Jewel Shares Her Mindfulness Toolkit With the World

The singer-songwriter details how to stay present amidst chaos, channel your anxiety into something useful, and the biggest misconception about meditation.

Self portrait courtesy of Jewel.

For W’s new series, “One Fun Thing,” we’re inviting creative people around the world to share an easy, relaxing activity that has brightened up their days spent at home, from sketching to making fancy Italian coffee recipes. Consider it a grab bag of ideas for how to shake up your own quarantine routine.

It’s one thing to toss around the idea of meditating to get through quarantine. It’s another to actually do it consistently. This is undoubtedly a stressful time for many, but for years Jewel has been practicing mindfulness to get through tough times. Through her program called Never Broken, a part of the Inspiring Children Foundation, the singer-songwriter offers what she calls a “toolkit” for young people who are dealing with suicidal ideation or depression, and has been providing a platform for virtual connection around the world. Here, calling from her home in Colorado, Jewel goes into detail about how to practice mindfulness, stay present amidst chaos, and channel your anxiety into something useful.

What mindfulness activities have been helping you get through quarantine?

When I was homeless, I started developing a series of tools to see if I could rewire a lot of my habits. I founded a youth organization that uses that toolkit with youth that have suicidal ideation or depression. It’s largely been my life’s work. Last year, 99 percent of our kids earned their own college scholarships, and 90 percent of them were Ivy League. So the tools really work. In times like these, really strange and unprecedented times, you realize having a practice makes such a difference. A lot of the tools are just meditating, but meditation is sort of like doing a bicep curl in the gym: if you’re not going to put that muscle to use during your day, it’s a little bit of a waste. The exercises that I developed are around what I call mindfulness emotion, and those are the exercises that are up on a free website called Jewel Never Broken.

How do you balance the consumption of information with staying present?

Beyond my regular tools that I have been partaking in for a long time, like meditation and things like a gratitude practice, I think right now it’s really important to realize that what we put in our ears and our eyes is every bit as important as what we put in our mouths. Our stress levels affect our immune systems pretty directly. I’m advising a lot of the companies and people I work with to stay off of what I’m calling “fear porn”—all the news stations that just drive your blood pressure up. I only get my information through medical websites and government websites, so that I know my best standards and practices and how to keep safe. I really limit my exposure to a lot of the other stuff. If you have kids, this is especially important because what they’re going to remember about this time is the environment and the mood in the house, much more than they’re going to remember the details.

How do you stay connected to community while quarantined without becoming too overwhelmed by social media?

I think it’s a really good time to think about “what is connection” and “what is connectivity.” If we’re connected, does that actually mean it’s a high quality, nourishing experience? A lot of our connection and connectedness depletes us, makes us tired, makes us anxious. The internet has made us an incredibly connected world. But if we’re not any happier, is it really progress? Covid-19 is really forcing us to look at what feeds us, what makes us feel more nourished and alive, and what depletes us, so that we can hopefully start to curate better. So that we can question everything in this almost black and white sense: Is this nourishing or is this not nourishing? Do I need to be spending as much time on my social media, or now am I doing it out of force of habit? Being really deliberate, and noticing when there are certain people you talk to who make you feel worse after or tired. Is there a way for you to feel less tired? Is there a way for you to feel more inspired if you interject a different question into the mix? I hope this is a reset for us all going forward, where we start to redefine connection, what feeds us, what we want to get out of this experience, and what we want to let die right now that we never thought we’d have the time or courage to let go of, and what new things do we want to implement going forward. This can be an incredibly productive and transformative time if we can channel our worry into something more useful. Worry is just a misuse of creativity. If we’re worrying and stewing in our worry, it’s a good sign that our creativity is not being challenged.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about mindfulness?

Most of my “Type A” friends don’t think they can meditate because they have a misconception that meditation means having no thoughts. That isn’t the case. When you meditate you will still have thoughts. [Laughs.] It’s really just a commitment to be consciously present. That’s all that mindfulness means: being consciously present. It could be anything from feeling your hand on your teacup in the morning and really trying to stay present while you drink your tea, or every time you walk on stairs really feeling your feet on the stairs just for that moment. It could be meditation, but I think the biggest misconception is that people don’t think they can meditate because they have thoughts. The point isn’t to not have thoughts, it’s just to notice them.

Have you developed a morning ritual in quarantine?

I’ve had a morning ritual for a long time, so it’s a pretty established practice for me. I also do a gratitude practice at night. Once you start learning some of the science, like if you start practicing meditation—I offer a really simple form that’s basically just counting your breaths on my website—you can grow your frontal lobe in eight weeks. You can build your brain. You can shrink your amygdala in eight weeks, and the amygdala is where your anxiety and your fight or flight response live. The second you stop and breathe, they’ve been able to prove that your entire system dilates. All your neurotransmitters change, the biochemicals flooding your system change, your vascular system dilates. There are very simple hacks. It’s nice to know the science behind them and this has worked since before we knew the science, but for me it’s always fun to learn about it.

What are some of those specific hacks?

There’s only two basic states of being. There’s dilated and contracted. Every thought, feeling, or action leads to one of those two states. If you’re in an anxious state, all you have to do is have a thought, feeling, or action that forces you to dilate. I started learning this when I was homeless. My car got stolen, I had nothing, no food. I was heading into a panic attack. I forced myself to get deeply grateful. What I chose was the sun that was shining through this palm tree where I was sitting on the street corner. I just became profoundly grateful for it. Your body has to listen. Your entire vascular system dilates and you get much more calming neurotransmitters flooding your system. Now you’re in a position to do something instead of heading into a panic attack.

What are you grateful for right now?

Oh my gosh, a million things. I’m grateful for my health, I’m grateful for my son’s health. I’m very grateful, this sounds so funny, but we’re not in World War II. I can’t imagine the bombs, and people living through the cities being bombed all around their ears and living on extreme rations. When I hear us complain about the fact that we have to stay home and we don’t get the exact brand of pasta we want, it’s really not a huge problem. We’re incredibly lucky to be going through this now and not in the 1800s. We have a lot more access to a lot more amazing things. We get to participate and hopefully rebuild systems better on the other side of this.

How have you been expressing yourself while in quarantine?

I think I did one of the first live concerts. My youth foundation lost the ability to fundraise this year, so we hustled and put on a live show on the internet called “Live from San Quarantine.” We were able to raise half a million dollars in a couple hours. We have a ways to go, our budget is about 1.4 million, but it kept our kids in houses, it kept our kids fed. 95 percent of the kids, their parents lost their jobs, so it’s going to be a hard economic time for all of us. I see this as a threefold problem. There’s the virus pandemic, the economic fallout, and the mental health fallout. Typically, suicides dramatically increase if not double during recessions. Last year, I think there were 1.2 million suicide attempts, so if we just look at that number doubling, the death count from mental health issues could possibly eclipse the death count from the virus. Using my creativity and my music and my social media just to raise awareness so people realize they have resources, and that anxiety during something like this is normal and there are things we can do. I started a speaker series with “Live from San Quarantine” every Thursday and I bring on mental health experts, child psychologists, musicians, where we sing and we talk and we share. Last week’s was amazing. I had a psychologist from Harvard that deals with suicidal ideation and people got so raw in the comments section. They were talking about really difficult things and being incredibly honest. We were elated because sharing always makes you feel good, and when you can help people you feel good. That speaker series will continue every Thursday.

Has there been any other content that you’ve consumed that has felt inspiring to you?

I’ve been in this rabbit hole of finishing my album and I’ve been writing a book on the anatomy of change, and how we change. I’m in the final editing process of that so I honestly haven’t been able to consume much just because my days have been really full with trying to finish the book. I just released a song called “Grateful,” I kind of hurried to get that out. But I don’t have a release date for the book or the record yet. I’m just going to be so glad to get it done, holy heck! Finishing a book is brutal.

What is the first thing you think you’ll do once this pandemic is behind us?

It sounds really simple, but I want to throw a party for my son’s school class and parents. Getting through this time, homeschooling, has been a lot for parents. And just the kids being separated. I just want to throw a party for my son’s class. I’m really excited to make the most of this time to ask, again, what do I want to get out of this experience? What if staying home is a new form of activism? What if what we’ve seen in the environment, with our lack of flying and driving, are there times I could stay home? Are there TV shows where I could say, hey I want to come in but justifying flying to New York City or L.A. is a lot of carbon fuel and I can do it just as good, I learned during quarantine, from my house? Will we start taking some stands and incorporating some changes, so that we don’t just go back to business as usual? I’m excited to see what things I come up with during this time that I feel like I want to implement going forward.

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