Walk into most schools and you’re bound to see a lot of unhappy faces. It’s not easy being a teenager these days. Students are under a lot of pressure, loaded up with schoolwork and extracurricular activities. They vie for each other’s attention, are constantly influenced by the latest fashion, and under peer pressure to experiment with alcohol and drugs. A growing number are on medication for stress-related disorders like high blood pressure, depression or ADHD. Incidents of truancy, bullying and fighting are a common occurrence, and in some cases lead to disastrous consequences.
Now visit a small Midwest school and marvel how each classroom starts their day. Imagine students sitting quietly, eyes closed, not fidgeting, not joking around, just meditating in a group for five or 10 minutes depending on the grade level. Stick around and you’ll see them focus on the subject at hand, paying attention, responding to their teacher’s questions, challenging the teacher for more knowledge with their own probing questions. Students are happy, harmonious and engaged in the learning process.
This is what you find when you visit any classroom at the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment (MSAE) in Fairfield, a small city in Southeast Iowa. Every day students, faculty and staff practice the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique together as part of their daily routine. Some of the older students participate in the more advanced TM-Sidhi Program including Yogic Flying in the Golden Domes on the adjoining campus of Maharishi University of Management (M.U.M.) to help create world peace.
Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and is a member of the National Association of Independent Schools. It is one of only five schools in the state to have been granted college preparatory status by the Iowa Department of Education in recognition of its long history of having more than 95 percent of its graduates accepted at four-year colleges. Classes in grades 9-12 consistently score in the top first percentile in standardized tests such as the Iowa Tests of Educational Development. In addition, during the past five years, the school has produced more than 10 times the national average of National Merit Scholar finalists.
Maharishi School students have won more than 100 state, national and international championship titles in the past decade in the arts, sciences, photography, theater, speech and other categories. They have won more Critics Choice Awards than any other school in the state for Choral Reading, Group Mime, Reader’s Theater and One-Act Play.
During his recent visit to Fairfield, Hollywood film director and 30-year meditator David Lynch met with students from both MUM and MSAE. He even attended the Maharishi School Theatre Cavalcade where the students were performing their recent state-winning numbers. He was taken by surprise.
“I’ve seen some great performances in film and in theater,” he remarked, “but I’ve never seen anything like I saw that night. Such honesty, naturalness, intelligence — it was phenomenal! And these weren’t actors, these were students.”
In extracurricular activities each year, MSAE sends many teams to competitions like Odyssey of the Mind (OM) and Destination ImagiNation (DI). In DI, an international competition that challenges students to think out of the box and come up with creative team-based problem solving strategies, MSAE has placed more top-10 winners at the global finals than any other school in the world. This year, the Upper School boys’ team received the coveted Renaissance Award, given for exceptional engineering, performance and “awesome teamwork and cooperation.”
When it comes to sports, the golf team became state champions in 1996, just two years after they got started under the tutelage of their founding coach, Ed Hipp, and were featured in Sports Illustrated (Dec. 23, 1996). The Iowa High School Golf Coaches Association honored Ed Hipp as Coach of the Year for 2003. And for the first time in the 70-year history of Iowa high school tennis, Maharishi School won the celebrated Triple Crown by winning first-place in State Class 1-A titles in singles, doubles and team competitions two years in a row, 1999 and 2000. The Iowa Tennis Association (ITA) chose Lawrence Eyre Coach of the Year for 2000. The tennis team was later featured in the August 2002 issue of Tennis magazine, the year they celebrated their first undefeated season. In the article, coach Eyre was quoted as saying that, “Seventy percent of a tennis match is between points and whoever recovers better and can return to a steady state is going to do better.” TM helped his players recover quicker from unforced errors and then move on to the next point without getting upset or distracted.
A few years ago, Teen People magazine chose Maharishi School as its “Cool School of the Month,” and this year, Worth magazine’s May feature story, “Embracing our Alternatives,” listed MSAE as one of seven alternative private schools promoting leadership, values and the family mission (http://tinyurl.com/2yvbs).
Perhaps all this success may have something to do with the Consciousness-BasedÂ® education (CBE) model, which utilizes techniques for developing the total brain of the student. One of the main techniques is Transcendental Meditation. Research has shown that regular TM practice enlivens hidden reserves of the brain physiology, develops latent creative intelligence of the students, increases hemispheric brain coherence responsible for moral reasoning, decision-making, and enhances mind-body integration. What is TM, and how do the students feel about doing it every day?
While there are many forms of meditation, the one most widely practiced and researched in our time is the Transcendental MeditationÂ® technique. Whereas most employ some form of effort, contemplation or concentration, TM is unique in that it is effortless, relying on the natural tendency of the mind to go to finer, more charming levels of experience. Although students practice the technique anywhere from five to 15 minutes, adults do it for 20 minutes twice a day. Regardless of age, during the practice the active thinking mind settles down to quieter levels of thinking until it transcends, goes beyond the thought process and arrives at the silent source of thought within. The body also settles down to a state of least excitation allowing for deep rest, twice as deep as sleep, dissolving deeply rooted stresses. This state of inner restful alertness triggers the body’s innate intelligence and allows the physiology to repair itself naturally.
TM’s founder, His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, began teaching this meditation practice 50 years ago and brought it to the West in 1959. Derived from an ancient Vedic tradition, this simple mental procedure is practiced twice a day for 20 minutes while sitting comfortably in a chair. More than five million people worldwide have learned TM in a standardized seven-step course taught by qualified teachers. TM’s inclusion into the curriculum at Maharishi School has set the standard for other educational institutions to follow. Students and faculty at schools in Detroit, Ill., Augusta, Ga., Silver Spring, Md., and Washington, D.C., and elsewhere around the world are experiencing the same beneficial results. It’s becoming a growing trend in education.
Maharishi School has an open admissions policy, accepting students with a wide range of academic skills and social backgrounds. Families have either moved to Fairfield or have sent their sons and daughters to live as boarding students or with families they know. Young children begin a simple, eyes-open walking meditation technique, known as their Word of Wisdom, as early as kindergarten. When they turn 10, they learn the adult, sitting, eyes-closed technique, but only practice it for five, 10, or 15 minutes, depending on their grade level. The kids find it easy to do and enjoy practicing together in class.
But what is it really like for new students? How are they accepted into their classrooms, into the community? How has meditation affected their lives?
Interestingly, the students at MSAE say they feel clear, alert, happy and self-confident as a result of their regular TM practice in school. They are not as clique-ish as in other schools and tend to get along well together. This allows them to excel at whatever they put their attention on — academics, sports, extracurricular activities. It wasn’t that way for some before they got there, whether they had meditated or not.
Katy Kirbach grew up in Fairfield, Iowa. “Prior to regularly practicing TM,” she said, “I felt alienated and alone. I was shy, quiet and didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t have faith in myself. I felt like I was being packed into a box and a way of life that didn’t have many possibilities ahead for me. Practicing TM, and experiencing the Unified Field twice a day, every day, has opened my eyes to the infinity that is around me and in me. I now see that I have all possibilities in front of me, and, at 18, am entering into the world with optimism and enthusiasm. I have become much more grounded in my Self, and comfortable with who I am.”
Katy learned to meditate with other kids of meditating families in town whose children were also attending the local public schools. Since meditation was something foreign to most of the other kids and some of their teachers, it was not discussed, and in some cases ridiculed. Also, without the support and intellectual understanding, she found it difficult to practice on a regular basis and eventually stopped. It wasn’t until she attended high school at MSAE, a school where meditation is not only accepted and encouraged but also part of the daily routine, that she began to practice TM regularly. She also took the foundational SCI course, the Science of Creative Intelligence, and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of her own practice, as well as an intellectual framework for all her courses. She did well academically and went on to excel in fine art. Last summer, she was selected to study at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London. Katy graduated this year and was honored with the Virginia Buckley Art Award.
One of Katy’s best friends, Malinda Gosvig, also graduated this year and was one of Maharishi School’s three National Merit Scholarship Finalists for 2004. “Based on the contrast I witnessed in my life after my transfer to MSAE,” she said, “I feel I can say that, without a doubt, this education has been the most amazing and transforming experience of my life.”
Puki Freeberg seems secure within herself and not easily affected by any peer-pressure. “One thing I have really noticed is how I find it easy to accept myself and feel comfortable in social situations,” she said. “That is one issue I know is really tough for most teenagers. With TM I feel fulfilled inside with who I am, and don’t feel as though I have to change myself in order to fit in with my peers. It’s also great to be in a situation at MSAE where all the students feel that way, so there is not a huge social issue. Everyone is comfortable with themselves and accepting and loving towards everyone else.”
Besides the meditation, the teaching methodology also enhances this growth towards self-understanding and acceptance. Every subject is taught with reference to that whole field of knowledge, to its underlying source in the Unified Field, and to the student’s own inner consciousness, the Self of everyone. The students can more easily grasp abstract concepts and feel at home with all knowledge.
“At MSAE we don’t only learn math, science and English,” said Ami Freeberg, Puki’s twin sister, “we also learn about our selves, and how we are all connected at the most basic level. That is the most fulfilling part about this Consciousness-Based education.”
Meditation also improved Ami’s basketball game. “One time, on the day of a big game, I unintentionally had an extra meditation. That night I played my best game of the season. I just felt really relaxed, and kind of ‘in the zone.’ I think that extra meditation just brought a deeper level of silence into my action, allowing me to play to the best of my ability.”
Another basketball player, Sofia Iwobi, came to Fairfield in 1999 when her Romanian mother left their home to study at M.U.M. Sofia enrolled in grade 6 at Maharishi School. She was 12 years old at the time and wasn’t a meditator. Her experience had been typical of most students in public school. She was “very nervous and hyper and couldn’t really focus for any period of time.” After learning to meditate, she became calmer and aware of the peaceful supportive environment.
“The students are more happy and relaxed,” she said. “I was able to focus better, which improved my basketball skills and my grades.” Indeed, after her second year at Maharishi School, she joined the girls varsity basketball team as a freshman, and made the first team all-conference.
Ben Pollack used to go to a school in New York where meditation was not part of the standard curriculum. “I had to do TM before and after school and it was really tough to do,” he said. “By having the TM technique incorporated into the daily schedule at school, it is so much easier and more enjoyable because I don’t have to worry about doing it at home.” As for things like schoolwork and personal relationships, “it made them easier to handle,” he added.
At his previous school, kids formed cliques and you were either in or out. This was an isolating experience for Ben. “Back in New York,” he says, “I used to have very few friends, but at this school everyone is friends with everyone. I have also noticed that at MSAE when the kids all practice (meditation) as a group, there is a certain sense of connectedness to each other and the kids always end up coming out smiling and laughing.”
Pollack is currently part of a student organization at MSAE called Students Creating Peace Network (SCPN). “We are advocating the TM technique as a way to accomplish this but it is not exclusive to students practicing TM. We are a network that has connected with students in many locations, including California, Colorado, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, New York, Washington D.C., and others.”
Faculty advisor for the Students Creating Peace Network, Lynn Kaplan says she is deeply satisfied to work with a group of students who practice a simple technique to not only create peace within themselves, but also in their families, schools and communities. “They are so fulfilled within themselves that they naturally want to share this knowledge with their generation.”
Because of his involvement and enthusiasm Ben was recently asked to speak at a national education conference in New York this year. Any other student would have been nervous at just the thought of it, but The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead described Ben in the Talk of The Town column as “a preternaturally self-possessed eleventh grader from Fairfield, Iowa.”
Some of the students were asked to demonstrate the TM technique by meditating in front of television cameras. When asked if the television-camera lights had presented any obstacle to his achieving meditative transcendence during the demonstration Ben replied, “I didn’t even feel the cameras around me. In fact, it felt more like an inner light than an outer light.” (The New Yorker March 22, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/345p5)
Many people visit the Maharishi School — parents, educators, celebrities — and leave inspired. Some come to learn how to model their school after MSAE, others how to introduce TM into their curriculum. Most come just to observe the students in class.
Patrick Bassett, current President of the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C., has commented, “Maharishi School is routinely recognized as outstanding in Iowa, since its students frequently take top prizes in state-wide academic competitions. It is a world-renowned independent school of the highest caliber academically.”
Dr. Charles Matthews, chairman and former professor of science education at Florida State University, was amazed at what he saw when he visited the classrooms at MSAE. “The students of Maharishi School, from kindergarten to upper grades, have the longest attention span of any I have seen in the 30 years of teaching and educational research in public and private schools. I found that the students were on-task more than 95 percent of the time. Usually I find that students attend to their lessons less than half of the time they are in class.”
Julia Herbert, Ed.S., a reading consultant in the Washington, D.C., area schools, also was impressed. “As a reading consultant, I have visited many public and private schools, and I have never felt such a calm and silent atmosphere in a school of bright, lively, alert children as was evident at Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment.”
Jill Olsen-Virlee, Iowa Teacher of the Year for 1996 from Marion High School, in Marion, Iowa, came away inspired. “Your school was truly an inspiration. The inner peace, the concern for one another, the respect and thirst for wisdom and a holistic approach to children are awesome.”
Janet Thomas has worked in private schools in Australia and in Maharishi School for a total of 27 years. She has taught English, Social Sciences and Creative Writing to students from grades 7 through 12. She found Consciousness-Based education to be a win-win situation for both students and teachers.
“I found that meditating makes me the best teacher I can possibly be,” she said. “It gives me the clarity and creativity I need to create a safe, challenging and nurturing environment that is necessary for profound learning to take place. Students, on the other hand, have the level of receptivity to learning that makes the sky the limit for the teacher. The first thing I noticed when I saw these students was the brightness of their faces. When I got to know them I saw that they had no fear. No fear whatsoever. Very unusual for teenagers. Their self-possession, intelligence and confidence make teaching a pure delight.”
Katy Kirbach affirms Mrs. Thomas’ comments with great appreciation after having transferred to and now graduated from Maharishi School.
“For me, attending MSAE was a profound and enlivening experience,” she said. “The students and teachers at MSAE are all the proof needed to see that Consciousness-Based education really works. I have never been around so many intelligent, kind pure-hearted individuals. The teachers devote their lives to educating the students, often encouraging students to call them at home, and offering their weekends to any students who need help, or simply wish to learn more. The students are energetic and interactive in the classroom, voicing questions and opinions, which I certainly didn’t hear in public school.
“While the students are self-confident and forthcoming with their opinions, they do strive to ‘Speak the sweet truth’ and, in the 3 1/2 years I spent at MSAE, I never had a derogatory or cruel comment directed my way.”