FAIRFIELD, IOWA ENCLAVE TIMELINE
1970: UCLA graduate student Robert Keith Wallace, a devotee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in California, published a version of his doctoral thesis, showing helpful effects of meditation, in Science magazine.
1971-1972: Maharishi developed the Science of Creative Intelligence, planning at first to teach it as a supplementary course at universities worldwide. Followers launched the course at Yale and Stanford, among other schools.
1973-1974: After switching gears to develop its own university, the movement opened Maharishi International University (MIU) in rented space in Goleta, California. Crammed for space, the movement bought the campus of bankrupt Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, for $2,500,000. Students and faculty arrived in the summer of 1974. R.K. Wallace headed the school.
1975: Popular TV host Merv Griffin, a TM practitioner, broadcast two shows interviewing the guru, and initiations grew by nearly 300,000, part of what followers call “the Merv wave.” This represented the movement’s peak and the beginning of Fairfield’s ascension.
1975: Practitioners set up the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Fairfield, an elementary school mainly for children of faculty and staff at MIU.
1976-1979: Parents of public school students in New Jersey and clergy sued to shut down TM programs launched in the schools, contending they were religious in nature. New initiations plunged. A federal judge, ruling for the parents, stopped the public school TM programs in New Jersey in 1977 and his decision was upheld on appeal in 1979, driving the movement inward toward Fairfield.
1977: Maharishi introduced the TM-Sidhi program, involving hours of meditation daily and promises of levitation, so-called “Yogic Flying.” The claims of flying and invisibility, which drew ridicule, were based on a classic text of Hindu philosophy.
1979: After being rebuked in the federal court decision against teaching TM in public schools, the guru issued a call for meditators to come to Fairfield and more than 1,000 heeded it. The movement began work on two giant meditation domes on the MIU campus, one for men and one for women, intended for daily meditation by thousands.
1981: Practitioners added a high school to the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Fairfield, giving students the chance to pursue “consciousness-based” education from preschool to the doctoral level.
1986: A TM practitioner was elected to the city council in Fairfield, the first time a meditator won such a post in the town. Others followed.
1992: TM practitioners in the U.S. founded the Natural Law Party, running candidates for state and national offices from Fairfield, including three runs at the U.S. Presidency by leading movement figure John Hagelin through 2000. The presidential campaigns drew headlines across the U.S.
1995: Maharishi International University in Fairfield changed its name to Maharishi University of Management.
1997: Fairfield voters turned out in large numbers to defeat TM practitioners running for a school board seat and the mayoralty. Mayoral candidate Democrat Ed Malloy, who served on the city council beginning in 1992, was defeated.
2001: Making another run, Malloy was elected mayor of Fairfield, Iowa, after serving on the city council until 1998. He defeated an incumbent who had served for twenty-eight years.
2001: TM practitioners chartered a new city, Maharishi Vedic City, a few miles outside of Fairfield. The small city featured a couple of hotels, including a luxury spa-hotel resembling a French chalet, the headquarters of the headquarters of the Global Country of World Peace, a few residential developments and a city council dominated by developers active in the movement.
2002: Connie Boyer, a TM practitioner, Republican and lifelong Fairfield resident, was narrowly defeated in a bid for an Iowa state house seat.
2003: Boyer was appointed to the Fairfield City Council and in the fall won an election to keep the spot, serving until declining to run again in 2007.
2004: Levi Andelin Butler, a student at MUM, was stabbed to death by a disturbed fellow student on the campus. The event triggered criticism of safety practices and crime-free claims about the campus, as well as consideration of TM’s limits in mental health matters.
2005: Filmmaker and TM enthusiast David Lynch set up an eponymous foundation to back efforts to teach TM in troubled schools, in veterans programs, prisons and other stressed environments nationwide. Over time, the foundation’s fundraising events included appearances by former Beatle Paul McCartney, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and other TM enthusiasts.
2006: Meditator Becky Schmitz, a Democrat from Fairfield, was elected to the Iowa State Senate, where she served until 2011.
2008: Maharishi died in Vlodrop, the Netherlands
2011: Boyer won election to the Fairfield City Council.
2012: Schmitz was elected to the Board of Supervisors for Jefferson County, Iowa, whose county seat is Fairfield.
2019: Boyer was elected mayor of Fairfield after Malloy declined to run again, and a tie in a runoff was decided by a blind drawing. Boyer’s runoff opponent was also a TM practitioner.
2019: Maharishi University of Management changed its name back to Maharishi International University, reflecting its mostly international makeup of students.
The Transcendental Meditation movement, created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s in India and expanded in California in the 1960s, opened a university near Santa Barbara in 1973 to provide a “consciousness-based education.” Then, crammed for space, in 1974 the movement acquired a college campus in southeastern Iowa, in Fairfield, after a local mainstay, Parsons College, went bankrupt. The TM movement moved its university to Iowa and launched a program that granted undergraduate through Ph.D. degrees with courses infused with the guru’s teachings. It also opened an elementary and high school in Fairfield with all courses similarly infused with Maharishi’s teachings and, over time, welcomed hundreds of meditators.
The arrival of the meditators transformed Fairfield, turning it from a sleepy farm town whose biggest events were a county fair and performances by the 34th Army Iowa National Guard Band into a place where spiritualists of various stripes visited regularly. [Image at right] Over time, the meditators also brought celebrities from distant Hollywood to town. They introduced vegetarian restaurants and shops of all sorts, including some selling mystical gems. Entrepreneurs among the practitioners developed substantial businesses, employing non-meditators and meditators alike; some businesses thrived while others faded. Across the university and in scattered residential areas, even the architecture was altered over the years by TM-influenced doctrines.
Founded in the mid-1830s, Fairfield grew through the century as the county seat of Jefferson County. Mainly a retailing center for area farmers and home to the first state fair in Iowa, in 1854, the town got a boost in 1875 when Parsons College opened its doors. The sons of a wealthy New York merchant who had died in 1855, Lewis B. Parsons, provided the funds to create a Christian school in Iowa in their father’s name (Jefferson County Online n.d.). Fairfield’s population swelled from about 2,200 in 1870 to nearly 3,100 in 1880, as the college drove growth in the local economy, a pattern that endured over the decades (Population.us 2016). As Fairfield grew, notable buildings rose across the town. Among them: the Jefferson County Courthouse and the Carnegie Library, ornate red-brick buildings completed in 1893. On the campus, one of the most prominent structures, the Barhydt Memorial Chapel, rose in 1909 (Fairfield Convention and Visitors Bureau 2021).
But the college fell on bad times by the 1960s, driven into disrepute as a “second-chance” school for students who had flunked out elsewhere and as a haven for draft-dodgers. Meanwhile, as the school was declining, the TM movement was growing. It stretched its influence across the country in the 1970s, and bought the Parsons campus out of bankruptcy for $2,500,000 in 1974. During the summer of that year, young meditators and faculty flocked into town, surprising residents who feared that they would be invaded by wild-haired counter-culturists. “In an era of ‘hippies’ with torn and patched jeans, scraggly hair and bare feet, the newcomers were neat in dresses and suits; their hair was trim and their feet were shod,” Fairfield historian Susan Fulton Welty wrote. The TM leaders were determined to make a good impression on their new national home (Welty 1968).
The TM movement then gave Fairfield another boost in the late 1970s, stemming from an unlikely source, an unfriendly court decision in New Jersey. The movement had been teaching meditation techniques in public schools, denying as it did so that its practices were religious. Some parents disagreed, seeing the Hindu-based practices as an unconstitutional promotion of religion in schools, and they sued. Even as the movement insisted it was a not a religion and its practices not religious, a federal judge in 1977 sided with the parents, barred the movement from teaching TM in public schools; his decision was upheld on appeal in 1979. In the wake of the decision, the Maharishi issued a call for meditators to flock to Fairfield to embrace a new set of practices he was initiating, driving a surge of newcomers into the town. The population overall in the town jumped from about 8,700 in 1970 to more than 9,400 in 1980 and to just under 10,000 in 1990 (U.S. Census Bureau 2019).
In response to the guru’s 1979 call, meditators who flocked to Fairfield took on innovative practices Maharishi developed. Some engaged in “Yogic Flying,” for instance, hopping on mattresses while reciting silent mantras to themselves. The practice was based on Hindu scripture referring to meditation-induced levitation. The movement also built a pair of giant domes [Image at right] on the MIU campus (capable of handling up to 1,000 people each) in hopes of drawing enough meditators each day to create “the Maharishi Effect,” a belief that practicing TM in sufficient numbers could bring peace. Practitioners sought enough meditators to spread the Maharishi Effect nationwide from its nearly central U.S. location. Men gathered in one dome at MIU, while women gathered in another. While building and operating its sprawling meditation domes, the campus’s officials let the Barhydt chapel fall into disrepair, and they ultimately razed the historic structure in 2001, symbolically destroying the original Christian ties of the school and irking some Fairfield locals who had married in the building or had other deep ties to it.
While they were shut out of public schools nationwide in the late 1970s and 1980s, TM supporters sought to broaden the movement’s influence by moving into politics; several Fairfielders sought public office locally and beyond. In 1986, the first practitioner was elected to a city council seat in Fairfield, and many followed over the years, assuring that the interests of the university and movement were addressed in local government. Practitioners set up their own political party, the Natural Law Party, in 1992 and one top movement official, John Hagelin, made quixotic runs three times for president of the United States, the last time in 2000. Meditators fared better at the local level, with two meditators serving as mayors of Fairfield from 2001 through at least 2021, and one practitioner served in the Iowa State Senate until 2011, later winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors in Jefferson County, based in Fairfield.
Their rise in local politics reflected the acceptance, or at least tolerance, that most Fairfield locals developed for the meditators. In the early years, some locals derided the newcomers as “roos,” short for followers of the guru. But for the most part meditators who made Fairfield their home for over four decades fit in. Some joined local churches (although a few conservative churches still barred them), and they became active in community cultural and arts groups. They worked hand in hand with elected officials who are not meditators. While their practices were not embraced by most of their neighbors, and socializing still tended to be within the group, most of the meditators grew comfortable in the community. The TM practitioners avoided proselytizing among the locals, and the positive effects they had on the economy helped build tolerance.
In the years leading up to and after the guru’s death, in 2008, TM proselytization efforts around the world were led by filmmaker David Lynch, a Maharishi enthusiast who created the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace to deliver TM programming in schools (trying again across the country, despite the federal court decision), in prisons and in other areas of high stress across the country. The foundation based itself legally in Fairfield, as well as having offices in Los Angeles and New York. Consistent with the publicity-generating techniques of the movement’s early day in California, the foundation enlisted celebrities to help in fundraising events. Among them were former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, radio shock-jock Howard Stern and comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
Other celebrities who supported TM efforts over the years included Clint Eastwood, Mary Tyler Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laura Dern, Hugh Jackman and Ellen DeGeneres. Hedge fund magnate Ray Dalio brought TM trainers into his Bridgewater Associates firm to teach the technique to employees, and other business leaders who supported TM included designer Donna Karan. Supportive media figures included former CNN journalist Candy Crowley, who cohosted a Lynch foundation gala in 2010 and spoke at the Maharishi university commencement in Fairfield in 2012, and others who brought TM enthusiasts onto their programs, such as former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, as well as Merv Griffin in the movement’s early days.
Some of the celebrities accepted invitations to visit Fairfield. Paul McCartney’s son James, for instance, brought his band, Light, to the town in 2009. Oprah visited, meditated and did a program on the meditating community in and around the town in 2012. Rubber-faced comedian Jim Carrey spoke at the TM university commencement there in 2014, one of several prominent Lynch foundation supporters to do so.
As many other rural Iowa towns saw declines in population, Fairfield’s grew. It was estimated at 10,600 in 2021, according to the World Population Review. The entrepreneurial efforts of the meditators helped significantly, as they spawned substantial businesses in telecommunications, food and food-related areas, finance, and environmental areas, employing both TM practitioners and non-meditators alike. Some executives credited TM with giving them the focus they needed to build their businesses, ranging from colorful small shops to sprawling operations. Some executives credited their successes to the focus that meditation helped them bring to bear on business issues. (Weber 2014).
Practitioners espouse a mantra-based meditation, conducted at least twice a day for twenty minutes each time. Based on studies conducted by TM practitioners, they point to many health and psychological benefits from the practice. The movement’s official view is that such meditation is non-religious and can be done by individuals who belong to any religion. Its teachers deliver meditation training to individuals in person, giving each practitioner a mantra that is said to be unique but which may be drawn from lists provided to teachers. There is controversy over whether the mantras are based on the names of gods or on laws of nature.
Beyond that, some TM adherents study or hold with various teachings by the late guru. He drew some of his teachings, based in Hinduism, from those of his personal guru, the late Swami Brachmananda Saraswati Jagadguru. Maharishi also offered innovations in what he called his Science of Creative Intelligence. The teachings, reflected in curriculum provided in the Maharishi pre-K-12 school and university in Fairfield, include references to the Divine, to heaven and to Hindu deities.
A form of astrology, known as Jyotish, and a form of architecture, known as Sthapatya Veda, are part of the system and Fairfield is dotted with homes and other structures built in accord with it. [Image at right] Adherents hold, for instance, that east-facing entrances on buildings foster enlightenment, affluence and fulfillment while south-facing entrances breed fear, destruction and quarreling. Some homes and buildings are adorned with distinctive kalashes, cupola-type crowns that are said to tighten the link between the residents and heaven. Some homes are built around Brahmastans, shrine-like covered areas said to nourish family life. Sanskrit is among the subjects students at the movement’s schools may study, though all coursework (even computer science and literature) is infused with the guru’s teachings. In addition, based on the late guru’s aversion to cellphones, adherents avoid using wireless computers in the movement schools (though the university relaxed its bars on such machines in many areas).
The Maharishi also expanded on the meditation technique with his TM-Sidhi program, which required hours of meditation daily and included promises of levitation. Believers hopped around on mats in such “Yogic Flying,” a practice based on a classic text of Hindu philosophy, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The practice carried promises of invisibility and the ability to move through walls. Adherents also hold with “the Maharishi Effect,” a belief that groups of meditators can lower the levels of violence in a town, city or even a nation. Various numbers were reported over time, ranging from one-tenth of the adult population in a given area to one-hundredth or one-thousandth. The movement settled on the square root of one percent of a given population and produced studies purporting to prove the effect. Indeed, with prominent scientists trained at such institutions as Harvard in its practitioner ranks, the TM movement has produced studies backing up its claimed effects, though they often appear in movement journals rather than peer-reviewed mainstream academic or medical journals.
In Fairfield, the movement has tried to assemble enough meditators twice daily in its meditation domes to deliver the Maharishi Effect nationwide. For a time, it also brought in young men from India, known as pandits, to meditate for many hours daily in a compound in Maharishi Vedic City, [Image at right] a small city developers associated with the movement built outside of Fairfield .(Weber 2014)
From Fairfield, the movement also influenced the global debate over genetically modified organisms in food and agricultural products. TM leaders, most notably some associated with Maharishi International University, opposed such modifications, with one drawing national attention in 1994 for returning federal grant money tied to biotechnology and instead endorsing a “Vedic approach” to agriculture. As that argument became a key one for the Natural Law Party in various political campaigns, advocates made their case nationally and globally against GMOs. Fairfield became the home to a company that tested various products across the world for GMOs, FoodChain ID (Grohman 2021).
Meditation sessions of twenty minutes each, conducted twice daily in private or in group sessions are core practices of TM adherents. Some adherents, who have been through the TM-Sidhi program, meditate far longer each day. In Fairfield, meditators gather in great domes on the university campus for group sessions or meditate in their homes or in the movement’s university or pre-K to grade twelve school. Those who have taken up the practice outside of Fairfield typically meditate privately.
When meditation is taught in programs in public schools under the aegis of the Lynch foundation or affiliates, the practice includes a controversial ritual known as the puja. This rite included students appearing before a picture of Maharishi’s late guru and chanting in Sanskrit that critics have said included statements recognizing the power of Hindu deities. In early iterations in the 1970s (deemed religious by a federal judge), the programming included instruction from a textbook in the guru’s Science of Creative Intelligence.
Experts and former practitioners have argued that the ties to Hinduism cannot be separated from TM. Hinduism scholar Cynthia Ann Humes, in “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: Beyond the TM Technique,” argues: “When is a path to enlightenment, which sponsors rituals to deities and is based on meditation that deploys the names of gods, not a religion?” She adds: “Not only is it Hinduism, but it is a specific incorporated brand of Hinduism” (Forsthoefel and Humes 2005). Scholars Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge wrote that “for a long time, its more religious teachings and practices were revealed only to the inner core of members while ordinary meditators were offered an apparently nonreligious, practical technique.” (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Bainbridge and Daniel H. Jackson called TM “a solidly organized religious cult movement” that in 1981 was “undoubtedly one of the largest new religions in America.” (Wilson 1981).
The international organizations of the TM movement are based in Vlodrop, in the Netherlands, while most of its U.S. organizations are headquartered in Fairfield. The organization is led globally by Dr. Tony Nader, a physician and neuroscientist who trained at the American University in Beirut and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did research at Harvard. The Lebanese-born Nader, whose full name is Tanios Abou Nader, was born in 1955 and assumed leadership of the TM global efforts upon the guru’s death in 2008. A leading figure in the movement’s U.S. operations in Fairfield is John Hagelin, president of Maharishi International University and a Harvard-trained physicist, though much of the proselytization efforts for TM now come from moviemaker David Lynch through his eponymous foundation. Politically, the interests of the university in Fairfield are advanced by local elected officials who are practitioners, most conspicuously the mayoral positions in Fairfield and nearby Maharishi Vedic City.
Because so much of the TM movement’s direction and inspiration came from its guru, his death in 2008 left the organization with a vacuum at the top. For followers, the charismatic Maharishi was a source of wisdom and centralized leadership, as well as a major draw for the media when he was in his prime. Adherents still rely on tapes of the guru’s lectures and his writings. Leadership is somewhat fractured now, with such figures as Lynch far more visible in the media than global organization head Tony Nader or a leading U.S. figure, John Hagelin. None of the leaders have proved as inspirational as the late guru and no spiritual successor is apparent.
While Maharishi was responsible for the broad popularization of mantra-based meditation outside of India in the 1960s and beyond, the practice since then has been taught by others who provide various types of meditation. Some groups have taken advantage of the Internet to provide apps that offer meditation techniques that don’t carry the religious baggage critics see in Transcendental Meditation. But the TM movement adheres to its model of prospective meditators meeting in person with teachers. It has far more competitors for meditation techniques than ever before, moreover, as some meditation practices are offered in venues ranging from gyms and yoga programs to churches and synagogues.
The movement also has spawned defectors who criticize it in blogs, such as the TM-Free Blog, and books, such as Transcendental Deception, and in materials easily available online (Siegel 2018).
As organizations such as Lynch’s foundation seek again to teach the meditation technique in public schools, they run into opposition from religious groups and individual who see the programs as espousing a form of Hinduism that violates laws barring the propagation of religion in such schools (one such suit in 2021 was moving forward in federal court in Chicago). Critics, including former practitioners who continued to live in Fairfield, argue that the movement’s denial of its religious nature amounts to deception. Some who have left the town have written scathingly of the culture the movement developed in Fairfield (Shumsky 2018). No matter how much evidence the movement produces showing the positive effects its meditation practices have on students in troubled schools, the religious argument is a daunting hurdle for proponents.
Despite claims that the movement’s practices can aid in mental health, several suicides among practitioners in Fairfield and a 2004 murder of a student on the campus of what is now known as Maharishi International University suggest its benefits are more limited that some enthusiasts have suggested. The guru also embraced health supplements that have drawn skepticism among medical professionals (Wanjek 2007).
While some meditators have built distinctive homes around Fairfield, sporting unique architectural features, they or their heirs could find difficulties in selling them over time, as family needs change. Some of the homes are worth far more than the median prices for houses in the relatively modest-income town. Similarly, the architectural styles that now mark many of the new buildings on the university campus could prove unappealing for other potential occupants, should the university ultimately fade if the movement declines over time.
Also the guru’s teachings and credibility could wane over time. Following Hindu tradition for holy men, Maharishi publicly held out that he was celibate, but several women who dealt with him claimed otherwise, embarrassing the movement. One, former follower Judith Bourque, self-published a book about her sexual liaisons with the guru, Robes of Silk, Feet of Clay. (Bourque 2010). Other women who reported sexual relationships with him were written about by critical journalists or defectors from the movement, who suggested the guru was hypocritical and deceptive, blunting the guru’s appeal.
Finally, the movement’s practitioners are aging. It appealed originally to many twenty-somethings in the 1960s and 1970s, and its leadership and supporters in the early days included many such figures, some of whom moved to Fairfield in response to the guru’s call in 1979. Developing a coterie of younger people to take the helm in the 2000s, as elders cling to their often well-paying organizational roles, as well as to fill the followers’ ranks, is an existential challenge, one other religious organizations have faced with mixed results. For Fairfield, the challenge is likely to be most acute, as many of the children of devotees have not so far risen to leadership roles (Weber 2014).
*** Copyrights to the images displayed in this profile are held by Joseph Weber and are used with permission.
Image #1: Fairfield town square.
Image #2: One of the Golden Domes in Fairfield.
Image #3: A home in Fairfield owned by a meditator.
Image #4: The Global Country of World Peace headquarters in Vedic City.
Bourque, Judith. 2010. Robes of Silk, Feet of Clay. Self-published.
Fairfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. 2021. Fairfield: Tune Into Our Vibe. Accessed from https://www.visitfairfieldiowa.com/about/history on 25 July 2021.
Forsthoefel, Thomas A. and Cynthia Ann Humes. 2005. Gurus in America. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Grohman, Gregory. 2021. “Transcending Transgenics: Transcendental Meditation, Natural Law, and the Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Food,” Annals of Iowa 80:Issue 1.
Jefferson County Online. n.d. The Rise and Fall of Parsons College. Accessed from http://iagenweb.org/jefferson/ParsonsCollege/Parsons.html on 7/25/2021.
Population.us. 2016. Accessed from https://population.us/ia/fairfield/ on 25 July 2021.
Shumsky, Susan. 2018. “My Experience Living In A Cult For 20 Years – Here’s How I Broke Free.” Huffington Post, October 17. Accessed fromhttps://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/cult-maharishi-mahesh-yogi_uk_5bc5e04de4b0d38b5871a8c3 on 25 July 2021.
Siegel, Aryeh. 2018. Transcendental Deception. Los Angeles: Janreg Press.
Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
U.S. Census Bureau. 2019. Accessed from https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=Fairfield%20Iowa%20population%201974&tid=ACSDT5Y2019.B01003 on 25 July 2021.
Wanjek, Christopher. 2007. “Ayurveda: The Good, the Bad and the Expensive.” Livescience. Accessed from https://www.livescience.com/1367-ayurveda-good-bad-expensive.html on 25 July 2021.
Weber, Joseph. 2014. Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Welty, Susan Fulton. 1968. A Fair Field. Harlo Press.
Wilson, Bryan ed. 1981. The Social Impact of New Religious Movements. New York: Rose of Sharon Press.
29 July 2021