A week or so into his first term of kindergarten, my eldest son came home asking to listen to "balloon bellies." After some investigation, I came to understand that he was referring to a meditation. Specifically, a Smiling Mind breath meditation.
Considering Isaac’s previous listening requests had consisted almost exclusively of The Greatest Showman Soundtrack and Scatman by Scatman John (honestly), I knew Smiling Mind must be on to something.
It turned out his class were undertaking a daily meditation practice after lunchtime, with the help of Smiling Mind. Isaac told me it made him feel calm and ready to learn (“and I’ve only fallen asleep ONCE, Mum!”). Cue: frantic downloading of the app and a personal mission to make this part of our lives.
So it was somewhat serendipitous when I was offered the opportunity to interview Jane Martino, the founder of this life-shifting app. And what I discovered was not only a surprise, but a joy. Because Jane is living proof that meditation works. Not just in slowing our breath and in keeping us calm, but in helping to achieve to our maximum capacity. She has the resume to prove it.
Renowned for developing thriving businesses, Jane has been a finalist in the Telstra Young Business Women’s Awards, built one of Australia’s top communications agencies, is a published author (of the gorgeous Thank You series), founded a fundraising platform, is on a series of boards, and oh yes, has three children.
But Smiling Mind may just be her most exciting achievement to date. Combining her love of young people and meditation, Smiling Mind creates a modern approach to mindfulness that kids (and adults) can incorporate seamlessly into their lives, in order to better cope with everyday stresses. The result? More resilience, gratitude, happiness and an opportunity to give back to the community. If that isn’t exactly what we’re looking for in our kids and ourselves, I don’t know what is.
Here’s what Jane had to say …
When did you start meditating? What prompted you to start?
I started meditating just after becoming a mother, now almost 15 years ago! I think it was a combination of intense sleep deprivation and no longer having the energy to resist it after so many friends trying to rope me in that meant I just jumped into it.
I was busy building a business and adjusting to motherhood – and I had, for so long, said to my friends who recommended it I was ‘too busy’ to meditate. Of course I now know that is EXACTLY why I needed it and when it works most effectively – oh the benefit of hindsight.
How long did it take for you to notice a difference in your mood/day/life as a result of meditation?
Almost immediately. Like anything you are training, making it a regular part of your life and embedding it into a routine it certainly compounds over time. However, I felt different within days of beginning. Even after quite a short session your body certainly feels different – I really notice this when doing our meditations in groups or with my family from our new families program.
Even if just five minutes, people come out of the meditations and there is a much greater sense of calm in the room.
In addition – it has been clinically proven that a positive impact can be felt as soon as after 10 consecutive days of 10-minute sessions. It really is unlike anything else that we all have access to, to help ourselves be at our best – I call it a gift!
What does your meditation practice look like today?
Most days I try and meditate first thing in the morning as part of my routine which normally starts around 5am. I combine it with a number of rituals such as reciting of mantras, a session of Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) with Brad Yates and an ‘appreciation rampage’ in a journal. My favourite meditations at the moment are loving kindness meditations, I find this helps me maintain more positivity and empathy throughout the day.
In saying that, some days not all parts of this routine go to plan, and that’s fine too. I will then try and squeeze in a session at another time during the day. Like physical exercise we all fall off the wagon sometimes – it’s just a matter of getting back on the next day, or as soon as we possibly can without beating ourselves up about falling off in the first place!
Do you encourage your children to meditate? If so, how often and how do you go about it?
Yes I do, mainly at acute times when they really need it. They do some at school and the number one thing that is most crucial with young people meditating is not to force anything or liken it to any kind of ‘chore’ – it means they won’t engage with it when they perhaps need it most.
They often do use sessions when they are going to sleep at night, a few months back we launched a sleep program so they definitely find that useful.
Can you tell us about your career prior to Smiling Mind?
I have had my own business since I was 25 years old. I started out in Marketing + PR and founded an agency as my first business building this up over 9 years before selling to the Bastion Group in 2009. I then took some time off to spend with my boys and get more involved in my local community before starting Smiling Mind in 2012.
Since then I have predominantly invested in, advised and run ventures in the tech space and sold one business, Shout, to ANZ Bank.
Can you share some details about your Thank You books?
I was working with a friend the year before I started my agency and she had the idea for the books and we decided to work on them together creating a series of six books each with original statements to friends, lovers and family members of things we should be grateful for.
They were published in 2004 and had an additional print run as they were so popular. I think it was my first foray into the importance of gratitude and saying thank you to people in our lives that mean so much. Now I try and embed that into my morning routine with my ‘appreciation rampage’ and our ‘three great things’ that we each talk about over the dinner table each night.
What inspired the launch of Smiling Mind?
It was having the time to be more involved in my local community, in particular, the boys’ primary school and noticing such high levels of anxiety for the stage and quality of life the young people were experiencing.
I caught up with James Tutton (now my co-Founder) and he asked what I was going to do next and I said I was working on the concept of a wellbeing app for young people, he was looking at programs out of Harvard and UCLA combining Mindfulness and education – so we decided then and there to combine our ideas and provide a truly scalable, accessible model and deliver a positive, pre-emptive mental health tool to as many people across the country (or world!) as possible.
The merging of tech and mindfulness/meditation must not be an easy combination. What was the process like in the development of the app?
Meditation sessions are actually well structured to be recorded and delivered by technology – and the use of digital also means that we can ensure there is a good amount of personalisation and data capture.
In saying that, when James and I first pulled together the plan for Smiling Mind there were many people who believed that meditation should not be combined with technology. We certainly had more disbelievers than believers! We managed to have a few people who truly believed in our vision and we thank them still to this day, without them this wonderful tool would not exist.
Can you tell us about the app and the organisation today?
As a not for profit with minimal Government and philanthropic funding until quite recently, I am constantly astounded at all the great things our team achieves with so little. We have had more than 4.5 million people download our application, more than 100,000 educators that utilise our platform and services and have started to secure more substantial funding which enables us to do more and build on the financial support that we have been able to develop from our Corporate Program.
We have made so much progress and, luckily for us, there is more and more focus on prevention in mental health which means we will only continue to grow, innovate and drive hard towards our goal of helping every mind thrive and reaching 5 million young people.
What do you think has been the key to the success of Smiling Mind?
The fundamental ‘why’ and purpose of the company. At the heart of it, James and I started Smiling Mind as we want everyone to have the opportunity to be their best selves. We have both always been so grateful for the part meditation has played in our professional and personal lives and wanted young people to be able to have exposure to the same gift from as early in their lives as possible.
Even if you do not do it every day, once you have been exposed to it I truly believe you feel the difference when you don’t do it. And it’s a tool that you will always have in your back pocket and will inevitably find yourself calling on.
What has been the most challenging period thus far in the creation/growth/maintenance of the business?
Definitely funding. James and I never wanted to profit from Smiling Mind and wanted accessibility to be at the heart of the organisation so it made sense for it to be a not for profit structure. However, this has been challenging noting that it is tech-led and many of the funding sources for not for profits have taken a while to understand the delivery model and the fact that the organisation is a platform is a huge advantage.
Probably also forming the right team for growth has taken us a while also – but we are certainly there now and have a very special group of individuals working with us that will take Smiling Mind to the next level.
You’ve built this incredible platform - that is key to so many people’s well-being - while raising three children. How have you managed the juggle?
Life is a juggle, sometimes a struggle, sometimes brilliant. That’s the whole point. I have just rolled my sleeves up and done whatever I needed to do at whatever time I needed to do it. The joy is in the journey, and that will rarely go smoothly but that is by far when I have learnt the most about myself and life in general.
Do you employ the notion of "the village” when raising your children? If so, where do you look to for help?
For sure. Well definitely my parents, I would not have survived without their help with the boys. But equally my friends in the local community and at the boys’ school – always helping with lifts to various sporting or school commitments, sleepovers or just generally keeping an eye on each of our wayward teens.
What does an average morning look like for you?
In short – early rising is the key followed by a form of gratitude expression, meditation and general mental health/ positivity activity to set me up for the day. I also have two dogs so walk or run them and do some form of strength and conditioning if I can fit it in.
Lemon juice in water and herbs (yuk but good for me!) from my Chinese doc – then its usually the school run, or if it is Matt’s week with the boys, straight to meetings/ the office getting my take away coffee on the way. That’s my favourite part of the morning as I go to lots of different places and really enjoy connecting with the person behind the counter/coffee machine and really tasting and enjoying the coffee they make me!
What about evenings?
These are hectic on the week I have the boys – most days I have to play Uber-mom taking them to various commitments and then straight home to prepare dinner. I use a combination of my own sourcing and Hello Fresh so on the nights I have a lot more running around I can prepare a quick, healthy meal without thinking too much about it!
The boys will often have a mate for dinner which I love and really encourage – anyone is welcome! So then I will tidy up, organise things for the next day and even though the boys are teenagers I still tuck them in. The time I have with them is precious so I have just kept doing it until they tell me it’s uncool (I am sure that wave is coming!)
If it’s my solo week I will catch up with friends, go to the movies, enjoy a date (!), read a lot and always have a family dinner on the same night each week which is a ritual we all love and is central to our family rhythm and connection.
Do you have any vices?
Of course! Wine would definitely be #1, closely followed by any kind of cheese and chocolate.
Do you feel mother’s guilt? If so, how do you tackle it?
I used to but never do now. Hell no! Life is too short to feel bad. I have learnt this serves no one, especially not me or the boys. They know I love them more than anything, I am always here for them and everything in between is just noise.
I certainly make an effort and always choose flexible work options to make sure I am present when I want and need to be, aside from that I want to show them how to make the most of life and all the opportunities you have.
Aside from meditation, how do you look after yourself?
I exercise daily, short bursts of 20-30 minutes but make sure I do something every day and this has been working much better for me than trying to get to the gym for an hour class. I do yoga a few times a month and make sure I get a massage about the same amount each month. I swear by Blys – they come to your house and the massages are always fantastic.
What are some of the benefits of meditation when it comes to our children?
Meditation is a form of attention training so it certainly has a large impact on the ability to focus and be more productive. However, there are so many other benefits – increased levels of empathy and connection with others, increased ability to regulate emotions and a general feeling of wellbeing. Oh and of course a really important one – improved sleep!
At what age can our children start a meditation practice? How do you suggest we start?
This year Smiling Mind launched an ELC program so young people can start as young as 4 years of age. But starting at any age is perfect – it’s never too late.
Best way to start is with An Intro to Mindfulness on the Smiling Mind app. This way you can slowly build up your daily minutes and be walked through the process and benefits.
What other ways do you encourage mindfulness in your home?
We always sit down for dinner together with no distractions, this is a mandated time to be together and talk about our day. I also remove phones at night and don’t allow them back until the boys are 100% ready in the mornings, bags are packed, etc. And if I give them a lift anywhere phones are away, otherwise, they can catch public transport and be on their phones all they like (this one works well!).
I also love flowers and candles and both visual and physical ways to make the home environment as peaceful and appealing as possible.