“You’re here for the caucuses?” is the first question Kent Boyum asks me when we sit down to chat in his office. We're in the Maharishi Peace Palace (pictured above) of the Maharishi Vedic City. At first I have no idea what he’s talking about (my sense of election timing is admittedly thrown off on the road), and only after he notices the look of genuine bewilderment on my face does he remind me of the upcoming election.
“No, no,” I tell him, “I’m just here to talk about Community and spirituality.”
He immediately brightens.
“Oh good,” he says.
What follows has nothing to do with politics. (Although maybe it would be nice if it did.) It has to do with an idiosyncratic universalist utopian oasis in the middle of Southeast Iowa, a place where doorways only open on the North and East sides of buildings (the orientation of a building is essential for the wellbeing of its occupants); the intentional city developed around an Eastern Ayurvedic health spa two miles up the road; and the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM®) that is nearly ubiquitous among the area's residents. It also has to do with a university that requires its students to take classes in Creative Consciousness®, and to spend at least forty minutes a day (twenty in the morning, twenty before bed) letting their minds rest in the "quiet sea of infinite consciousness" (not quite ®, but close). From these practices, so they say, the golden age of evolved world peace will come about: the Satyug, the Era of Truth.
I'll say this from the start: if the temperament and vibes I felt during my week in Fairfield are any indication, this Saytug really ain’t gonna be too shabby.
Fairfield, Iowa and Maharishi Vedic City, The Quick History
In 1958 the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (d. 2008) made his first world tour. He was an immediate sensation, a true mystic and teacher, a peacemaker. When he arrived in Hawaii in 1959, the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported: "He has no money, he asks for nothing. His worldly possessions can be carried in one hand. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is on a world odyssey. He carries a message that he says will rid the world of all unhappiness and discontent.”
How to achieve this goal? A simple technique he called Transcendental Meditation. It was an ancient practice, one passed down from teacher to student for generations, and the time had come to spread it to the world at large. It centered around a specific scientific formula for daily meditation (described below). Give people this simple tool to improve their daily mental states and attain cosmic calmness, the Maharishi taught, and one at a time the people will raise their consciousness, and the era of world peace will naturally follow.
In 1975, TMers from across the world found one of their headquarters in Fairfield, Iowa (there are many TM hubs around the globe, as well as centers in most major cities where you can find a teacher and community of fellow TMers). The Maharishi and his followers bought a local university - Parsons College - that was going out of business and re-dubbed it The Maharishi International University, now Maharishi University of Management (MUM). They implemented a curriculum founded in the ideas of Creative Consciousness®, a learning process meant to put a person more in touch with his/her/gender non-conforming most authentic self. It has one of the most intensive and successful programs in sustainable energy development in the world, as well as many highly touted art graduate degrees, including a Masters in Film fully funded by prominent TMer David Lynch (other TMers and followers of the Maharishi include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Howard Stern, Yukio Hatoyama (former prime minister of Japan), and others). Many of those who came to Iowa after the Maharishi - Boyum among them - learned from the man himself the techniques for teaching TM.
Fifteen years after the establishment of MUM, construction began some miles up the road from Fairfield on a world class health spa. The Raj was to be (and is today) a kind of Ayurvedic mecca. “Veda” is the Sanskrit word for “knowledge” and “Ayur” means body. ("Veda," Boyum tells me, refers to a highly scientific kind of knowledge, one that crosses disciplines, and so is the suffix for many aspects of living that the Maharishi propounded. E.g. “sthapatya-vedic” is the kind of architecture used for buildings in the Vedic City as well as on MUM’s campus. "Sthapatya" means "establishment.") Located in an ornate sthapatya-vedic building, it looks out on a beautiful lake and is surrounded by a peaceful grove of trees. Most of the areas were closed to visitors when I visited, so I couldn’t peak into the women and men’s respective health spa rooms, and as to what exactly goes on in those spa rooms, I can’t say. The prices for treatments were well beyond my budget (which is a source of skepticism about the whole TM phenomenon…see “Skepticisms” below).
Over the next ten years, the area around this spa would be purchased and developed into the Maharishi Vedic City, which is a fully incorporated city complete with mayor and city council, that abides by the strict attributes of sthapatya vedic architecture. These attributes include many similarities to the natural building techniques used at ecovillages like Earthaven. Passive solar energy, utilization of rooms’ orientations, and a particular respect for the geometries of space are paramount.
Kent Boyum, who works in the Peace Palace in a large office with white walls (all the walls in the Palace are painted white) and big windows facing the North and East with sunlight bursting through, tells me about his own TMing, “I practice it regularly because it makes me feel good. It’s not hard to do, it’s not frustrating. The job its supposed to do is to make you feel good, feel clear. It’s like brushing your teeth every morning, it freshens your teeth up, makes you feel good. You just do it.”
This is how Kent describes the feeling of TM: “You’re awake inside but you’re not sleepy. You’re not thinking about too much, even though thoughts can come and go. It’s a process of making a use of a sound that’s taught to a person that doesn’t have any meaning. The mind itself just goes whatever direction it wants to, and restfulness is a direction the mind and the body like to take.”
In Fairfield, I stopped in at the local TM Center for a free introductory lecture (further instruction becomes quite pricey). A friendly woman named Lark taught me the theory behind the meditative practice, complete with a diagram which I’ve included a picture of. The squiggly line at the top of the white board is representative of a person's normal daily thought. Up and down, from one thing to another, unceasing, restless. The goal of TM, easily attained once the technique of the meaningless mantra is learned, is to drop out of that routine and into the quiet sea of infinite consciousness. That's the long line at the bottom of the diagram. It does not move. It does not change. It is permanent. It is everything. When the mind is trained properly, the quiet sea is where the mind naturally goes.
The hook of TM is that it does not require any amount of focus or concentration. Rather than a meditative technique that calls for "focusing on a candle" as Kent puts it, or "following your thoughts as they happen“ as Lark describes another form of meditation, TM happens "spontaneously and immediately" (Lark). Once a person learns how to do it - and it takes about four or five sessions, Lark tells me, in which the teacher instructs the student what to do in every conceivable situation that might arise while meditating, including the doorbell ringing or the baby crying - then that quiet sea of infinite consciousness is always available to fall into.
Divorcing the concepts of TM from the parade of celebrities, brand endorsements, studies, and business language that its proponents employ can be a challenge. I admit that I’m generally skeptical of the language of “management,” the copyrighting of terms like TM and Creative Consciousness, and the exorbitant costs of learning the TM technique from an accredited teacher. The constant barrage of ads that is the experience of contemporary daily life makes me suspicious whenever anyone tries to sell me anything, and this is especially true of enlightenment. In a search for meaning and truth, for some insight into the mysteries of God, being told “here’s the answer, and it only costs a few hundred dollars!” is something of a red flag, to put it mildly.
But it’s hard to argue with experience. And my experience of Fairfield, Iowa was undeniably pleasant, and included thoughtful and enlightening conversations with a number of people. I never got the sense that I was being swindled, that anyone trying to sell me TM was doing so from anywhere but a genuine place of belief in the fact that it just works. It makes you feel better. It makes you calmer. And the place spoke for itself: it was nice, it was calm, the people were friendly. From the conceptual viewfinder of this blog, one might also wonder if the quiet sea of infinite consciousness isn’t just another name for the Oneness? Another doorway of useful lies to an experience of the same essential place, albeit a doorway with trademarks and celebrity endorsements. I admit, I might be interested in finding out….if only it wasn’t so damned expensive.
More to come this week on the science of TM and the behaviors of faith, and some thoughts on the teachings of the Maharishi.