Monday, June 09, 2008

Thirty Years Later: What was all that about? (Part 12 of a series)

(To read this series from the beginning, start here.)

One way in which I sometimes view the TM organization today is that many of its practices and its leaders seem to drive people towards a state of dissonance. One example of this, of course, is the religion that dares not call itself religious angle, where the movement adds more and more religious imagery and practice to its programs while still insisting that those same programs are somehow scientific in nature. Another is the fact that its leaders claim imminent success when it’s clear that the movement has accomplished very little, relative to its inflated claims, over almost half a century.

The movement’s insistence that scientific support exists for its claims are yet another source of everyday dissonance. Completely arbitrary assertions, vaguely based on traditional Indian or Hindu beliefs and culture, are held to be true because they’re allegedly supported through “scientific research.” These arbitrary assertions are often put forth because they are in some way support ventures that are profitable to the movement or to certain influential supporters in a position to benefit. Meanwhile, the alleged “scientific research” in fact may only be vaguely related to the claims made, or the “research” is the product of the movement’s own people, reflecting their biases and preferences.

A contemporary example of this phenomenon is the introduction of “Maharishi Vedic Architecture,” also called “Maharishi Sthapatya Veda.” This is, of course, a commercial product, involving architects and builders; it’s the design and construction of buildings that are allegedly in accordance with Vedic tradition regarding orientation, proportion, and placement on their building site.

Now one of the first things you’ll notice, if you read the organization’s “exhibition” of its project to create what it calls “ideal housing,” is the grand scope of the supposed undertaking. It is a never-ending project, a “Global Undertaking to Reconstruct the World in Harmony with Natural Law.

What do they find wrong with the current construction of almost all civilization? To them, a house is not properly oriented unless its entrance faces due East. They claim that, as a result of faulty orientation, “at least 75% of all buildings contribute to ill health and all other problems in society.”

I’ll say it again. As is often the case when examining the rhetoric the TM movement has spewed in recent years, the usual notions of cause and effect are clearly not helpful in making sense of such statements. Yes, we are talking about people who think that if the entrance of your house doesn’t face due East, you’ll get sick. They even insist that there’s scientific support for this ridiculous claim. As can be seen in their online “Exhibition:”

According to the latest research in neuroscience, brain cells fire according to orientation. The firing patterns of neurons in the thalamus of the brain are altered by the direction one is facing, thus influencing the entire brain functioning and the whole physiology. When one is facing East, the brain physiology functions differently than when one is facing North, South, or West.

There is, of course, no scientific research that supports these claims. In fact, the organization has even issued a “Background and Summary of Scientific Research” that, while pointing out some peer-reviewed, published research carried out by unaffiliated researchers suggests that the brains of rats may be able to sense physical orientation, this research does not indicate sensitivity or awareness of the cardinal directions or the favored eastern direction:

Although Vedic Architecture clearly and repeatedly suggests preferential sensitivity to the eastern direction there is no evidence yet as to whether any neurons in mammalian brains are sensitive to the cardinal directions, i.e. whether brain cells are either sensitive or selective to magnetic field orientation and/or to environmental cues signally the direction of the rising sun.

Other inconclusive “scientific research” has been performed on human subjects by individuals associated with the organization. This research doesn’t indicate the mechanism by which the cardinal directions might have any measurable effect on human behavior.

How does this obsession with east-facing doors and a particular type of traditional architecture play out among the TM movement’s devotees? One example could easily be found during a brief visit to the campus of the movement’s “Maharishi University of Management” (MUM) in Fairfield, Iowa, in the spring of 2004. The original student center building, a midcentury-modern relic with a main entrance facing west, was evidently determined to be a major offender in the orientation department. Handles had been removed from the doors of the main entrance, and a ramp had been built around the building so that people could make a detour all the way around the building and enter through the east side. Taped to the original entrance doors was this sign:

Please Do Not Use This Western Door

Natural Law always supports every aspect of our daily activity.

Wrongly placed entrances may contribute to:

  • Inauspicious, negative influences for everyone
  • Anger, aggression
  • Constant fear
  • Chronic diseases

Inauspicious entrances facing western directions contribute to:

  • Influence of poverty
  • Lack of creativity and vitality
  • Influence of quarrelling
  • Influence of mental inconsistency and instability

Thank you for kindly upholding Natural Law for the residents and/or for those working in this building by not using this western exit.

Note that this sign found on the MUM campus claims that the “wrongly placed entrances” are the sole source of these negative effects. Other more mundane possible influences, such as bad air, fumes from construction materials, or insufficient lighting, are ignored.

It would be one thing if this “Vedic Architecture” product, and the ridiculous claims made for it, was a relatively small business confined to the realm of individual home buyers and the buildings built for the TM movement itself. But Jeffrey Abramson, the Washington, DC area developer and longtime TM devotee I wrote about in the previous installment of this series, has bigger plans. Currently nearing completion in Rockville, Maryland is what is said to be the world’s largest Vedic office building, 2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard. It’s 9 stories tall, sized at 198,000 square feet, and it cost seventy million dollars.

The east face of 2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard. (Rendering from

While reading the promotional website for this building, I feel a distinct sense of deja vu. This building is in some ways being marketed in the same way that the TM technique has always been marketed. The marketing materials begin with a set of completely reasonable claims, that good air, better lighting and improved thermal control from a high-efficiency physical plant provide benefits to tenants. This sounds similar to the initial claim made for Transcendental Meditation, that reducing stress is beneficial. But from there things take an odd turn. From the “Return on Rent” brochure for 2000 Tower Oaks:

Increases in retention due to aligning corporate values to employee’s personal values. Studies show corporate values can re-capture 70% of employees who would have left their jobs.

It’s not clear to me how moving into a particular building is going to magically “align” corporate values and retain employees. After all, if a company is running little more than a cubicle-based sweatshop, moving to a new building would probably change very little about that working environment. But this sounds a bit familiar, going back to one of the many vague claims, if not an article of faith, seen in “The TM Book:” that mere adoption of something with a Vedic source - TM - causes positive changes in interpersonal relationships and organizations.

Any veneer of reasonability finally goes out the window when reading the “Vedic Architecture” brochure on the 2000 Tower Oaks website. Here we learn that Abramson’s building is built with a very special magic architecture that “aligns the intelligence of every individual in the building with the cosmic intelligence of the universe. This influence promotes greater success, clarity, creativity, intelligence and cooperation among employees.” There’s even more:

Here are a few of the general principles about this architectural system incorporated into the design of
2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard.

  • Orientation: The building must be oriented perfectly to the cardinal directions, true north, south, east and west, with the entrance of the building in the auspiciously easterly direction facing the rays of the dawning sun.
  • Proportions: The building must be constructed according to precise mathematical dimensions, in harmony with the dimensions of the cosmos. All measurements of 2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard, interior and exterior, are proportionally designed to mirror the geometry or architecture of the universe.
  • Center of silence: Every building needs a center of silence or core called a Brahmanstan.
  • Vastu: The building needs to be placed symmetrically and harmoniously on its site within a defined terrace or Vastu with auspicious slope of the land and any nearby bodies of water in an auspicious direction.
2000 Tower Oaks Boulevard, nearing completion, May 30, 2008. (Photo: Mike Doughney)

I was particularly interested in how one might incorporate a Brahmanstan, that “silent core,” into an office building where the waste of any floor space costs money. I looked over some of the floorplans offered, and there wasn’t anything obvious that looked like an empty space in the middle of the building. It turns out that, according to a June 20, 2005 article in the Washington Post, the Brahmanstan is merely outlined in marble on each floor. Which is to say that we are talking here about a developer who sincerely believes that drawing lines in marble on the floors of an office building will somehow contribute to positively influencing the people who work there, by some unexplained mechanism that sounds suspiciously like the kind of thing found in a religious faith.

The entrance of the building, as advertised, faces directly east, and there are no doors on the west face of the ground floor of the building. A nearby building that Abramson’s company also constructed, and that will soon serve as the company’s headquarters, likewise is oriented this way.

The construction of this building was accomplished with the direct involvement of auspices of the TM movement; “Maharishi Vedic Architecture” is one of the many trademarks of the organization. Fairfield, Iowa based “Maharishi Global Construction” and its chief architect, Jon Lipman, were part of the team that constructed this building. Recent emails sent to the TM movement’s so-called “Governors” have named Lipman “Director of Architecture for Invincible America” and “Deputy Minister of Vedic Architecture.” As I wrote earlier, the TM organization calls itself a Global Country, with “Ministers,” “Governors” and “Rajas;” I call it a toy government, as it has no real governmental power.

It was perhaps inevitable that certain subtle aspects of the marketing of Transcendental Meditation would find their way into other fields, brought there by those most familiar with that style of marketing. As I explained earlier, the marketing of TM plays on a paradox, the tension between the assumptions of American dominance and inability to be conned, versus the perceived need for new solutions in areas where American life is found wanting. Your company has difficulty retaining employees? Move to an office in this new building based on some barely understandable foreign architectural mumbo-jumbo and by simply paying rent to a new landlord, your employees will be happy and compliant! And again, it mimics the elements of the TM program that make it the ultimate consumer product. By simply spending money in the right way - on office space in a magic building - intractable problems are instantly solved, or so the marketing implies.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that the substantial, positive progress represented by the “green building” methods incorporated into this building may be cheapened by association with the nonsense represented by its marketing, which include silly notions like an east-facing door and special marks on the floor of the lobby to create a peaceful environment. But that is not a new phenomenon for the TM organization; after decades of misrepresentation of scientific research, an inability to discuss the ways in which its programs originated in Indian religious practices and beliefs, its ridiculous attempts to mimic government and monarchy, and no real progress toward its ostentatious goals, some might say that the TM movement still cheapens everything it touches.

(Continue to conclusion)

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