Singer-songwriter Jewel used self-taught meditation to help cope with rough childhood and anxiety

The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter appeared on the "10% Happier" podcast.

ByABC News
March 31, 2017, 10:05 AM

— -- Multi-platinum and Grammy-nominated artist Jewel said she developed a mindfulness meditation practice on her own at a young age to help cope with a tough childhood, homelessness as a teen and even pitfalls in her music career.

"I just started habitually forcing myself to do what I call my 'anecdotal thought,'" Jewel told ABC's Dan Harris on his "10% Happier" podcast. "So when I would have anxious feeling, I would retract the thought, I would see what the lie was, what my brain was telling me and I would tell myself the truth.

"And the truth was," she continued. "I am capable of learning and I will learn more today, and that calmed my anxiety down and helped me re-wire and ... that started creating reliance."

Subscribe and listen to the "10% Happier" podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, on ABC Radio podcasts and under the "Listen" tab on the ABC News app.

Jewel, whose full name is Jewel Kilcher, is known for her soft, poetic hits such a "Who Will Save Your Soul," "You Were Meant For Me," and "Foolish Games," songs that dominated the radio airwaves in the '90s. Her debut album, "Pieces of You," sold over 12 million copies and became an inspiration for several other female artists.

She reinvented herself as a pop artist with her 2003 album, "0304," then as a country singer with her 2008 album, "Perfectly Clear." Her last album, "Picking Up the Pieces," was released in 2015.

Growing up in Alaska, Jewel was raised in a family of musicians. She said her mother and father would perform at hotels for tourists, but when she was eight years old, her parents divorced and she stepped in to sing with her father as a duo.

"I was probably the only fourth grader that went right from the elementary school to the bar," she said. "And I watched how people handled pain. I watched people use relationships, drugs, alcohol to try to numb and medicate feelings...and I was like, 'I’m in trouble.'"

As a young girl, Jewel said she quickly realized she couldn't run from the pain and turned to writing down her feelings as a way to calm herself down.

"[Writing] was my first mindfulness practice," she said. "I noticed every time I sat down to write, I felt calmer, I felt less anxiety, and it took the edge off just enough."

"I had plenty of anxiety," Jewel continued. "But the anxiety lessened every time I wrote and later as I developed this practice of writing, it was like having breadcrumbs back to my real self... I was always able to see the truth when I wrote."

In her 2015 memoir, "Never Broken -- Songs Are Only Half the Story," Jewel goes into great detail about her tumultuous family upbringing, including that her father, a Vietnam veteran who she said suffered from PTSD, drank and became abusive after her mother left.

Jewel said her father, Atz Kilcher -- who she said gave her permission to publicly discuss his problems -- later got sober and they reconciled. She remains estranged from her mother.

At the age of 15, Jewel moved away from home and tried to start a new life for herself, what she dubbed her "happiness project." She put herself through school, attending a fine arts high school in Michigan on a vocal scholarship.

"I knew statistically kids like me end up repeating the cycles that they're raised by," she said. "So I knew statistically I was going to end up in a ditch or on a pole or on drugs or in an abusive relationship in short order, because that was the emotional language I was taught."

While at school, Jewel said she didn't have enough money to return to Alaska so she began hitchhiking across the country. She learned to play the guitar and kept writing along the way.

"I started writing lyrics about what I was seeing around me and 'Who Will Save Your Soul' was the first song I actually ever wrote. I wrote that when I was 16, as I was hopping trains and hobo-ing and street singing," Jewel said. "I noticed this idea of people wanting to be a victim and saying, 'Somebody else save me,' and I started asking this question, 'how do I save myself?'"

At age 16, Jewel said she started suffering from panic attacks. By the time she was 18, she was homeless and at one point, she said she became so sick from kidney infections she nearly died.

She said she also started shoplifting, until one day she had a moment of clarity.

"I was [looking] in the mirror in a dressing room, trying to steal a dress, and I looked at myself and I went, 'oh I failed. I’m a statistic. I didn’t beat the odds, at 15 I set out to not be a statistic, and three short years later my life came to a grinding halt,'" Jewel said. "So I went back to my -– the word 'mindfulness' wasn’t even around back then, but I went back to this idea of how can I ... re-wire my brain."

She said she went back to her journals and very consciously began monitoring her thought process that would lead to negative thoughts or lead her to want to steal. Jewel said that self-conscious exercise eventually inspired her to write another hit song, "Hands."

"I started watching my hands because your hands are the servants of your thoughts," she said. "If you want to see what you’re thinking just watch what your hands are doing."

To deal with her panic attacks, Jewel said she came up with her own visualization exercises to help reduce her anxiety.

"I learned to do this meditation where I imagined I was on a very stormy ocean," she said. "I’d imagine myself sinking through the ocean, allowing myself to relax, I would get calmer. I would notice the color of the ocean change. I’d notice the taste of salt on my lips. I’d notice the rays of sunlight coming in and the further I got down to the sandy floor, it got calm, it got tranquil by then, and I would look up at the stormy surface and it was in the distance."

Today, Jewel has turned many of the mindfulness exercises she taught herself over the years into what she calls "modules" on her website, where she tries to help other people learn healthy mental fitness habits.

Although she said she'll never stop writing music, Jewel said she's "not as interested in touring" because she wants to work on building her mindfulness platform and being a mother to her five-year-old son, Kase.

"I don’t want to look back on my life and go, ‘my art is my best art,’" she said. "I want my life to be my best work of art."

Subscribe and listen to the "10% Happier" podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, on ABC Radio podcasts and under the "Listen" tab on the ABC News app.

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