British-born Andy Puddicombe spent 10 years studying in Buddhist monasteries in India, Nepal and Burma, and then another three in a Tibetan monastery in England. So why is his name now synonymous with Silicon Valley? Puddicombe found a way to combine his passion for mindfulness and meditation with a technology that can bring it would-be-meditators around the world.
The Headspace app, which he co-founded, costs about $95 for a yearly subscription and includes hundreds of meditations, for everyone from beginners to life-long devotees. It also includes specialized meditations for cooking, cycling, running - even people having a melt-down.
The wildly successful app has been been downloaded more than 3 million times, Virgin Atlantic has added an in-flight Headspace channel and Goldman Sachs and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute are among the companies which have purchased bulk subscriptions for their employees.
Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe talks with Here & Now's Robin Young about meditation, mindfulness and Headspace.
Interview Highlights: Andy Puddicombe
What is mindfulness and what does meditation mean to you?
I would say that mindfulness is the ability to be present in the moment undistracted, but that’s quite the tricky skill to learn.
“Well, I hesitate to define it because I personally believe that meditation’s defined by the intentions of the user. So for example, by that I mean we have people who use it - we have children that use it to help to be sort of more focused in class, we have parents that use it who hope to kind of be less stressed at home, and we have Olympians using it to win gold medals. I think if we look at the technique itself, I would say that mindfulness is the ability to be present in the moment undistracted, but that’s quite the tricky skill to learn. So we kind of need a way, a framework, in which we can take ourselves out of everyday life and actually practice that skill and that’s meditation. So it can be as little as sort of 5, 10, 15 minutes a day where we’re just practicing what it means to be present, undistracted, and then taking that newfound sense of clarity, calm, awareness back into our everyday life.”
There’s the example of the class where you observe a peanut for an hour that you’re about to eat so you’re very mindful of that peanut when you eat it.
“That is one approach. That’s not my own personal approach. I’d rather use a piece of chocolate if I was going to do mindful eating. I think there are many, many, many different ways. What we found through Headspace is that there are many people in the world who are perhaps put off by many of the ideas surrounding meditation, you know, the idea that you have to sit cross-legged on the floor, that you have to do it for an hour, that you might be sat there looking at a peanut for many, kind of, minutes on end. So we’ve tried to present it in a way that kind of makes it feel a lot more kind of accessible.”
Why do people need you to tell them to take some time out of their day to breathe and clear their mind?
“I don’t think they need me specifically. I think many people look for guidance when learning a new skill. For me, I would liken it to maybe learning to drive, you know, and having someone sat in the seat next to you when you’re driving. It’s very easy to get distracted, to be thinking about other things, and having someone there next to you saying ‘Oh, by the way, you might just like to try this,’ I think is a really useful thing, and I think that’s true no matter what skill we’re learning in life, and I don’t think it’s as though we learn it and then that’s it – we finish. And the whole idea of the app is to help people not only learn, but also to continue to learn over a lifetime.”
Any concern over making money from something monks have been doing for thousands of years?
I genuinely believe that unless meditation focuses on awareness and compassion, then it’s not really meditation.
“Yeah, of course. And in fact, I was very naïve when I started out and I kind of thought ‘OK, well any money that does come in, we just need to give it away.’ And then we realized that that doesn’t really work, cause then you have to pay people’s salaries and now we have 80 people split across several continents. So the truth is, if we want to make a difference in the world and if we genuinely want to achieve our mission of making the world a happier and healthier place - that requires resources. So we have a program for every subscription that’s bought, we work with charities to give away a subscription to someone who can’t afford it and that’s actually quite similar to the monastery. If you go along to a monastery even as a monk in the west, it wasn’t free to live at the monastery. To do a one-year retreat cost me about $10,000. So it’s not as though that kind of life is so different.”
What about the criticism that there is much more to meditation and mindfulness than decompressing so you can function better in the rat race?
“I couldn’t agree more. Yeah. It’s funny cause I think people often - because Headspace is seen as a really easy way of getting into meditation, it’s often thought ‘Oh, well that’s all it is.’ If you look at the feedback from people who’ve gone through a year of Headspace, actually what they’ll say is that it’s about a shift in perspective, a way in which they start to live a different way, not only kind of in their own mind, but in the relationships to the people around them. And I genuinely believe that unless meditation focuses on awareness and compassion, then it’s not really meditation. So we don’t have to give up our jobs, we don’t have to wear different clothes, we don’t have to speak in a different way and we definitely don’t have to burn any incense. We just have to, you know, approach life in a different way and meditation shows us how we can do that.”
Correction: The text above has been corrected to reflect an increase in the annual cost of the app. It now costs $95, not $70.
This segment aired on October 21, 2015.