Om on the Grange
Sunday, November 12, 2006
It was late afternoon in Fairfield, Iowa, and townsfolk were preparing for the daily ritual.
Marie-Helene Tourenne, who serves up sublime French fare at the Petit Paris restaurant, removed her apron, left the coq au vin to simmer and exited the kitchen. Lonica Halley, co-owner of Natural Selections, a shop offering organic goods, left the store in the care of her assistant. Even Ed Malloy, the amiable silver-haired mayor, ended a meeting and strode out of his conference room.
The three joined a flow of more than a thousand people headed about a mile north of town to the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) and its pair of golden domes, 25,000-square-foot structures that rise above the rolling farmland's barns and silos. There, the pilgrims sat on mats, chairs or the hardwood floor with their backs to a massive altar, facing eastward toward a blank wall. For 20 minutes they remained motionless, in silence.
Five o'clock is meditation time in this town of 9,500, about 100 miles southeast of Des Moines.
While other '70s-era spiritual movements are fading, Transcendental Meditation -- or TM, a relaxation and awareness technique using carefully calibrated breathing methods -- is thriving here. Besides the MUM campus, practitioners can pore over meditation literature at 21st Century Books. They can visit Maharishi Vedic City, a model town founded by TM followers just outside Fairfield. Or they can shop at Thymely Solutions, which specializes in homeopathic remedies, and other boutiques started by meditators.
Fairfielders on different sides of the meditation divide, uneasy with one another in the early years, now appear to commingle easily. TM followers point to the ascendance of Malloy -- now serving his third mayoral term -- as a sign of their acceptance. Most non-meditators agree.
By Malloy's account, TM disciples make up a quarter of Fairfield's population. While some prefer to stay in their homes or offices for the exercise, a growing number take part in the group sessions, which are also held at 7:30 each morning. (Iowans aren't alone: According to TM spokesman Bob Roth, the number of those who practice it nationwide is about 5 million and rising.)
Whatever venue they use for their focused relaxation, Fairfield's meditators insist that this town should be near the top of every traveler's destination list, above all for the sense of peace and positive spirit that meditation brings it.
Camille Jorgenson echoed the kind of endearment most locals hold toward the place. A 40-something meditator who moved here in the early '90s, Jorgenson co-owns a company that imports gourmet organic products from Italy and elsewhere. "The power of group meditation makes this one of the most positive-spirited places I know," she said. "Everybody should have the opportunity to see it."
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I made a trip to Fairfield and Vedic City last month to do just that. Although not a meditator, I wanted to see how these two tiny dots on the Midwest map became a center of meditation. The answer, it turns out, was simple.
The movement's Iowa roots go back to 1973, when TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi started a university in Fairfield. Though many questioned whether it could survive, today MUM (where mediation is a required subject) is a thriving campus, 850 students strong and best known for its computer science and sustainable development programs.