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How to Achieve Change through mindfulness

After spending over 10 years as a Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe returned to England, determined to make meditation and mindfulness more accessible through his writing, presenting and the site he co-founded, Headspace, where you can start with easy guided 10 minute “Take10” meditations. We interview him below about his book, Get Some Headspace, and on the ways mindfulness can potentially make you happier and healthier (and maybe even fitter, too).


Q

So many of us are constantly looking inward, thinking about the qualities in ourselves that we’d like to change and often getting nowhere on actually making those changes. In your opinion, is true change possible? And if so how would you go about achieving it?

A

If you’re anything like most people, there’s almost certainly something about yourself you’d really like to change. It might be the way you think, the way you feel, or the way you look. Either way, living with that desire to change 24/7 can be both exhausting and challenging in equal measure. You may even find yourself wondering if change is even possible. After all, if you’ve always felt anxious, always felt lonely, or always had a busy mind, how could it ever be any different, right? Well, the good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. Change is most definitely possible…if you just know how.

Many people look to the future for change, but if you look a bit deeper, it quickly becomes apparent that anything in the mind relating to the future is nothing but an idea, an image or a projection. So, as long as this idea remains in the future, there is nothing you can do to change it, as it has yet to happen. Other people may look to the past for change, to see what it is they did wrong, why they are left feeling a certain way, analyzing and conceptualizing their situation. But the past has already happened, has already finished, so all we are really doing when we replay these stories in the mind is creating the conditions for these same thoughts and feelings to continue.

In order to create a genuine shift in the way we feel, in our perspective, the way we actually experience life on an everyday basis, it is essential that we look not to the past or the future, but instead to the present moment. Change happens in the here and now. How could it possibly happen anywhere else? Nothing else exists! When we learn how to be present, how to be aware of each and every moment, resting effortlessly in the ups and downs of life, then, and only then, can real change begin to take place. This is what it means to rest in the natural essence of mind. It is an experience rather than an idea and it is only by engaging with it that we see the benefits.

And that’s where meditation comes in. It is not that meditation causes the change to take place, but rather it creates the conditions for change to take place. It reminds us of that fundamental essence, which is innocent, vulnerable, gentle, kind, content, fulfilled, untouched, uncomplicated, and free from habit. This is what it means to rest in the present moment, watching as the body and mind naturally unwind, allowing change to happen effortlessly. I like to think of that essence as the blue sky, always present, always clear. Sure, there might be some cloudy days, but if we sit in the metaphorical deck chair for a short time, day after day, we see the clouds begin to disperse, the habits disappear…and we are left instead with the beauty and wonder of the blue sky.

A little animation on that “blue sky.”


Q

What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

A

While meditating is usually associated with a sitting practice, mindfulness is how you take that practice into everyday life. Mindfulness has received a huge amount of press in recent years, but it’s often talked about in very vague terms, and so it’s not always easy to understand how it can be applied to everyday activities. It’s usually defined as being present, undistracted by thoughts and emotions, and with an attitude of mind which is neither critical nor judgmental. A bit of a mouthful, but all it really means is to live with a sense of happy contentment. This is in sharp contrast to how many people live, caught up in distracting thoughts about the past and the future, swept away by difficult emotions, and often in the habit of criticizing themselves or others.


Q

Meditation can be intimidating for a lot of reasons including time. What’s the best way to begin?

A

Meditation does not have to be difficult to learn; it’s all about getting the basics just right. The first step is all in the approach, which the Headspace animations explain in a simple and accessible [and very cute!] way.


Q

In your book and on your site, there’s a lot of scientific research that supports the different ways mindfulness can help improve our daily lives. Can you give us a brief introduction into a few of the ways meditation is good for us?

A

Meditation has come a very long way—and not just geographically. Thanks to advances in technology and some very sophisticated brain-mapping software, scientists now have a much better understanding of what happens when we sit down to meditate. The extensive scientific research into meditation shows that it can make your life healthier and happier in a vast array of ways. Over at Headspace we’ve collected some of the most relevant bits for you, along with all of the sources and studies we trust.


Science shows that meditation can…


  • Decrease your anxiety levels.
    An ever-increasing amount of research shows that mindfulness is extremely effective in reducing anxiety. Scientists looked across 39 scientific studies, totaling 1,140 participants and suggest anxiety-reducing benefits for people suffering with cancer, to mild worriers, to those with social anxiety disorders, to people with eating issues.
  • Help you sleep better.
    63% of Americans are sleep deprived. Researchers from Harvard Medical School found that a mindfulness based relaxation technique before bed or upon waking in the night can induce slow brain wave patterns that can gently ease you back to sleep.
  • Give you more self-control.
    Scientists found structural changes in parts of the brain relating to self-control after just 11 hours of a meditative practice.
  • Help you focus more.
    Researchers tested the mental abilities of 49 participants and found that those who did just 20 minutes of mindfulness training for four days performed significantly better under time pressure and were more able to maintain their attention than others.
  • Change the shape of your brain.
    Neuroscientists from Harvard have found that mindfulness changes your brain for the better. They discovered mindfulness practitioners have less grey matter in parts of their brain related to stress and anxiety and more grey matter in areas related to learning, memory, emotional regulation, and empathy.
  • Help you quit smoking.
    In a recent study, scientists from Yale found that mindfulness training was more effective in helping smokers give up and maintain abstinence than the American Lung Association’s “Freedom from Smoking” program.
  • Make you less stressed.
    Prolonged stress is damaging to the mind and body. The stress response impacts the immune system, increases blood pressure, cholesterol, and can lead to hypertension, strokes, and coronary heart disease. Mindfulness can help combat this, however, as it creates the “relaxation response,” the opposite of the stress response.

Q

How many times a day/week should I meditate and when is the best time?

A

Once a day is about right. It helps to make it part of your routine, so if you find it easiest to meditate in the morning before breakfast, try to stick to that (and it’s completely fine if that means sitting on a Saturday about 3 hours later than you do on a weekday).


Q

What’s the right way to sit?

A

Find a quiet space where you can relax and take a few minutes to get settled. Sit comfortably in a chair with your hands resting in your lap or on your knees. Try to keep your back straight, but without forcing it—sitting at the front of the chair might help. Your neck should be relaxed, with your chin just slightly tucked in.


Q

What’s the right way to breathe?

A

The easiest way to think about breathing when you meditate is to just allow it to be completely natural. Generally, in mindfulness we’re trying to allow things to unfold very naturally so it’s about watching the breath and letting the natural rise and fall take place.


Q

What happens if your mind wanders?

A

In the busy and modern world we live in, our default setting has become frenetic thought. If we could stop thinking at will, we wouldn’t need to learn to meditate. Just be gentle with yourself. Bring your attention back to your breath each time, and with a little practice the sense of calm will begin to increase.


Q

Is 10 minutes ideal?

A

We have developed Take10 because its just 1% of your day and we want to make it as easy as possible to integrate a simple technique into your everyday life. Even after 10 minutes a day you can start to see a massive difference in your life and if you’re keen to continue, this is great starting point to get the bases just right.


Q

You’ve recently published The Headspace Diet, a great book on eating mindfully. How and why does this work?

A

According to studies, we think about food at least 200 times a day. But what might it be like to have a healthy relationship with food, to give up feelings of guilt, anxiety and craving, and instead regain that sense of healthy appreciation and enjoyment that all good food deserves? And what if that same approach showed you how to make genuinely sustainable change, towards better physical health and a body shape that left you feeling confident as well as comfortable? Welcome to mindful eating.

We asked our brainy science friends what the “mindful eating” fuss is all about and they inspired us with the following:

  • According to a study by The National Weight Control Registry, one of the common characteristics of people who successfully lose weight and keep it off is that they include a “meditative element” in their lives.
  • Mindfulness has been shown to reduce weekly binges by between 50% to 70%
  • Daily meditation increases activity in the part of the brain responsible for self-control—making it easier to let go of sticky thoughts about foods that we know are bad for us.

—Andy Puddicombe is the co-founder of Headspace, a project that was set up in 2010 to simplify meditation and make it accessible to everyone. He is currently the only Clinical Meditation Consultant with full registration with the UK Healthcare Commission. He’s also a former Buddhist monk. He has published two books on the subject of mindfulness and meditation, The Headspace Diet and Get Some Headspace and continues to present and teach on the subject of meditation—looking to demystify it and make it accessible and relevant to more people.

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