David Lynch’s films, such as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, show a dark vision of the world. Is that why he is helping an Indian guru raise a billion dollars to build a university of peace? He explains to Julian Borger.
David Lynch is beaming, and his good-natured smile endures a whole hour in a reception room of a Washington hotel, impervious to all manner of personal intrusions, trick questions and general journalistic cynicism. This is the sense of inner peace that Lynch promises to bring to the rest of the world, which is a pretty extraordinary claim for anyone to make, let alone the creative mind behind some of the darkest, most disturbing films in cinematic history. Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are extraordinary visions of the world, but they seem intended more to spread a deep questioning unease than universal harmony.
That, however, is the film-maker’s goal. He has lent his famous name and idiosyncratic hairstyle to a project to raise $1bn on behalf of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru of transcendental meditation who once entranced the Beatles, and who has for the past few decades been striving to build an earthly paradise. This venture has taken many different forms over the years, but almost all of them have involved buying up large swaths of real estate across America.
At one point, the hotels, apartments and farmland the 92-year-old mystic bought were intended for “universities” of meditation. But in October, it was announced that the billion-dollar fundraising drive would be for 100 “peace palaces” built in major cities, where people could gather and meditate in the hope of spreading harmony and unity. By yesterday the plan had changed again. The $1bn is for a meditation centre big enough to hold 8,000 skilled practitioners. Lynch explains that such a critical mass of positive thinking “broadcast” from one spot will be enough to pacify the world.
“If you understand the mechanics of TM, then you understand the mechanics of the peace-creating group,” he explains. “When you do TM, this level of unity can be enlivening the world consciousness and it can go into the atmosphere. When the sun comes up the darkness goes away.” It is a phrase he repeats several times in the course of the interview.
The gap between Lynch’s professional reputation and this smiling apostle of bliss bearing his name is occasionally hard to bridge mentally. This is the ultimate poet of unease, seemingly without a trouble in the world – one of the most independent voices in cinema attributing most of his thoughts to the Maharishi. What happened?
Lynch says he is not the recipient of a sudden revelation, but has been transcendentally meditating twice a day for the past 30 years, but is still “not enlightened”. Furthermore, he admits that even if he was enlightened, serenity does not make for very interesting movies.
“Film can’t just be a long line of bliss. There’s something we all like about the human struggle,” he says, but just as he appears about to delve into his darker muses, he adds cheerily: “Meantime I know that the Maharishi’s peace plan will work and I want to do what I can to help it.”
Lynch insists meditating has changed his life from an angry man who used to take his anger out on his first wife, to a man at peace, all in the space of two weeks back in 1973. He was transformed, but it was not enough to save his marriage. “That marriage was not saveable,” he says.
Along the way, Lynch came to believe the Maharishi’s insistence that the inner peace was transferable. He repeats the TM claim that large-scale meditation in certain American cities, including Washington, had helped bring down the crime rate. Those claims are of course hard to verify, as there are so many variables in play. But TM combined with the various herbal supplements the Maharishi markets have been shown to bring measurable health benefits, even unclogging hardened arteries. TM resorts have become the spa of choice for Hollywood stars, strained executives and media types who can afford the several thousand dollars the treatments cost.
The leap in faith comes somewhere between the upmarket spas and world peace. That leap is all the longer when a reclusive guru, who by most published estimates controls a real estate empire in excess of $3bn, is asking for another $1bn contribution from the public to go the last few yards to world peace. Lynch has already pledged an unspecified but apparently significant cheque of his own. But is not possible he is being taken for a ride by a supreme spam-merchant? Lynch puts his face in his hands and for a moment it is not possible to see if he is smiling.
“I think it’s good to be sceptical,” he said, after a pause for reflection. “There’s a lot of fool’s gold in the world, but we all know there’s real gold as well and that’s why I say look into the teachings, look into what Maharishi’s been saying for 50 years and don’t go by rumours. Look into it and read some of these books and attack it from any angle and it will hold up.”
Lynch says he does not know the particulars of the Maharishi’s property holdings and looks for help on the point to Bob Roth, a spokesman for the Maharishi’s project. Roth questions the claims of the guru’s wealth, which he argues are based on rumours rather than on fact. But a brief flick through the local press reports around the US is enough to confirm that he does own some pretty impressive buildings in a large number of cities, and the authorities in some of those cities are furious with him for sitting on them rather than developing them as he had initially promised.
Most of Lynch’s friends and colleagues in Hollywood believe that the first major step they could take towards world peace would be to vote George Bush out of power next November. Lynch says he agrees, but that the political world has diminishing interest for him. “I’m just watching C-SPAN and all these people are talking about surface problems and trying to solve them on the surface and as soon as they get one – three more pop up and it just goes like a merry-go-round, around and around and around. We see it all the time and people with good intentions are trying so hard,” he says. “But this is now below the foundation bringing up unity and… all the stuff starts getting better – just like magic, but it’s science, and it works.”
Lynch talks a lot about achieving “coherence” in life through meditation, but most of his attempts to express the benefits of TM for the world often seem to struggle towards that goal before falling short, doomed forever to chasing the ineffable in vain. He seems aware that much of what he says will be taken as babbling, and even that his professional reputation might suffer if his many fans suspected he has become enslaved by a cult. For this reason, he suspects many of the Maharishi’s followers in Hollywood have preferred silence, but Lynch seems like a man with nothing to lose.
“I think I know what you’re saying about the cult thing… and I think people have agents and it’s safer not to mix it up and come out as a spokesperson for this . . . it never seems to work out too well so they just keep quiet. It’s a personal thing pretty much anyway,” he says. “So it’s just that this thing of peace is kind of important and I don’t mind coming out and talking about it.”
It has to be said that whatever Lynch is on, it certainly seems to work for him. He arrived late on Monday night from receiving a lifetime achievement award at a Stockholm film festival, just after an appearance at an exhibition of his paintings and photographs in Poland. But yesterday he appeared the freshest person in the room. At the end of the hour, his eyes are still bright, his handshake firm, and he is, of course, still smiling.