Andy Puddicombe is a former Buddhist monk and the founder of Headspace, a project to make meditation accessible to busy people. The Headspace iPhone app, Take10, gives you ten minutes of free guided meditation a day and it's about as friendly as it gets for anyone who's new to it.
As for me, I’m a writer and comedian who basically specializes in freaking out over nothing. After using the Headspace app for months, I had a conversation with Andy about finding ways to quiet your brains in anxiety-provoking situations — and, surprise surprise, he is a wise fellow. Here's how it went.
Anxious Person: "I am overthinking the hell out of this email. All I really have to do is ask this person when a good time to meet would be and I've rephrased it 75 times and changed the subject line from "Meeting" to "Meet?" to "Hey there!" to "Hey hey hey, haha remember Fat Albert?" to "Please just accept me for the flawed human being I am." It was light outside when I started tinkering with this dumb thing and now I can hear wolves howling at the moon."
Meditation Expert: "I would say as a general rule, if you have a difficult email to write, then begin by taking a couple of deep breaths. It's so basic, but the breath and the mind are intimately connected. If we can take a few deep breaths it can really settle the mind before we write what we need to write. I always recommend reading it through just once — you're reading for tense and tone and language — and then count to three and press send. Reread it once, and then with that 1-2-3 thing, you're committing to send it then and there — not going over it again and again."
Anxious Person: "I keep catching myself playing out conversations that haven't even happened and probably never will. Just a minute ago I realized I was having an argument with my ex-boyfriend in my head — let me clarify, the argument was in my head, not the boyfriend. He was real. Or was he? Oh my god. Anyway, it was pretty heated. The good news is, I'm creaming him in my brain-fights. The bad news is, this is completely useless."
Meditation Expert: "This is so common, I think it's happening for most people most of the time actually. Very often these conversations are going on in our mind and we're not conscious of it, and that's how we end up already so far down the line. So we need to find a way of becoming more conscious more quickly, and certainly meditating on a daily basis will make us more conscious of our thoughts — not only the everyday planning kind of thoughts, but the underlying conversation, the running commentary that exists in the mind. When we become conscious of it we tend not to participate in it quite so much.
The moment we realize we're participating in that internal dialogue, it kind of disappears or at least slows down; that feeling of, 'Oh wow, why am I even thinking about that?' Once you realize you're distracted, you are aware. There's really nothing else you can do but be present with what we're experiencing.
Most people in that moment will struggle because, although they realize they're distracted, they tend to go back into it. What I recommend is that you have some kind of anchor, and the best reliable one is the breath. The breath is always with us wherever we go. You don't have to be meditating — you can be anywhere, doing anything — but the moment you realize you've been distracted, come to the sensation of the breath. If you need to, you can place your hand on your abdomen and get the sensation of that movement and use that as your anchor — it will prevent you from immediately jumping back into the conversation you were having."
Anxious Person: "I blew a job interview so badly I think the only thing I'm qualified to do is lie face down in a car wash. I'm reliving all my stupid contributions to the conversation and criticizing myself with the strength of a thousand angry dads. Help!"
Meditation Expert: "A mindful way to deal with something that's already happened is, as much as possible, to let it go. I remember when I was training as a monk, once a week we had to write down things like that — things that hadn't gone well, things we were holding onto, whatever — and we were told we were allowed 30 seconds of regret. Because beyond that, there's really nothing gained. It becomes repetitive thinking in which you're just giving yourself a hard time. I'm aware it sounds quite severe, like, "Only 30 seconds?!" but actually it's really useful. It's natural to have those thoughts and feelings about what you wish had turned out differently, but once you've had those thoughts and feelings, there's really nothing more to do. No amount of thinking or feeling is going to change that. It's seeing it clearly, acknowledging it in a kind of soft and gentle way, not being really hard and judgmental, and then letting go."