As I sat on a waiting room sofa in the David Lynch Foundation‘s office in September, it felt like a scene from one of Lynch’s surrealist films.
I was waiting for my first Transcendental Meditation lesson.
My teacher Mario Orsatti, a man in his 60s with a penchant for big smiles and unwavering eye contact, took my offering of two apples, a kiwi, and purple irises I’d picked up at a bodega 20 minutes earlier as instructed, and ushered me into a plain, dark room.
In front of an illustration of an Indian guru in an orange robe, sitting cross-legged with a golden aura, Mario handed me one of the irises and began solemnly reciting what I assumed to be a Sanskrit prayer. He proceeded to light candles and arrange the fruit and other items before him.
Hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio had helped popularise Transcendental Meditation (TM) on Wall Street when he proclaimed it “the single biggest influence in his life” a few years ago, but Dalio is widely known for his eccentricities. I wondered if other finance power players, like TM practitioners Third Point manager Dan Loeb and JPMorgan wealth management CEO Barry Sommers, were just following his lead. As for the celebrities who endorsed it — like Jerry Seinfeld, Martin Scorcese, Oprah Winfrey, and Dr. Oz — well, celebrities are often easy prey for this kind of stuff.
I couldn’t help but wonder: Was I being inducted into Wall Street’s hot new cult?
The David Lynch Foundation's New York center is located on the 14th and 15th floors of a building in midtown, Manhattan.
Lynch, the acclaimed director ('Twin Peaks,' 'Mulholland Drive'), cofounded his foundation in 2005 with the intention of teaching TM for free to disadvantaged students, veterans with PTSD, and victims of domestic abuse.
Through partnerships with middle and high schools in the US, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and shelters, the DLF has taught TM for free to 500,000 people.
Veterans can also take lessons at the DLF office, as one did during one of my trips.
On my first visit, before my lessons began, I sat down with DLF teacher Mario Orsatti and DLF cofounder and executive director Bob Roth.
They're best friends of 40 years, and were fun to talk to -- not at all the terrifying cult leaders I was afraid they might be.
As they put it, TM is a simple but effective technique. The $960 fee offers lifetime access to all TM centres and teachers across the world, and it funds operations and the modest teacher salaries (roughly $40,000-$80,000) that allow them to teach people for free. If people seek out TM and cannot afford it, they can apply for scholarships.
I returned for my introductory lesson two weeks later, on a pleasant fall Friday, late in the afternoon.
Roth and Orsatti offered me lessons with a fee waiver, as they had done with other journalists, so that I would have more context for my research.
I stopped off at the bodega down the street from the DLF office to buy some fruit and irises for the 'traditional ceremony' I'd be participating in. I felt like I was about to step into one of Lynch's surrealist films.
He led me to a corner, where there was a small altar with an illustration of Brahmananda Saraswati, also know as Guru Dev ('divine teacher'). Guru Dev was the teacher of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of TM, and we were there to honour him before learning the technique.
Orsatti handed me one of the irises and began solemnly reciting what I assumed to be a Sanskrit prayer. He proceeded to light candles and arrange the fruit and other items before him. I found it interesting, but I wouldn't figure out what was actually happening until weeks later.
But I didn't let myself off the hook! I allowed for the possibility that I was about to learn a valuable meditation technique ... even if it did seem a little cult-like.
At the end of the ceremony, Orsatti turned to me and declared a meaningless 'vibration word' that I recognised as my mantra, and I repeated it back to him.
The technique itself is simple, consisting of sitting upright in a chair, closing your eyes for 20 minutes, and repeating a mantra -- a meaningless 'vibration word' provided by your teacher -- in your head at no particular rhythm. It is recommended that one practice this twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening.
For most people, including myself, TM is easy to learn but takes a couple weeks to practice naturally. It's why your TM teacher checks in for a few followup lessons after the initial four-day introduction.
This wasn't my first time meditating. Before this, I had spent eight months practicing mindfulness meditation (focusing on breathing and directing thoughts to certain images or ideas) for 10 minutes daily, through the app Headspace.
It reminded me of my favourite aspects of meditations past, and I enjoyed the 20-minute duration, which was the longest I had ever meditated. The feeling of 'transcendence' -- which you get during especially good meditation sessions but not all -- was familiar, and the feeling I had always gone for with other meditation techniques I had tried.
As a side note: If you think meditating is like taking a nap from a seated position, you're doing it incorrectly. There is also years of peer-reviewed research that proves that the brain differentiates between sleep/dozing and meditation, and that meditation can quickly rid the body of stress-inducing hormones.
For example, I learned that if particularly stressful thoughts went through my head, it's helpful to stop repeating the mantra and let the thoughts float away before resuming it.
'Imagine yourself sitting by a busy highway,' Headspace cofounder Andy Puddicombe says in one of his lessons. 'Cars continue to pass by. You can choose to sit there and notice the cars without focusing on any of them, or you can follow a car down the road.'
It's the same with mindfulness meditation and TM. As you sit there with eyes closed, all kinds of thoughts may be flying through your mind. Instead of exerting energy to try to block them, which often backfires and makes the mind more cluttered, focus on breathing (mindfulness) or the mantra (TM), acknowledging that they exist without engaging them.
I told my doctor that I had been meditating for almost a year, first with mindfulness meditation, and then with TM. She said that there was a solid chance that it was a reason why my blood pressure was normal rather than moderately high for the first time in five years. She also told me she and other doctors she knows have recommended TM to patients due to the research out there from organisations like the American Heart Association and the University of California, Irvine.
TM has spiritual roots but has also always been touted as a tool for healthy living. Were the two compatible, or was the TM organisation being disingenuous?
I discussed this dynamic with Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, and while she has separate gripes about the general lack of understanding many Americans have of Hinduism's affect on popular culture, she said promoting meditation as part of a healthy lifestyle is actually authentic to its roots.
You can understand the Vedas, she told me, as 'scientific experiments of the mind,' and so analysing an ancient technique with the lens of modern science isn't a deceptive dilution.
I've decided to continue practicing TM every day, for the recommended 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night.
I'm fully aware that I received $960 of training for free, and therefore I'm unable to comment on whether I can recommend someone pay that, or at least apply for a scholarship.
For what it's worth, Bob Roth of the David Lynch Foundation told me he's been working to get TM lessons covered by insurance plans, given the accumulation of research in its favour, and he's hopeful it will happen.
As for me, I'm going to continue practicing TM twice a day.
I use the app Meditation Timer, which I've set to chime after 20 minutes have passed, and again after the recommended two-minute 'rest period' elapses. The extra two minutes help me ease back into a normal state, especially after a deep meditation.
I'm a naturally anxious person, and meditating for the past year has improved my mood enough that my family and friends have told me they have noticed. Mindfulness meditation can do the trick, but I've decided to continue practicing TM due to its simplicity.
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