The faint, sweet scent of incense wafted through the hall, mingling with the hypnotic strains of traditional Indian ragas played by a trio of musicians sitting cross-legged on a small stage. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi smiled beatifically from a portrait behind them, and a banner over the stage announced the "Maharishi's Festival of Music for World Peace."
A casual observer of the scene Wednesday night at Newport Harbor High School might have been reminded of a time 20 years ago, the legendary "Summer of Love," when pop culture was in the first throes of a fascination with Eastern mysticism. The Beatles helped lead the way, adding Indian influences to their music, experimenting with Transcendental Meditation and eventually spending two months to India--and in the process making a worldwide celebrity of a diminutive mystic some dubbed the "giggling guru."
The Beatles have long since gone their separate ways, but the Maharishi is still spreading his version of ancient Eastern wisdom to the West. And the followers he commands today are not the free-loving, experience-seeking, robed-and-beaded youths of the '60s, at least judging by Wednesday's audience. The conservatively dressed crowd of about 400 included doctors, lawyers and business people, as well as a scattering of Indian immigrants who came for the rare opportunity to listen to live music from their homeland.
Val Mailander, a teacher with the Orange County Transcendental Meditation Center in Santa Ana, sponsor of the event, said many in the audience were practitioners of TM, the twice-a-day regimen of mental relaxation techniques that the Maharishi has been promoting for more than 30 years.
TM, Mailander said, attracts a wide range of followers. "I have initiated rich people and poor people, from 8 years old to 84," she said.
Because the practice requires no change in religious beliefs, TM followers come from a variety of faiths. Her pupils have included Jewish rabbis and Protestant ministers.
"You don't have to change anything, any more than you would if you took up jogging," she said.
Audience member Rick Cesaro, dressed in a blue business suit, said he has been faithfully meditating twice a day since 1973. "I guess I can credit the technique with getting me through law school sane and in one piece," said Cesaro, who also said he believes that TM has helped him through several business ventures and in his current career as a free-lance video producer.
There was a time, Cesaro said, when much of the public viewed those who meditated with skepticism and as some sort of exotic cult. But he said he has seen increasing acceptance of the practice in the last decade, adding that medical science now supports many of the claims made by TM backers: reduced stress, better health, improved learning ability. The benefits claimed for meditation "have really become conventional wisdom," he said.
Another member of the audience, Ron Jerning, started practicing TM in 1966 as a way to help him through medical school at UCLA. "I was looking for a way to increase my learning potential," Jerning said, and when TM worked for him, he began to wonder why.
For 13 years now, he has studied the physiological effects of meditation as an associate professor of medicine at UC Irvine in a project backed by the American Heart Assn. and the National Institutes of Health. Among his findings: Long-term, regular TM practitioners show higher-than-usual levels of the hormone AVP, associated with learning and memory.
The Maharishi has long preached the personal benefits of TM, but in recent years has turned his sights to more global matters. One is the quantification of what has been dubbed the "Maharishi effect": In cities where at least 1% of the population has learned TM, a Maharishi European Research University study said, the crime rate has dropped an average of 8.2%.
Now the Maharishi's goal is nothing less than world peace through music. Concerts of classical Indian music have been planned in 300 cities on every continent over a two-month period. Not only will audience members feel the positive effects, but the music will find its way into the atmosphere to soothe the "intense stress" of the world's "collective consciousness," the Maharishi said in a videotaped message shown Wednesday.
"Wars, crimes, terrorism will simply vanish," he promised in the message. "The harmonizing influences will prevail." The concerts were timed to coincide with the current Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Washington, creating good vibrations for a fruitful summit.
"We're living in a world that needs a lot of peace," said Cindy Katz, an audience member who has practiced TM since she was a high school student in 1971. The listeners receive the positive influence of the music, she said, and "carry it out into the world with them."