On the day before his wedding, Rohan Gunatillake found himself trapped between the hood of a Volkswagon Golf and a brick wall. He was here because he had unwisely tried to bring a car rolling downhill – one that was on a collision course with the family home – to a halt by putting himself [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Mind over matter: Apps for modern day life

Smriti Daniel talks to UK- based Rohan Gunatillake, a new generation designer who uses innovative technology to introduce the ancient wisdom of mindfulness

Rohan Gunatillake. Pic by Ashly Baxter

On the day before his wedding, Rohan Gunatillake found himself trapped between the hood of a Volkswagon Golf and a brick wall. He was here because he had unwisely tried to bring a car rolling downhill – one that was on a collision course with the family home – to a halt by putting himself in front of it.

As he stood there trapped, he found he could wiggle his toes; at least, his legs weren’t broken. But there was no one at home, and from where he was stuck, no way could he attract the attention of passers-by. And then there was the pain. Serendipitously, he actually managed to get help. He was soon surrounded by firemen and medics, but still had to wait for a doctor to arrive via air ambulance to oversee his release. As pressure mounted on his legs, Gunatillake did the only thing he could think of – he meditated.

“I noticed how my mind had started to spin out all kinds of scenarios,”  he would later write. “Would I be able to walk properly down the aisle the following day? Would I be able to walk at all?” But then Gunatillake found his mindfulness practice kicking in. He ‘dropped’ into his body, and concentrated not on his wildly proliferating thoughts, but on the sensations he found there. Despite the harrowing circumstances, he felt himself relax. Forty five minutes later, when the car was hoisted away, Gunatillake was able to ‘hobble’ on his own, relatively unhurt. The next day, he even managed to bust a few (restrained) moves at his wedding.

For Gunatillake that moment was one in which he saw the fruition of years of practising mindfulness. As a young man, he had become curious about meditation, and had been setting aside time to watch his breath ever since. In the end, meditation ended up changing not just his personal life, but his professional one – as a mindfulness entrepreneur Gunatillake is part of a new generation of designers using innovative technology to introduce ancient wisdom to modern lives. In 2012, Wired put him on their list of their Smart List of fifty people who would change the world.

Born in the UK to Sri Lankan parents, he is the director of Mindfulness Everywhere, billed as a creative studio combining meditation, design and technology. Their products include the wildly successful apps known as buddhify and Sleepfulness as well as Cards for Mindfulness and now the website Kara, designed to support people with cancer and their caregivers. In 2016, he published ‘This is Happening’ a book about redesigning mindfulness for contemporary living.

Last week, Gunatillake who is a trustee of the British Council, arrived in Sri Lanka. Together with the Chair of the board, Christopher Rodrigues, he took part in a range of activities related to the British Council’s work, paying particular attention to the libraries, English language teaching and supporting the creative industries. He also found time to sit down for an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times.

“My parents moved from Sri Lanka to the UK in the late 1960s but growing up we were definitely part of the Sri Lankan community in and around South London,” says Gunatillake, who was born there in 1980. He visited Sri Lanka as a child and has many wonderful memories of staying with his grandparents in Horana and Pilyandala. He says something clicked on a trip when he was 15. When he went back to the UK, he saved all the money he got from a part-time job so that he could come back to Sri Lanka again the next summer.

He ended up visiting the island every year until university: “We have a house in Maharagama and I’d spend long summers there, exploring, spending time with my family and a few times just living there by myself to see what that was like.”

Though his parents were Buddhist, he didn’t discover mindfulness from them. “I grew up culturally Buddhist in the way that most second generation Sinhalese Sri Lankans do in the UK,” he says, “But it wasn’t actually until university that I discovered meditation.”

While many find themselves motivated to learn mindfulness thanks to a personal crisis, Gunatillake says his original inspiration was in fact plain curiosity. Having always had an interest in how the mind worked, he was fascinated by how one’s inner life had such a huge impact “on everything,” and that there was actually something he could do to improve it.

While he has been in this business for several years, it’s only been two since he turned to it fulltime. The mindfulness startup world is a relatively small one, but one that appears on the cusp of a boom, as people are increasingly looking for ways to combat the stress seemingly inherent in modern lifestyles.

“We make products based on either a specific opportunity or identifying a problem that we want to solve,” Gunatillake says, explaining that buddhify was designed explicitly to solve the problem of ‘I want to learn mindfulness but don’t have time for a class or course’. “Kara happened because an oncologist in the US approached us and the quality of the team and the quality of the relationship made that whole project happen,” he elaborates, adding, “Sleepfulness happened because our data showed us that the sleep meditations were the most popular content in buddhify- so we decided to make a product just for that.”

Essentially, the technology allowed users to choose how and when they practised. “The best thing about buddhify is that when you use it, you have total control over what you do. There’s no one saying you have to do this meditation first and then that one.That level of personalisation and giving control to the user is really important to me.”

Since they tend to be breaking new ground, Gunatillake and his team find inspiration for their work in the most unlikely places. Video game design, for instance, has him very interested: “Games are all about attention and play and experience and optimising for joy and that is what I feel my products are about too.”

But perhaps his most personal project has been the book ‘This is Happening.’ The book is very practical, and filled with suggestions on how to practise what Gunatillake calls ‘mobile mindfulness.’ But it also works because he doesn’t hide his own insecurities and fears, sharing how his practice has affected his own life. He confesses that before he sat down to write the book, he had never written anything longer than a blog. Gunatillakealso found himself agonizing sometimes about whether anyone would ever pick up this book or find it useful.

“There was of course the self-doubt, one of my classic mental habits! Did people care about what I said? Who was I anyway to write a book about mindfulness?” he tells the Sunday Times.“So to work with all that I made sure I included some practices in the book all about self-doubt!”

He also found an interesting way of approaching his task, using the actual physical work of the reader in holding and turning the pages to illustrate the lesson. “So many mindfulness books out there use this device of putting all the practices and exercises in grey boxes away from the main text and I can’t stand it since people just ignore them,” says Gunatillake, “So if I wrote a book I wanted to make sure that just by reading the book people would learn the techniques. It’s quite an unusual thing to do but I think the book pulls it off pretty well.”

But Guntillake will remember 2016 best as the year he became a father. “My son Arne is currently 9 months old and so my wife and I are deep into that first year of being new parents. It’s life at its most intense. Joy, fatigue, frustration, love – it’s all there!” His 13 years of work on mindfulness has really shaped the kind of parent he wants to be. “When you’re getting up for the fourth time in the middle of the night that is an amazing opportunity for patience, so that is the practice. When I’m looking after Arne, he requires me to be totally present.”

Meanwhile, Gunatillake is excited about the launch of a new (and currently secret) project at the end of this year. “When we made buddhify it was just a side project, and I never dreamed it would be such a successful business. So now that the mindfulness space has moved on so much in the time since it has been out, I’m keen to see how we make something truly ambitious and even more spectacular,” he says. “Also, we are only at the very tip of the iceberg of what mindfulness technologies could be.”

Having gotten in at the start, Gunatillake intends to be around to help shape how this fledgling industry realizes its potential, working toward making their products increasingly accessible, affordable and relevant. Says the entrepreneur: “I’m keen to make sure the whole area of mindfulness apps evolves and allows different types of people to access the benefits of these valuable principles and practices.”

Rohan’s apps:

buddhify: Practical, playful and beautifully-designed, buddhify increases your wellbeing by teaching you mindfulness-based meditation on the go. With over 11 hours of custom meditations for 15 different parts of your day including travelling, being online, taking a work break and going to sleep, buddhify offers a simple but effective way to bring more mindfulness and calm to a busy day.

Sleepfulness: Sleepfulness is packed with guided tracks designed to improve your sleep. Because sleep affects everything, Sleepfulness has tracks for four timezones: Going to sleep, Can’t sleep, waking up and daytime. There are also additional tracks to help with specific sleep challenges as well as customized insights to help the user gain more control over their sleep.

Kara: Kara is a website which contains a range of guided mindfulness meditations designed to support people with cancer. You can also learn more about how mindfulness techniques work and read stories about those who use mindfulness as a way to support their journey with

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