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Floating Towards Utopia

Can an ailing body heal itself through higher consciousness? Is the behavior of subatomic particles related to the self-perpetuating awareness of the universe? Can 7,000 yogic fliers end terrorism and bring about world peace? What is the meaning of life?

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Dr. Evans Fiakpui fits no one's stereotype of a "New Age" enthusiast. He is an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Chicago Hospital, a soft-spoken, conservatively-dressed man of great seriousness who speaks in the clipped, cultured accent of his native Ghana. Recently he described his introduction, through Transcendental Meditation, to the ancient healing art of Ayurveda.

Although he was exposed to traditional medical beliefs and practices as a child in Africa, he had thoroughly adopted the conventional Western "allopathic" perspective by the time he completed his education at the University of Chicago Medical School. "Once you get absorbed into the Western thing, you just get kind of really instilled with that. You begin to pooh-pooh the nonscientific philosophy of the other indigenous medicine."

So the holistic approach of Transcendental Meditation, with its emphasis on the body as a whole unit able to heal itself through a higher consciousness, represents a kind of philosophical homecoming for Dr. Fiakpui. "It is a return, yes. It wasn't so much a change of perspective, it was just a reminder of what I grew up with. About 11 years ago, that's when I started meditating. Prior to that, had finished my residency and started practice. Practice was going quite well, yet I was feeling this inner void. My early childhood exposure was a very religious one. Both of my parents were very religious Presbyterians so I went to a mission school, which was a church religious school, during grade school, middle school, and high school. I came here in '63, but continuously this inner void which I felt -- you know, you go through medical school, you go through residency, you feel very skilled in what you're doing, and I guess I felt, reading medical ethics books, books on philosophy, still the void was there."

Through a chance meeting at a party with an old acquaintance who was a physicist, Dr. Fiakpui was introduced to the work of Dr. Harold Bloomfield, a researcher who has documented many of the beneficial effects of meditation in carefully controlled, clinical settings. This serious-minded, scientific approach attracted the young physician, who found himself "totally absorbed" in what he was reading. After finishing Bloomfield's book Dr. Fiakpui went to an introductory ecture on TM, began meditating, and has been "hooked ever since."

More and more hardworking professionals find that they have more energy, need less sleep, and feel more alert after they have begun practicing TM and other meditation techniques. Meditation has been around in one form or another for thousands of years. Mystics and seers, sometimes aided by hallucinogens, self-mortification, or the rhythmic repetition of chants or mantras, have entered trance states in which they have experienced ideas, insights, or even visions that they have interpreted as indicators of having achieved a higher state of awareness. In 1957, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi turned meditation into big business when he introduced Transcendental Meditation, with its specific terminology and personal mantra technique.

TM is no longer considered the mysterious belief system of the counterculture as it was when the Beatles and the Beach Boys were donning love beads and flowing robes and making pilgrimages to the Maharishi. In addition to having become a registered trademark and a multimilliondollar international business, TM has become widely accepted by mainstream citizens as a technique for relaxation and, according to its many devoted practitioners, a way to unlock previously hidden human potential.

Lately though, Transcendental Meditation has been expanding its scope from individual consciousness enhancement to a system of medicine and natural healing called Maharishi Ayurveda, and to a controversial program called TM-Sidhi. The Maharishi's grandiose vision, which led him to predict in the early stages of the game that worldwide use of his meditation technique would lead to peace, prosperity, and a higher level of consciousness for all mankind, has given way to his promise that widespread practice of the sidhis (advanced meditation techniques including levitation and movement in levitation called yogic flying) will bring about world peace and an end to terrorism.

Nonetheless, the healing art of Ayurveda, combined with discoveries and theories in what has become known as the New Physics, has attracted a new generation of followers. Physicians and scientists are more ready to accept concepts that just a few years ago would have been written off as mystical hogwash. The role of consciousness in healing and the existence of a quantum level of reality in which the distinctions between cause and effect, the physical and the metaphysical, and evolutionary development and consciousness begin to break down, are now accepted by many mainstream researchers; it is this important new direction of science that attracts people like Dr. Fiakpui to a centuries-old form of medical practice with a conceptual framework radically different from that of Western medicine.

At first glance, Ayurveda seems like a kind of Holism's Greatest Hits. Like acupuncture, it incorporates a sophisticated pulse-reading technique (called nadi vigyan) in its diagnostic procedure. Ayurvedic physicians, known as vaidyas, claim that by studying the pulse in a much more detailed way than Western medicine does they can not only diagnose disease, but prescribe appropriate cures and even make recommendations concerning a patient's psychological and personal life. Proponents of the technique claim better than 90-percent diagnostic accuracy. Like homeopathy, Ayurveda emphasizes an extremely patient-specific approach to diagnosis and prescription, gearing treatments toward the patient's individual characteristics and needs. Pulse diagnosis is part of this; also included are observations of an individual's physical type, which practitioners claim can give them an immediate idea of a patient's possible range of maladies and appropriate cures. Like Native American herbal medicine, Ayurveda emphasizes using the flora of a region -- a country, a continent -- to develop the natural pharmacopoeia most beneficial to that region's inhabitants. Herbal prescriptions are used as both treatments and preventive measures. Natural-food supplements, called rasayanas, are prescribed as an integral part of an overall wellness-oriented approach. Ayurveda even suggests certain foods for certain seasons: during cold months, for instance, such foods as nuts, dairy products, sugarcane products, poultry, and seafood are recommended, while beef, raw vegetables, all beans except tofu and dhals, and sour or tart berries, such as strawberries, are contraindicated.

The complete practice of Ayurveda has a tradition that extends far back into India's history. Like most of what have come to be called "indigenous" health systems, it emphasizes maintaining a state of balance within oneself and with one's environment, rather than attacking disease in specific parts of the body after it has manifested itself. There is music therapy and sound therapy, even Ayurvedic surgery, all practiced with the idea that sickness is a sign of a person's underlying state of imbalance, and that the balance must be restored if the person is to get well. In this sense, Ayurveda shares with many socalled "alternative" medical practices elements that many observers are coming to feel have been increasingly lost in Western medicine.

To Dr. Fiakpui, this universality of Ayurveda is its strongest point. Although he does not actually practice Ayurvedic medicine at the University of Chicago Hospital, he finds that as he learns more about it, the perspective becomes readily adaptable to his allopathic practice. "It's so universal, and it emphasizes prevention and wholeness, the wholeness of man; a total system instead of just fragmenting a system. The beauty of Ayurveda is that in allopathic medicine, a patient comes to your office and you ask the patient, 'What's wrong with you?' You want to find out what's wrong with that patient, whereas in Ayurveda it's the other way around. You want to find out what kind of person is that patient? Because, depending upon his constitution or body type, there are only certain kinds of diseases with which a patient is most likely to be afflicted. It's before the patient even begins to talk to you, you have some idea of what might be wrong. All of my practice now is allopathic. A lady will come into the office and I walk in to see the lady and my Ayurveda starts to come into effect right away. It's almost difficult not to! I have not been doing Ayurvedic treatments for a number of reasons. I don't feel that proficient myself in that area, and I wouldn't do it unless I felt thoroughly proficient. Yet in diagnosis, and of course in treatment, telling somebody who has a cold, rather than give them a shot that's not going to do them any good anyway, I may tell them to drink some orange juice or drink some chicken soup, that sort of thing. Or tea, which is good, perhaps give them a shot of Vitamin B-12."

Ayurveda in its entirety, of course, is far more than vitamins and chicken soup. Based on ideas developed in India over thousands of years, it's an entire science of medicine that practitioners say has been rescued from obscurity by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Dr. Jay Glaser, a physician from Fairfield, Iowa, was in Chicago recently to deliver a lecture on Ayurveda and TM to physicians at Saint Anthony Hospital on the west side. He explained the history and basic beliefs behind the practice. Like Dr. Fiakpui, Dr. Glaser is articulate and rather conservative looking. He speaks with a quiet confidence but has none of the spaced-out earnestness we've come to associate with followers of New Age beliefs. He does, however, possess enormous energy despite being a very composed, serene man. He explained that to understand Ayurvedic medicine, one must first understand a philosophical paradigm very different from that familiar to most Westerners.

"It goes back, really, to time immemorial, for all practical purposes," Dr. Glaser explained. "It's an oral tradition, and the first texts have really been dated to several thousand BC. Those texts really constitute a writing down of a very ancient oral tradition that goes back, they think, really in a sense, as far as man himself. So it's a very old tradition that comes from the same Vedic tradition as many of the other elements. For example, Yoga is also from the Vedic tradition."

The Vedic tradition, it turns out, is somewhat difficult to describe in contemporary Western language. Rather than being a body of knowledge based on specific facts and principles (like astronomy or geometry), it involves an approach toward knowledge that one often finds in indigenous belief systems. It does, indeed, have a body of facts and principles, but the method of acquiring this knowledge is markedly different from what we currently consider "study" or "research."

Most non-Judeo-Christian belief systems are based on a worldview that perceives the relationship between the individual and his world and the cosmos as one of a delicately intertwined harmony. Rather than being ruled and guided by a distant, paternalistic God, the forces of nature are seen to possess their own inherent intelligence; deities, often female, shape and guide events through their manifestations in the consciousness possessed by all living things and, in some cases, even in objects such as rocks and the planets themselves, which most Westerners would consider inanimate.

The Vedic tradition is the indigenous system of belief that evolved in India, just as similar traditions were developing in Asia, Africa, on the American continent, and elsewhere. "It's basically a science," Dr. Glaser continued. "'Veda' means 'knowledge' or 'science.' 'Ayu-' means the span of life or lifespan. The main focus, traditionally, is promotion of longevity. So it's usually translated, 'The Knowledge of Life.' It's thought that it's not as much an empirical tradition as it is the concept that this knowledge has been cognized by sages that had a very subtle perception, and were able to understand the laws of nature as they reflected on man and his relationship with the environment. And they just knew, this is the use of this plant; this is the use of this herb.

"In that sense of the word, Ayurveda is really the oldest scientific system of natural medicine. The Chinese recognize that their system of medicine really rolled down the northern slopes of the Himalayas, and other systems rolled down the southern slopes of the Himalayas; for example, the systems of medicine used in other parts of Southeast Asia or in Pakistan, or the Yunani system of medicine used in the Muslim culture of India, and in a sense the Arabic system of medicine. Hinduism is also derived from this science. In other words, Vedic science is not, in any sense, a religion. It's, in a sense, pure knowledge. In a sense, really prescience. It's the knowledge of the knower; the pure, abstract interdynamics of consciousness."

Glaser said that true Ayurveda had been neglected for centuries in India, as a result of long periods of foreign rule at the hands of various invaders. About seven years ago, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi apparently decided that enough people had had their consciousness expanded, through TM, to the point where they could begin to comprehend some of the more complex and subtle aspects of the Vedic tradition of which Yogic (mind-related) practices such as meditation are a part. Depending on your perspective, what followed was either a rescuing of long-forgotten truths or a co-optation of a tradition. Maharishi began incorporating elements of Ayurveda into his teachings; he gathered together some prominent Ayurvedic physicians who were sympathetic to his philosophy and who could explain the principles of Ayurveda in the context of TM's established terminologies and perspectives. This fusion of the tradition of Ayurvedic medicine and Maharishi's own teachings soon became known, and trademarked, as Maharishi Ayurveda. Today there's a Maharishi Ayurveda Corporation of America that publishes a monthly Maharishi Ayurveda newsletter featuring articles by physicians on the finer points of Ayurvedic practice as it relates to the overall TM philosophy. Also included are pieces concerning self-help and home remedies, written in an informal conversational style. Maharishi Ayurveda, like TM before it, has apparently become big business.

This tendency to label a knowledge or practice "universal" and then to promptly claim it as private turf (both Transcendental Meditation and Maharishi Ayurveda are registered trademarks), and make big bucks promoting and teaching it is one of the things that has led to continuing public skepticism about Maharishi and his followers. According to Dr. Glaser, however, it's all for our own good. "There's a reason why he puts his name on everything, and he puts his picture on everything. And that's because things tend to get lost. Things tend to get jumbled--meditation's probably the best example. Transcendental Meditation has been able to be taught to millions of people because it's taught in such a simple way and such a regular way that people know if they get Transcendental Meditation with a capital 'T' trademark, they know they're getting something simple, and that's going to be effective."

Not all observers agree with this assessment. A local scholar who has written extensively on alternative healing dismisses such claims as "ideological turf wars," although he concurs, as do most critics, that meditation itself has much validity, as do many of the precepts of Ayurvedic healing. Glaser, however, was adamant and ready with examples to prove his point.

"The term Maharishi Ayurveda--this is what we're calling 'Complete Ayurveda'--it's a complete system of science, of understanding all the different ways that different things can impact on the body. So Ayurveda not only describes really thousands and thousands of different kinds of plants and the way that they're used, but in more detail it gives very specific ways that one can know, by looking at the properties of the plant--its shape, its color, its taste, its smell, its texture, and so on--what the plant would be good for anyplace. Now what Western science does is it takes the plant and breaks it down into many different components and finds what's the active ingredient, and goes, 'Oh, this is that.' For example the rauwolfia plant; Western science breaks it down and finds the active component, finds it's the reserpine in the rauwolfia. And they know how reserpine works. This is one of the plants found in India in the 1920s and '30s which was researched by western European pharmaceutical corporations, and they found that indeed this is good for lowering blood pressure. It was one of the first antihypertensives. If we include antibiotics, then really 75 percent of all the drugs that we use today are derived purely from plant origins.

"And so what's sold to you is really reserpine, it's not rauwolfia plant. And in a sense that's a bit of a fallacy. The plants of each country are the most suitable for the health of the inhabitants of that country. This is one of the three major texts of Ayurveda. Ayurveda's emphasis is on balance, on promoting balance. And the plant contains within it a completely balanced set of ingredients, really thousands and thousands of different active principles can be found. Whatever, perhaps, is the most active ingredient is effective in reducing the blood pressure, reducing the blood sugar, whatever the plant is found to be useful for. But when you take that out of context, when you take it out of the context of the rest of the plant, it's found to produce side effects. And doctors today don't like to use reserpine because of the side effects. But when it's used in the context of Ayurveda, it's found to be extremely useful. So this is the fallacy of active ingredients, that Western pharmacy has because they've lost this concept of balance. The whole life of the individual must be involved, on all levels: mind, body, behavior, and environment."

In that spirit, the complete Maharishi Ayurveda program includes elements designed to strengthen people's self-healing capacity, both physical and mental, as well as more general prescriptions for collective health and for purifying the earth. Maharishi Ayurveda has introduced both a new vocabulary and a uniquely ambitious approach toward building what amounts to a New Age health empire.

The vocabulary has been borrowed, somewhat freely, from physics. Discoveries over the past several decades in the arcane study of quantum mechanics have indicated that on a very subtle, submolecular level, linkages between particles cause them to act together in a way that cannot be explained by traditional notions of cause and effect; things happen simultaneously in such a way that even remote particles seem to be linked together as part of the same whole, and thus act in harmony with one another. Furthermore, the actual behavior of the molecules depends upon the way they're measured; they don't act independently of the observer's consciousness. These discoveries have led to some startling theories about a universe imbued with its own sense of consciousness, a consciousness that guides even evolution and all the physical forces of the universe. Theorist Erich Jantsch has speculated, "God is not the creator, but the mind of the universe."

Many of these theories linking quantum mechanics and holistic medicine are still embryonic; they are difficult to express in everyday language, largely because physicists prefer to conceive of reality in terms of mathematical formulations. But clearly, something is afoot that suggests a coherence between holism and science.

Maharishi Ayurveda has seized upon these ideas and developed what it calls the Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field. Now this is not, strictly speaking, the Unified Field theory that was Albert Einstein's great unfinished project during the latter years of his life. Einstein postulated that a common source could be found for the four basic forces of the universe: electromagnetic force (the attraction of positively charged and negatively charged particles for one another); the strong force (the force that keeps atomic nuclei together); gravity (the force by which the bodies in a system are attracted toward its center of mass); and the weak force (a little-understood force governing the decay of nuclear particles). Neither Einstein nor those who followed him proved that this common source, the Unified Field, could exist; it remains one of the most important areas of scientific inquiry.

Maharishi Ayurveda's concept of the Unified Field is different; it is analogous to Western science's quantum realm, the subatomic level of energy and matter being investigatedby particle physicists. Here, according to the faithful, is where the link between hard science and holistic theory resides. Here also is the link between Ayurveda and TM. The Unified Field is supposedly the realm in which the self-guiding self-awareness of the universe originates. Depending on one's point of view, it is either by happy coincidence or of cosmic significance that it is also the realm of "pure consciousness" where one is said to be able to direct one's mind during TM. Thus, as the meditator can experience pure awareness--unfettered by such mundane considerations as ideas, thoughts, or specific objects of attention--Ayurvedic medicine draws on the self-perpetuating awareness said to be inherent in the quantum realm, that realm of so-called "pure consciousness" or "pure intelligence" from which a body's ability to heal itself, to perpetuate its own being, arises.

Marc Kincaid, a TM teacher in Chicago, returned to the concept of the Veda as the link between individual consciousness and the quantum realm of physics, loosely defined by Maharishi Ayurveda as the Unified Field.

"The Veda is the source of the whole knowledge," Kincaid explained while relaxing in the sunny, spacious front room of the organization's Chicago TM Center on Southport near Belmont. "The Veda is synonymous with the Unified Field, and this is the same experience that a meditator experiences during TM. And it's also the source of the tradition of knowledge from where all knowledge comes. So the Unified Field itself is none other than Veda itself.

"In that quantum mechanical, very deep level of physics, that vacuum state is analogous to the state of pure consciousness in the mind. Inside each one of us we have consciousness and if we practice TM, what happens is we learn to experience deeper levels of mind and experience pure consciousness, in purity. That's why it's called pure consciousness, because it's unmixed with anything else. And in that state, there are three aspects of our human existence. There's the aspect of ego--the knower; and what we're aware of, what we know; and then there's the process of knowing, which is the senses. All three of these things settle down into one wholeness." The three aspects of knowledge--the knower, the thing known, and the process of knowing--all come together in a whole, just as the four basic forces of the universe--strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravitational--are postulated to have a common source in Einstein's theoretical Unified Field. This analogy between individual human consciousness and the hypothetical source of all universal existence is the theoretical base from which Maharishi Ayurveda draws most of its ideas.

Despite the apparent assurance of Maharishi and his followers that it will eventually be proven as hard scientific fact, the link between pure consciousness and the quantum realm of physics remains a vague concept. What is clear is that Transcendental Meditation has demonstrable beneficial effects. At Saint Anthony Hospital, Dr. Glaser presented to a roomful of staff physicians documentation of clinical studies showing a positive correlation between meditation and a surprising number of healthy changes in the physiology of its practitioners.

Showing slides of meditators with blood-pressure cuffs on their arms and electrodes attached to their bodies to measure their heartbeats and breathing, Glaser pointed out that one of the things researchers like about TM is that it can be practiced under nearly any conditions, even uncomfortable ones. He then outlined some of the most significant research findings:

Metabolic rate, as measured by oxygen consumption, fell by about 16 percent during the 30-minute practice of TM, then rose during a control period (after meditation when the subjects remained under observation). A control group of nonmeditators during the same experiment continued to have normal metabolic rates.

Skin resistance, which lowers during times of stress, rose during TM, showing that the skin is very dry and cool. It returned to normal after the meditation was over.

Insomniacs were shown to have a drastic reduction in the time they needed to fall asleep after receiving instruction in TM. This reduced time continued for 90 days, and even up to a year after the initial experiment, even when the subjects did not continue to meditate regularly during that time.

Hypertension was dramatically improved in meditators.

Regular meditators were shown to use health-care services much less frequently than do nonmeditators.

The changes associated with aging in most people--hearing loss, vision loss, increased blood pressure, and others--were slowed and in some cases even reversed in longtime meditators approaching middle age and older. According to Glaser, there is usually some discrepancy between an individual's chronological age--the age indicated by his birth certificate--and his biological age, as measured by a standard test of aging. Glaser says the scale of the test is such that the biological age of nonmeditators is usually about two years younger than their chronological age. The meditators tested, all of whom were over 55, were five years "younger," in terms of their overall health and robustness, than their chronological age. In meditators who had been practicing TM over the longest periods of time, the difference was as high as 12 years.

Most of these studies were conducted in carefully controlled clinical settings. A perusal of the footnotes in Introduction to Ayurveda, the booklet distributed by the American Association for Ayurvedic Medicine in Washington, D.C., reveals that many of the studies were published in reputable journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Canadian Medical Association Journal. There are 172 footnotes in all, documenting studies like the ones Glaser referred to in his lecture.

If the medical benefits of TM are fairly well accepted, the glowing reports of the success of the TM-Sidhi Program have been somewhat harder for the uninitiated to swallow. The TM-Sidhi Program was designed by Maharishi for experienced meditators; it consists of advanced TM techniques, called sidhis, that are meant to have a more concentrated and powerful effect on the practitioners, called sidhas, and on the world.

From December 17, 1983, to January 6, 1984, 7,000 sidhas converged on Fairfield, Iowa, home of Maharishi International University (MIU), to practice Transcendental Meditation, yogic flying, and other elements of the TM-Sidhi Program. Believers claimed that during this time there was a decreased incidence of infectious diseases in Australia and the U.S.; decreased crime in the U.S., Pakistan, and Australia; lessening tensions in international conflict; and a simultaneous increase in major stock markets in eight countries.

When compared to the scientific rigor to which the clinical studies on the effects of TM were subjected, these findings seem spurious, at best. Certainly other factors could have contributed to the epidemiological and economic phenomena during that period, not the least of which could have been the season in which the "experiment" was conducted. Proponents of TM are adamant, however. To them, this proves that one of Maharishi's longest-running prophecies is coming to fruition. Marc Kincaid explains:

"Maharishi came out with the sidhis, levitation being one of them, in the late 70s--'76 and '77--and this came out after something very incredible started to happen in the United States. Certain towns in the United States started to reach 1 percent of their populations meditating. And they started to notice very obvious changes in the quality of life in those cities. Maharishi was very excited. He said, 'Oh, this is great. We don't have to teach [all the] people how to meditate to create world peace; we can have 1 percent.' And then, after a year or two of that, then he came out with the sidhis. The formula of the sidhis is that the square root of 1 percent will have the same holistic effect.

"The whole purpose of the sidhis program, in a nutshell, is to create orderliness and coherence in the environment. It's very well documented that TM produces orderliness and coherence in the brain. So in the last eight, nine, ten years now we've been promoting a program that tries to produce that same effect by just the square root of 1 percent practicing sidhis. We say that anyone who can think can practice TM. It's that natural. But for the sidhis we have a very extensive application procedure. It's a much stronger program based on some of the previous experiences of TM."

It was calculated that the square root of 1 percent of the world's population was about 7,000 people; thus the mass meditation event in Iowa. Currently, the booklet Maharishi's Program to Create World Peace says that future gatherings will up the ante to 10,000 people, to assure that a minimum of 7,000 actually show up and perform the sidhis together.

It's one thing to demonstrate that meditation can slow the heartbeat, promote health, and have a positive effect on the degenerative process of aging. It's quite another, even if one accepts the theory that quantum mechanics shows a link between consciousness and events taking place in a remote area, to claim that a purely mental effort on the part of a statistically minuscule number of people can solve the problems of the world. It is certainly true, as TM proponents note, that Fairfield, Iowa, the center of an unusually concentrated level of meditation activity, is currently undergoing an economic boom. The state of Iowa has recently published reports on Fairfield's good furtune, and apparently the financial and personal vitality of many of Maharishi International University's students and faculty have had a good deal to do with this. But that may only make Fairfield analogous to college towns across the nation. One questions how TM's enthusiasts can claim that the success of Fairfield is qualitatively different from that of, say, Amherst, Massachusetts, or Madison, Wisconsin. Jim Dallas, director of the TM center on Southport, refers again to the Vedic tradition in explaining the relationship between the sidhis and prosperity, both local and worldwide.

"It's the same thing of going back to the Vedic knowledge. Our whole progress in terms of our defense of our countries has been to use more and more advanced technologies. The whole evolution of man is moving in one direction, toward more and more advanced technologies, and the solution to more advanced technologies comes from grabbing laws of nature at a more subtle level of creation. The more subtle levels of the laws of nature you can utilize, the more powerful your weaponry becomes. So many thousands of years ago we started fighting with bows and arrows and things like that, now we have atomic weapons and nuclear weapons which are more powerful. So if you go more subtle than nuclear technology, you'll be more closely approaching the Unified Field technology, which is Maharishi's technology.

"And it's also the way of the technology of nature. And so, therefore, what's happening is with all these people practicing the Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field [TM and the TM-Sidhi techniques], what's happening is that we're making another giant step in mankind by producing a more advanced technology that's more powerful than any technology before. In order for our nation and the world to move to a higher degree now, it's necessary that the whole system become more positive, progressive, and evolutionary. Herbs and flora and fauna and all those things, they grow in relative laws of nature. But what we're talking about, also, is the element of consciousness which is universal and eternal. And it's not affected by time.

"The most important fundamental in every country, regardless of the economic and political situation, is consciousness of the people. And the best thing that can be done to improve the quality of life is to improve the consciousness of the people. It may be that different governments change; it may be that laws have to be written, that things have to change on the political level. But the greatest way to change all these very complicated things in our society is improve the minds and the consciousness of the people."

Dr. Glaser, elaborating on the same theme, took it further. "On the Unified Field, everything is connected to everything else. When about 1 percent of the population begins practicing Transcendental Meditation, the tendencies in that city begin to change. The crime rate falls, hospital admissions fall, accidents fall. This was called [about 13 years ago, when these trends were first claimed] the Maharishi Effect, because he had predicted as early as 1960 that when the number of people meditating was high enough in society, that even a very small percentage would be able to radiate this effect to a larger group. In other words, 1 percent of the population begin meditating, and then suddenly a man decides not to rob a bank. Now he doesn't know they're meditating, he just knows he wakes up that day and decides to go out and get a job instead of robbing a bank. He doesn't know what is going on, he just knows that he's feeling, maybe, that that's not quite right today. There's some positive value in the Unified Field that is uniting everything, and which ultimately is an evolutionary force, is being enlivened, and his consciousness is connected to the same Unified Field that the meditators are connected to."

Aside from the unique assumptions of the theory and the somewhat grandiose rhetoric in which it's often couched (1986 was labeled the Maharishi Year of Perfect Health for All Mankind, and above the TM center's front door hangs a carefully printed sign proclaiming it to be the Chicago Capital of the Age of Enlightenment), the very nature of practices such as yogic flying raises deep skepticism, even among people who accept the beneficial effects of meditation itself. Cartoonlike images of Indian rope tricks, flying carpets, and levitated maidens come to mind. Marc Kincaid strongly resists such stereotypes.

"We haven't been [flying] like a circus effect. The way Maharishi described it is there're three stages. The first stage is a very natural hopping, where the body starts to move and it bounces around. It goes in the air and doesn't stay in the air because there's not enough internal coherence. So that's the first stage we're at, and we have taught probably 20 to 30 thousand people in the world this, and they're at that first stage. Maharishi has said that he wants to demonstrate the flying for a very specific reason. And that was that he is very alarmed by the growth of terrorism and rivalry between the superpowers. And he said this performance of sidhis can produce so much coherence that it would demonstrate a technique for creating world peace, that enough people practicing the sidhis would create world peace."

Professional stage magicians have known for years that the power of suggestion can cause people to move their muscles unconsciously, thus causing "supernatural" events to occur. If a group of people sits around a table, and if each person puts the index finger of each hand under the table while chanting "rise, rise, rise," the involuntary lifting motion of their arms, brought on by their concentrating on the table rising, will combine with the rhythmic chant to cause them to lift the table, even if they vehemently deny afterward that they engaged in any actual lifting. One can easily postulate that a similar explanation is at the root of the yogic flying phenomenon, but Marc Kincaid, whose collegiate training was in physics, says this isn't so.

"It's definitely a spontaneous thing," Kincaid insists. "As your body moves, your muscles get involved, but it's very secondary. And for people who have tried to do this out of the context of being deep in meditation, it's exhausting."

Nevertheless, the picture on publicity literature showing a man and a woman in a lotus position, apparently hovering several feet from the ground and smiling broadly at the camera, seems to indicate that they're very much awake. Is this, then, the final stage of yogic flying, to be suspended several feet in the air?

"That's hovering. That's the second stage," Kincaid answers. "And the third stage should be flying at will. [He sweeps his arm broadly, to indicate flying across the room or, by inference, anywhere one wishes.] I haven't personally seen that. I can't speak for anybody else. I know a few people who say they've seen people hovering in the air, but not many at this point. What Maharishi has said is that when people have asked him to demonstrate it in the past and he's resisted, he's said, 'Even if I could do it, one or two or three people doing it is insufficient. We want to have an Age of Enlightenment where we have a thousand people who can hover.' He's taken regular people, just regular people growing up in Chicago and the midwest, and we've learned TM, we learned to transcend, and now we're starting to use this Unified Field within our own life. And the fact that at this point my body can't stay in the air is not that much of a disappointment to me because the purpose of it, like TM, is to unfold benefits."

The benefits of TM, even if one remains skeptical about the sidhis, are widely noted, but they also raise some questions for those who feel that improvement in the world situation depends more on mass anger than mass peacefulness. One need not be an advocate of armed revolution to suggest that pacified people, able to attain a state of contentment under even uncomfortable conditions, may not rise up to challenge an oppressive system. Although TM's advocates strongly resist calling their belief a "religion," there are elements one would describe as mystical; like many belief systems throughout history, one can see how it could be used to pacify oppressed populations, not to liberate them.

Marc Kincaid feels that this perspective confuses a person "at peace" with one who has been "pacified." He says, "Someone who practices Transcendental Meditation doesn't grow in a passive kind of happiness. They grow in a very dynamic kind of happiness that allows them to be the owner of a huge business and employ a lot of people. Dynamism doesn't become less."

But what of the employees in that business? More specifically, what of the people in a country where the government is enlightened but rather imperialistic and repressive? Would the citizens of Dr. Fiakpui's native Ghana, for instance, have risen to throw off the yoke of European domination had they been practicing TM? Dr. Fiakpui considers the question.

"It's a good question," he answers after a moment's thought. "A very good question. I'd say yes, they could; they would have. Let me give you two examples in history. The most immediate one, of course, is Martin Luther King Jr. I think he's as religious and sincere as anybody we can think of in our generation, in this century. Of course I have to mention Mahatma Gandhi, too, in the same breath. Who is more peaceful than those two? They didn't take guns or knives, but look at how much they were able to accomplish in a much more evolutionary way, in a much more humane way, without bloodshed. Look at what happened in Vietnam. What was accomplished? They were very aggressive, but how many lives were lost? What happened? What was accomplished?

"If Dr. King was unhappy himself, dissatisfied with his condition, I don't think he could've done what he did. He couldn't've galvanized people, he couldn't've brought them together in that way. He himself was a very peaceful man; he was a very religious man. And I'm sure he meditated many a time. Yet he was still not content with what he saw around him, regardless of what other people were saying. So my answer to that question is yes, even with meditation, you know, feeling peaceful, what happens is that because of that peace which you feel, you don't get overwhelmed by what's happening around you, you can almost sit back and observe it and, without being overwhelmed, without being absorbed into it, you are affecting change yet you are out of it. Yet, at the same time, you are a part of it. It sounds contradictory, but it's very true. That's exactly what TM does to you. You are still happy about things in your life, you are still sad about things that are happening every day, you get angry, someone may make you angry, yet you are not overwhelmed by all that is happening. You bounce back. Do I look glassy-eyed? [He laughs] I think I've got very much of a fighting spirit!"

The aspect of mass meditation that most disturbs observers is probably its coupling with what sometimes looks like a concerted effort to build a spiritual and philosophical empire, with India at the center and Maharishi or one of his followers at the helm. According to Marc Kincaid, the fear is groundless. He says no leader of the TM movement is envisioned as a center of truth, justice, or political power, nor is India itself.

"It's not in India. The Veda, Maharishi says, is just the laws of nature that exist in being, in that state of unbounded being that physics calls the Unified Field. In that state of being, that's why these people are called seers, because they've meditated and so perfected their ability to see that when they went in and then transcended thought, they were in that place where the three--the knowing, the object of the knowing, and the knower--became one, then all laws of nature are contained in that state, anything you could possibly know about on a manifest level will be there. We're excited about India, mostly because India has a history of people who go into the knowledge of the Veda, which exists in every culture, in every planet of the universe, the Veda is there. And theoretically anyone could settle down in Chicago, or Mexico, or in Europe or in Africa and cognize the Vedic consciousness. And if they had a culture that was more adaptable to that knowledge, they could have brought it about from that culture."

Some TM materials, however, paint a slightly different picture. An illustration on the back page of the booklet Maharishi's Program to Create World Peace depicts a map of the world with golden rays emanating from India. The caption reads, "Rays of Hope from India, the Land of the Veda." There is also a quote from Maharishi: "It is interesting to observe that the Vedic Pandits of this generation--the remnants of the Vedic civilization, the most ancient civilization in the world--are rising up to be the pioneers of world peace and India, the all-time common friend of all nations, is rising to be the host of peace for the whole world family."

Dr. Jay Glaser suggested strongly that fears of world domination are relevant only to the extent that the people of the world have it coming to them. He was referring to governments in general, not any hypothesized takeover by adherents of a particular philosophy, when he said, "People always get what they deserve. In other words, they always end up getting the leader that they deserve. When you're lazy, when there's no energy, when there's sickness among society, all there is is problems. There's want in society, economic problems, the crops will fail and if they don't fail they won't be brought in, the people will be unhappy, dissatisfied, the immediate thing is terrorism, war, crime, everything goes on. And the leader has to be forceful, a dictator. They get what they deserve. If the people are absolutely progressive, doing things in a positive way, they will get a leader that gives them complete freedom because he knows that what they're doing is beneficial for the country. That means he's absolutely a reflection of what's going on in collective consciousness."

So if, for instance, blacks in South Africa began to practice TM-Sidhi instead of rioting, they would gain liberation?

"Of course! Not suddenly; it might take a while. But 80 percent of the population can easily influence 20 percent of the population."

What of people, such as 16th- and 17th-century Africans, who were exploited and enslaved by foreigners? How can they have "deserved" this?

"Their society wasn't cohesive enough to ward it off. It's like a body. A body, when it's healthy, some influence comes in from outside like a virus. If you're healthy and there are ten people in a room, and a virus comes in, somebody comes in with a virus, two or three people might come down with a cold. What about the other seven? Why didn't they? Host resistance, absolutely. Because their body is balanced. It's just balance. If the society [in African countries] had been completely balanced, some force, a negative, foreign element comes from the outside that impinges on the system and it won't let it happen. It's absolutely physiology. Something, there was some weakness there. Absolutely must have been. I'm not a historian, but I'm just stating a basic principle from physiology that also applies to the physiology of a society. I think it's an Ayurvedic principle that if you look deeply into the principles of Ayurveda, Maharishi Ayurveda very clearly states these things."

That sounds like blaming the victim for his own oppression.

"It is blaming the victim, definitely! Oh, absolutely. So here's the point. When people meditate they become more clear, progressive, dynamic in their actions. And more cohesive as a group. Their desires change. You meditate, your desires change. You want something else. The important thing that I want to bring out is that any ruler is only, absolutely only, a reflection of the collective consciousness of the people. You don't find peace where the people are not progressive. That means he really cannot do anything that would not be mandated by the people, on the level of their collective consciousness."

Seated in the TM center, the "Chicago Capital of the Age of Enlightenment," an observer begins to feel that the talk of peace and dynamism may not be as utopian as some might think. The room is spacious and clean, with a curious combination of the traditional and the new. Oriental rugs adorn the brightly polished wood floor, a porcelain bowl of pinecones sits atop the sink in the men's room, and near the shelf where books on TM and Ayurveda are lined up for public scrutiny sits a new VCR. Marc Kincaid and Jim Dallas use it to show tapes proclaiming the virtues of TM, tapes that feature businesspeople, Catholic priests, students, and others from all walks of life testifying that meditation has enhanced their lives. There's even a clip of Maharishi himself, speaking in that high-pitched voice that's been so widely satirized, explaining the basic principles of his philosophy. Kincaid and Dallas explain that most of the money made from spreading the TM message has gone into the Maharishi World Peace Fund, apparently a master fund that will be used to advance and develop TM-related activities throughout the world. One enjoys the company of these relaxed and obviously joyful men; the herbal tea is soothing, and after a while the notion of an empire doesn't seem so sinister after all. If there must be a One World Government, one begins to think, we could do worse than to have it run according to a philosophy based on holism and happiness.

Once outside, however, with the bracing air of the Chicago winter whipping against one's face, things seem somewhat different. A few short blocks from the TM center, elderly women hunch over dumpsters looking for food, junkies lurk in back alleys, and swastikas are scrawled over a Washington campaign poster. "The struggle is just beginning," proclaims another poster urging people to boycott businesses that invest in South Africa. It's difficult to believe that the victims of apartheid, or the street people foraging for food, are merely victims of their own inner discord or that of their neighbors. As the el train roars above, on its way to the south side where some people live in conditions nearly as desolate as those in South Africa, one is glad that techniques like meditation exist to make the stress and nerve-jangling intensity of daily life somewhat more manageable. But the people for whom the activists fight, and who fight for themselves, will need more than the good intentions of 10,000 sidhas in Fairfield, Iowa, or Washington, D.C. If, as has been said, freedom and enlightenment are blossoms awaiting the chance to bloom, it will take a lot of strong backs, willing hands, and hardy spirits to help in the planting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler; photos/Kathy Richland.

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