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Here’s How to Channel Your Fear and Uncertainty Into a Life of Purpose and Hope

by MEGHAN RABBITT

Shelly Tygielski was sitting at her kitchen table in March of 2020, totally overwhelmed by the messages and emails she was seeing about the impact of COVID-19. They were filled with fear of job loss, lack of food, and mounting bills. The meditation teacher and mom wasn’t worried about putting food on her own table; she and her family would be OK. They had savings. Shelly still had an income. But she was filled with fear about the uncertainty so many others faced during an already terrifying time.

Then, she had an idea. What if she could connect people who need help with people who are eager to give help? So, on a Saturday night, she set up two Google docs and posted them on social media. One was called “Give Help” and the other was called “Get Help.” When she woke up Sunday morning, she saw her post had gone viral—hundreds of people were submitting forms. This one simple act kicked off what would become known as Pandemic of Love, a global, grassroots, mutual aid organization. By March of 2021, Pandemic of Love matched more than 1.5 million people and made it possible for donors to directly transact $54 million dollars to those in need.

In her new brand-new book Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World, Shelly goes beyond the story of Pandemic of Love to reveal the roots of her faith in mindfulness, self-care, and her fervent belief in consistently showing up—for yourself and for each other. “The premise of this book is fairly simple,” says Shelly. “When we are interconnected, when one of us heals, we all heal.” We sat down with Shelly to get more details about how, exactly, she started such a powerful movement from her kitchen table during such a difficult time, as well as her best advice for the rest of us wanting to transmute our own fear and discomfort into something meaningful.

You say that all of us are born with a sense of agency—an ability to rise up and become an agent for social change, regardless of our circumstances. How, exactly, can we do this? How can we wake up to who we were called to be?

There’s a beautiful Buddhist proverb I love so much: We should tend to the area of the garden we can reach. Oftentimes when we’re in a situation where the problem is so big, so daunting—climate change, for example—we think, How can I even begin to fix this? Of course, one person can’t solve all the world’s problems. But what all of us can do is whittle it down to the areas where we can enact change. And that seems less daunting.

The most important thing you can do is show up within your own circles of influence, with a commitment that everyone in your garden has enough. If we all took responsibility for just those individuals, and everyone else did the same, everyone would have enough. We wouldn’t have to think that everyone in the world, or even everyone in our city has enough—just everyone on our block, or on the floor of our apartment building, or in our classroom or our office has enough.

You talk about how the positive thinking movement isn’t necessarily helpful. Tell us more.

I think there’s this risk of toxic positivity, where we are glossing over things with our “good vibes only” and “everything’s fine” attitude. That’s not realistic in this world. Sure, that’s a lofty and very noble thing to aspire towards. But we’re human beings, and human beings have a whole array of emotions.

There’s a psychologist who was able to prove in his work that there are more than 33,000 human emotions. Yet when we’re constantly living in this pursuit of good vibes only, we’re discounting at least half of those emotions. To have the whole human experience, we have to lean into all of our emotions, not numb ourselves out to things like fear and vulnerability and sadness and grief.

When we take baby steps toward something, it can often feel like we’re not actually contributing in a big way. What would you say to that?

The littlest steps make a huge impact. I’m evidence of that. When I first started meditating, I showed up to meditate on a beach by myself. Slowly but surely, others started joining me. Before I knew it, we grew from a community of 12 friends to a community of 15,000 meditators. It’s a testament to the fact that if I didn’t show up for myself when nobody else showed up, we wouldn’t have built that community.

We paralyze ourselves when we think about the lofty goal. If I started Pandemic of Love with an attitude of “I’m going to create this global movement and design this really great website and it’s going to sit on a sequel server,” I would’ve been trapped by analysis and totally stunted, because I would’ve been after perfection. I think if we have the courage to understand that just doing one little bit every day—and doing it consistently—we can create major shifts. Rather than living life centered around lofty, daunting goals, why not try to live life centered around intention? When we can live life with intentionality, even just doing a little on a daily basis means our lives are more congruent with our purpose. That’s when everything starts to flow.

In your new book, you write about how radical self-care can change the world. What do you mean by this—and how can we all show ourselves more radical self-care?

So, the premise of radical self-care changing the world is that the best version of the world starts with the best version of us. But also, the inverse of this is true: The best version of us also starts with our connection to the world and our responsibility to our community.

I think a lot of times when we talk about self-care, it’s a far cry from what it really means. Many people think of self-care as an individualistic pursuit. But self-care is communal care, really. The only way we’re ever going to heal ourselves and each other and the world is if we take this communal approach to self-care.

Be sure to watch Maria’s Conversation Above the Noise with Shelly on YouTube!

 

Shelly Tygielski is the founder of the global grassroots mutual aid organization, Pandemic of Love. She is a trauma-informed mindfulness teacher and a Garrison Institute Fellow who has been called one of the “12 Powerful Women of the Mindfulness Movement” by Mindful Magazine. Shelly has taught formalized self-care and resilience at organizations around the world and is widely considered to be a self-care activist. She is happily married to her husband, Jason, and is the mother of a son she adores, Liam. In her free time, Shelly enjoys skateboarding, playing guitar and making craft cocktails. Her book, Sit Down to Rise Up, is out now. To learn more, visit shellytygielski.com

MEGHAN RABBITT

Meghan Rabbitt is a writer and editor whose work is published in national magazines and websites. Learn more here.

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