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Claire Hoffman On Belief, Meditation And Growing Up In 'Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving A Transcendent Childhood'

Harper Collins Publishers
Hoffman moved with her mother and brother to Fairfield to study Transcendental Meditation and follow the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

This transcript has been edited for clarity

Claire Hoffman is a journalist and author. She spent much of her childhood in Fairfield, Iowa, which is the focus of her first book, a memoir, published in 2016 “Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood.” Hoffman graduated from UC Santa Cruz, received a master's degree in religion from University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. She now splits her time between California and Costa Rica.

Interview Highlights

On her mother meeting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

[My mother] was nineteen years old and she was at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She was waiting outside of an auditorium. She describes [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi] walking by and stopping to say hello to her and that connection, him looking into her eyes, as a profoundly spiritual experience. You know a sense of total love and acceptance that she felt in that moment and that sort of became the fire or engine that drove us to follow his teachings and move to Iowa.

On the catalyst for the move

My mom says that last year we were living in New York, my brother and I did not even see my father. He was living with us but he was out and drinking and partying so much at night that he was never around during the day. My mom was just kind of struggling to figure out what her next move would be and my dad had just completely gone off the deep end. One weekend our neighbors had invited us to go away, upstate for the weekend and when we came back, my dad had left a note and about $50 in cash on the table. He said that he was leaving and he had moved to California. We got evicted the next day. My mom was really in a tight spot. All the friends she had made in the TM movement were moving to Fairfield, Iowa and following Maharishi and she decided that was going to be the best thing for us.

On the animosity between townspeople and “guru” newcomers

In researching this book, I went back and looked at the archives of the Fairfield Ledger. You see this sense of outcry that Fairfield had been invaded. This was entirely localized in our kindergarten classroom. On my first day, kids asked me “are you a meditator and does your mother fly?” I said, yes, my mom is a meditator and we are here so she can learn how to fly. Flying was this yogic flying technique that Maharishi said would create world peace. Everything about me felt weird and strange. This was the third kindergarten I had gone to in a year. The food I ate, the clothes I wore, I was just an outsider. I had come from New York and then Florida. I completely understand the sense of confusion for the people who lived there to have all these people moving in from New York and California and Europe into their town with, at the time, pretty wacky beliefs. I think that trickled down to the kids.

On the changing vision of Maharishi

In 1977, Maharishi really changed the course of his movement. Before that, many people had learned transcendental meditation. That meant just twenty minutes of saying a mantra in the morning and twenty minutes of saying a mantra in the afternoon. It was a pretty simple and mainstream technique. Then, Maharishi came out with his advanced technique his TM-Sidhi program. Sidhi, loosely translated, means superpowers. The advertisements of the time said things like ‘the powers of invisibility, the strength of an elephant and the ability to fly.’ Flying was what he focused in on. He had a mathematical formula that showed if large groups of people practiced his yogic flying together, they would create world peace. It was based on that mathematical formula that he called the Maharishi effect, that he had people move to Fairfield. It was going to be these peace-creating groups, this sort of capital of his age of enlightenment. Being there with my mom, she really wanted to be doing more than this basic level intro TM. She really wanted to learn how to fly. It cost thousands of dollars. I think it might have been $3000 or $4000 then. It felt like everyone was doing it. They built two giant golden dome shaped buildings, a men's dome and a women's dome. People would go there for about two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening and practice yogic flying. Everything with Maharishi seemed to be expensive, but this was the most expensive. The logic given from Maharishi was that for Americans to value things they had to pay a lot of money for it.

On being a mother and how she views her mom’s choices now

It has been sort of an incredible experience writing the book and looking back now as a mother at the situation my mother was in. My memories of that time are sort of mixed, but my mom’s description of the excitement and the energy and the sense of purpose that she felt at that time was just so big, special and unique. I think that it is probably something that you hear from people who moved there at that time. I mean people felt fantastic. They were meditating four hours a day. They had this huge sense of purpose. It just felt like anything was possible. My mom grew up in a middle-class household and when she got to Fairfield, she didn’t have a lot of work opportunities. She ended up having to file for food stamps which was really humiliating for her. It felt strange to us as kids, because we had moved there and felt all the hope and energy and excitement but there was this other side to it which was standing on a precipice of something bad happening. After we’d gotten evicted in New York, we wondered if we were safe or secure. It was a strange combination of hope and danger.

On switching to the private school

Like with the flying program, an anonymous donor from the movement paid for my brother and I to go to the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment. I think it ended up being one of the many guys who was sort of in love with my mother. We were so jazzed to finally feel like we were a part of what was happening. At the new school, we started much later than the public school. We started at like 9:30 in the morning which was awesome. We would sing songs about Maharishi or his science of creative intelligence which was his life philosophy. We would do a group meditation together as kids. We all wore uniforms. It was very organized. The first class of the day was always Maharishi’s life philosophy of the science of creative intelligence where we would learn his theories of life and there were some basic principles and words that he felt were integral to understanding the world. From there we were meant to go into our regular subjects like math, science or spelling. As time went on, every class kind of became Maharishi’s philosophy class. It started to invade every subject. Even though we were doing math we would be talking about how we could see Maharishi’s principles in those math problems. We had a long lunch. At one point it was a two-hour lunch because Maharishi believed that we shouldn’t be stressed out and that it should be a relaxed experience. At the end of the day, we would end with meditation again and be on our way.

On pushing back against an escape narrative

I think a part of my motivation for writing this book as a journalist is that you see all these books out there, which totally understandably, are about people who grew up in these sort of fringe religious communities and they escape. They were a part of it and then to whatever degree they were deluded and then they come out and they see the light and they look back and see everything as horrible. Often times it is and I am not demeaning that experience, but for me that is not what my experience was like. It felt magical to believe everything that Maharishi taught and to be a part of a belief community where everyone shared this sense of purpose and belief that we were changing the world.

On when her beliefs as a child began to change

There was an external change. Maharishi was having more and more teachings come out. Everything seemed to have another layer of knowledge. At the same time, my dad came back into our life. He had completely disappeared. I didn’t talk to him for almost six years and he reappeared in our life when I was around 12 years old. He moved to Fairfield briefly and then moved to Iowa City. He was this sort of counter viewpoint to what was going on. He was sort of critical. My lightning bolt moment was when I was twelve years old. It was November 1989 and the school administrator called all the kids into this special assembly and there was a lot of excitement. Everyone gathered and the administrator is sitting on the stage and he is weeping tears of joy. He announces to all of us that because of our meditations, the Berlin Wall had been torn down. That we had torn it down. For me, I just knew it wasn’t true. I knew that my meditations had not been extra special or extra powerful. I did not believe it. I felt like we were taking credit for a world event that had absolutely nothing to do with us. After that, things started to look really differently for me.

On choosing meditation for herself

Part of this book is sort of about separating the past and the history and the dogma of the religion you grow up with and trying to find value in it and the things that mean something to you and for me that is meditation. It was always this gift for me and an ability to separate off from the chaos of the world around me and find peace and tranquility and really connect to myself. Over time so much got layered on top of that experience that I rejected it. By the time I was a teenager, I was not really meditating.

It is a work in progress. For me, my connection to TM is the ability to hold contradiction and have these two opposing ideas. I feel a lot of disappointment and sadness about Maharishi and the people who live there still who struggle to make ends meet because of the cost of his programs and yet I meditate every day, just once a day. It is something that feels very much my own and not a part of that. It is a quiet, personal experience. It is holding those two opposites, letting go of the part of me that is critical, cynical and judges the past of the movement and sort of staying connected to some sense of spirituality.

Lindsey Moon produced this interview for broadcast. Monica Starr adapted this interview for the Web.

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer