"Why are we not in awe of ourselves?" Agapi Stassinopoulos on finding inner joy

The author of "Wake Up to the Joy of You" wants to help you calm down

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 31, 2017 4:52PM (EST)

Agapi Stassinopoulos   (Cindy Gold)
Agapi Stassinopoulos (Cindy Gold)

Resolutions are all well and good, but for many of us, by the time we're only one month into a new year, we're back to struggling against old patterns and ready to chuck it all for another 48 weeks. But a clean slate is possible whenever we simply decide it is so. So if you're feeling like you already missed the boat on all those positive changes you had planned for 2017, Agapi Stassinopoulos is here for an early reset.

The author and motivational speaker has recently written the ebulliently titled "Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life." It's a practical, action-oriented guide to mindfulness, meditation and self-acceptance so that a person can take one manageable week at a time. It's also an intimate glimpse into Stassinopoulos' own life and the lessons she has learned from the people in it, including her high-profile sister, Arianna Huffington. And at a moment in history when many of us are struggling to find any joy and calm in our lives, there's no better time to get some extra guidance than right now. Salon spoke to Stassinopoulos via phone recently about balance, breath and what the Greeks know about leading a happy life.

It's been a crazy week, so I'm so glad that we were able to chat. When one is going through so many stressful times, that’s when you need to hunker down and get in touch with your serenity.

We're also accustomed to going to panic mode when things don’t happen the way we want them to happen. I think that it's something collectively that all human suffer from.

It's around this time already in the year when people start forgetting about resolutions and changes that they wanted to make. It feels like all of that positivity and hope gets drained away somewhere around the last week of January. Then we don’t think about it again until late December. But there is no bad time to restart.

One of the greatest keys we can teach ourselves is to just start, whatever it is you decide to do, whether you're not going to eat sugar or you're not going to go to the gym or you said that you weren't going to react. [But when] you're upset about something, that’s when you make a decision about yourself that you do it again. Then we go immediately to catastrophic, dramatic thinking.

Right, and it becomes "That’s my identity and my identity can’t change." Instead, what I've learned in my incredibly imperfect life is that change comes through habits and making mistakes and then starting over again.

Tell me why you wanted to write this book — why you felt now at this moment, this was the message that you wanted people to have and these were the tools you wanted to give people.

My previous book "Unbinding the Heart" was my life story and how we get challenges and adversities, how I found my calling and my purpose in life through really letting go of the agenda of how my life should be.

I started as an actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I went to Hollywood and it didn't work out. Then I went through serious soul-searching and career searching and trying to get a job, so it was very, very challenging. . . . When I didn't get a Greek part in a Greek series, I hit rock bottom and I said, "Oh my God, nothing is ever going to work."

Then I went on a New York City bus and I started to speak to one woman next to me who happened to be an actress who had become a nurse. One thing led to another, and we talked about how I was depressed because I had not got the part. She said, "What did you audition with?" and I said, Joan of Arc. There's a great monologue she does before her accusers.

That speech was very powerful, and I ended up performing it for her. She had tears in her eyes and she looked at me and she said, "My dear girl, you’re so talented. Why don’t you just go do your own thing? Don’t wait for anyone to hire you." I always tell this story when I speak because that changed my life because I don’t have to wait for anyone to give me permission to do my life.

Then a series of things happened. I ended up doing a one-woman show which became successful and then I was off writing books about Greek gods and goddesses because that was my theme for many years. When I went on the road with "Unbinding the Heart," I told the story of how we were raised with my amazing mother, and how you become stronger and you realize the stuff you’re made of through the challenges of the adversities. It's because you start to find your resilience and your spirit and you start to find your fearlessness and you let go of hesitations and doubt.

I talked about this, and everybody was coming to me and saying, "Oh, I so relate to what you said! It’s like you’re telling my story! I, too, am looking for a purpose and meaning. I have a job but I’m not happy in my job. I feel like I need to be more creative." People saying anything from "I’m letting go of my husband of 25 years" to "I'm 25 and I don’t know what to do with my life and I haven’t found my passion." I would say, "Forget your passion; just go do something!"

That prompted me to realize that we all have the same issues. How do you handle disappointment? How do you let go? How do you relax? How do you become calm?

There was an overall theme of underling anxiety, this anxiety of "I’m not enough" or "I can’t really be who I am" or "Who am I?" Questioning the fundamental things of life. Everybody really wants to be acknowledged, to be seen, to know their life matters and to also know that because things are the way they are today, doesn’t mean that tomorrow they can't be completely different. 

You set up this book very much as a methodical, step-by-step journey. So many of us get caught up with when we undertake something is thinking about the finish as opposed to every step along the way. We think about that moment when we attain it as opposed to all of the things we have to do to get there. What your book is doing is really talking about those actions along the way. 

So how do you talk to people about mindfulness and meditation, [people] who say, "I can’t do that. I can’t be still. I can’t possibly be in my head even for five minutes. I've tried and I failed"?

It is a journey, and it is a progression and it is a process. If you're going to be dealing with disappointment or with looking to see where your creativity is or letting go of something, it's not going to be an overnight situation. You’re unfolding. You learn to ask; you learn to receive; you learn to become an investigative journalist about your life.

I wanted to open that field of perception for people by giving them all these subjects and things from my life. People say to me, "Well, I can’t sit still. I can’t meditate. I know you talk about being present but I’ve got so many things to get done." First of all, I think somebody has to be ready to want it.

Often people who are ready to want it are people who are feeling exhausted. They are feeling burned out; they are feeling really unhappy, really miserable or feeling so pressured that they think there’s got to be another way. If somebody is running from one thing to another, where they collapse into bed and they get up in the morning and keep going on automatic, then there is no reason for even trying to persuade them that there is another way.

When people come and say, "I would like calmness and I would like to be more connected to myself and to my life," then I will say, "Start with your breath." Start with following your breath and your breath is a miracle of life. If you think about it for a minute, it's an awesome thing. The power of the breath is the spirit.

What happens is when we start to follow the breath we give our mind a task to do, which is for the next five minutes, you're going to follow [your] breath. That’s it. We redirect the mind and we go past the mind to a deeper place in ourselves. And when people experience it and get to it even for a second, it's bliss.

Why is it that we are not in awe of ourselves in terms of the miracle of the body? What is it that we do in our heads as human beings that we so sabotage the miracles of our lives by undermining ourselves and judging ourselves and thinking that we should be doing something, we should be more successful. We should be more recognized. We should be doing much better?

We go to bed with what we haven’t done and all the things we are not rather than all the things we did and rather than living in gratitude. So all those principles are things to practice, to have groups of people you work with, to have a little tribe that reminds you. My sister and I call it a thrive buddy, where you support each other.

My sister always lines me up and helps me with being able to go to sleep early and put my devices down. I help her to take moments in the day to relax. We help each other balance by giving each other support and reminders on how to do the day, how to do the night. I am a big believer of having a little tribe.

My wonderful yoga teacher says to take moments throughout your day where you back away from your devices, your computer and your to-do list and have moments of pausing and reconnecting and finding what brings you joy in your day. What are your joy triggers? It could be putting pictures of your children around in your office or connecting with a colleague. For me, music is a big joy trigger. The minute I hear Bruno Mars or a fabulous symphony I get really connected. So what connects you back to you?

When we are connected to ourselves, then we’re calmer. Calmness comes from connection. When we are not connected, we are in our heads and we are really judging. Or we are pushing ourselves, we are pressuring ourselves or we think there is something wrong with us or we are not enough, or we are comparing ourselves. All these things that we do in our heads — then we get into anxiety.

I interviewed another author recently who put together a book about empathy. We had a lot of conversation about how we think in our culture, particularly in this American culture, if you're not doing super well, it's seen unfortunately as some kind of personal failing.

We are so alone in our most vulnerable moments. And as you say, when you have your team and you have your group of people you can check in with, it's not only good for you; it feels good to be that person in somebody else's life. Doing good makes you feel good, and that’s a part of of your message as well. Being centered in yourself makes you better at being good for other people, and being good for other people then makes you feel good about yourself. It can be a really beautiful circle when you're practicing it.

It takes practice and the practice is, a little bit every day. I have this great affirmation that I love. It says, "My heart is at ease knowing that what is mine will never miss me and that what misses me was never meant for me."

I feel it sums it up to sit still and be content and happy with yourself. All the great successful people, from philosophers to thinkers to mystics to great businessmen, will tell you that stillness at times is a very wonderful time to create, to wonder, to allow yourself to fall back to yourself and start to allow new ideas, new perspective. My mother . . . used to say that doing nothing was her time to conjure solutions from the universe.

The kids would say, "Mommy, you're not doing anything." And she'd say, "I'm not doing anything? How do you know I’m not doing anything? I'm doing something very important. I’m allowing the solutions to come to my heart to my mind, to my life." 

If you’re so busy doing one thing or another, you will never find your creative flow. You can’t get in your spark if you’re always crossing out your to-do list; you are running from one thing to the other.

I have [a] chapter called "The Art of Doing Nothing" and I have this wonderful quote from Joseph Campbell:

"You must have a room, or certain hour or so a day where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are; you don’t know what you owe anybody."

I will grant you as a working mother, I don’t have an hour a day to do nothing. I absolutely do not. But I could even find five minutes.

It's really much more about the consistency of your practice, whatever that practice is, than it is about making sure you have a large chunk of time for it. I think that’s what you're really trying to encourage and motivate people to do. There are days when you're going to have more time for yourself and there are going to be days when you don’t, but just keep returning to the self and keep returning to the practice. If you build up 52 weeks, at the end of those 52 weeks, you will be different because you have done something consistently.

Exactly. And then you don’t look at it as an ultimatum or a resolution, "I will meditate everyday for 10 minutes." Why do that to yourself? You can just say, "I'm making an intention that meditation will become part of my daily life and see how it goes and I will aim to do it." And today you might do it for five minutes and then on Saturday when you have time you might do it for half an hour. You just have to become less pressuring. I think goals, they can set you up. You have a goal and then you don’t reach the goal and then you're going to feel like a failure.

As opposed to just opening yourself up to the things that feel good. You can keep renewing that contract with yourself every day.

And also reinforcing the goodness no matter what. I have an excerpt about taking a sabbatical from happiness. It's about focusing on your goodness and how good you are and how good things happen to you. It's a mindset; the mindset of your goodness makes you automatically happy and more productive and makes you become more in tune with yourself so that if you need to stop and take time out; you allow yourself to do that.

How do you help people who have so many demands who are now trying to do it alone but really asking for help? I can’t say that enough because being brought up in Greece, you raise kids with the village. You have the grandmother, the aunt and the uncles and the best friends, just like [in] a community. It's a community. That is something that I think in this country we can do more of, to not be so isolated — just to allow ourselves to be human to be absolutely and that’s back to empathy. That where empathy is from, the ebbs and flows, the downs and the ups for your life.

I’ve done a lot of inner work. My life is in a much happier, more fulfilling place than when I was in my twenties or in my thirties, when I was going through so much angst and insecurity and not knowing how to deal with all the rejections of the acting jobs. I feel all those things made me become so much more wise. For me, the book was like this tapestry of all the stitches that it's not one thing and it's not a one-day thing; it's not a quick fix. Life is a tapestry of many pieces and many things and many components. And it never stops.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Agapi Stassinopoulous Arianna Huffington Emily Mcdowell Meditation Wake Up To The Joy Of You