We live in an age of anxiety; it's no wonder, then, that interest in mindfulness meditation is skyrocketing. Indeed as someone who suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I can speak personally to the therapeutic benefits of the practice.
I recently had the opportunity to talk about mindfulness with Andy Puddicombe, founder of the Headspace organization and author of Get Some Headspace: How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life in Ten Minutes a Day. When we left off in Try to Keep an Open Mind, Part 1, Andy and I were discussing the common ground between Eastern spirituality and cognitive psychology.
In this installment, we discuss the practice of meditating and why meditation doesn't have to be like eating your vegetables, as well as Andy's career in the circus, and the promise and perils of the information age:
When I first began meditating, I was extremely forceful and deliberate about it; I would command my mind to be clear of thoughts and try to will myself into some imagined state of enlightenment. In Headspace it sounds like you’ve wrestled with this as well. Is this common? What do you find is the most frequent mistake people make when starting out with meditation and mindfulness?
Most definitely. In fact this is such a common problem that it has become a central feature of the entire Headspace Journey. My own experience of training in Asian monasteries was that, in general, the monks and nuns from those countries usually expressed a tendency to apply too little effort, so they would sometimes fall asleep quite easily. However, when I lived in training centers with westerners, and when I began teaching westerners, pretty much everyone seemed to suffer from the same affliction of applying too much effort.
I’m not so sure that this is purely a cultural difference. I think it has more to do with the preconceptions we have of meditation in the west. Most people tend to begin with the idea that it is about controlling the mind in some way, so they apply a herculean effort in response. There are also the classic preconceptions that meditation is about stopping thoughts, or getting rid of emotions, all of which can interfere with the natural process of meditation.
So I would say that having some kind of expectation of a particular result or applying too much effort are the most common mistakes that people make when they’re learning.
Although I absolutely recognize its benefits, I still have difficulty motivating myself to meditate on a daily basis; sometimes it feels like I’m trying to get a kid to eat his vegetables. It seems, from reading your book, that you and others have also struggled with maintaining regular practice. Why do you think we experience such resistance to something so healthy and beneficial?
Yeah, it’s a funny thing right? A bit like exercise maybe for some people, a feeling that they ‘should’ do it, rather than wanting to do it. That’s why it’s so important that people begin meditation in their own time and in their own way. It is really counter-productive to try and ‘force’ people to meditate, no matter how much you might think they will benefit from it.
I think for many people, we live in a world with so many distractions now, with such constant stimulation of the senses, that the idea of doing nothing is boring at best and terrifying at worst. So the idea of sitting down with the mind and experiencing exactly how it is, rather than how we might like to think it is, or would like it to be, can be incredibly challenging.
But this is just habit and what we’ve become used to. It very quickly changes once we develop a regular practice and once we begin to experience the physical, emotional and mind-related benefits of that practice.
Reading your introduction, I was surprised to hear you’d worked as a circus performer before you became a monk. As a comedy writer and performer myself, I’m curious about the similarities between laughter and mindfulness—do you think there’s a connection there?
Funnily enough, it was actually after being a monk that I began my circus degree. I’d competed in acrobatics before, as well as doing theatre, but it was only after being a monk that I really embraced those things. I think a sense of play, lightness and humour is integral to a healthy life. It is part of living and therefore part of meditation—the two are not separate—we experience the same mind in both. So exploring these similarities felt like the most obvious thing in the world.
Awareness is awareness, whether we are seated with our eyes closed or walking along a tightrope. They both require balance, lightness of touch, attention, focus and all the other qualities we might associate with these activities. It is, quite simply, mindfulness in action.
However, the aspect of laughter and letting go is almost a teaching in itself. We often had to perform in clowning or theatre classes without any material prepared and with the sole intention of being in the moment. Maybe it worked out great and everybody laughed, but maybe it didn’t go so well and it bombed instead. The truth is, it didn’t really matter. The important thing was to get up there on the stage, to try something, free from hope or fear, free from expectation, open to the environment, aware of the surroundings, and playful and curious in mind. In this way, there is a letting go, a willingness to simply be present with whatever happens. It is a fascinating process and has many similarities with meditation I think.
Finally: What do you think is behind the recent surge of interest in mindfulness? You describe a society “addicted to ‘doing stuff’". Has the recent prevalence of information technology enabled this, or is it something deeper?
There are many reasons for the increase in popularity, of both meditation and mindfulness alike.
Undoubtedly the science of the mind has helped, especially where it has been shown that mindfulness benefits our health in such obvious and tangible ways. But this is also part of the way that the media are now talking about it and a willingness to make that science available and accessible to a wider audience.
There is also no question that the most recent financial crisis caused many people to question their motivation and purpose in life. And of course it was necessary to have an effective medium with which to do this. With religion uncomfortable for many people and self-help seen as a little old-hat, I think meditation was presented as the modern day alternative. The fact that it was presented in such a secular way only increased its appeal for many people.
Of course, the general trend towards a faster pace of living, increased working hours, technological advancement and social media are all factors in people feeling as though they need to find a way to unplug and unwind. And it is quite true to say that for many people it has gotten to the stage where all those factors together have led to them feeling overwhelmed.
Then again, technology has also assisted in the dissemination of meditation tools and mindfulness teachings. For example, at Headspace we have a 365 day meditation programme, called the Headspace Journey, which is dependent on us being able to deliver it via web, mobile or app.
But I think the rise is mostly due to the demystification of meditation and mindfulness, moving towards a place in time where the health of the mind is understood in the same way that we’ve been encouraged to think about the health of our body. I would like to think that we’re playing a key role in this process at Headspace and it is my hope that in the very near future it will be every bit as normal to train the mind as it is the body. It might take a few years, but we are undoubtedly moving in the right direction.
Copyright, Andy Puddicombe and Fletcher Wortmann, 2012.
Andy Puddicombe, author of Get Some Headspace
Fletcher Wortmann, author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Visit Fletcher's website: http://www.fletcherwortmann.com/
Read Fletcher's Psychology Today blog: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/triggered