Mindful Mornings: Tapping Into Our Innate Ability to Live In the Present Moment How Gemma Gambee uses yoga and meditation to sharpen the mental tool.
Written by Brianna Steinhilber || Posted on Everup
Mindfulness is a buzzword in the health and wellness community, but translating it into our own daily routine is easier said than done. Our #MindfulMornings series takes a deep dive into what mindfulness means to the yoga and meditation gurus hosting Quiet Mornings, a mindfulness-plus-art series taking place this year at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Their experience with mindfulness and meditation may help you define it for yourself.
EVERUP: When did mindfulness become something that you actively tried to practice and why?
GEMMA: It’s an interesting time. Mindfulness has become a very commonly used word. It is starting to mean so many different things to so many different people. But to me, it is the practice of becoming aware in the present moment. When I think of mindfulness it brings to mind Ellen Lange and Jon Kabat-Zin. Each of them developed practices that brings one’s complete awareness to the present moment. They realized the benefits of becoming healthier and happier when you are able to become fully present in the moment, without allowing your mind to think about the past or the future.
How did you go about incorporating it into your routine and practicing it daily?
Never. Mindfulness is a new term that has become something I’ve heard about, but if I think about my life and I think about what mindfulness is, a mindful practice for me started when I was little when I would be at church praying. It’s something innate in all of us and I think it’s part of who each of us are; there are lots of times that we are mindful without actively trying to be, like the moment you’re excited about something new, or the moments you can remember sitting in movies when you were a little kid, where you were on the edge of your seat and you were totally and completely engaged in every single moment. There wasn’t one thought about anything except for what you were experiencing; that happens all the time, for all of us. I think that at a certain point in life that starts to change because our society has shifted in the past 20 years so much; we’re always emerged in technology, that’s why it’s such a big part of the conversation now.
Meditation became part of my daily routine about 10 years ago. I went on a meditation retreat and then jumped in. It was a struggle at first to be sure that it was a daily thing. I had an amazing teacher, David Harshada Wagner, and a strong community of meditators. These were the supports that helped me develop my practice.
What are some ways that you actively cultivate and practice mindfulness?
I have a twice a day meditation practice. also practic yoga and exercise n a variety of way. ike any human, it wanes and waxes. My movement practices may decrease but I rarely miss a meditation. I also pray, contemplate and journal.
Did you encounter any roadblocks or struggles when first attempting to be more mindful? Was it hard to cultivate?
Mindfulness is something that is always there for all of us, but we can think about mindfulness in the present context, as practices that help us have easier accessibility to becoming present in the moment. I mentioned praying when I was little, but when I started learning to do yoga in my late teens/early 20’s I loved the feeling of the spaciousness and depth that I was experiencing with the connection of breath to body and the effects that it had on my mind. I didn’t have a lot of difficulty doing that because it was so exciting to me, but when I really started to dive into my meditation practice about 10 years ago, I did have a lot of problems getting onto my cushion everyday. I specifically had a lot of fear because my quest in meditation was not as simplistic, it wasn’t just about becoming more relaxed and happier. I was more on a spiritual quest. I had a very complicated emotional upbringing so there were a lot of emotions that had never been properly dealt with; when I started to immerse into self in the deepest way, I started to experience a great sense of fear. I was very scared to let go. I had a very amazing teacher, so he was prepared to bring me there and guide me; that was very helpful.
Can you remember your first experience with meditation? What was it like?
It was 1999. I was in college. This is before I got into my serious practice. It was a visualization at the end of a yoga class in Tulum, Mexico. I remember there was this idea of light and experiencing the light within and then starting to move it outside of the body to encompass the entire earth, and for me this was super exciting and really fun. I’m a mystic; since I was a little girl I was always asking those questions, going to church and thinking about God and all that stuff. This aligned with who I was, so it was exciting and fun.
After that first time, were you hooked?
In the back of my head it was [something I wanted to explore], but it was years before I actually found a teacher and jumped into that process. At the time of that first experience I was 20 years old. I was a runway model. I was going to one of the best art schools in the country. I had just traveled internationally for the first time, and I started this eight-year, very big international life, so I was doing the opposite of meditating.
What effects did you see on your mental and physical health, productivity and/or creativity as you made mindfulness and meditation a part of your daily life?
With yoga, there was this connection between breath, body and sprit/intellect because I was able to sense and experience that spaciousness that the practice of yoga brings. The opportunity to contemplate and have enlightened thought—which is different than this other kind of mindless thought—is really special and exciting and fun. Then cut to my later, more involved meditation practice: It changed everything about who I am in every single way. How I see it is that the practice allows me to be able to explore my inner landscape, which means the relationship between all of the different layers of self, and there are so many. When I had the stability of knowing my essence—my core, my spirit, my highest self, my consciousness, whatever word you want to use for that experience—I was able to start navigating who I was. I was able to start to decide which parts of self didn’t serve me anymore, which parts of self became outdated. This is where the very difficult part is, because it’s sticky to let go of those things. How we identify with self is difficult to peel way, especially at first. But once you have good teachers and a supportive community around you and you do it a couple of times you start realizing that this is what freedom really is. Experiencing true freedom in the sense of exploring yourself as a human being is the most liberating feeling in the world.
What were you, personally, set free from?
Drugs, drinking, a co-dependent relationship with my father, heavy stuff. But then there’s also the more superficial things, like I got better sleep, I feel lighter in general. It’s all interrelated, part of the conversation right now is, “it’s a stress reliever,” “it’s calming,” and it’s true, it is all of those things, but it’s so many of the other things, too. It’s whatever the person needs it to be. Some of us have a lot less complicated lives, which is awesome; it functions in a less dramatic way for those people. But some of us have very complicated experiences and it allows us to heal from those. Meditation has been an opportunity for me to really accept and forgive and do all of these actionable things that we need to do to really end up being healthy.
Is meditation an ongoing growth process or have you reached a maintenance mode?
I see it as a continuous opportunity that’s never-ending. I feel like the spirit is so vast and connected to something that’s so much bigger than our minds could ever imagine that there’s always an opportunity. But I do think that there is a climax point. In the meantime we have all of these layers of learning about self and others that we get to go through, but having said that, there’s periods of quiet that you go through when you’re at this maintenance level for awhile, you ground out, you’re stable, and I think sometimes it’s more of a subtle process.
If you don’t meditate, do you feel a difference in your mental or emotional health?
There are subtle differences. There are afternoons that I miss my meditation and my soul misses it. I’ve taught after-school programs in Harlem for 5-12 year olds; I teach executives at one of the largest tech hedge funds in the world; and I teach everybody in between—scientists, housewives. In the end this whole conversation is at a very politically correct moment, calling it mindfulness, but the reality is, no matter whether you’re a scientific atheist that believes in absolutely nothing or if you’re a devout religious person, there is some type of mystery in all of us, and when I don’t have the opportunity to allow my mind and intellect to bow to that mystery that’s in myself, I crave it.
That’s a really diverse population of people—is there a difference in the way you approach meditation for a five-year-old, a tech executive and a housewife?
I approach all of those people so differently. It’s a lot about having an intuitive sense and being there with the person to find out what they need. There’s some very simple basic ways that I was trained by some amazing teachers so I have those tools to know where to start, but I also have a very innate sensitivity and emotional intelligence and so I rely heavily on that to connect to people and listen to them and see where they’re at. Each of us has a teacher and healer within us and really I’m not coming to heal or teach anybody anything, I’m just coming to hold space for that person to find the answers inside of themselves. Even the five-year-old, they sometimes are the smartest and quickest of all of them.
What are your basic, go-to techniques?
If I’m leading a large group I tend to use mantra or breath. I find that mantra techniques are very beneficial for western people because we are in such a highly analytical environment so our brains are already there waiting to listen and take information in; the quicker you have something to give them—a mantra, a sound or a vibration, or a word—it tends to be something that works. The one common denominator that a lot of my clients have is that they’re high-achievers, high net worth, city people that are super successful, so that tends to work well.
What do you think is the most common misconception about meditation?
That you have to stop your thoughts. It’s not about stopping your thoughts; it’s about allowing your mind to experience your inner greatness. We just need a technique to allow the mind to move down that path to bow to the heart.
If someone is completely new to meditation and has reservations about giving it a try, do you have any tips or tricks that made it easier for you?
My one suggestion is to find a teacher. Apps, tapes and videos are all amazing, but we really need the nervous system of a teacher. We learn so much on a subtle level that we don’t realize, and this kind of work is like that. The other thing I would suggest is asking yourself why you want to do it. Do you want to do it for your own reasons or because you think you should be doing it? If it’s because you think you should be doing it, then you should wait and not force yourself yet. If you know you want to do it for a specific reason, look at that reason and find some trust inside yourself and then take the leap.
Another piece of advice I’d give is that the mind is going 180 miles per hour, that’s the nature of the mind, and it takes time to slow it down. So have patience with yourself. These practices are not at all to be compared to the idea you have in your head of what “meditation” should be. It’s really just getting to know yourself and that is a process that takes time, especially when your minds been going so fast for so long.
Give us your 30-second elevator pitch for why we should all be making mindfulness (whether it is in the form of meditation or another daily practice) a part of our daily routine, and actively trying to cultivate it.
If you want to feel peace, we all have that peace inside and if you are able to touch it and live from that place, it leads to such a happier life. For me, meditation is the thing that made it happen.