It's Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, and Jerry Seinfeld, Katy Perry, and Sting are all set to perform. Most of the women in the audience are decked out in designer dresses, and the men boast expensive suits. But right now, everyone is sitting in dead silence with their eyes closed, because they have been asked to begin the night by meditating. This is "Change Begins Within" a star-studded benefit concert for the David Lynch Foundation, and the goal is to raise money for the foundation's efforts to promote Transcendental Meditation to at-risk New Yorkers.
Jerry Seinfeld opens with a 10 minute comedy set—"I hate the phrase 'It is what it is,'" he says. "What is that? It's meaningless. I'd rather someone just blow air on my face."—but his tone gets serious when he starts talking about the role that TM, a form of mantra-based meditation, has played in his life.
"I'd do anything I could to promote it in the world," he tells the audience, "because I think it's the greatest thing as a life tool, as a work tool, and just making things make sense."
George Stephanopoulos is the night's emcee, and he too is a TM convert. So is Howard Stern, who shows up in a video clip. So is Sting, who performs a set of hits. So is Katy Perry, one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Before taking the stage in a giant bowtie dress and belting out "Wide Awake" into a pink microphone, Perry explains how meditation helps her creative life in a short video.
"I meditate sometimes before I write a song," she says. "I meditate before I go on stage. I meditate when I've been on my social media too much, when my mind starts to feel like mush. And when I meditate there's something physical that actually happens. Something medical, scientific. Where I feel like the neuro pathways in my brain open up like they've had cobwebs on them for days or weeks, and I feel my most sharp. So I couldn't encourage you more to try meditation."
The fact that A-list stars like Seinfeld and Perry are willing to donate their time and talent to stump for the Lynch Foundation is just one indicator of how far the movement has come in recent years—and how much Hollywood's most influential avant-garde director is to thank.
"We are now in 35 countries," DLF's executive director Bob Roth recently told me, "offering programs all over Latin America, in the West Bank and in the Middle East. In Africa, we're in the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa. In Asia we're in Cambodia, in Vietnam—it's all word of mouth. I don't take out an ad in a Cambodian newspaper or something like that. People hear about it." Roth says that TM is at a "tipping point" and cannot currently supply enough certified TM teachers to match booming worldwide demand.
But despite the movement's global appeal, Roth says the next frontier is closer to home.
"We're really putting a lot of attention on New York City," Roth tells me. "We want to use New York as a model of what a city could be like if it's offered in the school system if TM is offered in homeless shelters, if it's offered in companies and governmental organizations. And not just offering it to students but the parents and grandparents and not just offering it to veterans but to wives and husbands and children. And just really making it into a community-wide practice."
The David Lynch Foundation is embarking on its Big Apple mission after a successful ten years of spreading TM across America. The foundation has implemented TM programs in schools across the country. The Department of Defense recently invested $2.4 million to research TM as a potential cure for PTSD. It's also being used as a productivity tool in boardrooms.
TM proponents claim it lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and enhances creativity, and point to a host of studies as evidence. But the history of TM is a long, winding road, and its resurgence today is no less complex.
In the 1950s, Mahesh Prasad Varma entered a cave in the Himalayas for a period of spiritual study. There, he developed the meditation practice that would eventually become Transcendental Meditation.
Mahesh had studied math and physics at Allahabad University, but after graduating, he left to pursue enlightenment under the tutelage of a famous Swami named Guru Dev, a spiritual leader in the tradition of Advaitic Hinduism. During his hermitage he developed the theories that would underlie the practice of TM. Mahesh believed that there was an absolute reality he called "the Unified Field" that all people, not just spiritual leaders, had the capacity to connect with.
Practitioners of TM engage in two 20-minute meditation sessions per day; once in the morning and once in the evening. They access this field by silently repeating a mantra given to them by a certified TM instructor. By connecting with the Unified Field, meditators purportedly feel calmer and more at peace.
In 1957, Mahesh, who would come to be known as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and was often called simply "The Maharishi" or "The Giggling Guru," embarked on a world tour with the hopes of spreading TM. He was vocal about his idea that if enough people—to be precise, a number equalling the square root of one percent of the world's population—practiced TM, the positive energy that they would generate would bring about world peace. He called his quest to find these followers and create a more peaceful world "The Spiritual Regeneration Movement." From the beginning, he wanted to bring his meditation to the United States. His biographer Paul Mason quotes him as saying that "the people of that country would try something new very readily."
TM was well received by a select group of Americans and Europeans, but it really took off in the West after it was endorsed by the Beatles. Mahesh first met the Beatles in 1967, in a meeting arranged by Ravi Shankar. In 1968, the band stayed in the Maharishi's ashram, where they were trained in TM. The Beatles' sojourn with Mahesh was widely documented in the Western media and images of The Maharishi graced the covers of American pop culture magazines in the late 60s. This publicity changed the tenor of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement and celebrity endorsement became a central tool in TM's spread.
Celebrities made the movement cool, and they often claimed that their creative power, as well as their wealth, was a direct result of practicing TM. In 1968, The Beach Boys' Mike Love told the Chicago Tribune that practicing TM "shot our record sales up to about five million last year from about two and a half million."
Currently, TM's most serious devotees—many of whom became believers after being inspired by 1960s pop cultural icons—run The Maharishi Vedic City in Fairfield, Iowa which has its own internal currency system, its own security apparatus, and its own city council. Followers in Fairfield also administer the Maharishi University of Management, which Mahesh founded in 1971 and which has overseen many of the studies on TM's effectiveness. Despite the establishment of an entire town, however, Transcendental Meditation might have remained a relic of 1960s counterculture practiced by the elite few, if it weren't for David Lynch.
David Lynch, the creative force behind Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive, has been meditating twice-daily since the 70s, and he believes TM is the secret to his creativity.
In his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, he urges his readers to meditate. "It's very important to experience that Self, that pure consciousness," he writes. "It's really helped me. I think it would help any filmmaker. So start diving within, enlivening that bliss consciousness. Grow in happiness and intuition. Experience the joy of doing. And you'll glow in this peaceful way. Your friends will be very, very happy with you. Everyone will want to sit next to you. And people will give you money!"
Lynch believed that people from all walks of life should be able to practice TM, not just those creative LA types who had the means to pay the hefty price tag (learning TM from a certified instructor at one point cost about $2,500 dollars; today the price has reportedly gone down to just under one thousand.) It was this passion and deep-felt belief in the transformative powers of TM that led him to start the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace in 2005. Since then, the foundation's profile has been rapidly rising, along with interest in Transcendental Meditation.
The David Lynch Foundation has distanced itself from the religious roots of TM, insisting that it is only promoting the technique, not the cosmology behind it. Its representatives rarely mention the promise of yogic flying, for example, or position spiritual enlightenment as the goal of practicing TM.
Today, Lynch Foundation supporters prefer to talk about how TM can lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Its members bristle at any suggestion that TM is religious. Multiple performers at the Foundation's recent benefit preemptively disavowed that the movement was cultlike.
"It's not a religion, it's not a cult, it's just good for you," said Angelique Kidjo, introduced as "Africa's premier diva," at the Change Begins Within benefit.
There is some evidence to support her assertion: Even given the accusation that some of the hundreds of studies on TM might be biased, studies do indicate that practicing TM can lower blood pressure and may have other positive health effects. However, most of the health benefits advertised by the David Lynch foundation have also been found in other forms of meditation, and even in religious prayer.
"In some ways all of these forms of practice and spiritual discipline are more or less the same," Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist and professor at Stanford University who has written extensively about the effects of prayer, told me. "They are all training a practice of attending to the inner experience and they all manage that in different ways."
Though she had never been involved in a study specifically comparing TM to prayer, she was not surprised to hear its supporters claim that TM "works" for people. In fact, the practice reminded her of the tradition of speaking in tongues. Both rely on the repetition of relatively meaningless phonemes, she said, and both can have effects on consciousness and even physiology.
So, if TM isn't necessarily more effective than other forms of meditation, or even prayer, why are so many people jumping on the TM bandwagon, specifically? The answer may take us back to Seinfeld, Perry, and Sting; the Beatles and the Beach Boys. In other words, it may boil down to a matter of superior marketing.
"TM uses a multi-target strategy to appeal to a variety of people," Mara Einstein told me. Einstein is a professor at Queens College who wrote, Brands of Faith, a book about how religious and spiritual movements brand themselves in order to appeal to followers. "For business people, for example, it is promoted as helping them to reduce stress so that they can be more successful. Using celebrities is simply a way to attract another segment for whom that stardom and fame is appealing—it's the 'I want to be like them' factor."
Einstein says that TM's supporters are particularly good at marketing relative to other traditions.
"In this, TM is no different than Scientology or The Kabbalah Center, though perhaps with fewer negative consequences." So, TM may be trending because we all want to be as successful as Paul McCartney and Sting.
Whatever the reason, TM is growing. Bob Roth tells me that the "Change Begins Within" benefit concert cleared over a million dollars for the foundation, and that the money is going to go to support spreading the practice of TM all over New York City.
In light of the foundation's mission to make New York a meditating city, I asked Roth whether he still believed in the vision of the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, the notion that if the square root of one percent of the world's population were to practice Transcendental Meditation, they could bring about world peace. He was hopeful.
"I think it's something we should definitely test," he said, "because it's very clear that the stresses, and the racial, religious and political tensions that fuel violence are never going to be resolved through more violence, through warfare, or even economic embargo, so one of our focuses is to have enough people meditating so that we could test that theory."
At the end of the benefit, David Lynch, who couldn't attend because he was on location filming the new installment of Twin Peaks, beamed into Carnegie Hall with a very Lynchian video message to conclude the evening.
"Transcendental Meditation is life-transforming for the good. It works if you're a human being," he said. "It's change from within. Help get this beautiful blessing of a technique to the people. Thank you very much, have a great night."
Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.