Jan 29, 2016

The transcendental meditationists who turned an Iowa farm town into a Bernie base

Ben Terris 
Washington Post
January 29, 2016

Bernie Sanders greets supporters at a campaign rally in Fairfield, Iowa

FAIRFIELD, Iowa — Every morning and every evening, and sometimes in between, this rural community appears to undergo a massive outbreak of narcolepsy. Gathering in giant domes, or sitting in the privacy of their own homes, hundreds of men and women will take the time to close their eyes, bow their heads and sit motionless for 20 minutes.

With the caucuses just days away, this unlikely mecca for practitioners of Transcendental Meditation is getting a jolt of activity. There have been visits from Hillary Clinton, as well as HUD Secretary Julian Castro, her who-knows-maybe potential running mate. Ted Cruz drew a big crowd to the small convention center here on a Tuesday night.

But it was Bernie Sanders whose visit Thursday got the most buzz about town — and it’s he who might benefit most from the Maharishi effect.

“He represents a higher level of cognitive development,” said Sam Farling, a volunteer organizer here for Sanders. “Hillary Clinton may have the almost militaristic level of organizing — but we have the passion.”

Farling, a Vietnam veteran originally from Ohio, migrated here decades ago for the same reason as many Fairfield residents: the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The gloriously bearded guru, who died in 2008 at age 90, launched the Beatles and Mia Farrow on spiritual quests and made the ancient Indian tradition of meditation hip. He also helped transform a sleepy farm town into the enlightenment capital of southeastern Iowa: When a group of his acolytes outgrew their digs in California in the early 1970s, they came here, snapping up a newly defunct liberal arts college at a bargain price.

Now the Maharishi University of Management dominates the town with its 1,000 students, two 25,000-square foot meditation domes (“over one million hours of transcending has occurred here”) — and a bountiful crop of Bernie 2016 stickers in the parking lot.

“I think in general it’s a weird school so people here tend to be more open-minded to new and different things,” said student Kennidy Stood. “Bernie represents a certain ideal, and people aren’t as afraid here to go for that.”

As a “consciousness-based learning” institution, Maharishi requires students to practice TM; they are encouraged to get brain scans as they start at the university and right before they leave, to see how meditation has affected them. While many other spiritual fads of the ’70s have petered out, or been deemed too cultish, TM has held steady, even gaining in popularity as the ancient art of yoga has also entered the mainstream.

“It’s unlikely the Army and National Institute of Health would fund a cult,” said Maharishi’s executive vice president, Craig Pearson, noting various grants the school has received.

The school’s sensibilities have taken hold in Fairfield, as a number of TM practitioners (who call each other “Ru,” short for “guru”) have put down roots. Even the mayor, Ed Malloy (“I’m caucusing for Hillary, and my wife is caucusing for Bernie”), is a Long Island transplant who came here for the meditation.

Many homes face east, their roofs topped with golden Hershey’s Kiss-shaped ornaments; the town boasts a hip coffee shop, an upcycled goods center, vegetarian joints and six Indian restaurants.

But still, this is small-town Iowa, home to farmers and foundry workers and the Iowa Cattle Association’s best burger of 2015. And for all his old-hippie credentials, not everyone here is in the tank for Sanders.

“A lot of our community is really hardwired to look at the most idealistic version of everything,” said Holly Moore, a 1979 Maharishi graduate who is volunteering for Clinton. “But I’m so pragmatic. I don’t think life is all about sitting somewhere with my eyes closed, and not all about a level of activity. It’s a combination of the two.”

There are even TMers who vote Republican.

“It’s really about being against the establishment,” said Doug Stewart, a Cruz supporter. It’s more typical for a GOP TMer to lean libertarian, though. This is, after all, the only county in Iowa that Ron Paul won in 2008.

“If I don’t vote for Rand Paul, I might vote for Bernie,” said David Ballou, who is helping run one of the caucus locations in town.

Jeff Shipley, the 27-year-old chairman of the county GOP, says he’s not your typical Republican — he’s as keen on legalization and the anti-war movement as he is fiscal conservatism — and even he can almost feel the Bern.

“The point of the meditation is to create world peace,” said Shipley, who is himself not a meditator. “You had thousands of people come here with the idea of creating a better world, and they like Bernie for that. If I was a Democrat I’d support him without a doubt.”

Two hours before the Vermont senator showed up, the line to the convention center had begun to snake through town. “It’s like Hillary 2.0,” said a local photographer shooting the scene.

“I had to move a dentist appointment up to early this afternoon to make this,” said David Goodman, a transcendental meditationist. “The Novocaine is just wearing off.”

The actress Gaby Hoffmann (“Transparent”) stood in the back wearing a shirt with a stenciled rendering of Sanders’s face, having come to Iowa for 24 hours to support a candidate she has never met. (“But he shops at the same health foods store as my best friend’s mom.”) Susan Sarandon opened the show for him.

“I came from New York,” the Oscar winner said to knowing applause. “For me, the one thing that is important is consistency and moral courage.”

When Sanders took the stage, his voice hoarse from repeating his mantra about income inequality at stops across the state, the crowd broke their reverie and screamed approval for their honorary Ru.

There’s an open question about whether Sanders is going to be able to turn this enthusiasm into actual caucus-goers. It’s Clinton who has a downtown phone-bank operation here and a field organizer as well as a klatch of volunteers.

But Fairfield residents are highly trained at keeping cool. If the candidate they adore can’t pull it off, they’ll find peace somehow.

“People who meditate get in the harmony with the deepest flow of life,” Farling said, “and we already know that overall everything is going to turn out wonderful.”


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