David Lynch in conversation: "It’s ignorance that keeps us in that boat of suffering"

To celebrate 10 years of "Catching the Big Fish," a never-before-published interview with Lynch by his book editor

Published September 3, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

David Lynch   (Getty/Kevin Winter)
David Lynch (Getty/Kevin Winter)

David Lynch’s book "Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity" has become an iconic record of the director’s commitment to meditation, his feelings about Hollywood and his working style as an artist. TarcherPerigee has just reissued Lynch’s work in a 10th-anniversary edition, which includes new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

To mark the new edition, due out on Sept. 6, here is a never-before-published 2006 interview that writer Mitch Horowitz, Lynch’s editor, conducted with the filmmaker upon the publication of the book, in which Lynch discusses his past and future as an artist and which boxes he checks on census forms.

If I sound the least bit nervous it’s because I’ve been fan of your movies since I was a wee lad – I grew up here in New York in punk rock and my friends and I all considered "Eraserhead" one of those movies that we really believed in. I can’t say exactly why that was so, but everybody felt the same way about it. Like many of your fans, I feel as though I’ve been living with that movie ever since I was just a kid.

Wow, that’s wild. Well, I always say it’s my most spiritual movie. No one understands me, but it is.

I believe it. Let me start by asking you this, I understand you’ve been meditating since about 1973.

Right, exactly since July 1st, 1973.

Why are you now speaking publicly about your commitment to Transcendental Meditation, why at this particular time?

I hate speaking in public, but I look at the world and I say if people only knew that it’s true that happiness comes from inside, or to use another expression: “The world is as you are.” The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi [who's the founder of Transcendental Meditation] uses the analogy that if you have dark green, dirty glasses on, that’s the world you see, that’s your experience. But if you start meditating, you take the natural dive into pure consciousness.

That ocean of pure consciousness is also known by modern science as the “Unified Field.” It’s at the base of all matter, of all things. We also learn this from Vedic science, the science of consciousness, or what you could call eternal science. And this act of diving within in Transcendental Meditation is so easy because it’s just natural – the mind wants to go into fields of greater happiness. The deeper you go, the more there is, until you hit pure bliss. Transcendental Meditation is the vehicle that takes you there, but it’s the experience that does everything.

You’ve made the point that so much of the film business is run on fear. That fear is this negative motivator that runs through the business — but that you do not run your movies and your business based on fear, or you wouldn’t be able to get anything of substance out of the people around you. I was wondering how you came to that, and whether it had something to do with meditation.

It had everything to do with meditation. And it had everything to do with common sense, as well.  I once noticed an article about somebody here in Hollywood who ran his whole business on fear, like it was a macho, cool thing. Now to me, it’s like that person is an idiot. Not only that, but he’s probably riddled with fear himself, broadcasting it and needing to give more of it to others.  

This goes on day after day – but humanity was not made to suffer: Bliss is our nature – that and being naturally kind to others. We’re all in this thing together.

So, it’s common sense that if a guy goes to work and he’s always afraid of losing his position or his whole job, or being humiliated publicly, his fear will often turn to anger. And a person becomes ultimately angry at his work. And then he begins to hate.

And this is the kind of life that this person in Hollywood, and probably many, many others who run the show, give to their employees. And it’s real close to hell. And you don’t get people to go that extra mile for you. They can probably hardly wait to get away from you and away from their work. And the creativity is cramped – negativity cramps creativity.  

I wanted to ask you a question about California. It’s very interesting to me that when the Maharishi came to the United States, he came to California, as do many teachers from the East.  Sometimes here in the Northeast people will poke fun at California for its supposed spiritual excesses, or will say that everybody has a guru, or something like that. And I reject that because I think California really has a renewing influence on the spiritual culture of this country. And I wanted to ask you, what is it about California that attracts so much that is novel or new in terms of the spiritual culture in America?

Well, I really don’t know – but it’s always been the light for me, the light and the weather. Where you go outside and it’s the same temperature as it is inside. This light is a certain kind of thing. It brings a lot of happiness. You get a feeling in California that you can do what you think to do. It’s an interesting kind of feeling. And, of course, it’s true that there are people in California who’ll go with the next guru that comes through town. For me, though, once I got on a path, I wanted to stay on that path. I don’t want to mix it up, add anything to it, or subtract anything from it.  

Were you interested in metaphysical ideas as a kid?

No. I grew up in the Northwest, and if you couldn’t see it, feel it, touch it or kick it then it didn’t exist. But as a kid I would dream and I would feel, and I knew that something more was going on, but I didn’t think about it all the time. And when you grow up then you start getting anxieties, you start getting fears; things happen and you start getting angry, you get confused.

I had darkness and confusion, and it’s tough being a human being – but it shouldn't be. It’s ignorance that keeps us in that boat of suffering. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  

Do you have kids and did they grow up meditating?

I’ve got three kids and all of them started when they were about six. And they all meditate regularly. My son Austin, my second child, stopped for a year, not telling anybody because he felt it wasn’t his – like it was put on him. And then he started again after a year, and he made it his own. And, you know, meditation throws stress off kids like water off a duck’s back.    

When the U.S. census form comes to your house and they have these boxes to check for your religion, do you check “unaffiliated” or what do you check?

I don’t remember them ever coming to my house, but I was raised Presbyterian.

And do you consider yourself Presbyterian or Christian, or do you not think of yourself in those terms today?

I respect people who are religious, I think they find something there and I think it’s beautiful, just beautiful, all of it. There’s truth there. But I feel that some of the keys, because these religions are old and they’ve been fiddled with possibly, I feel some of the beautiful original keys from the Master have been lost.

But we’re all going to the same beautiful goal. That’s the way I see it. Whatever really and truly takes you there, we’re all on the same path. We’re all one, as the physicist Dr. John Hagelin says, at that most fundamental level. We’re sparks off the Divine Flame.

And we can realize that, not intellectually but we can live it by unfolding it, we can really live it. There’s an ancient saying, “Know that by knowing which all things are known.” Or know it by being it. And this is what Transcendental Meditation will do for a human being. You'll know it by being it. It’s a field of pure knowingness.

You speak so eloquently about the experience of transcendent bliss – but for those of us who love your movies, it’s impossible not to wonder at how many of the characters in your movies live with so much darkness. Why that dichotomy?

Stories are always going to be stories, and worlds that we can go into where there’s suffering, there’s confusion, there’s darkness, there’s tension, there’s anger, there’s murder, and so on. But the filmmaker or the author doesn’t have to suffer in order to show that. In fact, and this is common sense too, the more the artist suffers the less creative he or she is going to be. And the less likely [the artist is] going to enjoy [his or her] work or be able to do really do good work.

Fear and anger and tension, anxieties and stress and depression – these things strangle creativity. And you can’t think your way out of it, you can’t wish for a glass of water when you’re thirsty – you’ve got to have real water. You can’t pretend you’re happy if you aren’t.

What I’ve discovered is that the practice of diving within in meditation makes ideas easier to catch and the enjoyment of the doing increases exponentially and you appreciate people more – you seem to almost recognize everyone. It becomes fun to work. It’s not the kind of thing that you even think about, it just grows naturally. You can still get angry, but you can’t hold onto that anger. You can still get sad, but you can’t hold onto it.  

What gives you the greatest satisfaction as an artist?

Catching ideas and realizing them. It’s the story and the way the story is told. You get an idea and that is like a supreme gift. It’s like the chef catches this fantastic fish, and now he can go about cooking it in a special way, using his talents for cooking the fish. It’s great to catch an idea that you fall in love with; that gives me a lot of happiness.

Then along with the idea comes this spark of inspiration and energy and excitement because that idea holds so much – you know what you’re going to do. If it’s an idea for a chair, you see the chair and you just go to work translating that idea into a chair.

What gave you the indication early in your life that you were on the right path as a filmmaker?

Only my desires. I wanted to be a painter, and then I made a moving painting with film and I started getting green lights and I started falling in love with that.

That’s what guides most of us. For one reason or another, you desire to go this way or that way.

Now you can hit some troubled waters and then you say, wait a minute, maybe I’m going the wrong direction, and you adjust, but when you start getting the green lights it’s kind of an indication you’re going down the right path.

What response are you getting from the kids you encounter when you speak about meditation on college campuses?

The feeling in the rooms each night is very good. Realistically speaking, at least half might have said, “Well, Lynch is a cool guy and all, but meditation is not for me.”  

Or maybe, “He’s not a cool guy and meditation is not for me.” But one girl said, “I've been waiting my whole life to hear this.” So it’s a range.

But if one person got something and started really blossoming because of it, it’s a good thing.

So, let’s say it was way more positive [than] I thought it would be. For students things are tough, there’s so much pressure.  They’re sitting right on the brink wondering, “What am I gonna do in life? How is it gonna go? And I gotta get this, I gotta get that, I gotta get this.”

It’s just like a steamroller. And then there’s also a lot of partying. So, it’s confusing to have all this stuff rolling along. But with meditation, it’s like you’re partying, and you’ll enjoy things more, and have the clarity, the ability to focus, and the ease in gaining knowledge. And you may not even realize it, but the people around you who obviously know you, your family and friends, they see it. It’s the weirdest thing.

By Mitch Horowitz

Mitch Horowitz is the PEN Award-winning author of books including "Occult America" and "One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life." Follow him @MitchHorowitz.

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