Transcendental Meditation in America
How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa
Publication Year: 2014
The Indian spiritual entrepreneur Maharishi Mahesh Yogi took the West by storm in the 1960s and ’70s, charming Baby Boomers fed up with war and social upheaval with his message of meditation and peace. Heeding his call, two thousand followers moved to tiny Fairfield, Iowa, to set up their own university on the campus of a failed denominational college. Soon, they started a school for prekindergarten through high school, allowing followers to immerse themselves in Transcendental Meditation from toddlerhood through PhDs.
Although Fairfield’s longtime residents were relieved to see that their new neighbors were clean-cut and respectably dressed—not the wild-haired, drug-using hippies they had feared—the newcomers nevertheless quickly began to remake the town. Stores selling exotic goods popped up, TM followers built odd-looking homes that modeled the guru’s rules for peace-inspiring architecture, and the new university knocked down a historic chapel, even as it erected massive golden-domed buildings for meditators. Some newcomers got elected—and others were defeated—when they ran for local and statewide offices. At times, thousands from across the globe visited the small town.
Yet Transcendental Meditation did not always achieve its aims of personal and social tranquility. Suicides and a murder unsettled the meditating community over the years, and some followers were fleeced by con men from their own ranks. Some battled a local farmer over land use and one another over doctrine. Notably, the world has not gotten more peaceful.
Today the guru is dead. His followers are graying, and few of their children are moving into leadership roles. The movement seems rudderless, its financial muscle withering, despite the efforts of high-profile supporters such as filmmaker David Lynch and media magnate Oprah Winfrey. Can TM reinvent itself? And what will be the future of Fairfield itself? By looking closely at the transformation of this small Iowa town, author Joseph Weber assesses the movement’s surprisingly potent effect on Western culture, sketches out its peculiar past, and explores its possible future.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
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Introduction: Who Cares about Fairfield, Anyway?
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A little more than fifty years ago, a bearded mystic, fond of flowers and flowing robes, arrived in the United States from India. The giggling guru, as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to be known, soon put a distinctive stamp on American culture. The country he found was a place of hard-charging...
1. Classic Americana, with a Twist
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at first blush, the town square in Fairfield, Iowa, seems no different from hundreds like it that grace small communities from New England to California with a pretty gazebo where bands play, a stretch of grass ideal for sunbathing, a monument to historic local events. And all of it surrounded...
2. Going for Baroque
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To get a sense of where the TM Movement is and where it’s headed, it helps to know where it’s been. Fairfielders such as a movement veteran we’ll call Dale offer a special window on TM’s past and likely future. (I have withheld Dale’s real name because he feared his comments would appear out...
3. Of God and Man
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When worshippers at St. Gabriel and All Angels Church gather for Sunday services, some among the couple of dozen or so faithful believe they are in divine company. Angels help out in the services, they say. Indeed, ever since the earliest days of this Liberal Catholic congregation in Fairfield...
4. Unearthly Delights
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When the citizens of Fairfield wanted to have a good time, their choices were once pretty narrow. A county fair in the summertime, maybe a movie downtown, a football game at the high school, or perhaps a stop at a local watering hole. But those choices have broadened dramatically over...
5. Power of the Ballot
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Connie Boyer should have been a shoo-in when she ran for an Iowa state house seat. A Republican, she brought an impressive résumé to the 2002 race. She was a sixth-generation resident of Jefferson County in southeast Iowa, had been active in the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, the Fairfield...
6. Higher Ed, Higher Realms
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Each morning and evening, students, teachers, and other meditators from Fairfield file into a pair of sprawling, golden-domed buildings that rise above the bucolic Maharishi University of Management north of downtown. Men enter one dome, women the other. Using mantras given to them...
7. Death in Paradise
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Levi Andelin Butler was the kind of student that MUM craved. By all accounts, he was a good-hearted soul who wanted to make the world a better place. Butler volunteered for several years in a program to help students with problems in La Quinta, California, where he went to high school...
8. Enlightenment for All Ages
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Children the world over power up laptop computers every school day to link wirelessly to the Internet. Such connections, indispensable for such trendy devices as iPads, are as common as blackboards in many countries. But that’s not the way for a couple of hundred students at the Maharishi...
9. Just Business
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For Pamela K. Slowick, meditation is more than a pleasant daily pastime. She credits her livelihood to a recurring month-long vision she had while meditating in 1994. “Every single day, I closed my eyes and after thinking of the mantra a couple times, bingo, there was the store,” the effervescent...
10. The Disaffected
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Just as Utopian movements spawn passionate support among their followers, so do they often generate equally fervid opposition from those who grow disenchanted. Some spend years criticizing the movements they had previously treated as their spiritual homes. Others break off to set up...
11. Maharishi Vedic City
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When Bob Palm looked into setting up a hog-feeding operation on his family farm in 2007, he had no clue just how much of a stir he would create. He eventually had to do battle with leaders of the TM Movement, who had set up a most unusual city next door to him—one of the most unusual...
12. Does TM Have a Tomorrow?
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For the TM Movement, people such as Jonathan Clifford should be the face of the future. He is a son of meditators who got the TM bug during the movement’s heyday in the 1970s and who refreshed themselves with courses in meditation in Fairfield. Inspired by family visits to the tiny town...
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Many people made this book possible. First, I must acknowledge my wife, Donna, who offered consistent encouragement, put up with my frequent travels to Fairfield, and offered invaluable pointers on my text. Thanks, too, to Will Norton, former dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications...
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Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 20 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2014
Series Title: Iowa and the Midwest Experience