You may not recognize Tamara Levitt by name, but more than 40 million people using the Calm meditation app are familiar with her voice. Since 2014 she’s been the content creator for the mindfulness company, as well as the narrator for the award-winning app’s meditation sessions.
But Levitt didn’t set out to guide legions of people to peace of mind — or generate profits for a $1 billion tech company. As a teen, the self-described angry punk rocker proudly wore black lipstick, combat boots, and a purple mohawk.
“My childhood wasn’t an easy one, so by my teenage years I was rebellious and full of angst. My personal heroes were Lou Reed, Sid Vicious, and Siouxsie Sioux,” she explains. “I was agnostic, nonconformist, and essentially anti-everything.”
Despite her defiant attitude, Levitt opened herself up to mindfulness meditation by participating in an eight-week course at an eating-disorders clinic when she was 18. “I was tired of experiencing mood swings and depression,” she says. “I was frustrated living at the mercy of my eating disorder, and I was desperate for a bit of healing.”
After the instructor led her group through a brief practice, the Toronto native felt a flash of ease. “It wasn’t as though my life had changed; there was no huge epiphany or instant healing,” she remembers. “But I was able to taste a few moments of rare and elusive stillness. For me, that was enough to keep coming back.”
She’s been returning to meditation ever since, exploring Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist teachings, as well as Vipassana (insight), Shambhala, and Zen.
In addition to creating content for the Calm app, Levitt has produced films and authored two children’s books: Happiness Doesn’t Come From Headstands and The Secret to Clara’s Calm. “My goal is to make wisdom teachings accessible and relatable and to inspire people of all ages to live more gently, openly, courageously, and compassionately,” Levitt says.
Experience Life | How has meditation helped you in your life?
Tamara Levitt | Growing up as a perfectionist with a very critical father, I didn’t have a lot of self-compassion — and that’s a hard way to live in the world. Meditation and mindfulness have taught me to be more gentle on myself and others. They have taught me to step back from a situation, to create space around it, in order to find perspective.
In terms of helping with past afflictions, meditation has helped me manage depression, panic attacks, eating disorders, chronic pain, and insomnia. In my current day-to-day life, generally, I find I can handle my emotions better. I can let go of feelings and thoughts more easily. I have stronger relationships because of my meditation practice.
I’ve learned to step back and be less reactive to stress and anxiety — but that’s not to say all the time. I still get caught up like anyone else, but it happens less frequently and I’m able to catch myself more quickly.
EL | What made you decide to move into the tech industry, and how did you get involved with Calm?
TL | I never imagined that I’d be working at a tech company. My background is as a performing artist and a writer, and most of my work was done solo. I had been feeling very isolated and had started searching for something bigger to be part of.
A friend of mine introduced me to Calm, and when I researched the company, I was immediately drawn to its mission of teaching people mindfulness.
I noticed there was one open role — not the role that I have now — so I applied for that job by sending a cold email. Alex Tew, one of the cofounders, emailed me back the next day and set up a Skype call; we started working together immediately. It has been a great fit using my experience as a performer with voiceover and acting skills, as a writer and creator knowing how to build structure and a story, and my long-term meditation experience. All the pieces of my past have fit together in this role.
EL | Research shows that looking at our phones all the time can fracture our attention, while mindfulness helps us build our attention, so it seems a little counterintuitive to use a meditation app. How can mindfulness and technology work together?
TL | The problem isn’t our devices or our phones — it’s our relationship with our devices. Meditation apps are teaching people to be more mindful, which is the opposite of what social media does.
With the Calm app, for example, you’re learning how to calm the mind and deepen concentration. You’re learning how to observe and be present with whatever comes up in your experience. You’re learning how to develop qualities like nonjudgment, compassion, and nonreactivity.
Meditation apps can help us gain awareness of how we use our devices and develop the ability to catch ourselves when we get swept away. Therefore, a meditation app can help us develop a very different, healthier relationship with our devices.
In terms of maintaining integrity in the teachings, that’s one of my biggest priorities. Even though we’re teaching mindfulness in an app rather than in a meditation center, I make sure that all the teachings are in alignment with authentic mindfulness principles. We are careful not to claim that meditation is a quick fix. It’s a practice and it takes time, and with patience and effort, you will see the difference in your life.
EL | One of your tips for being more present is using a mindfulness reminder. What is it?
TL | So many of us rush through our days on autopilot. We get so caught up in this fast-paced life that we don’t often stop to check in and pay attention to what’s happening in the moment. We don’t pay attention to the fact that we might be exhausted and see that the best thing might be for us to stop working or turn off the TV and go to bed.
A mindfulness reminder is an external cue — a sound like a creaky door or car horn, or a visual aid like a Post-it with an inspiring quote on it near your desk — that’s going to alert you to stop and get present and notice what’s happening.
The idea is that when you hear that sound or see that quote, you are reminded to stop what you’re doing, take a few breaths, and notice what’s going on and how you feel in that moment. It’s an opportunity to come back to yourself and wake up to the moment.
EL | In addition to working for Calm, you’re also an author and filmmaker. What inspired you to make the short film Ode to Failure?
TL | The film was inspired by a decade-long pursuit of success that resulted in a massive failure. I lost a ton of time. I lost all my money. I lost my self-esteem. The outcome of the failure left me in a deep depression and filled with shame. I thought that if the project was a failure, it meant that I was a failure.
It’s a common belief to equate achievement with self-worth. A lot of suffering that we feel develops because we have this really strong sense of self: I am a failure. I am successful. We attach these labels to who we are.
The 10-minute film shares my story, explores that flawed belief and why it exists, and extends an invitation to learn alternative ways of viewing failure. Mindfulness teaches us how to strip ourselves of all these labels and gives us space to see that failure teaches us lessons. Failure can offer opportunities to develop self-compassion and resilience, and ultimately teach us that just because we have a failure, it doesn’t mean we are a failure. It just means that we’re brave enough to try.