Oprah Winfrey has interviewed many of the most renowned spiritual leaders and personal growth advocates around the globe. Yet, to her surprise, she found one of the most compelling displays of higher consciousness and spirituality a few hours drive from her Chicago-based studio.
In Oprah's recent edition of her show Next Chapter, she shares her personal experiences with meditation and explores "TM Town" -- Fairfield, Iowa, home of Maharishi University of Management and an unlikely mecca of entrepreneurs, sustainability, creativity and, most of all, meditation.
"Smack in the middle of Midwestern farmland," she said in a recent issue of The Oprah Magazine. "The last place you'd expect to get stuck in an evening traffic jam because so many people are headed off to practice transcendental meditation."
With meditation's rising popularity and acceptance in American culture, it seemed inevitable that the country's most high profile "spiritual seeker" would soon discover the largest meditation community in the U.S., where some of the most advanced brain research on meditation has been taking place for decades and thousands of people meditate together everyday -- several hundred of them students, from kindergarten to Ph.D.
Oprah has received both praise and skepticism for giving up her status as "Goddess of Daytime" -- withdrawing from mainstream programming to start her OWN cable network. For many of us involved in consciousness-raising endeavors such as meditation, she now seems more relevant and bold than ever.
"We Stop, We Meditate"
Oprah began practicing the TM technique in 2011 and at the same time introduced it to her management staff. "I brought transcendental meditation teachers into Harpo Studios to teach me and my team how to meditate. Seven of us. Seven led to 70... to 270... Now everybody in the company meditates at 9 o'clock in the morning and 4:30 in the afternoon. No matter what's going on, we stop, we meditate."
Why would one of the most powerful, successful business women in the world -- arguably the most successful -- encourage all her workers to stop everything, sit and close their eyes for 20 minutes twice a day? Perhaps for the practical results: "You can't imagine what's happened in the company. People who used to have migraines, don't. People are sleeping better. People have better relationships. People react with other people better. It's fantastic."
Oprah visited Fairfield to further explore meditation's benefits -- and she brought her film crew. The episode shows her meditating with 400 women in the university's meditation dome. It follows her visit through the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, a K-12 school whose name denotes a new era of "consciousness-based" education, as conceived by the school's founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
She speaks with Maharishi School kids who in their own words share what it's like to meditate together and attend an award-winning school where meditation is an integral part of the curriculum.
There's also a visit to The Raj, a world class ayurvedic health spa, and the university's organic greenhouses.
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of this tour of "the most unusual town in America," as Oprah describes it, is the campus at neighboring Maharishi Vedic City. Here, over a thousand "Vedic Pandits" from India have come to live and meditate together -- and to perform advanced yogic procedures designed to create peace and harmony for the nation.
Meditating in the Dome
It's a striking shot: Oprah sitting in silence with several hundred other women on the meditation mats of the "Golden Dome."
There are two such meditation domes on the university's main campus -- one for women, one for men. Every morning and evening, seven days a week, 2,000 volunteers from 50 countries and all races and religions come together in the domes for group meditation. Their endeavor, called the "Invincible America Assembly," is based on the ancient yogic tradition of maintaining large group meditations to neutralize negative societal trends and generate a positive influence in national consciousness.
"We all gathered in our dome for the sole purpose of being still," says Oprah. "Stillness is the space where all creative expression, peace, light and love come to be. It was a powerfully energizing yet calming experience. I didn't want it to end. I walked away feeling fuller than when I came in, full of hope and a sense of contentment and deep joy."
Oprah's passion for education is well known. Her Leadership Academy for Girls opened in South Africa in 2007, founded to provide quality education for underprivileged but exceptional female students.
It's no surprise that she was inspired by the students she met at the Maharishi School -- which, more so than the university, became the central focus of her visit to Fairfield.
The school's system of education is called "consciousness-based" because of its emphasis on unfolding the consciousness and creative potential of the students. "Here, meditation is a fundamental educational tool," says Maharishi School principal Richard Beall. "I don't mean meditation in the sense of contemplation, concentration or trying to be mindful or monitor your inner experience. But meditation that effortlessly allows the mind to transcend and settle inward beyond thoughts, to the state of restful alertness -- where students contact their silent, inner source of creativity and intelligence."
A deep conviction about the value of contacting that inner silence seems to be Oprah's main takeaway: "Being still with ourselves, coming back to a center and recognizing that something is more important than you, more important than the work you're doing, brings a kind of energy, an intensity of energy and intention that we've never had before... I am 1,000 percent better when I do that."
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