The town that lost its guru

This week, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ordered his disciples to stop teaching in Britain. But where does that leave the little bit of Lancashire where meditation ruled? Stephen Khan reports from Skelmersdale
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The Independent Online

Strange though it may seem, this new town of a thousand roundabouts is the European home to the followers of the man whose cosmic notions so entranced The Beatles in the 1960s: the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Here they came to deploy the force of transcendental meditation (TM), to find personal happiness and to make the world a better place.

Now, though, a dark cloud casts its shadow over the Maharishi's British flock. The UK, the 95-year-old sage claims, has become a "Scorpion nation", and meditative teachings merely serve to "feed the destroyer of the world". The Maharishi, it seems, is rather ticked off about the Iraq War and the arms trade.

Teaching TM must cease in the UK immediately, he has ordered. "We are rejecting one nation - Britain - which has proven to be a poisonous, divisive influence in the world family," the leader blasts in a memo issued to his Global Country of World Peace recently.

It all seems slightly hard on his followers in Skelmersdale, who set up base here 25 years ago and have built up a 400-strong community. Some of the people here wonder why their home country has been singled out and the US left alone, and a few have even mooted the previously unthinkable: disobeying the legendary figure and carrying on teaching.

"He is deeply upset about the arms trade," says David Hughes, one of the founder members of the community, explaining that Britain, per head of population, actually has a worse record than anywhere else in the world. "This is an issue we are all very concerned about." Teaching meditation in the UK, it seems, could foster energies that make the situation worse. If the community has to cease such activities, then it will be for the greater good. But the rest of Skelmersdale is slightly nervous too, for they've grown rather fond of the Yogic fliers over the years.

With meditation has come an award-winning school, a gym, a business centre and new houses. The Maharishi's men and women have injected cash into the local economy and some even claim their presence has revitalised it. Now the Yogics are being urged to flee for larger, better-funded settlements abroad. "When we first came in 1980 things were really bleak," explains Hughes, a Lancashire man by birth. Hughes and a handful of other devotees opted for Skelmersdale over other new towns because the rents were cheap and it was near the heart of Britain, offering easy access from Scotland and the South-east. At the time, very few other operations viewed it as a viable centre. "Now you can hardly find any spare business space. If you want to set up here you have to build from scratch."

It has even been suggested that their communal meditation reversed the crime rate in the nearby Merseyside area from being one of the worst in the UK to being among the best - although Hughes concedes that he still doesn't leave his car unattended in Liverpool at night.

He admits that the general upturn is not entirely down to the power of meditation, but believes that it has been a significant force. And the economy certainly needed a boost. In the 1960s, Skem - as it is affectionately known locally - survived the decline of the mining industry only to be turned into a concrete jungle. Its reward was to be used as an overspill town to resettle crowded Merseyside. Industrial employers proceeded to leave the town en masse, and the only growth figures related to crime, drug abuse and poverty.

But, as Hughes points out, things have been looking a little better of late. We depart the dome for a tour of the town. "It was originally proposed that it should have a population of 80,000," he says. "But it's only really got up to 40,000."

Similarly, the meditation community needs to have 800 members to affect the way the country lives, claims Hughes. With it languishing at just 400 it could not possibly oust the Blair government and move the UK towards the goal the Maharishi sets for all his communities - bringing peace to the world. So now they face the prospect that their teachers will heed the guru's order to depart to the likes of South Africa and the United States.

But Hughes says that does not mean the end of the road for Skelmersdale. "Just because we cannot teach TM for the moment, does not mean that we will go away. It is like riding a bike: once you've had your four lessons you can keep doing it. Maharishi hasn't told us to stop meditating, only to stop teaching it."

Hughes, who first learnt TM as a student in the 1970s, maintains that the community will remain and thrive. But as we stop off at the school, attended by 100 pupils, the headmaster admits that the guru's advice concerned him. "I was a bit worried," says Dave Cassells, perched in front of a chart akin to a periodic table, which shows how the positive power of the individual can be displaced for the greater good. He now hopes people will remain in Skem, and opt to learn meditation on weekend trips to Dublin (peace-loving Ireland has also escaped the Maharishi's wrath).

Hughes and I head back out to the roundabouts, and he shows me the fabulous new gym, "with a great swimming pool", the huge Asda and the extended and refurbished Concourse shopping centre. Inside, shoppers admit they'd be sad to lose the Yogic fliers, although few seem to know who they are or what they do. Pensioner Jean Birtles admits that she "doesn't know too much about what goes on up there. But they don't seem to do anyone any harm. I guess it would be a shame if they left."

And for a council that has seen the town through dark periods, the Maharishi mediators are seen as providing a positive vibe. Indeed, council leader Geoff Roberts would be deeply upset if there was an existential exodus. "This community has been very beneficial to the Skelmersdale area," he explains. "I know people involved and it does seem to have had a calming influence on views there.

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic, though. "I don't think they bring anything to Skem, like. It seems to be a bit of an enclosed community. I'd be more upset if Heron Foods left," says Concourse security guard Eddie, pointing to a discount food store that is typical of the centre.

And even some of those who have followed the words of the Maharishi in the past are deeply concerned about what one describes as his "latest ramblings". Hughes will follow the guru's path, but he admits that there have been mutterings of dissent from within the Skelmersdale settlement. "I won't say that everyone has been happy about the advice given," he says.

That does not come as a surprise to Paul Mason, a biographer of the Maharishi. He hopes that many meditators will ignore the Maharishi's latest ramblings. He explains that the meditation craze took hold in Britain in the 1960s, and had at one point reached a stage where hundreds of thousands were crossing their legs and willing calm on the world. But in more recent years the power has ebbed somewhat. And this, he suggests, is at least partly due to the great man's tinkering.

The Maharishi's introduction of Yogic flying (known as the Sidhi technique), explains Mason - himself an avid meditator - has been of little practical use and has merely served to fragment the organisation. The decline, Mason suggests, could be traced to the beginnings of the bounce. "Diversification is the reason for the downturn. I'm sure of that," says Mason. "Meditation was a verifiable technique. There was a huge swell of interest. But when the Sidhi techniques were introduced a lot of people dropped out of courses. Many teachers went independent."

He goes on to describe the Maharishi who, over 50 years, has trained about 40,000 people to teach his technique, as an elderly man whose hopes for the world have "not come true". And that is why, according to Mason, he is coming up with wild ideas. "There may be some people who still follow his every word, but if the Maharishi told me to jump I'd park myself firmly on the seat. This man is not my teacher. He is not a bona fide guru."

Thousands, however, remain convinced. Hughes is confident that they won't all flee Skelmersdale, although he admits that he knows a few teachers who are already planning to resettle in the US, where a community more than 1,000-strong is flourishing in Iowa. "It's a fantastic place," he says. "They've got a university, but they still need more people. Anyone going from here will be warmly welcomed and find exciting new projects." He tells me that previous Stateside endeavours have included cutting the crime rate in Washington DC. The war on crime is something they are much more comfortable with than the war on terror.

But Skelmersdale need not panic, Hughes assures me, as we head back to the dome. The community is not about to go the same way as the mines and heavy industry. "All that is happening is that the teaching has stopped. Meditation carries on and we will still live here. People have jobs and everyday lives to continue with. And, anyway, who knows? Maybe someday the teaching will be allowed to begin again."