By Lizzie Widdicombe // This article was originally posted on newyorker.com.
ast April, in New York City, three thousand people gathered for thrive, yet another ted-style ideas conference offering mental and spiritual rejuvenation to the business world. It was organized by the “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski and the new-media mogul Arianna Huffington, and conceived, Huffington said, to correct a problem that she had perceived in herself and other harried strivers. According to the event’s Web site, “The relentless pursuit of the traditional measures of success—money and power”—had resulted in an “epidemic of burnout”: stress-related illnesses, relationship problems. In addition to frantically pursuing the traditional measures, it was time to introduce a “ ‘Third Metric’—a combination of well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.”
thrive’s speakers included women with expertise in the first two metrics: Katie Couric, Tory Burch. But a keynote address was delivered by a Third Metric expert: Andy Puddicombe, a forty-two-year-old British meditation teacher. Puddicombe trained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk before creating an iPhone app called Headspace, which teaches meditation and mindfulness techniques. Since 2012, when the app launched, Headspace has been downloaded by three million users. Among its acolytes are Richard Branson, who put the company’s meditation exercises on Virgin Airlines flights, and the Seattle Seahawks. The Times has written that Puddicombe is “doing for meditation what someone like Jamie Oliver has done for food.”
The main stage at thrive, which accompanied Huffington’s best-selling book of the same title, resembled a living room, with soothing lighting, couches heaped with silk pillows, and sprays of cherry blossoms. In between speakers, Huffington and Brzezinski bantered with the audience about habits that keep Type A women from thriving. “Judging yourself,” Brzezinski said. The audience groaned in recognition.
Finally, Huffington introduced Puddicombe, whose name made her stumble: “Addie Paddicombe is here to demystify meditation and help us get deeper into life.”
Brzezinski added, to titters, “You’re not going to think ‘monk’ when he walks onstage!”
Puddicombe emerged to a flourish of piano music, holding a set of juggling balls. He is bald, with blue eyes and a deep tan, and he looks as much like a personal trainer as like a personal guru. (Headspace bills itself as a “gym membership for the mind.”) He speaks with the kind of Estuary English accent that you might encounter in a London pub. Puddicombe started off by taking an informal poll. “How many of you meditate?” he asked. Many hands went up.
“Wow!” he said. “A very enlightened audience!”
Puddicombe’s surprise might have been exaggerated. For several years now, the overlapping worlds of business and self-help have been abuzz about mindfulness meditation. (In February, an executive coach opined in the Harvard Business Review that mindfulness “is close to taking on cult status in the business world.”) The World Economic Forum, in Davos, opens with daily meditation sessions; Fortune 500 companies like General Mills, General Motors, and Target offer their employees contemplative programs, embracing Huffington’s message that enlightenment need not be at odds with the pursuit of profit. Goldman Sachs and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have bought bulk subscriptions to Headspace for their employees.
As with many contemporary trends, Silicon Valley was there first. Meditation was one of the habits that seeped from San Francisco’s counterculture into its hacker culture. For years, its high priest was Steve Jobs, a Zen enthusiast. These days, it’s Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer who, in 2007, helped create Search Inside Yourself, a “mindfulness-based emotional intelligence” course that has since been taken by thousands of the company’s employees. Tan told David Gelles, the author of “Mindful Work,” that Google’s program represents “the fourth turning of the wheel of the dharma.” Eastern spirituality seasons much of today’s techno-utopianism. HBO’s “Silicon Valley” includes a C.E.O. who consults a guru and says things like “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.”*
Silicon Valley’s interest in meditation is, in some respects, adaptive. “We’re at the epicenter of being stimulated with digital stuff,” Mamoon* Hamid, a venture investor at Social Capital, told me. “Five years ago, it was just e-mail. Now if you’re not on Twitter, if you don’t know how to use social, you’re a Luddite. And then you add the Apple Watch that’s going to be giving you notifications every five minutes—text messages, e-mails. It’s going to drive you insane.” Stewart Butterfield, the C.E.O. of Slack, noted that this is a fate that awaits us all. “I feel like we’re in the early stages of a species-level change with devices,” he told me.
All of this has led to a strange but perhaps inevitable oxymoron: digital therapy. A new class of app has emerged on iPhone screens, promising to relieve the mental afflictions—stress, distraction—that have been exacerbated by its neighbors. A venture-funded company called Big Health is developing a suite of cognitive-behavioral-therapy apps. (Its first product, Sleepio, treats insomnia.) And though Hamid considers Headspace to be the best mindfulness-meditation app, in terms of its “content and sophistication,” there are many others, including buddhify, which collects data via daily “mood check-ins”; Calm, which offers meditation exercises set to soothing nature scenes; and Insight Timer, which provides Tibetan bell sounds. Huffington has an app, too, called GPS for the Soul. [cartoon id=”a19213″]
At thrive, Puddicombe brought up the health benefits sought by some meditators—better sleep, lower blood pressure—before getting to the heart of the matter: attention. He cited a 2010 Harvard study about mind-wandering: “Forty-seven per cent of our life is spent lost in thought. Distracted!” If we meditate a lot, “it’s almost like there’s a little more room, a bit of space in the mind.” Then he moved into a juggling routine meant to illustrate the advantages of the meditated mind. The hosts joined him for a Q. & A. that included his life story, Brzezinski’s iPhone addiction, and inspirational quotes, supplied by Huffington. (Rumi: “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.”)
“Meditation” is hard to define, because the word can apply to so many things. In the broadest sense, it is any method used to train the mind or to achieve a special state of consciousness. Many Westerners were introduced to the concept in 1968, when the Beatles took up Transcendental Meditation, the mantra-based technique created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Mindfulness, the technique du jour, derives from Buddhist practices. Instead of focussing on a mantra, you try to pay attention to bodily sensations and the breath. By doing this regularly, practitioners say, you begin to cultivate an attentive, nonjudgmental mind-set—mindfulness—that can be applied to activities beyond meditation; hence the proliferation of the word in everything from parenting groups to Weight Watchers meetings. Last year, the Huffington Post ran an article titled “Mindfulness for Mind-Blowing Sex.”
The popularity of mindfulness has, inevitably, provoked a backlash. Skeptics dismiss it as the new aromatherapy, portraying Puddicombe and his ilk as snake-oil salesmen in religious robes. But Headspace has attracted a passionate fan base; its users tend to stay with the app, and their numbers are growing at a rate of fifteen per cent a month. Catherine Kerr, a neuroscientist at Brown, told me, “Just in the last five months, I’ve talked to several people using Headspace. They’ve all reported these hard-to-quantify benefits that have to do with attention, equanimity, alertness, and being able to deal with daily life.” Among my friends in New York, I’d noticed something similar. A d.j. told me that it had cured his anxiety: “It’s like having a monk in your pocket.”
Last year, following a period during which a combination of stress, caffeine, and Instagram addiction had me in a constant state of low-level hysteria, I downloaded Headspace. The app begins with a free sample program: ten minutes of meditation exercises for ten days. After that, it costs thirteen dollars a month, for meditation “packs” with titles like “Focus” and “Self-Esteem.” The app has a slick, pastel-colored interface—no Buddhas or rushing waterfalls. Instead, you get Puddicombe’s voice—“Hi, my name’s Andy”—chatting amiably about “training the mind,” which sounds at least as wholesome as a juice cleanse.
The rest of the Headspace app consists of three hundred and fifty hours’ worth of guided meditation lessons, delivered by Puddicombe. The basics of mindfulness meditation are easy to find—you can download instructions from the Web. But, Puddicombe told Brzezinski at thrive, “I liken it to driving a car. It’s helpful to have someone sit there with you at first.” With noise-cancelling headphones, the app creates a surprisingly intimate experience—Puddicombe could be whispering in your ear. He starts each session with a “checking in” routine, the contemplative equivalent of buckling your seat belt and adjusting the rearview mirror. He tells you to take a few deep breaths, to notice any background noise (instead of blocking it out, or screaming at its creator to shut up), and to become aware of “the different physical sensations . . . the weight of the body, the contact between the body and the chair.” Slowly, he draws attention to your breath, which you count in sets of ten. Puddicombe savors the breath the way some people do wine. He talks about it appreciatively, pointing out its protozoan wisdom (“Remember, the body knowshow to breathe”), its soothing rhythm, its oceanic rise and fall.
The seconds pass slowly. You seem to drop, briefly, into another dimension—the realm of quiet walks and kindergarten nap time. Like travel, the chief boon of meditation might be the way that it throws the place you came from into relief. I’d never noticed what an incredible racket was going on in my mind: to-do lists, scraps of conversation, ancient memories. Sometimes Puddicombe’s voice would register as a distant peep. As calm set in, I’d occasionally achieve a few seconds of relaxed concentration—the meditative grail—which felt as if I were walking on a balance beam. Just as often, I’d lose the thread and nod off completely, or begin composing angry e-mails. Puddicombe’s voice would interject. “It’s perfectly normal to be distracted,” he’d say. “Just bring the attention gently back to the breath.”
Meditative techniques were widespread in northern India by the time that Gautama Buddha was born, around 480 B.C. Ascetics roamed the countryside, wearing rags and begging for their meals, and the Buddha became one of them. He famously achieved enlightenment—his insights about the cause of suffering and the way to end it—while meditating under a pipal tree. The Buddha taught his followers that practicing meditation was crucial to preparing their minds for enlightenment.
For most of Buddhism’s history, however, meditation wasn’t actually practiced that much, outside of monasteries. “There’s an expression in Burmese Buddhism, ‘A thousand lives away,’ ” Erik Braun, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, told me. Buddhists generally believed that the world was so corrupt that the average person couldn’t hope to attain enlightenment in a single lifetime. Monks were on a spiritual fast track—so meditation was great for them—but ordinary people focussed on praying and making donations to monasteries, in the hope of increasing their karma and being reborn as more spiritual beings. [cartoon id=”a19358″]
This changed in the late nineteenth century, when the British invaded Burma, and Christian missionaries set about converting the populace. Fearing that their religion was being destroyed, Buddhist monks began to teach laypeople the practices of the monasteries, in order to preserve them. One monk, the Ledi Sayadaw, travelled the country, encouraging people to study complicated philosophical texts, and to try meditation for themselves. Traditionally, meditation followed a rigorous curriculum, but the Sayadaw created a pared-down version for the masses. He argued that laypeople might not be ready for enlightenment, but they could still cultivate “insight,” by practicing moment-to-moment awareness.
Along with his successors—including S. N. Goenka, the creator of Vipassana, or “insight” meditation—the Sayadaw and other Burmese teachers transformed Buddhism. “They rebranded it, in essence,” David McMahan, the author of “The Making of Buddhist Modernism,” told me. (This transformation is sometimes referred to as Buddhist Protestantism.) Lay-Buddhist meditation began to spread across Asia in the nineteen-twenties. By the sixties, it had made its way to the West, where it became embedded in the era’s counterculture.
In the West, a lot of credit for the modern mindfulness movement goes to one person: Jon Kabat-Zinn. In 1965, Kabat-Zinn, a graduate student in molecular biology at M.I.T., attended a lecture by the American-born Zen teacher Philip Kapleau. “I started my meditation practice that day, virtually,” he told me. Later, while working in a lab at the University of Massachusetts, he developed an eight-week program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or M.B.S.R., to help patients at the university hospital who were being treated for severe medical conditions. The program incorporates both formal and informal mindfulness techniques: yoga, body scans, and such practices as mindful eating.
According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness teaches people to “find new ways to be in relationship to their pain”—mainly, to separate physical sensations from the emotions and fears surrounding them. “So when the thought arises, for instance, This is killing me!, instead of believing it, you investigate it. Is this killing me? No. Really, what you’re doing is worrying.” M.B.S.R. is now widely used in the medical field to help people suffering from everything from asthma to depression. Because it’s standardized—and secular—it’s become the method of choice for scientists studying meditation.
This isn’t to say that M.B.S.R. feels clinical. At a class that I attended in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I tried out short meditation sessions before spending about fifteen minutes mindfully eating a raisin—touching it, investigating it, biting off a tiny piece. The class was populated by young professionals. One student observed that the raisin “made me think of grapes, which made me think of wine and how I’d like to have a glass after this.”
Puddicombe grew up in a town called Keynsham, between Bristol and Bath, where he had no access to Zen masters. “My friends’ parents were either working in the local print shop or they were builders, electricians, plumbers,” he told me. His father worked at a nursing home. Puddicombe’s parents divorced when he was eleven, and his mother, an acupuncturist, took a meditation class in an effort to cope with the stress. Andy tried it, too, and, he said, “everything went kind of quiet for a few minutes.” He meditated for several years before his interests gravitated toward more traditional areas: “Sports—football, rugby, tennis, gymnastics—girls, and booze.”
On Christmas Eve of 1992, Puddicombe was eighteen*, and studying sports science at De Montfort University, when he left a party with a group of friends. A drunk driver plowed into the crowd, killing several people and putting twelve others in intensive care. Puddicombe wasn’t hurt, but he witnessed everything. Soon afterward, his stepsister died in a bicycling accident. He couldn’t shake the tragedies. “They lurked in the mind,” he told me. Back at school, sports no longer interested him; neither did partying. One day, in his dorm room, Puddicombe had a strange experience. “It’s a very difficult thing to put into words,” he told me. “I felt—the only way I can say it is ‘deeply moved.’ ” The feeling lasted for several hours, Puddicombe said. When it ended, he knew what to do with his life: become a Buddhist monk. “It didn’t feel like a choice,” he said.
Puddicombe left college and, for the next ten years, lived in Buddhist monasteries. He started out in Nepal and India, and made his way to a monastery in Burma, where he became a novice monk in the Theravadan tradition, which is “quite strict,” he said. His first retreat involved nine hours of walking meditation and nine hours of sitting meditation every day. His teacher was a Burmese monk who spoke no English, and Puddicombe didn’t speak Burmese, but they met for daily check-ins. “Some days he’d smile, and I’d smile back. Sometimes my face would be drawn, like, Meditation. And he’d nod.”
On a trip back to England, Puddicombe visited Samyeling, a Tibetan monastery in Scotland, where he met Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, a bearded, stout Tibetan with a bright personality. “He was almost mischievous,” Puddicombe said. Yeshe had spent twelve years in retreat and was known for his zealous commitment to meditation. “He was inspired by the great yogis in Tibet,” Puddicombe said. Chief among them was Milarepa—a tenth-century aristocrat who began meditating so that he could learn sorcery, to get back at his neighbors. He ended up going down a contemplative rabbit hole, dedicating his life to meditation, writing poetry, and living in a cave. [cartoon id=”maslin-2006-02-06″]
In 2001, Puddicombe did a year-long cloistered retreat at Samyeling, which included four-hour meditation sessions, four times a day. He discovered a new feeling. “The only way I can describe it is as a subtlety of mind,” he said. He experienced “a dissolution of self and other, where I no longer felt so separate from the world.” It took about two years for the experience to “settle,” but when it did, Puddicombe said, he was a different person. “I found I was no longer searching for anything,” he told me. He was thirty years old.
Headspace recently set up its headquarters in Venice Beach, Los Angeles—around the corner from Google’s offices and the wellness mecca Moon Juice. When I visited, on a seventy-degree day this winter, I wondered briefly if I’d arrived in Nirvana. Puddicombe walks to work, at an indoor-outdoor space that’s filled with relaxed Millennials, typing on laptops. He is married to a British woman named Lucinda, who is an exercise physiologist, and they recently had a baby. His days are spent writing a book about mindful pregnancy—users requested it—and teaching meditation, alone in a recording booth.
Among a certain set, Puddicombe is a celebrity—although what people tend to recognize is his voice. When I met him for lunch, at a Venice café, I noticed that the couple at the next table kept staring at us. Finally, the man said, “Excuse me—are you Andy?” He turned out to be a Headspace devotee; he had once worked as a derivatives trader at Goldman Sachs, and had recently retired. “I wish I’d found this stuff when I was younger. Maybe I’d still be working.” He said that meditation had eased his anxiety. “You know how you can spiral on things and keep repeating things? It’s very helpful with that.”
Puddicombe smiled. “I love hearing how people are using it,” he said.
The man muttered, dreamily, “It’s so surreal to hear your voice.”
The next morning, at eight-thirty, Puddicombe picked me up, along with Rich Pierson, his business partner, a thirty-four-year-old British man, who wore sneakers and shorts. They’d wanted to take me surfing; according to Puddicombe, the sport is one reason that Headspace is based in California. After years of sitting, he was eager to move around again. The partners now discuss company issues during surf sessions every morning, off Santa Monica Beach. (After meditating, of course. Puddicombe meditates for about an hour, using a combination of “visualization and awareness techniques” that he learned at the monastery, and vowed to practice every day for the rest of his life.) It had rained, however, and the water was too polluted for surfing, so, to my secret relief, we went on a hike instead. On the Los Leones trail, Puddicombe set off bouncily through the brush. He took a mindful breath and said, “The air is so lovely and clear after the rain!”
Headspace was created in London. Puddicombe, who in 2004 had handed in his monk’s robes, was working at a medical clinic, teaching meditation to patients who were being treated for such problems as high blood pressure and insomnia. The clinic was situated in the City, and the financial crisis was in full swing, so many of his patients were stressed-out bankers. He shrank his monastic teachings to fit a ten-week meditation course. The bankers could be a tough audience, and Puddicombe soon realized that, if he wanted to engage them, he’d have to make some changes. He translated Sanskrit and Tibetan terms into English, and eliminated some of the trippier exercises, like “visualizing bright white lights,” he said. “It gets into a space, for some people, where it feels a bit frightening.” In the monastery, an hour of meditation was considered a brief session, but that didn’t fly with Puddicombe’s clients. “I realized early on that it had to feel manageable,” he said. He set about condensing the exercises into short chunks: twenty or even ten minutes. It worked—perhaps too well. By the end of the course, several traders had quit their jobs, one to start a landscaping business, another to open a yoga studio.
Pierson was one of his students. When he came to see Puddicombe, he was a young director at BBH, a corporate ad firm, with an anxiety problem. He took to meditation right away. “It sounds glib, but it did change my life pretty quickly,” Pierson said. Before long, he, too, had quit his job, and he and Puddicombe went into business together, borrowing fifty thousand dollars from Pierson’s father. Pierson recalled, “He said he thought it was the worst business idea he had heard, but he believed if anyone could do it Andy and I could.” (Apart from Headspace employees, the two men, and their friends and family, are the only owners of the business.)
Pierson brings out the non-monk side of Puddicombe. They call each other old nicknames, Richie and Pudsy, or just “mate.” “We have similar types of friends,” Pierson said. “They’re, like, blokes.” He argued that this background—blokedom—had prepared them for one of Headspace’s challenges: marketing meditation to men. Pierson said that many males are closet meditators. “The beauty of having an app is that I can do it anywhere, and I don’t have to tell anyone about it.” He talked about the social isolation he’d experienced after “coming out” as a meditation enthusiast. Puddicombe snorted. “Try talking to your mates in a pub when you’re wearing a skirt,” he said.
By now, we were high on the mountain trail. We stopped to look out at the ocean, which was rough after the storm. Puddicombe salivated over the waves. “That’s some corduroy,” he said to Pierson. “Look at it peeling!” [cartoon id=”sipress-2000-02-07″]
I asked if it was possible to be a mindful surfing addict. “I think surfing lends itself particularly well to being present,” Puddicombe said. He thought some more. “And there’s an analogy for life. Sometimes there will be waves, you know? Sometimes just little ones, sometimes big and exciting ones, sometimes really big, terrifying ones.” But, he added, we can’t live for waves alone. “A lot of life, actually, is spent just being in the water.” Puddicombe is full of these kinds of insights and analogies, which, though earnestly delivered, have a way of sounding as if they were lifted from a decorative pillow. I mentioned this, as delicately as possible. Puddicombe sighed. “I know,” he said. “It can sound incredibly trite. Be present, let go, don’t judge. Without the experience”—of meditation—“they’re kind of meaningless.”
Headspace has better luck appealing to skeptics by, as Puddicombe said, “pulling the science lever.” As technologies for studying the brain have improved, a new field of inquiry has emerged, sometimes called contemplative neuroscience, which examines the effects of meditation on the brain. The preliminary findings of the studies are reported breathlessly: recent headlines in the Times include “meditation for a good night’s sleep” and “exercising the mind to treat attention deficits.” Headspace, which employs a chief medical officer, Dr. David Cox, has a promotional pamphlet that relates an array of “Quantifiable Positive Outcomes of Mindfulness Training.” These range from “stress and anxiety reduction” to “immune function,” “compassion,” and “heart health.” When it comes to psoriasis, Headspace notes, referring to a paper co-authored by Kabat-Zinn, “the meditators’ skin cleared around four times faster than the non-meditators.” This can make meditation seem like a wonder drug: Adderall, Prozac, and Proactiv rolled into one.
While it’s true that a recent metastudy found that mindfulness meditation produces effects that are equivalent to those of antidepressants, scientists caution that the research is in its early stages. Most of the studies are pilot studies, and many lack an “active control”—a kind of meditative sugar pill, to guard against the placebo effect. (Headspace is considering developing a fake meditation app.) Bias can cloud the results, too. As one review put it, wryly, “Many researchers are enthusiastic meditators themselves.” Kerr, the neuroscientist, said that if you join “a mindfulness group or get an app like Headspace, you should not assume that your depression will magically lift or your skin will clear up.”
Many Buddhists don’t love the wonder-drug version of meditation, either. They are bothered by the way that it has come to be adaptable to any goal, from training marines to picking investments. (A Reuters article called “Meditation and the Art of Investment” quotes Ray Dalio, of the hundred-and-seventy-billion-dollar hedge fund Bridgewater Associates: “Meditation more than anything in my life was the biggest ingredient for whatever success I’ve had.”) David McMahan, the scholar, pointed out that in Buddhism mindfulness doesn’t quite work that way: “You are supposed to be mindful of something: the teachings of the Buddha!” The teachings of the Buddha are not always warm and fuzzy, nor would they play well at a corporate retreat. The most important precept, after all, is the universal truth of suffering.
Detractors worry that secular mindfulness teachers have whitewashed the technique, dulling its self-critical edge. The management professor and Zen practitioner Ronald Purser pointed to a Stanford study that demonstrated that most workplace stress is caused by things like corporate dysfunction and job insecurity—not by “unmindful employees.” Corporations like mindfulness, he said, because it “keeps us within the fences of the neoliberal capitalist paradigm. It’s saying, ‘It’s your problem, get with the program, fix your stress, and get back to work!’ ”
Mindfulness and Meditation are only two of eight life-style choices that the Buddha instructed his followers to practice, in order to break free from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. The others involve a code of ethics. They include Right Understanding, Right Motivation, Right Livelihood (not making a living in a way that harms other beings), Right Action (not killing or hurting people), Right Speech, and Right Effort (diligence). To pluck some things from the list, while ignoring others, strikes many Buddhists as absurd. McMahan said, “It would be as if somebody went to the Catholic Church and said, ‘I don’t buy all this stuff about Jesus and God, but I really dig this Communion ritual. Would you just teach me how to do that bit? Oh, and I want to start a company marketing wafers.’ ”
Puddicombe bristles at this criticism. “I never teach meditation in isolation,” he told me. “I always teach View, Meditation, and Action. You can’t teach the View without altruism.” Indeed, much of the interstitial material on Headspace—the little chats that Puddicombe gives before and after meditation exercises, about things like listening to others—amount to dharma talks, even if he never mentions Buddhism. “What would be the purpose of doing it?” he said. “Is there any real benefit? I’m not sure there is.” Puddicombe said that his goal is to convey “the heart of the practice.” Should Headspace be selling subscriptions to the Goldman Sachses of the world, or denouncing them? Should he be scolding its Arianna Huffingtons? On these matters, as on many others, Puddicombe prefers not to judge. “I don’t think it’s for any one person to say, ‘This is how you should use this,’ ” he told me. He invoked his hero, Milarepa: “He set out to learn meditation so he could practice black magic!”
Puddicombe is neutral on the subject of the moral status of money, saying, “It’s our relationship to it and how we choose to use it.” According to Puddicombe, one online critic called him a “very greedy monk.” But if Headspace is to bring meditation to every smartphone owner in the world—and do so better than its competitors—the company can’t afford to be unmindful of its finances. Puddicombe and Pierson say they have been approached by more than fifty investors, including most of the prominent names on Sand Hill Road, the hub of venture capital. They haven’t taken any money yet, but Puddicombe said, in a somewhat resigned tone, that “it’s almost inevitable.” [cartoon id=”suits-2007-04-30″]
Mamoon Hamid, at Social Capital, said that, despite his admiration for Headspace, he has decided not to invest. His reason was Puddicombe. He told me, “It’s extremely compelling when a Buddhist monk walks in the door. It’s true to brand. It’s authentic.” But, he said, “at the end of the day, we want to create the biggest company around this concept without being shackled by your Buddhist-monk tendencies.” Headspace has an impressive number of users for a product that has spread almost entirely by word of mouth. But, Hamid said, “in order to get to two hundred million users, you have to break a lot of glass along the way. Your company will change over time, and are you O.K. with that?” In the end, he said, “you have to let go”—the dharma of Silicon Valley.
Puddicombe has no backup plan in the event that Headspace fails to become the Uber of mindfulness. But he could always go back to teaching meditation using traditional methods. On the night after our hike, he met with one of his old clients from London: John Sanders, the founder of a British salon chain called Headmasters Hair, who was in Los Angeles for a hairdressers’ convention. Sanders was staying at a hotel in Beverly Hills called the SLS, which had an ornate night-life feel, with club music throbbing. The lobby was packed with British hairdressers decked out for the evening.
Sanders is a tough-looking older man. He was dressed in a tight black T-shirt decorated with an X-ray of a hand, and was accompanied by a colleague named Mark: a large man wearing a skull T-shirt and a giant silver watch. Mark ordered a round of beers, which Puddicombe declined.
Sanders told Mark that the ex-monk had helped him sleep. Mark seemed confused. “How do you make someone sleep?”
It was becoming clear that Sanders isn’t vocal about his practice in the workplace. “I learned meditation,” he said, somewhat haltingly. “You know, relax and calm down.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “My idea of relaxing is walking the dog. If I try to meditate—I have tried—I end up with other thoughts. Like—a Danish pastry comes into my head!”
Sanders took a helpful tone. “Well, not that I’m a teacher, but what Andy taught me is that is perfectly normal.”
“Yes,” Puddicombe said. “It’s part of the process.”
“Well, then, in that case I think I’m meditating now,” Mark said. He grinned mischievously, and added, “The Danish pastry was a euphemism for something else!”
“It really helped me sleep, though,” Sanders said.
Sanders and Puddicombe began discussing his practice. “What are you reading?” Puddicombe asked.
“I’ve read most of Pema Chödrön,” Sanders said, referring to the author, the abbess of Gampo Abbey, in Nova Scotia.
Puddicombe nodded. “You read that first Chögyam Trungpa, the ‘Spiritual Materialism’?”
“I did. Difficult book.”
Puddicombe prescribed some additional exercises for Sanders, referring to them by their Tibetan names. “They’re called the Four Ordinary Foundations,” he said. “Because they precede the Four Extraordinary Foundations. Tibetans are quite grand.”
The exercises, which are performed at the beginning of monastic training, involve asking yourself a question about each of a series of important topics before you meditate. Puddicombe has renamed the topics in English: Appreciation, Change, Cause and Effect.
“The final one sounds bleak when you do the Tibetan translation,” he said. “I think it’s the Truth of Suffering.”
Sanders exclaimed, “Ha!”
Puddicombe smiled. “I changed it to Acceptance.” ♦
*An earlier version of this article misstated the year and Puddicombe’s age at the time of the accident.
**An earlier version of this article misquoted the line from “Silicon Valley.”
***An earlier version of this article misspelled Hamid’s first name.
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