Those who subscribe to the notion of “new year, new me” will be familiar with the advice to empty your fridge and kitchen cupboards of junk food before 1 January, so as to set yourself up for healthy-eating success. (Or else a New Year’s Day McDonald’s delivery, when you wake up very much the old you, and not in the mood for overnight oats.)
After all that bingeing on Love Is Blind and Selling Sunset last year, Netflix now provides a similarly aspirational refresh, with a new series of guided meditations. Produced with the popular Headspace app, the eight 20-minute episodes are billed as a beginner’s guide to meditation, helping you to start the year “by being kind to your mind”.
Meditation, and the state of mindful awareness it cultivates, has been so buzzed about in recent years, it is easy to roll your eyes at it as another panacea peddled by wellness “practitioners” – or a sticking-plaster for suffering that ignores social and political ills. At its most basic level, it is little more than concentration training – but there are benefits, too: mindfulness programmes have been shown to have positive effects on stress-related ailments, psychiatric disorders and – tentative evidence suggests – the immune system.
Enter the streaming service, perhaps hoping to overturn its cultural association with sloth and unproductive excess. (A companion series, the Headspace Guide to Sleep, is in the works – as if Netflix weren’t already the greatest challenge to that.)
It is a canny attempt to “meet us where we are”, as apps such as Calm and Headspace aim to make meditation bite-size and accessible, almost gamified, just as Duolingo has done for language learning. Spotify has also started including mindfulness prompts or guided practices alongside music in its new “Daily Wellness” playlists, introduced post-pandemic (only in the US and UK – talk about a sticking-plaster solution).
The streaming model makes trying meditation as easy as taking a chance on a new show. And, gladly, investing 20 minutes feels less intensive on Netflix than it does on your phone – it’s the same length as a Friends episode, and, God knows, we’ve all seen those enough times. But does it work? In the first flush of new year optimism that I, too, can live in the present moment in 2021 – I give it a go.
My first thought is that the show looks beautiful, like an animated watercolour painting or a Pixar dreamscape. Hyper-slick presentation is a calling card of Vox Media, also behind Netflix’s Explained series; but this goes deeper than a straightforward flex of production values to be a pretty effective way of showing how brains work.
Psychological concepts and functioning are often communicated in visual terms, so it is helpful to see a visual representation of neural plasticity, or to watch on-screen cars going down a motorway as a stand-in for the flow of our thoughts. In this way, the medium does help with the message, which is themed by episode – including letting go of the past, cultivating gratitude and dealing with stress, pain and anger.
Also savvy is the choice of narrator – or rather guide – in Andy Puddicombe. Puddicombe is Headspace’s co-founder, and has been described as “doing for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food”. As a fairly matter-of-fact middle-aged British man, he does not trigger the same (dare I say sexist?) nose-wrinkling that a young wellness influencer might – despite his spiritual journey.
In his early 20s, unsatisfied by his study of sports science, Puddicombe decided to study meditation instead – in the Himalayas. After 10 years’ practice, he was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Sharing the fruits of this mission is Headspace’s goal, and that of this series – “so you don’t have to go to the Himalayas”, says Puddicombe.
But the relative ease of 20 minutes sitting at your computer has a shortcoming: it’s much easier to get distracted than it is in a monastery. Halfway through my first attempt at a meditation, as an orange scribble slowly rotates on the screen, the silence is broken by an omniscient voice: “Low battery. Recharge your headset.”
It reflects the challenge of trying to solve focus fractured by tech with more tech. But I’m surprised by how far I get with the Netflix Guide. The combination of 10 minutes of theory, 10 minutes of practice and cheery animation makes meditation less daunting – if only because sitting and staring at a screen is so familiar. Before you know it, you’ve done 80 minutes of meditation. And it does feel good.
The Jamie Oliver parallel is a good one. Oliver doesn’t sweat the history of clean eating or the science of nutrition, or demand a total dietary overhaul and strict adherence. He suggests easy swaps, gradual improvement and striving for balance. Health by stealth is still healthier, and around this time last year I was watching Love Is Blind. After eight hours of that – I guess I can manage 10 minutes every now and then.