If the path to true mindfulness involves pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone, Andy Puddicombe, the Buddhist monk turned millionaire co-founder of meditation app Headspace, isn’t shirking the work.
On New Year’s Eve, in the middle of a pandemic, Puddicombe moved his family – including a six-year-old and a three-year-old – and all their possessions halfway across the globe, from their home of eight years in Los Angeles to a new one in Lisbon, where they don’t speak the language and barely know anyone. What is it they say about life’s most stressful events?
"I think [moving is] up there, right, with the top three or five?" Puddicombe, 48, says, laughing. "I’ve probably lived in eight or 10 countries in my life, and this is the first time I’ve done it with a family. It is a very different proposition."
He coped as he always does: by going back to his basic Buddhist training: "Whether it’s applied to the business or moving house, those are still skills I draw on a lot."
Over Zoom, Puddicombe looks unruffled by the experience. A softly lit baby blue wall and two life-giving houseplants are all that make up his background. Even his smooth bald head is somehow soothing. Just out of shot might be 400 boxes overflowing with domestic detritus, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Puddicombe crossed the Atlantic with little more than a clear mind.
Now entering its 11th year, more than 65 million people use Headspace, which generates revenue of more than $100 million per year from paid subscribers (the basic version is free), who listen to Puddicombe’s voice as they learn how to become more mindful through short, guided sessions.
Once described as "doing for meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food", Puddicombe’s goal has always been to share what he learnt during 10 years as a monk with as many people as possible. The app was a good start, but to really reach the masses he needed television.
Well, just as the world has a collective anxiety attack – about the pandemic, the Capitol burning, it simply being January – he’s made it, and with streaming giant Netflix. Headspace Guide to Meditation, a new animated series, sees Puddicombe take viewers through the benefits and science of meditation over eight 20-minute episodes. (A second series, Headspace Guide to Sleep, will follow.) If it strikes you as ironic that guides to help us switch off are to be delivered by what is perhaps the greatest thief of our concentration, Puddicombe is conscious of that, too.
"For me it’s just a medium, right?" he explains. "There was a time when, in order to experience meditation, you had to go to a teacher, a monastery. Then it was groups, then tapes, MP3s... the essence of the practice doesn’t change at all, just the medium and scale."
Born in London but raised in Bristol, Puddicombe had started a sports science degree at Leicester’s De Montfort University when a clutch of bereavements altered his life. At 22, he was standing outside a London pub when a drunk driver ploughed into a group of friends, killing two of them. His stepsister died in a cycling accident a few months later, before an ex-girlfriend passed away during surgery.
He dropped out of university and travelled to the Himalayas to learn meditation. Over the next decade he studied all over the world, before being ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in northern India.
Returning to lay life in 2004, he trained at the Moscow State Circus, then gained a degree in Circus Arts in London and became a meditation consultant. In the latter role, he met his future business partner, Rich Pierson. The two of them came up with Headspace.
What’s happened since is, he admits, "quite surreal". The app was launched in 2010, and immediately – along with its archrival, Calm – served an audience with an appetite for mindfulness, but unsure how to go about it. The company grew exponentially, prompting Puddicombe to move to Los Angeles in 2012, where he became a minor celebrity and gained famous acolytes, including Bill Gates and the grand empress of wellness herself, Gwyneth Paltrow. Other Hollywood stars such as Jared Leto and Ryan Seacrest are investors.
Through it all, he’s tried to keep grounded by saying no to anything too opposed to his teachings ("Snapchat wanted to do one-minute meditations, and I’m like, come on...") and spending time outdoors with his family. His wife, Lucinda, whom he met in London, is a sports scientist, writer and self-described "raw food enthusiast and yoga-nut".
Their lockdown has been similar to many people’s: a switch to more home working; a realisation they probably live too far from their parents, one of whom became ill last year, partly prompting the move; and home schooling. "That was definitely a test," Puddicombe admits. "In the monastery, they should just stick a couple of toddlers in there and ask [the monks] to homeschool them for a few months, because that’ll be the challenge."
He has tried to introduce his children to meditation. "The three-year-old is more receptive than the six-year-old," he says. "They like devices, so we tee up the app, then do a one- to three-minute exercise. Some days they’re still, other days they’re running around the room."
It is OK, he adds, to occasionally lose your temper with children. "I try to be there for them, but if they’re really naughty, it’s helpful. If I see them sticking their hand in the fire, I’m probably going to intervene with a very loud voice."
Given the difficulties we are currently living through, Puddicombe is in no doubt that a mental health crisis is on the way.
"I think it has been amplified by the pandemic, but we’ve been living in a mental health epidemic for at least a decade or so," he says. "Part of me is inspired by the fact it’s not so taboo, and the hope more resources will be directed towards it. But there will never be enough people to help one-to-one, so there has to be a broad range of digital solutions."
One being Headspace, of course. It would seem reasonable to say that right now most people are suffering from some level of stress and anxiety. What can we do? "Step one is recognising the importance of the mind, which sounds obvious," Puddicombe says, "but as humans we just assume things will be OK internally, [when] the reality is that we don’t have to feel that level of stress all the time. Once we prioritise that then things change. It makes sense to sit down for three, five minutes, 10 minutes a day. So, just commit to rest. You don’t even need to meditate, just take some time."