A Mindful Man

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Behind every successful project, there is at least one human being with powerful attributes. The attributes vary. It can be determination, vision, energy, patience…. Or it can be mindfulness – hard to miss it in those who managed to take the practice of meditation to a level where it starts leaving traces. The good kind. And that’s Andy Puddicombe’s mojo: an aura of serenity that surrounds him. His presence relaxes even the most tense interlocutor, and a smile is constantly blooming on his face. A former ordained Buddhist monk who wrote books on meditation and mindfulness, loves surfing, and snowboarding, Andy is also the co-founder and the more visible part of Headspace – the online project designed to demystify meditation.

Andy laughs a lot. A steady, controlled but honest burst of organic joy that seems to be part of his being, just as frowning is part of a bankrupt broker’s. You don’t have to be in the same room to notice all this, it exudes through every TED talk, GetSomeHeadpace video, interview, photo out there. Even through a long distance phone call.

During the 30 minutes we talked to Andy, it was less about meditation and mindfulness, for the simple reason that Headspace does it better than you can imagine. They are animated and explained in detail. The videos and graphics can soften the most reluctant mind, and train the busiest person, because Headspace is on a mission to get as many people in the world as possible to take 10 minutes out of their day, to practice a simple and easy-to-learn meditation technique. Chances are those first 10 minutes are the beginning of a healthy addiction.

We talked to Andy about successful projects, decisive moments, straightforward animation, change, happiness, and juggling, of course. But let’s take 30, and see what he shared with us.

What triggered Headspace? Is there a story behind it? A decisive moment? A light bulb moment?

I was living as a Buddhist monk in Moscow, in Russia. And I was invited by one of the senior executives from an oil company to go and to speak to his executives about meditation and how to release stress. When I went, I realized very quickly that a bald headed man dressed in a skirt was not a very good vehicle. It’s very difficult for men in suits and ties to relate to a man in a skirt. The language and the tone that I was used to using in the monastery wasn’t the same language that these people were using, so it got me thinking, OK, how can this be presented in a different way? It was about 3 years later, when I met the co-founder of Headspace, Richard Pierson, who comes from a new brand development background, and he had an amazing experience with meditation. We both thought, how can we present meditation in a way that our friends would genuinely give it a try? Richard had all these creative skills, and I had the experience as a monk. I think that was the light bulb moment with Headspace, the coming together of those two backgrounds.

How many users do you have at Headspace?

I don’t know exactly. I know we’ve passed the 800 000 mark. It’s going up quite quickly now. We’re approaching a million users.

Do you have any insights on what kind of users tend to be more consistent with their meditation practice? iOS, Android, web?

It’s really interesting. In terms of demographics, I think it’s surprising for a lot of people: 55% female, 45% men. It’s a lot higher for the men than most people would expect. In terms of the overall usership, it’s a pretty evenly split between the ages of 20 and 80. And there’s a definite bulk between the ages of 20 and 45, so young professionals with young families tend to be the most common users. 70 – 80 % are on iPhones or Mac products.
In terms of engagement, we mainly have 62% of active users who use Headspace every one to three days. We thought people would use it once or twice a week and actually, a lot of people are using it every one or two days.

How much of Headspace's success would you blame on the amazing user experience, graphics, videos, animation?

If you ask me, I’d say that’s a massive part of it. If you’d ask Rich, my business partner, he tends to say ‘no, it’s the content’. I think both of us look at it through a different lens. I think the graphics and the animations – the look and the feel of the brand -, immediately break down all the barriers and misconceptions that people have about meditation. Essentially, they open the door. What the content does is to walk you through the door. Hopefully, the content gives people a good reason to stay in the room. So, the content is about the stickiness, and the engagement, helping people to stay with it, and the animation, the graphics are creating a friendly warm environment people want to come into.

What is the daily routine in the Headspace headquarters? How do you integrate meditation or mindfulness practices in the working day?

Everyone has their own personal practice, which most people do at home. One thing that I know they do in the UK office – where there are about 30 of them right now – is to ‘take 10’ together. There’s a central room where people can go and meditate any time during the day. We genuinely believe that it’s not only good for the people’s health and employee morale, but we know for a fact that people are more efficient and productive in the workplace when they take time away from their desk rather than feeling like they have to keep themselves looking busy, doing nothing.

When it comes to meditation, what would you advise somebody who works 10 hours a day in an office with hundreds of other people, artificial light and tight deadlines? And they don’t have a special room.

There are a number of different options. For example, on the new platform that we’re launching next month (A/N October 2013), that is actually something called an SOS, which is a two minute exercise to do if you’re feeling particularly stressed and in need of something you can even do that at your desk. It’s such a short exercise that it doesn’t require you to sit in any special way, not even to close your eyes. That would be one thing.

Another thing I encourage people to do is to step away from the desk. There is this idea, that if we’re not at the desk, we’ll be frowned upon. But, again, it depends on the environment we’re in. If it’s possible, go outside, even outside of the office. Some people have meeting rooms, which are quite often free, so you can use those. It’s possible to go and find space in a local park. I know people in London who work in really busy offices and, I’m not recommending this, but you can even go to the restroom to take those 10 minutes. You can do it commuting, on the way to work, on the way home from work. There are lots of times in the day when we think we’re busy, but actually we could use the time a little bit better, a bit smarter.

What is Clinical Meditation?

We can look at meditation from three perspectives: preventative, management and treatment. From a consumer point of view, we tend to encourage the preventative side: ‘here’s a great way to stay healthy’. It moves into the clinical context when you start looking at the management of symptoms or the treatment of symptoms. Typically, that involves going to see a specialist, sometimes in a small group of people, but more often, it’s a one-to-one situation. It’s still using the foundation of mindfulness, but it’s giving it context and it’s helping the person through a combination of meditation and talking therapy to make it more relevant to a particular situation or particular health symptoms.

I’m increasingly restless and I noticed that juggling is my favourite way of relaxation. I juggle with lemons. Do you still juggle?

I learned to juggle at about the same time I learned meditation. I was 10 or 11. My mom taught me to juggle, and I became completely obsessed with it and I juggled everything in the house I could get my hands on. I bruised all the fruit. I always found it very relaxing and there is a meditative quality about it. Of course, you need to learn the skill first, but sometimes, it can look very kind of tense and tight, which is a good reflection of how the mind is. Other times it can look very relaxed and easy, so it’s just a nice way of bringing what for many people is quite an intangible idea of mental effort into the world. I find it very useful. I don’t juggle quite so much these days, more juggling life now, rather than balls.
But I think playfulness is often underrated when it comes to meditation. Meditation shouldn’t be too serious. Of course, there is a serious component to it, but there needs to be a lightness of mind, a playfulness, even a willingness to laugh at ourselves and things like juggling in everyday life can really help with that.

A friend told me recently that he moved on, and doesn’t do ‘virtual’ meditation anymore, because he started yoga. What would you answer to that? Is yoga another stage or just a different story?

For me, that’s like someone saying that they don’t do virtual meditation, they now do juggling. I would differentiate between mindful movement and meditation. If you look at yoga in a whole way, in a complete way, then meditation is one part of yoga. But yoga, how most people practice it in the West, is a series of physical movements. I would say that is mindful movement, and we can do that in the yoga studio, we can do it at home preparing food, walking down the road or juggling some balls. Whereas, meditation is a very specific exercise where we are not interested in training the body, we’re interested in training the mind. So if somebody has gone along to school and they started learning yoga, and it incorporates some meditation at the end, that’s a bit different, but if it’s simply going to the gym to work out, that kind of yoga, then it’s very different than meditation.

Is a change always good?

I think the important thing with change, regardless of whether we like it or don’t like it, whether we think it’s good or bad, it’s that we, somehow, learn to accept it. It’s a fact. It doesn’t matter, whether we like it or not, change is gonna happen. I think when we purposely search out to change because we’re restless, or we’re looking for distraction, then that’s not so helpful. It’s useful to recognize when we’re doing that, but there’s enough change that happens anyway in life without actively looking for it. Change comes and finds us. So, learning to be at ease with that fact is a really important part of meditation and of life in general.

I just have to ask this, because I’ve been hearing it so much lately: Is talking the best therapy?

I would say no. For example, I know people that have been in psychotherapy for over 20 years, and they’re still talking and they go along once a week and they’re still talking and they’re still reliving many of the very difficult, painful situations in their lives. And I’m not negating the benefit of it, I think it’s really important, it’s vital that it’s available to people, but I used to see people who were having actual therapy, and I’m not sure that it offers a long term solution for many people. Some people who used to come to the clinic would say, well, it was really helpful to talk about it, but it has left me with all these thoughts, all these emotions that I don’t really know what to do with. I think far more useful is to learn how to be at ease with the mind no matter what thoughts arise, no matter what emotions arise. So that we’re not scared at the thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind, so that we’re not trying to get away from thoughts and feelings, but instead, there is this broad acceptance that it’s OK, and we don’t need necessarily to talk you through. If you think about it, talking is just an extension of our thinking, it’s just bringing that mental world into the physical world. And if we can get used to recognizing it as simply something a little softer – ‘it’s a thought… it’s a feeling’ – then we don’t get so caught up in it. Sometimes when we get into talking, we can make you feel a lot more real. It’s helpful sometimes, but not always, I would say.

You made it public that you recently had some health problems (Andy beat cancer this year). Did you meditate more? Did you do any major changes in your overall meditation routine because of this?

I did. I meditated quite a lot more. I went from doing it once a day to nearly three times a day. I also had some time off work because of the operation and I just happened to have a little more time. So, yeah, I felt that that was a really important part of the healing process. I’m lucky I have a wife who is very good with nutrition, and exercise, so she helped me on that front. I was well looked after.

When people tell you, I don’t do meditation because… What are the main reasons they bring up?

Normally things like ‘I don’t have enough time’, ‘I’m too stressed to meditate’ which is kind of ironic. ‘My mind is too busy’, ‘I work too many hours’, ‘I have children’… those tend to be the usual reasons.

Do you think that there are certain types of people for whom mindfulness is harder to achieve?

We used to do a lot of events in London, with 400 people at a time, so I got a pretty good idea after a couple of years of how easy or difficult people find it. I’ve only met one person, an elderly man with a nerve disorder, who actually couldn’t do it. My feeling is that yes, like any skill, some people will relate to it a little bit quicker than others, some people will get comfortable with it a little bit quicker than others. But I think it’s more to do with expectations. If we are perfectionists and we have a very definite idea of the experience we want to achieve in meditation, then as a general rule, it’s gonna be quite difficult and uncomfortable, because we’re projecting our idea onto the experience, instead of witnessing what is happening. So that tends to be most difficult for those people, but that is the process itself, the process of letting go, recognizing that tendency that we have. So, even if we find it difficult at first, there’s a moment when the penny drops. For some people that’s day one, for some is day six, for some it might be day fifteen or day twenty, but there is always that moment when the penny drops and they go ‘ah, OK, so that’s what meditation is about’. It always happens.

What do you think people need to be happy or content in life? I know, “happy or content” that’s another question. But what do you think?

I can only speak from my own experience that genuine contentment comes from an inner happiness, an ease of mind. So, not being fearful, not running away from thoughts, emotions and situations in life. Equally not chasing after exciting thoughts and feelings and getting caught up and getting overwhelmed by that, but, instead, just a sense of being comfortable and at ease with the mind, no matter what the thought, the emotion or the situation in life. To me, that’s contentment.

We've read your two books already and eagerly expecting the next one. Can you give our readers a hint on its topic?

I was due to do it a little earlier on this year, and then I had to delay a bit. The plan initially was to do it on relationships, to look at relationships through the lens of mindfulness, and that’s quite broad. Whether we’re talking about our personal relationships at home, in our family or with a partner, or children, or parents, all the way to the communication we have with the people around, work… I think that probably will be the direction we’re gonna take with the third book.

Welcome to Headspace from Headspace on Vimeo.

We’ve also learned that Andy lives in California now, close to the Headspace headquarters. A place suitable for surfing, and a growing business that needs space. Lots of it.

You can follow Andy on Twitter and Google+. We also encourage you to connect with Headspace on Facebook, check out more of their amazing animations and try their free take10 program to actually get some headspace.

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