Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.
Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.

Big Screen, Big Life

How the cinema fosters mindfulness

I'm a meditation dropout.

I know the benefits of mindfulness meditation. As an educator and psychologist, I study and teach the benefits of mindfulness as psychological treatment. I have books on mindfulness. I have manuals. I've watched mindfulness videos and attended mindfulness lectures. I even have mindfulness flashcards. And I've tried sitting still, for 5 minutes.

Donald Tong/Pexels
Source: Donald Tong/Pexels

But a movie practice? That I can commit to. During Oscar season I average two movies a week. I tote a movie bag, with slippers and an extra sweater. If my local cinema offered a Platinum Loyalty Card, I would have it.

Fortunately for those of us who don't respond well to the quiet lotus position, mindfulness practice can take many forms. For me, watching a movie is meditation.

Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994), founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, means "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" (p. 4). Mindfulness detaches us from worries, aids perspective and allows us to experience the fullness of life without being overwhelmed. No wonder it has become the buzzword of mental health and an integral component of a range of psychotherapy approaches.

The best way I have found to experience mindfulness is to leave my life at home, go – by myself, midweek matinee if possible – to the temple of the cinema, turn my phone off, and when, on cue, the large neon letters on the screen flash "Embrace Silence," settle in for the ride.

For two hours, I give myself over to the life on the big screen. The immersion cleanses my mind of my own life, makes me pay attention, then releases me to see my own life afresh.

What movies do for me is make me notice.

Think of the feeling you have immediately after a film. Credits are rolling, lights are still dim, you exit slowly. Everything around you seems new.

THIS is mindfulness.

For me, this is the magical time -- the time I milk and extend through movie meditation. I stay quiet and notice:

“After viewing a movie at the Nitro theatre, I walk down the dimly lit hallway. I notice big purple numbers on a green background. Were they there before? I notice the sound my shoes make on the pavement as I walk to the car, and how the blue vehicle gets larger as I walk toward it. I notice the red Art Deco letters on the marquee: Great Escape. A man stands in a hoodie waiting for his ride. I notice everything.”

After drinking in images, sounds, textures and smells, I often end my session at a coffee shop and indulge in Part II of my practice. I place my own life on the screen and I write what I observe in the third person. Here’s a sample from my movie journal:

“She notices the window sill, brick red against blue, the windows across the street, and the big red mug in front of her frothing with whipped cream. She notices the thoughts in her head, the chatter of conversations behind her, the hug to the right of her that still lingers in the air – two women, very happy, excited about something, saying goodbye.”

This writing helps me look at my life in cinematic terms, and moves me into the strengthening part of my practice. The reason I call this strengthening practice is that, when we think of our lives in cinematic (artistic) terms, challenges become meaningful, conflict adds richness, villains in some form are essential, and – we can just handle more.

Think about it. Would you go to a movie in which everyone had everything they needed and just lived out a satisfying two hours? I don’t think so. Would you go to a movie advertising predictable outcomes and freedom from suspense? Probably not.

Is there a way we could better appreciate – and even enjoy – the cinematic quality of our lives? Let’s look at some key movie elements. Consider how they are playing out in the screenplay of your life (you may want to take notes):

Pietro Jeng/Pexels
Source: Pietro Jeng/Pexels

1. Conflict – According to Elliot Grove, founder of the Raindance writers lab and film festival, the best movies have both an outer problem and an inner problem. What outer problem are you trying to resolve? Usually that outer problem comes with an inner problem or conflict. What is your inner problem? Consider that this is not just what makes your life difficult, but it is what makes your life interesting.

1. Plot Thickener - In a movie, the protagonist’s quest to resolve the problem is never simple. And just when it seems everything is resolved, what happens? The plot thickens. Something happens to test the protagonist’s resolve. Or everything gets turned around and a new challenge must be met. I find it very helpful to think of life’s upsets as plot thickener. What plot thickeners that have gotten in the way of your quest? The disruption may be small like the wedding day zit in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or significant, like a break up of loss of a job. Thicker plots make stronger characters.

2. Character - In a good movie the characters are complex and they are flawed. We often work so hard to overcome our flaws that we forget that these are the very features that make us loveable. Think about the confessions of love in a movie. You are not likely to hear, “I love you because you are a conventional beauty" or "I love you because you always have the right answer." Jimmy Fallon’s character in Fever Pitch says, "I like how sometimes you talk out of the side of your mouth a little bit. And it's like - it's like an adorable stroke victim.” This kind of love confession refers to quirky stamps of individuality, ones the character may even be ashamed of. What are yours? Try writing a confession of love to yourself, including those stamps of individuality. As a prompt, start with “I love the way you…”

3. The Full Catastrophe - Life is not always a romantic comedy. Kabat-Zinn's seminal work with stress and pain encouraged patients to accept the "full catastrophe" of living rather than resisting. Movies can give us strength in the face of pain as well. The cinema can serve as what psychoanalysts call a "holding environment" -- a safe place to experience emotions that are too big to handle alone. This is what a therapist does for a client. Seeing the emotion mirrored on the screen helps lifts the burden. It is why crying at movies can be so humanizing. Looking at our lives cinematically infuses us with strength. We can tolerate a great deal in a movie – crisis, Bridget Jones-level embarrassment, and mostly, we tolerate not knowing how everything will be resolved. We know, somehow, that it's going to turn out -- maybe not perfectly, but that we will be different in the end.

The author Joseph Conrad, whose novels inspired movies such as Apocolypse Now, said, “My task which I am trying to achieve make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything." Jon Kabat-Zinn said that mindfulness helps people experience, “the poignant enormity of our life experience."

Movies help us see and experience more. And I think that's worth the price of a ticket.


Conrad, J. (1990). The Nigger of the Narcissus and The Secret Sharer. Stilwell, KS: Publishing.

Grove, E. (2016, March 7). 10 common elements of award-winning screenplays. Retrieved from…

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Bantam Books.

About the Author
Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.

Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., is an author and clinical psychologist studying the relationship between personality and culture. She is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the Ross University School of Medicine.

More from Psychology Today

More from Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today