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Body Week

The Monk And The Mad Man Making Mindfulness For The Masses

The minds behind Headspace are thinking big about using tech to get your mind right.

The Monk And The Mad Man Making Mindfulness For The Masses
[Photo: Flickr user Giulia Tarantini]

I’m meeting Andy Puddicombe for the first time at his airy offices just off the beach in Venice, California. And it’s weird. Not because the cofounder of the meditation platform Headspace is forbidding. Just the opposite: Puddicombe, from Bristol in the U.K., gives off a cheery, affable vibe, like a guy you’d amiably argue football with over a couple of pints. No, the weirdness is because he’s been inside my head for three years, murmuring through my headphones and desktop speakers, calmly leading me through the daily exercises that are the heart of Headspace, Puddicombe's startup devoted to creating a larger platform for mindfulness principles. Ours has been a relationship mediated by technology, sure. But it’s also been an oddly intimate one. And here he is in the flesh. It’s a little jarring. "You must get this a lot," I tell him. "Quite a lot," he says sheepishly.

He may want to brace for more of the same. As mindfulness continues to grab more public mindshare, as celebrities (Oprah WInfrey), athletes (LeBron James), and CEOs (LinkedIn's Jeff Weiner) sing its praises and scientists present more evidence of its value, Headspace is positioning itself as as a modern, tech-savvy way into the practice. After a mid-year rejiggering of its web and smartphone meditation program, the service has seen a sharp uptick in its use. Since July it’s signed up twice as many users as it did in the previous two and a half years, and served them 125 million minutes of meditation practice. (That’s about 23 years.) It has about 2 million active users, defined as ones who access the $96-a-year paid program or its free introductory version at least once a month; among paying subscribers, 60% use it every one to three days. Now Puddicombe, 42, and co-founder Rich Pierson, 34, are contemplating what might be called Headspace v3—a fully rounded wellness platform whose goal is no less than to "improve the health and happiness of the world." I ask Pierson how he quantifies a goal so grand. He has a target number in his head, he says—total meditation minutes consumed by a given date, several years from now. He doesn’t want to put the number on the record. "We want to create the most engaging health platform we can," he says. "We certainly don’t have all the answers. But we do think we have a role to play in starting to get the public to reframe how they think about health."

That's a pretty remarkable bit of entrepreneurial ambition for an ex-advertising man and a former Buddhist monk. The two met in London in 2008. Pierson had recently left a job at international ad agency BBH, and Puddicombe—well, how to put this: His path had been a bit more circuitous. Starting Christmas Eve, 1992, he had the kind of Annus Horribilus that breaks some people—a drunk driver plowed into a crowd of Puddicombe and his friends and killed two; his stepsister was killed while cycling; and his ex-girlfriend died during heart surgery. Young Puddicombe found himself contemplating some of the big questions. "You know: What’s it all about, that sort of thing," he tells me. "I traveled, started a sports science degree, went out boozing. All the normal stuff. But nothing really quenched my thirst. My mind was busy, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. And one afternoon, I just got a gut feeling. I couldn’t ignore it. I knew I was going to be a monk."

Puddicombe entered the monastery in 1994, the beginning of a 10-year journey that took him to India, Nepal, Myanmar, Australia, Scotland, and Russia. Five years in, he took full ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Toward the end of the decade, the idea of a return to secular life already tickling at his brain, he was asked to speak about meditation to a group of Western expat oil executives. He talked it over with an oil-company VP who was a lay visitor to the monastery. "He said, ‘Look, a Buddhist monk? In an oil company? In Moscow? It’s not going to work.’ I think it was at that point that I started thinking: Imagine if meditation was stripped of all this stuff. Without losing the authenticity, what if it was presented in a way that people could get a handle on? I think that’s when I saw the potential."

Back in London in 2004 and mulling his options, he took up a degree program in Circus Arts. It wasn’t as much of a juke as it may seem. He spent nights and weekends thinking about ways to bring meditation to the wider world and days "swinging around like a monkey," he says. "It was a dream. Acrobatics, trapeze, all that stuff." It all sat nicely, he found, alongside meditation. "Tightrope is a great example of mindfulness," he says. "You watch someone trying too hard, and they wobble and fall off. Someone not focusing enough? They wobble and fall off." In 2006 he started a private clinical practice, where he further refined his thinking about a modern, secularized approach to the 3,000-year-old practice of meditation.

That’s where Rich Pierson turned up one day in late 2008. When he walked away from BBH, he was burned out and looking for something to ease his busy mind. He wasn’t a believer; his only experience with meditation had been the year or so his mom had spent doing it when he was about 13. But when he started working with Puddicombe, "It had a very profound effect on my life very quickly," Pierson tells me. "It made me think, This thing—why aren’t more people doing this? And this guy—he’s so good at explaining it, and it’s not weird."

In that moment, without realizing it, Pierson identified the first and probably the biggest of the barriers he and Puddicombe would try to blitz with Headspace, which the duo founded in London in 2010. "It’s too weird, it’s too wacky, it’s too woo-woo," Puddicombe says now, ticking them off on his fingers. Large group meditation sessions around London helped to dispel some of those preconceptions and to build a buzz around the young Headspace. For its first two years, it was strictly an events company. "I’d like to say it was always our intention to use technology to deliver the content," Puddicombe says, "because that would make it sound very planned. It wasn’t." But inquiries from attendees looking for takeaways soon led the company to package meditation lessons on CD, and in early 2012 to introduce the first version of its web/mobile platform.

Brand-building successes came early. In 2011 Virgin Atlantic added an inflight Headspace channel; in early 2012 the Oxford Street retailer Selfridges partnered with Headspace for a "No Noise" initiative that offered a variety of mindfulness exercises in-store. Puddicombe quickly became the face of the platform. It helped that he was "a proper expert," as Pierson puts it. "This is a guy who went and sat on his backside 18 hours a day for 10 years. If you’re using the 10,000-hour thing, he’s done that and more." But it was equally helpful that Puddicombe has an easygoing approach to pedagogy that works as well via digital delivery as it does live. On the hot medium of the Internet, Puddicombe’s cool demeanor is a balm—and perfectly suited to the be-here-now message of mindfulness. The Headspace ethos tends to come as a surprise to novice meditators like me, who picture the practice as something ancient and musty, reeking of saffron and patchouli, and dogmatically strict and unforgiving. Headspace is quite the opposite, in a way that reflects Puddicombe’s personality—friendly, warm, conversational. Over the three years I’ve been a Headspace user, the phrases I’ve probably heard him deliver more than any others are "In your own time…" and "It’s perfectly normal."

There’s an irony, to be sure, in using technology to deliver mindfulness coaching to a population that’s more and more tech-frazzled. It isn’t lost on Puddicombe and Pierson. "I can see it, theoretically," Puddicombe says, hoisting his iPhone. "But this can be used for good or bad. What excited me was the opportunity to use it for good, to interrupt some of the negative habits that seem to be developing quite quickly around technology." Meet people where they are, one of Puddicombe’s teachers used to tell him, and increasingly, where they are is moored to a mobile phone.

The dictum isn’t just literal, though. Headspace users—they’re spread evenly from 18 to 75, with a slight uptick between 25 and 45—are busy, and research told the company that the v1 program, which built quickly to 20 minutes per day, represented a time commitment a lot of potential users felt they couldn’t make. v2 allows them to choose among 10-, 15-, and 20-minute sessions. It also blows up v1’s linear timeline, which more or less followed the progression Puddicombe taught in his clinical practice. Users can roam freely among a variety of themed "packs" on such topics as anxiety, sleep, and relationships. "We had version 1 users telling us, ‘Look, I’m struggling in my relationship now,’"Pierson says. "‘I don’t want to wait until the Heart Series, eight months in, to get help with that.’ We live in a distracted society. When you take choice away from people, they get frustrated."

That lesson—more content, more choice—is one Puddicombe and Pierson have taken to heart as they eye the future. They’ve just launched a podcast, Radio Headspace; v3 of the service, still on the drawing board, will offer verticals on exercise, nutrition, and a variety of health topics, while keeping meditation front and center. Pierson would like to do more, a lot more, with the smartphone app. "What I think is still missing in v2 is that it doesn’t learn about you," he says. "My dream version of the product is one that serves you up the content you need most in the moment. What if Headspace helped you create the time you need to meditate? It links up with your calendar, it finds some spare time, and it gently reminds you: Hey look, you’ve got a 10-minute slot here. Why not meditate?" Although both founders are skeptical about wearables, Pierson also toys with the notion of hooking into health data: "If your heart rate is elevated we can say, 'Oh hey, why don’t you try a stress single?' We haven’t cracked it. But that’s where we want to take the product."

For all that, though, Puddicombe and Pierson still consider Headspace very much a content, not a tech, company. That was one of the reasons for the move from London to Los Angeles in 2013. America was calling, and the call wasn’t coming from Silicon Valley. "For us LA is a really interesting mix of creative, media and technology," Puddicombe says. "It has a rhythm, a cadence that I enjoy very much. It lends itself well to this kind of project." (Not for nothing, Puddicombe and Pierson are both surfers. That helped.) Eight employees came along initially, leaving a U.K. contingent of 15 behind. The U.S. staff has since grown to 35, including an in-house animation unit to produce the engaging videos that are one of Headspace’s visual signatures, housed three blocks from the beach in an open, startup-friendly space.

That’s where I find Puddicombe on a warm winter Monday, waiting on the sidewalk, face tilted to the sun. He invites me in, past the burbling fountain in the courtyard, and offers me a cup of tea. I have a lot to ask him. But really, what I want to know is: Can they do it? Are these the guys who can bring meditation to a mass audience and leverage it toward a healthier world? The goal seems enormous, overwhelming.

But maybe not. I think about something Pierson told me a couple of days earlier, offering a parallax view: "Say you slam a door in someone’s face. Maybe you’re not even conscious of it. And that ruins their morning, and they go on into their office and shout at somebody. That’s a tiny moment, but it ripples out. People say, 'How are you going to improve the health and happiness of the world?' Well, if you’ve got millions of people being more mindful of tiny moments like that in their day, yeah: The world will look slightly different."

Tiny moments, ancient techniques. I ask Puddicombe if reframing the tools of meditation for the modern world ever feels like a burden. He smiles, as he does often, and easily, and says, "You just don’t want to mess them up."

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