David Lynch’s Shockingly Peaceful Inner Life

New York Times/December 31, 2007
By Alex Williams

If you were looking for a Tom Cruise to preach to a new generation the gospel of Transcendental Meditation, a hippie-era spiritual practice espousing inner harmony, David Lynch would be one of the least likely candidates.

As the director who conjured the reptilian mutant baby of “Eraserhead” and the dancing dwarf of “Twin Peaks,” Mr. Lynch has built his career by imposing his nightmares on the rest of us.

The idea of the inscrutable David Lynch, Hollywood’s leading surrealist and eccentric, reborn as the guru of bliss seems a little odd even to Mr. Lynch himself.

Now 60, he remembers how he recoiled from the concept when he heard about it in the late 1960s, when the movement — founded by the Indian spiritual leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — was experiencing its first wave of popularity among young people in the West thanks to proselytizing by pop stars like the Beatles and Donovan.

“The word ‘harmony’ would make me want to puke,” recalled Mr. Lynch, speaking on a clear, chilly afternoon in the glassed-in painting studio atop his Modernist concrete-walled house in the Hollywood Hills. Even as an Eagle Scout and a popular student at a public high school in Alexandria, Va., he composed paintings, influenced by the grotesqueries of Francis Bacon, in a studio with walls that he and a friend painted black.

Meditation would be a sickening thing to consider, because you want that edge to create,” he said, wearing worn khaki trousers and a tattered black sports jacket with a hole in the right elbow the size of a saucer. “I don’t want to be a namby-pamby.”

Besides, he added, “you would get chicks when you’re angry.”

That all changed in 1973, when the future filmmaker discovered meditation, which he believes allowed him to quiet — and exploit — his inner demons. He said that he has not missed a day since.

And now, the low-key auteur is emerging as the most visible, even fiery, proponent of the resurgent practice, which is being used increasingly in schools and in the workplace, as well as by a new generation of stars, including Heather Graham, Laura Dern and the record executive Rick Rubin.

In July 2005, Mr. Lynch began the David Lynch Foundation, which finances Transcendental Meditation scholarships for students in middle schools and high schools to study the practice. Later that year, he embarked on a series of lectures on college campuses that attracted significant attention in the news media.

This winter, Mr. Lynch is taking the message to the masses. His autobiography-cum-self-help book, “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity” (Tarcher/Penguin), will be released this week. Next month, he will preside over a series of readings and discussions, in tandem with concerts by Donovan, at Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles.

“It’s weird,” said Mr. Lynch, in the flat folksy accent of his native Missoula, Mont., speaking of his increasing involvement. “I guess it’s as simple as this: I wish I had heard it earlier.”

The idea of David Lynch serving as the spokesman for anything is a bit of a stretch. Mr. Lynch suffers from a lifelong fear of public speaking— “I still hate it,” he said — and will happily recount how he has tape-recorded speeches at home for awards ceremonies, then played them into the microphone at the podium.

“I call him ‘the reluctant yogi,’ ” said Robert Roth, a spokesman for the Transcendental Meditation organization and the vice president of the foundation. It was Mr. Roth who initially nudged Mr. Lynch onto the college lecture circuit. He added: “If I didn’t say, ‘Please ask questions,’ David would just stand up there. He doesn’t care how awkward anyone else feels.”

Transcendental Meditation is a trademarked mental technique introduced by Maharishi in 1958 based on the proposition that a practitioner, by repeating a private mantra throughout two 20-minute sessions a day, can achieve a state of “restful alertness”— and, theoretically, tap into a “unified field” of energy. The training process involves working with personal instructors over five days at one of about 1,000 Transcendental Meditation centers worldwide, and it costs about $2,500.

In the ’60s, adherents posed Transcendental Meditation as a natural alternative to mind-expanding drugs like LSD. Now, proponents, including Mr. Lynch, argue that it can serve as an antidote to a stress-filled world, particularly for adolescents. Mr. Lynch cites his increasing concern for young people as the primary reason he launched his crusade.

“David has become a huge promoter of T.M.,” said Donovan, whose real name is Donovan Leitch. Mr. Leitch learned the practice from Maharishi himself, along with the Beatles, Mia Farrow and Mike Love of the Beach Boys, in Rishikesh, India, in 1968. Mr. Leitch added that Mr. Lynch has been able to “capitalize” on his fame and “redirect meditation back where it belongs, with the students.”

Transcendental Meditation faded from the pop culture landscape after the ’70s. Before Mr. Lynch, a marquee celebrity advocate was the illusionist Doug Henning, who died in 2000. But it hardly disappeared. Maharishi, now believed to be 90, still directs the movement, which claims more than 6 million adherents, from a log house on a 65-acre compound in the Dutch village of Vlodrop. The organization operates the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa; its own incorporated town, Vedic City (population 325), is nearby.

Over the years, the practice has been the subject of numerous scientific studies, including one by the University of Michigan Health System in 2003, which indicated that sixth graders who were practicing such meditation appeared to score significantly higher on tests of self-esteem and emotional competence.

But critics allege that it can inspire an unhealthy devotion. Rick A. Ross, who operates a nonprofit research organization in Jersey City called the Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements, said that the evidence he has studied indicates that Transcendental Meditation can be relaxing when not practiced excessively. But the movement fits some criteria he uses to define cults. It is “a personality-driven group, with Maharishi as its totalitarian leader,” Mr. Ross said, which at its extremes “can be seen as one in which people lose much of their ability for critical thinking.”

But Mr. Lynch, who was raised Presbyterian, insisted that Transcendental Meditation is neither a cult nor a theology, but simply a practice one learns, then pursues in private.

As an artist, Mr. Lynch said, it has allowed him to unleash his imagination and be, in a word, weirder. He said that many of his ideas — the “big fish” of his book’s title — come to him during meditation. Among these big fish are the sitcom-starring rabbits and the Greek chorus of prostitutes in his fantastical three-hour new film, “Inland Empire,” now showing in limited release.

Of course, artists are allowed their quirks, and Mr. Lynch revels in his. Last month, to campaign for an Academy Award nomination for Laura Dern, the star of his new movie, Mr. Lynch sat on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea with a cow and a giant poster of Ms. Dern’s face.

Early in his career, while other Hollywood hopefuls were losing themselves to cocaine, Mr. Lynch got strung out on milkshakes, visiting a Los Angeles Bob’s Big Boy almost daily for seven years. Now more health conscious, he favors the veggie burgers at Astro Burger. “To be a grown-up and to do what you want to do is the most beautiful thing,” he said, his gray-flecked hair pomaded into what looked like a tangle of swaying prairie grass. “But this doesn’t happen for most people. Sadly, they have to make ends meet.”

For these people, Mr. Lynch argues in the book, meditation can be a way out. For example, an unhappy insurance salesman who learns to “dive within” will find his soul-crushing commutes and stale breakfasts enlivened by ideas. Little by little, Mr. Lynch said, the salesman will find his weekdays “becoming more like Saturday morning — the sun is coming out, this beautiful warmth, with his favorite breakfast, birds chirping.”

“If you were a burglar, you’d become a much better burglar,” he added. “But after a while, you would probably say, well, wait a minute. You would probably have compassion for people you were burglarizing. You might even bring some stuff back.”

The director’s goal is to raise $7 billion to help open seven “peace universities” around the world. He also endorses Maharishi’s belief that a mass demonstration of “yogic flying” — a so-called “advanced technique” in which meditators, seated in the lotus position, begin hopping in unison and theoretically start to hover — can radiate peaceful energy out to the world. (Asked if he had tried this, he responded: “Yes.” Did it work? “No.”)

Mr. Lynch writes in his book that he began meditating on the recommendation of his sister, Martha. At the time, Mr. Lynch was a year into a torturous five-year quest to complete his first feature film, “Eraserhead,” which was released in 1977, and was separating from his first of three wives, Peggy Lentz.

“There was a hollowness inside,” he recalled. “I thought, something is drastically wrong.”

He dropped in on a Transcendental Meditation center. After 20 minutes, he felt a weight lifted.

“The side effect of growing that consciousness,” he explained, “is, negative things start going away. Like fear. It’s like the suffocating rubber clown suit begins to dissolve.” Certainly, the teachings of gentle-voiced Maharishi never made Mr. Lynch go soft. “You don’t have to suffer to show suffering,” he said of the violence in his movies. The filmmaker sees no contradiction between inner harmony and external edginess.

“I heard Charles Bukowski started meditation late in his life,” Mr. Lynch said, referring to the poet laureate of Skid Row, who died in 1994. “He was an angry, angry guy, but he apparently loved meditation.”

Of course, just as meditation never got Mr. Lynch over a taste for the macabre, it never quenched Mr. Bukowski’s famous thirst for whiskey. “Well, maybe in time, it would have,” Mr. Lynch said with a smile. “In the meantime — just more enjoyment of the whiskey.”

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