Interview: Shelly Tygielski, Global Community Organizer, Self-Care Activist and Author

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Mindfulness coach, philanthropist, and author Shelly Tygielski is the founder of Pandemic of Love, one of the most innovative global movements to arise during the pandemic. A radical self-care activist and community organizer, she started this mutual-aid operation in early 2020 after she posted two Google forms online. One read “Get Help,” the other “Give Help”. The next morning, there were hundreds of requests from both choices. Since then, her direct-aid organization has matched more than 2.5 million people and is considered a true “disrupter” among philanthropic organizations.

In 2020, Shelly was named a CNN Hero and since then, she has received kudos from many, including President Biden, who credits Shelly with “saving people’s lives and giving them hope.”

Shelly believes that changing the world starts with the individual, and she shares her methods of self-care in her book titled “Sit Down to Rise Up: How Radical Self-Care Can Change the World.” She recently put on a retreat teaching her radical self-care method at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. We visited with Shelly to find out more.

Your recent book “Sit Down to Rise Up” has been described as a combination of memoir, manifesto, and how-to book for transformation.  What can you tell us about it?

In my book, I wanted to create a connection between our inner work and the outer world. Today, a lot of people are focused on inner work and the pursuit of self-care for individual purposes. My book seeks to bring us back to the roots of self-care, which is a communal effort. This is also the theme of my retreat at the Omega Institute.

Tell us about the retreat.

My retreat is about radical self-care built on the principles of my book. I teach and talk about self-care techniques for caretakers, self-caretakers, and leaders, so we all can show up more fully in the world for ourselves, our friends, and our family. I give practical, tangible tools for people to walk away with. I give people a toolkit for self-care and communal care resources.

In the retreat, we also learn to harness our powerful emotions, even difficult ones, in order to transform them into doing positive and impactful things in the world.

We learn to build “communities of care.” Many don’t know how to do this today, but we work on so many fundamentals to learn how to build these communities.

This sounds similar to what you did with Pandemic of Love, which you founded in March of 2020. How did you come up with the idea of this organization?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was feeling all the emotions rising: the anxiety, the fear. I was able to sit with these emotions, and from my mindfulness training, I was able to work with them in order to emerge with an understanding of how to proceed. I worked through and nurtured my emotions, and then asked, ‘now what do I do?’. This was directly rooted to being connected to my inner world, which then allowed me to connect to the outer world and understand how to reflect this outward to tend to others.

This is a perfect example of what I write and teach in my book, even though when I wrote my book, Pandemic of Love was not yet in existence. It was serendipitous because I sold the book proposal long before I started this organization, and yet it follows the same guidelines.  

What makes Pandemic of Love different than other philanthropic organizations?

Pandemic of Love disrupts the non-profit model. We don’t fundraise. This is direct giving, which is the best way to mobilize. We roll up our sleeves. We understand that the best way to use donor money is to directly connect to the individuals in need.

There is no “middleman” who takes money, charges fees, or earns a salary. Pandemic of Love cuts through all the bureaucracy. We connect Person A and Person B. For example, we find a donor who will help to pay someone’s electric bill.  The donor can pay directly. This becomes a conversation between two strangers, and as a result, a friendship can form, a bridge can be built

So this is not just transactional philanthropy.

On your website Shelly Tygielski – Mindfulness and Meditation For All it says that to date, Pandemic of Love boasts nearly 4,000 volunteers worldwide, has directly exchanged nearly $70 million in donations, and has connected millions of people.

We have helped people all over the world, in Pakistan and Puerto Rico, people in the U.S. who face eviction, and so many more. We have a community of over 2 million people. We have donors who crowdfund for direct projects. We create Amazon Wishlists and the products that are bought get shipped or flown to the areas of need to be directly distributed. It looks different every place we go, but we are always directly impacting people, getting the supplies to those who need them without any overhead.

So much has been lost in this wellness industrial complex we have built that has taken us away from the deeper human condition. Giving this way takes us back to pre-industrial times, back to the day of our great-great grandparents when people didn’t have to ask for help. There was always somebody to have your back: neighbors looking out for each other, mutual aid organizations.

MY MANTRA IS “ENOUGH IS A FEAST.” – Shelly Tygielski

What is the best way for one individual to help all that is wrong in the world?

I always lead with the Buddhist principle of tending to the garden you can reach. If we only tended to the garden we could reach, our own garden and neighborhood gardens, there would be great change.

Above all, make sure that the people around you are okay. You can trust that this will result in ripples of influence that proliferate endlessly. In my retreat, we learn to shift perspectives and understand how not to feel helpless. There are so many things we can do. There are so many tools out there for people. Unfortunately, so many think they are alone with this responsibility and become overwhelmed.

Why does this happen?

The problem is we all want to be positive, but life is light and dark, difficult, and pleasant. The culture of the wellness industrial complex and toxic positivity is not reality. Learning how to sit with difficult and painful emotions, to navigate and to lean into those emotions makes us come out stronger and better, more connected and more rooted. It is a truly empowering experience. For instance, I can’t be just outraged at the school shootings and move on.  I am outraged because it’s an atrocity and ask myself ‘What can I do?’ and my actions then come from a place of love.


From your perspective, what is the solution to the world problems?

I feel that the solution to all the problems is proximity. We are not in proximal spaces with each other. We segregate ourselves online and in person and stick to the people we know. We are not always willing to explore, to have difficult conversations, or to know how to be with people different than us.

Start by sitting with different people and learn how to be with them in close spaces. Pandemic of Love introduces people across racial divides. They are able to connect in the same city, the same county. They never would have met otherwise. Two different lives had a connection point which was that they were in a time of vulnerability due to the pandemic. There was great empathy for this vulnerability, great compassion. People could see a human being rather than just some other person. We were building bridges instead of walls, and we continue to do so.

You recently sold your home and embarked with your husband on what you call a nomadic lifestyle. What are the best parts of doing this?

This lifestyle has a lot to do with the evolution that is in the book. My mantra is “enough is a feast”. How much do we really need in life to be happy and fulfilled, to have meaning and purpose? I shed the things I had accumulated; they were weighing me down. I felt freer living a life that embodied my thoughts and words, so I can walk the walk, in proximity with different people all around the world.

We lived in Grenada for four months this year. In this culture, eighty percent of the people are native to Grenada, of black and Indian origin. We learned so much from their culture and condition, in ways that really helped us to grow as human beings, building bridges of empathy and understanding.

What are your projects for 2023?

I’m on the Martin Luther King coalition board. A big part of next year for me will be helping to plan the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, working with the King family to help realize the dream he talked about.

I’m launching a course in February and also offer my 8-week online course, available globally on demand.

Next year will be a much deeper dive to what I’m about, working with incredible guests, activists, wisdom teachers, and more.  I am very excited about all the upcoming events.

I also have a new book to announce with a co-author, Justin Michael Williams, which is rooted in our work on social justice, principles of equity, and anti-racism. It is called “How We Ended Racism: Realizing a New Possibility in One Generation,” and it’s due out in October of 2023.

Looking back on your history of being a former corporate executive who became a radical self-care activist, author, speaker, mindfulness teacher and nomad, how would you describe your life now?

I can truly say that I’m fulfilled and alive with purpose!

You can follow Shelly on her website at Shelly Tygielski – Mindfulness and Meditation For All, and Instagram at Shelly Tygielski (@mindfulskatergirl) • Instagram photos and videos. You can order her book “Sit Down to Rise Up” at Amazon.  

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