By Adam Langer
You’d be hard-pressed to find two politicians more middle-of-the-road, earnest, and inoffensively white-bread than Jim Davis and Charles Winter, who are running respectively for Paul Simon’s U.S. Senate seat and the Seventh District of the U.S. Congress on the Natural Law Party ticket. They stand at the podium in the Blackstone Hotel’s Regency Room, Davis in a navy blue suit, Winter in a gray one, telling G-rated jokes, smiling for the cameras, and uttering political philosophies so broad and uncontroversial that one half expects them to say that war is bad and they’re against typhoons. On the wall behind them there’s a banner with a picture of the earth and the phrase “Problem Free Government.”
Davis and Winter speak in carefully measured monotones suggestive of Al Gore on Valium. The platform they dutifully propound decries government waste and supports a “progrowth, projob economic policy with lower taxes and a balanced budget.” On health care, they support strategies that “focus on prevention and strengthen the general health of the nation.” As for the environment, they propose programs that would fight ozone depletion and deforestation. They support campaign reform to take Washington out of the hands of “special interests.” And in the area of crime? Well, they’re all for reducing it.
“The main people who run for the main parties in this country usually run with great ideals,” the affable Davis observes blandly at the podium. “They all say wonderful things. Unfortunately, they must be scared to death, because they don’t have anything to back up the promises they make. They know when they get there, they’re going to be hard-pressed to find something that will really work. Our party is founded on the premise that the nation’s government can function with the same orderliness, precision, and efficiency as nature’s government. Without waste.”
The only aspects separating this press conference from the run-of-the-mill Democratic or Republican affair are the stunningly low turnout (about 15), the chintzy spread (shortbread cookies, Celestial Seasonings tea, and two pitchers of water), and the three barefoot, giggling young men in T-shirts and loose-fitting trousers, sitting cross-legged with eyes closed on eight mattresses with white sheets placed side by side.
Once the speeches are through the young men begin to breathe deeply. Then with a sharp exhalation, they begin hopping from one mattress to the other, laughing all the way as they bounce bounce bounce like happy cartoon frogs leaping from lily pad to lily pad. Boing boing boing. Stopping and starting. Slowing down for a moment and then bursting forth with newfound energy. Boing boing boing. Their faces exude an inner contentment, a carefree happiness, and their bodies seem out of their mind’s control. Boing boing boing. And so it goes for more than five minutes with the young men never tiring, never seeming out of breath, only smiling and frolicking until Senate candidate Davis says, “OK, that’s enough now. That’s enough.”
“You hear about the runner’s zone,” says one of the leapers, Shane Newman, when the yogic flying demonstration is over. “This is like that. But it’s also not like that because in the runner’s zone, when you finish, you get all fatigued. Here you actually get in a zone, and it’s actually more of a complete energy than a running energy. There’s no fatigue the next day. It’s like a natural drug, and the only side effects are good feeling and happiness.”
“When I’m doing this, I feel so relaxed and happy, and at the same time I feel invincible, that nothing can bother me,” says Domen Prasnikar.
While leaping, Patrick Piel, an Iowa farmer, says his mind “settles down and experiences finer and finer levels of thought. It transcends thought. You have no more thought. Just pure silence. That pure silence is you. That’s the same pure silence that’s spread throughout the entire universe, where all the laws of nature live and organize ourselves. You come in contact with those laws of nature. The seasons come orderly and, in the same way, your mind becomes orderly. If you want to have more bliss in your day, you practice this 15 to 20 minutes a day.”
And if you think that all of this discussion of hopping, inner bliss, pure silence, and leaping about like beatifically gifted Jesse White tumblers seems to have precious little to do with politics, think again. It’s the keystone to the Natural Law Party platform. Through the practice of meditation and “yogic flying,” the party seeks to end crime, balance the budget, and cure the country’s ills by showing it the way to enlightenment–the same enlightenment that entranced the Beatles, Mia Farrow, and Doug Henning way back when, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was a TV talk-show staple and transcendental meditation was all the rage.
“There’s been enough talk about world peace,” says Shane Newman. “I think it’s time for the talking to stop and the yogic action to start happening.”
The Blackstone Hotel has most likely seen its last bar mitzvah, having been overtaken by the Holland-based Maharishi, whose development corporation owns quite a bit of real estate in North America and has plans to build massive “heaven on earth” resorts in Mozambique and North Carolina. In the lobby, photos of this week’s performers at the Jazz Showcase have been replaced by photos of the Maharishi. The second floor of the increasingly dingy hotel houses offices for Maharishi Vedic University. The 15 or so who have gathered here for the Natural Law Party press conference and yogic flying demonstration look like ordinary white folks from Middle America.
Unswayed by John Lennon’s skewering of the incomparably wealthy Maharishi in the Beatles’ “Sexy Sadie” (“You’ll get yours yet. However big you think you are”), Jim Davis and Charles Winter got their first exposure to transcendental meditation back in the 70s. Davis was a young photographer in the western suburbs who’d heard about transcendental meditation through reading articles and got hooked after attending a meeting. Winter got his initiation while watching the Maharishi on The Merv Griffin Show. Since then Davis, who has also worked as a high school social studies teacher, has transformed the photo business he started in his parents’ basement into Marathon Foto, a special-events photography business with offices in Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, and Toronto. And Winter has become a successful sales rep in the fields of natural gas and grains. But all the while, both have held steadfast to their practice of transcendental meditation. When John Hagelin, a charismatic Harvard-educated physicist now on faculty at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, started the Natural Law Party four years ago, Davis and Winter were ready for the call, prepared to try to transform their inner peace into world peace.
Despite its idiosyncrasies and the fact that its candidates have yet to win political office, the Natural Law Party has mushroomed at a surprisingly rapid rate. It now appears on the ballot in 48 states and has 700 candidates running for office, with Hagelin as the nominee for president. The underlying philosophy of the party is that human behavior should follow “the laws of nature” and that problems in society occur when humans act against those laws. The party seeks to promote programs such as transcendental meditation to get people to act in accordance with natural law, to increase human creativity, and to allow humans to reach their full potential. The party also exists in Europe. In 1992 George Harrison performed a benefit concert to support it.
Winter, who spent most of his adult life as a Republican, was drawn to the Natural Law Party after being exposed to the “cliquishness” and “favoritism” exhibited in Republican Party committee meetings in Leyden Township.
“There was a lot of dullness there,” he says. “Politics disappointed me, so I just forgot about it until I heard about the Natural Law Party.”
Davis portrays himself as a moderate with profound respect for the principles of both Paul Simon and Al Salvi.
“Maybe I don’t have a good chance at being elected, but at least I can hold up a banner and say that Paul Simon was a good senator for this state,” Davis says.
“We don’t care so much if we get elected,” Winter says. “I’m really doing this not because I want to be in power, but because I respect this party. If we’re not elected, but someone rips off our ideas and puts them into practice, we will have accomplished something.”
But for now, despite their realistic appraisals of their chances, Davis and Winter are seated atop the mattresses in the Blackstone, wistfully discussing their courses of action should the world turn upside down and find them elected to Congress in 1997.
“The first thing I’d do if I’m elected is start working to create coherence in government,” says Davis, proceeding to explain the Natural Law Party’s vision for creating world peace by transforming a wing of the military into a peacekeeping force that through practicing transcendental meditation would reverse the negative energies of warring parties. “Here you have people with all this training in combat readiness, and yet when they’re called on to serve, more often than not they’re called upon to be peacekeepers. If they had a prevention group who would go in and [practice transcendental meditation] silently in hotels on the side near conflict areas, it would have a profound effect.”
This so-called Maharishi Effect, according to Davis and Winter, could also work to alleviate inner-city crime. Claiming that in 1993 a group of 4,000 people practicing transcendental meditation for two months in Washington, D.C., lowered that city’s crime rate by 21 percent, Davis and Winter said they would deploy transcendental meditation units to combat crime. They would also promote transcendental meditation programs both in prisons, to help reduce recidivism, and as part of a health-care package that includes complementary exercise and diet regimens to increase longevity and improve the quality of life. Voluntary transcendental meditation and yogic flying instead of school prayer is also a possibility.
“Sure, yeah. That’s the next step,” Davis laughs.
When they speak of the Natural Law Party platform, both Davis and Winter are careful not to use words that would suggest any sort of religious aspect to transcendental meditation. It is presented as pure science, complete with charts, graphs, degreed academics from accredited institutions, and research data to back up its effectiveness–which is obviously how they believe it should be seen but also a handy way to avoid any pesky conflict between church and state.
“There’s no religious aspect to this,” says Winter. “You can’t even call it belief. It is spiritual, and we talk a lot about inward growth and that’s a spiritual aspect, but it’s not a religious affiliation. As far as I know [transcendental meditation] is taught in every country in the world and in every religion. There are Catholic priests who do this. There are rabbis and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus. It doesn’t have the effect of replacing people’s beliefs; it enhances them.”
The only trouble with all these proposals, which sound at worst flaky and Pollyannaish, is that it’s difficult to get a handle on exactly who or what is behind the party. Hagelin denies that the Natural Law Party has any connection to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi or Maharishi University of Management. But since both the university and the party are headquartered in the same Iowa town, with a population of only 10,000, this is difficult to fathom. The party claims that it has been funded by small individual donations. And yet, somehow the four-year-old party has mustered both the machinery to get on the ballot in 48 states and the funds to buy a 16-page advertising supplement in USA Today and prime-time infomercials on the major TV networks.
Despite the fact that Davis and Winter are friendly, innocuous sorts who seem to have nothing but the best intentions, they continually shy away from expressing opinions on issues that go beyond solving problems with transcendental meditation. Ask them their opinion on a specific issue and they will defer to what the platform would “probably call for.” Ask Davis if he would look to his conscience or consult with his constituency or the Natural Law Party before making a vote, and this is the muddled answer you get:
“It’s a very good question, and the more specific you get in a problem, the easier it is to get overwhelmed when you look at the problem. And that’s my experience in answering questions in this campaign. I am not the best expert in answering questions about foreign policy and a lot of our governmental policies. But just in referring to certain principles of natural law from looking at the party platform, from looking for root solutions, holistic solutions to the problem, it gets a lot easier to look at things, and that’s sort of what the party does as a whole. People expect a this-side or a that-side answer, and they don’t get that. They get a totally new perspective, and that’s what the Natural Law Party brings to it.”
“Initially we would have to vote on things in front of us every day that may not be so savory to think about,” Winter adds. “But the purpose of being there would be to move in the direction of holistic solutions and national alertness and liveliness and the expansion of consciousness which we represent.”
Nevertheless, both Winter and Davis maintain that if they are elected it will represent the beginning of a newfound consciousness in the American people, with results as profound as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Though they speak vaguely of lower crime rates, better performance in schools, an increase in healthy farming methods, and an increase in research for alternative forms of transportation, how and when things will change under the Natural Law Party’s guidance neither of them can say exactly.
But, according to Davis, “Once consciousness changes, then all kinds of possibilities will be seen that aren’t seen now. I can’t tell you all the specifics. I don’t have the vision to see that right now.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nathan Mandell.