FAIRFIELD, Iowa — You know you've arrived in Fairfield, a town of some 9,000 souls situated amid the flat corn and soy fields of southeastern Iowa, when you see two great golden domes swelling up into the sky. These mark the site of the Maharishi University of Management, the educational center of the Transcendental Meditation movement founded by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian spiritual entrepreneur who died in the Netherlands in February. Beneath the domes, separated into contingents of men and women, hundreds of TM adherents array themselves around the floors, practicing group meditation. A TM veteran told me that the domes were also once said to offer vertical maneuvering room for those adepts who achieved a state of levitation, although the possibility of actually rising up into the air, which is still as improbable as ever, is something that's downplayed nowadays.
We arrived in Fairfield just in time for David Lynch Weekend, a tribute to TM's highest-profile exponent. "Transcendental Meditation" (like "TM," a trademarked term) became famous in the 1960s when it attracted such celebrity spiritual seekers as the Beatles and Donovan, both of whom traveled to India to meet the Maharishi in person. The Beatles soon fell out with him, and moved on in a huff; Donovan stuck with it, but today his vintage hits, like "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Sunshine Superman," are most widely heard on movie soundtracks. And so now it is Lynch, the director of such singular films as "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet," who is the movement's most energetic proselytizer, traveling the world to talk it up, and even publishing a book recently — "Catching the Big Fish" — about his 33 years of TM practice.
We spoke to Lynch on April 26 at the typically cheery little bed-and-breakfast inn where we were staying. (Fairfield is an intensely cheerful town, but it has no hotels, and as best we'd been able to ascertain the previous evening, there's only one bar.) The director arrived wearing his usual black suit, its lapels endearingly dotted with cigarette ash. Since he's lately become committed to the use of low-end video cameras in making his movies (the most recent being 2006's "INLAND EMPIRE"), one of our group had brought along a tiny new vid-cam in the hope that Lynch might shoot some footage for us. Which he did, bless him. And since one of the reasons he loves this new digital technology is because it allows him to get right in among his actors with performance suggestions and dialogue adjustments while he's shooting, we shot him, too, while conducting the interview. All pretty exciting. Well, for us.
That night there was a concert in Lynch's honor in a gymnasium on the university campus that had been fitted out with very professional video, audio and stage-lighting rigs. The show opened with a brief set by a remarkable singer named Chrysta Bell, a sleek blond woman whose lushly atmospheric songs recall the whispery sound of an earlier Lynch collaborator, Julee Cruise. (Bell sang on an "INLAND EMPIRE" track called "Polish Poem.") Bell was followed by Moby, another TM practitioner, who did an acoustic set assisted by a second guitarist and Laura Dawn, a powerful female singer whose voice was reminiscent of Janis Joplin. (After the show, Moby and company headed over to the local high school's prom — which was being upstaged by the Lynch-fest — to perform some more, unannounced.) Topping the bill was Donovan, who has retained the trademark vocal vibrato that featured on his old hits, which he ran through at length, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
Earlier, Lynch himself had come out onstage to address the crowd — if "address" is the word. Actually, the director had no set speech to give; he only took questions from the audience. This brilliant stratagem allowed him to talk about whatever he wanted, pretty much, and he used his answers to the various inquiries to extol TM's usefulness in relieving stress and unleashing what would probably have to be called positive consciousness. ("Negativity blocks creativity," he said. And "Know everything within and you'll know everything without.") TM has its detractors — killjoys who call it an exploitative cult. (You can Google them.) Lynch, however, has clearly found the practice of meditating for 20 minutes, twice a day, to be valuable in his work, and he would like to see TM taught in schools — as it is, of course, at Maharishi University.
Unsurprisingly, he got no arguments from the students on hand for his address, who were uniformly adoring. A girl in the audience, an aspiring filmmaker, asked Lynch to free-associate some characteristic Lynchian imagery. He came right up with a bunch, including "a bowling ball in space filled with red ants" and "a Buick with 16 15-year-old girls." (Very D.L., that last one.) The girl was impressed. "Awesome," she said.