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The Nation

Denver City Leaders Stressed Out Over Activist's Anti-Stress Initiative

August 14, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Wherever there is disharmony, there is Jeff Peckman.

Sensing his hometown was on the verge of a collective breakdown, the activist quietly gathered enough signatures to put a stress-reduction measure on Denver's November ballot.

If approved, it could lead to Indian music being pumped into city office buildings, "less stressful" food in school cafeterias and mass meditation focusing on peace and tranquillity.

"This is what I was meant to do," Peckman said soothingly. "I find progressive solutions to big problems."

Denver could certainly use some down time. The Mile High City is in the midst of a crime wave, it faces major budget cuts, and thousands of people have already lost their jobs. But should it be forced to seek therapy?

"It's lunacy, it's frivolous, it's fantasy," declared Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown. "If you want fantasy, go to Disneyland. This guy wants to mandate that everyone in Denver 'Have a Nice Day.' That's their decision, not the government's."

And Brown isn't wild about tunes from India filtering into his office.

"Hank Williams reduces my stress. Should I decide what everyone else listens to? Get the flakiness of this whole thing?" he continued. "These are city offices. We don't sit around holding hands, burning incense and singing 'Kumbaya.' We are in serious economic times."

Councilwoman Rosemary Rodriguez agreed, but she was a bit more diplomatic.

"The intentions behind it are admirable, but implementing it would be impossible," she said. "If it was an afternoon siesta, I'd vote for it. The world could use less stress, but it's a personal journey -- not a government plan."

Not so, says Peckman.

"We have so much stress in our society that we now have secondhand stress," he said. "Stress is a major contributor to violence, poor health and unhappiness. This is a public-safety issue. What does the city think it should be doing, if not this?"

He said certain music and "primordial sounds" have been proved to support plant growth and reduce disharmony in humans.

School cafeteria food can also create problems, he says. "Poor food can cause aggressive behavior," he said. "Schools can reduce violence with better food."

Peckman, a lanky 49-year-old, has served as a meditation consultant, taught peace seminars and worked to improve nutrition all over the world. He said ideas similar to his have reduced violence in Israel, Lebanon and Mozambique.

He grew up in Denver and said his life changed as a young boy when someone told him that humans used only 10% of their brain. "I decided I had to find a way to use it all," he said. "I did yoga and got involved in Transcendental Meditation."

Peckman ran for the U.S. Senate from Colorado in 1998 as a member of the Natural Law Party. He lost.

His anti-stress initiative, "Increasing Public Safety by Creating Peace," is detailed in a three-page treatise. It advocates using stress-reduction methods to eliminate crime, and large-scale meditation to lower violence and terrorism. The goal, Peckman said, is to induce a state of "peaceful comity that allows rapid progress for individuals and the society as a whole."

Peckman collected 2,462 signatures on his petition, more than enough to put it on the Nov. 4 ballot. He's made the rounds of the local and national media, carting with him pamphlets and documents outlining his ideas. One bit of literature shows images of two brains, one of a violent person and the other from a relaxed one.

"See that?" he said, pointing to one of the brains. "The one that looks like Swiss cheese? That's a violent brain."

Peckman's idea, that stress leads to violence, has its supporters.

"I find the theory compelling intellectually," said Rashi Glazer, a business and marketing professor at UC Berkeley who has practiced meditation for 30 years. "Given the craziness of the world we live in, it deserves a chance -- let's give peace a chance."

But some believe that what relieves stress in one person might exacerbate it in another.

"His ideas sound good for individuals, but it's hard to talk about a stress-reduction formula to fit everyone," said Donald Weatherly, associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. "It could be noxious for some people."

Oddly enough, the proposal to end stress is causing plenty of it.

"I see this more as an unfunded mandate," said Denver City Council President Elbra Wedgeworth. "With a $70-million budget shortfall, this is not what we should be doing. The ideas are fine, but it should be more of a volunteer effort."

A spokeswoman for Mayor John Hickenlooper said he's trying to end stress by finding jobs and investment for the city.

Peckman vows to fight on, saying he's ready to be called a flake as long as he gets a shot at relaxing Denver's jangled nerves.

"The Constitution calls for the government to ensure domestic tranquillity," he said with a gentle smile. "And that's what this is all about."

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