize community. In your life, do you find that you're able to do this as part of a community? Or is meditation for you more personal?
What I love about TM is that you don't need anything but the technique. You can meditate anywhere -- you don't need to join anything, you don't need to be in a community. You meditate and you go about your business and you will start to see things get better and better and better. This is what happened to me. If it hadn't, I would've quit meditation. You'll get all these benefits, and it will feed your work. What I like about Fairfield is that every day, just like ancient India, people come together and meditate as a group. And that's a very, very powerful cosmic beautiful thing. Major beautiful. And in this community, if you go around and meet people, they're absolutely unique individuals. You like sitting with every one of them. They're bright eyed, they're eager to listen to you, and there's a big understanding and appreciation for life. It's very special. But this is in all human beings. Get rid of that cloud of stress and you just become more and more yourself. A strong self. TM brings you to a place that's more and more self-sufficient. The Big Self. It's beautiful.
In terms of the global picture, do you consider yourself an optimist?
Total optimist. I'm an optimist because of this beautiful Unified Field. You know, that big ocean. And because of these Vedic technologies to enliven that, I'm a big giant optimist.
If you'd like to learn more about Vedic Science and the technique of Transcendental Meditation, visit www.TM.org or call 1-888-LEARN-TM.
While there's no debating the positive impact that Transcendental Meditation and Vedic Science has had on Fairfield, the practice is not immune to controversy:
• Finding enlightenment may also find you with an enlightened pocketbook. Basic TM training costs $2000 -- and that's after a recent reduction in fees. While the price seems a bit exorbitant by modest standards, TM officials claim there's a reason.
"It's really important to commit to the technique," explains Dr. Wally DeVasier, Director of the Maharishi Peace Palace in Fairfield. "Making a financial commitment leads to making a meditation commitment."
While a recent donation from the David Lynch Foundation has created student scholarships to help alleviate the financial burden, the costs may be too prohibitive for some to experience "bubbling bliss."
What does your $2000 get? Private instruction, 2 hours a day, for 4 days.
"After the four days, you'll have enough info to meditate on your own for the rest of your life," explains DeVasier.
• Advocates of TM frequently affirm that practicing the technique doesn't conflict with any world religion. In fact, the group's website states that it will "enhance your religion... [TM] is a technique, pure and simple. It involves no religion, belief, philosophy, or change in lifestyle."
Websites like trancenet.net, devoted to critical analysis of TM and run by a former follower, claim that several aspects of the meditation training and technique borrow extensively from Hinduism, invoking and making offerings to Hindu gods. This, it can be argued, could be at odds with the tenets of Judeo-Christianity and other religions.
• Some have even harsher words for the practice.
"In my opinion, Transcendental Meditation fits the criteria of a cult," says Rick Ross, Founder of New Jersey's Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements (www.rickross.com). "TM is a personality-driven organization. People are blindly following an absolute authoritarian leader -- The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi -- and his patentedly absurd claims."
• In 1994, a 24-year-old student at the college, Shuvender Sem, stabbed and killed another MUM student in the college dining hall. Sem was later found not guilty by reason of insanity. The family of the victim filed suit against the University, claiming that the practice of TM was dangerous for a mentally ill student.
"If the practice of TM causes an energized field that creates peace and calm," asks Ross, "then why was there a murder on campus?"
• One of TM's most outspoken proponents, quantum physicist Dr. John Hagelin, is no stranger to controversy.
While Hagelin touts his theories of the Unified Field of Consciousness on his vast network of websites as fact, many members of the scientific community aren't buying it. "What the Bleep Do We Know," a film featuring the theories of Hagelin and other physicists, was recently labeled "pseudoscience" by the American Chemical Society, while a public letter published in Physics Today says that "most laypeople cannot tell where the quantum physics ends and the quantum nonsense begins."
Undaunted by criticism, Hagelin has mounted three unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. presidency under the Natural Law Party. Recently, he has turned his attention to the creation of the "U.S. Peace Government," a "complentary" government whose website claims will "rule the country at the fundamental level of consciousness." Hagelin is President of the U.S. Peace Government.
"It's not a nefarious scheme to rule the world," says Ross. "It's just another attempt at dividing up the world into fundraising sectors."
• Money seems to be at the root of much criticism of the TM movement.
"Ongoing Fundraising Forever -- that's the Maharishi's real mantra," says Ross. "The Maharishi was superb at one thing: the accumulation of wealth. At the time of his death, his estate was estimated to be in the range of $5-$9 billion dollars. There are a labyrinth of money-making corporations that the group presides over."
At the end of the day, it's hard to pick sides when you're dealing with an intangible concept like transcendent consciousness. The practice of TM could be right for you but wrong for your neighbor. There's plenty of information available online from both sides of the TM debate. We recommend that you do a little research before determining if TM is right for you.