When visionary director David Lynch took the podium at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium last Sunday night, he looked out at a sea of about 700 faces and grinned.
He stood there, tall and serene in a black dinner jacket, white shirt, skinny tie, his famous silver coiffure shining, scanning the crowd of students, deans and the curious with an earnest look on his face.
“Good evening,” Lynch said after the waves of applause died down. “Bobby Roth (the introductory speaker) in the excitement forgot to tell you that I don’t have a planned speech. There’s two microphones if you all have questions on film or meditation or consciousness.”
With that, the notoriously reclusive director — responsible for some of the darkest, most idiosyncratic moments ever put to film — began “Consciousness, Creativity and the Brain,” a two-hour campaign pitch to get the students of America meditating.
I’ll confess: I’ve seen a handful of Lynch’s films and been wildly impressed, but I’m no expert, nor am I a Lynch buff. What drew me to the lecture was the promise that this would be an evening of insight and investigation into one of the subjects that fascinates me most — creativity.
That one of the most fertile imaginations in film was going to be talking about that subject and its connection to human consciousness and the brain fascinated me. The hook was that he was going to be addressing how students and others could overcome stress, fear, anxiety and depression, even some physical ailments, through meditation, perhaps opening the door to deeper creativity.
Alas, nothing is usually what it seems.
Sure, Lynch talked about “diving within.” That is what a practitioner of the meditation founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles’ spiritual guru circa their “Sgt. Pepper’s” days) does to regenerate himself and connect with that never-ending source of bliss. But Lynch never actually said how you do that.
He talked up the experience, calling the practice of Transcendental Meditation and its benefits “a beautiful thing” dozens of times throughout the evening. He was persuasive in convincing the crowd that meditation is key to his personal rapture; in fact, Lynch seemed ecstatic at times talking about the effects of meditation on his life and psyche. He just faltered when it came to actually describing the process, or making a direct link to his filmmaking, painting, music and sculpture.
The evening was billed as an opportunity for students to ask Lynch questions about his films in addition to TM. Indeed, more than 70 percent of the queries were things like “What was the significance of Eraserhead’s baby?” “What did ‘Mulholland Dr.’ mean?” “Can you talk about your new film ‘Inland Empire?'”
All of which left me to wonder: Had it been somebody other than David Lynch, would half the crowd have bothered to show up? Lynch’s answers were cryptic and vague — “I’m from Philadelphia” was the answer to Eraserhead. “Try meditating” was the possible key to understanding his films. And “I’m currently in the process of editing” summed up Lynch’s present activity.
It became clear that Lynch discussing film was definitely secondary to selling the crowd on Transcendental Meditation — and the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace.
– Is TM a religion?
The Lynch Foundation bills itself as “a national nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the benefits of stress-reducing meditation to students.” It’s currently trying to raise millions of dollars to study the effects of TM on brain functioning, academic performance, learning disorders and substance abuse, specifically among college students. What better way to demonstrate the foundation’s goals than actually showing what its researchers do?
Enter Harvard-trained quantum physicist John Hagelin, who is Lynch’s scientific counterpart; Dr. Fred Travis, director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management (yes, that Maharishi); and Shane.
In what was perhaps the most bizarre part of an already unusual evening, Travis introduced Shane, the twentysomething “student” who walked onstage wearing a blue cap streaming wires from his head. For 15 minutes, Travis demonstrated, via a laptop and projection screen, the actual real-time effects of meditation on Shane’s brain waves as he sat in front of the audience with eyes open, then closed, and finally as he went into a meditative trance.
There was something about that demonstration that left me feeling very unsettled, although I can’t quite describe what it was. When Lynch retook the stage to answer more questions about his films and address the foundation’s goals of establishing the first university dedicated solely to meditation as a way of achieving world peace, I sighed in relief at the prospect of his less-than-“clinical” insights.
However, it was one particularly insightful UC student whose question helped ground the otherwise abstract and surreal tone of the evening:
“I was wondering whether you see Transcendental Meditation or ‘diving within’ as antithetical to social activism and social movements, because this campus in the 1960s came close to a university for world peace,” the student quietly said. “I’m not sure that was predicated so much on meditation as opposed to social activism, jumping up and down and holding signs and speeches.”
Then, there was silence.