A bit over a month ago I discovered Headspace, which was founded by Andy Puddicombe, a British guy who trained as a Buddhist monk before starting this online meditation site.
My first free trial experience on July 7 led me to write "Yikes! I actually like a guided Headspace meditation."
I'm not a big fan of guided meditations. Usually they irk more than relax me. I get annoyed with the (usually) New Age'y tone of the person doing the guiding.
Hey, if anybody is going to annoy me while I meditate, I'm perfectly capable of filling that role myself. After about 45 years of daily meditation, that's one thing I've learned from contemplating the workings of my mind.
(Maybe the only thing... but at least that's one thing.)
A few minutes ago, though, I actually enjoyed a ten minute guided meditation. Listening on my laptop while sitting outside on our deck, I made it through the first Headspace lesson with essentially zero annoyance.
With the aid of a discount "coupon" code I found through the grace of the great god Google, after trying out ten free 10-minute guided meditations I decided to sign up for a full year's worth of Headspace. I think the cost was around $70-80.
Seemed like a fair price for enlightenment. Which isn't really what I'm after, though. Not now, in my current churchless frame of mind.
For about thirty-five years I used to meditate from an hour to two and a half hours a day, using a mixture of mantra meditation and open awareness techniques. I gained a lot from all that meditating. However, I'm finding the Headspace approach to be more appealing.
Again, for the person I am now.
Before, I was very mystically inclined. I believed it was possible to detach my consciousness from my bodily being and enter higher supernatural realms of reality. The Sant Mat meditation I practiced was founded on a theology that viewed this world as an illusion, a pale reflection of much more vibrant spiritual dimensions.
Over time I grew disenchanted with this dualistic philosophy. Not only wasn't there any demonstrable evidence that it was true, it didn't even make sense.
Sant Mat taught that supposedly the lower mental and physical realms of creation were under the control of a Negative Power, Kal, who -- yeah, I know this sounds really weird -- stood on one foot for eons, impressing "God" (Sat Purush) so much he got the right to oversee our universe.
Which means our goal should be to get out of this wretched dump of materiality and become pure soul again. Psychologically, this isn't a healthy way to live. I knew quite a few Sant Mat devotees who were disgusted with their own body and mind, seeing them as obstacles to becoming a pristine spiritual being.
By contrast, Puddicombe's Headspace meditations are pleasingly here-and-now centered. I've completed the first 30 days of guided meditations. This unlocked the full panoply of Headspace content. I'm now into a Self-Esteem series.
A recent New Yorker article, "The Higher Life," describes how trendy mindfulness is in today's high tech world, and how the Headspace approach to meditation has become so popular. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety.
Here's a description by author Lizzie Widdicombe (interesting that she wrote about Andy Puddicombe) of how her Headspace experience went.
The basics of mindfulness meditation are easy to find—you can download instructions from the Web. But, Puddicombe told Brzezinski at THRIVE, “I liken it to driving a car. It’s helpful to have someone sit there with you at first.” With noise-cancelling headphones, the app creates a surprisingly intimate experience—Puddicombe could be whispering in your ear.
He starts each session with a “checking in” routine, the contemplative equivalent of buckling your seat belt and adjusting the rearview mirror. He tells you to take a few deep breaths, to notice any background noise (instead of blocking it out, or screaming at its creator to shut up), and to become aware of “the different physical sensations . . . the weight of the body, the contact between the body and the chair.”
Slowly, he draws attention to your breath, which you count in sets of ten. Puddicombe savors the breath the way some people do wine. He talks about it appreciatively, pointing out its protozoan wisdom (“Remember, the body knows how to breathe”), its soothing rhythm, its oceanic rise and fall.
The seconds pass slowly. You seem to drop, briefly, into another dimension—the realm of quiet walks and kindergarten nap time. Like travel, the chief boon of meditation might be the way that it throws the place you came from into relief.
I’d never noticed what an incredible racket was going on in my mind: to-do lists, scraps of conversation, ancient memories. Sometimes Puddicombe’s voice would register as a distant peep. As calm set in, I’d occasionally achieve a few seconds of relaxed concentration—the meditative grail—which felt as if I were walking on a balance beam.
Just as often, I’d lose the thread and nod off completely, or begin composing angry e-mails. Puddicombe’s voice would interject. “It’s perfectly normal to be distracted,” he’d say. “Just bring the attention gently back to the breath.”
Puddicombe's Headspace guided meditations are, bluntly put, Buddhism without the bullshit.
Meaning, without the religious'y stuff that turns me off about traditional Buddhism. Karma. Rebirth. Eightfold path. Dharma. I think the Buddha correctly recognized some important facts about how the human mind works.
But he didn't have the benefit of our modern scientific understandings.
Sure, Buddhism's contention that we don't have a self or soul in the sense most people believe they do -- a steadfast ongoing ethereal consciousness largely or entirely distinct from the workings of the physical brain -- is remarkably consistent with 21st century neuroscience.
This doesn't mean that the rest of Buddhism deserves to be incorporated into someone's meditation practice. I was pleased to see in the article that Headspace irks some traditional Buddhists.
Mindfulness and Meditation are only two of eight life-style choices that the Buddha instructed his followers to practice, in order to break free from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. The others involve a code of ethics. They include Right Understanding, Right Motivation, Right Livelihood (not making a living in a way that harms other beings), Right Action (not killing or hurting people), Right Speech, and Right Effort (diligence).
To pluck some things from the list, while ignoring others, strikes many Buddhists as absurd. McMahan said, “It would be as if somebody went to the Catholic Church and said, ‘I don’t buy all this stuff about Jesus and God, but I really dig this Communion ritual. Would you just teach me how to do that bit? Oh, and I want to start a company marketing wafers.’ ”
Well, if someone doesn't want to embrace the whole Buddhist thing, or the whole Catholic thing, or the whole thing of any other religion, there's nothing wrong with picking and choosing the parts they do like.
Mindfulness and meditation really don't have anything to do with theology or supernatualism. All that counts is if these mental exercises have positive effects, in the same way as physical exercises do.
A final observation: during my more than three decades as a member of a mystical spiritual organization, I was struck by how many people in the group really didn't progress much as caring, compassionate, calm, centered human beings.
They were so focused on getting out of this world and entering a hypothetical "heaven," they pretty much ignored what it takes to be a normal happy, healthy person. The term Spiritual Bypassing nicely captures their condition -- which I shared to some extent.
Spiritual bypass is a defense mechanism. Although the defense looks a lot prettier than other defenses, it serves the same purpose. Spiritual bypass shields us from the truth, it disconnects us from our feelings, and helps us avoid the big picture. It is more about checking out than checking in—and the difference is so subtle that we usually don't even know we are doing it.
The shorthand for spiritual bypass is grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting. It is spiritual practice in the service of repression, usually because we can not tolerate what we are feeling, or think that we shouldn't be experiencing what we are feeling.
The Headspace guided meditations are completely different from this.
They're about being here, not somewhere else. About being who we are, not someone else. About being in the present moment, not sometime else.
Brian, I hope you don't mind if I present an alternative viewpoint here. You say "All that counts is if these mental exercises have positive effects, in the same way as physical exercises do".
I once went to a hypnotherapist because I was very stressed at the time. I was finding it quite relaxing and then realised I was not happy with having someone taking 'control' of my mind and stopped myself from going too deep into my subconscious. I have since then been very wary of anything which might be hypnotic and I think this fellow is doing just that.
I watched his Ted talk and he seems like a really nice fellow. I also did some research on Headspace looking at reviews and comments. This comment is negative and quite extreme, but I do always like to see the alternative viewpoints and then make up my own mind:
"Andy tried desperately for more than 10 years to get enlightened, he traveled from country to country. burma, thailand, india, tibet. monastery and what not. The problem wasn't the country, the teaching or teacher - it was Andy Puddicombe - thinking he could blast his ego with meditation. He spent up to 18h/day meditating, according to him. Where did it get him? He is a millionaire. He doesn't miss any chance to promote and push his app - using every interview. He doesn't talk about meditation and mindfulness but of headspace. Headspace has many benefits, no word of the practice itself. What a despicable person to use something that is so peaceful, helping, meant to promote compassion, love and unity for his own greed and ego. Some people have no shame, You would have hoped that some humanity would have been evoked in andy after spending so many hours meditating but if all you focus and want to gain is more money, being better and greater than others, having power over others - you are practicing being an egomaniac. Not peace, love and compassion."
Posted by: Jen | August 09, 2015 at 06:46 PM
Jen, that person sounds much more like an egomaniac than Puddicombe does. I'm going by my own experience of the Headspace guided meditations, not what some zealous Buddhist, or whoever, says about Puddicombe.
A guided meditation has virtually nothing to do with hypnosis. What Headspace guides the meditator toward is pretty much exactly what I was doing before on my own: following the breath, observing bodily energies, catching myself when thoughts or feelings took me away from the present moment.
After more than thirty Headspace sessions, I get no sense of the criticism or drawbacks you mention. But everybody is different. I'm enjoying the Headspace experience. Lots of other people do also. I think Puddicombe is challenging Buddhist/meditation traditionalists because he doesn't incorporate what I called the "bullshit" part of Buddhism.
I give him credit for that, not criticism.
Posted by: Brian Hines | August 09, 2015 at 07:01 PM
"Andy tried desperately for more than 10 years to get enlightened, he traveled from country to country. burma, thailand, india, tibet. monastery and what not...Where did it get him? He is a millionaire."
My kind of enlightenment.
Posted by: x | August 10, 2015 at 09:00 AM
Yes, sounds like Andy did better than the Buddha, who also travelled around looking for enlightenment. Andy found peace of mind and ALSO a lot of money. He wins!
Posted by: Brian Hines | August 10, 2015 at 09:16 AM
Hello Brian you are in for a big wake up call
Posted by: John Soulman (pseudonym) | August 11, 2015 at 09:31 AM