There have been TV series based on books, videogames, even boardgames. But an app, one that’s not a game? That’s new. And in the case of Headspace, a welcome respite. The popular meditation guide was created in 2010 by Andy Puddicombe and Richard Pierson, based on Puddicombe’s experiences as an Englishman living as a Buddhist monk in a Tibetan Monastery for several years. There’s something a little Eat, Pray, Love to that origin story, but the positive outcomes since have been undeniable.
What’s interesting about Netflix’s “adaptation” of the app’s work, whose goal is to make the basic principles of meditation available to all, is that it’s not naturally a visual medium. For most of each episode, you’re encouraged to have your eyes closed—or at least not focused on the screen. That alone makes Headspace a radical departure from Netflix’s other content. But it’s also noteworthy that the series (both the original Guide to Meditation and the new Guide to Sleep) is the antithesis of a binge watch. You certainly can watch—or rather, experience—each of Guide to Meditation’s eight episodes back to back, but that’s also missing the point of the series. It’s about slowing down and making space each day. Like exercise, one day a week doing a full workout is less effective than doing a little each day.
And Puddicombe, whose dulcet English tones narrate the app and Guide to Meditation series, approaches meditation in that way: as a necessary habit and something to train towards. The routine itself is accessible, with short, 20-minute episodes that are meant to be repeated. Puddicombe is never present on-screen; instead, there is a gentle, earth-toned, humans-as-squishy-blobs animation that provides a visual representation of the ideas he’s introducing, as well as cues that aid in deep breathing. (Evelyn Lewis Prieto—also with a soothing English accent—narrates the Guide to Sleep version). What’s refreshing about these guides is that there is no agenda other than how meditation can be a helpful tool for dealing with our increasingly hurried world. At a moment when many of us feel like we have to maximize our time because there’s so little of it, thanks to busy schedules encouraged by a corporate-focused culture and ever-present social media, even these short episodes can feel like time we can’t afford to spend. And yet, as Puddicombe explains and as is clear when experienced, this small allotment is vital.
Though Puddicombe has said he didn’t design the Headspace series specifically for families to experience together, that’s something that has organically happened. And it’s of little wonder; not only is the series calm and informative, it’s also a way for a family (or couples or friends) to work together to try and eliminate hurry—and worry—from our lives. It’s a goal made easier if those around us are doing the same thing.
For those who have struggled to embrace meditation practices in the past (I am one, with a mind that loves to race around), Headspace doesn’t suggest “emptying your mind” or trying to black out your thoughts. Puddicombe’s methods include acknowledging the way we have been reprogrammed to ping from one thing to another constantly, especially in the way we engage with technology and online media. In one example, he explains how to notice our thoughts coming through like cars driving down a road. We can simply observe them from the sidewalk, and let them pass. In one of the earlier episodes, there’s also a moment when he encourages viewers/listeners to allow a focus on that one thought that just won’t stop trying to break through; it’s not necessarily an interruption, it could be important. Meditation is, in part, learning how to discern the difference between helpful musings and noise.
Each episode of Headspace begins with a story that gets viewers in the right frame of mind to go into the guided meditation itself. It’s all casual and conversational, an easy entry point into the kind of mental training that has been proven to have positive results regarding stress management, increased focus, and more. It’s also sure to point people in the direction of the app, which has a free and paid tier. You can look at that cynically and consider all of this just a softly clever way of expanding a brand, and on some level it is. But it can’t be overlooked how genuinely helpful the program is, and how it acts as an antidote to the “never look away” binge culture that Netflix has cultivated. Granted, Netflix is still asserting itself as part of the habit of incorporating Headspace into your life, but perhaps the results might make you a little less likely, elsewhere on the platform, to mindlessly press “play next.”
Headspace: Guide to Meditation and Headspace: Guide to Sleep are both currently streaming on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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