Jun 12, 2017

How a tiny town in Iowa became 'Silicorn Valley'

Young male Indian priests known as "pandits" stand by a gateway arch in Vedic City
John Greenfield
Chicago Reader
May 31, 2017

The club car of Amtrak's California Zephyr was full of Amish families happily and loudly playing Uno as the train rolled west toward the Mississippi. I was heading to Fairfield, Iowa, a town of about 10,000 that's been called the world's largest training center for Transcendental Meditation, a form of silent mantra meditation with an estimated five million practitioners worldwide. I was visiting a buddy from Chicago whose life partner grew up in the TM movement in Fairfield. They'd recently moved into a big house in the woods a few miles from the blissful burg to raise their young sons near family and escape the big-city grind.

As the Amish folk slapped down their cards, I read up on the history of TM, a similarly back-to-basics spiritual movement, and how rural southeast Iowa came to be its American educational headquarters. In the mid-20th century, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi pioneered the technique of meditating twice a day for about 20 minutes while sitting with eyes closed, silently focusing on a mantra. In the 1960s devotees famously included the Beatles.

In 1974 the holy man's Maharishi International University bought the Fairfield campus of Parsons College, which had gone bankrupt and shut down the previous year. Now called the Maharishi University of Management, the school requires students to study TM and offers degrees in Ayurvedic medicine, organic agriculture, and "Maharishi Vedic Science," which is described as "the science and technology of consciousness."

In the decades since then, formerly struggling Fairfield has been transformed as well-heeled urban professionals settled in the area seeking enlightenment. While small-town Iowa has generally lost population in recent decades, Fairfield's population rose by 14 percent between 1970 and 2015. A 2009 study from the University of Iowa's Community Vitality Center found that $250 million had been invested in 50 different Fairfield companies since 1990, including communications, manufacturing, and tech businesses. Accordingly, the area is nicknamed "Silicorn Valley." A typical local enterprise is Sky Factory, a company with about 40 workers that makes windows and ceiling panels showing seaside views or blue skies, used to improve morale for people stuck inside. Artist Bill Witherspoon founded Sky Factory in Fairfield in 2002 in order to support his family and TM practice.

Thanks to this entrepreneurial spirit, plus the discretionary income of Fairfield's many affluent residents and visitors, the downtown is lined with handsomely refurbished buildings and an impressive array of bookstores, cafes, boutiques, and art galleries. There's a surprising variety of international restaurants, offering everything from Caribbean to Vietnamese to Ethiopian to, naturally, Indian cuisine.

In the past, the relationship between blue-collar Fairfield natives and the TM devotees was a bit uneasy, according to a 2008 Wall Street Journal article. Some locals were skeptical in the early 1980s when the university built two giant gold domes on campus for the "roos" (a townie nickname, short for "gurus") to meditate in. Another townie nickname for the newcomers is "floaters," a reference to the advanced meditation technique of "yogic flying," in which practitioners in the lotus position hop, froglike, on cushions and, with practice, can supposedly defy gravity. (Some TM followers consider this term highly offensive.)

Relations have thawed over the years, as demonstrated by the 2001 election of current Fairfield mayor and meditator Ed Malloy—the natives apparently decided that a rising tide (or floating meditator) lifts all boats. The gravel-voiced locally born folksinger Greg Brown summed up the townie perspective nicely in his 2000 song "Fairfield," which is wildly popular among TM folks:

If the floaters come to your town, your town, your town,
Floaters come to your town,
You might wanna stick around.

They meditate and get focused, focused, focused,
They do a little hocus-pocus,
And the money just rolls in.

They know all 'bout computers, your New Age, and foreign food,
They do all that real good,
Fairfield's where to go.

Interestingly, Brown's song is one case in which "floater" isn't considered to be a slur—the tune's wildly popular among TM folks. (Residents of the nearby Quad Cities are probably less enthused about the song's description of the Quads as being "full of dope fiends, blown whores, methamphetamines.")

Four hours after leaving Chicago, the Zephyr pulled into Mount Pleasant, the location of the Amtrak station nearest to Fairfield. I hauled my bicycle off the train and rode 25 miles through a nasty rainstorm to my buddy's country home.

After such a journey, the large wooden house was an oasis of tranquility. Perhaps that was partly due to the fact that my friend bought it from a TM practitioner and, like most roo homes, it was designed using the feng shui-like principals of Maharishi Vastu Architecture. For example, the front door of a Vastu home is always pointed east to greet the sunrise, and the roof holds a golden ornament called a kalash, shaped like a Hershey's Kiss, that's supposed attract positive energy.

On a tour of several landmarks the next day, we stopped first at Abundance Ecovillage, a cluster of 14 Vastu homes that are almost completely off the grid. Developer Michael Halvelka, who moved to the area from Texas to get deeper into his meditation practice, explained that the houses are heated through passive solar energy. Propane gas, used for cooking, is the only nonsustainable energy source. Water is collected by roof catchments, filtered in a cistern, and sent back to the homes. Sewage is processed via a vertical-flow wetland, where it's pumped repeatedly through a gravel bed filled with bacteria and fungi.

Next we headed to the university campus to tour one of its two 25,000-square-foot domes. Over a thousand roos from around the region drive to these structures daily to meditate at 7:30 AM and 5 PM, which creates Fairfield's equivalents to rush hour.

Our guide was Margi Gunn, a sprightly senior who volunteers with the Ideal Community Group civic organization. "Transcendental Meditation is a very easy, simple technique that settles the mind down," she explained. "We don't sit there contemplating our belly buttons."

After we removed our shoes, Gunn showed us around the women's dome, a vast space capped by a roof that resembles a wooden geodesic dome. The floor is lined with foam-rubber cushions to facilitate yogic flying.

Gunn said she's never actually witnessed a roo become airborne. "But you experience pure consciousness, and apparently if you sustain that you start to hover." Friends once told her she'd levitated during one particularly euphoric session. "They said I was high enough to drive a Volkswagen under me."

From there, it was off to Maharishi Vedic City, a separate town that TM practitioners founded a few miles northwest of Fairfield in 2001. Currently home to fewer than 300 residents, the village includes 200 or so Vastu buildings, among them a hotel and a spa. The town is organized around the Vedic principles, ancient Indian rules for promoting health, wealth, and happiness. In addition to meditation and Vastu architecture, these guidelines endorse natural healing and natural foods. As a result, a 2002 ordinance prohibits the sale of nonorganics within the village's borders.

Our first stop in Vedic City was the Vedic Observatory, a ring of ten massive white concrete-and-marble astronomical instruments. Creator Tim Fitz-Randolph claims the implements can precisely track the movements of heavenly bodies, and that the data can be used to promote inner harmony.

Afterward, Gunn took us to a private gated compound at the northwest corner of Vedic City with rows of barrackslike structures. These formerly housed about a thousand "pandits" (pronounced pundits), young male Indian priests who were flown to the U.S. starting in 2006 and paid a small stipend to meditate and chant 40 hours a week in an attempt to foster world peace.

Gunn said fewer than 25 pandits, who are still paid for their services, remain in Vedic City. She blamed their diminishing numbers on issues that arose when some of the priests "went rogue" after their visas expired instead of catching flights home from O'Hare. Gunn presumes many disappeared into the city to find work in Chicago's Indian-owned businesses. "Who can blame them?" she said. "They can make much more here than back in India."

In 2014 the university decided to send home an older pandit who'd encouraged his proteges to defect, Gunn said. According to a Des Moines Register report, administrators asked a sheriff to be present while the priest was removed, but the plan backfired. Up to 80 pandits swarmed and trashed the lawman's truck—highly ironic behavior for men who'd made it their mission to promote nonviolence.

In the wake of the "Pandit Rebellion," there were calls for more transparency in the program, including from Fairfield mayor Ed Malloy, and almost all of the priests returned to India. Currently there's an effort to rebuild Vedic City's pandit population, but Gunn said it's being hampered by Trump's immigration policies.

This tumultuous recent history wasn't in evidence during a recent pandit chanting session. An audience of older people, almost all of them white, settled into comfy red seats in a colorful meeting hall with a Plexiglas screen to separate the crowd from the priests. It wasn't long before about ten white-clad Indian men filed into the room and sat on the floor, chanting in a pleasantly musical manner as incense was lit and small bells were rung. Some of them placed flowers and fruit on an altar with images of Krishna and the Maharishi, and one man rubbed some type of white powder over a large, black, egg-shaped stone.

Feeling sufficiently blissed-out, I departed during an intermission and returned to Fairfield. Pedaling over the green, rolling farmland, I pondered the impact of Transcendental Meditation on the area.

While TM isn't the solution to triggering world peace and curing all the world's ills, as the Maharishi's followers often suggest, it does appear to be an effective mental health tool for many folks. The David Lynch Foundation, founded by the movie and television director, provides free meditation training to veterans, prison inmates, and at-risk youth; a handful of Chicago Public Schools have adopted DLF's Quiet Time program for students.

Like most relatively young spiritual movements, TM has its share of critics who paint it as a manipulative cult. For example, in Claire Hoffman's 2016 memoir Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood, the Fairfield native argues that the Maharishi's consciousness movement has evolved into a bottom-line-driven organization that pushes its followers to spend their hard-earned money on expensive classes, products, and housing.

After researching and touring Fairfield, and hearing from my friend about his partner's childhood (she attended the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment from kindergarten through 12th grade), I left the town with a generally positive impression. The pandit rebellion aside, the Transcendental Meditation movement seems to have had an overall beneficial effect on the area. As a financially thriving, sustainability oriented, cosmopolitan place, Fairfield suggests a possible path forward for other midwestern communities facing the challenges of the new information economy. Could be Greg Brown was right when he sang, "If the floaters come to your town . . . you might want to stick around."


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