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Colloquy Podcast: A ‘Healing Attempt’ for Race-Based Anxiety

Grant Jones, a PhD student in clinical psychology, has developed a groundbreaking mental health intervention, Healing Attempt, which combines guided meditations with originally composed music deeply rooted in Black American traditions—an innovative approach that aims to address the specific challenges of race-based anxiety within communities of color. This month on Colloquy, we speak with Jones about Healing Attempt, his collaborations with the Grammy Award-winning artist Esperanza Spalding and with the Buddhist leader Lama Rod Owens, and the promising early results of studies on the intervention. Join us as we explore the potential of mindfulness, music, and culture in reshaping mental healthcare.  

This extended transcript has been edited for clarity, and correctness. 

Before we talk about your research, I'd love to hear about your journey from growing up in Boston to becoming a Harvard PhD student and researcher. How has your background shaped your work and the development of your intervention, Healing Attempt?  

Yeah, thanks so much for the question. It's always a joy to talk about my path because my research is so personal. For me, there's no way to disentangle what this research is and what it means for me to be in this PhD program without talking about my path. I grew up in Mattapan, Massachusetts, which is in the inner city of Boston, a predominantly Black neighborhood. And I was raised by my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother there—an incredible support system and support network.  

But there are some structural challenges for sure. Going to school in Mattapan, the educational opportunities aren't the best. A lot of my peers who I grew up with fell into gang violence. And so my family kind of put all hands on deck to figure out what would it mean for me to navigate this world and have an opportunity to express myself and be myself and flourish in an environment that wasn't offering me opportunities to do so.  

From a pretty early age, my family placed me in private school. And I loved school. I'm kind of a nerd. I can't pull myself away from schoolwork. And it's been that way since I was a young kid. Yeah, doing schoolwork is just always very natural to me. 

But I think the thing, though, about being in private schools is that those spaces are also very white and culturally very different from where I grew up. So for me, my path was one in which I didn't fit in Mattapan growing up. And I think increasingly as I came into awareness about myself and my Blackness, private school didn't feel like a place where I could fully be seen or accepted.  

I was fortunate to be able to go to Harvard College for my undergraduate, which is amazing for a perennial student like me. I feel like I arrived at Harvard College with so much unsettledness within myself, not fitting in and not knowing how to navigate within the structures of this world. My first year of school forced me to figure out how to settle this deep unsettledness that I came to be aware of.  

For me, meditation became my path and my solution to tending to my heart and tending to my spirit at a time when it was calling for so much. And I didn't know how to do it. But one thing led to another and my meditation practice bloomed. I realized that not only could this be a way for me to tend to myself and tend to my spirit and tend to my well-being, but also so many people who grew up in backgrounds like mine could benefit from this amazing practice, from this deeply generous practice that can hold so much. That has launched me into a life path where I've been investigating what it would mean to bring this practice to people who could benefit so much but might not have a way to learn it in a way that would feel safe and would resonate based on their life experiences. So that set me on the course for my PhD and brought me back to Harvard where I am now.   

How did you come to meditation? Where did you learn it and how did you hear about it? What did it look like for you?  

It’s a very vivid story and one that I tell very often because it’s true. And it was for me the moment when I realized what meditation was and what it could be given the potential that it had.   

I was a first-year student at Harvard and, like I said, I was dealing with a lot of stress I didn't even know how to conceptualize or make sense of it. And one day, I was doing work for Music 1B, a General Education course. I was going to read about some old Western musical and I could logically make sense of the fact that the passage was not anything too complex. I've read many things like that in the past. It wasn't anything too serious. But I was just overwhelmed with anxiety to the point that I couldn't focus on the reading at all.  

It was the first time in my life in which my stress was so high that I couldn't rein it in, and in a top-down way, I just forced myself to focus and dial in. And it was a time when I realized, oh, if you don't tend to yourself, it can overwhelm you to the point of not functioning. And that was not my exact experience at the time. I wasn't so far spiraled out that I was kind of existentially concerned about the rest of my life per se. But it very much was a moment of—it was like a switch point, which is like, you might need to learn how to tend to this or else this could become a really serious problem for you.  

So, my body forced me to reflect on how I could tend to this overwhelming anxiety. And the first thing that I did, I remember, I just put my work down. I just stopped. I just sat in silence for a few breaths, just a few minutes. And I watched myself calm down a little bit. I watched myself get a little bit of ground.  

And then I realized, whoa, this is the first time, maybe ever, that I've sat and just let myself truly do nothing because the reflection that I had was about all of my life—waking up, eating breakfast, rushing to school, tending to my schoolwork, going to bed, maybe watching some TV with my family. I had been going for, at that point, 18 years straight trying to make a better life for myself, trying to advance my situation, trying to cultivate myself as a student. I realized this is maybe the first time I've tapped into nothingness, just really letting myself be.  

Simultaneously, the other kind of realization that I had was, wow, how powerful it is that I have the agency over my own experience to bring myself back to myself simply by being present with what is right now. And both of those two things kind of arose very naturally. They were for me very natural conclusions of what it meant to be able to return to myself in that silence. And then I was like, whoa, those are two pretty profound realizations to stumble upon—silent ones but profound ones at the same time.  

And that led me to research because I had some vague awareness that people could sit in silence sometimes. I had some awareness about meditation. And that launched me into exploration around the fact that there were millennia of this practice, long lineages of people who cultivated the capacity to be with what is, no matter what—good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant, kind of all of it. There's a cultivation in which you can meet all of it with a sense of dignity and a sense of clarity.  

Even if it's not what you would like to happen in a given moment, you can still show up to it and have some sense of balance. Again, I was like, oh, wow, not only can I bring myself back to myself, but I can deepen this capacity to be with whatever is here. And so that launched me over the course of college and through my twenties to exploring and cultivating my capacity to be with what is through meditation and I'm still learning so much because it's an endless path.   

What form of meditation do you do?  

I predominantly practice mindfulness meditation. The first lineage that I tapped into was the Zen lineage, simply due to its simplicity. I was drawn into my first moment of practice. How I conceptualized it for myself was just being with the present moment, returning to my breath whenever my attention drifted away, which is mindfulness at its core. The reason I was drawn to Zen is that when I think about the traditions that I've encountered in my experience, Zen traditions have a simplicity to them that brings me back to the root of what meditation has always been for me.  

In my mind—and I'm sure many minds out there might relate to this—whenever I feel particularly anxious or spiraled out, things can feel very complex, and the simple practice of breathing is a core root for me.  But I've since expanded and explored other traditions as well—inside traditions. And I probably will explore more over time as well.  

As a way of getting into your research, I'd love to talk about the challenges faced by folks in marginalized communities. There's been a lot written and said about the mental health crisis in the US, particularly the youth mental health crisis, but not as much about what goes on for people in marginalized communities. Can you talk about the landscape a little bit?  

First and foremost, I'll start at the treatment level. I think amidst the mental health crisis that we're having right now that's affecting our youth in particular, we just don't have treatments that are widely accessible; more specifically, treatments that speak to people's cultural backgrounds and lineages. For so many rooted in so many different cultures and cultural heritages, the way that folks conceptualize healing, the ways that folks conceptualize mental health is just radically different from the frameworks that we've come to rely upon within Western psychology.  

What that means is folks can be suffering a lot or going through challenges that we would conceptualize as mental health issues, but those issues aren't recognized or met as such or wouldn't be treated as such within those communities. And so, there's this chasm in which the options that are available within formal treatment systems don't work and aren't relevant to people who are from historically marginalized backgrounds. That's number one.  

And then number two, I think there are so many structural challenges that, luckily, we're having many more conversations about, but not about socioeconomic challenges such as the affordability of the treatments that exist. If, for instance, somebody is from a lower income background and needs treatment, they might not have the means to take time off from work to be able to access mental health treatment. There are also the structural challenges of discrimination-related mental health issues. Again, discrimination, as we are conceptualizing it, has very clear health and mental health impacts. And those can be deep, and wide, and pervasive. Yet we have so few tools to tend to those issues. We don't have solid frameworks within Western psychology to address them and recognize them as full mental health challenges, and we don't have the frameworks to recognize them based on the terms that would resonate with those communities and what they would find acceptable.  

There's this chasm in which the options that are available within formal treatment systems don't work and aren't relevant to people who are from historically marginalized backgrounds.

To make a long story short, I think we're seeing issues, both on the treatment side and on the framing and conceptualization of what mental health issues are within historically marginalized communities—diverse populations really can be a bit of a care desert, unfortunately, as relates to tending to people from different backgrounds.  

You talked about someone in a particular community or with a particular identity who might be suffering, but the way that they're suffering isn't seen as a mental health issue or treated as a mental health issue. Do you have an example of that? Is there something specific you can talk about or a story that you can tell?  

Honestly, I'm thinking about my own experience. I was struggling in my first year of school for sure. I was stressed. But within the conceptualization that I had of what it meant to “have a mental health issue” or to be so distressed that it might be time to ratchet up caring for myself, I didn't have that framework at the time. Again, given the background that I had, I kind of just thought like, well, yeah, it's going to feel bad sometimes.  

You just push past it and just keep going. I think a lot of people who are from backgrounds like mine just have to keep it moving; they just have to keep pressing. You don't take the time to dig in and think about the pain that you're experiencing as something that rises to the level of needing something extra, rather than working more.  

And that for me at a very simple level represents a core difference in how many people have to just keep moving to make better lives for themselves and don't even take the time to put a frame around suffering. It becomes the background noise of what it means to build a better life. Once that background noise becomes so loud, you can’t focus, and you don't have a way out.  

I think if there were more conversations and more frameworks, people who are from different places could have a sense of when too much is too much, within their definition of well-being or illness, which lets them also know that it's time to bring other care tools online. Historically, folks from different backgrounds have not been given the opportunity and the recognition within formal mental health frameworks to have that chance, which creates, I think, serious gaps in care.  

Last spring, we talked to Garry Mitchell, who's also a PhD student here. His research focuses on college preparatory programs that target communities of color. And the good news about these programs, he said, was that they do a pretty good job of getting students into prestigious private schools. The bad news is that they pull them out of their communities and put them in places and spaces where they find themselves—by virtue of code-switching—often alienated from their core identity. We see that as a social issue, right? Or as a systems issue, which it is. But we don't think about it in terms of the mental health impact.  

Definitely. There's a really big toll that comes with trying to navigate elite education. I could talk about that endlessly: being taken away from your community; code-switching; having to change the way you speak and the way you act to be able to stay safe within elite environments. There’s a toll that comes with not only carrying the load that comes with feeling that you’re the pride and joy of your family or your community but also that, by the time you're getting to an elite environment and having navigated it, you've probably been doing that for many, many, many years of your youth. That can create a situation in which there have been multiple years that you haven't taken the time to truly sit and reflect on how you're doing in a deep, rigorous, serious, prolonged way.  

So there can be a lot of suffering inside that folks often aren't given the time and the resources to tend to in a serious way because, simultaneously, in a lot of elite environments, not only do you have to push so hard to get there, but when you get there, there are no resources to help you with what you need. So, by the time you get to these spaces, you're tired. You're probably very tired one way or another.  

You probably haven't had the time to conceptualize the depth of your suffering. There aren't serious frameworks for treating or tending to it. So, again, it can be sometimes a perfect storm that can create cyclical suffering, not only in spaces like this but also within the broader world.  

Let's talk about Healing Attempt. What is it? How does it work? How do people use it?  

Healing Attempt is a digital music-based mindfulness intervention in the form of an album that combines originally composed music that I made with guided meditations and poetry, all of which are set to background music tracks that are rooted in Black American music traditions, like gospel and R&B. And all of them are geared towards anxiety reduction; in particular, anxiety that comes from experiences of racism and discrimination for people who are from the Black community. This is my initial attempt at trying to create forms of healing and forms of restoration that are culturally relevant.  

For me, music is one of the first and one of the most fundamental forms of healing and restoration. I know it’s the same for many folks who are Black or African-American. Music has brought so many Black folks through profound atrocities—the profound atrocities of oppression, of enslavement. Music has been this guiding light through all of that. It's been this bedrock through all of that.  

But when you look at mental health treatment as it exists currently within Western psychology—specifically within clinical psychology, which is the field in which I'm rooted—there are virtually no empirically validated treatments that try to utilize music, particularly Black American music, to heal the Black community. For me, it represents, again, this massive gap in terms of how we conceptualize care for diverse communities. So, Healing Attempt is my reclamation and my reckoning with what it would mean to develop a treatment that is intuitive and works for people who are like me.  

And to answer your other question of how people use it, the other thing that I wanted Healing Attempt to be was intuitive. And so it's in the form of an album. The idea is that you put it on. You listen to the instructions that are in the intervention themselves, that are in the songs, that are in the guided meditation. It should be so simple anyone of any age will be able to pick it up, use it, feel, and access the simple instructions for attending to any anxiety that might be present.  

What kinds of instructions? Can you say more?  

For instance, in the guided meditations, there are instructions on how to work with your thoughts and allow them to be there in a nonjudgmental way, which is one of the core invitations of mindfulness practice. On one of the tracks, [the Buddhist leader] Lama Rod [Owens] invites folks to simply notice whatever thoughts are arising. And one of the instructions that he gives is that you don't have to like what's here. You don't have to like what your mind is doing right now. You just have to notice it. Because oftentimes, even in extreme forms of suffering, there's typically some non-awareness that's going on that can keep us stuck when we're suffering.  

And it's not to blame or chastise anybody for not having a certain level of awareness. Not being aware is not a bad thing. It's just one of the core states of mind. Being able to go on automatic and keep moving and keep pushing is deeply adaptive in many instances. As humans, we can’t stop every single minute to reflect on every single emotion that we're having; otherwise, we wouldn't be functional.   

But what it is, it's an invitation to the fact that oftentimes—and I'll speak for myself—when I'm suffering or when I'm in a place of distress, it's typically because I'm not fully aware of something—something that might be going on in that moment that I realized needed more tending to, even maybe just at the level of noticing that I'm distressed and that I'm upset more than I give myself credit for. And so those instructions are an invitation and an opportunity to take some stock and just say, hey, how you doing?  

And going a step further, structurally, just navigating capitalism, navigating whether you're in an elite environment, whether you're working any job to just try to keep your family supported. If you're navigating this world, there's probably a chance that you'll have to push and grind a little bit to keep things going. And what that means is oftentimes we have to be on automatic so much. And so, yeah, the instructions are there to give us a chance to stop and look.  

So how are the mindfulness instructions integrated with the music?  

Whether it's a guided meditation or a song, there's background music playing throughout. The songs, many of which I'm singing, have instructions. For example, I have a song called "Slow Down," which, unsurprisingly, invites people to slow down in their lives. And I have some lyrics that explicitly talk about setting healthy boundaries for yourself, being able to say no, being able to take time out for yourself. It's these very explicit invitations. I'm saying a lot of the lyrics right now, they're just explicit invitations to remind yourself that you can do that.  

Oftentimes, that gets lost in the space where we have to say no, the space where we have to take a breath, the space where we have to give up certain things or try hard at something that lets us feel more cared for and feel more aligned, just reminding ourselves of the options that we have, which often can get lost. The lyrics are an invitation. And the guided meditations are filled with instructions throughout. These guided meditations are just gentle invitations to tend to the mind and tending to thoughts, tending to emotions.  

You don't have to like what your mind is doing right now. You just have to notice it. 

And then the poetry is more abstract, less instructions-based. But it's metaphorical invitations into self-care and into an appreciation of Blackness and a celebration of Blackness and awareness of Blackness, an unapologetic stepping into Blackness, which this album is for.  

You've talked about your collaboration with Buddhist leader Lama Rod Owens. But I know that another mentor of yours is the composer, performer, musician, and educator, Esperanza Spalding. Can you talk a little bit about how you've learned from her?  

Yeah, I'm happy to talk about my learning from Esperanza, which is one of the greatest gifts of my life for sure. I first came into a relationship with her by taking her class. She offered a class that taught people how to write songs and how to cultivate their craft as songwriters and as individuals who are seeking to channel a message through music. I took that class in my second year of the PhD during the spring of 2020. It was this kind of boot camp in learning how to write songs. Every single week, we would conceptualize a song, write it, and then perform it.  

That's a really big ask, you know what I mean? It's one that I was up for, but I was like, wow, this is the most music that I have ever written. And there was this openness and gentleness there that made me feel like, wow, I'm not going to be a fool. I'm going to work on these songs. I kind of snapped into seriousness with just the depth of the opportunity that I was being given. I was blown away by her dedication to students. Her embodiment just completely floored me.  

The second kind of element of what it meant for me to come into a relationship with Esperanza was the fact that we were both interested in similar things at the same time. I came to the PhD with an interest in reading and understanding more about how to use contemplative tools like meditation to support communities of color. Music is one of the deepest and earliest cultivations and contemplative practices that I know. Simultaneously, Esperanza was also going through her launching of the Songwrights Apothecary Lab [album], which was her investigation of music and healing at that time. Even though I wasn't involved in the songwriting workshop, I was aware of her work within that domain, and I had been reading stuff online that she was putting up. So, miracle number two, not only is she the coolest person I've ever met, but we're also interested in the same things at the same time, at the same time that we're both here. For me, what that meant was I had to take every possible class that I could with this person.  

After the songwriting class that I took in my first year, I then took her second class, which was a specific exploration of the investigation between music and healing, which again, just felt too miraculous for words that this class was being offered at the same time that I'm in a PhD investigating contemplative tools like music for healing communities of color, and this person who is a lifelong hero is teaching a class on how to cultivate yourself as a deliverer of music for healing purposes.  

And then the third thing, which I will never be able to conceptualize, is the grace of this person. After that initial class that I took with her, I had the opportunity to work with her at Harvard as a research assistant helping her to cultivate and cull different scientific sources to help her compose music for what was Songwrights Apothecary Lab. This was the time during COVID-19 when everything had been virtual. We hadn't seen each other in a year and a half. This was in 2021. And it was a chance to dive as deep as possible into this exploration of recorded music and healing work.  

The last thing that I'll say is that all this care has inspired me to think about how I can use this learning more directly. That's how that mentorship with Esperanza has directly led to the creation of Healing Attempt.  

Can you say more about how she's collaborating with you on the intervention?  

As I have alluded to, Esperanza and I are going to be working on some music together for this, which is another dream of mine. How that came to be is that, in the beginning part of graduate school, I was able to receive some grants for Healing Attempts from the Mind and Life Institute and from the Harvard Culture Lab Innovation Fund, which let me resource collaborations with people in the Harvard network to work on this initiative and particularly to fund and to resource Black artists and Black contemplatives.  

And so given that I could resource various collaborations, I was compelled to ask Lama Rod, a core foundational teacher of mine, arguably the most foundational meditation teacher in my life. And one day, I realized there's no one on the planet that I would rather work with more on this than her. There's nobody else. So, one day, I sent an email or two or three with follow-ups to see if she'd be interested in collaborating on this initiative. And she said yes. 

And so right now, we are working on a song that specifically is a meditation. It's a song and a meditation that is focused on exposing the role of shame in the internalization of systemic harm and discrimination-based harm and how shame keeps that locked inside. This, again, is another explicit invitation to look at that shame and then hopefully lay it aside gently if possible.    

How powerful it is that I have the agency over my own experience to bring myself back to myself simply by being present with what is right now. 

You've done some feasibility studies on the intervention. Could you talk about those? And what were some of the key findings or insights?  

Yeah,  I've done three feasibility studies for Healing Attempt thus far. The core findings—in layman's terms, I found preliminary signals that it can reduce race-based anxiety and increase mindfulness and self-compassion. And people seem to like it and are interested in it as a form of mental health treatment going forward.   

The study design that I used for it is something called a nonconcurrent multiple-baseline design. It's pretty much a fancy way of talking about a form of single-case experimental design, which is also a fancy way of talking about testing the intervention and the efficacy of it on individual people and individual people in a small sample size. At this initial stage, I've conducted tests of Healing Attempt on 17 people, which, in terms of Western scientific studies, is on the smaller end for sure. I caveat all of the discussion around any efficacy of Healing Attempt around the small sample size that I have at this time and the need for more research.  

But what that study design is essentially within every person, you have a study visit that has two different phases. One phase, the A phase, is when you're not playing any music. And people are just free to go about business as usual within the study. And during that time, you're also assessing their anxiety and their mindfulness and self-compassion levels. So, you're essentially getting a baseline estimate of how they're doing that day with no interference. And that happened anywhere between 10 and 25 minutes—people going about their day as they typically would. Then every two minutes within that time, I'm assessing the outcomes that I mentioned—anxiety, mindfulness, and self-compassion.  

Then during the B phase, I administer Healing Attempt. Simultaneously, I'm still assessing anxiety, mindfulness, and self-compassion. But now I'm also seeing the impact of the intervention on those clinical targets. And then there's a statistical approach that lets you compare the anxiety and mindfulness scores in the second part of the study to those in the first part of the study. Did Healing Attempt significantly change anxiety and mindfulness from when they weren't receiving it at all? And then also, there's a statistical approach that you can use that essentially lets you control or incorporate the effect of time.  

Even accounting for the natural tendency for anxiety to change maybe throughout those x number of minutes, Healing Attempt still improved anxiety and mindfulness, self-compassion, which allows for some preliminary evidence of it being a potential mental health treatment. And then after all of that, I just asked some really basic questions like, Did you like this? How much would you recommend this to people? From 0 to 100, how likely would you recommend Healing Attempt to someone that you know in the Black community suffering from race-based anxiety?  

Thus far, across the 17 participants, the average score, the likelihood of them recommending Healing Attempt, is 93 out of 100. So people are vibing with this approach. I'm anticipating that as I conduct studies within larger groups of people, within a group of 100 or 200 people, there will be some people who might hate this approach. That's just inevitable within Western science—not everybody is going to like what you're up to.  

But at least at this initial phase of testing, people have been keen on it. And I think what that's speaking to is that a lot of people and a lot of participants in the study directly spoke to the fact that there are no forms of healing like this that are validated within clinical psychology, which for me is kind of wild because music is the first thing that I go to when I'm having a bad day and need a pick-me-up. So many people relate to that. And even though there are music therapy lineages that have a  very clear and very deep cultivation of this, again, within clinical psychology where I'm rooted, music has not been explored nearly enough. 

Will users be able to access Healing Attempt through Apple Music or Spotify?  

Yeah, that's the goal for sure. So, kind of baked into this idea is the desire to make this as widely available as possible and also to make it available in as intuitive a way as possible. So, the next step specifically is I want to investigate whether music streaming platforms represent a viable way of administering mental health treatments. I also want to study and assess, once I've released Healing Attempt, the extent to which music streaming platforms represent a viable way of delivering, not only this intervention but similar interventions in the future for communities of color. So, I want to make it widely available.  

I have some potential grants under review right now, so we'll see if any of those come through. That will dictate some of the speed of the next steps and how things proceed from here. I have many fingers and toes crossed that, hopefully, at least one can come through, so praying for that.  

Do you have any time frame when the intervention might be available to folks?  

Yeah, I'm hopeful. 2024, let's say that. That's a clear intention.  

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