Taking Mindfulness to the Heart of Trauma

Grassroots activist Shelly Tygielski’s mindfulness practice has developed from free meditations on the Florida beach to helping the families of Parkland cope with unimaginable loss.

Photo by Stephanie Diani

Each Sunday, Shelly Tygielski can be found on a beach 40 minutes from her home in Lighthouse Point, Florida, leading a free meditation session for whoever shows up. At first, when she began in November 2015, just a few people came—and then hundreds, and then a thousand. She calls the group, now a part of her social activism, the “Sand Tribe.” A former corporate executive, Tygielski came to meditation as a way to calm herself after learning she had an eye condition that could lead to blindness. Although she calls herself “an unlikely meditator,” she now leads meditation groups full time, sharing her devotion and enthusiasm with thousands of people in some unusual settings.

Tell me about a typical meditation of the Sand Tribe.

People walk onto the beach and hear music before they see anybody. I have an interesting playlist, composed of songs that might make you think you’re back in 1969, songs with a strong message about happiness or hope. 

After people find their places on the sand, I walk around with a bucket filled with intentions written on cards, words like courage, compassion, self-love. The bucket says, “Take what you need.” I always like to tell people that the intention chooses you, you don’t choose it. People close their eyes and dig, and normally they chuckle or laugh. 

Recently we met near the Marine Environmental Education Center, where we raised money for a sea-turtle rescue project. We meditated among the sea turtles, which was really cool. About 300 people showed up, and we raised a fair amount of money. 

I usually give a talk and do a guided meditation on a chosen topic. The talk during the sea turtle event was about the environment, how it’s important to protect it, to commit to a small action, because small actions done consistently over time make a big impact. 

We end with a bell ringing or a “Namaste,” and a song, something like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Afterwards I stay around and people come up and share an experience they’ve had. Sometimes people are crying and just want a hug. 

Photo by Stephanie Diani

How do people at your beach sessions respond? 

The beautiful thing about the beach and the thing I love most about our community is that there is no typical person. Sitting in front of me last time were two African-American women who are a lesbian couple, and they were sitting next to a white guy who is tattooed head to toe, wears T-shirts with rainbows and unicorns, and rides a motorcycle. Nearby was a group of older women from a Jewish community in South Florida, all originally Long Islanders. Behind them was a person I knew from corporate America.

I remember one woman who was very outgoing, and when I asked what had brought her here, she said, “My parents are older and very ill, and I’m their caretaker. It’s been really hard. I lost my husband a few years ago, and today is my birthday.” She said she had hesitated, that she wasn’t sure she should come, that she had tried it before and her mind never quieted. I said to her, “You’re totally in the right place. Your thoughts are never going to disappear. You are just going to learn to coexist with your thoughts.” She was crying at the end and thanked me profusely, and she has been a member ever since. Her father has since passed away, and her mother isn’t doing well, but she says this meditation has given her an anchor. She has a practice she does every day. She’s a flight attendant and even uses meditation while she is up in the air. 

You call yourself an unlikely meditator. Why?

I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and was born in Israel. I lost several family members to acts of terror, war, and violence, and by all accounts I should be a pretty angry person. When I was eight, I saw the realities of war, and I felt I had to do something to fix the world. I discovered meditation when I was in college. Yet, when I began meditating, in the late 1990s, I was really resistant. I wasn’t sure I would fit my own ideas of what a meditator looks like. Certainly, as someone who’d been raised an Orthodox Jew, I almost had to sneak around. God forbid someone saw me walking into a meditation center! 

What changed? 

I think it really has to do with just being able to connect and see the humanity in other people. To recognize that I had that capability early on made me feel very empowered. People have this fear of speaking to the “other.” When we finally get over that fear and have a cup of tea, break bread, have a conversation with someone who not only disagrees with us, but has a different set of principles—someone who we might even find scary—that’s huge. I grew up in an insular community, but when I realized that there is a whole other world out there and one not looking to harm me, that was a huge thing for me. Being able to connect with people from all different backgrounds, generations, and religions, always keeps me positive. It gives me hope. 

Being able to connect with people from all different backgrounds, generations, and religions, always keeps me positive. It gives me hope. 

You’ve led groups in some surprising places—a Miami Heat basketball game, for instance. 

That happened because a person in the Miami Heat organization approached me. It was a challenging event to put together, since the sports team doesn’t own the venue, and we had to work through a lot of red tape. But it turned out to be (as far as we know) the largest mass meditation at a professional sporting event.  

My hope is that we will see more collective mass meditation on a grand scale in unlikely venues.

It sounds as if you sense a hunger for meditation practices just now. 

Yes, absolutely, especially for activists. After the Women’s March of 2016, there was a lot of activism fatigue and burnout. Self-care isn’t a pillar of activism. So when the Women’s Convention happened in 2017 in Detroit, the organizers asked me to teach a class, which I did. My topic was “Self-Care Is an Act of Resistance.” It was incredible to connect with people who needed to hear that they had permission to be not just caretakers, but self-caretakers, too. It was important to provide them with a really good toolkit to incorporate into their lives. 

Photo by Stephanie Diani

How about your own self-care? 

I connect to nature. I love being in the ocean. The water just calms me. I also have a really great group of friends and we hold each other accountable. If I am feeling angry about what’s happening in the world, talking about it really helps. When I am willing to be vulnerable about what I am going through, I get a sense of relief. Activists can be viewed as the strong ones, carrying everyone on our backs. It’s nice to put that down once in a while. 

You’ve done work with the young survivors of the 2018 Parkland school shooting tragedy. 

I got involved with this group because my son is in 11th grade and played lacrosse with kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Being a community organizer, within 24 hours of the shooting, I immediately started working with a bunch of other parents, who would eventually form the March for Our Lives movement. The activism part of me was activated. We wanted it to be a student-led movement, but we helped with permitting and arranging bus rides to Tallahassee. Then, when the shock wore off, the meditation teacher and mother in me started wondering, how do we heal from this? That’s when we started to offer Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. A network of incredible practitioners from all over the place asked how they could help. So we worked with teachers and staff who would be going back into the classroom. It’s ongoing. 

One of my teachers, Sharon Salzberg, reached out to me after Parkland and asked how she could help. We put together a half-day workshop, all centered around the power of love and loving-kindness meditation. The response was incredible. Parents who had lost children came, as well as teachers and students. 

Sadly, as we have seen from the recent suicides of three people in the Parkland and Sandy Hook communities, for some people the challenges can become too hard to overcome. The trauma never goes away. The best we hope for is that it becomes manageable and that they land in a space where they can coexist with the immense void and also function

Our intent is to have a quarterly event, not just for Parkland, but for any survivors of mass shootings, because unfortunately there will probably be more in the future, and our idea is to have something in place. The communities who have suffered this way are all interconnected: Aurora, Sandy Hook, Parkland. All the parents know each other and reach out to each other. 

What’s next for you? 

My son will be going off to college soon, so I am careful not to make too many plans. I want to see where he’ll end up. If I could imagine doing anything, I have always wanted to get an Airstream and have this moveable community and go up and down the coast and make the practice available to more unlikely meditators. But that is really pie in the sky. I am looking to the 2020 election and I want to offer as much to the activist community as possible. I want to make sure we’re not fatigued. An incredible community has formed around the Parkland kids, and I’d like to use that as a model for trauma-based mindfulness training, and also have some sort of center or program that is specifically available to mass-shooting survivors when they need it. 

You’re also at work on a book. 

Yes, I write daily and share my journal entries online and on social media. A lot of the content is based on an intention. I wake up and set my intention before heading to the meditation cushion. I’m interested in how we treat these abstract words—love, courage, presence—that we see on T-shirts. Everyone says, “I want happiness. I want courage,” but where is the road map? That is what my writings are about. 

The working title is If Only for Today—if only for today I could be more kind, more patient, more present, what would that look like? It gives us permission to try something out.