There’s no ordinary way to meet David Lynch. For Montreal filmmaker Sebastian Lange, that was definitely the case. In 2008, Lange was in India for the funeral of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement. It was there, on the Ganges River, that he met the man who would introduce him to Lynch, the famed filmmaker known for his eccentricity. Camera in hand, Lange was among hundreds of people in wooden rowboats waiting to witness the scattering of the maharishi’s ashes.
“I began hopping from boat to boat to get a better shot,” Lange recalls. He found himself face to face with Bobby Roth, one of the key spokespeople for TM, and a long-time teacher and practitioner. That led to an introduction on the Ganges to Lynch, one of several celebrities who have been trained in TM technique.
Lange decided that Lynch’s new role as a public face of TM would make a fascinating documentary. The result is Transformation, which Lange is currently editing and aims to have ready for the fall film festival circuit. For the past four years, Lange travelled with Lynch across North America, Europe and Asia, capturing his passionate lectures about the TM movement and its profound impact on his life.
This is not the first film to explore Lynch’s connection to TM. In 2010, German filmmaker David Sieveking released David Wants to Fly, a feature-length documentary that was critical both of TM and Lynch himself. In the film, Sieveking interviewed subjects who charged that the TM movement bilked followers of their money and that the maharishi was a womanizer. Lange dismisses the documentary as “shallow and sensational.”
Much of the aura around TM remains mysterious; while popular celebrities—everyone from the Beatles to Oprah Winfrey—have embraced meditation, many TM followers also believe in yogic flying, in which practitioners manage to levitate. Lange doesn’t believe in the levitation (“I’ve seen the YouTube videos, they’re just hopping,” he says). “The stereotypes about the TM movement, both perceived and projected, don’t interest me. It’s the humanity behind the scenes that I find compelling,” he says.
As a child, Lange’s family moved from Canada to Fairfield, Iowa, where Lange was taught in a TM school with twice daily meditation sessions. Lange, now 40, left TM as a young adult. “I lost touch with the TM community when I graduated from high school,” he explains. “I wanted to pursue my interests in photography and theatre, so I moved to New York.”
Lynch started practising TM in 1973 upon the advice of his sister, Martha. “I’d been looking into many forms of meditation when my sister called and told me she had started TM,” Lynch says via email. “I liked what she told me based on what I’d learned about other techniques. And most importantly, I heard a change in her voice—more self assuredness, more happiness. I said, ‘This Transcendental Meditation is for me.’ ”
After hearing Lynch speak about TM seven years ago, Roth approached the filmmaker about becoming involved in fundraising and proselytizing. Together they founded the David Lynch Foundation, which raises money to train at-risk groups, including inner-city youth, how to meditate. Lynch has largely filled the gap created when the maharishi died, becoming the public face of TM.
But while celebrity interest and endorsement can draw attention, it also brings cynicism. If TM devotees are attempting to dispel the mystery and enigma around TM, Lynch may seem an unusual choice, given that the man behind such surreal epics as Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks is renowned for being mysterious and enigmatic. Lange says it’s this complexity that makes Lynch the perfect subject for a documentary feature, and a lens through which to explore TM. He describes Lynch as “friendly, unaffected and sincere. Enigmatic, yes. This seeming contradiction between his dark films and total commitment to TM, these are the qualities that imbue him with a very human dimension and complexity.”