Interview with Shelly Tygielski, Self-Care Activist and Founder of Pandemic of Love

SIYLI's Abri Holden sat down with Shelly Tygielski, self-care activist, SIY Teacher-in-training and founder of Pandemic of Love to hear her story of discovering mindfulness and compassion practice and how she applies them to her work as an activist. 

How did you come into mindfulness and meditation and what has your path and journey been like?

So the short version of the story is that I grew up as an Orthodox Jew, a very traditional Orthodox Jew. I was born in Israel. So I already had a contemplative practice but it was really centered around prayer and my religion. With the culture that I grew up in, I was always really curious about my relationship to that practice because it always felt based in fear as opposed to coming from love. But rather, "if I don't do this, then this will happen". Also, there wasn't a lot of meaning or fulfillment that I was deriving from the practice. So as I grew into a more conscious human being, and as I grew older, I found that I was really lost and confused. I wound up, by chance really, in Geneva, Switzerland, it’s a very long story about how I got there, but I wound up in Geneva, Switzerland.

I was working for the World Health Organization at the time. And living in a communal housing setting with a lot of other individuals that were part of other NGOs and UN organizations from all over the world, places and countries that I'd never heard of cultures, religions that I never heard of. Every morning I would get up to pray because as an Orthodox Jewish woman, I pray three times a day morning, afternoon, and evening. I would wake up early before having to go to work and every single morning that I woke up, by the time I would get out to the front porch area of the place we were living, there was a Japanese couple that was already out there and they would just be sitting in silence. I was very intrigued by that because as I was praying, I would be thinking about my to-do lists.

I would be thinking about the day ahead of that and about a million other things. Thinking, "Okay, let me get this thing checked off and be a good person or a good jew." When they would get up from sitting in silence, which looked like nothing to me, they would seem so serene and blissed out. That really intrigued me, and planted a seed within me. I became friendly with them and I learned about the form of meditation that they were doing and practicing. It was really interesting to me because I did have a stigma, and this was in the nineties by the way, so I had a stigma associated with what meditation was supposed to look like, and that didn't look like what I thought it was supposed to look like.

So, fast forward I wound up in New York city at Columbia University graduate school taking a class with Robert Thurman. If you don't know who he is, besides being Uma Thurman's dad, he's actually the foremost expert in Tibetan Buddhism, and Eastern philosophy and religion. He suggested that his students go to Tibet house to take advantage of some of the free programming. I wound up attending some meditations there and I came to find my core teacher, Sharon Salzberg. I learned that it was okay to be a Jew and a Buddhist or Bu-Ju or Ju-Bu or whatever you want to call it. To be able to hold your cultural affiliation and other philosophies in duality. I was introduced to Metta, loving-kindness practice, which just from that very first practice provided me with a very tangible tool—a tool that I had never had before that to this day is my core practice on a daily basis. It helped me to connect to my work, to the world and to other human beings in a very different way. That is the foundation for all the work that I do today.

With that practice, I started getting more and more into learning about meditation in general. I was always fascinated by the scientific studies that were coming out. Again, you know, mid to late nineties. Mindfulness was not trending, there wasn't a time magazine mindfulness piece at the checkout counter at your grocery store. So, it wasn't that easy to come by. I mean, we were still using microfiche and Dewey decimal systems crying out loud! I learned about John Kabat-Zinn and his work and the program at UMass medical school at the time and started to take some classes just for my own edification. I never had any intention to be a teacher, it was really about self-improvement and growth. Interestingly, it later became a way for me to in a sound and scientific way, introduce the practices into my corporate career. So it all fused together. That is not the short version, but sort of an embellished version of how I came to meditation and loving-kindness and how I kind of steamrolled my way into mindfulness.

Would you mind sharing a little bit about the activism work that you're doing? I love how you said, "I use Metta practice as a daily practice." What does that look like in terms of activism?

I've been an activist since middle school, even using the term 'activist'. I became an activist around the time that earth day became a thing that people did, and recycling, which was not a thing, I became the advocate for that at my school when I was in middle school. I worked with Greenpeace and PETA and was trying to save the whales and make sure that animals didn't get tested on for cosmetic products, et cetera. So I learned very early on through a series of very important friendships that I had with other people growing up, that one person could really make a difference. Fused with Jewish philosophy that I was taught from a very early age of ‘Tikun Olam’ which means repairing the world.

And so that's the premise of ‘Tikun Olam’, and very early on having some success with things like bringing a recycling program or starting an earth day program at my school, even at a very young age helped me to recognize that we each can have the power and one person can actually create a ripple effect and make change. That really informed a lot of my work growing up and sort of led me to this point in 2016.

In 2016, pre-election, I left the corporate world. I was in the corporate world for 20 years. I decided that I wanted to live my truth and stage my second act, if you will, to live with purpose and meaning and follow my passions and put my money where my mouth is, because I used to share that expression with so many other people. So I thought, Hey, maybe it's time. I should do that for myself. So I wound up basically thinking that I was going to go teach mindfulness full-time in the corporate world. When I left the corporate world, I thought, Oh, you know, surely I have a very genuine story, I'm authentic, I can share stories from like the rise of being a woman in a cubicle as an entry level person to being the CEO of a company that had 2,400 employees and the stress of that and how to deal with the balance of being a mom.

So I left the corporate world and then I wound up thinking that I was going to land in this space. I did teach mindfulness in a few corporations and I realized very quickly that that is really not the place that was going to fill my heart and be aligned with what I wanted to do. I really leaned in more to the community that I had already started to grow unintentionally in South Florida. While I was still working in the corporate world, I started to teach meditation on the beach to a few friends. I had 12 friends that came to that first gathering, which was in November of 2015 and slowly but surely, just through word of mouth and an energetic vortex or something like people just started to hear about it and attend. There was no promotion about it whatsoever, but within six or seven months, we became a group of a thousand meditators on Sunday mornings on the beach. And so we would meet every Sunday morning and it just became this really incredible and beautiful movement that became the impetus of me finally having the courage to leave. I thought, wow, there's something here. I have to do something with this, but I leaned more into that community thinking, wait a minute, I have a voice, I have a platform now I have people that are listening and that are eager for me to provide, some direction or feedback or thoughts or practical ways to kind of deal with really difficult and challenging moments.

That year the pulse nightclub shooting happened in Orlando. I had to speak to that and there were a lot of people in our community that were emotionally affected, some personally affected because they knew people that were affected and tragically lost their lives. That was how I started to really recognize that I had this voice and responsibility I should say to actually come out and provide people with some form of healing and a way to deal with the difficulty of being human, not just in our times, but just being human in general. 

Fast forward, the election happened and the outcome wasn't exactly what I thought it would be. I was, like many people, grieving and very upset and kind of sulking for a while. And then I realized, wait a minute, this isn't who I am. I can make a change. I'm not a complainer. I leaned into my sadness and my grief and everything else, but now what now? People were looking at me and saying, what do we do now? And I'm like, I don't know, why are you asking me? I don't know what we should do now.

And I thought, well, wait, I do know what to do. We've got it, we have to do something to channel this grief and rage and sadness and confusion and everything that we were feeling into bringing people together collectively to create the change that we want to see. And so I got really involved in the women's March in Florida and also in helping to promote the women's March in DC. And again, after the March, people just looked at each other and looked at me and said, what do we do? We have this great experience, all these people coming together and, what now? And so out of that came an organization called South Florida Women Rise Up where a group of women that I'm friendly with became these informants, and we started to inform people in our community, of very tangible and practical ways to, whether you have five minutes a day or five hours a day, just do something to make a change and to help to start to turn or right the ship, if you will.

As we lead into 2018 and looking to the election two weeks from now, the platforms just kept growing and I realized that the responsibility was greater. That's when I started to see a lot of people around me who were showing up initially to women's March would and the South Florida Women Rise Up meetings and those who would be super engaged, the numbers started to fizzle out. And I was really curious about that, and asked why is it that I'm still feeling very engaged? What is the difference between my life, which seems equally stressful—I have a kid in high school, I'm stressed out about what's happening in the world,I have work to do et cetera, but yet, what is that difference? And it really boiled down to a self care practice. And it boiled down to, in a very tangible way to my meditation and my mindfulness practice. I recognize that I started digging into the works of Audre Lorde and that self care is an act of resistance and that it's not selfish, it's self preservation. It's a way for us to combat activism, fatigue, and burnout. I realized that what these people were going through, which is a very real thing of activism-fatigue, and burnout, I also knew that that wasn't going to work. It wasn't going to work if we were going to try to make it in this marathon because we were all sprinting at that point. That's when I turned to the leadership of the women's March and worked with them to create a self care practice course or pillar, in the women's convention, which was held in November of 2017, which was held in Detroit. It was nine months after the women's March, there was the women's convention in Detroit, Michigan and that's where I presented some tangible tools to individuals who are activists from all over the country that were there to learn how to sustain their level of activism and incorporate true, formalized self care modalities into their lives, into their communities, et cetera. So the premise was self care is not an individualistic pursuit, like, activism. It starts with one, but it has to filter out. It is a communal pursuit and in order for it to be achievable, sustainable and in order for it to actually work long-term, it has to be formalized in some way. It has to be collective. It has to be done in a manner where there's a formal mutual aid premise in effect—that every single person, something they need, every single person has something they can contribute. If we formalize that it becomes easier for people to draw boundaries. It becomes easier for people to remove obstacles that are in their way that are preventing them from enacting measures of self care. They need a babysitter, they don't have time, they don't have money, et cetera.

If we can, as a community come together and remove those obstacles and hold each other accountable and formalize these self-care plans, we could actually collectively form these sustainable, beautiful communities of care. So that's been the brunt of my work since 2017. I think it just took a whole different meaning after the Parkland shooting in 2018, being from Broward County, being that I was an area leader in Broward County for the democratic party being that my son was in high school, played lacrosse with kids from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school. Obviously, it was a very traumatic time. I got very involved early on with March for our lives, within 24 hours, I was already kind of thrown into that mix. I had knowledge and I had the benefit of what I saw the year before at the Women's March.

And I realized that that coupled with the PTSD that now a lot of individuals were going through within that community, that didn't even recognize the symptoms that there was a way to sort of usher in and start building the foundations, using tools like mindfulness, using tools like, mutual aid using, many other modalities for trauma-informed healing. That's been sort of the crux. It's been the breadth of a lot of my work over the last four years— working with underserved communities, working with trauma and traumatized communities, communities that are experiencing both post-traumatic stress, but also communities that never get to the post-traumatic stress level because they're in present-traumatic stress all the time. So I call myself a self care activist, and I feel like that's where I can contribute the most just to support other activists in their work to make sure that they can continue to sustain and show up for others but also make sure that they continue to show up for themselves.

How have you woven in kindness, compassion and Metta into your work? Either through self-care or with others in your community? How does that show up?

We live in a time where this notion of 'othering' is very hard to escape. The lines have been drawn in the sand. I mean, now there's not even lines in the sand, there's just plexiglass between us.

It's very interesting to continue to work on cultivating compassion for all sentient beings on this planet at a time when you know that there are sentient beings on this planet that want to harm you or harm your friends and the people you care about or deny your right to exist. I've been really leaning into that practice, especially in the last four years to try to remind myself to honor all life and to try to always come from a place of love and compassion, and more importantly, to lean into love over fear, because I think that when we allow fear to dominate our life, that we make decisions and we act in ways that don't represent the world that we want to see at all. But when we can take a pause and remind ourselves that all beings are suffering, it really changes our relationship to not only that other person, but actually it changes the way that we respond to them.

It really leans into the practices that we teach at SIY right, that between the stimulus and the response, there's this choice. And so the choice, with the practice of Metta, is always love. And so that's what I've been leaning into. I always imagine myself as being like a giant care bear when I'm walking down the street. I have a care bear stare, giant rainbows and lights are just shooting out at people, even people, I don't know, even people that might be wearing a shirt that says the name of a certain politician. It makes you curious about people, what's going on with them and what's their experience like and how do I relate to that in a way that isn't making me suffer?

There are so many examples of people that are spreading kindness and compassion using the practices of emotional intelligence. What have you seen that's been inspiring you lately? What are some moments that have brought some inspiration?

I've been fortunate enough in the last six months I've had the ability through the platform that I accidentally started in March, Pandemic of Love, to see, read, hear stories on a daily basis about human connection across perceived divides that are in this world— generational, cultural, religious and political divides. When we are able to embody that, "just like me" exercise, we can truly have empathy for another person and see the humanity in them. It's that lowest common denominator of being human that I think we just completely forget about because our frontal lobes are shut off due to that fear and we think we're in self-preservation mode, but in fact we're really not.

A really beautiful story that I think is apropos to this very heated, political time that we're living in, is one of a woman, a New Yorker, who is a transplant to South Florida, like many New Yorkers. An older woman who is very left-wing liberal, happens to be a person that for years has been coming to my beach meditation on Sunday mornings. She signed up to be a donor, a patron, for Pandemic of Love and to give help. She decided that she would fill out the national form as opposed to the local community form and be willing to give to anybody that's in need anywhere in the country. It's interesting because people sign up for the form and it challenges your own context of who are you really willing to help?

You say you're willing to help anybody, but are you really going to help anybody? So this woman was partnered up with one of our volunteers who paired her up with a woman in Birmingham, Alabama, a single mom with two kids, school-aged children. And so Eileen winds up calling this woman cause we introduced them by text and by email and, and the purpose of pandemic of love is besides helping people directly give financially to assist other families, it's also to help people feel seen and heard and to create human connection. That's one of the most important byproducts of this whole exercise, right? So she calls her up as you're supposed to do and introduce herself and wants to get to know this woman so that she can figure out how to best help this woman.

And I have no idea how this conversation, this even came up. I wouldn't put it past Eileen that she asked, “who'd you vote for.” It turns out this woman is a Trump supporter. She voted for Trump, which totally completely shut everything down for her. She was like, “okay, thanks so much, I have another call, let me call you back.” She winds up calling me, and I know nothing about any of this. And she calls me and she says, “you know, I wouldn't have signed up for your program if I knew that you were going to ask me to support somebody who's voting for somebody that wants to hurt me,” and she listed like all of the reasons why this person was undeserving of help and how she herself is a monster just like this other perceived monster in her life.

I just kind of took it all in and I paused and I said, “you come to the beach every Sunday and we practice Metta, we practice loving kindness, right? And we always also practice and send loving kindness and compassion to people who we find challenging and difficult. And this is a way for you to take your practice off the cushion. You can finally, in real life, find ways to engage with this woman. And maybe just, maybe you can actually be the only liberal she's ever met, and she may realize you can plant a seed with her that not all liberals are bad people or not all Yankees are bad people, not all people from New York are bad people, not all Federalists. It's an opportunity for you to react to basically get her, to react to you in a different way as well. Or, you can just not give to her and we'll pair her up with somebody else, but you're missing an opportunity. And then she'll just go on thinking about you in the same way, or maybe even worse.”

So, she thought about it and she decided that she was going to go ahead and actually give to this woman. And she's been supporting this woman now for three months, meaning every week she gives her money for groceries and to help her with her bills. This woman's hours were really cut, she was in the hospitality industry which is still not back to what they used to be. I checked in with her like a couple of weeks ago, maybe it was a month ago.

And I said how are things going? She said, "Oh, I'm still in touch with this woman. We talk every week, we've become friends. We still sometimes talk about politics and I try to listen to her opinions and I tell her mine but mostly we talk about her kids and we talk about what they need and what they're studying, what they're learning." And she said, "and the best part of it all, I figured out a Trojan horse. I send those kids books, Amazon packages with a bunch of stuff that I love that she would never buy for them." She's sending them books about Rosa parks, etc. So it's this beautiful opportunity for us to see the humanity in other people. 

We've matched 600,000 people at this point. I'm sure there are thousands, tens and tens and tens of thousands of stories that I will never know about. I know thousands of stories at this point, I'm collecting them, I'm curating them. We're actually working on making sure these stories are told and captured in a way, because this is like a snapshot a moment in time. We don't want it to get lost in time. We've got 650,000 matches across 220 micro communities. We have about a thousand volunteers and we've transacted over $41 million in seven months.

It's challenging, it's so hard to do in these times. You know, there's so much at stake for so many people. It's very hard to do that. When I was at Wisdom 2.0, I think the last conference in America with Rich. I looked out at the audience and thought, it's so great to be among all like the meditators and mindful people at a conference, like wisdom 2.0, but one of the things that always frustrates me about, about our community in general, is that so many people that I know personally, am I even just talking like at a whole, I could just immediately in my mind come up with like a bunch of people. And so I was trying to like, you know, kind of reinforce what I'm saying in a positive way, but, but it's frustrating to me. I get frustrated because I see so many people that create this distinction between the inner work that they are doing and the outer world, not recognizing that there is no distinction, that you shouldn't wait until you're done doing the inner work, because you're never going to be done doing that.

Just show up. That's the most important thing that people can do. So many people are on the sidelines and they're waiting for, I don't know what they're waiting for, to be honest with you. You're the person you've been waiting for. Just recognize that the only reason that you're sitting down to meditate is so you can rise up and if you can't stand up for other people than like, what are you sitting to meditate for? For what, for what purpose? It really goes back to the Thich Nhat Hahn's teachings of engaged Buddhism. We have to be the people who are creating this engaged mindfulness in the world, or what are we doing it for?

It's the question that we ask ourselves all the time, "What do I need in this moment?" That's a great default mode to have—“what do I need in this moment?” What if we actually then asked a second follow-up question, which is, "what does the world need in this moment?" What do I need is great, but okay, great, I answered that question now, what can I do to be of service in the world? That's the bridge. We talk about moving from reaction to response or moving from this default mode of fight-flight or fear to actually taking action. And I feel like the evolution really needs to be, how do we move from empathy to action?

How do we further evolve as human beings from empathy to action? And that's gotta be our default mode. I think that's the question that we need to ask ourselves, what can I do about something? When you get into a moment where you're stuck in that hamster wheel of complaining about a person or complaining about a travesty. Complain, vent, get it off your chest. And then ask, "what can I do about it?" That's my question. When people complain to me. I ask, "what are you going to do about it?" and it stops them in their tracks. I'm like, "call your Senator, write a letter or do this." There's that energy. Instead of letting it fester and sit with it, we can actually bring it out and create a positive impact and change the world.

How do you shift from fear to love? How do you shift that internally?

Well, there is no internal without the external, that's the point? You're just expecting that it's going to go away because you're leaning into the fear or you're leaning into the sadness. Then you're just going to be festering and sitting in this pool of sadness for a very long time. Just recognizing that, okay, I'm feeling these things, but you know, now I'm going to do something about that. The best way to do something about it is to help somebody else. If you lift somebody else out of their sadness, then they lift you out of your sadness.

If I'm in despair and I find somebody else in despair, maybe in a different way. I'm mentally in despair and this person is financially in despair. If I have the wherewithal to be able to, make sure that their kids can virtually go to school because their wifi is not going to be turned off or their utility bill gets paid or whatever. How beautiful is that? If I know that a sister has not had a free moment because she's homeschooling, working from home, doing this and doing that, and she has no space and time. And I can go sit with her kids for an hour, outside and watch them and give her time to just have peace for an hour, let me do that. That's the way that we can show up for each other and create that shift. The shift happens when there's human connection.