Hello sweetheart, get me rewrite

3-aa349c4b3bNorman Mailer once said, “writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.” Well, at long last my baby is nearing delivery.

The University of Iowa Press, midwife in this blessed event, just released its Spring 2014 catalog. It’s hard to describe how fulfilling it is for my book, “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa,” to be the lead title out of the 23 the press is bringing out.

It’s been a long and exciting time coming. To get this book started, I started visiting the good folks of Fairfield, Iowa, in 2010. I had grown intrigued about them a few years earlier, when I first heard of the migration a couple thousand of them had made there some 35 years or so before. To borrow a useful lyric, they were Baby Boomers chasing a dream of peace, love and understanding as they followed their guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Some had left Ivy League colleges where they seemed headed for conventional careers. Others didn’t know what their prospects were. All, however, had found a spiritual home in the TM Movement and they were out to change the world. By simply meditating in groups, many believed, they could lower the temperature on an overheated, tortured world. How much could they change things if their numbers grew?

UIP small banner_yellowThey bought a bankrupt Presbyterian college in Fairfield and set up their own school, now called Maharishi University of Management. They founded a school for their children, making it possible for someone to study the guru’s teachings from pre-K to Ph.D., all in the same little farm town whose culture they transformed.

Interesting place, it seemed to me. It would be even more intriguing to look into how that dream was playing out in the wake of the guru’s death, in 2008. Would this movement go on and thrive under other leaders, much as other Utopian efforts such as Mormonism have? Or would it wither and fade, as the Oneida Community and Brook Farm did? Would it be riven by in-fighting and misdirection? Or would it get its act together? The story of that place and those people, it seemed, would be a rich and surprisingly American tale.

fairfield-open-signSo, this is what the book is about. The folks in Fairfield, while focused on the stars, have often been brought back to earth with a shock. A murder on campus, suicides in the community, infidelity, scamsters, some tensions with neighbors – all that has been a part of their community life. But they’ve also rebuilt a sleepy little town into a lively place with vegetarian restaurants, a smorgasbord of religious practices, thriving businesses and, with the help of nonmeditating locals, a vibrant arts scene. They’ve even developed their own style of architecture, dotting the town and campus with striking buildings and homes.

Along the way, they’ve attracted the famous and celebrated. Among them are such rock luminaries as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and a few of the Beach Boys, radio shock-jock Howard Stern, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, newspeople George Stephanopoulos, Candy Crowley and Soledad O’Brien and talk-show diva Oprah. Plenty of A-listers have practiced TM over the years and some have popped into Fairfield at times.

The story of TM, seen through its potent and mixed effect on this little town, is a winding and intriguing one. Certainly, my patient and astute editors, Catherine Cocks and William Friedricks, and I found it be so. (I’m much indebted to them for their advocacy and guidance.) I hope readers find this account as interesting as we did. Look for the book in May.

Something to meditate about

Do you meditate?

People have for eons, of course. The practice seems to provide a way to quiet busy minds, shut out the frenzy around us and restore a sense of calm. It also seems more necessary than ever these days, given the blizzard of distractions – and electronic addictions – that confront us.

But the question arises: what exactly is meditation? Further, what practice is best? Further still, are there forms that can be harmful?

When I was younger and practiced karate, my absorption in the katas felt like a form of meditation. The dance-like movements required concentration and focus, but, with practice, grew to be effortless. There was something liberating mentally and physically about the routines – especially when done in groups. The forms seemed to pull together body and soul, perhaps in a way similar to what athletes feel at times.

I have seen the same sort of absorption on the faces of people here in China practicing tai chi. Even as they move in those ballet-like steps, with their eyes open and apparently taking in all that’s going on around them, they seem to be somewhere else mentally. They are engaged, body and mind. If I had more time here, I could easily take up the practice.

Similarly, at meditation sessions in my gym in Lincoln, Neb., last year, I found the sense of calm marvelously refreshing. That practice involved someone chanting hypnotically on tape. We also had the help of sounds teased out of a group of large and small crystal bowls. The pleasant background noise was transporting.

These days, as I head out in the mornings for solo runs, I sometimes go to a place like that. The “runner’s high” combines a sense of peace with exhilaration. It’s a wonder to be alive once those endorphins kick in, with all that oxygen whooshing into one’s lungs. The sky seems bluer, the sun brighter. The frustrations of the day melt away. Nagging thoughts vanish.

I wonder if people who pray regularly feel the same paradoxical mix of exhilaration and calm. People here in China bow and kneel in concentration before various Buddhas when they go to their temples. It’s impossible to know what is going on in their heads, of course, but there is a sense of calm and focus about such practices. These folks seem to be getting in touch with something outside – or deep inside – themselves. Call it plugging into a sense of sacredness, perhaps tapping into powerful sources.

People who practice Transcendental Meditation speak of the experience in much the same terms. Indeed, one fellow I know in Fairfield, Iowa, attends group meditation sessions regularly because, he says, it’s simply a pleasure for him. TM’ers are pressed to go to such sessions, on the claim that power radiates out from the group, the so-called “Maharishi Effect” that brings peace into the neighborhood. Who knows if such claims are true? But certainly it seems likely that few people would repeatedly go to the Golden Domes in Fairfield to engage in meditations if they weren’t pleasant.

But is TM superior to meditation in a gym or tai chi or karate katas? Does it take you to a deeper or more meaningful place than, say, the psychic spot where monks singing in monasteries go? Is it any different from what whirling dervishes feel or native Americans experience in sweat lodges or even in drug-assisted religious ceremonies? How does it compare with what Hasidim feel chanting the Amidah weekly? Indeed, are all such practices really no different from listening, enraptured, to a favorite symphony or even singing along with some toe-tapping rock and roll?

Moreover, there’s the issue of whether the benefit is a passing thing. Sure, meditation can be pleasant, but so is sex. Alas, the benefit is all too short-lived (though repetition surely helps!) Does meditation lead to an enduring sense of mental discipline, an internal relaxation? Or is it a fleeting thing, gone the moment one leaves the lotus position? Advocates argue it gives them a sense of focus that, among other things, helps them succeed on Wall Street, in Hollywood or in a variety of businesses that meditators have gone into. But would they be winners even without the practice?

Then there is the potential downside. Critics say repeated or prolonged meditation sessions – sometimes as long as six hours at a sitting in the TM Movement – spawn all sorts of problems. Some who have broken with the movement complain of feeling incoherent, of winding up unable to focus their thoughts, to stay attentive to tasks. Longtime meditators are easy to spot, they say, because of a faraway look in the eye that is anything but healthy. Is it possible that the practice rewires one’s brain in ways that could be dangerous? Or do such practices just attract people whose faulty wiring needs more than meditation to set it right?

I will deal with these issues in my forthcoming book on Fairfield, the U.S. home of the TM Movement. In the meantime, dear reader, please drop me a line to share your thoughts. I can be reached at jweber8@unl.edu.

My book on Fairfield will be published by the University of Iowa Press

The Oprah Effect: Can The TV Guru Jumpstart TM?

Oprah Winfrey, the nation’s trendsetter-in-chief, has given her blessing to Transcendental Meditation. The guru of Middle American women visited Maharishi University of Management and the Maharishi School for the Age of Enlightenment in Fairfield, Iowa, on Oct. 19. She meditated with several hundred fellow bliss-seekers in the women’s dome on the university campus, where devotees of both sexes practice transcendental meditation separately a couple a times a day under sprawling golden domes.

So, now that Oprah has embraced TM, the question is whether she can ignite a new boomlet in interest in the practice and the movement. She’s one in a long line of television and radio talk-show hosts who have fueled the movement’s growth for decades. TM’s ranks first surged in the 1970s, when Merv Griffin helped whip up enthusiasm for it among Baby Boomers. He showcased the movement’s guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and, like so many other celebs, took up the practice himself. More recently, shock-jock Howard Stern’s longstanding support has helped keep long-waning interest in the practice alive.

Can Oprah do for TM what she did for marathon-running and weight loss? Or, will her efforts for the practice go the way those enthusiasms have gone for her – short-lived at best? And what, if any, effect will she have on the town of Fairfield, home of the all-important U.S. arm of the movement? I’m especially interested because for the better part of the last two years I have been putting together a book on the town, looking at how the movement has changed this quintessential piece of Middle America, and looking at the movement’s ups and downs and prospects through that local lens. The University of Iowa Press will be publishing the book.

Oprah’s staff, reportedly, had been working on an hour-long program about Fairfield before her arrival. The TV guru was quoted saying the little farm town that TM has transformed has been a “best-kept secret” but won’t be for long now. With a camera crew in tow, she visited the school, where uniformed youngsters in grades K-12 learn a lot about meditation, their guru’s all-embracing worldview and subjects such as Sanskrit, along with reading, writing and arithmetic. At least one report quoted Oprah as saying, “some people are working toward raising consciousness but the MS students are living raising consciousness.”

Certainly, the Boomers who dominate the graying movement must hope that Oprah’s fond attention will provide a shot of adrenaline. Even before the Maharishi died, in 2008, interest in TM-style meditation had been declining, at least in the U.S. The movement’s ranks have shrunk from the peak in the 1970s, even as interest in meditation generally has grown and gone mainstream. Enrollments at the Maharishi School – mainly made up of children of Boomer adherents who moved to Fairfield to follow the guru – have slid. Enrollment at the Maharishi University of Management stands at 1,268 at the moment, though the undergraduate total is a modest share of that.

On the plus side for backers, Oprah certainly is the Merv Griffin of today. Her influence on book sales is legendary. A guest shot on her long-running show meant instant fame and she launched several other media bigwigs. She has an especially passionate following among women, prime recruits for stress-reducing techniques such as TM.

But it’s also possible that Oprah’s kiss could be losing its power. Her programming is no longer on network, so her audience will be smaller than when she could launch an author — or another talk show host — into the stratosphere. Her embrace of meditation, too, is familiar to fans, since she has encouraged the practice for several years – even if her explicit passion for the TM variety seems fairly new. And, most troublesome of all for movement backers, there’s no giggling guru for her to put on the air.

For good or bad, TV loves a personality and so do movements. Even if TM’s twenty-minutes-twice-a-day meditative practice is as effective as the enthusiasts say, the movement lacks a charismatic personality who can rally followers. There’s no one exuding humor, wisdom and warmth — as the guru did — to adorn Oprah’s couch. There’s not even someone who can jump up and down on a sofa, a la scientologist Tom Cruise. Without that, TM could come across as just another meditation approach, not much different from what one could sign up for at many local gyms, except that TM usually costs more.

Whether it’s a short-lived boomlet or a jumpstart to a new enduring wave of growth, Oprah’s blessing can’t hurt. Certainly, she will put Fairfield on the map anew. She could even help the town attract some new residents. It will make for a fascinating discussion in my forthcoming book. Maybe even Oprah will find it worth reading.