Mental Hygiene and Meditation: A Conversation with Emily Fletcher

The Magazine: Mental Hygiene and Meditation: A Conversation with Emily Fletcher

Emily Fletcher is the founder of Ziva Meditation and the author of the new bestselling book, “Stress Less Accomplish More, Meditation for Extraordinary Performance.” At Ziva, Emily teaches “meditation to get good at life, not to get good at meditation.”.

What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

The reason why a lot of people start meditation and quit is because a lot of people are doing what they think is meditation, but it’s actually mindfulness — which is made for monks. And they think it’s hard and they can’t clear their mind, so they quit. If you’re investing your time you should be getting a return on that investment.

There are things that create a state change and there are things that create a trait change. Mindfulness is very good at changing a state. I feel stressed, I do ten minutes on my app and I feel better now. Meditation is creating a trait change. It’s going in and changing yourself and changing your epi-genetics and what you are passing down to the next generation.

Mindfulness is very good for dealing with stress in the now — very different from the type of meditation we teach, which is all about getting rid of stress from your past — and giving your body rest that is five times deeper than sleep. When you do that, you de-excite the nervous system and allow yourself to heal. My focus is on meditation for extraordinary performance.

Have you heard from people who go through your program and radically change their life?

Yes! Performance, fertility, skin getting better...I hear it all.

One example is 15 minutes twice a day can actually cure your sleeplessness. For most people, they are using their sleep as a time for stress release and so the body is eradicating stress during the night. So If you are using meditation time for stress release, then your body can use your time for sleep as the time to sleep. Sleep gets deeper, you need less of it, and you wake up feeling less stress. A lot of people go longer without getting sick from meditating. There is a whole chapter on reversing body age...sometimes between 8 and 15 years. That is based on Science out of Tufts and Wake Forest University if you want to fact check me on that. The TLDR is that stress shortens and weakens telomeres (the structures at the end of chromosomes), and so if you are meditating and getting rid of stress, it actually lengthens your telomeres, and the longer and stronger they are has a direct relationship with age.

Sex lives get better, sex drive goes up. A woman had her first orgasm of her life after a meditation course. I’ve had woman getting pregnant for the first time at 44. Others have reported that IBS goes away. When people are stressed they have chronic acid in their stomach, and when they start meditating, the acid goes away and their body can function better. And a lot of people report they feel a lot more patient with their kids — even moms with 5 kids — they are more calm and patient.

This is not meditation for monks, it’s meditation for people with busy minds and busy lives. I give people permission to have thoughts. Everyone thinks it’s about just clearing the mind and since that is very hard, people don’t want to do something for very long that they feel like they are failing at. With Ziva, a lot of people feel they have permission to be where they are. They aren’t trying to force the brain into something that is impossible.

What is the impact of stress on our society right now? Why do you think people so stressed out?

The human body hasn’t yet evolved to adapt to our modern day demand. We have to go back in time a few thousand years when we were hunting and gathering in the woods. A tiger jumps out at you, and your body jumps into a series of reactions. But modern day demands are no longer predatory attacks for the most part; it’s deadlines and emails and redeyes and Instagram. That’s why a lot of people exercise — because they go to outrun the tiger.

Look at the reality of modern society: we are staring at screens all day, there is radiation, our food is not food anymore, we have Wifi for flying through the sky in metal tubes with recycled air, our soil is depleted, the threat of climate change is here. It’s a lot to handle.

Can you talk about your meditation practice and how you came to it?

I’ve been meditating every day, twice a day, for eleven years. It’s a muscle. I take it very seriously. I used to be on Broadway for ten years, and my last Broadway show was as an understudy of three of the lead roles, meaning you show up to the theatre every night not knowing which character you’re going to play, so you’re constantly living in this state of “fight or flight.” That led to stress and trouble sleeping...I started getting gray hairs at age twenty-six or twenty-seven, I started getting injured, it was very confusing why I was doing the thing I wanted to do since I was a child, but I was miserable.

Thankfully, I found meditation and on the first day of the first course I was in. I reached a different state of consciousness and I liked it — and I slept through the night for the first time in eighteen months. I didn’t get sick for eight-and-a-half years, I just turned forty and I have like one grey hair and I was legitimately going gray in my twenties. I started enjoying my job again. I left Broadway, I went to India, and I started what became a three-year training process. After graduating I started Ziva Meditation.

There is just no chance that I’m not meditating, just because I see day in, day out how powerful it is. Even on the days when I don’t feel like it or I’m hungover or tired or would rather just work, I’m constantly reminded of how powerful this medicine is. I’m very, very committed to it.

Can you explain your philosophy around mental hygiene?

I want to make it as rude to leave your house without meditating as it would be to leave your house without brushing your teeth. Same with stress — you need to handle it.

It’s not everyone else’s job to deal with your mental hygiene, it’s your job.

Because meditation is simple, people believe they should magically know how to do it, so they sit in a chair and they say, Okay mind, stop thinking, and then, Oh I want a snack, and then It’s too hard, and then they quit. The power in this practice comes from the simplicity; just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s not a skill. Invest a little time to learn how to do it, and then it becomes ridiculously enjoyable and it doesn’t become a discipline anymore — you look forward to doing it. I perform so much better on the other side...why would I not practice this mental hygiene?

The reality is: sometimes I really enjoy showering and sometimes I don’t, and yet I do it anyway. Sometimes I like to meditate and sometimes I don’t, but I do it anyway because every day I am accumulating stress in my brain and body.

What’s the connection between mind and body?

The mind is the body the body is the mind. It’s a holistic system. One without the other will never be fully effective. Especially now, there is so much science with the gut-brain connection. It’s so important that we are all taking care of our microbiomes, eating real food and raw fat, because if your microbiome is off and your gut chemistry is off, it’s very hard to have mental health. You can have it, but you’re fighting an uphill battle.

Besides meditation how else can people easily take care of their mental hygiene?

The non-negotiable habit really has to be meditation. There is just no other way around it. It’s the most impactful, it will have a ripple effect on all other habits. I hear it all the time — people who couldn’t exercise or eat healthy, once they start meditating to handle the root causes, it’s so much easier to eat food that is good for them. If you are stressed, you aren’t acting in accordance with what you know. If you are stressed your amygdala is running the show and your amygdala doesn’t speak English. You can’t reason with your fear.

Most people are in a chronic state of “fight or flight.”

It’s not just a free app or someone guiding you through or even just once a day, it’s mindfulness, meditation and manifesting (or the three M’s as we like to call it). It’s just 15 minutes, twice a day. Wake up, brush your teeth, and then you meditate in the morning. You fill up your brain and body with bliss, fulfillment and energy and then you enjoy delivering that throughout the day. And then somewhere mid-afternoon, when you start to crave your coffee or nap or chocolate, that’s your cue to go do your second meditation, and you come out of it with this second wind and you are so much more present and creative and able to get more done in less time.

Has motherhood changed your relationship to meditation at all?

Yes, I used to wake up and meditate first thing in the morning. And now, I usually wake up and nurse my son for an hour or hour-and-a-half, and then I get him breakfast, and then when my mom or nanny comes, then I meditate. While it’s ideal to meditate first thing in the morning, now it’s sometimes two or three hours after I wake up, and that’s just the way it is right now, which is fine. The program for new parents is, catch as catch can. You don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of good, you just do it.

You’re going to get interrupted, it doesn’t matter. You take all of the rules and then you throw them out the window when you become a parent. As your child gets more self sufficient you can get back to the optimal program, but some meditation is better than no meditation.

How do you think society would change if everyone did meditation?

The three biggest threats facing humanity are:

1. Food isn’t food

2. Climate change

3. Racism and terrorism (separateness)

These challenges all have deeper underlying imbalances. So I think the only way to solve that deeper underlying imbalance is to change the state of consciousness for which we’ve created those imbalances.

No problem can be solved with the same state of consciousness in which it was created, so we can keep masking the symptoms and try to put bandaids on top of the bleeding aorta, but at some point we have to go to the source and we have to actually shift the stress, greed and separateness that created these symptoms. The fastest way that I know how to do that is through meditation—getting people out of “fight and flight” mode and into unity and play, joy and creativity. We need all hands on deck as a species to solve these big challenges that we are being called upon to solve.

Editor's note: interview conducted on May 8, 2019 and edited for length and clarity.

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