It begins in a void. Dynamic shapes careen through blank space: orange spheres, green spirals, pink helixes. Artsy static. Then, from the nothingness, a warning delivered as an invitation. “Our lives are filled with distraction, filled with stimulation,” a narrator notes. “When was the last time you stopped, that you were still, that you put down your phone, that you got rid of all the distractions around you?”
This call for tech-free clarity is the opening salvo to Headspace Guide to Meditation, an animated Netflix series produced by mindfulness giant Headspace, which has its headquarters in Santa Monica, California. The product of a binge-friendly streaming platform and a meditation app, the show poses lofty questions about distraction that are probably rhetorical: our devices already know the last time we put them down.
Guide to Meditation’s eight episodes are narrated by Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe, who, in the first half of each 20-minute lesson, touts the physiological benefits of mindfulness techniques such as visualization, noting, and body scans. The second half of each episode is a guided mini-meditation; Puddicombe welcomes you to soften the gaze and slacken the jaw. He speaks in the soothing timbre of a Buddhist monk turned multimillionaire.
A co-branded, high-tech partnership delivered in Silicon Valley’s self-optimizing parlance, Headspace Guide to Meditation is the latest attempt to repackage meditation practices as burnout-prevention tools that enable employees to work longer hours. Part autobiography, medical journal, and consumer testimonial, the Guide is careful to frame the Buddhist history of meditation in scientific terms. “My hope is when you meditate, you meditate with the confidence that this is something that’s been around, in R&D essentially, for thousands of years,” Puddicombe says. The show’s stated goal is to help you “achieve your limitless potential.”
The series features oblique references to Buddhism, while the app cites its sources more diligently. “The techniques in the Headspace app stem from both the Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, even though some of the names have been changed from the original translation to make them more accessible,” Headspace explains on its website. Vipassana is referred to solely as insight meditation, and shamatha as “calming meditation.”
Puddicombe positions himself as an oracle revealing Buddhism’s true past and future. “People who’ve practiced over the years have felt the benefits but haven’t necessarily been able to explain what’s happening physiologically,” he says. But thanks to rigorous research, mindfulness has outgrown the R&D sandbox of Buddhism. “We know now that when we sit to meditate in the same way as when we go and work out in the gym, we train a muscle,” Puddicombe concludes. “It gets thicker and stronger.”
We’ve gone from mindfulness, to an app about mindfulness, to a Netflix show about an app about mindfulness. And with each iteration, Headspace has adhered to the same basic algorithm: less Buddhism equals more accessibility.
This trend has been deservedly highlighted for many years: writers such as Ronald Purser and Miles Neale have pointed to the ways corporate mindfulness can operate as a “lubricant for capitalism” (Purser). Headspace proudly leans in, promoting a salvific return on investment through its workplace wellness packages. It cites 27 percent less irritable colleagues and an additional $3,000 in productivity per worker per year as two of many potential benefits. Businesses, too, can achieve their limitless potential.
With promises at once palliative and profit-maximizing, New York Times Magazine writer Jenna Wortham notes, apps like Headspace and rival Calm have seen astronomical growth over the past year. Companies have attempted to buoy their employees just enough to ride out the pandemic; now, with work and therapy residing in the same devices, our lives have become further tethered to screens. Writes Wortham, “Employees who participate in corporate wellness programs do report more job satisfaction and higher levels of happiness, but there’s as much, if not more, research that suggests that our fixation on our smartphones contributes to headaches, bad posture, fatigue, depression and anxiety.”
The talking heads behind the movement and its apps may be going at this all wrong; a secularizing strategy might not widen an audience, let alone sustain it. Headspace and Calm, wrapped up in Silicon Valley thought, will fall short of their vague, spiritual-ish missions, alienating users the way any other tech platform does. They refuse to name specific end goals for us as people (not employees) beyond “limitless potential” or “health and happiness,” meaning the textured futures we envision are certain to disappoint when they fail to fully materialize. O.K., now what? we ask the screen. User engagement doesn’t translate to fulfillment, let alone enlightenment.
That uncertainty blisters in 2021. After Tiger King, Zoom happy hours, and other fleeting distractions, pandemic burnout is approaching stratospheric levels for those who could afford to quarantine—let alone for people who, due to governmental indifference and disaster capitalism, have worked underpaying and dangerous jobs IRL, lauded glibly as “essential workers” and “heroes.” Our smartphones have many side effects, including depression and anxiety; so does the world awaiting us when we untether from our screens. The US continues to average nearly 1,000 deaths to COVID-19 per day, and vaccine nationalism keeps the coronavirus alive. A “mental gym” for making brawnier brains offered by unrelenting employers can only do so much, if anything.
The pandemic might be approaching some variant of an end. The 7:00 p.m pot-and-pan-banging ritual has passed, at least. But grief (and, for some, bewilderment) will continue to fester and spread. To meditate on Puddicombe’s sermon about Buddhist “R&D” points to a fork in the road: we can put faith in a techy incarnation of mindfulness to confront the pandemic and attendant crises, or, perhaps more compellingly, we can return to Buddhist source code, which may help us meet this moment of intractable, elemental loss. Would we really rather hear a sales pitch about neuroplasticity and lowered cortisol over the teachings of the Buddha? To what extent can an app subscription or workplace initiative reduce suffering? These questions demand a response from meditators, who are more than just consumers.
Buddhist practices aren’t transcendentalist extractions in the rearview mirror. They’re skillful means for engagement and awareness. Remembering the longevity of Buddhist practices may also bring comfort; mindfulness connects us to previous generations, who, for thousands of years, softened the gaze and the jaw and sat with themselves, doing so in the name of something beyond the here and now. Though mindfulness is largely a solitary practice, showcasing its universal and religious truths—presence, awareness, kindness—can make these practices more accessible, not less.
To expand enlightenment and eliminate suffering requires more than profitable and palliative strategies. Headspace might need a dose of anatta of its own. It should turn back to the doodly void and direct its burning questions to itself: “When was the last time you stopped, that you were still, that you put down your phone, that you got rid of all the distractions around you?”