I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Graber, a highly sought after Psychotherapist Meditation and Mindfulness expert based in Santa Monica, CA. Ashley presented at this year’s Ted Women Conference and at last year’s Wisdom 2.0 Technology and Mindfulness Conference. Ashley educates teachers, school administrators and business executives on how to make sense of using the benefits of meditation and mindfulness skills in their particular work environments and she teaches families and kids as young as age 4.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path as a doctor or healer?
I started my career as a commercial real estate broker in San Francisco and New York City. Success in that field came easily, but I lacked passion for the work. It wasn’t until a nearly fatal car crash sidelined me for over a year. This gave me the space to examine my life and do some much needed soul searching. It sounds cliche, but nearly dying woke me up. I studied psychology as an undergrad, but chose a different career path. After this year of intensive healing, it became clear that I needed to go back to the work I had started and become a psychotherapist.
During that time, I heard a mindfulness-based psychologist speak blending psychotherapy and meditation and mindfulness practices. This combination spoke to me. I spent the next few years becoming a certified meditation and mindfulness educator teaching alongside my therapy work. Now, I teach people of all ages and in various environments. What I have learned to be true for myself and every person is if we can pause just long enough, we can change our reactions to pain and stress into conscious responses. We can all respond instead of simply reacting. With the incredible amount of stress we are currently under, we need these practices now more than ever.
How have your personal challenges informed your career path?
I say at the end of every mediation and mindfulness class, had I been given these tools at a young age, the trajectory of my life would be completely different. I was born anxious and had early childhood trauma, both were undiagnosed and unrecognized in my family. I walked around the world on hyper-alert always feeling unsafe and unsteady. I turned to drugs and alcohol at a young age to cope. It wasn’t until I checked into rehab that I learned the skills of meditation and mindfulness. There, I met the man who became my first meditation and mindfulness mentor. He taught me to simply breathe; something we do daily and have access to at any moment. Had I not gone to rehab, I may not have been open to the practice of meditation and mindfulness. I certainly didn’t realize then that rehab would have been the biggest blessing of my life on many levels.
Can you share five pieces of advice to other doctors to help their patients to thrive?
I hear all the time, “I can’t sit still” or “I can’t clear my mind” from people interested in learning meditation and mindfulness. This leads to clients stopping or never really getting started because they have misinformation. Let me help to clear up a few misconceptions about the practices.
- Consistency is key. Length of time is not as important as doing these practices every day. Simply taking 5 breaths a day is beneficial and a wonderful place to start a practice.
- Help patients understand the difference between meditation and mindfulness practices. This way, they can weave both into everyday life. The simplest definition of “mindfulness” is a mental state of acceptance, curiosity and openness that is achieved by focusing one’s awareness (attention) on the present moment. This means you are not looking in the past or the future and you are also not judging your present moment experience. Meditation, on the other hand, is the anchor. It’s a practice that we use to build concentration (focus) and bring awareness to when you are not in the present moment.
- We have somewhere between 50,000–70,000 thoughts per day — an average of 2,500 thoughts per hour and 80–90 % of those thoughts are repetitive. It’s impossible to clear our minds. That’s not even the point of meditation. The point is to catch our wandering thoughts and come back to the breath (the present) so that we can build the new and more helpful neural pathways that increase resilience and decrease stress. Our mind thinks like our eyes see and our ears hear. We would never want to clear our hearing so just the same, there’s no need to clear our minds.
- Help patients to find practices that work for them. I would never expect a busy executive to sit for 20 minutes a day nor would I ask a 5 year old to sit still for even 5 minutes. There are many ways to meditate and even more ways to do mindful practices. Help your patients come up with what works for them. This helps build consistency in their practice for them to experience the benefits.
- Just Breathe — I believe in this simple message so much that I had it tattooed on my wrist as a reminder. If nothing else, at all times, any time, anywhere — just breathe. Taking a breath not only helps to calm down and regulate our body when we get stressed, but it also gives us the pause we need to make those conscious choices verses reactions in life.
Social media and reality TV create a venue for people to share their personal stories. Do you think more transparency about your personal story can help or harm your field of work? Can you explain?
This is such a good question and one I have struggled with until the last few years. My sobriety is long term and transparency around that piece of my life came easily. My early childhood sexual abuse was harder for me to share. I have come to realize that my secrecy and fear were shame and perfectionism running the show. They are the exact reasons I reached for drugs and alcohol. We must tell our stories to heal. It doesn’t have to be on a social media platform or on TV. If you feel like your story will impact someone or help them and you are willing to share, then I say do it because too many people live in isolation and shame. They need to hear they are not alone.
We are taught in Alcoholics Anonymous that when we speak in front of a group of people our job is to be honest. If we have been honest and helped one person, it’s considered a job well done. The same is true when I share past struggles with severe anxiety, depression, addiction and my childhood sexual abuse. If I help one person feel less alone, then that is a job well done in my book. Social media has given us a platform to learn we are not alone. Since many of our issues stem from feeling separate, different and ultimately alone, I am a fan of this kind of transparency because we can shine light on these issues. This is the stepping stone to helping others to get the help they so deserve.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant to your life?
The Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This quote encompasses my life’s work. When I see the excitement in the eyes of a CEO, a parent or a 6 year old because, for the first time in their life, they didn’t react but responded to a stressful situation, I know I am changing a life and the lives of the people around that person.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would have meditation and mindfulness practices as part of the curriculum in every school in America and across the globe. If we taught acceptance, curiosity, openness, empathy, self compassion, how to pause and to just breathe, we could change world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook: Ashley Graber, M.A. LMFT
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!