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David Lynch

David Lynch’s films have always conjured up a surreal, nightmarish world of physical and psychic violence – but the man behind movies like Eraserhead and Wild at Heart has long been pursuing a surprisingly different agenda. Mitch Horowitz discovers why cinema’s Master of Darkness is on a mission to promote meditation, bliss and world peace.

You can’t blame a person for expecting David Lynch to be a scary guy.

Beginning with 1977’s nightmarish Eraserhead, the 60-year-old writer-director has created the most unsettling screen images since Alfred Hitchcock. A severed ear in Blue Velvet, a ruptured head in Wild at Heart, a homecoming queen’s cadaver in Twin Peaks – Lynch’s films revel in the side of life we’ve been taught to look away from. One of Lynch’s most experimental films, the nearly three-hour INLAND EMPIRE (yes, in capitals), starring Laura Dern, opens later this year. In a move that few directors would dare, Lynch shot INLAND EMPIRE without an advance script, writing each scene day-by-day and shooting it all on digital video. The cult icon is characteristically mysterious on the project, saying only: “It’s about a woman in trouble.”

When he’s not filming, Lynch creates paintings that include actual animal parts, insects, and lizard and rodent carcasses. In public, he appears every bit the existentialist artist – often appearing clad in black, his hair in a pompadour, and his lined face twisted in a scowl that says: “back off.”

Yet the man behind the scowl wants nothing more than to discuss… bliss. World peace. Eternal happiness. And he does so in the cheerful tones you might expect from a Middle American greengrocer. Cinema’s dark auteur, it seems, is a nice guy.

But make no mistake; he’s a nice guy on a mission. After more than 30 years of quietly practising Transcendental Meditation (TM), Lynch has formed a foundation to fund scholarships, school curricula, and “universities of peace” dedicated to teaching TM – which he sees as the best hope for world harmony and personal growth. He also has a new book out in early 2007 called Catching the Big Fish, which, among other things, extols the creative benefits of meditation. Indeed, Lynch’s campaign on behalf of enlightenment just might become the unlikeliest legacy of his four-decade career.

Finding the path

An artist known for reclusive habits – “I hate speaking in public,” he says – Lynch generally reveals little of himself. But when the topic turns to meditation – specifically Transcendental Meditation, as taught since the late 1950s by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (famously known as the Beatles’ guru; see ‘Flying for Freedom’ FT170:44–49) – Lynch bursts with zeal.

“There’s an expression: The world is as you are,” Lynch says. “If people only knew that it’s true that happiness comes from inside.”

The question is unavoidable: How is it that a devotee of transcendence and meditation makes such dark, frightening films? While there exist far more violent movies than Lynch’s, few are as realistic or disturbing in their depictions of violence.

“Stories are always going to be stories,” he says, “and worlds that we can go into where there’s suffering, there’s confusion, there’s darkness, there’s tension, there’s anger, there’s murder – but the filmmaker, the author, doesn’t have to suffer to do that.

“In fact, the more the artist is suffering, the less creative he or she is going to be, and the less likely they’re going to enjoy their work and really do good work.”

In media interviews and on college speaking gigs to promote his foundation, Lynch frequently emphasises the concrete benefits of meditation. He speaks cannily of how – in his words – “bliss is creativity” and TM is “money in the bank” for artists and businesspeople. Anyone who meditates, Lynch says – using himself as the prime example – becomes a better thinker, doer, and creator.

“You can catch ideas at a deeper level. You can introduce your desires at a deeper level and therefore they have more power. You desire a thing and if your bowl of consciousness is little, it has no power. But if you expand that and you are desiring, it has more power.”

Nothing in Lynch’s past obviously hints at the spiritual path he has taken as an adult. A former Eagle Scout and the son of a research scientist, he describes a post-World War II upbringing that fairly shut out the metaphysical. “I grew up in the Northwest, and if you couldn’t see it, feel it, touch it, or kick it, it didn’t exist. And I would dream and I would feel, and I knew something more was going on.”

Nor did the mainstream Presbyterianism of Lynch’s youth satisfy the questions he felt inside. “I respect people who are religious, and I think they find something there… but I feel that – because these religions are old and they’ve been fiddled with, possibly – some of the beautiful, original keys from the Master have been lost.”

Even while Lynch’s career as an artist and filmmaker began taking flight, he felt a growing sense of torment. “You grow up and start getting anxieties and fears, and you start getting angry – darkness and confusion, I had those. And it’s tough being a human being. But it shouldn’t be. It’s not supposed to be. It’s ignorance that keeps you in that boat of suffering.”

In 1973, Lynch’s sister told him about TM – and the attraction was instant. “My first meditation was so powerful that I say the word ‘unique’ should be saved for the experience of transcending, for that pure bliss consciousness.” The young filmmaker was hooked – and he would not miss a daily meditation for the next 33 years.

Today, Lynch sits in meditation twice a day, for 20 minutes – once before breakfast and again before dinner. Following the TM system, he uses a mantra – a silently repeated word or sound – provided by a TM instructor, which students vow not to disclose. The results, Lynch says, have improved everything, from his relationships to his skills as a filmmaker.

“The enjoyment of the doing increases exponentially; and the feeling of the work and the people – you appreciate people, you seem to almost recognise everyone.”

Paying for the Path

In the short term, the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace aims to raise million to help spearhead programs in meditation at inner-city schools – several of which have already begun – and to provide scholarships to university students for basic instruction in TM.

Lynch appears willing to put more than just his celebrity on the line: his foundation dispensed about .6 million in the first few months of its existence – 0,000 of it from his own pocket, the Washington Post reported.

As it happens, bliss of the kind prescribed by TM comes at a not insignificant cost. In a far remove from the Lynch paid to learn TM in 1973, the basic introductory course now runs to ,500. “The cost of it stops a lot of people,” Lynch acknowledges. “It’s a tricky business. If it’s free, people think it’s worthless. If it costs something they think it’s a rip-off, and that Maharishi’s getting rich or something like that.”

The instructional fee, Lynch says, serves to prove a student’s commitment, to pay the instructors, and to support programs such as the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa and a project called “yogic flying,” a meditative practice that teachers say involves actual levitation. For many years, the organisation headed by the Maharishi, now in his early 90s and living in Holland, has also sponsored a wide range of clinical experiments designed to measure the brain and health effects of TM.

Through his foundation, Lynch ultimately wants to attract a jaw-dropping billion to build seven “world peace” universities, as a counterpoint to traditional military academies and colleges.

“What normal education produces is a joke. It’s facts and figures, but the knower does not know him or herself, and doesn’t expand consciousness.”

Lynch’s foundation currently helps support programs in Transcendental Meditation at several inner-city schools, including Detroit’s well-regarded Nataki Talibah charter school. The effects on students seem promising. Adolescents, at what is considered the most awkward stage of life, appear in television interviews with an air of calm and assuredness. To see members of a generation associated with attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity sit quietly in meditation arouses admiration – and perhaps a degree of hope.

“It throws stress off kids like water off a duck’s back. They start with what is called a walking mantra, and they say this mantra to themselves walking around five minutes in the morning, and it’s amazing – stress doesn’t catch them. And they get their sitting mantra when they’re ten, and they meditate ten minutes,” adding a minute a year, until they reach 20 minutes.

TM and public schools have not always had an easy relationship. In 1977, a federal judge barred New Jersey public schools from teaching the TM method, ruling that it violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. TM spokesmen insist the system is nonreligious, pointing to its roots in ancient Vedic culture rather than the Hindu religion. They also cite laboratory studies that have confirmed TM’s mind-body benefits since the 1970s.

Of Spirit and Science

As Lynch and TM advocates see it, Transcendental Meditation is specially designed and scientifically proven to bring an individual into a state of “transcendence,” or oneness with all that exists. Indeed, Lynch makes it clear that when he speaks about meditation, he is not talking about the procedure in general, but specifically about the benefits of TM.

“Transcending is its own unique thing. What gets me is, I talk to some people who say, ‘I know I get that deep, I know my meditation takes me that deep.’ And I can’t argue with them… I’m just saying that’s what really does it, the experience of that deepest level.”

But what about the practice of other venerated methods, such as Zen meditation? “What I have heard is that Zen is concentration. Now, in brain research when they put Zen meditators on the EEG machine, or in other brain research techniques, they see the part of the brain that has to do with concentration is huge. But there’s no transcending… Concentration and contemplation keep you in the field of relativity, almost on the surface.” Researchers associated with TM say “transcending” appears as a pattern of uniform, or whole brain, functioning in a visual reading of the brain’s electrical activity.

If Lynch and other TM practitioners frequently use the language of science, it is not without context. TM was among the earliest movements to seek clinical validation for the benefits of meditation, providing the study model for the pioneering 1970s bestseller The Relaxation Response. More recently, the TM organisation has embraced the concepts of quantum physics, particularly the theories of a “unified field” – i.e., the idea of an underlying unity to all of life, animate and inanimate.

A central theme of TM is that the efforts of transcendental meditators – including those who practise “yogic flying” – serve to “enliven” this unified field of consciousness, leading to peace in the surrounding environment. Practitioners point to research studies that support the existence of a "Maharishi Effect," which is the purported lessening of crime and other tensions in an environment where meditation occurs. And the benefits, they say, are exponential: TM officials believe that if the square root of one per cent of the world’s population – about 8,000 people – engages in an advanced version of TM in a group, the effects will be global.

Ever the son of a research scientist, Lynch speaks readily of empirical proof: “There are laws of nature; there’s a way to prove you’re transcending with brain research, to prove that a person is having an experience of… transcendental consciousness of the unified field.” And further: “Ultimately, you’re introducing your desires at the unified field level. Modern science says that everything that is a thing emerges from this field of no-thing.”

While Lynch’s art explores the dark and enigmatic, his personal search has led him to a meditative practice that seeks enlightenment and emphasises measurable results. “It’s not a religion, nor is it against any religion… All religions flow ultimately to the one ocean, and this is a technique to experience that ocean, from the first meditation, and in every meditation.”

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David Lynch Inland Empire
David Lynch
  David Lynch Inland Empire
Author Biography
Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of the publishing house Tarcher/Penguin in New York and is currently writing a book on the history of the occult in America. His article on the history of Ouija boards appears in the current issue of Esopus esopusmag.com, a biannual of arts and culture.


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