March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in the time of coronavirus, March doesn’t have to be madness.
This is one show Netflix doesn’t want you to binge.
Or actually, scratch that. Netflix probably doesn’t care one way or the other how you consume the Headspace Guide To Meditation, the first of three series from the wellness startup juggernaut to debut on the streaming juggernaut. This is, after all, a company whose CEO once said its biggest competition is sleep.
But its creators care. Headspace cofounder Andy Puddicombe — a Buddhist monk turned meditation teacher — radiates the exact level of sincere, gently evangelistic energy that makes you actually want to listen when someone’s extolling the virtues of something, in this case meditation, that totally changed their life. Which is fortunate, as he’s the affable voice of this series as well as Headspace’s eponymous, super-accessible meditation app. And as he’ll keep reminding you, you’ll get the most out of meditation if you come back to it regularly — so there’s no need to rip through all eight episodes in one sitting.
As a meditation dilettante with a pathologically overactive inner monologue, my expectation going into this series was that the visual element would make all the difference — that, freed from the tyranny of having to keep my stupid eyes closed for 10 minutes straight and exist purely in my stupid brain, enough of my extra attention-energy would be engaged in watching the visuals that I would be able to focus only on actually meditating. I also find certain specific visual aids for calming and mindfulness more helpful than instructions alone, like the classic “breathing shapes” GIF. So I dove in, hoping that combining meditation with my one true love — TV — would finally make it click for me.
If you’re already familiar with Headspace’s approachable tone, there are no surprises here. Each of the six episodes opens with a few minutes of theory, as Puddicombe cheerfully and simply explains a specific meditation goal or technique — visualisation, “noting”, dealing with anger, body scanning — as well as some of the science behind it, reflections on why it’s relevant and helpful, and sometimes even an anecdote from his time in the monastery prior to getting started with the actual meditating. He’ll introduce himself simply as “Andy”, in the kind of British accent that’s impossible to be distracted by even as a non-Brit because it’s neither especially posh nor particularly “regional”, and slips seamlessly into a slower, quieter pace and a slightly deeper register for the meditation itself.
That significantly longer, chatty preamble — somewhere between TED Talk and your favourite, slightly crunchy substitute teacher — is the biggest difference between the app’s meditations and The Headspace Guide To Meditation. That, and the fact that there’s a visual element. The intros are accompanied by colourful, engaging, and often insightful animations by four different animation teams (Compost Creative, Strange Beast, Blink Industries, and Augenblick Studios). Sometimes they’re matched to the metaphors Puddicombe uses to represent the extremely abstract concepts we’re dealing with, like “surfing” the waves of stress or a blue sky representing the clear mind that’s allegedly always somewhere behind the constant cloud cover of stress and overthinking. Sometimes they’re more abstract and intuitive, like when dark, spiky “anxiety” shapes replace the smooth Duplo of calmer thoughts.
The guided meditation segment of each episode, which clocks in at about 10 minutes each, is centred around lovely interpretations of Headspace’s signature orange circle: a line that slowly traces a spiral, glowing goldenrod suns in blue skies, flat bright dots that seem to breathe.
It’s all gorgeous to look at, images flowing instinctively between concepts, in a way that at times reminded me of watching The Midnight Gospel last year — another Netflix project that pairs colourful, affecting visuals with a conversation that could be experienced as audio alone. Except where Duncan Trussell’s mind-melting Gospel wants to blow my mind, Headspace wants to help me clear it.
And the darnedest thing is, it did work. But it wasn’t those charming visuals that did it.
Instead, the game-changer was actually the intro sections themselves, which taught me that I benefit enormously from easing into it a bit more. Rather than going straight from whatever I was doing — working, cooking, doom-scrolling — to assuming the position and sternly telling myself I Am Going To Meditate Now, I could settle in and watch some pretty pictures while learning a little something, letting Hi-I’m-Andy get me in the mood before I actually have to do the work myself. And once I was in that ready state, closing my stupid eyes came much more naturally.
(Ten Percent Happier, and other meditation apps, also do this well, pairing meditation tracks in-app with “Talks” exploring the science and effects of meditation and mindfulness practice.)
I say game-changer, but this isn’t groundbreaking stuff. There is an embarrassment of non-intimidating meditation videos with cute animations to be found on YouTube — and if you want Meditation 101 content in any form, there’s something for you out there already, including the Headspace app itself and dozens more like it. The biggest selling point for the Headspace Guide To Meditation on Netflix is that, well, it’s on Netflix. And that’s part of the point. As Puddicombe told Vulture when the series launched on New Year’s Day: “When we started Headspace 10 years ago, it was always about: How do we put Headspace in places you wouldn’t expect to find it?”
If Netflix is going to expand beyond the binge and into what we could call utility or functional content like this, alongside other innovations like interactive elements, there’s an argument to be made for some new functionality to match. Perhaps a button on the binge-shaming “Are you still watching?” screen, giving you the option to break up that true-crime marathon with a few minutes of focus and deep breathing. (I certainly could have used it as an existential palate cleanser after certain episodes of Midnight Gospel.) Hell, TikTok already shoves “take a break” wellness reminders into my endless scrolls.
But then, Headspace isn’t purely functional either. The theory sections are gently educational, thoughtful, and interesting, almost like mini-documentaries, rather than just being a prettily animated prelude to the meditation part. If you enjoy Vox Media’s Netflix collabs, like the Explained series, and aren’t already a seasoned meditator, you have absolutely nothing to lose by adding Headspace Guide to Meditation to your queue, and starting or ending a couch session by taking a moment for yourself to be present and calm. And — sigh — the series gives a whole new meaning to “Netflix and chill”.
The Headspace Guide To Meditation is available to watch on Netflix now.