The Monk Who’s Helping the World Navigate Meditation, One Day at a Time

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Why you should care

Because being mindful of your mind is a good way to not lose it.

With his soothing voice and guided meditations, Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe has, so far, helped 70 million people from 190 countries to explore the world of calm. He pops into The Carlos Watson Show to talk about the need for meditation, how to take away the loneliness from the phenomenon, the importance of being calm and his new Netflix show. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Getting/Being Closer to Home

Carlos Watson: Where are you located?

Andy Puddicombe: So we just recently moved from LA to Portugal. So I’m just west of Lisbon. I’m on the coast, out in the countryside, and enjoying a very different kind of life from LA.

Watson: What is countryside life like in Portugal?

Puddicombe: There are different types of countryside. I mean, it is super provincial. Last week, the kids were on Easter holiday from school and we went and stayed at an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. I mean, it’s just olive groves and orange orchards. And then there’s countryside like this, like where we are now, half an hour away from Lisbon. So really kind of pretty close. And yet you’re in the middle of a forest, kind of near the ocean. So it feels like you’re connected but you’re disconnected just enough.

Watson: And what made you guys do it? Was it the pandemic that catalyzed something?

Puddicombe: So we we’re from the U.K. as a family. We’ve been living in the U.S. for eight years, and California has been an amazing home to us. But we’re far from family. Our parents are getting a little older. Some are getting quite unwell. And I think like a lot of people during the pandemic, it was a cause for pause and to think about what was most important to us.

As much as we enjoyed the Californian lifestyle, actually the most important thing was being close to our family. And I think we became so enamored by that lifestyle of the sunshine, being able to take the kids surfing, mountain bike … We were kind of like, “OK, so how can we be as close as possible to the U.K. but still kind of have that lifestyle as a family?” And Portugal kind of came out tops.

Watson: Did you guys Airbnb it when you first got there, or did you guys know what to do? 

Puddicombe: It was wild. So we had planned to kind of move later in the year, and then the whole Brexit kind of thing was happening. The British government passed the freedom of movement kind of bill. And we realized if we didn’t get here by the end of the year, it actually was going to be quite problematic to sort of settle in Europe. So in the space of 10 weeks, we flew over here twice in the middle of COVID.

The Demystifying of Meditation 

Watson: Tell me about Headspace.

Puddicombe: Yeah. I mean, so many different ways of looking at it, Carlos. I think most people know it as a meditation app. For me, it’s so much broader than that. I like to think about it as a way of demystifying meditation, but also kind of making mindfulness more accessible, helping people and giving them a framework.

I feel excited when I look back over the years and what’s to come. I feel excited by people getting to know themselves better, being a little less critical of themselves, being a little less judgmental of themselves. But also, learning to listen to their own mind. And in learning to listen to their own mind, more willing to listen to others. And in listening to others, becoming more compassionate, more empathetic, better understanding where people are coming from in their life. So, it’s a very long-winded way. I don’t know if I would say it like that at a dinner party, but that’s how I think about it.

Watson: And give me even a little more color on it.

Puddicombe: In terms of a community, we have a community of about 70 million people in over 190 countries around the world now. And the company is … we’re about 350, 370, mostly located in LA. But also San Francisco, London and New York. And it’s funny, I still meet people on the street and because when they sit down and listen to the app, all they hear is my voice. And they genuinely think it’s still just me and Rich, my business partner, just in our office or garage at home, making this. Turns out, it takes quite a lot of people to really make it work. So it’s a big team effort.

Watson: And how did you guys get started? Were you guys buddies growing up, or how did you guys come together to build this thing?

Puddicombe: So, I had come back from my studies as a monk and I was back in the U.K. and I was seeing people one-to-one in the clinic. But I was looking for a way to take it beyond that one-to-one. There was this skill that I’ve learned that I genuinely believe could be learned by anyone. It was timeless, it was universal, and I didn’t really know how to do that. I didn’t have the skills to do that. And a guy, who was coming to me, said, “Hey, I know this guy. He’s a great guy. He’s completely burnt out from advertising. He really could do with learning meditation. And I think he’d have a lot to add to your mission, what you’re thinking of doing.”

So we met and we got on … immediately. And, the very first time I met him, Rich said, “We should do the NikePlus of meditation. We should put it on an app.” I didn’t even know what an app was. I didn’t have a smartphone. I was really pretty green with any of that. And I taught him meditation for about three months and the change in his life was so profound … it doesn’t always happen that quick, but it did for him. He said, “OK, I’m all in. Let’s do something together.” So we started that about 12 years ago now.

Watson: Why do you think it succeeded?

Puddicombe: I’ll give you the list of things, but, sometimes, actually there’s a certain kind of magic to timing that we can take no credit for. It would not have happened without the help, love, support of all the people around us. No question. On a more practical level, I would say authenticity in science. We weren’t presenting something new to the world. We were taking something that’s been around for two and a half, 3,000 years. And we were presenting it in a different way.

Watson: How important do you think your voice was in all of this?

Puddicombe: It’s a really hard thing for me to assess myself, because I don’t know. It’s just how I speak. So I grew up, as they say, in the southwest of England. And it’s quite a strong farming community down there. And, they speak in a very different way. It’s just living abroad for a long time, it’s slowly worked its way out of the system. Someone said to me the other day if I was still talking like that, Headspace would never have been what it was. And it might be true, but this is the voice my parents gave me. And it’s the one you get to listen to.

On Living and Leaving Life as a Monk

Watson: How did you get into this in the first place?

Puddicombe: Yeah. It’s pretty wild. … Again, I point to my mom. I think we started meditating with her, Carlos, when we were 10 or 11 years old when my parents were going through a divorce. And that planted the seed for sure. But then a little bit in life, I got an extra kind of push. I was standing with a group of friends outside a party, Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, and a drunk driver crashed into the group.

I was one of three that didn’t get hit by the car, but pretty much everyone else did. A couple of friends died. A lot of people went into the hospital kind of really critically injured. For me that was a real moment of kind of reckoning, and a lot of soul-searching at an age where I wasn’t really equipped for soul-searching. I was 18 years old, 19 years old maybe. It set me off on a path where the only thing that made sense was to go and try and understand my mind in a way that I couldn’t from books.

Watson: Yeah, but not everybody decides to become a celibate monk …

Puddicombe: Yeah. I hear it. It’s a funny thing. I tend to be very spontaneous. I tend to listen to my heart, my gut and just jump into things. And sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t, and I took the same approach to being a monk. At the moment, nothing else made sense to me. To me, it felt like a legit calling.

Watson: How long were you a monk for? And what’s it like being a monk?

Puddicombe: I think it’s actually a fascinating thing. That whole journey was about 10 years of going away and training to become a monk and then train as a novice monk and eventually becoming a fully ordained monk. I think during that time, I obviously learned a lot about myself. I think I learned a lot as well about that journey. The truth is it was really challenging to begin with. And it took a long time to settle in.

I don’t know how you think about it Carlos, but I always thought meditation was this process of sitting down, closing the eyes and then just kind of shutting off the mind. And because of that, it was a painful and incredibly disappointing process because I thought I was terrible at it, because I couldn’t switch my mind off. And then all of a sudden I found warmth in my meditation, I found a kindness in my meditation, I found love in my meditation.

Watson: So what made you finally leave the monastery?

Puddicombe: I was living in Moscow, and I was meeting a lot of people who were really benefiting from meditation, but who didn’t necessarily, they didn’t want to hang out with a Buddhist monk and they weren’t necessarily wanting to be Buddhist, they weren’t necessarily wanting to learn all the ritualism of Buddhism. But the meditation was making a difference. And it just got me, it was the beginning of starting to think, OK, is there a different way of presenting it?

If this is an obstacle to people learning an invaluable life skill, then maybe I should think twice about, how I’m dressed and what I’m wearing. So I spoke to my teacher and it was an interesting conversation. He had his doubts, but at the same time he was very supportive, but that was really the beginning of that journey of thinking how to demystify, how to take it out of a religious context, put it into a secular context, and just try and make it more accessible for folks.

Watson: Tell me about this new TV show you’re doing.

Puddicombe: We got together with Netflix a couple of years ago. When the pandemic started, we sat down together, the various teams, and said, “OK, well, what could we do to help people at home right now?” Headspace has always been heavy on animation; it’s kind of how we try to convey a lot of our ideas and to make it feel more playful, more accessible. So we said, “Well, let’s make an animated TV show.” And we called it the Headspace Guide to Meditation. And it was really just another medium, another platform for sharing this thing.