The sun baked my dark skin during an unusually hot day in Toronto, as I looked up at the clouds through my aviator glasses. I marveled at their beauty and impermanence, perhaps seeing in the clouds what I could not see in myself at the time. 

As I continued to daydream, electronic dance music pounded my eardrums. My familiar, self-condemning inner monologue became a mere whisper. In retrospect, numbing or ignoring that voice had been a full-time occupation for me since the sixth grade, and the DJ was doing for me what I no longer had the will to do for myself. 

Alongside twenty or so highly-inebriated people, I was in a poolside booth at Toronto’s Cabana Pool Bar — an outdoor nightclub built for the sweltering days of summer and inspired by the posh pool bars of Miami and Las Vegas.

The scene was lively, with bass thumping and bodies moving, but I found myself in the midst of an existential crisis, unlike anything that I had experienced before. I was surrounded by smiling faces, yet I felt alone, disillusioned, and dead inside.

Leading up to that moment, I had felt alone in numerous nightclubs, lounges, and bars in Toronto and around the world, quite often alongside many of the artists, entrepreneurs, and public figures that I had admired since childhood. But, this time was different. I lacked the words to articulate it at the time, but I knew that I was attending my last party under the same circumstances and that I would probably never again spend any significant amount of time with the people who sat with me in that booth.

A great deal of existential angst, workaholism, perfectionism, numerous traumatic events, in combinations with painful relationships with myself, my career, and others led me to a point wherein I simply wanted to leave the party, both literally and figuratively. 

Ajani Charles for Calm

I have experienced great joys throughout my life and career, and I am certainly privileged and fortunate in many ways. I have amazing friends, family members, mentors, colleagues, and clients. And as a photographer and media production professional, I have been involved in numerous projects that previously existed in my dreams. But, I have also witnessed unimaginable human suffering. Some of my friends, colleagues, and associations have died from drug overdoses (in their twenties and thirties), and many family members and friends have died of various terminal illnesses and through incomprehensible accidents. 

Numerous people within my network have been murdered (in their twenties), and I have been in very close proximity to nightclub shootings and stabbings. I narrowly missed being a witness or casualty of the infamous Toronto van attack by five minutes, and as I began writing this article, Toronto was in the midst of its most violent summer — the summer of 2018.

Since living in Haiti as a kid, much of the suffering that I have witnessed through my travels, both work-related and otherwise have also had a profound impact on my worldviews and how I approach my career and other aspects of my life. 

I have also seen and felt the ways in which various forms of mental illness can destroy the health, well-being, and dignity of individuals, families, and communities. And such events, combined with the traumas that I experienced as a child and young adult have led to a great deal of anxiety throughout my life, and to a lesser extent, depression. Plus, entrepreneurship is inherently stressful. 

Over the course of 2014, I was attempting to do the impossible, as usual, by trying to scale a media production startup that I had founded and operated by myself. Somehow, I thought that I could manage forty contractors, up to six projects a week, and numerous clients by myself. I was disinterested in many of the projects that I was working on, and I had put my passion for photography along with my photography career on hold.

I felt as if I had condemned myself to hold up the facade of the successful, young artist and entrepreneur that had it all together, not unlike Atlas of ancient Greek mythology, condemned to hold up the celestial heavens for eternity. Except, I could no longer delude myself, I was in rough shape, and I was no ancient Greek Titan.  

Ajani Charles for Calm

After the party at Cabana Pool Bar, the totality of who I thought I was came into question. How I was showing up in the world was clearly not working for me (and others), and with the exception of work, I began to isolate myself for months, in an attempt to figure things out. As a result of that existential crisis, which was probably two decades in the making, I sought out yoga, meditation, more personal development than before, more psychotherapy than before, and many other tools to make sense of my perpetually-changing ego, my friendships, my family, the past, how I previously spent my time and energy, and the direction of my career. 

And so, I reluctantly started meditating with the help of Calm on Saturday, May 9, 2015, and simply being with myself in the way that meditation requires was terrifying at the time. Due to my fears, for most of 2015, my meditation practice was inconsistent and comprised of a handful of sessions per month. But, by using Calm (and other tools), in combination with a willingness to sit, I began a daily meditation practice on Thursday, July 28, 2016. My life has never been the same since, and I am in a much better place today than I was in 2014.

My use of Calm has helped me to cultivate mindfulness within my career and other facets of my life, and for those that are unfamiliar with the term, mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s conscious attention to a single point or various experiences occurring in the present moment. Mindfulness is being here, right now, with no attachment to notions of the past or future. 

And it was through mindfulness on Wednesday, December 12, 2018 that I decided to attend a Masterclass Launch Party in Toronto with Tamara Levitt — Calm’s Head of Mindfulness and the app’s most prevalent voice.

The event took place at Hoame — Toronto’s newest meditation studio, and which is described as a space wherein mindfully curated events and workshops are held. 

Initially, I was intrigued by the gathering for a number of reasons. Firstly, I received an e-mail invitation from Calm to the event, due to my use of the app, and I had yet to connect with other Calm users in-person, in Toronto or otherwise. Secondly, I had yet to visit and explore Hoame, and as an avid meditator, it seemed like a space worth exploring. And thirdly, leading up to the event, I had listened to Tamara Levitt’s voice for more than a hundred hours through Calm, and I was interested in learning more about her, asking her some questions pertaining to mindfulness, and truly putting a face to the name and voice. 

Ajani Charles for Calm

My first impressions of Hoame was that it was spacious, cozy, thoughtfully-designed, and featured high-ceilings. As I circled past the venue’s lobby, I noticed that there were a couple of teardrop swing chairs in front of a beautiful spread of food. I made a mental note to eat some chocolates that were part of the spread, to check out Hoame’s meditation rooms and salt cave, and to rest on one of the swing chairs later in the night. As I looked to my right, I saw a room packed with like-minded individuals of different genders, socio-economic classes, and races, peacefully sitting on meditation cushions.

Ironically, there was a great deal of traffic on the way to the event, and I was quite agitated and lacking in mindfulness leading up to my late entrance into Hoame. As I began comparing and contrasting the agitation that I had felt traveling to Hoame to my much more tranquil experience of simply being in the space, I noticed that Tamara Levitt was standing right beside me, speaking to some of her other guests. I introduced myself when I had the opportunity to do so. 

When I first met Tamara, I thought that she was laid back and that she seemed to have benefited from the seemingly youth-inducing effects of meditation and other mindfulness-cultivating practices. 

I also assumed that she was much like myself, in the sense that I believed that she had most likely experienced and learned from a great deal of pain and loss over the course of her life, such that she has been able to genuinely speak about the practical importance and benefits of mindfulness.

Soon after introducing myself to Tamara, and finding out that she is a Toronto native, I met her friend  Chris Advansun, who is also a Toronto native, and a writer and editor of Calm’s sleep content, described by CBC as an individual that “writes with one goal in mind — to lull people off to la-la land.” Coincidentally, Tamara grew up in the North York district of Toronto as I did, and we both attended the same high school and arts program, albeit years apart.

Since the event was based on Tamara’s Calm masterclass on gratitude, Tamara, Chris, and I began speaking about being grateful, and the two of them introduced me to an exercise that can facilitate gratitude and mindfulness simultaneously — an exercise known as the “Gratitude Countdown”.

Ajani Charles for Calm

Via the Calm blog, Tamara describes it as follows: “whenever I get caught up in negativity or seem to be in need of a dose of gratitude, he’ll start the exercise by calling out, “Gratitude Countdown” which challenges me to list ten things I’m grateful for on the spot. He counts down from ten to one as I list off things that I’m grateful for — almost like a lightning round in a game show. After I go through my list, I return the challenge by calling out “Gratitude Countdown,” and then it’s his turn to recite a list.”

As we further discussed the “Gratitude Countdown”, I told Chris and Tamara that I have been using a digital gratitude journal for a few years, and that I typically write down not only what I am grateful for on any given day, but also why I am grateful for such things, usually listing off three to six items per day. However, even though I have engaged in such an activity on a daily basis, I often feel as if I am simply going through the motions, without truly feeling grateful. I often feel like I am faking gratitude.  

And so, after we spoke, and once the event began through Tamara addressing the crowd as a whole, I was quite relieved when I heard her describe the ways in which she lacked in gratitude over the course of her life, despite being well-versed in the benefits of a gratitude practice and mindfulness. She went on to cite a situation whereby she spent a trip with a friend complaining to such a degree that her friend felt compelled to call her out on it. My internal response to her story was “I do that too — I sometimes complain when the blessings in my life are incalculable.”  

Tamara went on describe the ways in which many traumatic experiences provided opportunities for her to practice gratitude, compassion, and mindfulness — traumatic experiences that include but are not limited to the death of her father, and past struggles with an eating disorder.

She clearly illustrated that it is possible to be grateful in the midst of immense pain. As such, the first of three ways in which I have used Calm to cultivate mindfulness in my career as an artist is that a daily meditation practice via the app has allowed me to connect with the visceral experience of being grateful. Every day, if only for a fleeting moment, Calm has helped me to experience (and express) gratitude for simply being alive, and for the capacity to create art, to inspire others through art, to document and create human history through art, and to come to terms with my humanity through art.

Secondly, my use of Calm has resulted in the fact that I do not procrastinate or buy into what the author Steven Pressfield calls resistance to the same extent as I did before my daily use of Calm. According to Pressfield, resistance is the universal force that acts against human creativity, through one’s attachments to rationalizations, fear, and anxiety. As I have regularly used Calm over the course of the last few years, I have come to realize that if I can sit and  meditate on a daily basis, which was once an activity that I fervently avoided, then I can follow through on an artistic project, whether it is for myself or for a client. Moreover, 20 minutes of stillness, facing existential angst, and facing one’s humanity is certainly more challenging than 20 minutes of business development or photography or cinematography to me, in many ways.

Mindfulness Instructor And Writer: Tamara Levitt of Calm, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Thirdly, my use of Calm has taught me how to let go of my attachments, which have been the source of my suffering, according to Buddhism, Vedic spirituality, Stoicism, and other schools of thought and spirituality.

In fact, I once fell asleep on an old friend’s couch, and inadvertently broke a 344-day meditation streak, falling short of my goal of reaching 365 days of meditation in a row. Soon after, I entered a state of self-condemnation, which I was eventually able to transcend, ironically through mindfulness and the awareness that I was undermining the fact that I meditated for more consecutive days than ever before. So, that experience taught me to let go of my attachments to fantasies about ideal futures, and I tend to revisit that experience when I am clearly being far too hard on myself, and when I strongly identify with the feelings of emptiness and inadequacy that many of us have. 

The capacity to let go of my attachments in my life and career, albeit temporarily, has allowed me to pivot, to try new things, and to enter states of childlike play that were not as prevalent in my career prior to my use of Calm. And supplementing my use of Calm with hatha yoga, the study of bhakti yoga, kirtan, the study of different forms of Buddhism, weight lifting, running, psychotherapy, journaling, the study of various philosophies, reading numerous books and articles, and through many other practices that I have collectively engaged in for thousands of hours, I have simply amplified the app’s benefits (to me).  

Meditation and other practices that cultivate mindfulness are needed today more than ever before, specifically because many of us in the so-called developed world are preoccupied with materialism and intolerant of silence, our existential pains, the impermanence of life as we know it, and mortality. As such, many of us are lonely, lacking in introspection, lacking in spirituality, lacking in love, lacking in compassion, lacking in solitude, and lacking in strong social bonds with family, friends, and co-workers.

Consequently, the vast majority of people that inhabit the society that I live in are self-absorbed, and thus self-medicate and avoid themselves in a number of self-defeating ways. 

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” As I see it, Calm is one of many anti-theses to the problem of human suffering that Thoreau and many scholars, spiritual leaders, and mystics have described for centuries, and I have learned a lot through the premium version of the app’s different features. 

Writer: Chris Advansun of Calm, Photographer: Ajani Charles

More specifically, I greatly appreciate Tamara Levitt’s masterclass on gratitude, Jason Kidd’s masterclass on peak performance, Dr. Judson Brewer’s masterclass on breaking bad habits, Elizabeth Gilbert’s masterclass on living beyond fear, Dr. Alex Pang’s masterclass on the power of rest, the many meditations on sleep, various meditations on stress and emotions, as well as a number of beautiful sleep stories. I also tend to use the elegant and simple Calm breathe bubble quite often, when I feel overwhelmed.

Over the course of 232 hours, Calm has helped me to meditate anywhere and everywhere, with great ease, usually after prompting me to do so. Using the app, I have meditated in nightclubs, in Ubers, in Lyfts, on subways, in airports, in airplanes, on trains, backstage at concerts, at parties, in parks, before funerals, and in hospitals. It has rendered meditation more accessible to me than any other tool, beyond my breath and physical body, and in part, Calm has inspired my work as a mental health advocate that frequently works with the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health and Operation Prefrontal Cortex, among other organizations. With that said, I am also grateful for both of my parents, and for the many valuable lessons that my mother has shared with me throughout my life, as she is an amazing person and a psychiatric nurse in Toronto.

I am truly grateful for the fact that Calm exists and is spreading the gift of meditation far and wide, as the world’s first mental health tech unicorn and consequently the most downloaded meditation app available today. Now I know that it is possible to meditate every day and that a minute of meditation is far better than no meditation at all. 

The images of myself within this article are screenshots from a video-based collaboration between myself and Calm, which will be released later this summer. Sean Stiller and Remy Huberdeau did a fantastic job of capturing me, Christi-an Slomka of Calm could not have overseen this project more gracefully, I am grateful for Chris Advansun’s editing of this article, and I am looking forward to sharing the rest of my recent projects for Calm with you in September 2019. In the meantime, if you are interested in purchasing the premium version of Calm, use this link for a 25% discount that the Calm team has graciously offered my clients, colleagues, friends, family members, fans, and others that are interested in my work. Also, if you are in the Greater Toronto Area and want to take a meditation class at Hoame, the discount code AJANI50 can be used for 50% off of any class until the end of August 2019.

Community Manager: Christi-an Slomka of Calm, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Recording Artist: Emmalyn Estrada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Beijing, China, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Shanghai, China, Photographer: Ajani Charles

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