Iowa hub for Transcendental Meditation is focus of Weber's work

Iowa hub for Transcendental Meditation is focus of Weber's work

Sunday, May 18, 2014 - 7:00pm
Joe Weber
Joe Weber

For 40 years, a southeastern Iowa town of fewer than 10,000 people has served as a center for Transcendental Meditation, the movement launched by celebrity guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

In a new book, University of Nebraska–Lincoln associate professor of journalism Joseph Weber traces how Fairfield, Iowa, became the unlikely home to the spiritual movement favored by the Beatles and other 1960s and 1970s celebrities.

University of Nebraska–Lincoln associate professor of journalism Joseph Weber traces how Fairfield, Iowa, became the unlikely home to the spiritual movement favored by the Beatles and other 1960s and 1970s celebrities.

University of Nebraska–Lincoln associate professor of journalism Joseph Weber traces how Fairfield, Iowa, became the unlikely home to the spiritual movement favored by the Beatles and other 1960s and 1970s celebrities.

“Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa” investigates how “meditators” have influenced the town’s economy, politics, religious and social culture, and even its architecture.

As he examines the history of the movement in Fairfield and beyond, Weber raises questions about its future as its Baby Boomer adherents age.

Weber spent about three years researching and writing the book, which was released last month by the University of Iowa Press.

He met people who cling to Maharishi’s dream that millions worldwide will take up meditation. He met those who created a planned community of specially designed homes and a luxury spa for meditators. He met millionaire entrepreneurs who credit meditation for the focus and energy needed to build businesses. He met shop owners whose wares seem to come from a world far outside an Iowa farm town.

During his research, he also spoke to critics, some disillusioned that the movement became too commercial and too insular; others who regard it essentially as a cult. Weber, who is not a TM practitioner, aimed to provide a comprehensive picture of a group that, like other utopian communities throughout U.S. history, made an enduring cultural impact even as it was alternately scorned and embraced.

Weber said he’s long been fascinated by the development of utopian communities, dating back to the Transcendentalist Brook Farm of the 1840s and including the Oneida community, the Shakers and Iowa’s Amana Colonies.

The TM movement, which began the United States in 1959, peaked in 1975, when nearly 300,000 Americans were initiated after receiving meditation training and a personalized mantra.

A year earlier, the group bought the campus of a former Presbyterian college in Fairfield to establish what now is known as the Maharishi University of Management. In 1979, the guru issued a call for TM adherents to move to Iowa so they could gather daily for group practice to bring about world peace.

Today, about a fifth of Fairfield’s residents are part of the movement. Their impact on the town has been profound, even as some neighbors still do not accept them in their churches or social lives.

Prominent celebrities, including director David Lynch, Oprah Winfrey and Howard Stern, continue to promote TM, but the movement has lost momentum since the Maharishi’s 2008 death.

The movement’s younger generation does not appear prepared to lead the group with the same zeal as its forebears, Weber said.

“Whether TM finds a way to endure or becomes a footnote in the history of utopian communities in America,” Weber writes, “the movement that reshaped Fairfield and that cast its influence far from Iowa won’t soon be forgotten in this tiny corner of the state.”