What does the inner journey of meditation really look like? In her documentary On Meditation, award-winning filmmaker Rebecca Dreyfus documents the experiences of 11 individuals willing to share their deeply personal and varied practices.
Rebecca Dreyfus is the creator and director of On Meditation, a documentary — featured in the Lion’s Roar & BuddhaFest Online Film Festival — that profiles the inner journeys of a diverse mix of meditators, from Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg to Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan.
Dreyfus’ inspiration to create the film came at a point when she was struggling with her own meditation practice. “At that point I was just like, ‘Ask me to do anything but sit quietly with myself,’” she says.
The film features 11 meditators, opening with the late Peter Matthiessen, a three-time National Book Award-winning American novelist, environmental activist, and student of Zen Buddhism. Dreyfus was the last person to film with Matthiessen before his death in April 2014. It took her two years to get his permission to be featured in the film, and in the end, his is the profile she’s most fond of.
“He was kind of difficult to deal with, and a little mean sometimes, but I was still madly in love with him and so grateful that I had the opportunity to shoot with him,” she says.
Matthiessen is shown at his home in Sagaponack, Long Island, featuring shots of his zendo, a space dedicated for meditation.
“We’re all enlightened beings in our true nature, but there are lamps that haven’t been turned on,” he says in the film, “all it takes is that little glimpse, that breakthrough, that opening.”
After Matthiessen makes his mark, the documentary goes on to profile ten others on the path to experiencing their own “little glimpse.”
Buddhist monk the Venerable Metteyya, business magnate Russell Simmons, self-help guru Gabrielle Bernstein, director David Lynch, Hatha yoga teacher Elena Brower, and Breaking Bad actor Giancarlo Esposito are all profiled, discussing their personal practice. Mark Epstein, an author and psychotherapist who has explored the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy throughout his career, is also featured alongside his wife, artist Arlene Shechet.
It propelled me to realize that meditation is a journey, you have to try things, and figure out what works for you, and for your life.
Those profiled are as diverse as their individual practices. Lynch shares his thoughts on vedic meditation, or Transcendental Meditation, while Bernstein discusses how Kundalini yoga and meditation helped her overcome drug and alcohol abuse. She is shown in practice counting mala beads and repeating mantras.
Dreyfus decided to focus on subjects who she felt were interesting and doing important service in society. The Venerable Metteyya, born in Lumbini, Nepal, the historical birthplace of the Buddha, founded a school for girls in his home country and serves as the spiritual director of Canadian Engaged Buddhism Association. Dreyfus was attracted to the way he has managed to combine monastic life with activism.
“We didn’t want people that were sort of in seclusion doing practice, we wanted people that were in the world,“ she says.
The project took just shy of three years to complete, and gifted Dreyfus with the further understanding of her own practice that she originally sought. Mostly, she was grateful to be immersed in the variety of varying traditions and ways to meditate.
“Mindfulness is more about focusing in on something very small and singular, like a part of your body, or your breath, whereas vedic meditation is about the bigness of the universe and energy in the world, in a more expansive way. They’re kind of opposite, but both beautiful,” says Dreyfus.
“It propelled me to realize that meditation is a journey,” she says, “you have to try things, and figure out what works for you, and for your life.”
In a time where people are, as Dreyfus puts it, “so in need of a way to calm themselves and deal with their stress,” she hopes her film will resonate and help others in their practice—just as it has with her own.