Early adulthood is filled with intense emotions and insecurity. What if you never fall in love? What if you can't find work you’re passionate about? You miss home. You miss close friends. You’re lost in the noise of how you think you should be living and worried about wasting what everyone says should be the best years of your life.
What Now? shares mindfulness practices to help twentysomethings learn to identify and accept these feelings and respond—not react—to painful and powerful stimuli without pushing them away or getting lost in them. This is not about fixing oneself or being "better." Readers are encouraged to embrace themselves exactly as they are. You are already completely whole, completely loveable, completely worthy. What Now? shares practices that help us to wake up to this fact.
This uniquely tumultuous developmental period is a time when many first live away from home and engage in all kinds of experimentation—with ideas, substances, relationships, and who we think we are and want to be in the world. Yael Shy shares her own story and offers basic meditation guides to beginning a practice. She explores the Buddhist framework for what causes suffering and explores ideas about interconnection and social justice as natural outgrowths of meditation practice.
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About the Author
Yael Shy is the Founder and Director of MindfulNYU (the largest campus-wide meditation initiative in the country) and the Senior Director of the Center for Global Spiritual Life at New York University. She leads meditation workshops, classes, and retreats around the country and the world, including at NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU Berlin, NYU Tel Aviv, Mindful Life, Princeton University, and elsewhere and teaches weekly at MindfulNYU and at the meditation studio MNDFL in Greenwich Village.
In 2010, Shy was named one of the "36 under 36" change-makers transforming the Jewish world by Jewish Week newspaper. She has practiced meditation regularly in Jewish, Zen Buddhist, and secular contexts. Yael has been published in the Harvard Business Review, the Huffington Post, the Journal of Interreligious Studies, the NYU Review of Law and Social Change, among other publications. Yael Shy lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.
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SUFFERING: You Aren't Crazy and You Aren't Alone
THE FOLKSINGER Cosy Sheridan once sang, "It's a hard life, but there are very soft days." In my twenties, the hard days were much more common than the soft ones. There seemed to be so much that was uncertain and so much that was constantly changing. I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted with the vague sensation that there was more to happiness than succeeding in the "rat race" of life. There seemed to be a hollowness at my core, an incessant ache that I could not figure out how to fix. Was there something wrong with me? Why did I feel so alone all the time? And what was the point of being alive, if everything died in the end?
After my eye-opening experience on my first meditation retreat, I began taking Buddhism classes, reading books on Buddhism and meditation, and learning as much as I could. I sought answers to these questions about the purpose of life and the emptiness and sadness I felt at the core. When I learned about the three marks of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, no separate self) in a class at the end of my senior year of college, it felt like a piece of the puzzle in my mind clicked into place. It felt like the Buddha himself, alive over two thousand years ago, was sitting me down and seeing me and my predicament (and the predicament of all humans!) with clarity and kindness. "You are suffering," he was saying, "let me explain why."
According to early texts, the Buddha said that all of existence as we know it is "marked" by three qualities: impermanence, "unsatisfactoriness," or the tendency to cling to pleasure and to avoid pain, and "no separate self." Suffering happens, according to the Buddha, when we resist or deny any of these truths in our life. Let's take these one by one.
In Buddhism, the first mark of existence is "impermanence," or the fact that everything changes. Everything. Every plant in nature, every drop in the ocean, every cell in your body is constantly moving, transforming, changing, dying, and being born. Nothing is static, and nothing is permanent. This is not so much a belief as a fact of life, and one that has been borne out by modern science.
When life is filled with pain, we sometimes wonder if the pain will ever end and if anything will ever change. If we have accepted the truth of impermanence, we know that things will change. It is much harder to deal with impermanence when we resist its truth, grasping hard to the things of this world that we love and want to keep, only to have them slip through our fingers.
There is a famous Buddhist story of a woman whose only child died. The woman lost her mind, screaming and clutching her dead baby to her chest. She went from house to house in the village, demanding a cure from her neighbors that would bring her child back to life. Finally, she landed at the Buddha's door, who said, "I can cure your baby, but first, you need to bring me a mustard seed from the house of someone in this village who has never experienced the death of a loved one." The woman went door-to-door, but could not find anyone who had never had someone dear to them die. They all told her, in one way or another, that "The living are few, but the dead are many." The woman came to realize the universality of death and the truth of impermanence. She buried her son in the forest and became a follower of Buddha.
The first few times I heard this story, I hated it. It seemed like the opposite of good grief counseling. If someone has suffered a catastrophic loss, such as the death of a child, probably the worst possible thing you could say to that person is, "Oh well! Death happens to everyone!" As I have gotten older, however, I've started to see the story of the woman and her dead child as a story about all of us. We humans struggle and pound our fists against a basic, fundamental truth of existence: all life in this world is impermanent. We learn that everything arises and falls in its own time, in its own season — and we really don't want this to be true. So we resist. We cling with all our hearts to the things we love. We try with all our might to fight loss and change. We, like the mother in the story, want to find a "cure" for death and impermanence. We want to find a way to subvert the rules and gain control over our environment and our lives. And when that fails, when we are forced to confront our lack of ultimate control, we avoid it. We steer clear of relationships and experiences that might cause us to get attached.
In Open to Desire, Mark Epstein tells a story about Sigmund Freud and his fellow psychoanalysts out for a walk on a beautiful spring day. Freud keeps pointing out beautiful flowers to his friends, who seem annoyed and want to continue with their heady conversation. After he returns home, Freud hypothesizes that his friends couldn't take in the beauty of the flowers because by doing so, they would have to acknowledge the fleeting nature of the flowers' lives. They would have to accept the death right in the middle of the life, and say "Yes" to the whole process. Freud's friends, like many of us, were missing out on so much life by trying to keep their hearts safely shielded from death.
This resistance is natural. Without it, how would we have survived as a species? Of course we are scared of change and death. The trouble is, impermanence will always win, and our resistance to this essential part of existence will always fail. And this resistance hurts. Resistance to suffering causes additional suffering, on top of the pain and disorientation of the change itself. Relationships end. People we love die. Friendships dissolve. We grow older. This is just true. When I acknowledge this and let it deeply penetrate my understanding of things, something within me relaxes. I stop fighting.
I had a mentor when I was in law school whom I admired deeply. He was a funny, brilliant, and compassionate leader in the field of restorative justice. He was also a health nut, biking to and from work every day, maintaining a strict diet, and even taking naps each afternoon instead of drinking coffee. A few years after I graduated, I found out that he was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer. Although he fought the cancer with a mix of Eastern and Western remedies, he died a few years later, leaving behind three daughters in their twenties, a devastated wife, and a community that loved him.
When I heard the news, I felt a distant sort of sadness, but my brain seemed to be more preoccupied with the problems in my own life. Namely, my tumultuous relationship with my boyfriend. All day long, my mind chewed on horrible things my boyfriend had said to me and how I was going to respond. Our fights played on repeat in my mind, like a terrible movie I was forced to watch over and over again. It was not until the very end of the day, as I was sitting in meditation, that it hit me: thinking about my boyfriend all day was a strategic move by my mind. Thinking and worrying kept me away from feeling. Once I sat down and was able to let go of my looping boyfriend thoughts for even a moment, my sadness and grief about my mentor came rushing in with the force of a tidal wave. I broke down in tears. I was finally able to touch my sadness and feelings of loss for someone who was so special to me. Although I fought that sadness all day with a great deal of energy, afraid of what it would do to me, it was actually the resistance to the sadness that was the most painful feeling, not the sadness itself. The sadness felt like an opening and a relief.
On a retreat I attended, a woman raised her hand and said to the teacher, "I'm so tired of fighting myself all the time." The teacher responded, "Let yourself win." This is how I feel when I remember that everything is impermanent. Rather than fighting with life, I exhale and let life win.
What remains in the aftermath of this acceptance and letting go? In my experience with my mentor, I was left with grief and love. Grief as the heart mourned that to which it was attached, and love for the opportunity to have become attached in the first place.
There is another beautiful story about a Buddhist abbot of a monastery who loses his son suddenly one night. The abbot spends the night after the death shrieking, crying, and wailing in his grief. The other monks become disturbed by the abbot's behavior. One of the monks finally approaches the abbot and says, "Teacher, why are you acting like this? Didn't you teach us that all of life is impermanent and that a solid, unchanging idea of human life is an illusion?"
The teacher nodded and said, "Yes. And the loss of a child is the most painful illusion of them all."
Just because we accept the truth of impermanence doesn't mean we don't feel the pain associated with it. In fact, the acceptance catapults us right into the center of our grief. This is a good thing. This is where healing and processing can happen. This is how we find our way back to love.
According to the Buddha, the second mark of existence is "unsatisfactoriness," or suffering itself. Suffering, or dukkha in Pali, describes an axle that doesn't fit properly into the axle hole of the wheel, so it makes for a bumpy ride. Something isn't fitting. Something feels off. This is how the Buddha describes the suffering of everyday life. It is a quiet but persistent hum underneath all of our interactions. It is a baseline unsatisfactoriness. Clearly, when things are going wrong, we are unhappy, but even when things are going well, there is a feeling that it could end at any time — that it might be taken away from us. Happiness is fleeting in this situation. There is nothing we can hold on to — everything is constantly shifting. What we humans do in the face of this ever-changing, impermanent world is to grasp after the things we want and to push away the things we do not want.
This constant grasping and pushing is not a character flaw; it is a part of existence itself. Like our denial of death, this human trait is a survival strategy. If the fire burns us, we don't put our hand in the fire again (aversion). If the food tastes good, we want more food (clinging). The trouble is that because the world is uncontrollable and impermanent, this endless grasping and pushing causes us suffering.
When I started falling in love with Ben, the man who would later become my husband, I experienced a curious mix of happiness, excitement, and fear — a fear so deep it felt like a hundred-pound weight sitting on my chest. It took me a while to understand what that was about. Everything was going so well in the relationship, so why was I feeling such dread? Why the sleepless nights, nightmares, and sudden shortness of breath? It seemed like each time we inched closer in our intimacy, I got a little more scared. It was not like my prior relationships, where there was always an inner voice saying, "get out," or "this is bad." Instead, this time, this inner voice said, "loving someone this much is dangerous." I could feel my heart grasping for solid ground. Was this for sure? Could I still get hurt? What if I let myself get completely involved in the relationship and it ended? What if I loved with all my heart, and then he died?
My fear began to cause problems in our relationship. I became hyper vigilant about everything — worrying that it was a sign of the doom to come. If he didn't tell me I looked pretty one day, or neglected to notice a new haircut, I took it as a sign that I was more attached to him than he was to me. Any small argument made me question whether I should cut my losses and end the relationship before it went any further. I was in the best relationship of my life, and yet I was suffering and causing my boyfriend to suffer also.
When I identified this suffering as dukkha, or the suffering born of grasping, the whole situation began to soften and ease. I began to have compassion for myself and my vulnerable heart. When I would feel jealous, I tried to touch my face or my heart, saying, "Poor thing, you are very scared of losing him." I started to see my clinging and grasping as a sign of how much I loved this person and how much I was opening up. Each time I noticed a new attack of fear and clinginess, I tried to take a breath and physically relax my body. Relaxing my body helped me to loosen the grip on my mind. I reminded myself of what I could control (my own behavior) and what I could not (my boyfriend's behavior, his feelings, and the truth of impermanence). Gradually, the risk of loving became less terrifying over time. I am still not crazy about the fact that either he or I will die someday. I am equally not happy about the possibility that he or I could fall out of love at some point and leave. Acknowledging impermanence and the ever-changing nature of reality, however, helps me to appreciate what I have right now and release my fantasies and fears of what the future might hold.
In a June, 2000 episode of This American Life, the author Nick Hornby told a story about his autistic, then-six-year-old son, Danny. Hornby describes Danny's love of long car rides, and Danny's anger when Hornby drives Danny only a short distance away from their home to go to the park.
The yells get louder when we stop, and reach a sweat-inducing pitch when I open his door. "Come on, Dan," I say, in my best fun voice. "We're going to the park, the swings, the seesaw!" He just turns the yellometer up to eleven. I try to lead him out by the hand, but he snatches it away and grabs hold of something, the seat belt, anything that will anchor him inside. So we're fighting, the car and I, for custody of this small boy. ... I end up dragging my son out by his ankles. A couple look at us as they walk past. They don't say anything, but one day I'm sure someone's going to report me and I'll be arrested.
Hornby then describes Danny's readjustment and subsequent delight when he fully realizes he is in a park, there are empty swings, and it's a lovely day:
And there's no trace whatsoever in his face of the ankle-pulling trauma to which he was so recently and cruelly subjected. And I want to find the couple who may or may not have had a disapproving look on their faces when they saw me commit awful acts of violence, and show them just how joyful he is now. But of course they're not around, which is maybe just as well, because in a while, I'm going to have to find a way to get him out of this swing.
Danny's response to impermanence is deeply relatable. Internally or externally, we do the same thing. We scream, cling, and resist change. We often have to be dragged to the next stage of our lives, only to discover that the next thing is exactly what we needed. It held treasures we did not even know how to think about or to conceptualize.
Reminding ourselves of this takes practice. There are Tibetan Buddhist monks who practice dying each morning for a significant period of time, entering into a meditation so deep that they slow their heart rates down to a level that approaches death. Once they emerge out of the meditation, their bodies remember the truth that all of their daily grasping and aversion will not protect them against death. They remember who they are and what's important.
Even if we aren't Tibetan monks, we can accomplish something similar through meditation. We can watch our grasping mind try desperately to hold onto the things and people we love and want. And we can practice letting go over and over again.
No Separate Self
Every year during orientation at NYU, I tell the following story to the incoming first-year students: There were two waves traveling along the ocean together. One of the waves was small and one was quite tall. As the waves were getting closer to the shore, the tall wave could see, way off in the distance, that all the waves that had traveled before him were crashing as they came to the shore. With horror, he realized that there were no exceptions, and that neither he, nor his little friend, would be able to travel backward. That meant that both of them would eventually crash and disappear when they got to the shore.
Once he absorbed this information, the tall wave began to cry inconsolably. The little wave, unable to see the same view, was concerned for his friend. "Why are you crying? What's wrong?" The tall wave shook his watery head. "I can't tell you. I'm seeing a horrible sight right now. If I told you what it was, you would be as depressed as I am." The little wave continued to press him, however, and eventually the tall wave relented and told the little wave about the crashes at the shore, and the fact that there seemed to be no escape for them or any of their wave compatriots. The little wave was quiet for a while as they traveled along. Suddenly, he turned to his friend and said, "Tall Wave, I can tell you in seven words why this situation that you observe is not a problem." The tall wave was doubtful but told his small friend to go ahead with the seven words. The little wave said, "You're not just a wave. You're water."
Excerpted from "What Now?"
Copyright © 2017 Yael Shy.
Excerpted by permission of Parallax Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword By Lodro Rinzler, vii,
1: Suffering: You Aren't Crazy and You Aren't Alone, 9,
2: Learning to Meditate, 31,
3: Mindfulness In-Between, 63,
4: Feeling Emotions, Not Being Emotions, 87,
5: Mindful Relationships, 135,
6: Changing the World Without Burning Out, 161,
7: Conclusion, 181,
Appendix: A Basic Meditation Guide, 189,
About the Author, 211,