Jan 01 2017

Book review: The Headspace Guide to Mindfulness & Meditation by Andy Puddicombe

headspaceTo some degree this is a review of an app rather than a book. I started using the Headspace app a couple of months ago after a particularly trying burst of insomnia. The Headspace Guide to Mindfulness & meditation by Andy Puddicombe is the book of the app, I picked up the Kindle version for £0.99.

The mindfulness / meditation division is a bit of language engineering. Meditation is the exercise you do to achieve a state of mindfulness but also when Western medical practitioners were starting to use techniques of meditation in treating patients they found greater acceptability in the scientific community when using the newly coined term “mindfulness” rather than “meditation”.

The Headspace app costs £60 per year, more if you pay by month and less if you buy for longer. There’s much more material in the app than in the book but I find it easier to read chunks of text rather than remember the preambles to the guided meditation sessions which is where the material from the book is found in the app. I think it’s pretty much the only app I’ve bought and I had it on a free trial first – so I certainly value it.

The core of the Headspace programme is the 10 minute daily meditation. This starts with a few deep breathes to get yourself going, some scanning of the body to gain awareness of your physicality, followed by a period of focusing on your breathing and then a phase of returning to the world. Clearly, this brief description does not do the process justice. From my mechanistic point of view, the “aim” is to become a dispassionate observer of ones thoughts – mindfulness. More widely is carrying this approach in to the rest of your day.

In the app the voice of Andy is a comforting presence; perhaps more so for me because he’s from the West Country, and so makes me feel at home with his very slight Bristol accent. I found the app made it very easy for me to stick to a regular programme of daily 10 minute sessions.

I think one of the things that helped me latch on to Headspace was the exercise for insomnia, not so much the exercise itself but the fact that Andy describes exactly the form my insomnia takes (it’s also repeated in one of the case studies at the end of the book). Essentially I go to bed, and for an hour or so I fail to fall asleep. At which point I start getting stressed and frustrated at not falling asleep, and worrying about how awful the following day is going to be without any sleep. Usually the thought that set me off not sleeping is also going around and around in my head as well. At its worst this continues through the whole night.

The book is very readable much of the book is anecdotes of Andy’s time spent in monasteries, although there are some exercises and written guidance for meditation. This may seem frivolous but I found it far more interesting than dry descriptions of meditation, and as a result more likely to stick in the mind. I found these stories, and other visualisations described, very helpful.

There are frequent references to scientific research on the benefits of meditating and mindfulness through the text, as a trained scientist I muttered about the lack of in-text citations but on reaching the end I discovered the references section which, without following them up, look legitimate.

I learned a couple of things from reading the book compared to the app, it turns out my sofa is considered a bed for meditating purposes so I should be using a dining room chair. Secondly, it seemed implicit in the app that meditating was best done in the morning and the book makes this explicit.  

Strangely I find that elements of mindfulness existed in my life before I got Headspace. When I’m running (at my best) I find myself focusing on my breathing, in fact I can tell I’ve been thinking rather than focusing on breathing because I run slower when I’m thinking. I found a similar experience when we used to go walking in the countryside, the tramp of the feet acts as a good focus.

Meditation has its roots in Buddhism, and much of the experience that the author relates is from monasteries and his time as a monk, despite this the book (and the “programme”) feel like they have no religious elements to them. It has to be said adherents to meditation can sound rather evangelical – I can feel myself doing this now.

In summary, I highly recommend giving meditation, and Headspace a go. You can try the app for free for 10 days, or if you prefer the book is very cheap in its Kindle edition.