Well Intentioned: How Willow Smith Minds Her Mind With Palo Santo—And a Little Help From Björk

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Photo: Getty Images / Illustration by Hannah Tran

From the moment she whipped her hair back and forth, Willow Smith has been committed to presenting the most authentic version of herself in every space she occupies, refusing to conform to preconceived notions about what, or who, she should be. After her 2020 song, “Meet Me at Our Spot,” casually went viral on TikTok and had us all catching vibes last year, Smith proceeded to flip the pop-punk world on its head when she released the experimental album Lately I Feel Everything, a compilation of 11 alternative rock anthems that helped her secure collaborations with Avril Lavigne, Travis Barker, Tierra Whack, and Cherry Glazerr, to name a few. In a scene that is oversaturated with the toxic energy of cis white men, Smith obviously stands out as a Black woman, but so did her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, when she was the front woman of the metal band Wicked Wisdom from 2002 to 2006. This kind of early exposure had a huge impact on the 21-year-old, eventually motivating her to expand from the contemporary pop and R&B lane that longtime fans had previously associated her with. “Everyone has different facets of themselves,” she says about this current stage of her career. “I feel like there’s so much more to go and learn, and I see myself as a good student, so I’m ready for the class.”

Understandably, 2022 has been busy for the musician and model thus far: In addition to cohosting Red Table Talk with her mother and grandmother, Smith is the face of Thierry Mugler’s Alien Goddess fragrance, and a new ambassador for Ultimate Ears Fits, promoting its Lil Nas X–approved wireless earbuds that mold to the shape of your ear. There are also all those live shows to prepare for: Smith has been working on new music and practicing for a summer run with Machine Gun Kelly, not to mention the global festival circuit, which will see her perform at Lollapalooza in July. (Smith recently gave fans a taste of the new project she’s been working on with the release of “Purge,” a single featuring Siiickbrain with an accompanying music video that shows her rocking a recently shaved head.)

Much like the rest of her extremely famous family, Smith knows how to own the spotlight, but she is equally well-versed in knowing when and how to step out of it, something she learned at a young age. (The Smith family’s former home in Malibu featured a home theater, a recording studio—and a meditation room.) The morning we connect over Zoom, Smith tells me that she’s feeling “pretty relaxed” in spite of dealing with the stress of a sick dog. “In the past, I defined wellness as being productive and getting things done, and that’s one side of it,” she explains. “But I feel like the other side is actually knowing when you just need to stop, take a step back, and be like, ‘How do I really feel?’” These vibe checks often mean making time solely for herself and trying to avoid falling into the trap of being extremely online: “Even if I’m checking in for like 15 minutes a couple times a day, once it hits an hour, it locks me out,” Smith says of a timer she has set up to manage her scrolling on Instagram. Here, she shares some of her other hacks for unwinding an active mind, from listening to affirmations to sitting with her raw feelings.

1. Keep Your Eyes Open

“I try to meditate for 10 minutes every day. Sometimes there’s the traditional sitting meditation, which, weirdly enough, I don’t do as often as I do chants, mantras, or listen to affirmations and repeat them. The thing about meditation is your mind needs to be still. I feel like sometimes, when we close our eyes, our mind just goes crazy. But I find that, when I open my eyes and focus on one specific thing, I can clear my mind more. Meditating with your eyes open: Most people don’t know that’s a thing, but you can sit and watch the trees! Mantras and affirmations also help me focus my mind on something positive. It’s super easy to focus on something negative, or something that really doesn’t mean anything, if your eyes are closed. Some people are really, really good at that, but I have a very active mind, so I need to focus it on something positive. I use my UE Fits earbuds to listen to those affirmations, or thunder and ocean sounds—anything like that to get my mind into a calm state.”

2. Stay Active

“I’ve been running recently. Running has been very, very, cathartic for me. Just waking up and running every morning. I used to hit the yoga every single day, but I feel like what happens with me is I need a variety of different things. Some days I run, some days I do yoga, some days I do a hike, but I feel like I can’t do the same thing—I have to switch it up. It doesn’t get redundant, and you can still have the same routine, but just switch out the actual action.”

3. Mind Your Mind

“It’s been such a popular thing to talk about, ‘mindfulness,’ but I feel like it means even more than that. I’ve been doing a thing recently where, every time I get triggered, I’ve just been saying the thing that triggers me. Even though that sounds very simple, a lot of the time when we get triggered, we feel like we need to hide it even from ourselves like, ‘I’m not triggered, I’m chilling. Everything’s fine.’ Something as simple as recognizing what’s going on in your mind and being honest about it, even if it’s just to yourself, is very, very important. Right now, I’m reading a book by Tara Brach called Trusting the Gold. I’ve read a lot of super-heady versions of it, but this is very comprehensive, and there’s art and pictures in it. It’s really calming and doesn’t feel like you’re reading this compendium of self-mastery. Another one that I really, really like is Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty. I just finished it and it changed my life. Weirdly enough, I also like to burn palo santo before I go to sleep. I was on a trip and there was some white sage growing, and I just picked it and then I let it dry out. I had never seen sage on an actual branch, and I was like, ‘This is fire. People need to do this more.’”

4. Make Music Part of Your Every Day

“I listen to a whole album every Friday. Volta, by Björk, was one of the albums that I just listened to. I love that album. Also, Bold as Love, by Jimi Hendrix, is always a good one to run back. And Joni Mitchell has that album, Blue*—*that one gets me every time.”

5. Be Grateful

“Well, I just learned how to play a new song on the guitar, so [I’m feeling grateful for] my hands and the fact that my hands can work. I usually use my St. Vincent x Music Man guitar. I’ve been playing that guitar on tour for years now; it’s my favorite. My acoustic guitar is a James Goodall. I don’t really play acoustic that much anymore, which is kind of sad, but I’m trying to get back on that. Something as simple as your hands working the way you want them to work, your feet walking your legs, your mind doing the work that it needs to do in order to help you learn this beautiful song; I like to take it to the basics, that always fulfills me. A beautiful view, my animals, the albums I mentioned. There’s so many things to be grateful for even if you’re not feeling the best on that specific day. Sometimes it’s not about feeling good all the time; sometimes you just need to hold on to those things that you’re grateful for and know that things are beautiful.”