If I could start a movement that would bring the most about of good to the most amount of people, Mindfulness would be a very big part of that movement. Because Mindfulness does more than just give you more bandwidth and energy for working with problems. When you have more clarity, you can better manage your fear. When you are better able to manage your fear, you have more room for compassion. More compassion means a kinder world.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meghan Gardner.
Meghan is the founder and CEO of Guardian Adventures, a company that designs and runs live, interactive educational adventures for all ages. Meghan is also a 30-year practitioner of meditation and mindfulness and a Mindfulness Coach for Junior Olympic athletes, business executives, performers, and others. In her free time, Meghan volunteers for Hospice where she helps people experience the most out of their remaining days.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Myspecific career path as the founder of Guardian Adventures started when bedtime came for my two young daughters (who are now adults). Sometimes, instead of reading them a story, I would make one up where they were each the hero in the story… and I would put them into situations where they would have to make decisions together about how to move forward in the story. Then I would make up the next part of the story based upon their decision. Sometimes I would reward them for a day of chores with a few dollars to purchase a prop in a store and I would make the prop part of the story. My kids loved this and over time, I realized that it was a very good way to see where my kids were in their decision-making skills, problem-solving, and improvisation. At that time, I owned a full-time martial arts and fencing school (as a 25-year practitioner of the arts), so I decided to start a program providing these adventures to my students, my daughters’ friends, and others. It wasn’t long before these adventures exploded in popularity and dominated my business. I eventually closed the martial arts division because my own kids were more interested in the adventures and it gave me a chance to play with them and learn more about how to refine the experience. Today, we have thousands of clients who come to our facility or our STEM summer camps each year to experience these story-based adventures. They play characters such as wizards or warriors, zombie hunters, futuristic scientists, or wandering heroes looking for a quest. But in order to “power up” like in a video game, wizards need to learn physics (because that’s what the spells are based in), fighters need to learn the geometry of swordsmanship, healers need to learn biology in order to heal, zombie hunters need to learn about DNA to avoid turning into a zombie, and alchemists need to learn chemistry to make their potions.
Now, in addition to being CEO of Guardian Adventures, I am an annual guest lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, a curriculum and adventure designer for Royal Caribbean, and an international speaker on the topics of out-of-school learning and Informal Education.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I opened my first full-time facility 3 days before 9/11. I knew that if I could survive the challenge of the economy after that, I could handle anything… and that has held true for this pandemic. Our entire company took all of our live, in-person adventures and we moved them online using a combination of Google Classroom, Zoom, and other services. 90% of our clients are now on our online platform and the feedback has been heartening. Our customers are seeing their kids smile and be excited about playing with their friends in our video conference environment for the first time since the order for physical distancing went into effect. The other most interesting story is how I took up Fire Breathing for my company… but that’s for another time.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
My first piece of advice is to make failure an option. This is specifically important in a company that is as innovative as mine. We are (literally) inventing new adventures and programming 7 days a week. This means there will be a lot of mistakes. It’s inevitable, in fact. And if people are afraid of failing and are given the message that failure is not acceptable, they will not have the courage to try something exciting and new. They will not feel like they can take risks. So failure needs to be acceptable… in measure… but acceptable nonetheless. This creates a truly safe work environment for innovation and high creativity.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Oh, there are many. But the most recent book is Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. This book details a lot about how and why we run our adventures — which are live and improvisational in that the story changes depending on the participants’ decisions. This book provides the research and more examples around why “games” (we call them “adventures”) are the best way for people to learn and to cooperate in tackling massively large challenges they would not otherwise consider. Games allow us to safely step outside our comfort zone. And this one concept from the book was particularly enlightening: Where else in life do we immediately get bored and disinterested if we stop failing? Only games captivate us by allowing us to fail, fail better, and fail better again until we get it right. We strive to replicate this not only in our games but in our company as well.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
The state of being mindful is allowing what is happening at this moment to be as it is without adding your judgment of “good” or “bad” or your desire or aversion to color it. You are fully accepting of what you are feeling without trying to add thoughts or a story to the feeling.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Benefits of being mindful:
- You spend much less energy fighting the current situation which frees up a great deal of bandwidth for problem-solving.
- Because you are not in denial or battling reality or clinging to false hope, you are able to see the situation at hand more clearly and therefore find more options for how to act.
- As your skill grows in developing your mindfulness (because like a sport or the arts, you have to practice to get better at it) your employees, family, and friends will start to notice a difference. You will be more emotionally stable. You will be less stressed out. And they will feel safer coming to you with difficult news.
- And of course, as your skill in mindfulness improves, you will find that your body will stay more relaxed and your blood pressure will normalize faster. You will also become more aware of unhealthy habits like binge eating or drinking or missing meals and better able to manage the temptation.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
IMPORTANT: Don’t try this practice with traumatic memories without the assistance of a professional therapist. Trauma is much more resilient and can require other approaches.
Step 1: Recite this over and over until it’s the first thing that pops into your mind during times of stress: Feelings are NOTHING MORE than thoughts with a whole lot of energy. Memorize this. Put in on a post-it by your computer. Write it on your forearm in sharpie. This is the cornerstone of mindfulness.
Step 2: Understand that Feelings FEED on Thoughts. Don’t believe me? Watch how many stories you tell yourself the next time you are pissed at someone. Watch what those stories do to that emotion. Keep feeding them more stories and more thoughts and see how long the feeling lasts.
NOW try this: Let go of the story. Just be with the energy of the feeling. Imagine that it’s this solid, dark, hard mass that sits wherever you happen to feel your emotion in your body (the gut, back of the neck, center of the forehead, etc). Picture the energy and let it be there. Don’t try to change it or feed it any thoughts or stories. Watch what happens now. The average feeling will fade and maybe even completely dissolve in an average of 90 seconds (research by neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor) if you can abstain from feeding it thoughts or stories.
Step 3: Use breath as your anchor. There will be times when the story you are telling yourself is so powerful that it’s very hard to let it go and just let the emotion be present without the thoughts. This is when you can give some of your attention to your breath. Thankfully, we always have our breath with us unless we are dead. Focusing on your breath can give you an anchor in the thought-storm. When thoughts rise up, just lightly acknowledge them and let them go. Go back to your breath. But also give attention to that hard pit of energy that makes up the emotion. Don’t ignore that. It needs our kind attention (as opposed to angry attention) in order to dissolve.
Step 4. When the feelings come up again and trust me — they will repeat steps 2 and 3 again and again. The bad news is that you won’t be done with stronger feelings after the first time the feeling fades. The good news is that every time you perform these steps, the feeling gets weaker and less persistent.
Step 5: Practice, practice, practice. This is where meditation comes in. Meditation is often depicted as someone sitting cross-legged with a serene look on their face and an empty thought bubble above their head. As a 30 year practitioner of meditation, I often laugh at this. If you were to see my own drawing, it would depict me with a thousand thought bubbles… painstakingly popping each one. Just like an athlete or musician or mathematician, the more time you spend practicing, the better you get. So take just 10 minutes each day, first thing in the morning, to practice letting go of your stories and thoughts. Over time, you will get so that you can do this better with stronger and stronger feelings…. And in more and more chaotic times.
From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Step 1: First and foremost: Take care of yourself. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have the bandwidth or resilience to take care of others. Taking care of yourself is actually a discipline. Those who fail to do so are LYING to themselves. Why do I say this? Because taking care of yourself requires a deeply rooted level of honesty that you are a human being and you need time to take a break and refuel. Those who work constantly to exhaustion falsely believe that they can do this without cost (not just physical but also in making compromised decisions) or that they are immune to human needs. For the latter, I refer you to a psychologist… your neurosis is officially past my ability to help you.
Step 2: Offer support but don’t push. Part of being a good supporter is trusting others to know their own needs. We all have that friend or relative who we think doesn’t know their own needs. But telling them that we know their needs better than them does NOT make them more likely to ask for help.
Step 3: Give the support you can but also set up boundaries. Some people need more help than we can give at that time. Check-in frequently with your own emotional gas tank and see what you have left. And don’t forget that you may have other people needing your help later that day. So leave some for them… and also yourself. Get to know your emotional fuel mileage and your tank capacity as well as how to refill it.
Step 4: More often than not, people DON’T want your advice. This is particularly true of your adult children. They just want you to listen to them. Perhaps you can praise their clarity of understanding and their ongoing effort. Or you can empathize with their situation (but NOT by saying “I know what you mean because I had the same thing happen to me“ ). Simply listening and being present is often enough.
Step 5. Don’t judge their anxiety. Don’t tell them to “get over it”. Don’t diminish their feelings by downplaying the situation. Not everyone is an expert at burying their feelings and soldiering on. Some people need to vent. Some people need to be hugged. Some people need to cry. One of the best tools you can have in your toolbox is this question: How can I best help you right now?
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
- Watch my step-by-step video on how to start the practice of mindfulness: https://youtu.be/hr33EWLAn0I
- Sign up for a meditation app like Headspace or find a meditation group (in person or virtual) that meets weekly to start your regular meditation practice for improving your mindfulness skills.
- Read the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris. This is a book that should help you begin your practice.
- Use a habit supporting app such as Habitica (which has a fun gamified environment) for making and sticking to your new habit of mindfulness
- Keep a One-Sentence Journal. Instead of writing paragraphs or pages every day, just write one sentence about why you are practicing mindfulness, how it has helped you, or what it means to you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My current Life Lesson Quote is “Crash looking down the racetrack”. This comes from way back when my husband and children gave me a Mother’s Day gift of all tuition and expenses paid to get my motorcycle racing license. Did I mention I’ve been an adrenaline junky most of my life? In the classroom, I remember the instructor saying very clearly to the class before we hit the track: If you miss your apex on the turn and you realize you are going to crash, then crash looking at where you want to go… which is down the track.” Sure enough, I missed my apex on one particular turn and my bike and I were headed for the bleachers. Immediately, I heard the instructor’s voice in my head and fighting all of my instincts, I turned my head and threw my body in the direction of the track that stretched out to my left. My bike leaned heavily and with my body hanging off, I somehow miraculously managed to make that late apex into a turn as my tire missed the edge of the asphalt by what was likely scant inches (I don’t know because I was busy looking down the track).
This has served me well in my business life… not in the single-minded hyper-focus that you might expect the analogy to refer to… but in this simple concept that if my business is going to fail, it is going to fail to do the right thing. My mission is my steering wheel even if I go careening into the bleachers.
With this in mind during this pandemic, I have managed to keep every one of my employees gainfully employed except for me. I filed for unemployment so that my salary could go into cash reserves for keeping my staff employed. We moved all of our programs into an online environment and ran adventures via video conferencing. If clients were laid off and couldn’t pay, we stopped their billing but asked them to keep coming to class. We are creating free programming for the general public. Yes, we are suffering financially. We have no new revenue and we are still (virtually) open for business. It’s scary. And it’s a lot of work trying to figure out how to keep going. But at least if we crash, we crash doing the right thing. This doesn’t make it easier. Just a whole lot clearer. This means I have more energy and bandwidth to dedicate to solving the problems come at us.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
If I could start a movement that would bring the most about of good to the most amount of people, Mindfulness would be a very big part of that movement. Because Mindfulness does more than just give you more bandwidth and energy for working with problems. When you have more clarity, you can better manage your fear. When you are better able to manage your fear, you have more room for compassion. More compassion means a kinder world. Don’t you think that making a difference?
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
You can follow my company via our website newsletter: https://guardup.com/mailing-list/
You can follow me personally on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/guardup/
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!