Free the Mind Professes the Power of Meditation without Exactitude


Danish director Phie Ambo, who previously made the Nicolas Winding Refn cine-portrait Gambler, set out to document the therapeutic effects of meditation after its techniques helped her recover from panic attacks. The resulting film’s advocacy of breathing exercises as an alternative to medication, especially for small children, seems medically plausible, even responsible. But Ambo’s argument is frayed by her arbitrary recommendations of meditation as a panacea for unrelated psychological difficulties. Even more baffling, the director neglects to define this culturally and geographically variable practice with any exactitude; one talking head’s description of meditation as “the study of kindness and compassion” is so insubstantial it may as well be a Zen koan. Ambo’s camera follows two PTSD-stricken ex-soldiers, Steve and Rich, as they participate in a weeklong meditation therapy, and an adorable kindergartner with ADHD named Will who slaps his own face as his classmates clap and sing. All three make compelling subjects, but the film could utilize them better by elucidating how Will’s empathy-building exercises—the kind of educational admonishments teachers pass out like carrot sticks during recess—relate to the veterans’ intense contemplation of the (rather silly) question, “Do you have a thumb, or are you your thumb?” Ambo likewise wastes her scientific experts by having them coo over the mysteries of meditation instead of explaining how compassionate thoughts alter neurochemistry. Devotees may enjoy seeing their practice in (proverbial) action, but the veterans’ therapy is too short and qualitatively evaluated to convince skeptics or would-be recruits.