LOS ANGELES — The word critics use most often to describe director David Lynch‘s films is “dark.”
“Weird” is a close second.
The cinematic otherworlds Lynch creates, whether they’re the quirky Lumberton and Twin Peaks, industrial Victorian England, or the shadowy underbelly of the Hollywood Hills, are surreal, sordid, nightmarish.
One might expect the soul behind such celluloid visions to be just as dark. But as Lynch explains what motivates him spiritually — in his life, in his art — he peppers the conversation with concepts such as “light,” “peace” and “bliss.”
Much has been written about the stark contrast between the 58-year-old director of films such as “Eraserhead,” “The Elephant Man,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Mulholland Drive,” who looks like a classic clean-cut everyman — think a fair-haired Jimmy Stewart — and the bizarre, brutal characters he creates in his movies.
But the greater contrast, perhaps, may lie much farther beneath Lynch’s surface.
“Negativity is like darkness — it goes away when you turn on this light of peace and unity,” Lynch says, between sips from his ever-present coffee mug and drags on his American Spirit cigarette. “Bliss is our nature. Bliss. We should be like little puppy dogs. So happy. … And that includes unbounded, infinite intelligence, creativity, consciousness.”
Puppy dogs and consciousness? Where is this coming from? It seems so . . . unlikely.
“Pretty much everything I’m going to tell you I’ve learned from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,” Lynch says, staring off into the middle distance of his screening room. “I’ve been practicing transcendental meditation, the Maharishi’s transcendental meditation, for 31 years.”
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is an octogenarian Hindu monk from India best known for being the Beatles’ guru in the 1960s. Nearly 60 years ago, Maharishi, as he is known, developed a simplified meditation technique based on the Indian Vedic spiritual tradition, that is supposed to help its practitioner “transcend” to a higher state of consciousness and profound relaxation by silently repeating a one-syllable Sanskrit mantra for about 20 minutes a day.
Lynch, who describes Maharishi as “a holy man who teaches you how to become a holy person,” says he was introduced to transcendental meditation by his sister in the early 1970s, around the time he was making his first feature-length film, the black-and-white cult favorite “Eraserhead.”
Transcendental meditation and the Maharishi’s guidance have transformed his life, Lynch says. A framed picture of the smiling guru sits next to the phone and several bottles of Ayurvedic herbs on the desk in Lynch’s industrial art studio, where abstract artwork — one piece included what appeared to be a baby doll’s arm protruding from the canvas — hangs on the walls.
Before he began meditating twice daily, “I had anger, I had fears, I had anxieties,” Lynch says. “I still have them. I’m not enlightened. But it’s much, much, much, much better. Life is so beautiful.
“Maharishi says there is an expression, ‘The world is as you are.’ They use the example that if you have dark-blue, dirty sunglasses on, that’s the way the world is to you. If you have rose-colored glasses, that’s the way the world is to you. Change from within.”
Born in Missoula, Mont., the son of a research scientist and a language tutor, Lynch was raised as a Presbyterian Christian.
He says his earliest memory of God was “a feeling of happiness,” and that he still believes in God, in a slightly less abstract form.
“The kingdom of heaven, God the almighty merciful father, is that totality,” he says, when asked to define who or what God is. “It’s that level. It’s the almighty merciful father, and the divine mother, the kingdom of heaven, the absolute, divine being, bliss consciousness, creative intelligence. These are all names, but it is that.
“It is unchanging, eternal. It is. There is nothing. It’s that level that never had a beginning, it is, and it will be forever more,” he says. “That, I think, if you said that’s God, you wouldn’t be wrong.”
‘Not mind control’
Transcendental meditators insist theirs is simply a spiritual practice or discipline, and not a religion unto itself. There are transcendental meditators of every religion and of no religion. In bucolic Fairfield, Iowa, the transcendental meditation capital of the United States and home to Maharishi University of Management, the mayor, a meditator, is a practicing Roman Catholic.
“It’s not mind control,” Lynch says of transcendental meditation. “Anybody in any religion who practices transcendental meditation generally says that it gives them deeper appreciation of their religion, greater insight into their religion. The bigger picture starts unfolding and things that used to bug you stop bugging you so much.
“It’s not that you go dead or numb. It’s, there’s just too much happiness and consciousness and wakefulness and understanding growing for you to be, you know, suffering so much, or caught up in some narrow little thing. It just starts getting better, and better, and better, and better.”
A twice-divorced father of two sons and a daughter (all of whom are transcendental meditators), Lynch says while he adheres to no particular religion himself, he respects all religions.
“I sort of think that the great religions are like rivers. Each one is beautiful and they all flow into one ocean,” he says. “It’s like a mystery. I love mysteries. And they lead somewhere. And once in a while you’re going along, feeling the mystery, and you become a seeker. It just happens. I don’t know quite how it happens, but you want to know. You want to experience, and you learn about things.
“That’s what happened with transcendental meditation. I heard about it and I said, ‘I’ve gotta have it.’ And I’m glad I took that.”
Lynch’s resume is long and varied.
Film director. Screenwriter. Painter. Furniture designer (he often designs pieces for his sets). Composer. Actor. Photographer (“I shoot nudes and factories,” he says).
And, most recently, flier.
Yogic flier, that is.
Advanced transcendental meditators, known by the Sanskrit term siddha, practice what they describe as a dynamic form of meditation, where they are physically lifted off the ground in a state of profound bliss.
In reality, so-called yogic flying looks a lot more like hopping on one’s knees than levitating. In the Golden Domes of Pure Knowledge in Fairfield, Iowa, more than 1,000 siddhas spend hours a day “flying” on foam rubber cushions, spontaneously hopping in the lotus position, eyes closed, giggling blissfully.
“I’m not a great flier,” admits Lynch, who has been a siddha for about three years and usually practices alone. “But the experience, when it kicks in, is so phenomenal, it’s not funny. It’s intense bliss. And I’ve seen the unbounded ocean pour into me and it’s so beautiful.
“It is what they call ‘bubbling bliss,’ and it is so intense and so fantastic. Bliss is physical, emotional, mental and spiritual happiness. It’s so beautiful it’ll make you laugh like a little kid. It’s like we’re light bulbs, it just fills you up with light. And then an offshoot of that, as we see in the light bulb, the light goes beyond the bulb. So it affects the environment, and this is the principle that will being perpetual peace on earth.”
Lynch is talking about the theory of constructive interference in physics, which is exemplified by stereo speakers. If there is a single speaker on each side of a room, the sound produced is in stereo. But if the two speakers are pushed together, the sound is amplified exponentially.
Maharishi, who trained as a physicist before becoming a monk, says constructive interference can be applied to transcendental meditation as well. Many of his devotees, including Lynch, believe that transcendental meditation not only produces positive effects in its practitioners — lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, increasing focus — it does the same for society, reducing crime rates and even ending war.
The greater the number of people meditating together, the greater the effect, Maharishi and his scientific researchers say. A few years ago, after the events of Sept. 11, he devised a plan to establish “peace palaces” around the world with thousands of full-time meditators, to bring about peace.
It’s a cause to which Lynch says he is personally devoted.
“Large groups of yogic fliers . . . together produce an exponential effect of bliss, coherence, peace,” he says, matter-of-factly. “The square root of 1 percent of the world’s population, in a group, going day in and day out, will bring about peace.
“And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in talking to people about this, and trying to raise the money to make it on a permanent basis, and I haven’t had a whole lot of luck, but I’m still trying,” he says.
Recently, the filmmaker established the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace to ensure that any child who wants to learn transcendental meditation can do so. The foundation will cover the costs of meditation instruction (about $2,500 per person), and will provide some scholarships for students who want to attend colleges where transcendental meditation is taught, such as the Maharishi’s university in Iowa.
“We’re just this little ball of people floating near the edge of what we call the Milky Way galaxy,” Lynch says, “and there ought to be enough power to light this little ball up with peace.”
Loving the abstract
Lighting up yet another cigarette — a no-no for most hyper-health-conscious transcendental meditators, many of whom are strict teetotaling, caffeine-free vegetarians — Lynch explains that meditation has allowed him to tap into a deep well of creativity.
“It’s the field of pure creativity,” he says, his voice rising. “For artists, it seems to me, to be the greatest thing to be able to dive in and go to the source of creativity. Ideas come from there, creativity comes from there. All these anxieties and fears and things that just kill us, all of those start going away. It becomes like a fluid, pure open channel of ideas. It is REALLY GOOD.”
Many of Lynch’s films have surreally complicated plots — “Mulholland Drive,” for example — and can be difficult to explain to the uninitiated. Is it easier, perhaps, to describe how his films feel than what they’re about?
“That’s very good,” he says, clearly pleased with the question. “That’s very good because the things that I love in life are abstractions. I don’t think a film should be totally abstractions, but I think a story that I love holds those abstractions.”
“Ideas inspire me. Ideas, to me, are everything. They’re all seeds, and, in a lot of ways, they’re like the Vedas, the laws of nature,” he says.
Does he try to infuse his films with lessons he’s learned from Maharishi and transcendental meditation?
“No, no no. They say, if you want to send a message, go to Western Union,” he says, wryly. “Film is a different thing. I love painting, I love photography, and I love music. And you know, if it comes through there, it comes through there in an innocent way. I’m not about to make a film to sell this thing.
“I want to make films based on ideas that I’ve fallen in love with.”