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Gopika Setlur On Mindfulness in the Present Moment

How can self-awareness, reflection and compassion guide us through periods of intense uncertainty?

Written by Lauren O'Shaughnessy

Gopika Setlur On Mindfulness in the Present Moment

01 Gopika is an entrepreneur and mindfulness teacher based in Oakland, California.

02 Now more than ever, it's crucial we make time for ourselves, our minds and our bodies. Collective stress and co-mingled work/life schedules are rapidly changing how we feel and contribute to our communities.

03 Employers in particular, have a responsibility to create workplaces that center mindfulness, rest and boundary setting.

04 If you're curious about what else life has to offer, take this time to slow down and meet yourself.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Baltimore, MD and moved to San Francisco in 2010. I'm the youngest of three and was definitely the baby in the family. When I moved to California, it was my chance to create my own identity and so for the past 10 years I've been working on my branding studio, elefint, and teaching breathwork through the Art of Living. I'm currently sheltering-in-place in Oakland, CA with my husband and puppy who runs wild through the house and brings tremendous joy to my life.

How have you been holding up over the last few months? What are you doing to stay balanced & protect your emotional health?

I started sheltering-in-place the first week of March. The past 7 months have been a mixture of emotions. I have moments where nothing makes sense and I just feel tired. I turned off news notifications on my phone, which was a great decision.

There are so many layers of complexity that I'm personally experiencing, but I am using this time to put into practice a lot of what I teach in my classes. Firstly, I remember that everything is changing — my feelings, emotions, the current state of the world — it's all temporary and will pass. There's a freedom in being able to detach your sense of self from things that are transient.

I'm also taking time to do some service, however small it might be. I'm working on a voter education project with a few designer friends and teach weekly breathwork classes through the Art of Living. It's really energizing to dedicate mindspace to what others might need in this moment. This brings me to my third practice, which is actively letting go of desires without losing sight of goals and ambition.

There's a freedom in being able to detach your sense of self from things that are transient.

I couldn't celebrate the 10 year anniversary of my design studio the way I would have wanted to, but I did get to be by the ocean, watching the waves and sipping a coffee while reading a magazine. I really appreciated that day because it's been awhile since I've let myself do nothing. Having a daily meditation practice has been the most powerful in helping me preserve my emotional health. No one can remove pain for you, no one can make you happy, no amount of wealth can bring true fulfillment. All of these mental models and practices have brought me closer to finding my truth and purpose.

How do you factor wellness into your professional life? Especially during this current moment of upheaval and remote work.

As a designer, you end up spending quite a bit of time in front of a computer, thinking about your projects and clients, what else you could be doing, making, building. There's really no end to how long I can work, and while part of this is creative energy, I've also noticed that the dependency on always being in action dampers creativity.

During this current moment, I've made space for unplanned breaks throughout the day to recharge and keep energy high. Why should we wait until work is over to feel like we're living? Right now work and life are mixed up in this kind of beautiful and chaotic way. I'm really valuing my moments, however I end up spending them, without any guilt or feeling like I should be doing something else.

For example, the other day after a 4-hour client workshop on Zoom, I went outside and picked up the leaves in my backyard. The sun peeked out after many days of smoky skies here in the Bay. It was so energizing to be moving my body, feeling the sun, breathing, and not marking things complete on my to-do list. I finished off the day later than usual, but also more energized than usual. I think when we stop forcing divides between work and life, then every moment becomes an opportunity to feel happy, fulfilled.

What role do you think wellness and mental health should play in today's workplaces? How do you center your employees mental health needs?

If someone is unhappy, their quality of work, relationships, and confidence will all suffer. I've seen this in some designers I've worked with over the years. Building a strong team is like building a family where every individual has different strengths and capacity to handle stress. I think it's important to invest time and resources in understanding this, and also help people grow not just in their technical skills, but also in their mental strength.

Kristin Lothman: Mindfulness & Meditation

Kristin Lothman, a mind-body counselor with Mayo Clinic's Department of Integrative Medicine and Health, provides a meditation example for coping with anxiety relating to COVID-19.

We go through life learning the basics, but somehow we missed formal education and skill building around managing our own mind. Imagine having an argument with someone and then immediately having to lead a design crit or give a client presentation? Forget it.

The difference we're making by putting our team members first, by giving them tools to proactively manage their mind and emotions as challenges arise, not just improves quality of life for that individual, but also the happiness factor and productivity for everyone in the room.

I think companies can do more than offer subscriptions to meditation apps. I think integrating mindful leadership training as part of a company's onboarding experience, offering "wellness funds" employees can use for therapy, meditation, and breathwork, and encouraging people to take guilt-free vacations, can help teams of all sizes become strong from the inside out.

Elefint is a small company, so all of these things are easily baked into our culture. I hope employees, especially at larger companies that offer an array of wellness services, also seek out these opportunities for themselves because ultimately the desire to improve has to come from the individual to really make a difference.

We go through life learning the basics, but somehow we missed formal education and skill building around managing our own mind.

What advice would you give to people who are looking to develop a mindfulness practice but don't know where to start?

I've met a lot of people who say they could never meditate, they tried through an app, but just couldn't do it. Don't feel discouraged if this has been your experience. First, have faith that you can.

Not many people know that in ancient days meditation was a daily habit just like brushing your teeth. When society became more advanced, our minds became busier and we lost the ability to be present. If you close your eyes and try to meditate you'll notice you have a lot of thoughts. That's normal because it means you're alive!

Here are a few things to take you to the next step:

1) Find a teacher. Just like any new subject, you need a good teacher that you can connect with and who can guide you through the practice. Questions will arise. Finding a qualified and trained instructor is important.

2) Like any adventure, being with friends and loved ones can help enhance your experience. Take a class with your partner or best friend. See how meditating with a group each week can help reinforce a daily practice.

3) Focus on breathwork. The breath is a powerful inbuilt tool that gives your mind something to focus on. We're so used to being in activity but by tending to the breath you can experience deep rest, eliminate stress, and bring clarity without any effort. I would definitely recommend SKY Breath Meditation offered through the Art of Living's Breath & Meditation Workshop as a starting off point.

Any closing thoughts on the importance of mindfulness in today's world?

If this time is teaching us anything, it's the importance of having a strong and uplifted mindset.

This time last year, we might have been experiencing suffering in small moments, now almost every individual on the planet is experiencing some level of discomfort, fear, and uncertainty on a daily basis. There is a beauty in going through this trying time together as one humanity. Yet, we might also feel lonely or anxious about the future, as well as many other emotions.

If you're curious about what else life has to offer, take this time to slow down and meet yourself.

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