Mindfulness, prudently scraped of its religious connotations, has been touted as a panacea for modern ills. It can combat despair, alleviate panic, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, boost productivity and foster contentment. Previously accessed under the guidance of a skilled teacher, it’s now more likely to be found via a podcast, where the brand leader is Headspace. Satori delivered straight to your phone.
Does it work as telly, though? Four 30-minute programmes over successive nights labelled “Breathe”, “Change”, “Joy” and “Rest” form a collaboration with the BBC’s Natural History Unit and Headspace, combining soothing visuals from the natural world with light-as-air ruminations from Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe. “Each new breath offers the potential for a calmer, kinder, clearer mind,” he says encouragingly. Who wouldn’t want that?
Yet it proves hard to switch off the thinking mind. Luscious images of the natural world doing its amazing thing unaccompanied by the familiar voice of David Attenborough just feels weird. Though Puddicombe doesn’t actually say this, presumably we’re meant to lay aside our mental habits of cataloguing and labelling for the moment. However, the lack of information about the incredible animals we’re seeing can turn the less nature-orientated into The Mighty Boosh’s zoologically challenged Bob Fossil. Oh look, a fluffy tree-sleeper! A bouncing man-shape! A hook-fingered spook-face!
Puddicombe’s narration is cleverly calibrated to resist fleeting associations. An actor would have sounded actorly, a beautiful voice would be a distraction. Puddicombe sounds classless, ageless, regionally non-specific. When he’s not speaking, electronica that’s probably been carefully engineered to sound generic alternates with swishing waves, rustling forests, wind and weather, squeaks and cheeps. Puddicombe talks about “a sense of direction” as a salmon impels itself upstream; vibrant autumn colours allow us to “witness the passing of time”; frogs clinging to leaves in a downpour lead him to inform us that we can “cut through the clutter even in the eye of the storm”.
Sometimes Andy’s thoughts engage the mind in distracting ways. Is “joy that unites us” really what’s going on when emus offer rides to colourful birds? “In slowing down, we let go of the past,” he assures us. Not exactly what happened in lockdown. Abundant funny penguins, tumbling polar bear cubs and sporting dolphins are guaranteed to lift the spirits, but some scenes merely draw attention to how carefully curated the whole experience is. No intimations of nature red in tooth and claw can be permitted; no turtles choking on plastic straws, or hints at rising sea levels. The beetle being amusingly squished with water by a playful fish is going to be chomped. That baby elephant chasing birds looks unnervingly like a toddler stomping pigeons. It’s all right, just . . . breathe.
On BBC4 from September 7 at 7pm
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