Sometime in 2016, Jon Leland became enraptured with Jeff Bridges’ Sleeping Tapes, a strange but soothing album wherein the Dude, who is a meditator and student of Zen philosophy, intones quirky affirmations over a bed of crackly sound, overlaid with the evocative gurgles of brooks and whispers of wind. Affirmations such as: “I like your haircut… you matter to many people… you have strong hands capable of woodworking… you smell nice… you order well at restaurants… you have excellent insights about popular movies…” Leland was especially struck by a meditations that takes the listener along on a hike to Los Angeles’ Temescal Canyon, and at one point, invites them to pretend to be a crow. At the time, he was also obsessively amassing facts about the pangolin, an “adorable” scaly endangered creature which resembles an armadillo and an anteater.
Animal Meditations is also popular among a circle of DJs in Germany, who put it to use as a comedown track for exhausted ravers at the end of the night.
Back then, Leland was the director of strategy and insights at Kickstarter and a climate change activist with a stint working at the Natural Resources Defence Council. He was also a veteran meditator who used to go on regular retreats with spiritual leaders such as Ram Dass. One day, when Leland came home to find his girlfriend having a panic attack, he combined his two enthusiasms–meditation and pangolin facts–to try and help her out. He decided to take her through the experience of being a pangolin. In a calm, soothing voice, he spoke about what it would feel like to be a small, scaly body. How it would feel to move slowly down a tree branch, gripping it with the long claws on your forelimbs. “It worked,” he recalls. “By the end, she was in a much better place.”
The experience was fun and inspiring. And Leland wanted to put it to use to generate more empathy for the inhabitants of the threatened biosphere. So he roped in five close friends from Wesleyan University to pitch in with sound design, voiceovers, and research, and got to work. As a Kickstarter employee, the natural first step for Leland was a fundraiser. This, he thought, might drum up interest and an audience. As he and his friends already had day jobs, they did not, however, need money. The podcast would only cost them some of their free time. So they decided to solicit $1 from 100 people. They wound up raising $1500 from 256 backers across 30 countries. Leland was relieved to see there might be enthusiasm for what he wanted to create. “I felt nervous, and a little vulnerable,” he says. “It felt like a strangely sincere thing.”
In 2020, six months into a nerve-racking pandemic, the proposition of a soothing podcast does not seem so odd. Earlier this year, before the pandemic even began, TechCrunch reported that the top 10 meditation apps had experienced a bump of more than 50 percent in revenue in 2019, compared to 2018. And a recent poll by Deezer noted a spike in listenership among American users, 53 percent of whom sought out content related to mindfulness, self-improvement, and relaxation to help them through lockdowns.
Elements of a good animal meditation
Leland and his friends—Colin Everest, Jake Hudson, David Rood-Ojalvo, Sam Fleischner, and Pete Hoy—have made three seasons of the guided meditation podcast, Animal Meditations‘ since 2016; about 20 episodes in total. Production unfolds at a sloth-like leisurely pace, with each episode taking about four months to come together. Each episode is under eight minutes. They feature the voices of a varied pool of contributors, including filmmakers like Brent Katz and singers like Daniela Gesundheit. The latter, who pitched and stars in the humpback whale meditation, emits a convincing approximation of whale song (to the non-cetacean ear at least).
That one is among their top five most listened to episodes to date. Other popular episodes plunge you into the sensoria of a three-toed sloth and the octopus. Numbers are difficult to track, but, on Soundcloud alone, around 2800 people have listened to the octopus meditation, while 2500 people have listened to the three-toed sloth episode, and 1260 have listened to the humpback whale meditation. This April, the podcaster Eleanor McDowall (who has also been featured on Timber) recommended the humpback whale episode on CBC’s Podcast Playlist, calling it a “wonderful world to disappear into.”
Over time, Leland and his team have gained a strong sense of the elements that make up a good animal meditation. First, it has to take place in real-time, not feature highlights from across an animal’s lifespan. Second, it has to involve a specific species in a specific location or landscape. And third, it has to be intensively researched to ensure that it is as “physically and psychologically realistic and accurate” as possible. An ideal Animal Meditations episode is purely non-narrative. Not much happens. And not much happens very, very slowly. With light music and minimal sound effects that conjure the ambient sense of an environment.
Colin Everest, who handles sound design and scoring, says he was inspired by an essay titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, which lays out the challenge and ultimate impossibility of conjuring the subjective nature of animal consciousness. “He concludes that nobody can know what it’s like to be a bat,” says Everest. “But we’re trying to bridge that gap, using everything we know about that subjective experience.” He thinks about the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s observation that the protagonist of Bambi was a human “redeerized.” “I try to not make it the consciously human experience of being another animal,” he adds, “It’s the animal.”
Part of this approach entails avoiding a “Disneyfication” of the animal experience. “You can imagine how that would sound in the leopard and panther episodes,” he says. “Lots of leaping and growling.” The episode about the three-toed sloth, for instance, features nothing more than a bit of music and the chirping of birds. Howler monkeys are mentioned, but not heard. “You know how, on podcasts, someone says, ‘and then I called up blank,’ and you hear the ringing of a phone?” Everest says, “They need to stop doing that!” He prefers radio that “avoids such assaultive exposure to stimuli,” and thinks the influx of VC money might have encouraged the addition of superfluous “doodads” such as heavy handed sound effects. He prefers a more “non-interventionist” approach.
Occasionally, the sound design is inspired by a specific context. For instance, the Roman Snail episode, which was released as a bonus for Kickstarter subscribers, was heavily influenced by listening to ASMR videos. It’s fuzzy with a gentle staticky sound, and punctuated by a soft thud, like a heartbeat. “Snails experience vibrations,” Everest explains. “They experience sound very differently, so we wanted to create a sensation that evokes an environment, not plop a grotesque-but-accurate sound effect on top of the guided meditation.”
Early last year, they designed a special episode for a live event at On Air Fest, performed by the journalist Ashley C Ford. It featured cicadas and was accompanied by live keyboard and cello compositions.“I chose cicadas because I wanted something communal and musical,” Leland says. “And I grew up hearing them, in DC.”
Seeds-in-the-wind approach to audience growth
Leland and Everest favor an “organic” approach to audience growth. Literally. “The episodes are like seeds in the wind, borne along the internet,” says Leland. “It doesn’t have to be a giant thing. It’s a tiny thing that ripples through the world, organically. That flies off into the air and lands up in Australia, the UK.” Part of it is intentional. The six-member team does not aggressively push the podcast, because they all have full-time jobs and lack the “bandwidth” for consistent promotional efforts. But they are also aware that every episode is “evergreen.” So they enjoy a far longer lifespan than, say, a daily news dispatch.
Over time, Animal Meditations has been put to use by a few very distinct groups in a few very distinct contexts. (Strangely enough, these groups and contexts do not extend to the meditation community, who have nonetheless been introduced to the podcast.) Parents with young and anxious children like it, because it’s soothing, functional, and has an educational component. Mothers-to-be are also regular users. They listen to the podcast during birthing classes. “It’s useful for being in and not in your body,” Leland adds. Animal Meditations is also popular among a circle of DJs in Germany, who put it to use as a comedown track for exhausted ravers at the end of the night.
In four years of its existence, their sound has gotten distinctive and particular enough they’ve even inspired the occasional parody. Someone recently sent along an Animal Meditations episode from the point of view of a worm blasting itself into space. “It was joyful and strange,” Everest says. “I hope we get widespread enough that we’re ridiculously parodied.” In the future, they’re planning to put together a fourth season. They have one script so far—a butterfly meditation. They welcome more pitches.
Editor’s Note: I was listening to this episode with headphones in my office when my young daughter flung the door open. She tends to have an anxious personality and was obviously feeling high-strung when she barreled in. I plopped my headphones onto her head and watched her instantly melt in relaxation. I’m a fan.