The Transcendental Meditation movement has caused a stir by making claims about yogic flying and achieving world peace through meditation – and by enlisting David Lynch as its star spokesperson.
After graduating from the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie in Berlin, Hessen-born David Sieveking was struggling when he turned to TM for help and began recording his experiences… on film. But as his documentary took a more critical turn, the peace-promoting organisation reacted angrily.
Despite legal threats and Lynch’s efforts to stop its release, the resulting film, David Wants to Fly, premiered at this year’s Berlinale. It opens in local cinemas on May 6.
David Wants to Fly documents your personal quest for inspiration. Why did you decide to make a film about your own life?
In fact, it wasn’t a real decision. It happened like life happens, like an evolution. First, there was my interest in David Lynch, and there was my frustration with my own film career. I finished film school, didn’t have a job and couldn’t get a foot in the door. There was this opportunity to meet my idol, but I didn’t really know it could become a movie. I just had this intuition that it would be cool to film this situation. It’s interesting, because he says “You’re going to become a better filmmaker,” and this is the film, so you can actually see whether or not it’s going to work.
Some of TM’s concepts sound a bit ridiculous to outsiders. Did you buy into that?
I think the idea of world peace is not a stupid idea – it’s a nice idea. I feel that if everyone on the planet became more mindful and more meditative, it would be a more peaceful world. The question is, how do we get to this point? It’s not as much about meditation as about what we do in life. It’s about actions. It’s just a step, but it gets a little bit confused when meditation and yogic flying become more important than the actual goal.
Did you get to a point where you thought that maybe you really could fly?
The concept of yogic flying looks ridiculous from the outside because what you actually see are people hopping around on a mattress in the belief that it helps world peace. But these people have extraordinary experiences while they’re doing this, and it happens in their mind. There are many accounts of outer body experiences and feelings of levitation. I think group dynamics also play an important part: you become part of a group, and you only connect with people who believe these things, and they speak this language of invincibility, immortality and flying. You change your vocabulary and then it’s not ridiculous anymore: hopping is now flying. Healthy life becomes immortality. You feel peaceful, and then you say you’re invincible.
The TM organisation threatened to sue you. What happened?
I received legal threats from the David Lynch Foundation’s attorney. He said David Lynch was not very amused and didn’t want to be part of the film. If I integrated him, they would take legal steps. This became more severe when it became clear that it was going to premiere at the Berlinale. He even tried to stop the premiere – he is very well connected – but the Berlinale was courageous enough not to take it out of the programme. People from the movement wrote letters with legal threats to the production company. But until now, no steps have actually been taken. On a personal level, I get emails and calls from people who say I’m a traitor and tell me I will be reborn as a cockroach.
What do you think of the movement’s plans to build a ‘university’ on the Teufelsberg?
It’s a completely unrealistic PR campaign that is very typical of TM. I investigated this very thoroughly. There’s a huge mortgage on the area – more than €30 million that is actually owed by the owner to the bank. You wouldn’t want the area because of the debt. There is also this ruin of the monitoring station from the Cold War, which would cost around €2 million to tear down.
But the biggest problem is actually that the area is officially protected forest. You don’t have a right to build a university there. It will never happen. And so far, the TM movement hasn’t paid the money. So there’s a legal battle between the owner and TM. They’re suing the organisation for not paying…
But that’s pretty typical for the TM movement: there’s always the notion that the idea is most important. When it will actually be materialised doesn’t actually matter – whether it’s tomorrow or in a thousand years. They constantly lay cornerstones and perform the ceremony, but nothing happens. They’ve done this in 15 countries – 15 “invincibility universities”, but where are they?
TM is not very popular in Berlin, especially after what happened at the Teufelsberg’s inaugural ceremony: Lynch’s German associate, Emmanuel Schiffgens, made a speech about an ‘invincible Germany’ that didn’t really impress anyone…
If David Lynch talks about invincibility – he’s an artist. And he’s known for being quite weird – you don’t associate this with something military. When Maharishi says, “I want to make every nation invincible” – he’s a guru from India. It’s like a metaphor. But if a German guy says he wants to make this country invincible, you can’t help thinking of the Nazis. His speech was completely insensitive to German history and the audience.
And then, to make things worse, when some guy shouted, “Adolf Hitler wanted the same!”, his answer was: “Yes, but unfortunately he didn’t succeed because he didn’t have the right technique.” It’s just scary that a guy who’s been in the movement for 30 years – he was trained by Maharishi personally, and is considered to be the most enlightened person in Germany – is completely crazy.
How do you feel about David Lynch now?
We shouldn’t measure an artist by what he believes or what he does as he gets older. I think his films are just as great as they were before, and I have to make a distinction between him as an artist and him as a spiritual teacher. I think he’s a great artist, but I don’t think he’s a great spiritual leader David Lynch is really an idealist. His aim is to create world peace, I believe that. He puts money into it. It’s not like he’s a cynical guy who makes people join the movement to make more money.
At the moment, he is about to finish a film about his version of the story: the definitive movie about the Maharishi, as TM is proclaiming. At the Berlinale premiere of mine, one TM follower stood up and said, “This was David Sieveking’s version, and soon there will be David Lynch’s version. Then you can see where the truth is.” I’m looking forward to seeing his film and his version of the subject.