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Can good vibrations stop war?

Sunday, March 09, 2003

With Americans prepared to invade Iraq in reaction to terrorist strikes by Saudis and Saddam Hussein destroying weapons he denies having, logic's tattered remnants strode across the international stage in the robes of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

The Indian mystic has proposed the construction of a series of "peace palaces" around the Indian subcontinent, in which acolytes of transcendental meditation will meditate. The resulting spiritual force, he prays, will create a sort of karmic mellow and defuse crisis by lessening tension and smoothing out aggression, much the way a man on his way home from Christmas Mass doesn't fancy attending a boxing match.

There is much to ridicule in this idea. But there is much to ridicule about war. The Maharishi no longer grants interviews. John Hagelin, a physicist based at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, and late presidential candidate of The Natural Law Party, does.

Counterintuitive diplomacy is a hard sell with the feet of war protruding from behind the curtains. But Hagelin is convinced something has to be done to prevent this war and, so far, nothing conventional has worked. First off, he does not deny that America has real enemies who wish it real harm.

"Of course there are," he said. "And we're increasing the number of such enemies at an astonishing pace. And unilaterally at that.

"The vast majority of my colleagues in the policy world would agree with me that Saddam Hussein is basically a bait-and-switch to direct the public away from our inability to capture Osama bin Laden."

The idea of a faculty member at Maharishi University speaking of "colleagues in the policy world" is a bit jarring, but give Hagelin ear for a moment. Michael Novak, the conservative theologian, traveled to the Vatican to lay out the theological case for a war. The pope himself has asked for prayers for peace and, if they are being ignored by the Bush administration, they are being ignored with great respect. Billy Graham has been summoned to the White House in years past to advise on the bombing of North Vietnamese ports. Certainly a physicist who practices Transcendental Meditation can be forgiven the notion that he has colleagues in the policy community.

Hagelin and the Marharishi view war as a failure of leadership and diplomacy, two qualities that were often founded on the idea of successfully prosecuting war in less advanced times. The Maharishi's idea is that these failures of leadership and diplomacy usually exist in a maelstrom of mounting tensions -- be they ethnic, religious or economic.

His idea of the pagodas filled with meditating believers amounts to stress management on a societal scale.

Hagelin invites doubters to consider the idea of a room filled with negotiators. And if one of them "took 20 minutes to meditate, you would find a very different dynamic in the room." He is not suggesting that Colin Powell and Tariq Aziz assume the lotus position. He is suggesting the rest of us do.

"What I would rather have is a large group of citizens in any of those countries, or possibly a large group far away but ideally a large group of citizens up to several thousand people, meditating," Hagelin said. "Experiencing deep physiological relaxation . . . and a change in the whole biochemisty. That has a spillover effect, into one's family, into one's work and into society at large if one of these groups is large enough."

He hastened to remind me that medical experts two centuries ago might have laughed at the idea that stress was a large factor in the incidence of disease. A few centuries earlier, disease was thought the result of evil humors in the air. The point is we just don't know and, frankly, the stuff we do know doesn't seem to have worked.

Would Christian prayer have the same effect? Nine years ago, Bishop Donald Wuerl asked Pittsburghers to pray for an end to violence after a particularly nasty spate of homicides. Because the Uniform Crime Reporting records were not kept on a monthly basis by counties, it was hard to tell if this worked, but even the most cynical doubters did not suggest that such a move was futile.

"It would have an effect, but how much of an effect depends on a couple of things," Hagelin said. "First of all, the number of people. There is strength in numbers. The magnitude of the effect grows rather quickly with numbers."

And Hagelin would suggest something calming. A Rosary, he said, is ideal "because the mind is allowed to settle more during the practice."

The analogy of the Christmas spirit is one he thinks fits the scenario.

Just don't call it the invocation of spells.

"I don't think there is anything paranormal anymore, and I'm speaking now as a physicist," Hagelin said. "Modern science, particularly in the last quarter century, has explored deeper and deeper and deeper levels of functioning."

As he spoke, the delegations from France, Germany and Russia were pledging to block any American war resolution at the United Nations. Tony Blair, prime minister of Great Britain, was seeking some sort of diplomatic incantation to save his political hide before dragging the United Kingdom onto the Iraqi plains.

We are left to wonder if the greatest form of courage in the search for peace is to risk looking ridiculous in its pursuit. Frankly, dignity has not worked.


Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist(droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965).

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