11 November 2020

Jumping the Sharks (I)

Despite big media’s perennial tendency to set a low bar in its coverage of mindfulness (more on that here), observing how it treats the subject can be revelatory. A case in point is Mindful Escapes, a four-part collaboration between the BBC and Headspace, which aired during the UK lockdown. What might this “bold new genre of programming” have to tell us about a developing role for mindfulness in the broadcast media?

Public Health Broadcast

Mindful Escapes hit TV screens at the height of ‘coronanxiety’. The timing was deliberate, with Julian Hector, Head of BBC Studios Natural History Unit, explaining that the pandemic was “a time when the union of the natural world and our mental health could not be more important.” Commissioning editor Sreya Biswas hoped the series would “create conversations about mental health and support audience mental well-being”. BBC programme notes proposed that the show would “relax and rejuvenate” viewers.

In seeking to unite viewer with nature in the service of enhancing well-being, the programmers intended for Mindful Escapes to be therapeutic. Perhaps a more accurate word would be tranquillising. The programme is a slow glide through collections of superbly filmed images of the natural world, each accompanied by sparse and soothing narration – essentially guided meditation instructions – from Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe. 

At its most frenetic, you are watching dolphins at play. The median pace is probably the baby meerkats nodding off while standing up. The show demands so little of the viewer that it’s easy to go the same way as the meerkats. 

Sins of Omission

Perhaps the programme-makers would consider viewers falling asleep to be ‘job done’. Aside from their trite conflations of mindfulness and relaxation, awareness and somnolence, meditating and screen-watching, what is most revealing about Mindful Escapes is what’s missing. 

Scenes of animals hunting and killing have been edited out in favour of calming scenery. There are no sharks, no preying eagles, no mice on the run, not even an insect getting scoffed. Instead we are offered a carefully constructed illusion of the world and invited to lose ourselves in its imagery. This is mindfulness of the tune-in-and-zone-out variety.

The tacit encouragement to dissociate, to avoid any and all discomfort is even more telling in the absence of references to the environmental crisis. Basic facts about the species and habitats we are observing don’t get a look-in. It is beyond irony that the lemur scenes are accompanied by Puddicombe’s platitudes on the jungle being “alive with the sounds of life” at a time when 95% of lemur species are threatened with extinction. For Puddicombe, it seems, context is irrelevant to mindfulness; ergo, it doesn’t matter if polar bears might be starving when they look good on the telly.

Mindfulness in Crisis

Mindful Escapes was a flawed mission from the off. In their misapprehension of what mindfulness actually is – a bright, curious, discerning awareness that provides a foundation for wise choice-making and compassionate responding – the programme-makers managed to edit out this quality rather than add it in. By trading reality for fantasy and awareness for sedation they made a spectacle out of a crisis. If they’d had any sense, they would have taken their cue from resident BBC expert David Attenborough, who has been offering masterclasses in how to be genuinely caring and curiously attentive for decades.

Attenborough’s work has also highlighted the need to understand interdependence and causality – two benchmark qualities of authentic mindfulness practice – if humans and our fellow creatures are to have a future on Earth. In his recent programme, Extinction: The Facts, he warned: “We are facing a crisis. One that has consequences for us all. It threatens our ability to feed ourselves, to control our climate. It even puts us at greater risk of pandemic diseases such as Covid-19.” 

Climate. Covid. Crisis. Attenborough’s message is all about context. The environment is not some exotic abstraction. It is a living, breathing, interpenetrating aspect of everything, including all that is not yet born. Deep down, most humans get this. TV viewing figures for Extinction: The Facts hit 4.5 million – proof if it were needed that people are smart enough and resilient enough to face up to the situation we find ourselves in.

This is a far cry from the world of Mindful Escapes, where Covid-19 is an impetus to forget, to do nothing other than immerse ourselves in pretty pictures and tranquillising words. Welcome to a world where existential facts are disallowed, where the image is preferred to the real thing, where nothing must be allowed to disturb our reverie. And here’s the twist: the dream being offered includes the illusion of being awake. 

Which leaves a pressing question for the world of mindfulness: How on earth did it come to this?

Click here for Part 2.

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