Rebecca Dreyfus is the director of the forthcoming film series On Meditation, which documents the inner journey of meditation through portraits of practitioners from a variety of traditions. The team has so far filmed the Venerable Metteya, Hatha yoga teacher Elena Brower, author and Zen practitioner Peter Matthiessen, actor Giancarlo Esposito, and mindful congressman Tim Ryan. Filmmaker David Lynch is slated next.
Known for her feature-length documentary Stolen, Dreyfus was inspired to film On Meditation by a curiosity about other people’s practices and a desire to cultivate her own. Tricycle spoke to Dreyfus earlier in the week by email about the impetus behind the film series and the challenges of depicting an inward-turning practice on film.
How have you chosen meditators to profile for the film? It’s important to me to include people from all walks of life and not just monks and teachers, though we are including them as well. To date, we’ve included a Tibetan monk, a Zen Buddhist, a secular mindfulness practitioner, and coming up we’ll have a practitioner of Vipassana meditation as well as Transcendental Meditation. We are attempting to be wholly inclusive, and are not elevating one approach over another, to make the practice accessible to anyone.
We are focused on the effects a consistent practice has on our subjects, regardless of their traditions. The goal is to capture a series of compelling, inspiring people. Some of these people have shaped their lives around a spiritual practice and others incorporate meditation into busy lives. Ultimately, though, I chose people in the same way I would for any other film. I am drawn to certain people whom I sense will be emotionally accessible on camera. It’s an instinctual process.
Have you noticed that your subjects use meditation differently, for different reasons and goals? Yes and no. When I look at the footage we have so far, it’s striking how different everyone is—the day-to-day realities, life situations, ages, etc. And, true enough, their practices are all different on the “how and when” level.
But at the end of the day it seems that they are all seeking something in their lives that will offer them a richer connection to themselves, and a way to transcend the daily trials that can trip us all up. In selecting people, I am quite interested in their personal stories and how they came to the practice, and it has been pretty consistent that people come to the practice because of life challenges and suffering. They are all looking for some kind of refuge. Meditation seems to offer that to people. I’m hoping On Meditation will be a glimpse into this refuge.
Meditation is an interior, private practice. What have been the challenges of depicting it on film? When I first came to my producer, Susannah Ludwig, with the idea for the film, she was a bit puzzled. “You want to shoot people sitting around with their eyes closed doing nothing?” We had a laugh about it. But after doing a bit of shooting, I found that watching people in sitting practice is quite moving. It has a soothing effect.
Despite the physical beauty of the practice, the challenge remains to keep the audience engaged for an extended period of time. In order to do this, there needs to be some kind of dramatic tension that keeps the audience with you. So I pondered for a long time, what is the tension around meditation practice? And then, after shooting the Venerable Metteyya, it became very clear: people undertaking spiritual practices are seeking answers to questions that are unknowable. Life is the biggest mystery there is, and meditators are communing with this mystery and attempting to make peace with it. I thought that was a kind of beautiful tension.
Are there any common preconceptions about meditation that you target in the film? I’m conscious all the time—especially with our aim of bringing this to a mainstream audience—of the need to watch out for clichés. I’m trying to present the subject-matter to people in a way that engages them and doesn’t allow them to dismiss the idea of “going inward” out of hand, as something for New Age-y types. I hope to show that meditation is both less simplistic and more accessible than most people think.
—Alex Caring-Lobel and Emma Varvaloucas
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.