Contrary to what his nightmarish films would have you believe, David Lynch – director of such classics as Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks – is actually a pretty chill guy, something Lynch himself credits to, of all things, transcendental meditation.
“When I first heard about meditation, I had zero interest in it,” he says in his autobiography/self-help guide Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, expressing a sentiment that many chronically agitated, skeptical people can relate to. “It sounded like a waste of time.”
This changed when he encountered a phrase frequently associated with meditation: “true happiness lies within.” Initially frustrated by its trademark vagueness – “it doesn’t tell you where the ‘within’ is, or how to get there” – part of him felt there was some truth to it.
What really got him interested, though, was seeing the effect transcendental meditation had on his sister. After meditating for six months, Lynch noticed “there was something in her voice. A change. A quality of happiness. And I thought, That’s what I want.”
So Lynch, then an aspiring but highly insecure filmmaker working on his first feature, went to a center for transcendental meditation in Los Angeles to see things for himself. There, a lady who looked like actress Doris Day told him to close his eyes and recite a mantra.
The effects were near instantaneous. “It was as if I were in an elevator and the cable had been cut,” Lynch writes. “Boom! I fell into bliss – pure bliss. And I was just in there.” Twenty full minutes passed, though, in hindsight, they felt more like two.
Transcendental meditation, commonly abbreviated as TM, is a form of meditation developed by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the mid-1950s. TM became popular in America during the psychedelic era, when it was practiced by cultural icons like the Beach Boys and the Beatles.
TM works as follows: Find a quiet spot, sit down and set a timer for 20 minutes. Close your eyes and focus on a mantra – something you repeat inside your mind to help you focus and stay in the present moment. Stop when the timer goes off, then repeat later. Oh, and don’t forget to breathe.
TM is not an exact science, and you can change the rules to fit your needs. If you prefer to lay down instead of sit, then lay down. You can mediate for hours or a few minutes, depending on your preference. You also don’t need to meditate every single day to receive its benefits.
Mantras are personal. Some people prefer a simple sound, imitating the stereotypical monks seen in movies. Others chose a meaningful word or phrase such as “I will have a good day” or “my body is a temple.” A mantra can be pretty much anything as long as it makes you feel good and calm.
When meditating, you don’t have to stick with your mantra from beginning to end. “If at some point you find that you’re forgetting the mantra or that it’s becoming irritating, you can let the mantra go, allow your mind to drift wherever it wants,” says Adam Zanzie.
Zanzie is a filmmaker who went to the David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts of Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa. At the school, he not only studied Lynch’s style, but also learned how to meditate, a practice he continues to this day.
Although TM is not a science, its influence on the human body can be scientifically measured. Studies have shown that meditating can reduce negative emotions, anxiety, depression, neuroticism and blood pressure while improving learning, memory and self-actualization.
Like his sister, Lynch became a different person after he started meditating. Weirdsville USA: The Obsessive Universe of David Lynch author Paul A. Woods describes a pre-TM Lynch as “living on caffeine and nicotine (…) every setback, major or minor, wore heavily on his nerves.”
Lynch himself agrees. “I had everything going for me,” he recalls the exciting but simultaneously stressful time his career was just taking off. “I was supposedly doing what I wanted to do more than anything else: making films (…) but I just wasn’t happy.”
TM helped Lynch find that happiness. “It takes you to an ocean of pure consciousness, pure knowingness,” he writes in Catching the Big Fish. “But it’s familiar; it’s you. And right away a sense of happiness emerges – not a goofball happiness, but a thick beauty.”
Lynch’s observations are rooted in Eastern philosophy. “The principles of transcendental meditation,” the Maharishi once explained, “is simple: being is bliss in its nature. Mind is always moving in the direction of greater happiness.”
“Because the nature of being,” he continues, “is bliss, therefore the mind during transcendental meditation takes that inward course in a more spontaneous manner. We do not concentrate or control the mind. We let the mind follow its instinct.”
If you don’t care much for philosophy, Lynch offers a more grounded, practical explanation of how TM can help the average Joe live a better, happier life, namely by making them realize how small and insignificant the things that make them feel angry or worthless really are.
When we’re caught up in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day existence, we sometimes forget the universe is larger than our immediate environment – our families, jobs, etc. – and the social norms that dictate how this environment operates.
TM helps us take off what Lynch, in a very Lynchian paragraph, calls the “Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity.” It’s a silly image, but that’s the point – that frustration and self-pity are laughable if you look at life from a perspective that extends beyond your birth or death.
Meditating, Zanzie chimes in, cleanses “your mind of unnecessary negativity. There’s a difference between righteous anger and the kind of selfish anger that is just poisoning us.” TM helps him recognize that something that’s bothering him is “not as important as it may seem to be in the moment.”
TM not just improves your personal relationships, but your creative endeavors as well. “Anger and depression and sorrow are beautiful things in a story,” Lynch concludes in his autobiography, “but they’re like poison to the filmmaker or artist.”
“They’re like a vise grip on creativity,” he continues. “If you’re in that grip you can hardly get out of bed, much less experience the flow of creativity and ideas. You must have clarity to create. You have to be able to catch ideas.”
Lynch’s writing on TM provides an easy point of entry into his otherwise impregnable filmography, which tends to represent the fears and insecurities of his protagonists not as intelligible opponents that must be outsmarted, but grotesque monsters that have to be outrun.
Maybe this is Lynch showing negative emotions are unreasonable – that they don’t play an important role in some complicated discussion about the true (and possibly absent) meaning of life, but that they are simply the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be restored through meditating.