Jewel Kilcher learned early in life that everyone faces some kind of pain and it’s the choices we make about how to handle that pain that shapes and defines how we live our lives.

Jewel, the New York Times best-selling author, actress and four-time Grammy®-nominated singer/songwriter who topped the charts with the soulful songs Who Will Save Your Soul? and You Were Meant for Me, chose to make happiness a habit. Jewel shares how she learned to handle her thoughts and, in doing so, changed her life — one thought at a time.

Nature as a teacher

Jewel grew up in rural Alaska, which she refers to as “the land of the pioneers.” She spent her childhood on a homestead and living off the  land. It was “probably 95% subsistence living,” shared Jewel.

“We only ate what we could kill, grow and can, or forage.”

Jewel credits her upbringing for her passion for real, healthy food. “Growing up we had fresh everything — potatoes, carrots, stuff we grew — we made our own everything.” It was during her teenage years when she was struggling with kidney problems that she became fascinated with nutrition and began to view food as medicine. She began learning that what we put in our bodies affects our health, and became aware of how certain vitamins and minerals are needed by different organs. She remains passionate about food and nutrition and still studies it today.

She and her two brothers were raised mostly by her father in a house with no running water or heat. Although her mother left the family when she was eight, Jewel grew up around very strong, independent Alaskan women who worked side by side with the men for everything from hunting and foraging to building their own homes while the men shared equally in tasks such as cooking and cleaning.

“I think that gave me a great advantage a lot of my life because I was taught how to do things and that I’m capable. I’m so grateful for that,” Jewel says.

Jewel also credits growing up in nature for her wisdom and understanding of how humans and the natural world work. “It made me very interested in physics. Looking at a natural pattern, recurring patterns, resiliency —  a lot of the mottos that I’ve built my life around come from studying nature,” she says. “Having the outdoors and nature is a constant reminder that there is good and beauty in the world. It was not only helpful as I grew up, it ended up being an incredible teacher.”

Breaking the cycle

Music has always been a part of Jewel’s life. “I grew up bar singing and watched a lot of people trying to outrun pain — using alcohol, drugs, relationships, rage — and I sang at bars for  enough years and found out that none of that actually worked.”

Jewel made a commitment to try not to medicate or numb her pain and face it as it happened. “I turned to writing. I’ve always really liked writing since I was young. And I noticed when I wrote I calmed down, the anxiety lessened. I would see patterns that I wouldn’t see otherwise, using that curiosity and observation. So, it became what  I guess you would call a healthy medicator. It started to form a healthy habit. It gave me the skillset to just kind of look at and handle pain in increments as it was coming,” she says.

Her father chose to drown his pain in alcohol, and at the age of 15 she moved out  and left behind an abusive background.  She ended up homeless, living in a car.

“I started stealing, shoplifting, my car was stolen; it was a very stressful time and I was having massive panic attacks. I knew that, statistically, kids like me should end up repeating the past and I didn’t want that to be me. I wanted not to be a statistic. I didn’t want to end up in an abusive relationship or on drugs or in jail or dead.

“I looked at what I call Emotional English — this language we are taught emotionally and relationally in our home and how it’s passed down generation to generation,” she says. “As much as we inherit our physical genetics, we also inherit an emotional language. And if your family has never had conflict resolution or has been abusive, it’s usually passed on for generations. So learning a new emotional language is really important if you’re going to try and break that cycle.”

Mindfulness

“I remembered a quote that I had read at that time — ‘Happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have; it depends solely upon what you think’ — and I decided to see if I could turn my life around one thought at a time. I started to develop a whole new set of exercises and got very, very serious about it. What today is called mindfulness — those words weren’t around back then, but everything, the little exercises I invented for myself, were all geared toward rewiring my brain through the lens of mindfulness.  

“I describe mindfulness as putting a gap between perceiving a thought and acting on a thought. In that gap that is where change happens. That’s when you’re in the driver’s seat. I think a lot of people have the feeling that their life is like a car and they’re in the passenger seat tied up like a hostage and they do things, re-enact things, get into relationships that are not necessarily satisfying but it’s sort of a life they’ve inherited.

I wanted to get behind the driver’s wheel, in the driver’s seat. For me that’s mindfulness. It was learning to observe a thought and then create a gap before I acted on that thought. In that gap,

I was able to bring new education or my values. But it took slowing. It took witnessing myself in real time — which was a skill I had to develop and learn. And to do that I had to conquer a lot of anxiety, because when you’re in a highly anxious or even panic-attack state you can’t observe well. But mindfulness is the simple act of observing. And they proved that in eight weeks that mindfulness actually builds your brain, which is really amazing.”  

Sharing wholeness

Jewel was discovered at age 19 and quickly became a top artist, selling over 30 million albums worldwide. She has faced highs and lows, both personally and professionally, and learning from each life experience, she was inspired to write a memoir, Never Broken, and launch a website, JewelNeverBroken.com.

On the website, people can read and enjoy her life mottos and axioms like: “What’s simple is true” and “Hardwood grows slowly.” Jewel also shares the same exercises she uses for breaking negative habit loops, being mindful of her thoughts and making happiness a daily habit in her life.

She created the website in conjunction with internationally renowned psychiatrist Dr. Judson Brewer, who has studied the underlying neural mechanisms of mindfulness.

“He’s the one that proved that just being mindful can grow your brain and actually grow frontal lobes and folds in your frontal lobes and shrink your fight-or-flight stem. So, he’s been explaining on my website why the exercises work neurologically and how they actually rewire the brain. Which I knew worked for me; I had no idea you could scientifically explain it. So that’s been incredible, bizarre and validating.

“Another reason I tell my story is to be able to share with people, again, practical, small, doable steps for learning how to fight anxiety and depression. Learning how to have a new emotional language, how to have resilience and joy. Then breaking it down to the simple steps that worked for me — if you are willing to do the work,” she says.

Find Jewel’s book, NEVER BROKEN Songs are only Half the Story, at SamsClub.com

Jewel has created a community on her Never Broken forum where people can find and connect with one another and where, as she says, “they know everyone else is interested in trying to find their authentic self and their happiness.”

Today Jewel, along with her six-year-old son Kase, splits her time between Nashville and Colorado. She is grateful for the opportunity to share her story and her practice of mindfulness with others who are looking for happiness on their life journey.

For readers who want to practice mindfulness and make new habits that lead to happiness, she says the first step is the willingness to say “My happiness is up to me. Nobody can keep me unhappy.”

“For me,” she adds, “I’m happiest when I’m in the present. I notice that when I’m worrying or anxious it’s usually because I’m thinking of things that haven’t happened yet — I’m just worried they might happen. And the only time that I can actually do something differently is right now.”

She also credits being grateful as one of the keys to her happiness. “I feel most grateful for the love and support that I’ve found. There are so many things I’m grateful for. Even when I was homeless there were things I could be grateful for. Being grateful really changes your experience of the day.”

Tweet @jeweljk and @hlmsmag about her #SamsClubMag story.

Photo courtesy of Philip Macias

Jodi Marsh is the executive editor for Healthy Living Made Simple.