Good Vibrations

Disputed Reform Party candidate John Hagelin thinks he can change the world with the power of positive thinking. Does that make him nuts?

The legions of TM devotees who jetted to Washington from across the world in June of 1993 were certain their two-month "National Demonstration Project to Reduce Violent Crime," funded with $4.2 million from the TM treasury, would be an unparalleled success. By meditating en masse, they hoped to produce what TM leaders dub "the Maharishi effect," radiating a powerful yet invisible "coherence of consciousness," similar to radio waves, that would lower tension across the city--and as a result, take a bite out of crime.

Indeed, their predictions went, even D.C. denizens unaware that rows of mantra-repeating, lotus-positioned meditators had populated their city would be positively affected by good vibes. Would-be felons' stress levels would drop as well, and they would be less inclined to, well, shoot or stab somebody.

Heading the operation was Hagelin, one of the TM movement's newest stars. He confidently predicted that after the Washington experiment's conclusion, "You should see a resumption of previous levels of crime...So we can be very bold about the results and take credit for it."

John Hagelin stumps in Dallas this summer. Hagelin, who made a failed attempt to unseat Pat Buchanan as the Reform Party candidate, represents the Natural Law Party.
Michael Hogue
John Hagelin stumps in Dallas this summer. Hagelin, who made a failed attempt to unseat Pat Buchanan as the Reform Party candidate, represents the Natural Law Party.

Two months passed. Good vibrations radiated from meditation locations, yet TM disciples were unable to stop one of Washington's worst seasons of mayhem ever. "The weeks that followed seemed like something out of an old mad-scientist movie--an experiment that had gone horribly wrong," says Robert Park, a University of Maryland physics professor and director of the American Physical Society's Washington office, in his recent book Voodoo Science. "Participants in the project seemed serenely unaware of the mounting carnage around them...The murder rate for those two months reached a level unmatched before or since."

Yet on July 29, 1993, Hagelin and other TM leaders held a news conference to claim victory. They weren't modest in stating their achievements, attributing improved relations between President Clinton and Congress and several world events to their efforts. Most important, Hagelin gave TM credit for less crime.

Number-crunchers were skeptical, to say the least. Fewer robberies and assaults occurred during TM's tarriance than the previous year, but what about a whopping 50 percent rise in murders and a 9 percent jump in rapes? (An astounding 90 killings occurred in Washington during those two months.) "Homicide is the toughest nut to crack," answered Hagelin in a troubled tone, promising he would return to elaborate further.

And he did. At an October 6, 1994 press powwow, he unveiled a 55-page "scientific analysis" of crime during the TM sojourn. The meditators' peaceful presence, he claimed, had actually decreased violent crime by 18 percent, according to a "scientifically rigorous time-series analysis" based on weather, changes in the earth's magnetic field, and other factors.

Skeptical scribes asked: Eighteen percent compared to what? Even more violent crime would have occurred, he claimed, had the thousands of meditators not been present. Predictably, city officials passed on Hagelin's $5 million proposal for a permanent Washington contingent of TMers.

And what would said contingent do to keep itself occupied other than live on the dole and bounce up and down blissfully on padded floors? Hagelin had a suggestion last year when he magnanimously offered the U.S. government 7,000 meditators and allegedly levitating "yogic flyers" to quell hostilities in war-torn Kosovo. But Hagelin has yet to answer one question pertinent to such military forays: Can yogic flyers dodge bullets?

Reporters present might have asked: Just who were these people holding weird press conferences? It's necessary to first look at the practice of Transcendental Meditation and its bearded founder the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi--former guru to an A-list of stars from the Beatles to Burt Reynolds and now-estranged New Age healer Deepak Chopra--to understand Hagelin and TM's political effort.

The elderly Maharishi, in his 90s and directing his empire from the Netherlands, founded TM in 1957 with one dovelike message: "The basis of life is unbounded bliss and it can be experienced effortlessly by anyone." Ever since, he has been adding new facilities and higher-level techniques to the mix--most notably, yogic flying, in which advanced "TM-Sidhi" students bounce in a Lotus position under the belief that they are spreading peace and levitating, a practice blamed for many back injuries. (Officially, TM leaders admit yogic flyers haven't yet achieved airborne status.)

Meanwhile, the Maharishi is regarded practically as a deity by his following: A TM-operated Web site claims "His Holiness" Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is "considered to be the greatest teacher in the world today." In a 1990 Life magazine article, John Hagelin said the guru will bequeath a legacy "far greater than that of Einstein or Gandhi."

The Maharishi, known for habit of giggling while dispensing pearls of wisdom in videotaped meditation sessions, also heads several multibillion-dollar businesses, ranging from natural medicine products to an architectural design firm. But the essence of TM is the starter program (current cost: $1,000), which TM leaders claim five million people have taken. New recruits receive a mantra, a single word in Sanskrit they repeat for 15 to 20 minutes during twice-a-day meditation. Like other forms of meditation it relaxes its practitioners while lowering heart rate and blood pressure, benefits corroborated by a strong base of research.

While TM advocates tout their program above other meditation regimens, researchers say TM works about as well as other methods. But adherents don't stop at testimonials that TM simply makes you feel good. They cite more than 500 studies to prove that TM has a more powerful impact--including the vaunted "Maharishi effect."

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