Writing and Photography Chiara Barzini
If you were living in Los Angeles between 1994 and 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial was your daily bread. Accused of killing his wife Nicole Brown and her lover Ron Goldman, Simpson was nothing less than ubiquitous. Displaying his signature sunshine smile, just as he did in all those Hertz commercials throughout the ’70s and ’80s, he dominated every television set, magazine and newspaper.
During this same period and in the same city where O.J. was declaring himself “absolutely, 100% not guilty,” writer, director, cinematic coffee entrepreneur and now musician David Lynch was writing Lost Highway. “I was obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial…What struck me about O.J. Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh. He was able to go golfing later, with seemingly very few problems about the whole thing. I wondered how, if a person did commit these deeds, he could go on living. [I] found this great psychology term, psychogenic fugue, describing an event where the mind tricks itself to escape some horror. In a way, Lost Highway is about that and the fact that nothing can stay hidden forever.”
Nearly a decade later, with the creation of the David Lynch Foundation, David moved from exploring the psychological state of criminals to improving it by “[supporting] the implementation of scientifically proven stress-reducing modalities including Transcendental Meditation.” Among the world’s most widely practiced meditation techniques, Transcendental Meditation (TM) is a mantra meditation based on the ancient Vedic traditions. In existence for thousands of years, the practice re-emerged in the ’50s thanks to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who reintroduced it to India. By the ’60s, the Maharishi had taken it global with world tours. Practicing each morning and evening for 20 minutes, followers of TM claim meditation not only increases creativity and IQ but also improves memory, all the while decreasing anxiety, depression and even blood pressure. For decades now, TM has been taught in the psychological pressure cooker that is prison, where it has been known to help reduce drug and alcohol dependency as well as exorcise personal demons.
In America more than two million convicts are currently incarcerated in penitentiaries, 50 percent of them for violent crimes. 67 percent return to prison within three years of being released. More often then not, offenders come back hardened and inclined to commit more crimes. The David Lynch Foundation seeks to reverse this trend by offering the teachings of TM to at-risk groups, including inmates, veterans, abused teenagers, the homeless, inner-city students and, more recently, Native Americans, some of whom view meditation as a return to the ways of their ancestors. In fact, the re-emergence of TM is for some, “the prophecy that natural law is returning.”
So what would happen to O.J.’s fugue if he started practicing Transcendental Meditation? Researchers from San Quentin State Prison and the Walpole Prison in Massachusetts maintain that the teachings of this ancient tradition have reduced rule infraction within jails and repeated criminal behavior by 50 percent. David talks about Bob Roth, his foundation’s Vice President, as a hero: “When he went to teach meditation in San Quentin, there was a Mexican gang, a black gang and a neo-Nazi gang. They hated each other and wouldn’t be caught dead entering the same room. Bob was not only able to get them in the same room but he also got them to close their eyes in each other’s presence. Once they learned meditation, the inmates didn’t want to get into fights. They started knowing that it’s cooler to be peaceful because they began to see anger as a weakness.”
Roth backs this up. “There are few experiences in life comparable to standing in front of a corrections officer at a maximum security prison with miles of barbed wire and massive walls and thick steel gates, and then signing your name to an agreement, which states, basically, that if you are taken hostage by an inmate, prison officials will not negotiate for your release. Wariness does not quite do justice to the emotions.”
Still, prisons are ideal spots for practicing what David calls the “dive into the great bum.” He maintains that if convicts were to practice meditation regularly, jails just might transform into blissful sanctuaries. “Inmates will have the opportunity to meditate for longer times and their potential will expand rapidly; they will enjoy higher states of consciousness until reaching supreme enlightenment. If I were in jail, I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, this is great. Lots of time and long meditations: fantastic!’”
But the idea differs greatly from the reality. Being involved with prison systems requires transcendental guts as well as minds. Beyond the inherent challenges of dealing with personal security, proponents of prison meditation—like those featured in The Dhamma Brothers, a documentary about bringing Vipassana Meditation to Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Alabama—have to overcome another obstacle: the belief that meditation is a form of religion.
At one point in the documentary, a guard discloses his concern about the unintentional conversion of inmates to Buddhism or Hinduism. How does one go about reassuring prison officials that inmates will not grow six arms and transmute into Shiva during meditation? David expresses little surprise at this attitude: “They say a lot of things! That it’s a religion, that it must be kept out of schools, that it’s a sect… Who is telling people this? I don’t know, but it’s wrong. It’s like saying that a golden key is a religion. Transcendental Mediation is simply the little golden key that opens the door to a field that has always been there. It will be there forever. The field has many names. In modern physics, it’s called the unified field but also the science of consciousness, the ocean of bliss consciousness, the constitution of the universe, transcendental consciousness, creative intelligence, the kingdom of heaven, totality, the absolute, the source. No religion, no one person owns that field. It’s so heavy and beautiful.”
Who knows what O.J. Simpson feels now that he is serving 33 years at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada for armed robbery and kidnapping. Surely it’s not San Quentin, nor is it Donaldson. But if what David says is true, that jails will eventually metamorphose into ashrams, perhaps O.J. will find himself cross-legged, repeating a mantra and revisiting his purest self. In David’s mind, “He would dive into the ocean of infinite love, creativity, happiness, energy and peace. Infusing in that and growing in that, he would begin to see a larger picture… He would release stress, anxiety, depression and fear. He would probably start sobbing uncontrollably. Not that that happens to everybody. If the psychogenic fugue is: ‘the thing that hides,’ then meditation is: ‘the thing that brings to light.’ Then of course he’ll still have to face the law of nature that says you reap what you sow. But that’s another story… That will be his song.”