People are being drawn towards mindfulness by the social and political uncertainty around Brexit, Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of meditation app Headspace has told HuffPost UK, saying that there is “no question” that current feeling around leaving the EU could be a factor.
“The uncertainty in life and the division there seems to be in society now, I think those things amplify our emotions and the things that we experience,” he said. “It is very natural and quite understandable why so many people are looking for things like meditation and mindfulness to help them cope with those challenges.”
Headspace, which Puddicombe launched with Rich Pierson in 2010, now has 42 million global members – around 12 million of which members joined in the last six months alone. The UK and US remain the app’s top two markets.
Meditation has become mainstream in recent years – but it has been around for more than two and a half thousand years, Puddicombe notes. “There were no mobile phones then, there was no social media, there might have been some political tensions, I don’t know. But I do think right now, the pace and the intensity of life is that much greater.”
When Headspace first launched nine years ago, Puddicombe says he was met with scepticism when he spoke about mindfulness. “I think more people associated mediation with a hippy culture, with people sitting around cross-legged on the floor burning incense. And because of that I think people really struggled to see how it was relevant to modern day life,” he said.
But something convinced us to give it a go. There are now more than 1,000 mindfulness apps available to download and in 2018, The Global Wellness Institute valued the wellness industry at $4.2 trillion, with products for the mind driving much of the growth.
Beyond social and political uncertainty, Puddicombe believes our always-on, digital culture is prompting people to try and find calm – often through digital mindfulness apps, somewhat ironically. Attitudes to mental wellbeing have also changed in the last decade, he argues, and there’s an acceptance that you might have to work at achieving a happy and healthy mind. “People are now talking openly about mental health and people are willing to be more vulnerable.”
Alongside this, he believes influential people – such as Emma Watson, Oprah Winfrey and Ryan Reynolds –“coming out of the meditation closet” have given regular folk permission to try it.
And then there’s the science. “Back when we started, there was a fair bit of science, but it wasn’t particularly robust,” Puddicombe said. More recently, multiple clinical trials have concluded that mindfulness has an impact on brain health, with some finding it reduces the likeliness of depression. A 2016 study from Carnegie Mellon University found people who practised mindfulness had lower levels of inflammation in the brain, reducing their risk of illnesses including Alzheimer’s disease.
Critics might suggest Puddicombe has sold out. Earlier this month, Russell Brand told a packed room at London’s Mindful Living Show that he was concerned about the commercialisation of mindfulness, questioning whether core concepts are being diluted in the name of profit.
But Puddicombe says he is acutely aware of striking a balance between authenticity and accessibility; it’s a topic he’s spent hours discussing with his Tibetan lama. (He used to be a Tibetan monk).
Subscriptions for Headspace are not entirely accessible: they start at £9.99 per month, or £5.99 per month if you fork out £71.88 up front for a year’s subscription. Is he concerned that mindfulness may become an elite, or middle-class pursuit? Puddicombe points out that trial meditations are available for free, and the company has also given free access to a number of NGOs, treatment and abuse centres and schools.
“Rich talks about it as the Robin Hood Method,” he jokes. “There are people in the world who are able to pay for it and would like to pay for it – and in allowing those people to do that, it allows others to do it for free.”
Puddicombe’s own journey to becoming the face of modern-day meditation is well-documented: he became a monk after cutting short a Sports Science degree when a drunk driver swerved into him and his mates as they stood outside a club, resulting in the deaths of several of his friends. Shortly after, Puddicombe’s step-sister died after she was knocked off her bike.
“There was a part of me that had just shut down and was refusing to accept those things,” he recalls. “But mindfulness definitely created an environment in which I could cope – I felt I could live again and I felt a lot lighter than I had beforehand.”
When he returned to the UK after 10 years of soul-searching, he set about sharing the life-changing lessons he’d learned at the monastery with the masses. Along with the help of his tech-savvy pal Rich Pierson, Headspace was born.
Puddicombe still meditates every day, but has had to readjust some of his own beliefs about the practice – such as the ideas that under an hour of meditation wasn’t worth it. “I’ve had to acknowledge that it’s not about how long you sit down for, it’s about the willingness to try it and the intention to commit to it on a daily basis,” he said.
As mindfulness is embraced by sports teams, schools and even prisons, Puddicombe is hopeful it’ll become as commonplace as cleaning your teeth. He’s now trying to get Headspace FDA approval in the US, meaning doctors will be able to prescribe it and insurers will foot the bill. Once secured, he’d like to explore a similar model with the NHS.
But it is regular people, he maintains, that keep him working hard. Just this week, he heard from a man who said he’s more likely to go to the gym, makes better choices around food and is more patient with his family on the days he’s meditated.
“I love that because yeah, it’s about the meditation, but it’s not really about the meditation,” he says. “It’s not about those 10 minutes of the day, it’s about how those 10 minutes can change our entire lives.”