CATCHING THE BIG FISH: Meditation, consciousness, and creativity - by David Lynch

An illuminating dive into the creative process of a notable filmmaker. This book is an easy-to-read collection of thoughts on meditation, creativity, and (you guessed it) consciousness by a cinematic genius and advocate of Transcendental Meditation, which he has been practicing for decades. I loved this little volume: the musings on mindfulness are interspersed with behind-the-scenes glimpses into his career and, delightfully, his creative process. It's a quirky, friendly prose style while presenting ideas accessibly. Most wonderfully, he has an inspiring take on creativity—that it's an idea to be listened to, that expanding our depth of consciousness can make us more receptive to more such ideas. Timely read for me, so I may be biased—but highly recommended.


I've been exploring this notion of a creative idea as a living thing: a living thing to be caught, to receive, to be patient with, to feed, one that needs a certain amount of attention and nourishment, and one that already has its own signature shape that it is our task to uncover and manifest. 

And I breathed a sigh of tremendous relief and my brain lit up with joy to read this whole book by a Hollywood heavyweight filmmaker, respected for his work, echo the same ideas. It validated what I thought to be true, and it soothed my anxieties about the creative struggles I've been facing that come with not yet having the toolkit nor the experience to navigate the creative process skillfully and patiently.

Consider this quote:

“The idea is the whole thing. If you stay true to the idea, it tells you everything you need to know, really. You just keep working to make it look like that idea looked, feel like it felt, sound like it sounded, and be the way it was. And it’s weird, because when you veer off, you sort of know it. You know when you’re doing something that is not correct because it feels incorrect. It says, “No, no; this isn’t like the idea said it was.” And when you’re getting into it the correct way, it feels correct. It’s an intuition: You feel-think your way through. You start one place, and as you go, it gets more and more finely tuned. But all along it’s the idea talking. At some point, it feels correct to you. And you hoe that it feels somewhat correct to others." 

There's a beauty to this idea that the idea itself tells you what it wants to be, and that you'll feel that it's off when you try to create something different than what the idea wants. This rings true to my experience, and  it's also evocative of the ancient Greek notion of a Muse—an almost living entity, a personified creativity, that has its own will and intention, and that demands cooperation from the maker instead of submitting to the maker's vision. (A gorgeous elaboration on this idea of the Muse, or creative genius, can be found here in one of my favorite TED talks by the truly soulful bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert.)

This notion of a living idea also takes the onus off of the creator, who faces tremendous pressure. Creativity often feels like, for me at least, a torment when I can't properly be the relaxed vessel and like ecstasy when it starts to finally flow. But it's just that: the maker must relax, they must allow. The yielding is a "feminine" act of receptivity. But this receptivity is not to be confused with a passive state: there is preparation that must be done. The instrument (the creator) must hone their craft, first of all, and listen openly, secondly. Meditation, according to Lynch, is a powerful tool for this preparation of the vessel.

Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water.  But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful. I look for a certain kind of fish that is important to me, one that can translate to cinema. But there are all kinds of fish swimming down there. There are fish for business, fish for sports. There are fish for everything. 

And here: 

Now, you don’t use meditation to catch ideas. You’re expanding the container, and you come out very refreshed, filled with energy, and raring to go out and catch ideas afterward.

In my experience with mindfulness, this formula can be applied to any solution-finding. Wherever you are stuck, the best solution has been for me to relax, soften, expand my "container" of consciousness, and to focus my energy elsewhere until the solution arises organically. It's like a Chinese finger trap (which I suspect was created to craftily illustrate this elegant truth): the more you force, the more trapped you become. The letting go holds the key.

By far the most helpful lesson I've taken away from this book is the idea that the whole staircase will never fully reveal itself, only the first step (or two). The germ of the idea will come, like a spark of inspiration, and it's up to the receiver of the idea to engage with it and trust that it will flower into something substantive, meaningful. Too often, the hesitant creative (or the in-the-closet creative) can live in paralysis, only a poet in their minds or an artist in their fantasies but never in real life. And this paralysis is often because we demand certainty, which I'm starting to learn is a wholly futile plea.

The idea just needs to be enough to get you started, because, for me, whatever follows is a process of action and reaction. It’s always a process of building and then destroying. And then, out of this destruction, discovering a thing and building on it. 
An idea is a thought. It’s a thought that holds more than you think it does when you receive it. But in that first moment there is a spark.  … It would be great if the entire film came all at once. But it comes, for me, in fragments. That first fragment is like the Rosetta Stone. It’s the piece of the puzzle that indicates the rest. It’s a hopeful puzzle piece. … You fall in love with the first idea, that little tiny piece. And once you’ve got it, the rest will come in time. 

But what then? What next steps must the creator take once the elusive idea-fish has been caught? It's a combination, he suggests, of intuition and of patience: take action, but give the idea space to cross from the unmanifested realm into the tangible in its own natural cadence.

Life is filled with abstractions, and the only way we make heads or tails of it is through intuition. Intuition is seeing the solution — seeing it, knowing it. It’s emotion and intellect going together. That’s essential for the filmmaker. How do you get something to feel right? Everybody’s got the same tools: the camera and the tapes and the world and actors. But in putting those parts together, there are differences. That’s where intuition enters. Personally, I think intuition can be sharpened and expanded through meditate, diving ito the Self. There’s an ocean of consciousness inside each of us, and it’s an ocean of solutions. When you dive into that ocean, that consciousness, you enliven it. You don’t dive for specific solutions; you dive to enliven that ocean of consciousness. Then your intuition grows and you have a way of solving those problems knowing when it’s not quite right and knowing a way to make it feel correct for you. That capacity grows and things go much more smoothly.

Perhaps the most ominous, hard-hitting truth about the creative idea-fish is that it will not wait indefinitely. It wants to take form, and if you do not commit to engaging with it, to giving it life, it will find another home. The way Lynch phrases this just moves me, and I think it's a potent call-to-action:

If you don’t have a setup, there are many times when you get the inspiration, the idea, but you have no tools, no place to put it together. And the idea just sits there and festers. Over time, it will go away. You didn’t fulfill it — and that’s just a heartache.

Overall, the book itself has the rhythm and delightful twists and turns you'd expect from a David Lynch film (but of lighter spirit), while covering what are serious, weighty topics of consciousness, meditation, and creative inspiration. It's refreshing to read a book on creativity from someone who doesn't make a career of writing how-to books, but instead has proven his creative mettle in the art of cinema.