Headspace Creator

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Like any startup founder well-trained in public relations, Andy Puddicombe is reluctant to talk politics. But when I ask about the explosive growth since the election of Donald Trump of Headspace — the app that features meditation lessons delivered in Puddicombe’s charming British accent accompanied by whimsical cartoons — he concedes that we are in an inflection point. More people are trying to “find calm and clarity when they see so much chaos and confusion,” he says.

Headspace’s numbers alone are suggestive. The app recently surpassed 15 million downloads, up from 5 million at the beginning of 2016. (The meditation app Calm also saw a surge in downloads after the election and the inauguration.)

Even more telling is use of Headspace’s SOS feature — a special meditation designed to calm you down during “sudden meltdowns.” The day after Trump was elected president, Headspace saw a 44 percent jump in SOS sessions. And so far in 2017, there’s been a 31 percent bump in SOS sessions monthly compared to 2016.

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For Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, leading a meditation technology company means walking a cultural fault line: Trying to stay true to ancient mindfulness teachings to calm and focus the anxious masses while scaling to deliver returns to investors. Lately, that’s meant allowing users the freedom to meditate for as little as a minute, down from the 10-minute minimum Headspace had. (Users can also meditate with the app for 30 minutes or more, if they choose.)

Catering to frenetic modern humans deeply habituated to precisely the tendencies mindfulness is supposed to uproot — distraction, desire, selfishness, greed — it turns out, means capitulating to those instincts.

“I would never have said that 10 minutes is going to make a difference before I started working on this,” Puddicombe told me over sparkling water during a recent visit to Washington, DC. “Then we launched the app and people were asking for five-minute exercises.”

But even that was deemed too long by many antsy, time-crunched users. And so this month, Headspace launched new “mini” mediations, along with more flexibility to jump around to different meditation “packs” with themes like “Self Esteem” and “Relationships.”

Before he co-founded Headspace, now a Los Angeles company with 184 employees, Puddicombe spent about a decade exploring Buddhism at various monasteries in Burma, Nepal, and Scotland, among other countries. He meditated for up to eight hours a day. He wore robes and was ordained in the Tibetan tradition.

Then, after a brief stint at the Moscow State Circus (drawing on circus skills he’d honed in college), he returned to London where he befriended fellow Englishman Rich Pierson who’d also benefitted from meditation. Pierson convinced him that disseminating mindfulness was a tremendous opportunity. And what began as their meditation event business is now one of the most successful monetizations of mindfulness in a fast-growing market. Forbes estimates that Headspace’s revenue is $50 million a year and values the company at $250 million.

I spoke to Puddicombe about what’s behind Headspace’s exponential growth, the power his British accent has over Americans, the company’s controversial ads, its ongoing scientific studies, the strain of growing a business, and how having kids forced him to change his meditation routine. (Full disclosure: I meditate but am not a Headspace user.)

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Eliza Barclay

Just before this interview, I surveyed my friends and colleagues and turns out about 10 of them use your app. I didn’t know.

Andy Puddicombe

It’s becoming a lot more socially acceptable to admit that you’re a meditator. But a lot of people are in the closet.

Eliza Barclay

Interesting that people still feel self-conscious about it.

Andy Puddicombe

The kind of journey meditation has been on in the West, we [Headspace] have been one part of that conversation of demystifying it.But I do think for a lot of people it still is seen as a little bit unusual. I really would liken that to the journey of fitness — you know, in the beginning, people who jogged around Central Park were seen as crazy. Meditation makes a lot of sense now that we understand the science in the same way.

Eliza Barclay

In America do you think meditation has a New Age association? Is it weird to some people because it’s quasi-religious?

Andy Puddicombe

I think all of those things. Traditionally there’s a sense it’s tied up in religion. Back then went through a hippie phase. If you went off to India or Afghanistan in the ’60s, sure, that’s what you did. Then there’s the later New Age self-help kind of phenomena which promises you everything. So I think there are kind of different elements along the way that made our job much more challenging.

Eliza Barclay

The Buddha came up with these teachings of mindfulness and intended for them to be a map of the mind, to be used by any human being. Here we are, 2,600 years later, and they are really resonating. Millions of people who weren’t raised in a meditative tradition are using apps, books, and classes and going on retreat to learn meditation.

Do you think this is simply because technology is finally making it possible to mass distribute these teachings or is there something unique about this era where people need them more?

Andy Puddicombe

I do think meditation is for all people of all ages, across all millennia. The human mind is what it is. We have always struggled, and the fact that there were techniques for coping with anxiety and sadness and anger 2,600 years ago just goes to show that.

But we’re living in a time where everybody is feeling more squeezed — whether it’s an increasing amount of responsibilities or commitments or just the busy-ness of life. I think there is no question that the digital revolution has only exacerbated that. People are really feel overwhelmed by the amount of communications they’re involved in.

When I left the monastery, I set up a private [meditation] practice in London. It was just around the time of the financial crisis. And I sometimes wonder whether had it not been for that whether I would have met so many people who came along wanting to learn meditation. [The crisis] had really shaken them. They were asking, “What am I doing with my life and what’s my purpose?”

And I think we’ve almost cycled round to another kind of point like that right now. How do I find a sense of calm and clarity when I see so much chaos and confusion going on around me?

In Tibet, for example, it took maybe 100 years for the teachings to reach 6 million people, and it took [Headspace] maybe a couple of years to reach 6 million people. And so I’m not comparing the depth or the breadth of the teachings that we deliver, but I do think there’s something really kind of interesting in just how immensely scalable this is.

Eliza Barclay

You recently ran ads in the New York City subway that said “I meditate to crush it,” and “I meditate to have the edge” to promote your performance-oriented meditation pack. That seems to encourage a kind of craving and grasping — which seems problematic since mindfulness is supposed to teach us to let go.

I understand the marketing side of this, but how do you reconcile this message with the teachings?

Andy Puddicombe

Those weren’t our lines. Those came from our community. The “crush it” line came from a power lifter. One came from a salsa dancer. We went out and said, “Why are people using it? “

I don’t feel like it’s my business to be telling other people why they should meditate. I see it as a skill, I genuinely believe it’s up to every individual to apply that skill. Our job to get people excited.

I don’t think anyone starts meditating to benefit all sentient beings. We all start with some kind of motivation, whether it’s because we want to run faster or experience less stress. I’m not sure there’s much difference. What excites me is the journey of realization, it’s about having a great sense of calm, clarity, contentment, and compassion. That evolves in different ways in different people in different lengths of time.

I feel really passionately about trying to maintain that authenticity.

Eliza Barclay

Are there threats to that authenticity?

Andy Puddicombe

We haven’t taken investment that in any way threatens the future of company. And there have been really good challenges.

To begin with, I would never have said 10 minutes is going to make a difference before I started working on this. Then we launched the app and people were asking for five-minute exercises. Then Snapchat [a corporate client] asked us for one minute. Each time, it’s been a challenge to my own way of thinking. But for some people, a minute is the right amount of time.

Eliza Barclay

You’re basing that on people’s feedback?

Andy Puddicombe

We’re basing it on anecdotal feedback, and data. We see how people use the product in an anonymous way. There’s a lift in engagement the shorter they get. Ten minutes is still far and away the most popular, but we’ve just launched more of that shorter content.

Eliza Barclay

So you’ve seen these big jumps in use of the SOS feature since the 2016 election in the US. Is this a sign that people are having meltdowns about politics?

Andy Puddicombe

We’ve been growing exponentially, but we couldn’t attribute that to the change of administration in DC.But regardless of what’s happening here — and I don’t think it is just here, in my home country of England we had Brexit — I just think there is a there is a feeling of uncertainty, instability, and destabilization. Inevitably in those times people look for ways to go inside rather than out.

Eliza Barclay

You’ve said that you have to meet people where they are, and we’re on our phones. What would you say to the person who says, “I don’t like the idea of a meditation app that tethers me to my phone?”

Andy Puddicombe

I’d want to investigate that: What is their relationship to their phone that is so disconnected and uncomfortable that they’re unable to sit and listen to a guided meditation? The medium for me is not so important. I think that once you put it on Airplane mode and you press play, it might as well be a CD player from the ’80s.

There is nothing inherently evil or bad about this piece of glass and plastic. So it can only be the relationships we develop with it.

Things I recommend people do is turn off notifications, clean up your home screen. Put apps on another page. Rich [Pierson], our CEO, now has no email, no social media on his phone.

Eliza Barclay

I wonder about the power of your accent. Americans have a thing for the British accent. Your product is clearly much more than your voice, but your voice is also a powerful part of it. Are you as popular in the UK?

Andy Puddicombe

[Laughs] I am not sure I am more popular in the UK. America is now our fastest growing market.

As for the accent, it’s the one my parents gave me. If the voice works for people it, I’m happy for that.

Eliza Barclay

You have scientists on staff, you have studies going on. So if we’re trying to understand the long-term benefits of these short meditations, there isn’t much data out there on mental health and changes to brain. What are the biggest questions your scientists wants to understand?

Andy Puddicombe

Dosage is definitely one of them, how much and how often is necessary to see a significant difference. Because you’re right, the truth is we really don’t know. A lot of the mindfulness research that’s been done, they’re often quite long sessions, over extended period of time on daily basis.

We have clinical trials running, always in partnership with a university or teaching hospital. They’re funded independently, peer-reviewed before published. The most recent one on chronic pain was done with the National Health Service in the UK. I don’t get excited about science. My own experience has been sitting down and seeing it work in direct way.

But for a lot of people, knowing that something is happening to the brain is really important, and I think it’s right that we pay attention to that. Part of demystifying [meditation] is giving people confidence and trust and science is a key way of doing that.

Eliza Barclay

What’s the hardest part of joining the profit-driven world? It’s clearly a huge contrast to monastery life and values.

Andy Puddicombe

You said profit-driven, I say mission-driven. My own personal role, strange as it sounds, hasn’t really changed. In the monastery I sat down and did my practice. Now I talk into microphone. I don’t see my role as having changed that much. I have a partner who looks after branding and an amazing team of people who look after every aspect.

Eliza Barclay

This speaks to the inherent tension that anyone who’s passionate and works hard has to face: Sometimes it’s just overwhelming.

Andy Puddicombe

Our practice defines how we relate to that feeling of being overwhelmed. For some people, that feeling of being overwhelmed is just the worst thing in the world and makes them run away. For other people, maybe it’s even exciting and challenging in some way.

Eliza Barclay

Your ultimately aspiration is to build the most comprehensive guide to health and happiness in the world, right?

Andy Puddicombe

In the short term, we want to build most comprehensive guide to meditation. Certainly we’re not there yet but well on our way. Potential through the brand and platform for it to go beyond meditation.

Eliza Barclay

That’s pretty ambitious though.

Andy Puddicombe

My lama — one of my main teachers at the Tibetan monastery — he was obsessed with this idea of thinking big. Not to be attached to the goal, but to be committed to the journey and process. Something changes when we open our minds to the possibility of something. If we don’t make it there, it’s okay.

Eliza Barclay

Have you felt much disapproval from members of the Buddhist community for your approach?

Andy Puddicombe

In the beginning, yes, when we were doing events in London. We put out a brochure, and we started getting letters from Buddhist professors saying it was terrible to change money to come to event. It felt uncomfortable for me personally. And then I started looking back, there’s always been an exchange of value. People would bring food to a monastery, and in the West people come and give a donation and receive teachings. This feels like a good and healthy exchange. In companies where they’ve given subscriptions to Headspace for free, they find that when they charge employees, engagement is higher.

Eliza Barclay

Are you still in touch with teachers in Tibet? Do you still study with them?

Andy Puddicombe

I consider myself a student of meditation and always will be. I have my teachers from the monastery and outside. I was back there about six months ago, discussing my personal practice with my teacher, and how we can start making a difference to the communities where these teachings come from.

If you come to my house, I have a shrine, and all my teachings and texts. I still practice in the same way as I did at the monastery.

Eliza Barclay

What is your daily meditation routine?

Andy Puddicombe

I practice … well, it’s changed a bit since having kids. I’m an early riser, I used to get up around 4:30 or 5 am and then go surfing with Rich before going to the office. Those were the days. Now I get up and I look after Harley, our first son, [and new baby, Leo.] So I’ll do my meditation in my lunch hour or do it at the end of the day. On the rare occasion Harley does sleep in I get to do it in the morning. But I’m a lot more flexible with my practice now than I once was.

Eliza Barclay

Best book you read recently?

Andy Puddicombe

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, he lived in a certain manner that not everyone is comfortable with, but his Cutting through Spiritual Materialism was a brilliant book. There is a risk as meditation becomes a thing that we start wearing it as a label, and in doing so only increasing this sense of identity and self, through which traditionally in meditation we try to let go of. So I think that is particularly relevant for now.

My other favorite would be Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. While Cutting through Spiritual Materialism gets into the nitty gritty, the nuts and bolts, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. zooms right out, it’s more of a look at absolute mind, rather than intellectual, thinking mind. Every chapter is just 3 to 4 pages, which I think is our attention span, collectively.

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