Q&A: Andy Puddicombe, Headspace co-founder, on market-friendly meditation

Former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe seeks to turn meditation into a corporate productivity hack.
Written by Sonya James, Contributor

If you don’t know who Andy Puddicombe is, just wait.

Remember when there were no yoga studios in gentrified neighborhoods? The world can change fast. And Andy Puddicombe just might be the one to introduce meditation to the Western market on a comparably massive scale.

The former Buddhist monk and mindfulness expert co-founded Headspace in 2010. The U.K.-based company makes meditation more accessible with online tools, books and events.

Expansion is already underway. Headspace USA launches in eight weeks with the opening of the Los Angeles office. A new version of its online subscription service will be out in Spring 2013, as well as a series of scientific stress studies incorporating the Headspace app. The results look good.

The New York Times wrote, “Andy Puddicombe is doing for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food.” Enough said.

We all wish for peace of mind. What made the idea of becoming a Buddhist monk available to you? Was your intention that specific, or were you going on an open-ended journey?

It actually was that specific. I was in university studying sports science and about halfway through my degree I thought, “I’m going to go and be a Buddhist monk and I’m going to train in meditation.” I wanted to better understand how to stop the endless chatter inside my mind. I felt I wasn’t getting that through my normal education.

My mother introduced me to meditation when I was 11 years old. And it’s quite funny in retrospect. When I was in university I was going out with a girl who read a lot of books about Buddhism. To be really honest, I wasn’t listening too intently. But some of it must have gone in because one day I just turned around and said, “You know what? That stuff you’ve been talking about? That’s a brilliant idea. I’m going to go away and be a monk.”

What was your everyday life like then?

It varied quite a bit. There are many different types of living as a monk. I started training seriously at the age of 22. Training as a layperson, then as a novice monk. I took full ordination in 2001 at the age of 28.

My particular area of interest was in retreats. These are usually closed in somewhere close to the monastery, tucked away in the countryside or in the mountains. And it’s where you can focus more intently on meditation.

On a typical day in retreat – though it varies from monastery to monastery -- there are 14 to 18 hours of meditation, seven days a week, and if you are there for the whole year, 365 days a year.

Wow, that’s a lot of meditation.

I can give you their number if you’re interested!

Ha, okay!

Once the monastery feels confident that you can teach, you’re often sent to a particular center. I was in Moscow for about four-and-a-half years.

On one hand, you’re living the life of a monk with a very definite focus on meditation. On the other hand, you’re living the same way as everyone else. You’re getting on busy subways, going to and from your place of work, and having to deal with people and relationships and everything else.

Tell me about the moment you decided to return to the U.K. What was going on in your life then and what was it like when you arrived back?

When I was in Moscow, expats started to come to the meditation center where I was teaching. These were senior people in oil companies and banks in Moscow. I could see they were benefitting from the exercises but they didn’t really relate to the whole Buddhist thing.

One of them –- who was very senior in BP Oil Company –- said, “I’d love for you to come do some work with the execs at the office.” But then he said, “You know what? Coming in dressed like that to an oil company in Russia, it’s just never going to work.” And he was right.

It got me thinking, “Am I passionate about being a monk, or am I passionate about teaching meditation?” The answer was clear. So I looked in to returning to the U.K. and setting up an early phase of Headspace.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. As a monk you give away all of your belongings. By this stage, I was also a little shy.

In the U.K., if you’re a mature student you have access to government loans and grants. I used to compete as a gymnast. I did a lot of juggling, a lot of theater. So I started a full time degree in Circus. It enabled me to come back to the U.K. and set up Headspace. There was a lot of clowning and laughter. Monasteries can be quite serious places. So it was a really useful thing to do.

So now it’s 2010 and you’ve launched Headspace. Tell me about it. How does it work?

I spent about three years putting the content for Headspace together before I met Rich Pierson, who’s the co-founder, in 2009. Rich comes from a creative background –- new brand development.

We started off as an events business. We looked for places where people wouldn’t expect to find meditation, like high-end places in London and New York. We’d bring 300 people together about once a month.

People started asking, “How can we continue afterwards?” So we started recording parts of the event and posting them online. There was such a strong response that we quickly moved to an online subscription business. Our focus is absolutely digital. We launched the subscription about a year ago and we’ve just seen phenomenal growth in the U.K. and Europe, but also in the U.S. where we’re yet to launch.

Almost as important as the subscription is what we term "brand partnerships." So things like the Headspace channel on Virgin Atlantic, or the project we’ve just done with Selfridges, one of the biggest department stores in London.

We’re invited to create content and services for their customers. There’s obviously a key financial aspect, but it’s more than that. It’s about putting meditation in places where people wouldn’t expect to find it. This kind of brand association gives people permission to try something they might be uneasy about. If they’re on a plane, and it has the Virgin stamp, then it’s okay. If they go into Selfridges and they’re looking at Christian Dior handbags and see a little meditation pod, they might think, “Well, I’ll give that a go.” There’s a tacit permission.

The macro level of Headspace is to get people to think differently about the help of the mind. In society we have a good idea of physical help –- eating the right foods and getting exercise. But most people assume that they have to be stressed, that it’s “just the way life is.”

The truth is, we do not have to be stressed. There are tools we can use like mindfulness and meditation. And there is scientific data that proves this.

On the micro level, we’re trying to demystify meditation and make it accessible.

What is happening at Headspace in 2013?

Our new site launches across all digital platforms in the spring. That’s really big. We work with a lot of corporations interested in making the app available to their staff –- anywhere from 1000 to 100,000 employees or more. They’ll regularly say, “We have these particular problems in our HR right now. What can you do to address them?”

In the past our app was not able to cope with that. Now we can work in a much more flexible way. It’s a modular program, so it’s very very personal. It enables us to address the wider concerns of not only individuals, but larger organizations as well.

We just finished scientific studies with Roche Pharmaceuticals and a large tech company I’m not allowed to name because the paper hasn’t been published yet (but it’s one that everybody probably uses on a daily basis). The scientific world adds weight to something that’s been seen up until now as “airy fairy.” Yet the current app showed a significant change in workplace stress when testing for blood pressure and cortisol levels. An upcoming cover story in Scientific American Mind also features the Headspace app and psychologist Amishi Jha recommends its use.

I think the more science that comes out, the more the perception of meditation will start to change.

Meditation has been around for a very long time. On a grand scale, do you believe humans evolve in a linear fashion?

I’m not sure the human condition has changed as much as is sometimes suggested. There are many ways that we live now that aren’t particularly conducive to a healthy mind, that maybe exacerbate the situation. But even a few thousand years ago, when there were no mobiles and we didn’t have the same responsibilities and commitments, there was still a need for tools to help people step out of the busyness of everyday life.

I think the human condition is such. As long as we’re born, then we have to deal with the fact that at some stage we’re going to die. It’s not easy to deal with that. There are challenging emotions that are just part of being human. The mind doesn’t always do what we want it to do.

Watch "Andy Puddicombe: All it takes is 10 mindful minutes" at TEDSalon London, Fall 2012.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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