Headspace app co-founder and monk Andy Puddicombe talks mindfulness

The man behind the meditation talks to Rachel Jacqueline about escaping from a monastery

H I was born in London but grew up in Bristol. My parents weren't particularly happy, there was a lot of arguing in the house, so I used my humour to deal with it. Mum was progressive, though. She was a counsellor. She wouldn't take us to the doctor, she'd take us to an acupuncturist, and there were yogurt cultures growing in our kitchen. She took me to my first meditation class when I was 11. When my parents got divorced, meditation made me feel better. I embraced it - up until the age of 14, when my friends told me it was weird. I realised other parents didn't take their kids to meditation on a Monday night.

Early one Christmas morning, I was standing outside a pub with a group of friends. I had just stepped away from them when a drunk driver came flying down the road, really fast, ploughing into the group. The car killed two people and put 12 in intensive care. Three months later, my stepsister was run over while riding her bike and soon after a close friend died in heart surgery. Those six months raised some serious questions. I went travelling to get away, but those questions still simmered.

If you ask my friends, they'll say, "Andy went out and drank 10 pints of beer one night and wanted to be a monk." In my mind, it didn't happen that way. One afternoon at university, I just felt really moved. Sounds ridiculous in hindsight. They talk about callings, but that's what it was. It was clear what I was going to do: go and be a monk. I quit university that afternoon. My journey started in northern India, practising as a novice monk in the Tibetan tradition. I found it completely overwhelming. The Tibetan lineage is so rich in its cultural heritage and rituals. It was too much. I later travelled to Myanmar, where I spent five years at a school in the Burmese Buddhist tradition.

The life of a monk starts early. During a retreat, you get up at 2.30am and start meditating at 3am. In the Burmese tradition, you spend 17 to 18 hours a day meditating, alternated between walking and sitting. You only sleep three to four hours a day. To begin with, you feel tired. But eventually that tiredness leaves your system. At many times I struggled. I remember during one silent retreat, I was walking very slowly towards this sweet old Bangladeshi monk. As we got closer, I looked up and he looked up, too. But you're not supposed (to speak). He leaned in and said, "It's really hard, isn't it?" It meant so much knowing someone else was finding it as difficult as I was. Staying healthy was also a challenge in Asia. Dysentery is not great when you're meditating all day and have to walk mindfully to the toilet. To improve my health, I moved back to a monastery in the UK.

I don't want to call it a cult. But you go in, say goodbye to your family then they lock the door. After three months I thought I was going mad. But they wouldn't let me leave. One night I waited until midnight and went to the end of the garden, climbed up a pine tree and legged it over the wall. That experience drew me back to the Tibetan tradition, in which I became a fully ordained monk.

After a year-long retreat with no contact with the outside world, I moved to Russia and spent four years teaching meditation. (At the end) I was in Moscow with six months left on my "monk" visa, wondering how to get home. As a monk, you give away everything: your clothes, your money - everything. I had been going to circus school with a friend in Russia, to rebuild some muscle strength, and realised (joining a circus course in Britain) would be a great option, as students in the UK get access to a lot of funding. So I essentially moved back to London, studied circus by day and at night worked at the practice of a holistic doctor teaching mindfulness and meditation.

While teaching in London, a mutual friend suggested Rich (Pierson) and I meet. He was burned out from the advertising industry and into meditation. We immediately connected. We'd had a similar experience of trying to explain mindfulness to mates. Straight away Rich's creative mind was thinking about putting content online, creating the "Nike Plus" of mindfulness. I didn't get it at first. I didn't know what the internet was completely; I didn't have email or a mobile phone. I only got a Facebook account six months ago. So we started with a book and workshops. In 2010, we were down to our last US$50,000, from the book advance. Headspace, an app for meditation narrated by myself, was the last roll of the dice. After putting the app together in beta, we were very lucky: newspaper picked up what we were doing and paid for one million booklets to go in the newspaper advertising the app. That really got us started.

Am I happier now? That's an incredibly hard question to answer. There is beauty in the simplicity of living in a monastery. It has its challenges, but life is simple. There are times when we're in the middle of craziness at work with Headspace and I stop and think, "Wow, [being a monk] was really nice." But equally, I have the most amazing wife and an incredible son, and I get to be part of an amazing project with a passionate team of people, and we go out and do something good in the world. I no longer meditate for 16 hours a day, but I try and do an hour every morning. But I'm practical about it. The point of studying all those years was not about being proficient at sitting like a statue. It was about developing stability of awareness. So when you leave the monastery there is no separation between sitting in prayer, drinking a cup of tea or talking to you now.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Andy Puddicombe