Not so long ago, if you sought instruction in the ancient craft of mindfulness you would need to invest time and energy. Perhaps you would do an intensive eight-week course or join a residential retreat. Perhaps you would humbly request bespoke guidance from a geographically accessible meditation master, who might try to discourage you if they intuited you’d get flaky once the novelty of meditating wore off (let’s be honest, that’s true for most of us). Whichever way you went about it, there was a definite starting point to your endeavour and a clear commitment made – by you, to others.
No longer do such lines need to be drawn, motivation kindled or thresholds crossed. Now we have mindfulness apps, YouTube gurus, mindful drinking festivals and meditation pods. A click of a button, a proudly raised mocktail or a two-minute chill-out in a comfy chair can be enough to signal you are “being mindful.” Hurrah! If such frivolity doesn’t do it for you, why not join the Army and, in the name of mindfulness, learn how to kill people and break things with minimal pushback from your conscience? Yes, really. The mindfulness marketplace caters for all tastes, no matter how dubious or devoid of compassion.
Sliding around on this increasingly slippery slope is Headspace Guide to Meditation, the popular app’s screen debut on Netflix and its effort to spread the brand across 190 countries and 30 languages. At the programme’s launch, Headspace’s co-founder and the show’s executive producer, Andy Puddicombe, tweeted: “Whether you binge the whole series, or take it one week at a time, there is a meditation for everyone.” He not only nailed his company’s mission in one line – en masse home-based consumption of a product called “meditation” or “mindfulness” (Headspace uses these terms interchangeably) – he also introduced the peculiar idea of binging-watching contemplative practices on the telly. What? How does that work?
Well, frankly, it doesn’t. Headspace Guide to Meditation is really just a podcast with moving graphics. Across eight episodes, the audio track is Puddicombe offering guided meditations, stories and a splatter of scientific evidence on the efficacy of meditation for health concerns. There is absolutely nothing new here, it’s typical marketplace fare. “Taking time out”, “relaxing”, “creating space”, “being present” – every mindfulness platitude puts in a shift.
The interesting twist is the visual track, which is a moving collage of figurative and impressionistic imagery – swirling lines, floating orbs, dream-like forms – that provide scenery to accompany Puddicombe’s narrative. It is intentionally calming, soothing and also charming – a bit like watching a lava lamp or a spacey screen saver. The animators have found inventive ways of using visual forms as stand-ins for mental phenomena, often in delightfully understated ways so as not to excite or distract from the narrator’s core message. It’s a lovely piece of art. Aside from the obvious brand placement – Headspace’s orange dot reappears throughout each episode – here is a worthy imagining of what Henri Matisse doing mindfulness in the digital age might look like.
Turn On, Tune In, Drop Off
Some have suggested that Headspace Guide to Meditation heralds a new genre of TV, one that subverts the medium’s potential for distraction and fashions it into a tool for mental health (Headspace attempted something similar during the pandemic with the terribly flawed Mindful Escapes). For sure it’s paradoxical that large sections of the animations are designed not be watched, because you’re supposed to be meditating with your eyes closed. But that’s not subversive, it’s just silly. Especially when the animations are the best part of the show.
Silly-not-subversive is underscored by one of the animation directors, Yuval Haker, stating his intention was to send the viewer “into a sort of trance.” His comment suggests a wholesale misunderstanding of meditation. Put together with Puddicombe’s somnolent tone and one-dimensional instructions, the series as a whole has a torpid air about it. Its central message amounts to Do Nothing. In this respect, it’s just another example of the standard mainstream presentation of mindfulness-as-sedative, where the content varies from product to product but the same three-part scheme never changes: (1) calm down, (2) lull into a state of forgetfulness, (3) repeat. Such a scheme informs a lot of TV programming when you think about it. Perhaps Headspace Guide to Meditation is simply the consummation of the marriage of mindfulness and home entertainment.
Headspace Health, the billion-dollar company behind this programme, is not stupid. It has been successfully monetising mindfulness for over a decade and, more constructively, has proved effective at popularising meditation and extolling its potential benefits. The company would likely claim that if its programme encourages Netflix viewers to click on an episode and meditate for the first time then it has done its job.
But for all its attempts to innovate with different media, the company seems blind to the consequences of its own actions. Time and time again, it has reduced “meditation” to the pursuit of calm passivity and shrinks down “mindfulness” into a set of attention-training skills for emotional control. In so doing it promotes an idea that these practices equate to a withdrawal into inner states of ease. With Headspace Guide to Meditation you don’t even need to get off the sofa or switch off the TV – just focus on yourself, forget about everything and everyone else, and compliantly get sedated with a slick mix of cartoons and honeyed words.
This is an almost perfect inversion of what mindfulness really is: a connective awareness that conduces to clarity and wakefulness, that holds the world in mind and nurtures an ethic of care and responsibility. If you put this into a three-part scheme, it would go like this: (1) wake up, (2) cultivate a state of clear remembrance, (3) engage wisely. This is a striking contrast to the scheme above. I’m not suggesting there is anything inaccurate, technically speaking, in the practice guidance offered by Headspace Guide to Meditation. It’s just that it leaves so much out. Context, vision and ethical discernment for starters.
This deficiency is compounded by Headspace’s tendency to never signpost viewers to any meditative resources outside its own product range. So, if you want to explore for yourself the depth and profundity of mindfulness practices, classical and/or contemporary, the last place you’ll hear about the many freely available and enriching possibilities is from Headspace.
Sadly, this moral apathy extends to how the company treats its staff. Since 2017 its employees have been publicly railing against Headspace’s claim that it is “all about a happy, healthy work environment.” Stories of coerced and stressed employees, harsh working conditions and high levels of staff turnover are commonplace, with former workers recently telling Bloomberg they cannot use Headspace’s app because “instead of being calming, it’s now triggering.” What a painful irony. Here is a company that appears incapable of walking its talk. Such ethical deficits are usually an indication that key principles of mindfulness have been misapprehended and misapplied.
To understand how Headspace got itself into this mess, the story of its formation offers some clues. Click here for Part 2.