Maharishi's followers have integrated into small Iowa town

The Kansas City Star, Sept 27, 1999
By Scott Canon

FAIRFIELD, Iowa -- In the last 25 years, thousands have meditated here to attain near-supernatural clarity of mind and, while they are at it, create world peace.

These devotees of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi think his trademarked Transcendental Meditation techniques can actually make them float on air.

Most recently they have constructed homes and office buildings, or retrofitted old ones, to face east, because the Maharishi suggests that is the best way to capture the energy of the rising sun.

The locals are not buying it.

"We're Midwesterners here," said City Council member Neil Doyle. "We work with our hands. We're practical. You come in here with some fairly crazy philosophy, and we don't swallow it all."

Yet, Doyle and others note, the last quarter-century has shown that a small Midwestern town can absorb, if not really integrate, a sizable immigration of rather unorthodox outsiders. Particularly when the outsiders bring money and jobs.

Two members of the City Council hail from the TM movement. The president of the local chamber of commerce is a meditator. And, nearly as often as not, so is a Fairfield resident's boss.

When Beth Dalbey came to town three years ago to edit The Fairfield Ledger newspaper, her journalistic appetite for conflict was piqued by the prospect of Eastern mysticism clashing with Midwestern conventions.

"But," she said, "this town wasn't at all what I expected.

"There are people in town who can't get along, but I don't think it's all meditators vs. nonmeditators. It's just people who don't play well with others."

Make no mistake, friction persists between old Fairfield and meditators -- they account for about a quarter of Fairfield's 10,000 residents -- beyond the usual town-gown tension common to college hamlets.

Claims that group meditation lowers crime or helped end the Cold War breed not just disbelief but also resentment.

Nonmeditators rarely patronize the India Cafe or Every Body's health-food store.

And as recently as 1997, residents waited in line for up to two hours to vote against an outspoken meditator running for a seat on their school board. They didn't want a 'ru (as in "guru") deciding what their children were taught.

Euphoria and fears

Lewis Baldwin Parsons founded a Presbyterian college in Fairfield in the late 1870s. Over its nearly century-long existence, Parsons College gave the town an economic anchor and an intellectual vibrancy that was the envy of other Iowa outposts.

The school grew significantly in the 1960s, when eased admissions standards drew thousands of academically suspect young men looking for student deferments from the military draft.

Parsons, however, lost its accreditation in 1967 and shut down in bankruptcy in June 1973.

Weeds at the school had grown waist-high when the leaders of Maharishi International University, who had formed their school only a year before on leased land in pricey Santa Barbara, Calif., purchased Parsons' 72 buildings from creditors for $2.5 million in 1974.

Initial euphoria about the sale of the school -- locals volunteered to mow the grounds for the new suitors -- fast gave way to fears about what many perceived was a hippie-Asian cult moving in.

The Maharishi -- meaning "great teacher" and now pronounced "mah-HARSH-ee" -- brought his ideas about the mystical values of meditation to the United States in 1959.

Its adherents insist that the movement is not a religion, rather a mental and spiritual exercise that allows the human mind to come closer to its full potential. In Fairfield, in fact, meditators account for significant portions of several mainline church congregations. Before they came to town, there were only three Jewish families and no temple. Now there is a synagogue.

Some of the most conservative are unconvinced.

"This is a town where 40 years ago 'Catholic' was a nasty word," said one longtime resident. "There are still people in town who almost think Satan wakes up on that campus every day."

Those suspicions stem in part from aspects of the philosophy that rival those of Western religions.

The Maharishi is referred to as "his holiness" and is said to be the spiritual descendant of men who, over the ages, had a unique understanding of ancient texts.

At a minimum, 20 minutes of meditation are expected twice a day. Meditators do not consume meat or alcohol.

The draw for many of the people who move to Fairfield is the chance to meditate twice a day -- nearly two hours in the morning and two more from 5 to 7 p.m. -- with others in one of two Golden Domes of Pure Knowledge.

Meditation in those gender-segregated domes, built at the Maharishi's orders, is said to lift people off the ground momentarily. To an outsider, however, the so-called yogic flying looks like someone hopping in the lotus position. A completely enlightened person, such as the Maharishi, is presumed to be able to hover indefinitely.

The Maharishi, who resides in the Netherlands, has said that war would come to an end if the square root of 1 percent of the world's population meditated at once.

About five years ago he weighed in on architecture. Homes and office buildings should face east, the Maharishi stressed, while the placement of bedrooms and kitchens held profound influence over digestion and sleep.

Small developments springing up in and around Fairfield feature Maharishi Sthapatya Veda homes with tidy ornamental fences and, because of the obsession with facing east, offer houses on only the west side of the street.

"We're able to connect the individual intelligence of the occupant of the house to the cosmic intelligence of the universe," said Jonathan Lipman, the chief architect at Maharishi Global Construction.

West entrances, according to a recent Maharishi pamphlet, invite "poverty, lack of creativity and vitality."

The main entrances of the vaunted Golden Domes of Pure Knowledge still face west, by the way, but are due for retrofitting. Although the Maharishi ordered the domes built the way they are and ostensibly was enlightened when he did, his followers explain that he had not yet focused on architecture. Conflict of cultures

Meditators and pre-Maharishi locals agree that the running tension in Fairfield turns on perceptions of how much influence newcomers have over the town.

Consider the 1997 mayoral race. Robert Rasmussen had held the job more than 16 years. He was challenged by Ed Malloy, one of two meditators on the City Council.

"I thought politics should be confrontation-free, and that's how we ran our campaign," Malloy said.

By the campaign's end, however, the most prominent issue was the specter of the Maharishi running Fairfield. One Rasmussen ad, which The Fairfield Ledger rejected, depicted the Maharishi pulling the strings on a mayoral puppet.

"There was a feeling in this community and this county, and local politics everywhere, that a lot of people come in and seem to be very transient," said Tom Thompson, a nonmeditator on the City Council. "If they're going to be bound by some kind of body, they want it made up of people who are going to stay here."

So the incumbent won.

Both camps in Fairfield, however, point to the election as something cathartic that exorcised much of the jealousies.

When asked about the divisions today, people are more likely to talk about the success that the university has brought to town.

Many of the people who move to Fairfield to integrate the movement more fully into their lives come because they run their own firms and have the freedom to locate in southeast Iowa.

As a result, several Fairfield businesses use the advancements in computers and telecommunications.

And the school, with 445 full-time and 600 part-time students, has changed its name to Maharishi University of Management to reflect its emphasis on business. It champions entrepreneurs and encourages its graduates to start their own businesses.

Tim Hawthorne has been practicing TM since his days as a Harvard undergraduate. He moved around the country producing documentaries and segments for television shows such as "Real People" and "That's Incredible" before arriving in Fairfield in 1984.

In 1986 he founded his Hawthorne Direct infomercial production company.

"We are geographically challenged," Hawthorne conceded. "There isn't a lot of credibility to having a creative advertising agency outside New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Atlanta. It's still difficult to have our clients or prospects come to Iowa."

Yet the business -- its management team is made up of meditators, but most of the 65 employees are not -- has prospered and generates more than $50 million a year from clients that range from Abflex to Turtle Wax to the U.S. Navy.

"Every six months for the last 14 years I've thought about" moving the business from Fairfield, Hawthorne said. "But the level of integrity and service our company represents, part of that is fostered by being in a small town in the middle of Iowa."

At the same time, Fairfield's old guard treasures the money and vitality the TM movement brings to town, even while chuckling at the offbeat beliefs that come with the package.

"With all the employment now, people are rubbing shoulders at their jobs quite a bit," said Lee Gobble, an 84-year-old retired merchant and lifelong Fairfielder. "People might not always want to admit it, but the meditators are good for the town. At the least, fewer people are afraid of them now."

Barriers that once separated the two worlds of Fairfield have begun to tumble even as social mixing -- meditation time alone cuts that to a minimum -- is rare.

Students from the school now play on some of the same sports teams as teens at Fairfield High School. A longstanding prohibition on student teachers leading classes at the public schools dissolved five years ago. This month a meditator was elected to the school board (although voters generally did not know she is a meditator, and she has no plans to impose the philosophy to the curriculum).

"Our children," meditating Councilman Malloy said, "are native Iowans and native Fairfielders. This is home."

"Things have changed over time," said John Kelley, the superintendent of the Fairfield Community School District.

"They came in here with a lot of strange ideas, saying they could solve all the world's problems, they could make themselves invisible, control the stock market and crime.

"Maybe they still believe that, but we don't hear that anymore. ... They do their thing, and we do our thing."


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