Mindfulness, a secular form of meditation based on old Buddhist practices, is gaining popularity in more and more workplaces, but it still isn’t broadly available in most communities. In New Canaan, Conn., residents Nick and Michelle Seaver, Will Heins, and Erika Long banded together to offer group sessions in public institutions like libraries and wellness centers that help locals train their awareness on their physical existence in the present moment.

NationSwell spoke with Long, a former managing director at J.P. Morgan Chase and founder of the Carpere Group, about how she found meaning in mindfulness after quitting her career in finance.

How did you first become interested in mindfulness?
I was on a business trip to Tokyo and couldn’t fall asleep. In the nightstand next to the bed were the teachings of Buddha. I started reading it and thought the lessons were really interesting. Then I began investigating more about Buddhism and learning that meditation was really a core practice for that spiritual tradition. The more I read, the more it resonated with me. I was leading a very, very busy life in investment banking at the time, and soon after, I had two kids. I spent so much time in my head, trying to figure out investments, that mindfulness really helped me to integrate the mind and the body — to check in and make sure I wasn’t missing stuff that was going on outside my head. And I found that meditation allowed a lot of the clutter in my mind to settle, so that when decisions needed to be made, the path forward became more evident.

What advice do you have for someone who’s just starting to dabble in meditation?
We’re not a culture that supports sitting down without distraction. For some reason, you can justify doing a ton of other things, even if it’s just the crossword puzzle on the train on the way in or looking at Facebook. Some people have to overcome that as a hurdle.

Other people find that their mind won’t stop, and they get frustrated. We say that it’s very difficult to enter meditation or mindfulness thinking with the goal to keep thoughts out, to keep the mind quiet. It’s much easier to engage in the practice if you think when thoughts arise — because they will — choosing not to engage in them, not to get carried away with them, letting them arise and carry on their way.

What do you hope to accomplish through the Community Mindfulness Project (CMP)?
Originally four [founders] lived in the same town, and we all felt tremendous benefit from our own personal meditation practices over the years. But we had a hard time finding a community that we could sit with. There’s a real power to sitting in a group in addition to one’s own personal daily practice: you learn from each other, get support and feel a tremendous energy that arises when you sit in stillness with others. We started with one hour on a Monday night, and it grew and grew. We had the class coming in from lots of different places, asking “Could you do it here? Could you work with the kids in this school? With the teachers in this program?”

The more we looked around, we realized that there weren’t other secular, regular meditation or mindfulness sessions that were free and open to the public on an ongoing basis in community hubs. We offer regular weekly sessions in libraries and wellness centers in New Canaan and Stamford, Conn. We’re expanding out, particularly targeting communities with high numbers of stressors: food, housing and job insecurity, as well as people with other special needs like patients going through chemotherapy (as we’re currently doing at New York-Presbyterian Hospital).

Mindfulness is showing up in more places. What uses are you most excited about right now?
Maybe just because I’m a mom of a couple of teenagers, I feel that very little children are very much in the present moment, and as they get older, all of the adults in their lives and the media influences that they see begin to yank them out of the present moment. They’re sitting down every day with this notion that everything they’re doing in that moment is for the future somehow. It makes it really hard for them just to sit in the present. That’s right about the same time they need to be really connected with their bodies, and they need to be building habits and patterns for self-care. I love the extent to which people are thinking how we show kids these practices so that they can bring them into their lives, during those middle and high school years.

What’s on your nightstand?
I’m reading “It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War,” by Lynsey Addario. She was a photographer for The New York Times, and that feeds my love of trying to push myself outside my comfort zone by reading about other people’s lives. And I’ve just been given, by someone in our community, “Buddha’s Brain,” by Rick Hanson, which really is the boiled-down neuroscience behind mindfulness. Then there’s a beautiful book called “Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With,” by Gaylon Ferguson.

What’s your perfect day?
I have to say the perfect day would involve no technology whatsoever. It would involve time with my kids. I’m at that point where I’m very aware they’re going to be heading off on their own soon, so I’m cherishing every moment that I have with them right now. And it would involve being outside. There’s something about the outdoors that really grounds us in the present moment and gives us the sense of connection as part of something better. And there’s some kind of food involved. If we have those elements, it doesn’t really matter what we’re doing.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I worked with amazing people in investment banking. I could not believe how lucky I was to be able to do what I did. I felt like every day the world was my university. I learned so much. But I’m really proud of the fact that I got off that treadmill, even though there were financial ramifications. It wasn’t tapping into a deep need to do something that was more meaningful. I’m proud that I was able to sacrifice the identity that comes with having that job.

One of the CMP cofounders, Michelle Seaver, is from Canada, and she said one of the things she noticed most when she moved to the Northeast is that when people ask, “What do you do?” in Vancouver, the answer is “I waterski. I play tennis.” In the Northeast, it’s all about your job. After having a career for so long, when you go out into public and somebody asks, “What do you do?” you’re no longer able to say, “I manage money, I’m in finance.” There’s that open-ended “I am.” That can be really unsettling, and you have to dig deep inside and figure out where you pull your own identity from. Can you have the courage just to let that be? It’s a beautiful process to go through, and you don’t go through it when you’re on the treadmill of your career. I’m proud of that because my kids watched me do it. Hopefully, that will give them the freedom in their life to pursue what they’re passionate about.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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