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Silicon Alleys: 'My Year of Living Mindfully' Explores the Art, Science of Meditation at Cinequest

IN HER HEAD: Shannon Harvey's documentary 'My Year of Living Mindfully' explores the science and experience of meditation.

Diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and suffering through several food allergies, Australian journalist Shannon Harvey decided to see what would happen to her mental well-being if she meditated every day for one year.

In doing so, she didn't plan to end up in the Middle East, near the ravaged border of Syria and Jordan, on the front lines of a global refugee crisis. Yet this is where My Year of Living Mindfully begins. The film sees its North American premiere at Cinequest at 7pm this Thursday in Hammer Theatre.

After an initial flash-forward from day 326 of Harvey's meditative year, we go back to the beginning, with Harvey coming to understand that a worldwide epidemic of chronic stress has emerged. One-fifth to one-quarter of the world's population will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime. She longs for a solution that could be available to anyone, anywhere, at any time, regardless of income, education or busy schedule. She tries to sort through the overwhelming swath of wellness programs, corporate mindfulness marketing schemes and the ubiquity of 21st century meditation tools, all the while wondering if meditation really does help to ease suffering and promote physical and mental healing.

As a result, Harvey undertakes a one-year experiment with herself as the subject, yet we also get to hear from the doctors, scientists, authors, therapists and meditation practitioners that she interviews in the process. It becomes an inspirational journey, like Harvey revealing a portion of her private journals so the audience can come along for the ride and find their own way home.

In a few scenes, we even get to see Harvey having second thoughts, wondering if the whole experiment was a good idea or not. She speaks into the camera, confessing her doubts. This is a snapshot of what also often happens when one meditates. You witness firsthand your own crushing self-doubt, the scourges of your inner critic, and the ways you fixate on the past and worry about the future. Then without judging those thoughts, you try to focus on your breath and remain in the current moment. Eventually with enough practice, you become better equipped to refrain from acting on those thoughts during everyday life, leading to a better relationship with your own trauma.

Thankfully, Harvey also addresses the rampant mass-marketing of mindfulness, which makes it hard for skeptics to take it seriously. This is a formidable obstacle, especially in the high-stress overworked hell hole of Silicon Valley, where the commodification of mindfulness presents meditation as a fix-it scheme from the East that will magically solve everyone's problems. So much mindfulness advice is on offer, that it's hard for any newbie to get started, or even figure out who to trust. Mindfulness is in classrooms, boardrooms, yoga studios, airplanes, supermarkets and convention centers. Meditation has now transformed from an ancient Buddhist practice into a billion-dollar industry. Harvey calls this the "chicken pot pie" version of mindfulness, a vastly different situation from what she reads about in prestigious scientific journals while she preps for her year-long experiment.

To maintain a proper perspective, Harvey sets up interviews with 18 of the top mindfulness scientists and takes initial MRIs, EEGs and similar tests, all to have results in hand before she embarks on her year of meditation. Six researchers then come on board to track every aspect of her health and well-being over the course of that year while she meditates every day.

In the process, we see footage with a variety of experts, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) and Matthieu Ricard, the famous French-Tibetan Buddhist monk, known as the happiest person in the world. Another hero appears in the form of Nightline anchor Dan Harris, who in 2004 had a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America. Initially a meditation skeptic, Harris went through bouts of drug addiction before writing books about how meditation moved him toward a happier life.

Especially as Harvey investigates mindfulness-based trauma recovery among African refugees in the Middle East, the viewer becomes even more empathetic and inseparable from Harvey's experiment. Even though the mindful year in question was Harvey's own subjective experience, by the time the film concludes, audiences will feel like it was their year too.