A lotus amid the Iowa corn

A new Midwestern town has the teachings of a well-known maharishi at its heart.

The Los Angeles Times/September 10, 2006
By Carina Chocano

When I booked my trip last April to attend a conference on Transcendental Meditation at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, I had no idea I would be visiting another country. My airline ticket clearly indicated Cedar Rapids, and from there I would rent a car and drive about two hours to a small town 50 miles from the Mississippi River. I was a longtime fan of filmmaker David Lynch, one of the conference's keynote speakers, and I was interested in meditation, occasionally popping in for a guided meditation at a neighborhood Buddhist temple.

By the time I had made the travel arrangements, I knew I would be spending two nights at the improbably named Raj, an ayurvedic spa-hotel improbably located in the middle of a cornfield. I knew I would be attending a conference entitled "Consciousness, Creativity and the Brain," where John Hagelin, the onetime Natural Law Party presidential candidate would also speak. Hagelin once offered to deploy 400 "yogic fliers" to Kosovo to meditate for peace (then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declined).

What I didn't know is that the Raj is not in Fairfield but just outside of it, in a brand-new town called Maharishi Vedic City, which happens to be the North American capital of the Global Country of World Peace.

So to say that Maharishi Vedic City exists on a plane of its own is not quite to speak metaphorically. The town, which consists of several still-sprouting residential developments, is surrounded by cornfields dotted with barns and gloomy Victorians. The area is no stranger to sectarian lifestyle experiments: Not far away is the Mennonite community of Kalona, where bearded men and bonneted women drive around in buggies.

When I arrived, the sky looked as though it had been carpeted in a gray Stainmaster Berber. Fairfield proper looked as though it had seen better days — specifically 1854, when it hosted the first Iowa State Fair. It has the stately but melancholy air of a once-prosperous Midwestern town in decline.

By contrast, M.V.C. displays all the architectural characteristics of a new exurban development: gaudy, oversize construction that has no stylistic relation to its environment but instead vaguely alludes to a theme-park version someplace sort of magical and far away.

The first thing that alerted me to the existence of the Global Country of World Peace was a bright yellow flag with an orange sunburst design, which I took at first to be an expression of meditator pride, the TM equivalent of a rainbow flag. Checking in at the Raj, I noticed a display of the Global Country's paper money, "the ideal currency of the city" (though they did take my American Express).

Think pink

Steve Yellin, my guide and PR liaison for the weekend, met me at my room, which was bright and plush, done in a smoothed-over rustic style I decided to call Santa Barbara Provençal. He was wearing a radiant pure pink cashmere sweater, which I initially took for a fashion statement. But it turned out pink was everywhere. It was the color of the media room at the Raj, where pastel Barcaloungers faced a TV permanently tuned to the Maharishi Channel. And it was the color of the private plane that first delivered the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to rural Iowa in 1971.

Over a vegetarian buffet lunch, I got a brief history of the town. The maharishi (now an octogenarian billionaire living in the Netherlands) introduced TM to the West in the 1950s. He founded the Maharishi University of Management in 1971, around the time he became one in the long line of "fifth Beatles." (John Lennon would go on to write the none-too-flattering "Sexy Sadie.")

Vedic City grew around the school, incorporating in 2001. "Vedic" refers to "Veda," the Sanskrit word for "knowledge," which the maharishi claims to have distilled into a comprehensive system for living. TM is just the beginning. The "complete Vedic science of consciousness" encompasses architecture, education, health, agriculture, administration, economy and defense.

There are, according to the TM organization, more than 6 million practitioners worldwide. Fairfield/M.V.C. is home to a few thousand of them and offers, beyond individual daily practice, an all-inclusive lifestyle.

After lunch, my guide took me on a tour of the town. All of the structures in M.V.C. are built in strict adherence to Maharishi Sthapatya Veda technique, which requires that all buildings face east, include a central "quiet space," and be adorned with a golden dollop called a kalash.

The houses cost $200,000 to $800,000, including consultation fees and royalties, which sounded like a lot for rural Iowa, but I was told that "people who live and work in these buildings report that they think more clearly, make better decisions, feel happier and healthier, feel more alert and refreshed throughout the day, have more restful and refreshing sleep, have more energy and less fatigue and experience less stress and greater peace of mind." (Blurting, "Oh, like feng shui," in response to an initial explanation of how it all works is the wrong thing to do.)

I came to Iowa on a lark — or as close to a lark as you can come while on assignment for a major newspaper. The TM organization courts the press with an interest that borders on ardor and, as a result, throughout the weekend, I felt less like a fly on the wall than the elephant in the room.

Because Vedic City wants you to visit. It believes in the creativity-enhancing, stress-reducing, intelligence-increasing, health-promoting and world-peace-increasing properties of TM, and it really, really wants you to believe in them too.

Vedic City also wants you to know that Vedic City is for foodies. It wants you to sample its desultory smattering of ethnic restaurants and conclude that here you'll want for nothing. The town of 285 has big plans for expansion, for attracting tourists and potential meditators. Mayor Bob Wynne (a longtime meditator) has said that the idea is to expand to 1,200 residents by 2010, and eventually reach up to 10,000. Since it incorporated, the city has purchased more than 100 acres of farmland, which someday will be the site of a theme park, a golf course and botanical gardens.

There was something about Vedic City's architecture, not to mention the mammoth vehicles parked in the driveways, that was disconcerting yet familiar; it was exoticism snugly tucked into a marketable lifestyle brand. Vedic McMansions, Vedic lodges, Vedic Cape Cod bungalows and Vedic condos commingled within a short distance of giant his-and-hers Golden Domes of Pure Knowledge where the yogic fliers congregate. On the way back to the hotel, I passed a mobile home park called Utopia Park ("The Homes by the Domes"), which is just off Heaven and Taste of Utopia streets.

The organic grocery was like the hippie co-op in every college or lefty town — except the bulletin board was disproportionally dedicated to guru services and the "for-rent" fliers list Eastern orientation as an amenity.

After the tour, I went back to the Raj to rest before the weekend's welcome reception. I wandered around the calming lobby, stopping to check out the scale model of the Vedic Observatory on my way to the gift shop. I hung out in the media room for a bit. The maharishi was on TV, talking about the unified field. (You couldn't spit without hitting a portrait of the maharishi around here.)

In the gift store, I bought some beautiful Indian-themed notecards. The woman at the register was very edgy and stressed out for someone working in a shop where, at that moment, there was only one customer standing there without so much as a pricing question. When a colleague came in with a technical problem, she melted down. I went back to my room, clutching my relaxing bath salts, feeling sort of jittery myself.

A few hours later, I joined Steve and his wife for dinner at a now-closed restaurant called Regina's. I ordered the salmon on a plank of flaming cedar, which, I was surprised to discover, actually came on a plank of flaming cedar. My fish was on a wood chip that was on fire. When the flames failed to subside, I smothered them discreetly with mashed potatoes. It was delicious.

The bulk of the weekend, though, I spent in a big room — something very much like a hangar, in fact — attending a conference on "Creativity, Consciousness and the Brain," listening to talks on the relationship between quantum physics and peace-creating energy fields, and watching the brain waves of a young student of meditation hooked up to an EEG as a group of bald men stood around beaming.

The conference constituted the last leg of a 12-campus tour introducing college students to TM and promoting Lynch's new scholarship program, "The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace." If the need for meditation scholarships sounds strange, considering the ease with which meditation instruction can be obtained, you should know that the formal four-day TM instruction and a personal mantra (plus future adjustments) will run you $2,500.

Early on Saturday morning, Lynch graciously took questions from the conference-goers, who were encouraged to ask him about anything, whether it be meditation or movie-making. Judging from the questions, what many of the young attendees sought were grand unifying answers.

They worried, perhaps prematurely, about how to retain their integrity and creativity in Hollywood, an industry known for its bone-headedness and venality. They wanted to know should they shoot on film or digital video? They wanted to understand what releases creativity, what its limits are.

"The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi talks about an ocean of creativity and consciousness," Lynch replied. "Then modern science says it's true — everything that is emerges from this thing. Quantum physics and the unified field."

So, what's the secret?

The questions were much like those aspiring filmmakers ask directors during a Q&A at a film festival. In those sessions, it's generally been my experience that directors are rarely asked about aesthetics or ideas.

What people want to know — and sometimes they ask this cleverly, sometimes clumsily — is how they can stop being themselves and start being the actor/director/famous person. They want answers, in other words, on how to transform their lives. They want the secret formula, the treasure map, the magic phrase, the secret mantra.

There's something indescribably alluring about a "simple, effortless" daily practice that purports to alleviate everything that ails the 21st century brain. And like most indescribably alluring things, there's something unsettling about it too. TM sells itself very aggressively as the one true meditation practice, a practice unlike other practices that require contemplation or analysis or some other form of effort.

And here, in southwestern Iowa, just in time for the baby boomers' twilight years, is their Eastern-philosophy utopia. What 40 years ago might have been an "alternative lifestyle" is now a marketable lifestyle product; an entropic mix of spirituality and materialism; self-betterment and self-absorption as a cure for all of humanity's ills; consciousness-expansion as a way to building wealth and saving the world. For the not-so-low price of $2,500, you're offered inner peace, world peace, reduced blood pressure and the sense of yourself as a maverick pioneer, a "cultural creative."

Meanwhile, neither the square footage of the average house (in an non-temperate year-round climate) nor the size of the gas tank of the average car seems to factor into the peace equation.

As Fred Travis, director of the Psychophysiology Center at MUM, softly droned on about "the delightful flow of fine feeling and soft thinking" brought on in the college brain by TM, I wandered off. I think I was suffering from severe scientific proof fatigue. From the moment of my arrival, I had been regaled with tales of millions of dollars in research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the findings published in prestigious medical journals, the studies conducted in partnership with major university hospitals. Nearly every conversation, whether it concerned elementary-school academic performance or cholesterol or crime-rate reduction, at some point included the phrase "There was this study…. "

Maybe someday we'll look back on these early years of the 21st century as the moment when it became clear that money, competent PR and, above all, frank and unabashed banality have the power to normalize anything. When life itself transformed into a mall of "lifestyle choices," laid out end to end on a flat, infinite plane of possibility.

I wandered into the student union bookstore, which carried no books except for the maharishi's. In the admissions building, I perused a display detailing the maharishi's blueprints for an "ideal city." It is grid-like and built around gardens. Examples of bad cities include Paris and New York.

Later, another journalist asked one of the PR guys whether the maharishi would really prefer to see a big square suburb where Paris is. I mean, it's Paris, she said.

He considered this and then replied, "Well, it might be nice for us to visit, but think about the people who have to live there."

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