18 November 2020

Jumping the Sharks (II)

If you are interested in how mindfulness can contribute meaningfully to the world you inhabit, there are two angles you could take on Mindful Escapes, the BBC’s “bold new genre of recycled nature footage overlaid with generic meditation instructions. One is that it’s no big deal – a pleasant arrangement of imagery on the old gogglebox and a harmless way to spend some downtime. Besides, if it’s a mindfulness revolution you’re after, it will not be televised!

The other angle is to see the programme as both a symptom and product of something that has gone terribly wrong with the transmission of mindfulness – a deceptive advert for its practices and a sign of what is to come in our brave new mindful world. For here is a high-profile broadcast – a likely introduction to the subject for many – that endorses experiential avoidance. On every level, this is antithetical to mindfulness. 

Reality Check

Image courtesy of Michael Leunig
Narrator Andy Puddicombe, who is an influential figure in the meditation business courtesy of Headspace, claims that Mindful Escapes is “an immersive experience that merges the external world with our internal landscape.” What does this mean (if it means anything at all)? Are viewers supposed to have a jhana experience? Or perhaps some kind of tech-induced altered state – like in the movie Videodrome but without the brain tumours? Well, it didn’t work for me (or anyone else I know). 

If Mindful Escapes ‘does’ anything, it is to pacify, to lull and, most of all, to dissuade from any need to know. Contrast this to the regular, longstanding objectives of mindfulness practice: to sensitise, to empathise, to see clearly, to take responsibility, to live heartfully. If there were a Trade Descriptions Act for mindfulness programmes, this one would never have aired. 

Tranquillity 2.0

Watching this programme brought to mind something mental health-related I once read about. It concerned a new and amazing intervention that went public in the 1950s. Like mindfulness, it had an eleven-letter name beginning with ‘m’ and no-one had ever seen anything like it. Meprobamate was billed as a cure for anxiety and an enhancer of happiness. It was endorsed by celebrities and became a household name as the first “tranquilliser” (under the brand name Miltown). Its apparently miraculous effects on the general population’s well-being didn’t last long. By 1970, it had been listed as a controlled substance due to its potential for abuse and dependency. 

Meprobamate’s inventor had been talked into calling it a tranquilliser by renowned psychopharmacologist Nathan Kline because “the world needs tranquillity [and] you will sell ten times more.” Perhaps his words ring some bells in relation to the mindfulness zeitgeist. In its heyday, Meprobamate promised so much. It sold massively and fortunes were made from it. It proved to be destructive and left untold suffering in its wake. It continues to offer a pertinent lesson in never, ever, believing the hype. 

The Wisdom of No Escapes

When it comes to mindfulness, how do you tell the real thing from the copy? Well, one is an open-hearted embrace of the world in all its depth and mystery, joys and hardships; its essential characteristic is non-superficiality. The other is about self-absorption and favours image over reality; its essential characteristic is shallowness. We need to discern for ourselves which is which but, suffice to say, a clue that we’re on the right track is when our practice inclines us towards participating considerately in life and relating to those around us as fellow beings, not as objects. 

And what might be the purpose of such a mindful life? A Zen master answered this a thousand years ago in three words: “an appropriate response”. Stripped down, mindfulness practice is always about wise engagement with the world, inner and outer. 

However, the human psyche is hardwired to disengage from that which is too difficult or disturbing to bear, so we have our work cut out. Faced with a pandemic and a global environmental crisis it is understandable that we may seek – as the makers of Mindful Escapes irresponsibly seem to advocate – to numb ourselves against painful realities and/or get lost in denial. But every time we wise up, open up and find a compassionate response, we make ourselves available to the world again. In so doing, our practice is enlivened. 

There is nothing enlivening about Mindful Escapes. On the contrary, it is stultifying. How senseless that, in the name of mindfulness, its BBC producers intentionally discarded their resident expert David Attenborough’s vital message about the climate crisis. How embarrassing that Andy Puddicombe, despite his perennial enthusiasm for touting his ex-Buddhist monk credentials, in the name of mindfulness blew a golden opportunity to back his ex-teacher HH Dalai Lama’s tireless appeal to confront ecological destruction. How depressing that mindfulness, in the mainstream lexicon, can deputise so comfortably for dissociative behaviour.

Free-To-Air Mindfulness

In the context of contemplative practices that conduce to empathy and understanding, Mindful Escapes is a kind of death. It belongs behind glass in the burgeoning museum of McMindfulness. It should serve as a warning – not that we need any more of them – for what happens when, to use the old adage, you pick up a snake at the wrong end. 

If there ever is to be a bona fide mindfulness-based nature show on TV, it will extol the virtues of intimately knowing our locale as opposed to spacing out on images of exotic, far-flung places. It will teach us the names of the wildflowers that grow between the cracks in our pavements. It will encourage us to visit the same spots, close to home, over and over again; to become familiar with their delicate and changing details, and to discover the extraordinary within the ordinary. It will urge us to become conscientious protectors of green spaces and our fellow creatures. Most of all, it will encourage us to be sensitive actors, not dumb spectators.

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