This was not how we envisioned our Tuesday night: doing the sprinkler dance move in the lobby of the Harvard Innovation Lab to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.” Yet 20 minutes into Kassi Underwood’s meditation event, we both found ourselves swaying awkwardly with about 25 other university affiliates and local residents, most of them middle-aged, looking vaguely to Underwood in her shimmering silver jumpsuit for direction.
The dancing, however unusual, served a highly pragmatic purpose. As the meditation advisor at the Harvard Innovation Lab, or i-Lab, Underwood’s practice centers around pinpointing the origin behind the common fear of what others think of us. To her, examining the lies we tell ourselves is integral to becoming released from this anxiety.
This is the difference, says Underwood, between her work and the kind of inspirational quotes we find on Instagram: what she calls “intellectual” versus “transformational” meditation. “Seeking ‘enoughness’ from the quote card is making it even worse because [people] are not getting it — then they feel like there’s something wrong with them,” she explains. “There's so much self-help wellness and spiritual bullshit out there right now, and we're just filling our heads with knowledge.”
But for Underwood, this knowledge only complicates the process of liberation from the “lies” we tell ourselves. “We need something that's going to take us from where we are to where we want to go, which is ‘I genuinely am free from the fear of what this person thinks of me.’”
At the event, we received packets, neatly branded with her copyright and web address, concretely guiding us to Underwood’s goal: an action plan based on new beliefs about ourselves and the lives we want to create.
For Underwood, meditation has an interpersonal meaning as well as an individual one. She uses dance to create a space that fosters the vulnerability amidst the pulsing beats of her thoughtfully curated playlist.
“People are often rocketed into the present moment because dancing is awkward,” Underwood explains. “So then we’ve had this experience together, and now, dancing is truth; now we can talk about what’s really going on inside of our heads — which is that we’re fucking terrified.”
Currently a masters candidate at Harvard Divinity School, Underwood herself created the position of i-Lab Meditation Advisor. The idea came to her while meditating. Afterward, she contacted the i-Lab director to make it happen — taking agency to shape her prefered reality and thus putting into practice the advice that she gives her clients.
Now she helps individuals and groups within the Harvard community to create a spiritual “toolkit,” which she defines as a “problem-solving repertoire that [her clients] already have based in spirituality or wellness.” Not religious herself, Underwood works with people from all religious and spiritual backgrounds, yet despite their differing beliefs, she has noticed similarities between all of her clients.
“Usually, [clients] come in, and everybody says, ‘I used to do all this, but then I started at Harvard and I don’t do any of my things anymore’ — you know, ‘I used to pray, used to meditate, or I used to do yoga, and then I got to Harvard and I stopped doing all of my things and now I'm curled up in bed and I’m crying and I feel depressed and I keep getting on my own case for not being able to get it all done. And I’ve got 10 pounds of apples that need to fit into a five pound basket. I don't know how I’m going to do it.’”
Underwood’s approach is simple: “We take it back to ‘okay, let’s put those things back in place that you were already doing. And then, let’s up-level those.’”
Underwood believes that meditation serves internal benefits, but that it also has the potential to transform societies through the action borne out of mental transformation. For Underwood, changing one’s internal mindset can open new external realities.
“If everybody's meditating and getting honest with themselves and being truthful, then a lot of people are going to realize, ‘I'm at the wrong job; ‘I want to work at that job,’” she explains. “So then we're going to all do this big rearrangement, and we're all going to end up happy and happily where we're supposed to be, and nobody's going to be living these big, fat, bold-faced lies.”
Underwood hopes to leave her clients with the mental confidence to create their own realities — as she achieved in her own lifestyle.
In her new role at the i-Lab, Underwood aims to put The Practice into practice — and cultivate mental freedom for the Harvard intellectuals she calls her clientele. “I honestly think that everybody in the world needs a spiritual teacher, a coach, a somebody who's going to be working one-on-one with them, with their mental health,” she says. “I don't see how we're going to survive on the planet if we keep pretending we're not all suffering.”