Mindful Moments

photo of alumna Shelby Stanger surfing

Emory experts share tips — from intentional breathing to embracing nature — for bringing balance back into your life.

Feeling stressed out? Stop, take a moment and explore these insights and practical exercises from the Emory community to help you infuse some mindfulness into your daily life. Cultivating present-moment awareness not only can reduce that stress but also improve focus and concentration, enhance emotional resilience and foster a sense of inner peace even in the most hectic of times.

Tip #1


Shelby Stanger 02C, host of REI’s “Wild Ideas Worth Living” podcast and author of the new book “Will to Wild: Adventures Great and Small to Change Your Life”

I’ve been fascinated by adventure and mesmerized by its profound effects ever since I was a kid. I didn’t grow up outdoorsy, but as a teen through my twenties, I taught surf lessons at an all-women’s surf school. Women would come for a weekend or week-long clinic, learn to ride a few waves, and shortly after, one of them would call me saying they quit their job or ended a relationship that was no longer serving them or that they were moving across the country to a place with a beach. 

I was so intrigued by this phenomenon, I made it my life’s work to study people who chased the “will to wild” and their own wild ideas — full-time — first as an adventure journalist, then as an adventure podcaster, and most recently as an author.

I learned doing a wild idea, an idea that might scare you, but involves being in nature in the wild — something as simple as signing up for a surf lesson, going for big hike or making a commitment to watch the sunrise every day for a month — could have a profound effect on someone’s mindset and life. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who did just this, including a mom who became an ice-climbing guide at age 55, a retired sales executive who biked from Alaska to Mexico and even a married couple who skied to the South Pole while the wife was going through menopause. Here are four tips I’ve learned over the decades on how going wild can give you a greater sense of well-being: 

1. Nature is healing.  In nature, our blood pressure often decreases, our nervous systems relax, and we can make decisions more easily. A 2019 study proved even as little as 20 minutes of nature a day can reduce the stress hormone, cortisol.

2. Being in nature provides the chance to experience awe and flow.  Think about the times you have seen a magical sunset, a giant redwood tree, a dolphin leap in the ocean, or a bird swoop down and grab a worm or a snake. Chances are it stopped you in your tracks. You could have been having a bad day before. But when you see something like that, it’s a pattern interrupter. You often soften, and you become kinder. When you look up at a sky of stars, or a giant redwood tree, or jump into an ocean, you often realize how small we are yet how much more connected we are to each other.

3. Adventuring forces us to be present.  When riding a wave or hiking near a ledge, you have to slow down and pay attention or you’ll fall. Being so present, surrounded by so much beauty, can be cathartic. Nature doesn’t judge who you are, how much money you have, or what you look like. And she provides a lot of great lessons. You can’t have rainbows without rain.

4. Last but not least, going wild allows you to build courage.  Surf a wave that scares you, climb a steep mountain, go on your first hike or just try snowboarding for the first time. Afterward, you can’t help but feel more badass. That badassery will stay with you forever. 

Tip #2


Khalia Williams, associate dean of worship and spiritual formation at Candler School of Theology

Breathing is an involuntary activity. And with our minds racing to do a million other things, we rarely pay attention to our breath — the very thing that keeps us alive.

I am a trained dancer, and breathing is part of what I learned long ago to enhance the ability and the stamina of my performance. That’s always been a built-in part of my makeup as I’ve been dancing for almost 40 years. As the associate dean of worship and spiritual formation at Candler, I oversee all of our chapel services. And at the start of a lot of our services, I invite everyone to take a deep breath, because there’s part of taking a deep breath — and paying attention to that breath — that brings you into the moment. 

We should all be breathing more intentionally in our everyday lives. When we’re busy and stressed, it’s important to learn how to slow down, stop for a moment and then take in a deep breath. If you can pay attention to your breathing and your body, you can often identify what’s going on and release the tensions. It also brings greater clarity to your day. And with more clarity, you make better decisions — healthier decisions.

I received a grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion a few years ago to explore a breath-centered pedagogy. In my research, I worked with a breath coach here in Atlanta for an entire year. I learned how to breathe intentionally and became versed in the theories and the science behind breath-work. 

On average, with typical breaths, we are using less than 30% of our brain capacity. But if you increase the amount of oxygen that you can take into your body, you increase your brain function. Too often we’re forcing our brain to work on overdrive and we’re not feeding it properly. When you feed it, you’re increasing your capacity to not only think but also decrease stress and regulate emotions.

One way to maximize your breathing is to do a body scan. This is a meditative exercise that helps you pay attention to each part of your body as you take successive breaths. First, you take a deep breath in and then exhale slowly. As you do so, starting at the very top of your head, think about and feel that spot and pay attention to where the tensions are. As you exhale, breathe into that space to relieve the tensions, the tightness. And then you move down your body slowly, to your face, your neck, your shoulders, your chest and arms, all the way down to your toes, repeating this process until you’ve released some tension from your body. 

If you want to do something beyond just taking a quick, momentary break for breath during a hectic day, here’s a simple meditative breathing exercise that I’ve led for Mindfulness Mondays
at Candler:

1. Put on some relaxing music and sit comfortably. It can be in your office chair or in the meditation pose of your choice, it doesn’t matter — just get comfortable.

2. Take a deep breath in and then exhale.

3. Slowly close your eyes (but read the rest first!).

4. Draw your mind to a place you love. Somewhere you can be all day every day without interruption. 

And then slowly . . .

think of it how it sounds . . . 

of how it looks  . . . 

of how it smells  . . . 

of how it tastes  . . . 

of how it feels  . . . 

when you are actually there.

5. Now put all of these things together and let your mind go free. Let it wander through the experience, feeling your body relax in the

6. Breathe  . . .  breathe with it. Breathe for the moment in that place. 

7. When you are ready, come back to where you are sitting.

8. Slowlyopen your eyes.

9.Take a deep breath in and exhale.

May peace reside with you today.

Tip #3


Tim Cunningham, co-chief well-being officer for the Woodruff Health Sciences Center

Florence Richardson was a pediatric nurse. She taught me how to start IVs on the smallest and sickest of children while exhibiting the calmest, coolest, chilliest approach even in times of great stress. She didn’t have many credentials behind her name, like so many people in nursing, medicine and health care, but she was immensely wise. She could cool the temperature of our trauma bay where we frequently saw some horrific stuff. She did so by showing us how to pause, take a breath and slow down. 

Mike Green, a flight nurse at that same emergency department, would pull me aside after we stabilized a patient whom his team had flown in from some horrific car accident or scene of a shooting. He’d open up the patient’s chart to show me the chest x-ray that our trauma teams had just taken and then grill me on what I saw. He asked me what I would be concerned about and what the likely treatment plan would be. He would tell me to get close to the information in front of me, notice the details, think a few steps ahead of the team and always ask questions. 

I never learned Isatu’s last name and I only knew her for about three weeks, but she changed my life. I met her on Jan. 1, 2015, in Sierra Leone. She had Ebola and was near death. Isatu was only 3 years old, and at that time children under the age of 5 had only about a 20% chance of surviving the disease. She was a fighter though, and she was resolutely playful. Astoundingly she beat the disease. The day before I returned to my then-home in New York City, I got to have a dance party with her as she continued to recover from one of the world’s most deadly viruses. She taught me to be amazed, always.  

In my current role at the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, I help address systemic, structural and individual-level ways to support the well-being of our teams. Our teams include everyone who is a part of Emory Healthcare, Winship Cancer Institute, the Schools of Nursing, Medicine and Public Health, the National Primate Research Center and Emory’s Global Health Institute. That’s a ton of people — some 33,000. When I think about the well-being of the individual, team and organization, I think about the lessons that I learned from Florence, Mike and Isatu. Florence and Mike have since passed away, so I work to carry on their legacies while celebrating the amazing survivorship of Isatu. 

Here are three key lessons I’ve learned that you can put to practice in your daily lives: 

1. Slow down. Take a pause, take a breath, see your team and the people around you. Let go of the false hierarchies of names, titles, credentials and see people as people, for who they are. 

2. Get close.Take time to look closely at art, an image, at those you love, in the eyes. Put down your phone and ask questions of humans (not Alexa or Google). Savor the flavor of your coffee in the morning, notice the details of the steam rising from the cup. Listen closely to music or a podcast on your way into work. Find details and then … 

3. Be amazed.  Be surprised, laugh out loud and cry when the emotions touch you (essentially laughter and tears come from the same, human-connected source). Understand how small you are in the scheme of things and that there is a universe of creativity, joy and love inside of you, and everyone around you. Surveys show that people who embrace the capacity to be amazed live longer, more fulfilling lives.

Tip #4


Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychology in Emory School of Medicine and chief psychologist for the Grady Health System

One idea I often recommend is taking time every morning when you wake up or every evening before you go to bed to reflect on what you are grateful for that day.

  1. Take a few deep breaths and get settled so you feel grounded.
  2. Reflect on the things for which you are grateful.
  3. Be intentional about noticing the good in your life, including small simple things that make you feel grateful or fortunate. It can be a positive interaction with a family member, colleague or even a pet, a simple success at work or in your personal life, your continued good health or any other general positive feelings or thoughts.

Practicing gratitude has been shown to improve people’s physical and psychological well-being.  And remember, though gratitude cannot take away pain and other negative feelings you have when bad things happen in your life, it can help you keep a balanced perspective even during the most trying of times.

Practice these three things, frequently, each day. Science has proven that by doing so, your own emotional and physiological stress will decrease. You’ll feel more well, you’ll feel connected to other people, and you’ll be primed to keep learning about the world around you.

Tip #5


Timothy Harrison, associate director for Cognitively Based Compassion Training at the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics

I remember the early days of the pandemic when the experts insisted on “social distancing.” Feeling isolated was the last thing I wanted, so I was relieved to learn they only meant “physical distancing.” During the pandemic, more than ever I needed the opposite of social distancing. We all did. We needed to connect. As much as ants or bees, we are social creatures. Without meaningful connections, we become unhappy, despairing and anxious, and research shows that our physical health suffers too. Sadly, it seems such feelings are on the rise.

The good news, from emotion science, is that social connectivity is as much a mindset as a physical reality. And if it’s a mindset, we can take steps to cultivate it, even in difficult times. Even during a pandemic. At the Compassion Center, we create and research programs to do just this. By educating adults and kids to boost feelings of connection and belonging, we strive to fulfill the center’s vision: a more compassionate and ethical world for all.

Here are a couple of compassion-based strategies I recommend to stay mindful of your connections:

  • Focus on our shared humanity. Though difference and diversity are marvelous and essential parts of being human, they exist alongside a basic fact: we have a lot in common. We all want a safe and meaningful life. We all want to be free from harm and distress. Staying mindful of what we share helps us see ourselves in others, even those who are different from us. Today, whenever you see someone on the street, or in a store, or in the media, pause and reflect: “We are alike at a fundamental human level. We both want happiness and to be free from harm and loss.” See what shifts.

  • Recognize your interdependence with others. Though each of us can do some things alone, most of us would be completely lost if others were not there to provide food, water, clothes, buildings, jobs, roads, electricity and so on. Then there are teachers, mentors and heroes, not to mention friends and caregivers. We are embedded in and supported by this vast network. So next time you catch yourself feeling “It’s me against the world,” pause and look around. Make visible the countless people who contribute to almost everything that sustains you and brings you meaning or joy. See if you can stay mindful of this reality as you return to your day.
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