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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Guru reality
Geoff Gilpin takes us inside a movement that transformed America's religious landscape
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Gilpin: "I don't claim to be enlightened."
Gilpin: "I don't claim to be enlightened."
Credit:Mark Sibley

Sitting at the Manna Cafà on Madison's north side, I look across the table at local author Geoff Gilpin and wonder.
For 33 years, the tall, graying software consultant and technical writer has been meditating twice a day without missing a sitting. Back when he started, it was said it took only five to eight years to become enlightened.

I may be sitting across from a higher being.

"I don't claim to be enlightened," says Gilpin, 53, of DeForest, whose new book on the Transcendental Meditation movement, The Maharishi Effect: A Personal Journey Through the Movement That Transformed American Spirituality (Tarcher) comes out next month.

This sets me a little more at ease. "Of course," he continues, "people who do claim to have experiences of higher states of consciousness say that it's really nothing all that unusual, and you realized that you were there all along. It may be even a very mundane thing."

What does that mean? I do a lot of mundane things every day. Probably 99% of what I do is mundane. Is it possible I, too, might be enlightened? I would love it if mowing my lawn were actually Nirvana.

This sort of thing is hard to ascertain over an hour at a coffee shop, but for his part, Gilpin not only doesn't claim to be enlightened, but he doesn't claim to be able to do any of the things some of Maharishi's followers claim: levitate, read minds, become invisible, lower the crime rate, increase crop yield.

These claims are exactly the kinds of things that made Gilpin want to go back and take a good hard look at the movement he used to be an integral part of. He has done this brilliantly in his new book, in which he casts a skeptical, if tender, eye on the path Maharishi and his followers have taken.

Things were different when Gilpin first discovered "TM". It was 1973, he was living in Green Bay and studying video production at a local tech school. One day, he stumbled on a poster with a picture of this Indian dude promoting something called "transcendental meditation." Gilpin was instantly intrigued. It was a bright splash of color in the monochromatic Midwest of the time.

"It was the beginnings of globalization," says Gilpin now, looking back. "People my age were beginning to realize there was more to music and literature and religion and spirituality than what we grew up with in our homes and schools. Today you can go down to the local music store and have your pick of 20 different Celtic bands and 20 different sitar players. When I was growing up, that was not the case."

The world was opening up, and Gilpin wanted to let it all in, so he borrowed $35 dollars from his mom to take a course from a guy named Harry, who ran the Green Bay TM center.

"Maharishi was a marketing genius," says Gilpin. "He packaged meditation like McDonald's hamburgers. He had it standardized to the point where in any city in America you could look up meditation in the phone book and find one of his TM centers. His people wore suits and ties. He made it acceptable to Mr. and Mrs. Middle America."

Before long, Gilpin was on a plane to Santa Barbara, Calif., where he enrolled in Maharishi International University. He followed the school when it moved to Fairfield, Iowa (where it's still located, now called Maharishi University of Management).

A few years later, and perhaps a little more enlightened, Gilpin left Iowa and moved on to other things, working computer and programming jobs around Wisconsin. After settling in Madison in the early 1990s, in an early instance of Internet dating, he met a woman from Chicago named Sarah. The two started corresponding, and before long she moved to the Madison area, where they both still live today.

In 1999, Gilpin opened one of the many mailings he still got from the movement, but found something he'd never seen before. It was "Maharishi's Final Warning to the United States." This didn't sound like the yogi he'd known. If the U.S. didn't stop bombing places like Yugoslavia, Maharishi warned, soon bombs would start falling on Washington and New York. "I'd never seen anything like that before," says Gilpin. "I realized something was going on there."

But if things had changed in the movement, they had also changed for Gilpin. By the late '90s, he'd maxed out his computing ambitions. He was happily married, but something wasn't quite right. So he decided to go back to school and get a Master of Fine Arts in writing creative nonfiction under a different kind of guru, Lee Gutkind.

"You might chalk it up to a midlife crisis," says Gilpin. "At some point I realized I was never going to make any great contribution to the world of computer software. And I really felt that I had more to offer ' more than some computer program that gets used on somebody's PC in a cubicle somewhere."

Back in school, in a low-residency program offered by Baltimore's Goucher College, Gilpin started casting around for a subject.

"In a way it was serendipitous," Gilpin remembers. "I was writing and looking for a topic, and at the same time I realized that major changes were afoot in the [TM] movement." After Gilpin received his MFA, he knew it was time to look into it.

Together with wife Sarah, Gilpin went back to Fairfield for the first time in more than two decades. It was not the same place he'd left. There were golden domes everywhere, yet the campus was shabby and run-down. The classes were filled with international students more interested in American visas than Universal Consciousness.

The town itself was different, too. What had been an old farming community with a failed college was now a thriving bohemian enclave with organic grocery stores, coffee shops and an art and music scene that Gilpin says rivals Madison's.

Around Fairfield, Gilpin started meeting old friends, some of whom had been kicked out of the movement for trivial infractions but stuck around anyway. Eventually he decided to get an apartment for a few months while he investigated more unanswered questions.

One of those questions was whether there is any truth to the mysterious "Maharishi Effect" ' where the results of TM are supposed to radiate to the surrounding fabric of space-time and create peace and harmony, lower crime rates, even defend nations. Good vibes, essentially.

Those who have followed the recent popularity of the 2004 documentary film What the Bleep Do We Know? will recognize many of the claims surrounding the Maharishi Effect, which link the power of the mind to the physical world.

A lot of what is expressed in that film "really does go back to the TM movement, because it was Maharishi who claimed that there would be scientific proof for the effects of meditation. He was talking about quantum mechanics and consciousness decades before anyone else."

Much of the research on the Maharishi Effect lowering crime rates has not been published in peer-reviewed journals. In fact, Gilpin had a hard time finding any independent physicist who wanted to talk about it. But eventually he did track a few down.

"From what I can tell," Gilpin says, "the claims about human consciousness influencing physical reality in an apparently paranormal fashion are really more pop culture than science, and largely wishful thinking. It would be great if it were true. I would love to levitate. I would even pay the $7,000 that Maharishi is asking for the levitation course."

Of course, Gilpin hasn't signed up yet, and probably won't. But as I'm listening to him tell me this, what strikes me is a lack of anger in his voice, a lack of triumph, and even a lack of disappointment. This shows through in his book too, which is a remarkable thing: It's a sympathetic, yet grounded and highly readable history of an important part of American culture. It would have been easier to dismiss the movement today as a bunch of bouncing wack-jobs.

The Maharishi Effect also gives an intimate look at how such movements evolve and, almost as a rule, go off the rails. Gilpin's book is an honest attempt to understand a man and a movement that changed the country and changed Gilpin ' something for which he remains grateful.

"I still consider myself part of the family," he says. "I still do the meditations. I still have close friends in the group. And those were some of the happiest years of my life. It was a vital, transformative experience." Gilpin thinks of himself as loyal, even if "there's a lot that I can't go along with."

Maybe it's all that meditation that lets someone not be angry at the betrayal of his cherished ideals. Maybe it's peace of mind that lets him quietly pick out the good and discard the bad. Or maybe it's some kind of enlightenment that ultimately gives Gilpin's book the feeling of a story of two old friends, one who went a little crazy, and the other who kept his feet, as it were, on the ground.

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