Personal Growth

My 'Power' Story, by Jackie Cantwell

Jackie Cantwell sound bowl
Jackie Cantwell sound bowl

This is the story of my life, which is something like a spiritual journey. An individual sum of moments that make up a bigger picture. Or like a monk once told me, this is my "power" story.

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Surrounded by Art

I grew up in a house stacked with artwork. My parents met in grad school where my dad studied painting and my mom studied photography. My dad taught us how to paint and build things. My mom taught us to write poetry and plays, how to listen for storms coming in, and showed us how to zen out with pecans laid intricately on a pie. On sunny mornings, you could find my sister standing in her windy window singing songs about the sun, and on Halloween, we would all dress to the nines.

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Most of my parents' friends were artists. They’d often come over to our house, smoke doobies, drink beers, cook the richest of foods, and play Euker (a card game popular in the midwest). We lived in Virginia where our backyard was lined with hundred-year-old sycamore trees. After long nights of dancing, sounds from chimes my mom hung in their branches lulled me to sleep.

My First Teacher: Doug

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One of my parents' friends, Doug, was a brilliant photographer who frequented our home. We knew him best in his worn old Cardinals baseball cap, black solidarity boots, and Marlboro Reds poking out of his T-shirt pocket. Doug and I had a special bond. He taught me how to widdle bow and arrows, build forts, and shoot film. We danced for rain in the mud, set boobie traps, and he gave gifts of arrowheads and science books filled with weird facts on the human body. One of the first real books I ever read was the biography of Geronimo, which he gave me. On my birthday, he made me personalized Elvis Presley stationary, a testament to my love of The King. He had a huge terrarium full of pet roaches that he called The Roach Motel—being weird was celebrated at our house.

Doug was my second dad. He was over on every occasion and at every school play or concert. He was there when I first learned to ride a bike and when I got my first pair of blue suede shoes. Looking back on those times, I can also see that he really kept my family together.

My neighbor called our house the firework house because my parents fought so much. If Doug was over and my parents were fighting, he would take me out in the backyard to teach me about plants. He reflected my greatness at a time I felt that everything was my fault, he was my first spiritual teacher. One night when I was 10 years old, I awoke to the terrible sound of my dad crying. He had arrived home from another late night to my mom waiting for him in the kitchen. Mom shared that Doug suddenly died—my dad fell loudly to the floor.

I stared at the wall, filled with the deepest saddest I had ever known. I wrote on the wall next to my bed with a gel pen, “I love Doug." In the years that followed, my family and the friend circle that Doug anchored quickly fell apart. During one of our backyard walks before he died, he gave me a crisp $100 bill and told me to use it to orchestrate something fun with my family. I still have it.

Escaping Abuse with Art

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My dad’s anger and drinking got worse, and my mom took lots of naps to deal with her own depression. They were doing their best, but home life was challenging and often abusive. Angry and on the hunt for a better life, I’d often run away to the woods behind our house. I’d jump the fence and lay beneath the trees. I’d cry into the breeze and scream until I was too tired to scream anymore.

This processing of such difficult emotions from such a young age was me exercising my awakening—I just didn’t have spiritual jargon to put words to it yet.

With no one to talk to about what was happening at home, I often felt alone and like an outsider. In elementary school, I wore bottle cap glasses and had an eye-patch for a lazy legally blind eye—and I was bullied a lot. Unfortunately, I allowed those mean moments to imprint on me in ways that echoed for a long time. Learning to express myself as a queer woman, finding a sense of belonging, and celebrating my weirdness have been a big part of my spiritual journey.

Without the words to process what I was feeling, art-making became my spiritual language. Creating things was an act of staying present with that little voice inside of me, to push past resistance, to feel and understand my sadness, and to be with the neglected parts of myself. An artistic practice, just like a spiritual practice, is an act of self-discovery.

In 6th grade, I joined the band. I learned how to play the flute and read and write music. I was really good, and it gave me confidence. When I was sad, I translated it all into the sound. When I didn’t know how to express my love, I’d write people music. I got into making mixtapes and creating little songs of my own. I always felt calm after singing and playing the flute.

The older I got, the more I craved control over my circumstances, and the less manageable my mental health became. During times where I didn’t have any other tools to sort my thoughts, I had sports. I was a runner and a swimmer. With running, I learned to trust my body and move step by step. Swimming taught me to pay attention to my heartbeat, breath, and how to take up space with my body. My social anxieties, the parents fighting, and the self-doubt all got quiet underwater.

In the spiritual world, we call practices of self-discovery “the work”—in the practice of art and sport, we call it work too. The art, the music, the running and swimming, the journaling, the sitting in the woods were my practice before I knew what “a practice” was.

In high school, stuff got so bad that I moved out. My dad was at the height of his black-out drinking, and I couldn't take the put-downs, the lying, or the abuse anymore. I left home with a duffel bag when I was 16; it was junior year of high school and I spent a lot of nights sleeping in my car. I sensed that I was meant for greatness. I was down with facing monsters and knew there was something out there for me in the unknown.

Leaning into Art

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Deepening my ability to express my pain through painting, installation, writing, clay, or whatever medium, probably saved my life. My work told haunting stories of my home life—without words. It got me a spot in the number one painting program in the nation and was my ticket out of town. In college at Virginia Commonwealth University, I majored in painting and minored in music; I learned to play guitar. Those outlets helped.

I started talking to my dad here and there. I started going to yoga. I traveled. I lived in Spain, studied art in Peru, taught English in Africa, and got into volunteering. I worked restaurant jobs and taught art to elementary school kids.

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After college, I spent a year living in Washington, D.C., where I started a company called Curating for a Cause. We put on art auctions to raise money for nonprofits. It was a happy marriage between my life as an artist and my passion for helping others. During that year, my dad became a larger part of my life, helping me to lead my auctions with his boisterous voice, but his drinking made his place in my life inconsistent. Unfortunately, I never found a sense of community in D.C. I desperately wanted to move to New York City.

I moved to NYC with a month's rent, no friends, and a scholarship to the Pratt Institute. I studied arts and cultural management, and as my thesis, I opened a gallery in Brooklyn. It was a major hit. I had fulfilled my longtime dream of becoming an NYC curator. I graduated and had a solid friend group from school. My dad called and said he wanted to change—he was going to rehab for the first time. Things were feeling good.

When Christmas came around that year, I went home to see my dad fresh out of rehab. When I got to the door, he was wasted. I swore to him I would never talk to him again.

Who Am I?

In the art world, I’d go on to open another gallery and try my best to create a sense of community within it. I had my first solo show of work of my own. I worked my ass off. Rent was so high, and the biz was so hard that I often slept in the gallery so I could Airbnb out my apartment for cash.

After 5 years in the game, at my 100th Friday opening, I stood feeling dead inside as people swished around me. I was in the middle of a breakup with my boyfriend of 15 years (off and on), and I knew it was all over. I hated the life I thought I wanted, and I had to get out.

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I remember the first time I really asked myself, “Who am I?” It was the first time I tried meditating to a recording. A breezy voiced lady asked me to repeat the question to myself, I was like, “Damn breezy! I don’t know who I am.”

So for the heroin in me, it became a quest: I left the art world, my boyfriend, our apartment together, and I tried to use my brain to answer the question. I stuffed it with dozens of self-help books, joined a women’s group where I read the Kybalion, did yoga, meditated some more, and pulled cards from all the spiritual decks. I was in and out of bouts of depression that left me face down on my wood floor for days. I wanted to be free.

Finding Medi Club

In my quest for community, I heard about Medi Club. All I knew was that it was a meditation community that met up once a month, led by this guy Jesse Israel, that my friend said was cool. The first one I ever went to I didn’t know a soul. I had so much anxiety, but I slapped on some lipstick and went anyway.

When I walked in, everyone seemed so cool and connected—like they knew each other. I was new to meditation and worried I wouldn’t fit in. That night I learned a big part of the evening was what we call, “The Share.” It’s where someone gets up and shares something real and vulnerable that they’ve experienced in life. That night a woman shared and I’ll never forget it. She shared about her life with such humanity and humor I thought, “Wow. I want to express myself like THAT.”

At this point, most of my grad school friends had married off and left, and I wondered how people even met friends in NYC. Being a part of a community, or finding my "tribe," didn't feel like it was in the cards for me. But I kept showing up—I kept pushing through the fear, anxiety, and depression. Slowly, people started to recognize me, and I started to recognize them. Having a practice like meditation at the core of the evening helped me to sweat less and laugh more.

The more I went, the more I realized how many others were like me: solo with a hunger for community and connection. Alone or not, we ALL kept showing up to be a part of something bigger than ourselves—if that ain’t the spiritual path, I don’t know what is.

Going to Medi Club that night changed my life.

Hearing people's stories, meditating, and sharing vulnerably with strangers cracked open my heart and I started to feel less alone. It gave me friends. I started to volunteer and showing up in service gave me confidence and helped me to feel empowered. Being trusted with leadership roles reminded me of all that I was capable of.

Deepening my meditation practice taught me compassion, and after six years of not talking to my dad, I was able to forgive him. I shared the story at Medi Club—it was my first share.

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Finding Sound Meditation

There’s another reason that the first Medi Club changed my life, and that was because it was the first time I had ever heard a singing bowl. The sound really took me by surprise. I had tears coming from my eyes and a 15-minute Medi felt like a trip to the moon. The sound made me feel safe enough to go inside, during a time I found it really hard to be with myself.

Then the practice of sound came into my life in a wave.

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A dear friend invited me to an extended sound bath. There I heard lots of other resonant and healing instruments for the first time. My experience was so profound that I couldn't wait to learn more. Working as his assistant, he taught me how to work with the sounds and play from the heart. He and Jesse encouraged me to bring back the flute, and I started playing it at Medi Club and other meditations around town.

Meanwhile, I deepened my relationship with Jesse and became a part of The Big Quiet team. The Big Quiet (BQ) is a sister community to Medi Club and puts on mass meditations in some of the most iconic places in the world. When Jesse decided to take The BQ on its first tour, he asked me if I would be interested in learning to play sound bowls so that I could provide sound during the meditations.

At that point, I had never played a crystal singing bowl. Based on work with my friend (which included Tibetan Singing Bowls), and my flute playing, he felt that I had the right touch to help create The Big Quiet sound.

I said yes. With only a few weeks until the tour, I had to find a set to play. Our friend graciously lent us his, and I played them every day. I read books, watched YouTube videos, and got tips from other sound musicians, but what I did the most was listen to my heart.

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Then, I put all that heart into the sound—just like I did with the art and the flute growing up. When I’d doubt or judge myself for not knowing what I was doing, I’d put all the words I needed to hear in the sound too. My gut told me that if there were sounds I need to hear, there are likely others that need to hear the sounds too.

Meanwhile, reflecting on how much sound, meditation, and community changed my life, inspired me to start Camp Remember—a kids camp using yoga, meditation, sports, and the arts as tools for self-discovery.

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Since my first tour with the BQ, I’ve traveled with the bowls all over the world, playing for roughly 250,000 people in just a year's time.

Last year, we took them on a 10 city tour across the U.S., including my old stomping grounds in Washington, D.C. (not far from my hometown). Among the special guests, there was my dad. As part of our icebreaker, we asked everyone for their go-to karaoke songs, and in true form, he offered up his by singing, “Fly Me to The Moon” by Frank Sinatra to the 400-plus attendees. It was at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Full circle.

When Jesse made his transition to LA and shifted his focus to The Big Quiet, I took on Medi Club as Director—the community that changed my life.

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Most recently, Jesse and I went on tour with Oprah Winfrey where we brought a taste of the BQ, leading mass meditations for groups of 15,000 people at a time.

Becoming Spiritual

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Before I wrote this, I got really hung up on wanting to know that exact moment I became “spiritual.” But the spiritual life, like the expressive arts, is all about the process or “the journey.” There is constant movement and progression. We never fully arrive but are always unfolding and discovering.

I sometimes think about what Doug would think of me and my life now.

I wasn’t a scared kid all the time, but I did develop a fear of going up the stairs alone, often begging for someone to stand at the bottom. I felt scared for what was at the top in the darkness and of what would happen downstairs if I left.

On one particular night, my parents were both pretty fed up with having to come upstairs to console me, so Doug did instead. He sat on my bed, and I remember feeling so embarrassed because I wanted him to think I was cool. He told me, ”There was nothing to fear but fear itself,” but I didn’t understand what he meant for a long time.

Since then, I’ve let go of a lot of things in my life. Of trying to fit in boxes, the need to be the life of the party, a gallerist, straight, a people pleaser, responsible for other people's emotions, a victim. I’ve let go of holding on so tight, scared of the unknown I’d step into if I let go of what I was. I’m not scared of going to the top of the stairs or scared of being scared.

One thing I’ve learned in my spiritual journey is that whatever I'm scared of—whatever parts of me feel difficult to experience or hard to look at—that there is nothing to actually fear because it’s all just ME. Any fear I feel around being myself, showing up, or trying something new is just me being scared of my own power.

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While the historical context of that quote is about the great depression, fear is the thing that stops us from being ourselves, living our lives fully, and expressing ourselves loudly. Fear is what causes us to be small, play it small. And it’s OK to be scared, as long as we don’t allow it to control us.

I’ve learned that if I focus on the negative, my mind will continue to provide me with the evidence to keep that mentality going. I choose to not focus on the fear—I think Doug would be proud.

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