Yael Shy tackles mindfulness and meditation in a refreshing way that makes it accessible to a pretty frazzled demographic: young people living in New York City. I was so thrilled to learn more about her and snag some of her insights on how to start and maintain a meditation practice. And if you’re as into what she has to say as I am, you’ll definitely want to check out her new book: What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond.
Tell us about who you are and what you do.
My name is Yael Shy. I’m the Senior Director of the office for Global Spiritual Life at New York University and the founder and director of the MindfulNYU program – the largest campus-wide mindfulness initiative in the country. I am also the author of the recent book, What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond (Parallax, 2017) and a meditation teacher at NYU, the meditation studio, MNDFL, and elsewhere. I’ve been practicing meditation since age 19 (approximately 16 years!) and teaching meditation since 2008.
Why are meditation and mindfulness especially important for young people?
Young people in their 20’s and 30’s are the perfect audience for meditation and mindfulness practice. They are at a critical developmental point in their lives where they are open to new ideas and new ways of seeing the world, and yet they are intelligent and mature enough to grasp complex topics and to explore their contemplative life. Additionally, this is usually a period of life when things are in flux and we are still figuring out who we are. Why do we form relationships in the way that we do? Why do we suffer in certain ways? How can we make a difference? Meditation can open up doors to understanding ourselves and give us the wisdom to understand the world at this time in life.
I wrote the book I wish I had when I was struggling in college, trying to make sense of my world. I also wrote a book I constantly wish I have when I teach people in their 20’s and 30’s who are looking for an accessible, relatable guide into meditation and mindfulness. I wanted to write with brutal honesty and transparency about issues that affect young people in their 20’s and 30’s – stress, sex, meaning, drinking, etc. while sharing the practices and concepts that have been life-saving for me.
Do you think meditation and mindfulness are more difficult when you’re in a big city? What unique practices are helpful for folks in busy urban environments?
I don’t know if every city-goer feels this way, but I do find meditation and mindfulness to be much more challenging in the city. There is so much noise, so much distraction, so much spiritual, emotional armor that we city-goers put on every day just to survive! The biggest piece of advice I can give is to try and find the beauty and the vibrancy of life right in the middle of all the mayhem. Don’t tense up when you hear the sound of traffic or noise outside your window when meditating. Soften and allow the sounds to settle on your eardrums without resistance, paying close attention to the various sounds as they growing louder and quieter, appearing and disappearing. When stuck on a noisy crowded subway, sandwiched between two armpits, take a breath and feel your feet. Feel the sway of the subway car. Relax into this moment. Send a wish for joy and ease to each person around you. I try and remind myself that this is my life – right here in the middle of this crazy city. These are the precious moments I have to really experience this life. While I may wish I lived more of my life in nature, meditating to the sounds of crickets instead of garbage trucks, when I stop resisting the garbage trucks and just allow them to be a part of my experience, I have the chance to really be plugged into my life, and find the beauty in something I would have previously written off. As the Buddha reminded us, lotus, the beautiful flowers that symbolize enlightenment, grows right in the middle of a muddy swamp. No mud, no lotus!
Your book has gotten a lot of great attention, including from Chelsea Clinton! How are you handling the busy-ness of promoting a successful book AND running the Center for Global Spiritual Life at New York University AND remaining mindful?
It is NOT EASY. I also have a 1 year old son and I’m pregnant with another baby, so there is a lot going on! In these moments of super busy-ness, I’ve noticed that my meditation practice is more important than ever. I can’t practice at the same time every day anymore, as my son’s naps are pretty erratic, but I try and find a little time every day – even if it is just 10-15 minutes to practice. The difference between the days I meditate and the days I don’t are significant. The meditation helps me have patience with my son and gives me the clarity to do my work at NYU. It helps me not to get swept up in things that don’t matter or get caught up too much in ego around the book or around any fleeting ups or downs. When I don’t practice for a few days, all of this stuff begins to get a little out of whack.
Tell me about your own journey to practicing meditation.
I started meditating as a college student. It was a particularly tumultuous time in my life, as my parents were getting divorced, I had recently been dumped by my boyfriend, I had PTSD from September 11th (which happened a few subway stops from my dorm room at NYU) and I was facing the general loneliness and confusion of college life. I wasn’t sleeping well, was crying almost every day, and was experiencing near daily panic attacks. I remember attending a workshop on anxiety at the time at the student health center, during which they recommended we “de-stress” by taking deep breaths and enjoying long bubble baths. I remember thinking, “Are you kidding? My life is coming apart, I don’t understand the point of anything, and you want me to take bubble baths before exams?” I knew I needed a much more comprehensive change in my life.
I started with a 7-day silent meditation retreat, not fully understanding what a meditation retreat was. I had never meditated before, and thought it might be like a relaxing spa retreat. I quickly found out that the retreat would entail silent meditation for 10 hours of every day, with very few other activities. Although it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, I was immediately transformed. I started to understand the nature of my anxiety, loneliness, and desire with much more clarity. I continued to meditate on retreats and in daily life, and started MindfulNYU with a student in January of 2009. We started as a small sitting group (approximately 5-8 people each week) for those in the NYU community. The community grew and expanded and became the thriving program it is today, offering meditation, mindfulness workshops, and retreats to thousands of young people in their 20’s and 30’s in New York and beyond.
I always thought I would be an anxious person my whole life. I thought that panic attacks would be a regular part of my life forever. I thought that my social anxiety would always cripple me, making me feel sick to my stomach before going to parties or before having to speak in front of groups of people I didn’t know. I worried I would never find love, that I would mess up any relationship I was in because of my jealousy and abandonment issues, and that I would never really know the real “me.”
Then came meditation and my devotion to the path of Buddhism, mindfulness and waking up. I no longer experience crippling anxiety of any kind anymore, and live a very social and public life. I haven’t had a panic attack since 2003. I found a partner whom I love and who loves me, and I have the tools to work with pain, grief, anger, and jealousy when they arise. Meditation has provided openings for me into a world of more genuine happiness, health, and love, and it continues to help me break open and realize my true wholeness.
In your career and life, what’s been your greatest asset?
I think my greatest asset is my ability to connect deeply with people. I used to think my desire for such connection was ugly and unattractive, and that I should strive to be more “self-sufficient.” I now believe that it is actually one of my greatest strengths, helping me to form deep, honest, and authentic relationships at work and in my personal life.
And, if you care to share, your greatest hindrance? How did you overcome it?
My greatest hindrance for many years was my anxiety and fear. I struggled so deeply with anxiety and it manifested the most in relationships, where I often chose people who were wrong for me, or who were unavailable, because I was so anxious about really being seen and known. I am still an anxious person by temperament, but with a lot of therapy and meditation, I’ve learned how to be more welcoming to my anxiety, how not to automatically believe the stories it tells me, and how to see the desire and excitement underneath. It is still a journey!
How do you bring yourself back to your badass self when you’re not feeling it?
When I’m in a funk or not feeling life, I usually try and connect to my body in one way or another. Physical exercise is usually the best, but some meditation, going for a walk, or talking to a good friend can also help. When things are really bad, I resist doing any of these things. I just want to hide under a blanket or watch TV for a month and never emerge. In those times, I take the advice of one of my meditation teachers, Teah, who said, “don’t think about it. Just make your tush sit on the cushion” (or exercise, or leave the house, etc.). I always feel better when I do.
If you could give our readers just one or two tips or techniques to incorporate into their mindfulness practice, what would those be?
I love the acronym I learned from David Ingber: DROPS: Don’t Resist or Push, Soften. Any time you want to push something away, anytime when something or someone or a feeling is “ruining” your meditation practice, try experimenting with softening and opening, rather than resisting or pushing. It helped me to be a lot more gentle with myself and the world when meditating and moving through life.
What’s next for you and your work?
I will be going on a mini book tour in November and December through St Louis, DC, Chicago, and New York, and then I will hopefully have my baby in March! After that, I’ll return to meditating teaching and working full time at NYU in May.