Bruce Parry on mindfulness, activism and revisiting Tribe

Can mindfulness save the planet? Or does a focus on inward transformation risk depoliticising viewers? 

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In the mid 2000s, Bruce Parry's BBC series Tribe helped turn anthropology into prime-time viewing. Tripping on jungle-drugs and drinking the blood of sacrificial bulls made Parry’s name around the world. Yet a reputation for macho derring-do failed to bring the presenter peace of mind. Sipping tea in the lounge of a central London hotel, Parry tells me how these experiences precipitated a form of breakdown.

Tribe was a very high octane, stimulating overload," he says. “I was surfing the wave of stimulation, going to all these different places, and then coming back and leading a celebrated life here." 

Then when he took some time away to film a series in the Arctic, it became clear that something was very wrong: “Suddenly I found myself on the Greenland plateau, walking every day for three months, with no stimulation at all. It’s like being in detention where there’s nothing to grapple with apart from your own mind – and I realised my mind was out of control.”

The result of these reflections is a new, feature-length film, Tawai: a voice from the forest, which sees Parry revisit the tribe that affected him most all those years ago: the Penan of Borneo.

In this new format, Parry is as charming a tour-guide as ever (he casually says “I’ll have the same” as we order our drinks at the hotel, giving the impression being easy and amenable is his default state). Yet Tawai is clearly a more troubling story than that told in Tribe, and Parry is a more troubled man.

“My biggest feeling when I walking down the river towards them was ‘Oh my God – I think it’s actually worse than when I was here before’,” he says of the deforestation and pipeline-construction that continue to threaten the Penan’s way of life.

Parry’s own culpability in the global, consumer-driven economy driving this change clearly weighs on his conscience. As do other aspects of the Penan’s life he overlooked on his earlier encounter: “Even though the strap line to my Tribe films was ‘Bruce Parry, One of the Tribe’, I realised that I had always been looking at them through the prism of my own scientific mind,” he says, “I’d always had a ‘Yeah, but we know better now’ kind of attitude.”

He now hopes to persuade Tawai’s viewers that the path to a happier, more meaningful existence lies in transforming the way we see the world – and ourselves. From the meditative hunting rituals of the Penan tribe, to the religious teachings of Sadhus on the banks of the River Ganges, he is keen to make the case for the overlooked art of self-reflection, or “Mindfulness” as it has become known in the West.

“When I was first doing the Tribe programs I had no idea about these things and wasn't really interested in them particularly,” he says of the thinking behind meditation and mindfulness. “I’d had experiences of the interconnected cosmos and stuff when doing some of the jungle medicines – but I'd always just put it in a box and labelled it 'You've just done a drug'”.

Yet after his trip to Greenland this attitude changed; he came to the realisation that he was addicted to stimulation and took up meditation on the advice of a friend: “In the journey of learning to meditate I realised that so much of my need to consume and to live this fast moving life, was born about as a result of stuff that was going on inside me.”

“The net result was that I was calmer, I was able to be more still, and I didn't need to run around consuming. And that also made me realise: wow, there's something in this for us all. Because as a society at large we are rushing around, consuming, and being distracted, and we are a lot of us carrying a lot of pain, culturally.”

His honesty is beguiling. But as Parry forms his thesis, the film's leaps from personal salvation to political healing often feel like they may be skipping over a few steps. The film doesn’t spent much time exploring the way indigenous activists are fighting to stop the dams and pipelines, for instance.

So I ask Parry if he worries that, by focusing on inner growth, mindfulness might risk neglecting more concrete action in the political world? Can meditation really save the planet?

“It's a really good question and it’s about balance,” he responds. “When I went down the Amazon it was so clear to me that I could have got involved with the NGOs or the activists, and talked even more about the cocaine, or the soil, or the logging, or the slavery. But while these issues all incredibly important … it struck me that there was a deeper problem: and that's us in our society.”

“It's actually not very likely that [looking inside more] is suddenly going to have everyone disappearing on their own inner journey. But what it might do is allow us to see ourselves in a broader context; it might allow us to see ourselves as part of it,” he says. “If I go away and do a five day meditation retreat (which before I would just have thought what a selfish, self-indulgent waste of time), I come out clearly wanting to reconnect with my family and clearly wanting to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

Where this argument appears to go slightly awry, however, is in the connection Parry is keen to build with the ideas of British neuroscientist, Dr Iain McGilchrist. Neither in the film nor in interviewing Parry, can I quite grasp whether McGilchrist is arguing that the brain’s two hemispheres are both needed to achieve feelings of interconnectivity with the world, or just the one side? And is this dichotomy the same for Asian cultures as it is for the West?

Despite this, however, the idealism of Parry’s quest still pulls me through the film. He is an undeniably likeable travel companion and his willingness to acknowledge where he has gone wrong before – both in this film’s lack of female voices, and in his earlier work – is redeeming.

So while his new plan to start an eco-community in Wales also fills me with slight trepidation (note Channel 4’s recent Eden debacle), I can’t wait to see what his idealism leads him to next.

“Especially if I want to have kids, it takes a community to raise a child, and right now I'm displaced. So I want to find that. And that doesn't mean to say I couldn't go to a lovely village and find wonderful community there too - I’m not in any way casting aspersion on the wonderful communities that are already here – but I’m not a member of one yet”, he explains. “And if other people are up for the egalitarianism and all of that too – I think there's something in it.” 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.