David Lynch, the filmmaker whose darkly inspired works have included "Eraserhead," "Twin Peaks" and "Mulholland Drive," is unsettling viewers once again with the release of his newest film, "Inland Empire," which stars Laura Dern as an actress in trouble.
But what's really on the director's mind is not the movie but his new book, "Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity." Much of this autobiographical work, due out in January, is about Lynch's life as a devotee of Transcendental Meditation.
Lynch says the turbulent, bizarrely off-kilter world he creates in his films owes much to his daily meditation practice.
"The artist doesn't have to suffer to show suffering," Lynch said. With meditation, "you enjoy things more, and ideas flow, and you catch them at a deeper level."
A half-century after the practice was brought to the United States by an Indian spiritual leader and popularized by the Beatles, Transcendental Meditation is undergoing a revival of sorts. And in a twist stranger than one of his own plot lines, Lynch is at the center of TM's resurgence.
Lynch, 60, has practiced TM for half of his life but has been speaking out in public to promote it for only the past year.
He's hoping that his book and a foundation he formed last year to promote TM in schools will bring the practice to others. But there are critics of his efforts, and some are going so far as to call TM a cult.
Lynch had been looking into different meditation techniques in 1973 when he got a phone call from his sister. She said she had been practicing Transcendental Meditation, and Lynch noticed a quality of happiness in her voice. Shortly thereafter, he went to a TM center in Los Angeles, where he was taught the technique by a woman he thought looked like Doris Day. Since then, he claims to have not missed a meditation in 30 years.
TM practitioners meditate for 20 minutes twice a day, sitting down with eyes closed and repeating a personalized mantra. Practitioners say the focused meditation reduces stress levels, increases intelligence and promotes a deep sense of restfulness. And some believe that if enough people participated in TM, it could lead to world peace.
Lynch got the idea for his foundation in early 2005. At a TM conference, he heard a principal at an inner-city school in Washington speak about how a program to teach students TM helped reduce violence and increase academic performance.
That got Lynch thinking: TM could relieve the stress plaguing young people. He decided to use his name and money to promote and subsidize the technique he had found so valuable in his own life.
Four months later, in July 2005, he formed the David Lynch Foundation to get the word out about TM to middle school and high school students. According to Bob Roth, the vice president of Lynch's foundation, the organization has already financed TM programs in 30 schools, with roughly 100 more schools waiting for help. About $3 million — including $200,000 of Lynch's money — has been spent on the programs, and the proceeds of Lynch's book will go to the programs.
"Education today is fact-based, how many facts a teacher can cram into a kid's brain," Roth said. The foundation strives to complement this fact-based education by expanding a student's capacity for information so he or she can learn more with less stress and less pressure, he said.
Without the foundation's support, learning the TM technique would be a pricy undertaking for a student. A typical introductory course at one of the more than 100 TM centers around the country costs $2,500. The introductory course includes four one-hour sessions, which cover the history of the practice, first introduced in the United States by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and how to perform the meditation technique correctly.
Those associated with TM say the price is relatively high because it includes a lifetime of follow-up and support, but critics see it differently. Rick Ross of the Rick A. Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults and Controversial Groups and Movements claims much of the cash is going to the Maharishi.
"The guru controls a financial empire now reportedly worth between $5 billion and $8 billion," Ross said. "This would make him the richest purported cult leader of the 21st century."
Roth responded that the Maharishi lives modestly and that TM, a trademarked form of meditation, is a subsidiary of a nonprofit organization called Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corp. and must account for every penny it receives from its courses. He also said the National Institutes of Health had given grant money to research the effects of TM.
Despite the controversy, some schools are welcoming TM and the David Lynch Foundation. At the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse in Detroit, a public charter school for kindergarten through eighth grade, more than 100 pupils practice TM twice a day in the school gym.
"I did it because I think it's the healthy thing to do," said principal Carmen N'Namdi, a longtime TM practitioner. "The students really have enjoyed it. They like it, and they say they feel more rested and calmed down."
But other schools have taken a pass on the free program. The Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, Calif., backed out after a parent accused the TM group of being a cult.
"The actual meditation itself is absolutely nothing but sitting down, closing your eyes and counting Hindu sheep," said Susan Crittenden, the parent who made the charges. But "it's also a philosophy of life, and that's what you're not told about."
Crittenden should know. After being introduced to TM in the 1970s by a college professor, her life changed dramatically, and not for the better. Her increasing involvement in the TM philosophy "really distracted me from my goals, and I became distant from my family," she recalled. She dropped out of college to become a TM teacher.
She stopped practicing TM in 1978 after the Jonestown Massacre.
"I knew if the Maharishi passed around Kool-Aid and told us to drink it, I knew I would have taken it," she said.
But while TM has its critics, Lynch has given the meditation technique two thumbs up, saying it helps his creativity flow.
" 'Catching the Big Fish' refers to catching ideas," Lynch said.
His book describes how he comes up with ideas for his films, how he puts his thoughts into action and how consistent meditation has helped him become one of the world's most famous film directors.
"A side effect of transcending is negativity starts to recede," Lynch said. "Energy, understanding and appreciation grow and you can get deeper in a story."