Snake oil or salvation?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not a fan of David Lynch’s films. I’ve seen most of them in my time and while in college pretended to adore Eraserhead because I love a boy who loved it. I never understood the appeal of his TV show Twin Peaks (which seemed to me self-consciously weird simply for the sake of being so), couldn’t stand Laura Dern’s whining through Wild at Heart and finished Mulholland Drive wondering how I could get the last two hours of my life back. All of this is not to say, of course, that I don’t admire the man, that I can’t appreciate his real originality, don’t appreciate his creativity on so many levels in creating films that can only be described – from the dialog to the art design to the soundtrack – as Lynchian. I’m not sure I understand why his web site is pay for play or what on earth motivated him to webcast videos of himself reading the weather, but there’s little I won’t give you on a poetic license pass.

Nor am I a fan of transcendental meditation. Actually, that may not be true. I may be a fan of it – hell, I may even be a prodigy. I just don’t know much about it. So it was odd even to me when I found myself at the Power Center on the U-M campus on Sunday evening to hear Lynch (and others) talk about TM and how it will bring about world peace. But there I was, just curious enough, to join up with Chris and two of the Fellows – Vanessa Bauza and Charles Clover – and find out a little bit about the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. We sat in the balcony of the packed auditorium – I read later that people were waiting in the lobby, hoping for an empty seat – as three men walked out on a completely bare stage. In the middle was Lynch, who took the stage to a rather spotty standing ovation, clad in a black suit and a long thin black tie offset by the trademark whoosh of gray hair. After brief (but not brief enough) introductions, Lynch took to the podium and kicked off the evening by taking questions.

For the uninitiated, Lynch has a rather grating, nasal voice, perhaps the least likely public speaking voice since David Sedaris. The evening was clearly supposed to be about Lynch’s 32-year, twice-daily love affair with transcendental meditation and how his Foundation can bring about an end to struggle and misery across the globe. But that didn’t deter failed and fledgling filmmakers and fans – mostly eager young men in untucked shirts – from asking questions about his films. Questions they’d likely spent hours practicing, ultimately stumbling over their own attempts to sound intelligent and informed. And I guarantee you every one of them had a screenplay aching to burst free from his hard drive, if only….

In fact, the very first question involved whether or not Lynch could help the asker find an agent for his screen play – which is either really ballsy or really annoying, depending on your perspective. Further questions praised Dune and Eraserhead and inquired as to when the second season of Twin Peaks was coming out on DVD. And every time, Lynch managed to draw his answer (if sometimes clumsily) back to TM and the Maharishi Somethingorother, who teaches TM from his university. In Iowa. Which is, after all, the global capital for spiritual wellbeing. (Although Lynch did offer the odd creative nugget, such as, “Always write your ideas down because if you forget them, you’ll feel like killing yourself.”)

Lynch spoke of the process by which TM brings consciousness, then understanding, then awareness, then wakefulness. He spoke of his Foundation’s goal of raising $7 billion to provide consciousness-raising education for middle-school children. He said that TM has changed everything, that with it “life gets better” and “the weight comes off” and “it’s the thing.” As he spoke, he made emphatic wiggling motions with his right hand, urging us to learn how to “get that glow going.” And people asked questions about his movies, while feigning interest in the topic at hand. Like, “When you were filming Dune, which is like the greatest greatest movie of all time and I am such a total fan and I’ve seen it like four thousand times and think you’re a frickin’ genius and like did you meditate a lot?”

After the questions, Lynch relented the podium to one of his co-presenters, Dr. John Hagelin, one of his partners in the Foundation and perhaps most commonly known from the film “What the Bleep Do We Know?” Man, I hated that film. But I digress…. Hagelin started off with some crowd-warming humor and all I have to say is never trust a bald man who opens with a hair joke. It’s all down hill from there.

Nor should you trust anyone who talks in a soothing, sing-song cadence clearly meant for brainwashing large groups. Or a man who wrote a thesis about super string. Is that like silly string? Or a man who says, “At our core, you and I are one.” You’re just bound to get your heart broken on that one. Hagelin is pushing us toward a “super unified reality.” He is one step short of inviting us to live with him on an abandoned film set.

But Hagelin did say some interesting things, many of which I didn’t understand at all. He talked about the fact that we only use a small percentage of our brains and described TM as a process by which we tap into the unused areas and get our whole brain working in concert. He also spoke about our being born with unbound awareness and then systematically taught to focus our knowledge and awareness on increasing specifics. Through TM, he said, we can learn how to “de-focus” and tap into our unbounded inner-consciousness. Man, that sounds great. Whatever it means.

Next, Dr. Fred Travis took the stage and treated us to a pretty cool demonstration of the “EEG of higher states of consciousness.” He trotted out his victim, a young man in a standard issue grad student sweater vest and a blue rubber cap with wires running out of it to a little white box. Travis starting showing pictures of the human brain and its activity waves and my own brain sent up a giant “Science!” red flag and immediately shut down. But I was with the program again when he had his monkey-boy meditate on demand and it was clear – okay, somewhat clear – that something happens in the brain when we meditate. Something. I’m just not sure what, exactly.

At the end, Lynch took the podium again to field more questions. “I’m not selling anything,” he said. But of course he is. He’s selling us on TM. He’s selling us on his own experience. He’s selling us on world peace, which would be achieved if we’d all just meditate, dammit. And it’s a convincing spiel. I could fall for it, I suppose, under the right circumstances and I’m not sure I’d even know if it was snake oil or salvation.