Jonah Hill Transcends With Bob Roth


Transcendental Meditation changed Jonah’s life.

It’s crazy to think that an activity that takes 40 minutes a day (20 in the morning, 20 in the evening) can have such a huge impact, but it can and it does, and Jonah wants to share it with you by way of an interview with TM teacher and CEO of the David Lynch Foundation, Bob Roth. Bob began practising TM in 1969 and has been teaching people to meditate for 50 years. Some of those people have household names like ‘Oprah’ and ‘Tom Hanks’, but the vast majority of Bob’s students are people who need spiritual guidance more than anyone: at-risk kids, veterans, victims of domestic violence and more.

Wow, the man.
Hey Jonah!

Hold on, let me grab my hat; my hair’s all fucked up. Bob, you look like you’re in a movie, dude. Do you have professional lighting?
No, there’s no lighting. There’s a lamp.

You look, beautiful man. It’s all that meditation.
That’s it! Did you just learn TM from somebody or…?

So, here’s my journey with meditation. And then I kind of want to ask you some questions because you’re, like, one of my top five heroes.
(Bob laughs)

When I met you, I just thought you were a lovely guy. But you inadvertently changed my life.
Jonah, you look really clear. Eyes really clear, really good.

Thank you. So, I first learned probably 10 years ago from a friend. I was 27 and I couldn’t really latch on for whatever reason. Then I learned from you about three and a half years ago and, again, I didn’t latch on. And then about a year and a half ago, I hit up the Foundation and Denny came over and taught me and he was wonderful. And then I still didn’t latch on. And then over the summer during Covid, I started in earnest meditating twice a day. And you know, there’s been therapy and other changes in my life—big things—but I would say I’ve noticed the biggest difference in my life from Transcendental Meditation.

Maybe it’s in addition to all those things, but Mike D—Mike Diamond, he’s a good friend of mine—he was like ‘start meditating for real’. I did, and it’s like going to the gym, that’s how I viewed it. I was like, ‘I need something to help my mood, anxiety, depression, whatever.’ It was like the gym, like when you go to the gym, you’re not going to be buff after a week, you know? After three weeks or a month, I noticed a massive change, mostly in my ability to have moments before reacting to things. That’s how it manifested in me the most. It’s been eight or nine months, and I religiously don’t miss a session. So, A, I wanted to thank you, and B, when I was putting together this guest-edit issue I was like, I want to frame TM in a way that is accessible to people like me, in a way that’s more digestible in terms of aesthetics or whatever that would latch them onto it. Before we go onto me, can I ask you some questions?
Yeah, you can ask me whatever you want. By the way, our paths cross with Russell Brand.

Yes! That’s where we first met, on Get Him to the Greek. I was 24 and like, ‘Fuck this. This is the most hippy-dippy bullshit.’ But that’s kind of my point—I met you, you were lovely, and Russell’s like, ‘you should meditate,’ and I was like, ‘get the fuck out…’
Tell me about your experience with this transformation?

Well, I think what’s interesting is I’m Jewish, first of all, so I have a lot of neurotic anxiety issues.
No, it’s not neurotic, it’s just Jewish.

It’s just Judaism. But the main thing is when I propose it to someone… someone will say, ‘I’m anxious, or I’m losing my mind or my ADD is too bad and I can’t sit still for 20 minutes.’ And I go, ‘if I can do it, you can do it.’
Have they started meditating and didn’t continue, or did they think, ‘I’m not even gonna start because I can’t do it’?

A lot of them go, ‘I’ll start with five minutes and work my way up.’
Had they actually learned?

Yeah, but they don’t stick with it for real.
But they’re also straining, you know what it’s like if you try and clear your mind of thoughts during TM. It’s a horrible experience; you don’t do that, right? You’re just easy, comfortable.

Yeah, I think the best way I heard it explained was when Jerry Seinfeld said he couldn’t understand why you’d meditate right when you woke up because you’d just slept. He goes, ‘Have you ever seen a bed after you’ve woken up? It looks like someone fought a war in there.’
You didn’t rest, you just stopped. You just brought the war from the world into the bed. It’s true.

And it was brilliant, and it really helped me because it was helpful to hear someone funny contextualise something that I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around. He’s a guy who literally calls the bullshit out in everything, so there must be something to this.

I think ultimately, the hardest thing in life for me was presence. I think what scares people is forcing themselves into the present.
And no control. If you’re watching a movie, you can change to another movie to control not thinking about a certain thing. And with TM, the thoughts have to flow through and you realise they’re just thoughts, just dust bowls rolling through your consciousness. But even that terminology to me, if I heard that before I started doing it, it sounds hard to latch on to. So, what I’m trying to do is find a way to take the beauty of what you’ve given me and so many others and make it easy to understand. So, maybe we just explain what it is.
How do you explain it?

I say it’s 20 minutes twice a day where you repeat a mantra in your head, and that’s the process of it. Let’s say there’s like a gas tank, right? Every time you do it, you put a drop of gas in the gas tank. Something mad stressful happens and eats up gas, it eats up your reserve, but if you’ve [meditated] enough, you’ve still got enough in the gas tank. So, each one’s just a droplet of gas in the gas tank. And there’s going to be days you don’t use a lot of gas, and there’s days where you use a ton of gas and you’re going to have to slowly fill it back up. That’s how I view it, but I don’t know if that lands with people.
Well, before I give you an explanation, can I ask you a couple more questions?

You can do whatever you want! Honestly, man, I’ve been so excited for this, I have so much work shit going on and this was like, ‘I can’t believe I get to talk to Bob Roth!’
I’ve really been looking forward to this too. Back to your experience: you started to meditate, and then afterwards you said it changed your life. Small things, big things? What kind of stuff? Because what I think is important is people know the changes aren’t baloney, it’s not nonsense; it’s real, it’s substantive stuff. So, tell me the kind of changes that you noticed, and then we can go into the mechanics of TM and all that.

My emotional reactions to things are way more measured. Things don’t seem as big of a deal. At my worst with anxiety, I’m kind of an alarmist. Something will happen, and I will catastrophize and think that the world is going to end. And now I have this sense of calm, and I can analyse what I should or shouldn’t do.

I’ll give a good example: I smoke cigarettes. I don’t think it’s a good thing; I aim to quit. So, yesterday, I’m on my way to work and it’s like seven in the morning. And I flick my cigarette out the window. I usually don’t do that; I’m not thinking. A guy fucking goes off on me. He’s like, honking his horn going, ‘Fuck you! You fucking piece of shit! Blah blah blah.’

And I almost didn’t realise why he was yelling at me, and then I get out of the car like, ‘What’s going on?’ I didn’t know if something really bad had happened, you know? And then he’s yelling about the cigarette and I just picked up the cigarette and was like, all good, and got back in the car and put it in a water bottle or whatever and threw it away later. A year ago, I would have engaged in the mania of this in some way. Whether it be me trying to be funny about it, or trying to be confrontational about it; maybe my ego in some way would have been going, ‘Fuck you, don’t yell at me in the morning, if you have an issue say it in a certain way.’ It had nothing to do with him—I did something incorrect; the action was to correct it and do the right thing, and his reaction had nothing to do with it, it was none of my business, you know.
Absolutely the case.

And I one hundred per cent credit that to TM.
How are your relationships with other people, in your career?

Patience. I’m directing something now that’s a massive directing job and it’s the most expensive thing I’ve ever directed with the highest stakes, and there are moments where I think back to my first film, how I reacted in the same situation or a similar situation—some of that is maturity, some of that is growth, but what I’m talking about is almost the chemical, physical reaction. I smile. I smile in recognition, I don’t lose my cool, I’m more patient with people. I’m more empathetic with people, I’m able to just stop and look at what’s happening. It’s almost like you can freeze time for 30 seconds and not react, and that has come since mediation.
Great. So, I’m writing a book called the Genius Lounge, and it’s about the brain. There’s a part of the brain—can I talk a little about the brain for a second?

Yes, please.
There’s a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is your reactivity centre, it’s your flight or fight, it’s the part of the brain—you know, if someone is after you, that guy honks at you and he’s coming after you and you’re ready to fight. And that is an ancient part of the brain, you know, from tigers chasing us. Everyone’s got their amygdala and you needed it when a tiger’s chasing you. You don’t need it when someone’s honking at you, or angry with you, or there’s pressure. The amygdala is what gives you that anxiety. Along with the amygdala is something called cortisol, the stress hormone, the anxiety hormone.

Cortisol makes us feel anxious and the amygdala in the brain makes us fight. If you get a good night’s sleep, cortisol levels drop 10 per cent. If you meditate for 20 minutes, they drop 40 per cent. The other thing that happens is it calms this reactivity centre, this fear centre, it calms it down.

And you know what takes over? The higher brain. It’s called your prefrontal cortex. This is your creativity centre, judgement, planning—this is the big picture, the mature person, the director who’s got to handle all this stuff. A director can’t be a director if they’re governed by the amygdala. The best directors are the ones who’ve got this thing alive, and that’s what meditation does, it wakes up the frontal lobe, the CEO of the brain, it calms the amygdala and calms the cortisol level. I know, this is a lot of science but I’m almost done— and one other thing it does is it raises something called serotonin.

That’s the good shit.
Yeah, that’s when you’re feeling good in yourself. When a person is depressed, they have low levels of serotonin and then Prozac and these things mimic serotonin. But in meditation, it goes up naturally and stays up. So, I just wanted to say that all the stuff you’re talking about is absolutely the result of steady meditating over time. You don’t become a victim of the environment—you just stay in the self.

Yeah, and you brought up something else which is another benefit—I have depression, that’s a part of my life. For me, it’s not one of those things where I have it for like, a week and then I have a week where I’m happy, it can really ebb and flow throughout the day. And what I noticed since meditating twice a day for almost eight or nine months now, is I can become aware of it really fast, and the windows get smaller. I can clock it because I’m more aware, then let the feeling pass through me and the window of depression gets smaller.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, that’s exactly right. Did you have a tough upbringing?

In what regard?
Traumatic?

Well, I think no human being goes through childhood without trauma, but… It’s funny, I always feel disrespectful to my parents if I talk about having trauma as a kid, but I also think every human being does.
Of course. The point I wanted to make is that when a person has trauma at an early age—depression is actually an evolutionary response. It’s the response of, ‘I’m going to come in here and protect myself,’ but then it lasts for a long time and then the body gets used to that. It becomes like your default mode. Exactly. And the thing that will happen with your meditation is you’re giving the body a different experience, you’re giving the brain a healthier experience and over time, the ups and downs of life continue, but the downs are less pronounced and the ups are less… they’re just natural. I think the whole point of me wanting to bring this out is a lot of people are like, because I’m doing affirmations or this diet or whatever, they’re feeling better.

But what I love about transcendental meditation—and this is just what I’m into these days—is the brain is not different from the mind, it’s not different to the heart or the body, it’s a continuum. There’s no barrier between what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, what my brain is doing and how my body is reacting. It’s one continuum. So, to have a change in your mind towards thinking something, well then, the change also has to take place in the way your brain is functioning, the way your heart is functioning, the way your body is functioning.

Right, they are connected.
They’re not even connected, it’s one thing!

Right. And there’s no end, I think that’s a big thing about TM that changed me in a different way emotionally, outside of the actual benefits. If you’re someone who struggles with your weight, you can, like, go on a diet and then you ‘end’ it, and then you gain the weight back. Or if you’re like, ‘I’m gonna work really hard at the gym for three months’—well, if you stop going… when you do things extra hard and then you abandon them, you’re saying there’s an end. And there’s no end.
No, it’s a lifelong process.

I’ve gotten a lot happier since I chip away at life instead of trying to be like, ‘Well, once I do this massive thing, I can chill.’ It’s like, no it’s a constant, but it doesn’t have to be oppressively constant, it just has to be consistent.
Yeah, yeah. Just steady. You get the sleep you need; you eat the food you need; you meditate and you just do the best you can. And if you blow it, you don’t beat yourself up, you just know that you want to set your bar comfortably high and do the best you can, and you live your life. I always tell people about meditation, I say, there are 1,440 minutes in a day. You don’t have 30, 40 minutes to sort of, like, take care of this thing?

We want to take care of our health, we do so much from the neck down: I’m gonna work out or eat right or whatever. Well, this 3.3-pound blob runs the show and so when we transcend, when we meditate, when our attention settles down and experiences that calm, it’s waking up all these networks, connections in the brain. It’s waking up connections between the brain and the heart, the brain and the body, and it’s just making you more yourself. I think this is what’s been missing in the world today.

My thing going forward is I really wanna help kids learn this. I have nephews who are 13 and 11 and, like, I’m really trying to be, like—without pushing them into shit—I want them to surf, and one is into it and one is not. This kind of parenting stuff in general, or uncle-ing or whatever you want to call it. But I’m like, man, if they just fucking did this now, their whole lives would be so much better for so much longer. It’s like, how do you… you can’t, but I’m trying to get that locked in with young people.
You know, I run the David Lynch Foundation. So, the great filmmaker David Lynch started bringing TM to at-risk, under-resourced populations 15 years ago. We brought it for free to a million kids in the US and all over the world. And now we’re working with nurses on the frontlines of COVID. And the one area that I think is most at risk—and you just mentioned it—is kids. 13, 14, just the levels of stress—the number two cause of death among teenagers today is suicide. So, I’d like to talk with you sometime about the way I think bringing this to kids is by getting more and more people like yourself—who young people love—involved, and also young people who meditate. We’ve got to get them on video, because they’re so driven by peers.

That’s what this is. Like, Monster Children is a really cool magazine I love.
It’s great, it’s great. Because that age group is all peer group. ‘I have to wear these shoes because everybody wears these shoes.’ Their whole sense of self is peer, so we do a whole lot of programs in schools, under-resourced schools, and kids love it when they know that oh, first-period class I’m sitting in a classroom and meditating with 20 of my friends. These days, we’re in the Bronx, we’re in East LA. These are kids that are seeing death and shootings and it’s the only quiet they get in their life. If someone had told me as a 13-year-old, you’re going to sit and close your eyes, the last thing in the world… I was just running and going and going, but it’s a different time, and kids are really worried. There’s a sort of a shock that they’re in. But also, it’s not everybody. All we can do is let them know that it’s not crazy, it’s kinda good.

Yes, definitely. I think that’s the mission.
Can I explain mediation?

Yeah, please.
So, I use an analogy. You’re on a little boat, and there’s choppy waves on the surface of the ocean. And all of a sudden, you’ve got these giant waves—30, 40, 50 foot high. But if you get a cross-section out there, you realise the waves on the surface of the ocean are tsunami-esque, but the nature of the ocean at its depth is pretty darn silent, pretty darn quiet. So, the nature of the ocean is turbulent on the surface and the nature of the ocean is quieter at its depth, I use that as an example for the mind. The surface of our mind is the active, thinking mind—the worried mind, the OCD mind, what I call the ‘gotta, gotta, gotta’ mind. Gotta do this, gotta call him, gotta call her, gotta make a list… all that. It’s a natural human desire to say, ‘I’d like some inner calm, some inner clarity,’ and the keyword there is inner. There’s such a thing as an inner, and so how do we get there?

Well, there’s some types of meditation that are hard to do, that try to create calm in the mind by stopping thoughts, it’s like trying to create calm in the ocean by stopping waves—you can’t do it. So, there’s meditations where you try to clear your mind of thoughts, push out thoughts and concentrate on your breath. But as you know with transcendental meditation, we let the waves—the thoughts—be, and we just begin the process of gently, gently settling down to these quiet levels of the mind. Do you ever feel relaxed when you’re meditating?

Fuck yeah. After we hang up, I’m going to do my afternoon meditation before we go back to work, and I’m stressed as hell. So, I can’t wait—the afternoon now is like my time of peace, because work is stressful. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t wait to fucking sit here,’ when I was someone who couldn’t sit still for over a minute. Now I’m like, I can’t wait to do this because I get my 20 minutes of peace from the world. The one that’s really hard is the morning one, for me.
Tell me why.

Because I think it’s just harder for me to get there in the morning because that’s my time when I wake up and my mind goes into a billion different places.
I’m glad you bring this up, because the morning meditations are not that deep, contrasting to the end of the day. The end of the day your body is tired and you just go, wouuuh. You feel this big contrast. In the morning, you’ve just been in bed for however many hours, so you still get that rest but there’s no contrast. Like if it’s a really hot day and you’re really thirsty and someone gives you a glass of cold water, you go, ‘God!’ But if you have water first thing in the morning, you think, ‘Great, what’s for breakfast?’ The hydration is the same, but the contrast is different.

I would say when you’re meditating in the morning, don’t compare it to the afternoons. Meditation from a physical standpoint is more of a preparation for the day, you’re going to take on less stress, you’re putting up some resilience. But in the afternoon, there’s much more recovery. So, when you meditate tomorrow morning, that’s the right experience.

Well, I don’t judge it. It’s just I have more thoughts and it’s like, ‘Aaaah!’
Doesn’t matter, it’s all good, it’s all good. So, in TM, you get a mantra. You learn from a teacher, one-to-one from a certified teacher, someone who’s the real deal, and they give you a mantra. It takes about an hour in personal instruction, and they teach you how to use it and you meet again for about an hour over three days, and then you’ve got it!

What was cool was I could decide on my own a year and a half later. I already had the tools on how to do it, I didn’t have to redo it.
Sometimes parents drag their kids in to learn how to meditate—like you dragging your nephews in to meditate or something like that—and they’re going, ‘Oh no god, what is this?’ And you teach them, and you say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ In two years, five years, or something, they’ll be somewhere and they’ll be stressed and be like, ‘Oh my god, uncle Jonah taught me about… I got this mantra.’ Then [snaps fingers] it’s the right time.

Yeah, it’s really funny because it’s part of the human condition I think, but for me, it’s my experience that I have to be so miserable sometimes to make a change. Right? I’m always wishing like, why the fuck do I have to wait until I’m so miserable to make positive changes? And TM was one of them where it was like, thank god I just got to a point where I needed you.
Ok, I’m going to tell you this brand new research. You know how they used to say if you’re a creative person you’re a right-brain person, you ever hear that?

Yeah, right brain and left brain.
Yeah, people have two hemispheres in the brain and they used to say if you’re a creative person, you’re a right-brain person, or if you’re a numbers cruncher, scientist person, you’re a left-brain person. Turns out, that’s not true. It turns out, being creative—and I was talking to Jerry Seinfeld about this—the creative process is when all the different parts of your brain connect together. And when you’re stressed, everything pulls apart. During TM all the different parts of the brain involved in the creative process, connect together. There’s two main areas: the ability to focus, that’s called the attention control centre, that’s when you really have some work to do, and you’ve got to pull some hours and you just gotta do it. So, if a person’s stressed, they can’t focus. But the interesting thing is, where do the creative ideas come from? And that comes from a brain that’s not focused, that comes from a brain that’s just chilling, relaxing.

Loose, in flow. Yeah, exactly.
And they call it the Imaginative Network, and they have a new name for it now: The Genius Lounge.

Cool (laughs).
Isn’t that great?

Yeah.
Before you started meditating, you’d be really stressed, you’re in front of the computer like, ‘I gotta make this work,’ and nothing’s happening. And your friend says, ‘Jonah, you just gotta go for a walk,’ or you’re taking a hot shower and a great idea comes.

 

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Almost always driving and in the shower. It’s because you’re distracted.
They call that the default mode network, that’s the genius lounge—when you’re relaxed, then that part of the brain wakes up and then there’s that flow, you’re accessing the deepest resources of your brain and creativity. So, what happens for most people is, they have an idea then they shut that down and they go to work. Stress ruins everything. But the most creative people—and TM does this—wake up the ability to focus and innovate at the same time.

Well, I’ll definitely say that in the last eight months, I’ve never been more creative and more productive.
Yep.

You can’t fake that. And I’ve seen my world open up both personally and professionally in that regard, where I also think that there’s an avenue to your true self through TM.
Beautiful. Okay, do you have any questions for me?

Yeah, I mean… what do you think is the biggest struggle in getting people to latch on to making this a practice? Number one, they have to want it. The receptor sites—to use the brain again— have gotta click. ‘Yeah, meditation, Bob, Russell, whatever,’ and then all of a sudden it’s locked in, it’s there. If it’s there and you want it—just like anything else you have to put in the time.
I believe, in having taught this for almost 50 years now to tons of people, that if
a person puts in the time regularly for a few weeks or a month or whatever, it locks in. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought TM to the world, says a person doesn’t stop meditating, it’s just a long time between each meditation. I like that, you know; life intervenes, you come back to it and two years later, it was just like a long time between your morning and afternoon meditation.

So, I just think it’s gotta be the right thing at the right time. And second, talk to a good teacher and be sure you’re doing it right. Because if you sit there and you’re trying to fight with your thoughts or you read that you’re supposed to put your mantra with your breathing and this and that, it’s not TM. So, get someone. This ability to transcend, this ability to settle down is so tender, delicate and real, it just takes a little bit of guidance. And then it flows and it’s there.

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