Review: ‘The Mindfulness Movement,’ starring Jewel, Deepak Chopra, Fleet Maull, Sharon Salzberg, Dan Harris and Daniel Goleman

April 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sharon Salzberg in “The Mindfulness Movement” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama/Mangurama)

“The Mindfulness Movement”

Directed by Rob Beemer

Culture Representation: Focused primarily on U.S. ventures, the documentary “The Mindfulness Movement” interviews several people (mostly upper-middle class/wealthy and predominantly white, with some people of color) who advocate for reaching a higher consciousness through meditation and group therapy.

Culture Clash: The mindfulness movement believes in the power of positive thinking and discourages self-medicating through abusing drugs and alcohol.

Culture Audience: “The Mindfulness Movement” will appeal primarily to people already inclined to engage in new-age lifestyles, but everyone else might be bored or turned off by the “infomercial” tone of the movie.

Fleet Maull (pictured at far left) in “The Mindfulness Movement” (Photo courtesy of Abramorama/Mangurama)

“The Mindfulness Movement,” directed by Rob Beemer, is less of a documentary and more of a parade of mindfulness movement advocates who have money-making ventures that they’re promoting in the movie. Whether it’s their wellness program, therapy business, research institute, book, app or hi-tech gadget, the goal is all the same: They want people to buy or financially support what they’re selling.

The mindfulness movement preaches that meditation is one of the essential elements of the movement. And yet the irony of all the shilling in the movie is the fact that meditation can be done for free. But don’t tell that to potential customers, or else most of the people interviewed in this movie would be out of business.

The message of the mindfulness movement certainly should be applauded, because it’s about self-improvement in healthy, positive ways and having more self-respect, which then extends to respecting others and leading happier lives. However, these beliefs have been around for centuries in many cultures (and was touted in Western mainstream culture by the 1960s hippie movement), but the mindfulness movement tries to dress up this ideology as something that’s relatively new.

The documentary (which is narrated by actress Jewel Greenberg) shows that an entire industry has sprouted up around the mindfulness movement, which seems to have a lot of self-congratulatory people who act as if they’re doing something modern and groundbreaking in presenting centuries-old concepts to the public. Much of the counseling and advice that the movement’s entrepreneurs are selling is the same information that can be found online for free. There are also numerous free services that people can find that do the exact same things that people get charged fees for under the “mindfulness” label.

Multimillionaire spiritual guru Deepak Chopra and Grammy-nominated singer Jewel (who appear briefly in the film) are two of the executive producers of “The Mindfulness Movement.” It’s essentially a movie that features a lot of boring interviews with mostly middle-aged people and senior citizens, who are millionaires or who have six-figure incomes, preaching to people on how they can live better lives through the mindfulness movement. And by they way, here’s the book, therapy program, or fill-in-the blank they want to sell too.

If this movie wants to reach a wider audience (in other words, the general public) with its message, it did a very inadequate job of it because most of the people chosen for the documentary’s interviews are not relatable to most of the public. Most of the interviewees are at a certain level of income that most people in the world do not have. Essentially, the movie looks like it was made for the demographic of people who can afford to do things such as pay for new-age training seminars or buy trendy high-tech gadgets that are supposed to measure their “consciousness brain waves.”

Some of the people in the movie tell their hard-luck sob stories to make themselves seem more relatable to the “common folks” who don’t have the money to go on the type of week-long meditation retreats that the mindfulness movement likes to sell. Jewel repeats the well-known story about her abusive father and her unhappy childhood that led to her leaving home at 15 and being homeless for at least a year before she found fame and fortune in her early 20s with her 1995 multimillion-selling debut album “Pieces of You.” She gives credit to the mindfulness movement’s concept of positive thinking for why she has inner peace. For example, she says, that instead of thinking, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” it’s better to think, “I’m capable of learning.”

George Mumford, author of “The Mindful Athlete,” talks about how he was a promising basketball player at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where Julius “Dr. J” Erving was his roommate) until an ankle injury ended his basketball dreams. Mumford then began abusing drugs and alcohol and eventually cleaned up his act before becoming a (no doubt well-paid) consultant who worked with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in their basketball heydays.

ABC News correspondent/weekend anchor Dan Harris repeats the same story he’s told many times about his notorious panic attack on the air in 2004, which he later used 10 years later to parlay into a book deal about his therapy in the mindfulness movement. In the documentary, Harris says that the on-air panic attack (where he basically just stumbled over his words for less than a minute) was one of the worst things that ever happened to him. (Such a hard life!) He also said that he was regularly doing cocaine and Ecstasy at the time, and he didn’t realize until a doctor told him later that those drugs probably had something to do with the panic attack. (And this guy is supposed to be an informed journalist.)

Fleet Maull, who founded the Prison Mindfulness Institute to help prisoners, was also caught up in drugs before he turned his life around with a mindfulness lifestyle. During a group therapy session with inmates at John J. Moran Medium Security Facility in Rhode Island, Maull shares a personal story about how he was incarcerated for many years because of cocaine trafficking. He says that the mindfulness lifestyle worked for him in prison and was even more beneficial to him outside of prison. Maull’s institute is one of the few in the documentary that’s geared to an audience that’s not the norm (prisoners) for the mindfulness movement. However, most of the other businesses in the mindfulness movement are definitely by and for a certain class of people.

The other mindfulness movement advocates who are interviewed in the documentary include Insight Meditation Society co-founder Sharon Salzberg; “Emotional Intelligence” author Daniel Goleman; SelfWorks Group Therapy Professionals owner Amy Vigliotti; Aetna mindfulness chief officer Andy Lee; Richard Goerling of the Mindful Badge Initiative; 1440 Multiversity founder Scott Kriens; Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute CEO Rich Fernandez; Mindful Warrior Project executive director Gail Sofer; and Ohio U.S. Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat who wrote the book “Mindful Nation.”

There are also several academics interviewed in the film, including Richard Dawson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds; Diana Winston of UCLA’s Mindfulness Research Center; Harvard Business School fellow Bill George; and the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness founder Jon Kabat-Zinn, who says he created the concept of mindfulness-based stress reduction.

And the movie also shows some of the technology gadgets that are being sold as part of the mindfulness movement. Interaxon founder Ariel Garten is interviewed and there’s a segment in the movie that promotes an Interaxon product called Muse, which is basically a high-tech meditation headband. There’s also mention of virtual-reality options that can help people have more immersive and more sensory experiences in meditation.

But really, there’s no proof that doing high-tech mediation (which costs money) achieves better results than meditating the old-fashioned way: for free. It’s just another example of how this documentary doesn’t point out this obvious fact, and the movie bends over backwards to give a platform to people who want to make money from this movement.

The best parts of the movie are when it goes beyond interviewing the privileged group of people who are looking to make money from the movement and shows how the movement’s positive concepts can reach people who can’t hang out for several hours a day with mediation/therapy groups. For example, Jewel visits some teenage school children to talk to them about how mindfulness can help improve self-confidence. The movie needed more of this type of “real world” interaction instead of overstuffing the film with a lot of dull and pretentious interviews.

Another example of the documentary showing some interaction in the real world is a segment on Patterson High School in Baltimore. Principal Vance M. Benton, who is interviewed, talks about how giving the students time to meditate has seemingly helped them improve. And there are brief interviews with California police officers Eric White and Jennifer Tejada of the Emeryville Police Department, who give testimonials about how meditation has helped them become better cops.

To its credit, “The Mindfulness Movement” does cover a diversity of professions that are involved in this movement. However, the movie would be more appealing if it had less talk and more action. And by action, that doesn’t mean just filming people sitting around and meditating or being lectured to about how they can improve their lives.

For example, Mindful Warrior Project founder/executive director Gail Sofer works with military veterans in the Los Angeles area who have post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental-health issues. Instead of just interviewing her, the movie could have included more time (instead of a few soundbites that last less than a minute) talking to the people that the program is supposed to benefit (and their family members/loved ones), so viewers can get more real-life examples of how the program works. A movie like this needed more case studies and less bragging from people about what they know about the mindfulness movement.

The movie also visits the offices of Mindful magazine/Mindful.org, where art director Jessica von Handorf says of the editorial images they choose: “One thing we try to avoid is ‘bliss face,’ which is someone in a state of ecstasy. You see a lot of that in advertising.” She explains the reality of mindfulness: “Mindfulness can be gritty. It can be celebratory. It can be hard.”

And therein lies the movie’s biggest flaw. Although it might have good intentions for promoting the mindfulness movement, the movie is one big “bliss face” for the movement, by presenting this very calculated, “one size fits all” view that tries to make the movement look like a perfect, happy solution to people’s problems. But “perfect” is not realistic. And unfortunately, a lot of the people who are interviewed in the movie lack the charisma to make this a compelling film to watch.

It also doesn’t help that several methods that the movement endorses are basically repackaging and selling of concepts that people can get for free. It’s why the tone of the film is very much like an ad campaign. Regardless of how anyone feels about the platitudes expressed in the movie, one thing’s for sure about “The Mindfulness Movement”—watching it is a good cure for insomnia.

Abramorama and Mangurama released “The Mindfulness Movement” on digital and VOD on April 10, 2020.