How Buddhist monk and mindfulness teacher Gelong Thubten helped Benedict Cumberbatch to get in the right frame of mind for Doctor Strange.
Part of Doctor Strange‘s heroic character arc is transforming from an egotistical surgeon to an open-minded zen-channeling superhero. To do that, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) teaches Dr. Strange to train his mind, and the first thing he has to learn is to get out of the way of his own ego.
That is where Gelong Thubden comes in. A Buddhist monk, he specialises in mindfulness, a technique for training the mind to be more present, relaxed and positive. And he was on set during the shoot to help Cumberbatch and rest of the cast get in the right frame of mind for the movie.
“Mindfulness is a method for working with our awareness and becoming less controlled by the thoughts and emotions which can rob us of happiness and peace,” Thubten explains. “An important element in the filming was that we really meditated. I was on hand to guide the actors in the practice of mindfulness and this meant they weren’t imitating the practice, but really doing it.”
It doesn’t sound easy to reach true peace of mind on a bustling movie set under blazing hot lights, but trickier still is the idea of finding such calm in everyday life. Can we hope to manage even a little mindfulness in the odd five minutes we spend crammed on the bus, or while we’re taking a crucial time out from computer screens or our mobile devices?
Thubten thinks so. “Definitely. Mindfulness can be applied even in busy situations, and it is good to practice ‘micro-moments’ of mindfulness many times a day. This helps us to stay one step ahead of the build up of stress chemicals such as cortisol, in our body, as well as the accumulation of pressurised thinking in our mind.”
“Mindfulness can improve our brain’s chemistry,” the monk continues “This power is particularly evident in the way that it changes our relationship with stress. As human beings, we are programmed to react with a ‘fight or flight’ response when we experience a high degree of pressure. A part of the brain called the Amygdala causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which shocks us into reaction.
“When we practice mindfulness we re-train the mind to respond rather than react. We consciously set aside time to rest in the chemistry of well being, which supports our body’s immune function, as well as our inner peace. So with mindfulness, we are literally creating healthier brain and body chemistry.”
Of course, Doctor Strange’s mindfulness is just the first step on a bigger, journey, so don’t expect to be able to time warp and skip between realities by way of mindfulness. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t broaden our perspective.
“The film presents something quite remarkable,” Thubten says. “Whereas an ordinary mindfulness practitioner isn’t expecting to fly or walk into other universes, there is a powerful message here. In one sense it is about a superhero, and in another sense it is encouraging audiences to realise their own “inner” superhero or heroine, by discovering the beauty and brilliance of their own perfect minds.”