The Atlanta resident and meditation instructor, recently featured on the Calm app, has become renowned for his approach to self-care that focuses almost entirely on being present with your own feelings — positive, negative and everything in between.
CNN recently talked with Owens to discuss his experience and perspective on how mindfulness can improve our lives.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: You talk about how your experiences as a boy and young man paved the way for your current life of enlightenment. What is the connection for you?
Lama Rod Owens: I’m not anyone special. I don’t have special abilities or qualities that make meditation or doing this work easier. All I wanted was to feel better. And that led me down a path of learning how to do this practice, which has transformed my life. This practice has also made it easier for me to care about myself, about the world and about all the issues that we’re facing right now. I’m grateful for that. But I started in the same place everyone else does.
My life experience taught me how to be in a healthy relationship with pain and discomfort, a relationship where I’m not bypassing it or distracting myself, but actually using meditation to take care of the pain and move through it. My life experience also has taught me to be resilient and be able to navigate whatever arises, be it interpersonal, political, social and so forth.
CNN: What makes radical self-care so radical?
Owens: It’s radical because a lot of us don’t know how to care for ourselves. It’s difficult for many of us to determine what we need to be well. When you start shifting focus to what you need, you begin to figure out that you must make some drastic choices about how you’re living your life. This takes courage, because it can disrupt your relationships and the ways you’re participating in certain systems. For me, personally, radical self-care is understanding that if I don’t get care I need, I will potentially hurt other people, that I will manipulate relationships. When we center our needs, we move toward relationships where everyone is getting what they need.
CNN: How important is laughter to this process?
Owens: It’s a release. It’s a way for us to connect with joy and gratitude. Humor reminds me that there’s still something I can be appreciative of, that there are still things that are fun, regardless of what’s happening in the world.
CNN: How does one adopt a mindfulness practice?
Owens: We all practice mindfulness naturally. We have things we focus on, things we pay attention to. I like to think about the times in my life where I needed to be safe. I’ve noticed the ways in which I’ve gotten really focused on how to spot danger. A lot of us do that.
When we start practicing mindfulness, we’re just getting more intentional. We say, “I’m already focusing on this, but let’s see if I can focus on something else.” Intentionally focusing on something helps us develop agency over this capacity to be attentive. Over time we get to learn how to not focus on the things that aren’t beneficial for us.
That’s what a lot of folks are struggling to do right now. There is so much noise and so much happening in the world, we’re exhausted from trying to pay attention to everything. Instead, we should be training ourselves to pay attention to the things that are more meaningful for our lives and the people we love and our communities. I call this radical presence.
CNN: You’ve spent years perfecting your mindfulness practice. What is it?
The first step is seeing things: Looking around, noticing what’s going on in the space around me, what’s going on in my body and my mind, and getting curious about that. The next step is naming. I begin to name the things I am experiencing and seeing. That helps me identify them. From there we move into an important step: owning. This means acknowledging that these things are happening in and around me — not for someone else, not in some other place, to me. The next part is experiencing. This is a key stage. We must develop the capacity to experience everything, to feel things. This helps us to move into a space of response. Most of us are just reacting to everything when we start experiencing things, but we’re learning how to move from reactivity to responsiveness. Through this process, I can feel something and make a choice as to how I wish to respond. After all that, I move into space called letting go, letting something just be in my experience. The last part of the process — the last L — I call letting it float.
This really is an extension of letting something go. You don’t have to deal with emotion, you just must know it’s there. I do that all the time. When I wake up in the morning, I try to say, “OK how am I feeling?” I see it happening in my experience. I experience what I’m doing. That helps me start my day. I’m able to make choices based upon that.
CNN: How does mindfulness fit in with empathy?
Owens: We will live in a divided world for the foreseeable future. But for those of us who are really interested in creating a different kind of community and different way of being together, practices like mindfulness can really help us open our hearts and minds to what it means to heal together. To heal the trauma, not just from the pandemic, but the trauma from being here and having to move through so much of the violence that so many of us must experience every day. We must do this together. The healing gets done through compassion and empathy.
CNN: Between climate change, the pandemic, racial justice issues and socioeconomic inequality, many people are filled with existential dread. How do you combat that?
Owens: Each of us must become an active changemaker and work to change policies. We must address how we are consuming resources and what resources we’re relying on. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that we must allow ourselves to experience the emotional pull and anxiety about the future. We must grieve everything that has been done in the past. As we experience that, we get more space to make commitments to change our behavior and our habits for the future.
If we don’t experience the grief around this, the grief makes us immobile. It shuts many of us down. That intense emotional reality makes it difficult to make decisions and make it clear. The only way to move through that lack of clarity is to experience the grief and heartbreak of what we can control. Then we start experiencing it to hopefully ensure a better future.