Jessica Graham was a flower child. For her sixth birthday she wanted everyone to hold hands and meditate. She spent much of her childhood outside, communing with nature in a Pennsylvania state park. Her family didn’t have a TV, so she provided the entertainment, writing, directing, and starring in “variety shows,” that she’d wrangle her siblings into rehearsing before opening night.
But Graham was also a survivor of childhood trauma and the child of an alcoholic father, and she grew up with substance abuse issues of her own. She credits her love of the arts for keeping her alive “during the dark years. No matter how far down the rabbit hole of drugs and alcohol I went, I’d always pop back up to make a film, or produce a play, go to an acting class, or even just see a good movie,” the actress blogged last year. “I loved making and enjoying art more than I loved oblivion.”
The bisexual stage and film actor (The Tangle, The Temptation Game, Murder Made Easy) has also gotten behind the camera, as co-owner of Damn Warrior Productions, an independent film production company.
But for all the times art saved her life, it hadn’t solved her problems, eliminated her chronic pain, or healed the damaged child in her soul. That would take becoming reacquainted with meditation. In many ways, Graham says, she has always meditated. But she’d stopped the formal practice for many years before her interest was reignited about a decade ago. She started taking classes and things, just clicked. She experienced a transformation. It was like entering the Matrix, she recalls: There was her life before meditation and her life afterward. Her meditation guide encouraged her to share what she was learning, so Graham started teaching, she says while she was still basically a novice.
No novice any longer, Graham is the founder of Wild Awakenings which offers (sliding scale) meditation classes and workshops, individual sessions, and guided meditation videos (through its YouTube channel), and other resources. Graham says she was motivated to create Wild Awakenings because her own practice of meditation and mindfulness had awakened her to a whole new world she wanted to share. She sees “awakenings” as defining moments in a person’s spiritual development. “These fundamental discoveries rearrange you at the deepest level, creating paradigm shifts and psychological evolution.” She wanted to share those discoveries and help others to heal, evolve, and awaken sexually.
Graham co-founded Los Angeles’s Eastside Mindfulness Meditation, serves as contributing editor for Deconstructing Yourself, and wrote the guide to mindful sex, Good Sex: Getting Off without Checking Out. After she started meditating, Graham says she was seeing how everything was better if she was being mindful while doing it.
“Being that I was always kind of wild,” she says, “I naturally wanted to see if sex was better too. But I couldn’t convince my partner at the time to try it with me. So, I began to explore on my own, really discover what I liked. My current partner, who I’ve been with now for 7 years, was just the opposite, very interested in exploring sexuality and meditation. And the sex has been mind-blowing.”
In our society, Graham says, “People are taught to be repressed about sex. Many have told me that they never open their eyes during sex. It’s so sad. I wanted to teach others how they could also have good sex by being there in the moment.”
Graham says the biggest barrier to people beginning meditation is the misperception that one needs to have a quiet mind in order to meditate. But that’s not true, she says. Meditation helps quiet your mind, but you don’t have to have a quiet mind in order to meditate. And although people assume you need 30 minutes of silence, you can start out with as few as 10.
Once people start practicing regular meditation, Graham says, their experiences often help them continue. In her case, Graham says “The realization that I’m not my thoughts was really freeing.” It helped her gain perspective on the thoughts and cravings that she experienced as a recovering addict. Meditation also helped her process and heal from the trauma of her childhood. “It really felt like I was able to let some of that go. It was very cathartic.”
Jessica Graham’s 5 Meditation and Mindfulness Tips to Stay Healthy With HIV
1. Create a safe, relaxing, and loving space within your own body. Even, she jokes, if it’s just the tip of one toe. Graham calls this “rest and relax.” “This practice involves relaxing from your head to your toes, and then choosing a place in the body that feels most relaxed, at ease, [or] peaceful. By focusing on this good sensation, both in a formal meditation practice and as you move through your day, you’ll begin to wire the brain to move towards what is pleasant. This is also a great practice to use when feeling overwhelmed by emotional, mental, or physical discomfort. Rest & Relax isn’t about ignoring or repressing the unpleasant experiences, but rather learning to turn towards the pleasant.”
2. Learn to deconstruct mental and emotional experiences. This “Focus on Self” practice is meant, Graham says, to help you “find acceptance with whatever is happening in the moment. By learning to witness — without judgment — the thoughts in your mind and the emotions in your body, you begin to recognize that you are not your thoughts and emotions.” Getting that perspective on your thoughts and feelings allows you to “let go of negative thought patterns and create a new relationship with your emotional self. This practice will ultimately decrease your suffering and increase your resiliency,” Graham says. (Pain in this perspective is a physical sensation, while suffering is your emotional response; suffering is aggravated by a desire to reject the pain instead of accepting it.)
3. Nurture a positive attitude. A positive outlook can help build resilience and improve your wellbeing. Graham describes her “Positivity Boost” practice as “all about feeling good! The practice helps you to build and encourage a positive experience in your mind and body. Through intentionally creating pleasant and positive thoughts your body will respond with pleasure and happiness.” (Studies show, for example, that smiling can make you happier. So fake it until you make it!)
4. Find pleasure in everyday life. There’s so much pleasure to be had, if we just open ourselves up to it. Start paying attention to how many times you can feel good during any given day. It feels good to eat when you are hungry. It feels good to get into a hot bath after a long day. Attune your attention to pleasure, and before you know it, your life will be filled with it.
5. Practicing kindness, for yourself and others. It can be frustrating to be put on hold or talk to insurance representatives who don’t get it. But when you practice kindness to everyone, including those folks, you are also practicing it for yourself. As you extend compassion and kindness out into the world, you’re modeling that to others and you’re creating opportunities to connect.