BOOK REVIEW: Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and CreativityCatching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book consists of a series of topical micro-essays – the shortest being a simple sentence and the longest being a few pages, with the average being about a page. Lynch is most well-known as the director who created such works as “Eraserhead,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Twin Peaks.” As the subtitle suggests, the overarching theme of the book is the nexus of meditation and creativity. While many of the essays explicitly touch on how meditation influences consciousness, which in turn influences the creative process, not all of them do. Some of them are more biographical or about the filmmaking process – including discussion of technical considerations (what is the optimal type of camera and how high definition can be too much definition for its own good) and what a neophyte such as myself might call the managerial considerations of movie direction (how to best get one’s vision across through the actors.) Along the way, one glimpses how Lynch shifted from his first artistic love, painting, into the world of cinema.

Lynch is a long-time practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM,) which is a mantra-based meditation in which the meditator silently repeats a mantra given to him or her by a teacher. The central analogy posed by Lynch is that meditation expands the consciousness and this allows one to catch bigger fish (more profound and creative ideas) through one’s art. He’s not suggesting that the ideas come directly within the process of meditation, but rather that meditation facilitates one’s ability to deepen the pool and pull up bigger creative fish.

He does engage in a fallacious form of thinking that I’ve critiqued in other books, and so I figure I should mention it here as well – even though I found it a little less troubling because of his free flowing “artsy” approach to presenting ideas. But this fallacious bit of reasoning goes something like this: “See how science is talking about this confusing issue and admitting that no one fully understands it yet? And see here how these scriptures are describing this nebulous idea with a few kernels that sound vaguely similar to what the scientists are talking about? From this we can conclude that they are – in fact — talking about the same thing, and that the ancients actually understood this all in much greater detail than we do today.” He does this mostly with reference to the unified field theory (which still hasn’t unified gravity into its ranks, let alone establishing some kind of oneness of all things.) It’s what dear old Dr. Sherrill used to call the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which is thinking that back in the day they knew everything any we are presently just stumbling around in the dark trying to get back on track. [One should note, there is an equally fallacious counterpart that he called the “outhouse fallacy,” which assumes that because people in the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots.]

For cinephiles, the book provides a lot of interesting tidbits about Lynch’s filmography. [For non-cinephiles such as myself, some of this will make sense, and some of it won’t. I occasionally had to make a Google run while reading the book to figure out some obscure reference about one of his movies.] For those interested in meditation, there is a great deal of fascinating thought about how creativity happens and how it’s advanced by having a meditative practice.

The most notable ancillary matter is an appendix of interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Lynch has a foundation that works to bring meditation into the educational process and the two former-Beatles support its efforts enough to do an interview. The McCartney interview stays more on the topic of meditation — particularly the Beatles’ interaction with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the creator of TM and a guru who taught the band both during a visit to the United Kingdom and in his own home base of Rishikesh. The Ringo Starr interview is actually much more about the musical history of Starr and the band.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read. It’s a little all-over-the-place, but not in a bad way. A lot of the writing has a stream of thought feel that seems appropriate to the subject matter. If you’re interested in the films of David Lynch the book definitely has some inside insight for you. If you are interested in the meditation and the mind, you’ll also receive some good food for thought. If you are just looking for a way to spur creativity, it’s also worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson

The Relaxation ResponseThe Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I read the 25th anniversary edition of this seminal work on stress reduction, which was released in 2009. Obviously, that makes this an oldie, but it’s clearly a goodie as well. The new addition has a substantial introduction, providing updated information.

The body’s “fight or flight” response to stressful conditions has long been recognized and it’s virtually a household term. However, despite the equally alliterative name and the fact that Dr. Benson’s original book came out well over 30 years ago, the relaxation response remains a lesser known phenomena. Decades ago, Herbert Benson, a Harvard physician, recognized that patients’ coping ability influenced their health outcomes–specifically with respect to hypertension (a.k.a. high blood pressure.) This led him to investigate how a state of reduced stress could be achieved, and whether this could have a positive impact on health outcomes.

Benson and his co-investigators found that Transcendental Meditation (TM) could trigger the relaxation response, and from that they further uncovered specific aspects of TM that were generalizable in achieving this state (i.e. an object of concentration and a passive / non-judgmental attitude.) From this it followed that activities such as yoga, chi gong, walking, and some types of exercise could achieve the same physiological state as meditation. There was scholarly pressure to establish that the relaxation response was more than a placebo effect. In proving that the relaxation response didn’t hinge on a patient’s beliefs and that it had a predictable effect (and hence it was inconsistent with the placebo effect) Benson also realized that maybe doctors shouldn’t be so dismissive of the placebo effect—people were getting better, after all, and there was some mechanism by which that wellness was achieved that would be worth understanding.

In the first chapter, Benson describes an epidemic of hypertension, the fight or flight response, and its opposite number: the relaxation response. The next chapter delves into the specifics of hypertension and related topics like cholesterol consumption. Chapter 3 makes a connection between stress and the proclivity to develop hypertension. The following chapter lays out various approaches to achieving a more relaxed physiological state, including: biofeedback, yoga, zen, progressive relaxation, and hypnosis. Chapter 5 is about altered states of consciousness, and, specifically, the meditative state. Various age-old methods of achieving a meditative mind are examined. That’s followed by a chapter which lays out the results of relaxation response training in reducing hypertension and drug use. Chapter 7 is an explanation of how to achieve the desired state that generalizes beyond the specific approach of TM. The last chapter is a brief summary.

I found this book to be both interesting and informative. It’s useful both as a practical guide to practice and an explanation of related information.

I’d recommend “The Relaxation Response” for anyone who is interested in learned to de-stress. It’s a classic, and the new edition offers substantial updates.

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