How mindfulness helped Jewel move from shoplifting and panic attacks to music stardom

The chart-topping singer tells her story in the new documentary The Mindfulness Movement

The chart-topping singer tells her story in the new documentary The Mindfulness Movement

Jewel Kilcher is a Grammy-nominated singer, and executive producer of a new documentary called The Mindfulness Movement. (Brendan Walter)

When Jewel Kilcher discovered mindfulness, she was just 16 years old and at the end of her rope.

It was just five short years before she would be known simply as Jewel, and her 1995 debut album Pieces of You would become one of the bestselling debut albums of all time, with hits including Foolish Games, You Were Meant For Me and Who Will Save Your Soul.

But after leaving an abusive home at 15, she found herself homeless, experiencing crippling panic attacks, and shoplifting. One day, she was in a store fitting room trying to steal a dress and she caught her reflection in the mirror.

"I realized I was going to end up in jail or dead if I didn't do something," says Kilcher in an interview with q host Tom Power.

In that moment she made a plan: she would take notes on everything her hands did — how many times she opened doors, how many times she washed her hands, how many times she shook people's hands.

"At the end of two weeks, I looked back at my notes. It was pretty clear to see I had quit believing in myself, but the much more interesting thing was my anxiety almost completely disappeared while I was journaling about my hands," she says.

"The word mindfulness wasn't around at the time. I don't even think I knew the word presence. But I realized that when I was being very observant and very curious in real time, my anxiety disappeared.

"And that was a revelation because when you live with extreme anxiety and you finally get a break from it, you want to understand that and you want to do that more."

'I will still find a way forward'

Three decades later, Kilcher is a vocal proponent of mindfulness and executive producer of a new feature documentary called The Mindfulness Movement.

The film features mindfulness leaders including Deepak Chopra, Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness founder and author Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Real Happiness author Sharon Salzberg.

It also features high-profile mindfulness practitioners, including Nightline anchor Dan Harris, U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan, and Kilcher herself, who tells the story of how mindfulness changed her life.

Kilcher says many people mistakenly think mindfulness is about training yourself to think positively, but that's not at all the case.

"What people tend to think of as optimism isn't actually optimism. It's a defiant ignorance. It's a wilful ignorance. It's putting your head in the sand, ignoring problems and saying everything's rainbows, everything's good. Mindfulness isn't that," she says.

Deepak Chopra is co-executive producer of The Mindfulness Movement. The bestselling author believes a critical mass of mindfulness will help create a healthier, happier world. (Rob Beemer)

"I find mindfulness much grittier. You know, it's a much harder thing to look at the screaming blood of all your losses and see them and experience them and say, 'I will still find a way forward.' That's a very gritty muscle that you build emotionally."

'A dedication to being present'

Kilcher defines mindfulness as "a dedication to being present" and that it involves two phases. The first is to learn how to meditate.

"That's just basically being willing to do your bicep curl every day and say, 'I'm going to build new neural pathways that help me become more and more present,'" she explains.

Then you need to use it to start changing habits, or aspects of your life or personality that you would like to shift.

From the new documentary The Mindfulness Movement, Baltimore elementary school students participate in one of the Holistic Life Foundation’s mindfulness programs, which serve more than 40 Baltimore area schools. (Rob Beemer)

Of course, with the world in the grips of a global pandemic, millions of people are experiencing deteriorating mental health — made worse by the fact that they are often alone with their thoughts.

Kilcher says that makes it a perfect time to practice mindfulness.

"What's happening in the world with the pandemic is out of our control. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We're starting to see that all the facades we had where we thought we were in control aren't necessarily true anyway," she says.

Kilcher believes we can come out of this situation better, or we can come out worse.

Officer Eric White of the Emeryville, California police department meditates as part of a mindfulness program instituted to help officers process trauma and increase positive outcomes with the public. (Rob Beemer)

"There will be people that come out of this period agoraphobic, afraid to hug, afraid to touch hands, afraid to send their child to school," says Kilcher, who also offers resources on her website, jewelneverbroken.com.

"Or we can come out of this time more resilient, where we're much more in touch with what actually makes us feel safe, with what actually makes us feel nourished and calm."

"And which way that goes is up to each of us."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra; interview produced by Vanessa Nigro.

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