Before Yael Shy wrote What Now: Meditation For Your Twenties and Beyond, she founded MindfulNYU, the largest campus-wide mindfulness initiative in the country. It’s hard to imagine a time when Shy struggled with meditation, but to hear her tell the story of accomplishing this big goal, being mindful wasn’t always easy.
Shy had reservations about meditation when she was first introduced to the practice in college. But a few factors during Shy’s years at NYU led her to feel she was lacking the tools to cope with her stress; anxiety from 9/11, a break-up and her parents’ divorce made Shy hunt for a solution.
Everything changed when she decided to go on a meditation retreat.
“It transformed my life,” Shy explains. “It helped me see the roots of a lot of what my anxiety was built on.”
From that retreat, Shy grew her own practice. In 2009, she co-launched MindfulNYU as a small group that met to meditate. Every week, that group’s numbers increased and today it’s become something special. Mindful NYU offers classes every day of the week, offers sub-groups, retreats, workshops and yoga twice a day every day.
I’ve never really committed to a regular meditation practice. Sure, I enjoy five minutes of meditation at the end of a yoga class, but I’m not one to throw down a meditation pillow on my own. The growth of this community at NYU makes me wonder – What don’t I know about this practice that seems to be so eye-opening for everyone who makes it a habit?
The biggest misconception about meditation, Yael says, is that it’s about being Zen.
“It can be excruciatingly difficult to be with what is, even if you don’t like it,” Shy said. “Even if you want to escape with all of your mind, it’s a commitment to come back. Because that’s where there’s a chance for healing and freedom.”
The analogy Shy uses is one in the gym setting. In the same way the gym doesn’t always feel great when you’re there – we’ve all had those workouts that level us or make us think we’re weak and over-exhausted – you know that you’re ultimately getting stronger with every workout. Although meditation can be difficult when you’re doing it, you’re strengthening a different muscle by making the commitment to sit through the tough stuff, notice your thoughts and when your thoughts stray, set the intention to come back.
Practically speaking, she also knows how hard it is to show up for meditation. A regular practice can easily be interrupted by life, but Shy offered a two tips to establish the habit for yourself.
1. Create a checklist
Because we’re wired to want to see the fruits of our effort – and meditation doesn’t easily lend itself to that kind of sense of accomplishment – create checklists for yourself that help you feel accomplished. That comes down to the logistics of meditation (i.e. where you sit, when you’ll sit, how you build your schedule in a way that gives you time for it every day).
2. Understand why you’re meditating before you start
The second piece of the equation is to write down why you think it’s important to meditate. Write that down on a piece of paper when you’re invested in spending the time. That way, when the thought comes to mind that something else is more worth your time, you’ll have your handwriting ready to help you remember why you’re committing to the practice.