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A light conversation with David Lynch on Transcendental Meditation, the unified field, and what happens after we die.
TWICE A DAY, when he wakes up around 6:30 in the morning and again around 3 in the afternoon, filmmaker and artist David Lynch practices Transcendental Meditation (TM). He’s been doing it since 1973. Something he says about it that rings true for me, a lifelong practitioner, is that meditating is like going fishing for mysterious sea life in deep waters. It’s a going down rather than a rising up. This is counter to traditional notions of enlightenment, where we might be inclined to think of transcendence as a flight into the sidereal heavens. But what this kind of meditation really feels like, at least the TM variety, is diving.
When I was 17, I received my adult mantra — which replaced the one I’d used since I was 5 — at the TM center in Philadelphia. A very soft-spoken, balding, besuited man named John gave it to me. My mantra is a meaningless two-syllable juxtaposition of phonics — a nonsense word, essentially. Like all mantras, it is believed to be an effective focal point for successfully immersive meditation.
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When you meditate, the mantra is your anchor. John taught me how to do TM over the course of a couple days and when we were done, we made an offering of fruit and flowers to a photograph of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, aka Guru Dev. He was the teacher of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation. I knew then, even as a somewhat wild teenager, that I was being initiated into something that would be essential to me for the rest of my life.
Here’s what it’s like to do TM: I sit down somewhere comfortable and quiet. Then I take a minute or two, eyes closed, feeling as if I’m in a transitional period between the world and the not-world. At some point, I start repeating my mantra to myself in my head. Then my mind drifts. Inevitably some workaday anxiety intrudes. Once I notice that happening, I just take a beat, let it pass, and go back to the mantra. And that’s it. After 20 minutes, I stop saying the mantra and then sit for a couple minutes, eyes still closed, reemerging. TM differs from other meditations in its looseness. It doesn’t ask the meditator to rigidly adhere to the mantra but, instead, to allow the mind to wander and then find its way back to the mantra. Other forms of meditation can be stricter.
Meditation has become wildly mainstream over the past couple of years, particularly during the pandemic, when the popularity of meditation apps and online guided meditations surged in concert with people’s ambient stress levels. While there are many different approaches and methodologies when it comes to meditation, Transcendental Meditation occupies its own specific universe. It got its start in 1955, but it really entered the public consciousness in the late ’60s, when the Beatles made a pilgrimage to Rishikesh, India, to learn the technique directly from the Maharishi. After that and until more recently, it was the province of hippies and New Agers. In the ’80s, my grandmother was convinced that I was in a cult. Now, its famous practitioners include people like Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern, and various Lynch collaborators like Naomi Watts and Laura Dern.
TM is a kind of journey, and the destination is what TMers call the “unified field of consciousness,” which is a less nerdy way of saying “an unmanifest web that lies below relativity in a state of absoluteness.” This is also a less poetic way of saying “a limitless ocean that encompasses all creation,” which is a less Hindu way of saying “brahman.”
Brahman can be a hard concept to grasp, especially for Western minds. It is essentially … everything. Brahman is the source of all that exists: the ultimate truth, and the glue that binds the universe. One could do worse than to think of it as a kind of disembodied, omniscient, omnipresent god. In theory, it can be seen as synonymous with the unified field, which contains the building blocks of everything, including humanity, and where we go when we practice TM. (I have a theory that Lynch was seeking to represent the unified field when he showed us a massive purple ocean in episode 3 of “Twin Peaks: The Return.”)
I’m starting to feel like a TM missionary here, which I am not. I’m not here to convince you to take it up. But David Lynch, who is most stridently a TM missionary, wants to convince you — and that’s why he recently agreed to speak with me about his practice.
The world is, believe it or not, getting a little bit better. And people are realizing that true happiness is not out there. True happiness lies within. People are seeking.
Practicing TM doesn’t require concentration or contemplation. It barely asks for any effort at all.
We all think, for whatever reason, that in order to get something, you’ve got to try, you’ve got to work. Transcendental Meditation is a non-trying technique. The word “trying” isn’t part of it. Trying blocks what you want, and that’s to transcend. It’s effortless and easy. And people say, “Well if it’s so effortless and easy, what’s the point? You don’t get anything easy in life. You’ve got to get your butt out of bed and get going.” Well, that doesn’t work with TM. A legitimate teacher of Transcendental Meditation is what you need. He or she will give you a mantra, a very specific sound-vibration-thought. And this mantra is for turning the awareness 180 degrees from out there to within. Once you’re pointed within, you will dive through subtler levels of mind, and then deeper, subtler levels of intellect. You’ll experience a field of infinite unbounded consciousness.
It's difficult to learn how not to try.
It’s very difficult for us in the West, especially, to not try. My friend Charlie Lutes [the first person to learn TM when it was initially offered in the States in 1959, and a longtime leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement worldwide] used to say the best attitude you could have for Transcendental Meditation is “Here goes nothing for 20 minutes.” I don’t care if I get a flashy experience or if it’s boring. I’m going to put in 20 minutes and meditate the way I was taught. But if you’re going to put in the time, get a technique that takes you to the treasury. If the treasury is in the bank, why do you want to go on a walk and go halfway to the bank, or to the alley behind the bank? Take a technique that gets you inside the bank, opens the door to the treasury, and allows you to get the gold out.
I’ve noticed a boom in TM practitioners in recent years, especially during the pandemic.
The world is, believe it or not, getting a little bit better. And people are realizing that true happiness is not out there. True happiness lies within. People are seeking. There’s so much stress. There’s so much negativity, division, and fear. And they’re looking for something to get out. Drugs give you a beautiful experience while you’re high, but the payback is so horrible. So they’re looking, and they find something, eventually, that gives them some peace of mind, and some happiness, and more understanding of the bigger picture. Sometimes suffering makes us keep looking until we find the thing.
TM has sort of a reputation for being expensive or elitist.
Yeah, but I don’t know exactly why. It’s not like Maharishi was driving gold Cadillacs and people were living high. But teachers, they get a salary. And when you go to get a new TV, you don’t say, “Well, if TVs are so good, why don’t you give them to people for free so they can enjoy them?” Certain things, you just get used to paying for. But for some reason they say any kind of thing like this, meditation, you should get for free. It upsets people if it’s a lot of money, and mostly everybody’s poor these days because of the one-percenters and all this. So there’s a sliding scale. It’s not so expensive, but it does cost some money. And then you have this teacher you can ask questions to. You can get your meditation checked anytime you want. And it’s a beautiful thing. You’ve got this technique that brings benefits for you, for your life, for enjoyment, to get rid of negativity. You couldn’t pay enough, really.
The unified field can be a tough concept to grasp.
There isn’t anything that isn’t in the unified field. We are in it right now, you and I, and everybody else, everything. We are spun out of consciousness, believe it or not. It’s a very strange thing. And here we are on this little ball. We can’t get along with one another. Most of us are suffering to one degree or another, and we’re all stressed and plodding along. And it doesn’t have to be that way. We should all be happy. We should all be taking care of each other, enjoying life together. All diversity should be appreciated fully. No one should have a problem with anybody. And they say in the deepest level, the transcendent, we’re all one. We’re a world family. These are all our brothers and sisters. We should be getting along and enjoying life, solving all these problems together, and then going and building a great, great, great place. It’s so easy and possible. Why are all life’s strange things happening that keep us from it? Why is there all this division? Stress, stress, and more stress. It closes everything down. It makes people angry. It makes people depressed. It makes people sick. And it winds down into a dark horror story. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
What do you think happens after death?
We’re all detectives, and we look around for clues. And we notice that there’s these days, and there’s these nights, and you wake up in the morning, all fresh and stuff, and you go about your work. And you go, and you live your day. And at night you get tired, and you get sleepy, and your eyes close on the little pillow, and you go to sleep. And for the next eight hours, say, you’re not around. And then you wake up and it’s another day. That’s a clue to me. We go: life, after life, after life. They call it the wheel of birth and death. And it’s the way it is until you gain enlightenment. And then you step off the wheel. You don’t have to go around anymore.
As a detective, what’s a mystery you’ve been working on lately?
Well, the mystery of life.
The big one.
Yeah. We are all working on that in one way or another. I think a lot of times, it happens just when you get into bed, before you go to sleep, if it’s dark in the room, and you have time to think about things, that’s when you start thinking, what’s it all about? Why am I here? Why are we floating on this ball on the outskirts of the Milky Way? And how did I get here? Where was I before? Where am I going? Everybody’s dying. Everybody’s being born. What is going on? “What’s it all about, Alfie?”
Jesse Pearson is a writer, editor, and curator based in Los Angeles. He is the founder of Apology, a literary and arts magazine, and Apology, a podcast about books and reading. His work has appeared in Playboy, GQ, the Los Angeles Times, and more. He is the former editor in chief of Vice magazine and a former editor at index magazine.
Stebs Schinnerer is a Bay Area director and director of photography. He specializes in documentary storytelling for commercial and editorial clients around the world.
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