Headspace Meditation event

© Rob Greig
Posted: Fri May 28 2010

Wary of religions, crank therapies and money-grabbing cultists, Sara O'Reilly is still impressed by Headspace's approach to modern meditation

The decision to photograph Andy Puddicombe, the frontman for Headspace, a new project that aims to introduce frenetic Londoners to the myriad benefits of meditation, at Piccadilly Circus was more than a gimmick - the Headspace message is, simply, that, given practice, anyone can achieve a state of calm and clarity, in even the busiest place.

Admittedly, it's probably easier if you've spent ten years as a Buddhist monk, as Puddicombe has, in monasteries in India, Nepal, Thailand, Australia and Russia. A cluster of traumatic experiences when he was 19 propelled him to abandon university and embark on a decade-long, cross-continent search for a way to come to terms with the emotional struggle that is an integral part of human life.

It was in Moscow, when Puddicombe was invited by BP to help its employees combat stress, that he realised the religious trappings of his own personal enlightenment - 'the whole bald guy in a skirt thing' - were proving a barrier to sharing what he'd learned with other people.

In 2004 he returned to the UK, where Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) - of which meditation is a major part - is now recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for depression and other conditions, and qualified as a clinical meditation consultant. He built up a successful private practice and spent two years trying to work out a way to make the benefits of meditation more widely accessible before joining forces with a former client, Rich Pierson, who worked for BBH, a creative ad agency that counts British Airways, eBay and Levi's among its clients. Together they came up with the concept of Headspace, a modern, secular approach to meditation that aims to demystify the practice through sociable group training events, with easy-to-access support delivered online and via mobile phones and MP3 players.

Given the relentless nature of contemporary city life, the appeal of meditation seems obvious, but many people who fancy dipping a toe into those still waters fear that even if they don't encounter religious or hippy-trippy evangelising - they may well expose themselves to efforts to relieve them of significant sums of money.

Puddicombe is upfront about the financial footing of Headspace, which he describes as a project, rather than a business. It's not a charity: ' I don't really buy this idea that to have a really successful, profitable company that makes a lot of money is necessarily bad,' he says. 'I think it depends what you do with the money.' He and Pierson plan to give it away, once they've covered costs and what he describes as modest salaries. 'We've got a rotation system in place,' he explains. 'When people pay for an event they are directed to a charity page on the website and they choose which of three charities they'd like it to go to.' In its first year Headspace will be supporting Rokpa International, which helps the underprivileged in Tibet and Nepal, Starlight Children's Foundation, which works with seriously and terminally ill children, and the homelessness charity Centrepoint.
We talk a bit about how much money is enough and I ask Puddicombe if he'd like to disclose what exactly a 'modest' salary consists of. He doesn't, at the time, but subsequently emails to say that he was reluctant to talk about salaries without his partner being present. Having spoken to Pierson, he wrote, 'It's really important to us that Headspace is seen as honest and transparent - in every way. Last year we paid ourselves no salary at all, and supported ourselves from other work. We started drawing a salary at the beginning of 2010 and the total monthly salary at Headspace (for us both combined) has been to date £3,000. It will unquestionably rise in the months to come - and will need to for us both to meet our personal outgoings on an ongoing basis - but will remain modest.'

The following weekend I attend the first public Headspace event, at Bafta's Piccadilly headquarters. Over the course of the day Puddicombe explains the technique, leads us through several short meditation sessions and answers a great many questions from the audience. He's an engaging teacher and entertainer. Self-deprecating and humorous, he projects cartoons and uses a well-honed juggling routine to embellish his delivery and the day is punctuated by coffee breaks and meditation sessions.

When I interviewed Puddicombe originally I'd asked him how he planned to avoid alienating people by setting himself up as a guru. 'I think by just stating very clearly that I'm not, is the starting place,' he told me. 'They are not my techniques for a start. Okay, I've presented them in a way that makes them accessible - but they are techniques that are a few thousand years old, I can't take credit for them.'

Sometimes, though, guru status is thrust upon you. Some of people in an audience that includes Puddicome's mum, several private clients and at least one old mate ask questions of this amiable bloke in chinos and a cardigan in a way that I find uncomfortably deferential, as though they believe Puddicombe holds all the answers. Still, I am impressed by his ability to deflect the golden haze they seem to want to surround him with, and he always replies coherently on the hoof, often using funny stories to make his point.

There is definitely no religion, and nothing touchy-feely about the workshop. For the meditation practice we stay where we are, in Bafta's comfortable auditorium seats. And by the end of the day, with the online resources for support, I feel equipped to join the ranks of those who make daily meditation part of their busy lives - although I haven't yet taken the plunge.

Headspace events take place on June 12, July 24, Sept 18 & Dec 4 at Bafta, 195 Piccadilly, W1J 9LN (7744 5232/ www.getsomeheadspace.com). Piccadilly Circus tube. 9am-6pm. £200 single ticket; £250 for two; group rates available.