Shifting Perceptions with Meditation

Writer Michael Cheung speaks to LA-based spiritualist James Francis about her approach to guided meditation and how to stay present in a world full of distractions.
4 May 2022
Words by: Michael Cheung

How do we find stillness in an age where acceleration is celebrated and the noise of information is deafening?

For Los Angeles native James Francis, the practice of trying to find stillness of the mind is approached through meditation. It was something James’ mother did religiously as she was growing up, and she urged James to do the same. Today, with the encouragement of best friend and Illusion Pod co-host Gabi Abrão, James has developed her childhood relationship with meditation into a kind of superpower; now creating guided meditations that conjure up a rare clarity of feeling, yet offer a beautiful spaciousness to the would-be meditator. James also shares her work through a dedicated newsletter where she hones in on specific aspects of her life and learnings, and ties them back to her ethos of seeing everything as connected.

During our conversation, we dove deep into the accessibility of the medium of meditation, how people receive and perceive information in the name of modernity, and tips on how to listen to her guided meditations, as she presents a new series, exclusively with The New Moon.

James Francis selfie portrait, featuring golden sun soaked blonde curls
Photo courtesy of James Francis
“I believe it’s essential that people look to themselves first before looking to others for true guidance. I hope to just be a vessel for that process. I try to stay more enigmatic but still give enough so that people can find a spark of inspiration.”

How are things in the United States right now?

The country is definitely going through a transitory moment. Many of us are navigating how to live more holistically and more in keeping with practices that reflect our moral compass.

The uncertainty of the past two years has led to a shake up in how we view our work and tie it to our worth. I experienced this as well. With everything so up in the air, I took a risk and jumped into the wellness space. Looking back, it feels like my life was inevitably moving towards this point. But I couldn’t see it until the lockdown drew out a period of true self-reflection and honest assessment.

I find this phase of society to be unpredictable yet inspiring, I feel grateful to witness it.

What is it like living in Tinseltown?

Because I grew up here, I feel desensitised to the Tinseltown façade of Los Angeles. Living here, you experience the unusual aspects that LA is known for and the mundane sprawl all at once. Everything balances itself out, which I find comforting.

I couldn’t even tell you what the LA trends are right now, I kind of love being out of the loop.

Overall I’m so grateful to have grown up here. LA has given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. California itself is a magical place and living near the ocean feels integral to my well-being.

I could see myself living elsewhere one day, but for most of my life I didn’t even consider moving because of my parents. In the U.S., white people often detach from their familial responsibilities, especially when they first move into adulthood. It’s very culturally acceptable to be independent and career oriented, but I’m an only child with disabled parents—their care will always be a big consideration for me.

There’s nothing about your background on your site. Is this on purpose?

Stripping myself from my website was very intentional. I used to have an extensive About Me page complete with a story from elementary school. But eventually I thought, What is this need to tell people about myself? I have a weekly newsletter where I’m constantly writing about myself and offering personal reflections of my world. So that’s available for anyone who wants a deeper look at me.

Also, some meditation teachers create almost a cult of personality to attract an audience. I’ve seen this happen in person with yoga teachers and it’s very easy to slip into that on the internet. Students can become more concerned with the teacher than your personal practice.

I believe it’s essential that people look to themselves first before looking to others for true guidance. I hope to just be a vessel for that process. I try to stay more enigmatic but still give enough so that people can find a spark of inspiration. It’s a constant balance. Ultimately I don’t want to set them up to feel reliant on any external force for what is an inward connection.

A red car on the side of the road, a grassy field in the foreground and trees meeting the horizon of a tinted dusky sky, image by Jovan Vasiljević
Image by Jovan Vasiljević

What made you gravitate towards offering guided meditations instead of other expressions and mediums?

I explored teaching yoga, as I grew up with that practice and it seemed like a natural step. I took teacher training and really enjoyed it but LA studios are super competitive. I decided I didn’t want to turn something that is very personal into a commercial endeavour.

For a long time, I didn’t see the point of guided meditations. That changed when my dad got sick and I stopped meditating. My routine shifted to waking up every morning to drive him to treatments five days a week, for a year. I lost touch with myself and I knew I needed help getting back. I started listening to guided meditations and it felt like getting on a little boat. In this boat, you pass through every mental block. It saved me in so many ways.

From there, I started casually talking to friends about meditation and realised many people aren’t comfortable meditating. I try to create meditations that aren’t really specific and “over-guide” you. I also offer personalised meditations, where people fill out a questionnaire and set intentions, then I build off what they’ve provided me. It’s really fun to create such intimate pieces.

The concept of mindfulness is often distorted by the media. What would you say is the basis of the practice?

We’ve gotten so far from the core of many simple things. In truth, meditation is a personal, straightforward process. Anyone can close their eyes and peek within. Through internal awareness, we can reflect on our being and immerse ourselves in space. No one outside can offer the motion of going inwards. I’m wary of people who fashion it as a new thing. The teachings are nothing new. Meditation is timeless. What we’re always seeking is the same as ever. It is a constant, eternal spirit within.

Are wellness retreats performative? Does the experience of meditation shift depending on the environment or not really?

I’ve never been on a meditation retreat and I don’t think anyone really needs to go on one. But I can say when you’re super locked into a routine, there’s something to stepping into a completely different environment. It’s like when you go to an immersive art exhibit and you step into a world that opens new avenues. There are many ways to address growth, but if someone is making promises with a hefty price tag, that’s a red flag.

In terms of the performative aspect, I think life itself is a performance. We’re all performing at different levels, in a variety of roles. You can even dress up and perform for yourself without the gaze of the public eye. It’s when you forget to move with self-awareness that the performative experience becomes a surreal, endless parade.

Cover art for Illusion Pod by James Francis
Illusion Pod by James Francis

I was intrigued by your conversation about acceleration while tuning into one of the Illusion Pods. Would you say that society is somewhat sliding backwards?

It’s hard to say that society is sliding backwards because that means that society has gone forward and in a meaningful direction up until this point. The world has grown so fast without first setting up a foundation of care. I think we’re reaching the tip of another pendulum swing, but there’s always a swing back.

On an individual level, people sometimes need a complete breakdown to rebuild. I’ve experienced true growth after losing everything I thought I knew. We’re experiencing this collective processing of grief (both abstract and concrete) mixed with longing. It has led to a widespread reckoning. We’re all questioning what’s happening and where we go from here.

As an extension to the previous question, what are your thoughts about overstimulation?

We all experience it. It’s essential to recognise that because if you think you’re kind of above it, you’re not truly aware of it. When you become overstimulated, you lose track of all the details. When we lose sight of other people, we lose sight of deep connections. The more we allow our mind to endlessly jump from one stimulus to another, it becomes exceedingly difficult to slow it down.

At the end of the day, you’re responsible for what and how much you take in. It’s so tricky to disengage because our whole life has become amplified, but we have to continue to be honest about our levels of consumption.

“Audio opens up a world that allows you to absorb information and draw a picture within your mind. It’s an intimate affair…There’s something so transcendent about audio and I think that’s why it is finding a new wave of relevancy. It exists beyond the physical, as a pure energy exchange.”

How we communicate with one another is constantly evolving. Forecasting the future, do you think reading and writing will no longer be relevant at some point?

It’s tempting to worry if we’re going to rid ourselves of true literacy. But there’s a deep human desire to be able to perceive and be perceived. We’d never rid ourselves of reading and writing because language is the primary tool to express ourselves and understand others. Honestly, I think language is so flawed. You go online and see people so wrapped up in trying to dissect the intricacies of a sentence. We lose so much when we can’t experience the intonation of speech. Perhaps the real way forward is to communicate beyond words.

It seems that audio is making a strong comeback, which is of course a medium you use in your practice. What about audio-first tools makes it different from others?

It is surprising to see all the innovation in audio. I think it’s tied into our general sense of overstimulation. It’s so tiresome to constantly have our attention planted on a screen.

Audio opens up a world that allows you to absorb information and draw a picture within your mind. It’s an intimate affair. Sound is a series of vibrations and at our core, we’re all just vibration. There’s something so transcendent about audio and I think that’s why it is finding a new wave of relevancy. It exists beyond the physical, as a pure energy exchange.

Acrylic polymer artwork by Stanley Twardowicz, “C.Y.P.B. #2”, rings of glowing colours of blue, pink and yellow
Artwork by Stanley Twardowicz, “C.Y.P.B. #2"
James Francis on a ledge by the ocean under a heavenly light shining through the clouds in the distance
Photo courtesy of James Francis

What’s next on your agenda?

Right now I’m making a conscious effort to create space in my schedule to welcome new projects. Currently, I write a newsletter that I started last year. It’s been very rewarding, while teaching me about real commitment to a craft. When I began the newsletter, I put out three dispatches every week. At the year mark, I decided to simplify and write one a week so I could have more energy for my other projects. I have a podcast called Illusion Pod which I co-host with my best friend Gabi Abrão. We just started a Patreon and it’s been really fun to watch that grow.

Of course top of mind is this project with The New Moon! I’m extremely excited to be working together to provide a series of guided meditations. I feel really lucky that this partnership came to be and I can’t wait to see where this goes.

What are your go-to tips for engaging and listening to meditations?

  • Arrange your environment: get rid of as many external distractions as possible. Set aside electronics and station yourself, preferably in a quiet space to sit.

  • Find a comfortable position for the body so you don’t need to move much during your practice.

  • If you’re not listening to a guided meditation, set a timer. This will put your mind at ease. With a fixed window of time for the practice, you will be less likely to wander down a path of thoughts.

  • You may wish to set a personal intention before beginning your meditation. This creates a frame around your practice. Keep it simple, like finding your breath or slowing down your mind.

  • If thoughts arise, try to let them pass like clouds floating across the sky. You don’t need to spend this time engaging with the mind.

  • View your time as a communion with the inner world. By doing so, there is no goal or way to fail. By showing up and following through, you will have fulfilled this purpose.

  • Meditation can feel like basking in the sun or sitting in the silence of a cave. Whatever your experience becomes, it is not something to fear.

  • Practising meditation can feel dull, especially when you first develop that inner gaze. Rest assured that you are infusing your being with a presence of calm. The importance of this act cannot be overstated.

  • Ultimately, meditation is the act of meeting the expansive self; it is a reunion with the deep sense of everything you already know.