RELIGION

The Maharishi Effect

Meditating for peace in small-town Iowa

NORA UNDERWOOD October 29 1990
RELIGION

The Maharishi Effect

Meditating for peace in small-town Iowa

NORA UNDERWOOD October 29 1990

The Maharishi Effect

RELIGION

Meditating for peace in small-town Iowa

In many respects, the town of Fairfield, Iowa (population 10,000), is much like other rural farming communities in the heartland of the American Middle West. Like others in the region, Fairfield has a movie theatre, a square that boasts a bandstand and a handful of restaurants and taverns. But one thing sets Fairfield apart: nestled among the rolling hills on the northern edge of town is Maharishi International University. The institution is named for, and was founded by, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the bearded guru with the heavy-lidded eyes who briefly numbered the Beatles among his followers and helped to introduce the Western world to transcendental meditation during the 1960s. Since its founding in 1974, the university, which emphasizes meditation and the development of creativity, has usually done little to disrupt day-to-day life in Fairfield. But last week was different, as 1,200 out-of-town meditators and a contingent of reporters descended on the town for a special mass assembly aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East.

Followers of the guru said that they hoped to ease the crisis in the Persian Gulf by applying what they call the Maharishi Effect. According to the Maharishi’s theory, when a certain number of people, equal to the square root of one per cent of a given population, meditate and levitate together, the positive energy that results can bring harmony into the world. Calculations by the Maharishi’s followers conclude that 7,000 meditators are needed to achieve world peace, but the largest gathering numbered only 4,500 on Oct. 14 at the centre’s two amphitheatres, both named the Dome of Pure Knowledge. David Orme-Johnson, chairman of the university’s psychology department, predicted that the group meditation would calm the crisis in the Middle East. Said Orme-Johnson: “Even with less than 7,000, we should be able to have such an effect.” Throughout the week-long gathering to promote world peace, the university offered a number of workshops and seminars. Among the topics discussed were ecology, the effects of the mind on human health, the global environment and electric cars. Six hours of each day were set aside for meditation in the Domes of Pure Knowledge. On mattress-covered floors, meditators also practised levitation, one of the Maharishi’s so-called Sidhis (the word sidhi means perfection in the ancient language of Sanskrit). To levitate, according to OrmeJohnson, individuals sit with their legs crossed in the lotus position and meditate. Then, he said, they can effortlessly propel themselves in an up-and-forward motion, rising as much as two feet off the ground. Orme-Johnson describes the practice as “exhilarating.”

The Indian-born Maharishi, who is now thought to be in his late 70s, gained prominence during the 1960s through his association with the Beatles and other celebrities, including the Beach Boys—although the Beatles later admitted that they became skeptical of the Maharishi’s teachings. After first setting up the university in Santa Barbara, Calif., during the early 1970s, the Maharishi moved to Fairfield in 1974. According to Mayor Robert Rasmussen of Fairfield, the Maharishi liked the town’s name. Said Rasmussen: “He’d say things like, ‘Fairfield is a fair field in a fair field.’ ”

Despite its unconventional roots, the Maharishi International University, which has a student body of about 700 and a staff of 100, is accredited by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges in Chicago. It offers such traditional subjects as physics and psychology at the master’s and doctoral levels. The curriculum also includes the Science of Creative Intelligence and the Neuroscience of Human Consciousness, which studies the effects of meditation on the body. Tuition costs $8,400 a year, and the only unusual requirement for students and faculty members is that they practise meditation. Indeed, every day between 7 and 8:30 a.m., and 5:15 and 6:30 p.m., the whole community gathers in the Domes of Pure Knowledge to meditate.

Anne Melfi, a university public affairs officer who is currently working on her master’s degree in the Science of Creative Intelligence, told Maclean’s that what she is learning at Maharishi University will prepare her for anything she might want to do with her life. “It supplies something that has been missing in modem education,” said Melfi. “What’s missing is the knowledge of the knower. It enhances the experience of bliss.” For his part, OrmeJohnson claimed that studies carried out by independent researchers at such universities as Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., and California’s Stanford found that, as the number of meditators increases, crime rates decrease. Believers credit the Maharishi Effect with increasing stock-market values, lengthening average life-spans and, more recently, reunifying Germany.

As well, Orme-Johnson said that, at least three times during the past seven years, as many as 7,000 people have meditated for peace in Fairfield, Washington and The Hague in the Netherlands. Orme-Johnson said that, on those earlier occasions, the mass meditations produced an immediate 30to 40-per-cent reduction in international conflicts. During the latest meditation, at least, there were no major outbursts of international violence in hot spots such as the Persian Gulf. Like other townspeople, Mayor Rasmussen expressed some skepticism about how successful the meditators might be in achieving their goal. But, he added, “The positive thing is that they're working towards peace.”

NORA UNDERWOOD