The story of Headspace is analogous to the story of secular mindfulness. Both sprouted in the Nineties, budded in the Noughties and blossomed in the Tens. Both took their cue from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn et al. and Buddhist source materials. Both achieved a rapid advance in popularity. Both have not always dealt gracefully with their fame and, at times, have suffered from a kind of identity crisis.
What is often omitted in the telling of these stories is how the humble mental quality of mindfulness and its liberating potential got exploited by powerful forces in the fields of commerce, health and education. What is lost in the process is access to a deeper, more interesting story – one that many of us will identify with. It’s one that begins, as many old stories do, with human strife giving rise to a quest for a solution, perhaps even salvation, only for that quest to depreciate into a sloppy hunt for comfort and calm. In other words, a story about messy compromise.
The Headspace story starts with a business partnership between Andy Puddicombe, an ambitious ex-Buddhist monk, and Rich Pierson, a burned-out ex-deodorant salesman. With money borrowed from Pierson’s father, they became the first company to produce a mindfulness app for our phones. In the last decade, their company has become a multimillion-dollar operation and one of the biggest digital meditation providers in the world.
There is also a backstory, which is often described as extraordinary in regards to Puddicombe, whose former life as a Buddhist monk was essential for Headspace to claim authenticity, attract investment and garner those all-important celebrity endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey. Until recently, Puddicombe was the face and the voice of the company and its sole content provider. His personal story is so regularly referenced and rehashed in the media that you might know it already. If not, it goes like this.
In his twenties, prompted by existential torment, Puddicombe decided to leave his life as a Sports Science undergraduate and follow a powerful “calling” to go to the Himalayas to become a Buddhist monk. This he did for 10 years, renouncing all worldly attachments and travelling between monasteries in India, Nepal, Thailand, Burma, Australia and Europe. He studied and practised with several meditation masters during this time, spending “five years in the Burmese tradition and then five in the Tibetan tradition.”
In 2004, having “completed his monastic commitment”, he returned to the UK to share his meditation expertise with a secular audience through a consultancy he set up in London. Here, he met Pierson, his future business partner, at which point they agreed a skill-swap: Andy taught Rich meditation in exchange for Rich giving Andy marketing advice for his consultancy. Soon after, the pair set up an events company offering mindfulness sessions before going on to develop the Headspace mobile app. Next, they relocated to Los Angeles where they made a cool fortune through their enthusiastic embrace of corporate wellness culture. Andy asserts his intention was simply to “demystify” meditation and make it accessible to as many people as possible.
This rendering of Andy’s story, replicated across a decade’s worth of media profiles and interviews, has echoes of the hero’s journey. He is presented as a kind of 21st Century techno-buddha, a young man who was prompted by life’s suffering to risk everything in a radical quest for truth and freedom. After a decade of renunciation and gruelling spiritual practice in far-flung lands he returned to share profound teachings, via the ‘skilful means’ of smart technology, that would inspire countless people to better mental health.
The extraordinariness of this story is a good example of an established tendency, particularly within the media, to exalt ‘mindfulness’ as a kind of panacean technology or preternatural skill that must be transmitted by higher mortals because it is beyond average comprehension. What if that weren’t true? What if it were, in fact, the case that mindfulness is so simple, so within our capacity, that the needless mystification by self-appointed experts and a sensationalist media are major hindrances to newcomers?
If we examine the Headspace story from this counter-perspective, a more mundane version of events emerges, one that is less captivated by the thrilling romance of Andy’s story and more interested in, for example, authenticating the details of his time in the Buddhist hinterlands. For it would seem that he was a bona fide monastic for three, not 10 years, with his time in robes spent exclusively in a comfortable monastery in Scotland and an equally comfortable meditation centre in Moscow. The only evidence of his being a monk in Asia appears to be his initiation ceremony in 2001, which just happened to take place in India.
Perhaps during his time in the East Andy thought of himself as a monk as he toured countries, staying free of charge in monasteries as a lay guest and doing the two things required of such guests: practising meditation and doing routine chores (cooking etc.) that ordained monks are prohibited from undertaking? There is nothing exceptional about such a lifestyle – westerners have been doing this for decades.
As is customary for monastery guests, during some stays Andy would have opted to take what is known as a ‘temporary ordination’, which lasts for a few days or weeks. This is a symbolic commitment, akin to making one’s new year’s resolutions, that would formally lapse each time he moved on. Hence he was able to travel around, do as he pleased, carry money and live a vacationing life – none of which is permissible for a monk. This kind of spiritual tourism has been popular amongst subcultures of travellers since the 1960s, but it bears little resemblance to the strictly disciplined, hermitic lives of monastics. It is, however, indicative of modern western mindfulness culture’s tendency to associate itself with eastern wisdom traditions in fanciful ways.
Rather than being some kind of gallant spiritual investigator, Andy is better understood as a backpacker on the well-trodden ‘dharma trail’ – a sub-route of the more famous ‘hippie trail’ – that peaked in the 1990s in line with the expanding western interest in Buddhism (exemplified in movies such as Bertolucci’s Little Buddha). During this heyday period, countless idealistic and impressionable Generation Xers could be found drifting around southern Asia seeking enlightenment, their efforts punctuated with interludes lying on beaches and sustained by generous quantities of beer and banana pancakes. The more serious ones went on to form a sizeable contingent of today’s mindfulness scene in the West.
In one interview Andy admits to the randomness of his own encounter with Buddhist meditation. He describes dropping out of university with a plan to go backpacking in Thailand, only for an ex-girlfriend who was “into Buddhism” to encourage him to first check out Dharamshala, home to the Dalai Lama and a major tourist spot on India’s dharma trail. So much for his strong and insistent “calling” to monkhood.
The latter part of his journey is no less ordinary. His time as a Tibetan Buddhist junior monk teaching meditation in Russia was lonely and alienating. Unlike many fellow westerners in robes, he had chosen the minimum monastic commitment in a cushy European city. Even there, being a “bald-headed man in a skirt” was “tricky”. Teaching meditation free-of-charge to Russian bankers and oil company executives seems to have whetted his appetite for monetising his tuition skills. Since this is antithetical to a monk’s ethical code, first he needed to disrobe, which is exactly what he did once he had fulfilled his minimum commitment.
He returned to the UK assisted by a government grant to do a degree in Circus Arts. In interviews he sounds more at ease clowning around as a gymnast than he ever was as a monk. But circus work is notoriously insecure and Andy wasn’t a young man anymore. Starting Headspace was an ingenious way of combining his aptitude as a performer, his knowledge of meditation and his abiding interest in sports training to make a tidy profit. It is not incidental that Headspace’s early clients were elite sports people, professional athletes and business leaders. In the mindfulness world at that time, this was where serious money could be made. It was also where Andy, after a decade of searching, finally felt at home.
Andy’s story may raise eyebrows but it does not equate to failure on his part. Many western monks and nuns disrobe and go on to other fruitful chapters in their lives. Cap doffed to them for giving ordination a go. I get that it wasn’t right for Andy and that he wanted other things, but why all the hero’s journey puffery? It’s an unhelpful deflection from a more complex narrative. It also lacks candour. Personally, I prefer the story of the clueless bloke who went backpacking, stumbled into Buddhism, decided to be a monk for a bit, got fed up, then figured out how to make a ton of cash out of it. That’s a tale of human ignorance, imperfection and innovation worthy of a listen. Perhaps you can relate to it too. The irony is that such a story would be a delightful breath of fresh air in a mindfulness scene that is unwilling to let go of delusions of grandeur.
Business As Usual
The real Headspace story is instructive about the wider mindfulness industry. Most obviously in how it privatises a freely accessible resource – mindfulness meditation – and recasts it as a performance-enhancement technology. This can then be commercialised, gamified, cartoon-ified, whatever, for profit. The result lacks profundity. It turns practitioners into consumers and market traders. It turns the wild, unfettered liberation that fired the curiosity of young Andy into a psychic home improvement plan.
When you watch this plan in action – Headspace Guide to Meditation being one example – you can see how it consciously discourages any genuine depth of enquiry, be that psychological, philosophical, spiritual or social. Such productions are designed to soothe and pacify. It’s like being invited onto the mythological island of the lotus-eaters. Not coincidentally, it is also a masterclass in incoherence in regards to the Buddhist source material that Andy was supposedly so earnest about (this is called ‘code-switching’ by mindfulness commentators).
Note how Headspace consistently elevates Andy’s experience as a monk yet deflects its customers’ attention away from any inspection of what that means. Nor does Headspace offer any pointers on the relevance and function of any of the contemplative traditions it consciously exploits. It offers no pathways to anything but its own products. Andy’s story is promoted as vital to him yet inaccessible to the rest of us. Within this closed system, his is a lofty and noble individualism that we can only dream of. We become the lotus-eaters to his Odysseus, but with a twist: in this version of the myth Odysseus also plants the lotus tree. How fitting that the company’s latest offering on Netflix is Headspace Guide to Sleep!
So to another instructive lesson from the company on secular mindfulness: its self-absorption. It is ironic that the success of Headspace depended on Andy capitalising on his Buddhist credentials. Building the brand required him to create an identity out of having been a monk. But being a monk is all about disidentification – with ego, status, fame and praise – not to mention renunciation of worldly riches in the service of ethical living. To succeed in his venture, therefore, Andy had to invert everything a monk stands for and substitute it for a contrary ethic, rooted in egocentricity and personal gain, that would appeal to a marketplace trading in novelty and sensation.
What happened to ‘mindfulness’ in the process? It got converted into a tool for directing initiates, who were also consumers, to fixate on and bolster self-ish concerns. The effects were about as far as you can get from the ancient teachings of wisdom and compassion that Andy was supposedly channelling to a new audience. We were sold an empty shell masquerading as the real thing.
This goes some way to explaining why the ‘mindfulness revolution’ has led to a messy surrender in a mire of confusions that continue to dumbfound its professional class. What is happiness? What is liberating? Where are the causes of stress located? How do ethics relate to practice? What is the self? What about interdependence? No theory, application or randomised control trial have cracked any of these crucial questions. The professionals scratch their heads and, more often than not, shove them back into the sand.
To paraphrase some wisdom from Andy’s Tibetan teachers, if you watch things for long enough you find out what’s really going on. In the West, we are now inheriting the results of our initial engagement with meditation technologies. Some of us are also owning up to our missteps and considering how best to proceed. Headspace has been part of our collective journey and it offers salient lessons – some about colonisation and commodification, others about cashing-in and selling-out. Bear in mind how Andy started out as a self-appointed conduit of eastern wisdom only to become a self-confessed “performing monkey” for his own company. He ended up taking early retirement to spend more time surfing. Let’s see that trajectory for what it is.
On the brighter side, Andy succeeded in his mission to make meditation accessible to many more people and for that he can be commended. He provided an entry point and a platform from which many could sample mindfulness for the first time. People I have spoken to who know him, including teachers, describe him as likeable and charming. With Headspace he may have meant well but his attempt to “demystify” Buddhist meditation utterly failed through a combination of his lack of discernment and his lack of self-reflexivity. These deficits are evident across Headspace's product range, all of which belong in the garden hermitage wing of mindfulness.
It’s a shame the degree to which mindfulness in the West has been co-opted, contorted, hyped and spun for self-serving ends by people who should know better. Everyone loses out, not least on the juicy tales of romantic quests degrading into business plans and existential enquiries being subsumed into manualised interventions. We miss out on other rich plotlines too, such as how white privilege, cultural appropriation and self-aggrandisement stifle honest searches for how to live well in an interconnected world. In so doing, we easily overlook how the story of western mindfulness has been less derring-do and more about not digging in. In a nutshell, it’s a story of mediocrity. Nothing special. No big deal. Now, that’s a good story. That cuts through to something real, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what mindfulness is for? Isn’t that a story worth hearing?