GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, A Better You...
ANDY PUDDICOMBE: I think we all have the potential to change.
RAZ: This is Andy Puddicombe.
PUDDICOMBE: I don't mean that through sort of a forcing will type of change but rather better understanding our mind, seeing it more clearly, understanding what causes us happiness and what causes us unhappiness and being able to let go of those things that causes us unhappiness.
RAZ: Andy's kind of an expert on meditation. You might recognize his voice from his meditation app called Headspace. He's actually a former Buddhist monk. And the story of how he became one started in his late teens when Andy lost two close friends and a family member all within a short period of time.
PUDDICOMBE: And at that time, I certainly didn't have the skills, the understanding to know how to deal with those things that I'd been witness to.
RAZ: So what did you do, I mean - deal with it in any way?
PUDDICOMBE: Yeah. I mean, I think as I went to college, I think being - staying in one place for one time gave me the opportunity to see that actually no matter how much I tried to move away from these feelings, actually, they were with me wherever I was. And that was a really precious opportunity because although it was difficult, although it was challenging, being with those feelings allowed me to find the clarity to say, actually, you know what?
If I'm really going to understand my mind, it's not going to be through reading books at university. I'm going to need to go. And as it turned out for me, it was to go away and become a Buddhist monk.
RAZ: Andy spent the next 10 years studying to become a monk, traveling to countries like Nepal, India, Myanmar and Thailand all in search of trying to better understand himself. Here's Andy Puddicombe on the TED stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PUDDICOMBE: People often ask me, you know, what I learned from that time. Well, obviously, it changed things, you know? Let's face it, becoming a celibate monk is going to change a number of things. But it was more than that, you know? It taught me - it gave me greater appreciation and understanding for the present moment. By that, I mean not being lost in thought, not being distracted, not being overwhelmed by difficult emotions but instead learning how to be in the here and now, how to be mindful, how to be present.
I think the present moment is so underrated. It sounds so ordinary. And yet, we spend so little time in the present moment that it's anything but ordinary.
RAZ: But, I mean, how do you - I mean, how do you stay present? Like, is it a matter of constantly reminding yourself?
PUDDICOMBE: So it's interesting. I think over time - it's like, you know, almost like muscle memory, you know? If it's done enough times, it simply becomes stronger and stronger. But I think in terms of the, you know, how it's actually done - so if I think of a couple of examples, I remember getting told off once, Guy, at the monastery. So I was a very naughty monk.
RAZ: Wait, you got told off at a monastery?
RAZ: Wait, that happens at a monastery?
PUDDICOMBE: That absolutely happens at a monastery. And I remember one - I can't even remember now. I think I'd read a book or something in the library that I wasn't supposed to read or something. And I was given a task to do, and it was to cut the grass. And it was to cut the grass with a pair of scissors. Now, at the time when I was doing it, at least for the first kind of hour or two of doing that, in my mind, I was just busy talking to myself.
This is ridiculous. This is crazy...
PUDDICOMBE: ...So stupid, la-la-la-la...
RAZ: Yeah, of course.
PUDDICOMBE: ...And really kind of just building up a lot of frustration and anger. It was entirely my own kind of doing, that stuff. And I was kind of creating this tension in the mind and in my body. And at some stage, I think I remember just kind of just laughing to myself at the absurdity of it. But through having let go of that storyline and having let go of that tension, all of a sudden, I was kind of released from that story.
And all of a sudden, it actually became quite a pleasant activity. So it's a really good example of how, look, the activity is what it was. I got to define the experience of that activity by how I was relating to it with my mind. And so in the monastery, you're constantly kind of challenged. You know, if you're sweeping the floor...
(SOUNDBITE OF SWEEPING)
PUDDICOMBE: ...Are you sweeping the floor whilst thinking about something else that happened in the past or looking to the future, hoping something will happen in the future? Or are you simply present with the sound and the sensation of the broom?
(SOUNDBITE OF SWEEPING)
PUDDICOMBE: And it's such a simple idea. But if it's done sort of repeatedly over time, then it has a really sort of transformative effect on the mind.
RAZ: For Andy, simple actions like this became a form of meditation, a way to sharpen his focus instead of being lost in thought. And it's something he's gone on to share with millions of others.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PUDDICOMBE: There was a research paper that came out of Harvard just recently that said on average, our minds are lost in thought almost 47 percent of the time - 47 percent. At the same time, this sort of constant mind wondering is also a direct cause of unhappiness. Now, we're not here for that long anyway. But to spend almost half of our life lost in thought and potentially quite unhappy - I don't know - is it just me? It kind of seems tragic actually, especially when there's something we can do about it - when there's a positive, practical, achievable, scientifically proven technique which allows our mind to be more healthy, to be more mindful and less distracted. And the beauty of it is that even though it kind of need only take about 10 minutes a day, it impacts our entire life.
But we need to know how to do it. We need an exercise. We need a framework to learn how to be more mindful. That's essentially what meditation is. It's familiarizing ourself with the present moment because most people assume that meditation is all about sort of stopping thoughts, getting rid of emotions, somehow controlling the mind. But actually, it's quite different from that. It's more about sort of stepping back, sort of seeing the thought clearly, witnessing it coming and going - emotions coming and going without judgment but with a relaxed, focused mind.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PUDDICOMBE: I'm reminded of a time - I used to work in a kitchen in this restaurant. And I remember there was a chef in there, and he used to swear a lot. And he'd be running backwards and forwards through the kitchen. And every now and again, he would stop, and he'd be like, it's so noisy in here. Why's there so much going on? And we'd all just kind of look at him and go - well, you're making all the noise, you know.
And I sometimes think that, in our search for happiness, we make so much noise - if not externally, in our own mind - that actually we miss the very thing that we were looking for and we realized that, oh, actually it was here all along. So I sometimes worry about this kind of search for happiness or trying to be more happy. And that, for me - I can only speak from my own experience - but the framework of meditation was so useful where there isn't really this idea of trying to be happy. It's more simply creating a framework where we let go of all the things that bring us unhappiness.
RAZ: I know this is probably going be a complex thing for you to answer because meditation is not - it's not sort of, by practitioners, not seen as a - something you do with a goal in mind or an endpoint or a destination.
RAZ: Right? But, I mean, could you make the argument that, by meditating even just a few minutes a day, you could actually become a better version of yourself?
PUDDICOMBE: Yeah, I fundamentally kind of believe similar. And I say that based on my own experience rather than from a point of opinion, you know. And it's an experience that has been fed back to me by so many people now. I genuinely - Guy, I never believed for a moment, when I left the monastery, that if people did sort of 10 or 15 minutes a day that that would make a significant difference in their life. And I am blown away on a daily basis by the amount of people who write in and say, this has changed my life. And look, that's a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. But when you read kind of the experience of these people, there is definitely something in taking even just a few minutes out of the day that can have a really significant impact on the mind and the experience of life.
RAZ: Andy Puddicombe - he's a former Buddhist monk and the co-founder of a meditation app called Headspace. You can see his full talk at ted.com.
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