Sukey Novogratz grew up in two distinct worlds: That of her tight-knit family, where Spanish was spoken exclusively and the aromas of Puerto Rican cuisine wafted through the home, and that of the radically different English-speaking universe of the United States outside. As Sukey recalls in this episode of Design Matters, at an early age she realized how different the responses would be when her parents called someone at say, a doctor’s office, versus her calling up, sans accent.
“My awareness grew from that place,” she says.
Sukey’s life is one of evolution. Yet with it there is a definitive throughline, marked by moments.
In the working-class Frankford neighborhood of Philadelphia, a young Sukey is enrolled in a small Quaker school. The kids are playing kickball, but she just wants to read, so she does. A boy named Joey hurls the ball at her. She goes home crying. Her father says he’s going to teach her a magic trick: Imagine a yellow ball in the center of your body. Breathe in deeply. Exhale yellow energy through the front of your body. Breathe in once again; imagine the yellow ball’s energy returning through the back of your body. It creates a protective layer for her. The following day, she decides to put it into practice. Kickball commences. She invokes her new skill. Joey throws the ball—and it misses her. She believes she has learned an actual superpower.
Sukey is 7, and preparing to be dropped off by her father for her first sleepover. Beyond the security of her home, she is ravaged by anxiety and physically ill. Her father reminds her of her magic trick. She invokes the yellow ball. She breathes it out and in. She feels calm.
Returning home from school one day, Sukey discovers her father meditating in a headstand against the wall. Another day, she arrives to find him loudly practicing his breathing work. He had started meditating while working on a psychology Ph.D. She decides she dislikes meditation, and that she can’t bring friends over after school for fear of embarrassment. She doesn’t realize it yet, but all along the “magic tricks” her father has been teaching her are meditation techniques.
Sukey asks her father where he goes when he meditates. His answer: “Do you know that there are people who believe that our living world is actually a dream? When I meditate I go to find if this is true.”
It’s 1985 and Sukey is taking a summer session at Harvard. She just saw St. Elmo’s Fire and is playing the drinking game Quarters with a group. She drinks a vodka cocktail. Time begins to fracture and drain. Darkness follows. A group of three boys brutally rape her. They load her with cocaine and alcohol, and dump her, naked, by a boathouse, leaving her to die. She doesn’t.
She has lacerations. Bruises. The rest, including what could be any further evidence, the hospital has scrubbed away. Sukey goes before Harvard’s Interim Summer Judiciary Committee. The women on the committee tell her that they’ve heard she is a “sexy” Puerto Rican dancer. The three young men suddenly appear without warning. Sukey goes into shock. The judiciary decides they can’t work with her. The boys suffer no consequences.
Broken. Sukey starts school at Princeton the next month.
Sukey Caceres marries Michael Novogratz, whom she met at Princeton. Through hedge funds and other work, the family—with both Sukey and Michael coming from middle class backgrounds—become self-made billionaires. Sukey nurtures their young children, and focuses on her husband’s career, following him to Tokyo and later Hong Kong, and becomes what she dubs “a professional packer”—despite, she has joked, having the higher GPA at Princeton.
Sukey’s father dies. Michael suggests she try meditating again as she used to—perhaps it will grant her an element of solace. She does. She feels her father’s presence. A magic trick, a super power, found. A circle made whole.
As she says in an interview later, “Little by little, it slows you down, and it allows you to start peeling back the layers. Meditation helped me heal and allowed me permission to let go of the pain.”
She meditates. She begins emailing a small circle of friends a daily message about something pertaining to wellness. Eventually, it becomes her popular newsletter and website, The Well Daily, netting thousands upon thousands of subscribers. While running the site, she’s asked how she got to this point in her life. Her response: “Partially because there was no other choice—the only way out of the stalemate my life had become was meditation and yoga.”
Changes, large and small, take shape. Sukey’s husband has long been involved in wrestling—both as a wrestler and longtime proponent of the sport. Watching her son at a wrestling meet, she wonders: Why do men feel this primal need to fight? She meditates on the question. She realizes: “I could see (even if he couldn’t) what my son was learning: humility, strength and discipline.”
It’s 2013 and Sukey is clad in a vibrant pink gown at the Joyful Heart Foundation gala. She is presented with the Heart of Gold Award, and begins her acceptance speech. Before the audience, she reveals the story of her gang rape. Sobs echo in the room. She details how she used to be fond of singing before the assault. But after, she stopped. In front of the audience, an extraordinary thing happens: She begins to sing. Musician Ingrid Michaelson joins her in a performance of “Be OK.”
After years of meditation, she finds her voice again.
Sukey is in her closet in Manhattan, on her preferred cushion. She meditates. She does so here to give herself an element of privacy (and, perhaps, to give her kids the OK to bring friends over after school). One of her children pops in. She always keeps the door open—as she has written, it’s not that her children don’t respect her space; it’s that she doesn’t want her meditation practice to be separate from them. After a moment, the child leaves. Her meditation resumes.
One wonders: If meditation has guided her through such a journey—what might it do for the rest of us? Or, perhaps, a world direly in need of healing today.
Debbie Millman: All right, you and I know that we should do it. We know it would bring more energy, more focus, more peace of mind, but, yeah, you're busy, I'm busy, we've got a million projects to do, careers to build and we just don't have the time.
Sukey Novogratz has some advice for us, "Just Sit." That's actually the title of a new book she co‑wrote with her sister‑in‑law, Elizabeth Novogratz. The subtitle is, "A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don't." That would be me, dear listener, and probably you, too.
Meditation is great in theory, but, in practice, we fall flat on our faces or we fall asleep. Well, I, for one, am here to learn, and Sukey Novogratz is here to talk about meditation, but she's also here to talk about the life‑changing trauma that first motivated her to meditate, and subsequently initiate important advocacy work she's doing with the Joyful Heart Foundation.
Sukey Novogratz, welcome to "Design Matters."
Sukey Novogratz: Hi, Debbie, thank you for having me.
Debbie: My pleasure. Sukey, you've said you're known as Swami Mami in your inner circle. I'm wondering, how did that come about? What's the story behind that?
Sukey: I was always trying to find alternative ways to help heal my kids. Not originally. I was definitely the classic, "Give me the doctor, give me the best doctor." Life sort of changed when we moved back from Asia. We were living in New York. My daughter had high blood pressure. She was five at the time.
The endocrinologist was like, "Well, let's change her diet for the year, and then we'll check it again." I thought, "Whole foods. What was I doing wrong? OK, I'll take the salt out of the mozzarella," but, honestly, I thought was doing a great job diet‑wise.
A year passed. We go back, and the endocrinologist is like, "Nothing has changed, so she's gonna have to go on a pill for the rest of her life." "Oh, I don't really like that." I went to my one woo‑woo friend that I knew from the music school. She said I should see this Dr. [indecipherable 2:14] at the Continuing Health and Healing Center.
I went there. I did full disclosure, go to other doctors who also were like, "Well, it looks like she's going to have to take a pill." I went to Dr. [indecipherable 2:25] , and the first thing I noticed is, when I got there, he said hi to me very kindly and then went with my daughter, Gaby, to do puzzles while they had a discussion for a half hour.
Oh, that's a first. Then he came back to me for three minutes and said, "Well, we're gonna first try chiropractic work. Then maybe we'll do some homeopathic work and maybe some of this. We'll see what sort of works and doesn't work and maybe, at the end of the day, she might have to take a pill, but let's try these things."
Now mind you, Dr. [indecipherable 2:56] was a regular doctor, was at Harvard, totally credited. Another full disclosure. My father, who was always big into chiropracty and all this other stuff, I always thought he was a crazy. Like, "Go see a real doctor." I couldn't even share with my dad, who was around at the time, to say, like, "I'm gonna take Gabby to see the chiropractor." I was embarrassed.
We went, and this wonderful woman comes in with this beautiful glow. She was at the same facility, and she starts looking at Gabby and doing some body work on her. She's like, "Oh, do you know your daughter has an extra rib?" I'm like, "No, I didn't know that." Not crazy. I have an extra rib. My father used to always joke, "It's because I didn't want to give it to Adam."
That's not so crazy she has an extra one. She's like, "Well, you know, she's so compact, and so I believe it's putting pressure on her pancreas, and so, that's probably setting off her adrenals and maybe her high blood pressure. So, let's just release this rib and wait 20 minutes and check her blood pressure."
Sure enough, she was normal. That was a single deciding moment for me of like, "Oh, wait. There's stuff here that's really valuable." At one point, would I stop my daughter's medication at 19 and say, "Oh, let, let's go off those meds and see if you're OK now."
Debbie: "Let's experiment with your blood pressure."
Sukey: That would never happen, so for the rest of her life. Then, all that development, what's doing that to her liver, all this stuff, who knows? That was a life‑changing moment and made me be a seeker with all things. All the moms call me Swami Mami, or whatever, Sukey Mom, or whatever it was to...
Debbie: Where does Sukey come from?
Sukey: Sukey is a nickname. It's not my given name.
Debbie: Can you share what your given name is?
Sukey: Dora, which was my mother's name.
Debbie: Really? That was my great‑grandmother's name, and I was named for her, Dora.
Sukey: Oh, really?
Debbie: Yeah, Deborah and Dora. I just don't go by Deborah, I go by Debbie.
Sukey: Look at that.
Debbie: How did you get Sukey? I could see you get Debbie from Deborah, but how do you get Sukey from Dora?
Sukey: It's a mixed story. I've always been called Sukey. In Hispanic culture, your apodo, your nickname, is like an act of love. It's like your real name as opposed to your given name. Everyone calls you that. There's a mix. My parents were trying to adopt at the time, because my sister's 10 years older than me.
My mom had problems conceiving. They had a Korean baby that sort of fell through because, in the late '60s, two Hispanic adopting an Asian child was a bit challenging. I came, and I was a really fat baby. I was like 10 pounds, believe it or not. Az˙car is sugar, so Sukey‑Sukey, and then the Asian influence. It's probably a confluence of how I got Sukey.
Debbie: That's wonderful. You grew up in a household that was incredibly tight‑knit. You've written that your parents, who were both social workers, spoke only Spanish at home, and your father mainly cooked food from his native Puerto Rico. You've likened your childhood to living in two worlds ‑‑ a Spanish one and an English one. How did you navigate between these two worlds?
Sukey: It's all that I ever knew. It's a code‑switching. It was easy to pass since I phenotypically don't have markers that say, "Oh, you're Hispanic." I could slip into the other world and not have to identify and I could pass, which made things a little easier.
It made you conscious and aware of we're paralyzed. When my parents went to call the doctors, if I picked up the phone and called the doctors without the accent, I got a stronger response than my father or my mom. My awareness grew from that place.
Debbie: You've also written about how you'd get physically sick before things like sleepovers, but your dad taught you a magic trick to cope when he was dropping you off for your first one at age seven. Can you tell us about that magic trick?
Sukey: He loved this magic trick. He taught me it once before, too, but essentially was breath work. I thought I had a superpower when he taught me that, imagining this yellow ball in your center of your body and that you breathe in deeply. Then you breathe out this yellow energy in the front of your body. Then imagine the yellow ball, and the energy comes in the back of your body.
It creates a protective layer, which is really just a way for me to get my breath back so I'm not all hyper and nervous of going to someone's sleepover, which is usually a girlfriend that I wanted to spend time [laughs] with anyway, but I experienced anxiety.
Debbie: Your father started meditating when he was working on his social work and his psychology PhD. When you'd come home from school, you'd sometimes find him in a headstand against the wall or loudly practicing his breathing work, which made you not want to bring your friends over after school. You were not a fan.
At what age did you begin to accept it and begin to think that he was on to something?
Sukey: I think everyone's embarrassed by their parents. It doesn't matter how interesting...Looking back, I had really interesting parents. They were mine.
Debbie: I was really embarrassed by my mother's galoshes. I remember them being really heinous and feeling like, "Please don't get out of the car. Please, please."
Sukey: They're probably fabulous, right? Now.
Debbie: Now, yeah. Gorgeous.
Sukey: Someone asked me once, "How did your father teach you to meditate?" I was thinking back to like, "Well, when was that? Did he actually sit down with me? No, it was these magic tricks."
The first time he taught me, I had come home crying because I went to a Quaker school, this small, little Quaker school in Frankford, Philadelphia. They always play kickball. I never really knew how to play kickball or any of that. I was not really sporty, so I would sit on the stoop and read a book. There was this kid, Joey, who eventually would throw the ball at me.
Debbie: To hurt you?
Sukey: Yeah. I'd always sit there. I just didn't understand what was going on. I was just reading this book. Like, "Why bother me?" I came home, and my father...that's when he first taught me first the trick of this magic yellow ball.
The next day, I was like, "OK, I'm gonna do this." For whatever reason, miracles, what have you, the ball hit the side of the stoop and never hit me again. I was just like, "Oh, I've got a superpower."
Debbie: Oh, my God.
Sukey: "This is amazing." I started meditating. I didn't realize he had duped me into it. Anytime I felt a sense of insecurity, it was a way to this protective layer. Now, looking back, I realize that ball throwing was never about me anyway. Joey was a slow reader. Here I was perched up there reading, so I just was up there probably just representing all his...whatever. Don't worry about me.
Debbie: That's a very generous perspective, Sukey. I know that when you were a child, you asked your dad where he goes when he meditates. He said, "Do you know that there are people who believe that our living world is actually a dream? When I meditate, I go to find out if this is true."
I love that. I have never met your dad, but I can only imagine he must have instilled this incredible sense of wonder and opened up the world for you in this really wonderful and imaginative way.
Sukey: It's very true. He could also be very frustrating as well.
Debbie: In what way?
Sukey: In that I'm coloring and I'm like, "Oh, what color should I do the roof?" He's just like, "Be the master of your own decisions." I'm like, "It's just a color, like red or green," but the magic was there. It was his curiosity. I think in many ways, I was his little sidekick. I think it was also a place for him to explain, understand what he was trying to understand himself.
If he could explain it to me, then that was a way for him to understand like, "OK. Now, I've got it if I can get hurt to sort of connect on these ideas."
Debbie: During the summer, after you graduated high school when you were only 17 years old, you had what you've referred to as a cosmic smack down with the Undertaker.
You've said that Undertaker carried you up to the top of the tallest ladder. So tall that when you get to the top and looked down, the wrestling ring looks like a postage stamp and hurled you towards the earth where you hit so hard that you became a cockroach.
Sukey, can you talk about what happened on that August night in 1985 after you went to see the movie "St. Elmo's Fire?"
Sukey: I did what a lot of kids do while there. I was an ecologist during the summer, but it was during the summer session.
Debbie: You were in the summer theater at Harvard? You were at Harvard?
Sukey: Yeah, a summer session there. We went back and played quarters.
Debbie: What is quarters?
Sukey: Quarters is this like...Honestly, I've forgotten. I don't think I played since then, but we used to throw the quarter and you get it into the cup. If you don't get it in the cup or get it in the cup, you drink. I'm not too sure.
Whatever the case was, I lost, so I had to drink this Tropicana vodka mixed drink. Then I quickly was not feeling great and in and out of whatever. I realized that there was something...I was drugged.
There was something that was not OK. Even from drinking a couple of drinks, you don't have that kind of reaction. You shouldn't lose...
Debbie: Was it Rohypnol?
Debbie: The roofie drug.
Sukey: The roofie drug.
Debbie: The date rape drug.
Sukey: They were moving my body from the dorm room, wherever we were.
Debbie: When we say they, it was...
Sukey: There were three men, three boys.
Debbie: Three boys? Also 17?
Sukey: Yeah, or even younger ‑‑ 16 they could've been ‑‑ because I had already graduated from high school. Anyway, when you're that dead weight, it's heavy carrying even a small girl. [laughs] I remember them throwing me down the stairs, and waking up feeling the weight of just my body just crumpled on the stairs, and bringing me to another room where I was violated from every...
Debbie: Every orifice.
Sukey: ...every orifice of my body.
Debbie: Every orifice by all three.
Debbie: This went on for quite some time.
Sukey: It did.
Debbie: Then you woke up at one point during the experience, during this terror and horror?
Sukey: Yeah. Yes, I woke up, but I was also in and out of conscious during the whole thing and that moment of where you're just outside of your body and watching it.
Debbie: The boys were worried that you might be able to identify them, so then they did more brutal things to you.
Sukey: They thought, "Well, if she eats enough coke and we do enough alcohol, then maybe she'll have heart failure and then that will..."
Debbie: Were they hoping that you'd die?
Sukey: It seems like that was the plan, but that didn't work out. [laughs]
Debbie: They dumped your naked body by a boathouse on the Charles River. You were discovered there and you were taken to the hospital, but then you ended up waking up in a dorm room.
Sukey: The RA who had brought me there, someone had called him and said that Sukey's by the boathouse. He came, apparently, because I wasn't conscious for this, really, and got me to the hospital. He was the one who brought me there. Then once they were able to resuscitate me and everything like that, then they let him take me from the hospital.
Debbie: Why didn't he call the police?
Sukey: Why didn't they call my parents? I don't know.
Debbie: It's such an outrage. Then the second part of this horrible story, which I hope you're OK talking about, was how you were treated.
Debbie: You've written how the second act of this drama plays out as unbearably as the first. You thought that the campus police that you ended up speaking to were actually police, and they weren't. You had been cleaned and showered in the hospital, so there was no evidence other than what you were saying.
Sukey: Technically, if I had not washed my hair, there was evidence there. I had still all my sticky things on me from the EKG, but everything else was wiped clean.
Debbie: It's outrageous. That's just unthinkable. You ended up going before Harvard's Interim Summer Judiciary Committee, and it was even more horrific. What happened during that experience?
Sukey: I walked in, and there were a bunch of women. I was like, "OK. My people. They'll understand my story." [laughs] "This is crazy what just happened to me." I was sitting down. I was there with my father, he came with me.
Their first questions were, "We hear you're Puerto Rican. We hear you are a sexy dancer." I'm like, "Yes, I am Puerto Rican. I dance. Sexy dancer? I don't..."
Debbie: You're a performer.
Sukey: I'm a performer. I quickly knew that this was not turning out the way I thought it was going to turn out. I was just shocked that I was telling a story that they were like, "Yeah, this just sort of doesn't add up."
I'm like, "I'm lacerated, got bruises." Even if I had consented to sex with three guys, at some point I would've said, "This was not OK." No one leaves out, "This is a great time," [laughs] where you end up in the hospital not knowing what's going on. You're all naked.
Debbie: You're dumped by the river.
Sukey: Dumped by the river. That's the cockroach moment of just like, "Wait, am I the only one that like sees this?" Back then, they didn't have all this protocol about having the perpetrators come in while you're in the same room.
The girls who had been there playing quarters with us, they came in and then they're like, "Well, she's at the theater. We don't know where she was that day or that evening." To be fair, that was mostly true, but not that night.
Then the three guys came in. Literally, I just jumped out of my seat and collapsed. All I could think to myself was, "Oh, this is what Freud means by hysteria." [laughs] I had no...Then, of course, I wasn't there, but I could hear. They were like, "Oh, we can't really have a conversation with her."
Said that there was something wrong with me as opposed to I just went to absolute shock. Those boys got off. They did. They did.
Debbie: Do you know whatever happened to them?
Sukey: No. Once I heard their voice when I was in London by the Rosetta Stone. He said my name, and I just ran. I just ran. That was years later.
Debbie: They've never apologized? They've never tried to make amends?
Debbie: I knew that you were initially thinking about trying to get justice for yourself, but your parents didn't have a lot of money, these boys came from a lot of money. How did you come to accept that there would be nothing at that time that you could do?
Sukey: When you're in that level of trauma, on the one hand, I couldn't even think of justice. I just thought, "This is just wrong." I was confused, more so than anything else because I believe in justice. I believe that justice makes sense, [laughs] that it will happen. There's a part of me that's just put it in a box because I'd started my freshman year next month.
Debbie: You did it. You ended up going and starting college the next month. You went to Princeton the very next month. You've said that your first friend you made there told you many years later that she got the feeling that you were made of papier‑m‚chÈ.
I actually thought about that a great deal this last week, as I was preparing for the show and thinking, "Well, you might have appeared to be made of papier‑m‚chÈ, but, man, you were internally steel to be able to recover from that. To be able to continue to live and not have a psychological break, and not end up psychotic is remarkable." How did you recover?
Sukey: I did have a breakdown [laughs] in school, which happened the first time I had sex. The smell of semen, and that sent me...It's hard to believe how did you forget, but that's what you do to survive. You put it away, and you focus on other stuff, and you are a bit hollow. You're not really anchored in your body because you've had to be disconnected to it.
When I've actually connected, and all the smells, it triggered everything to the point where I had to call my dad, "Did this happen to me?" That's how deeply I didn't want to go there, and then all the memories started coming back and all the physical sensations.
Debbie: You graduated.
Sukey: I did. I took a year off. I took a year off to put myself back together. Not fully, but to get through the next two years.
Debbie: How are you feeling now?
Sukey: I feel great. I feel fabulous.
Debbie: You are such an extraordinary force of nature. One of the reasons that I wanted to interview you on the show was to talk about how you have designed your life in this magnificent way of acknowledging the trauma later in life, something that you spent many, many, many years working on, and have emerged victorious in the most wondrous way.
Sukey: Thank you.
Debbie: I know that meditation was a good part of your recovery, a great part of your recovery. I want to ask you a bit about how you came to discover the various ways that being in your body, being conscious of your breathing, of your thinking helped you in your recovery and in your journey to now.
Sukey: Meditation has just been this amazing gift. I didn't think it'd be what was going to help me get to the other side, so to speak. People ask, "Well, what is it by meditating that got you to the healing part?"
That's the mystery. There's no, "Well, if you do X, Y, and Z, you connect the dots, you get to Y." It's after the years of sitting and acknowledging everything that comes up without judgment that allows you to grow and to have different conversations.
Joyful Heart was an amazing influence in this growth process as well. In terms of helping me get into the other side, there's one gala where they wanted my kids to come on stage and say why they're involved with Joyful Heart. I said, "Oh, it's great. OK, the girls can do it."
Then, the executive director said, "Well, you know, we really want Christian, too." He was only 13 and I really hadn't told him the story yet, so I was like, "OK, let's see if I can do this." It was at the time when the broadcaster was in Egypt and she was assaulted in this mass.
She had gone on television to discuss what had happened to her, and it just happened, so I sat down with Christian and said, "Can we...I know you've probably have heard a little bit about my story from your older sisters, but you've never actually heard it straight from me."
We listened to this woman describe what happened to her, as a segue, to talk about my experience. In that moment, talking to him, I spoke about these three boys. In that moment I saw my son and I was like, "What if he had done this to someone? Would I stop loving him?" I was like, "I would be destroyed by his actions, but he's my son. I could never stop loving him."
In that moment, stuff was coming out of my mouth that I was like, "Well, these men, these boys, you know, they could have made better choices." I said, "If you're ever in that situation, you may find yourself in this situation. You can't just walk away. You have to hear my story, hear that other woman's story, and do something to stop it."
Then I went on to say that maybe today that they're probably fathers, and with daughters, and they may be good humans. I was like, "Where is this coming from?" I realized that I've come to the other side, that something was released there, that level of forgiveness that had nothing to do with them and all about me and my son in that moment.
Debbie: That's extraordinary. For our listeners that might not be aware, like me, you're a board member at the Joyful Heart Foundation, whose mission is to transform society's response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, to support survivors' healing, and end this violence forever.
The experience that you were talking about, the Foundation named you its Heart of Gold Award winner, and you gave an incredibly emotional and beautiful speech. It's interesting. You talked about, in that speech, how you'd always been fond of singing, but at that point in your life you had stopped.
Then, years later, as you accepted the award, you sang, and you were joined on stage by Ingrid Michaelson, and you performed. You got your voice back.
Sukey: I did.
Debbie: You've also served as an executive producer on the documentary "The Hunting Ground," which took a deep look at rape on college campuses and was nominated for two Emmys, screened at The White House, and was an official Sundance selection. Now you're an executive producer on the new HBO documentary, "I Am Evidence," which documents women whose rape kits weren't tested.
I think it's really safe to say that you are one of the orchestrators of this #MeToo Moment. Your advocacy work is really powerful, and you are an example of how you can actually transform trauma into power. Are you planning on working in any more documentaries or...?
Sukey: I'm always open for that, absolutely.
Debbie: You and your husband are very successful. You've said that what you find so interesting about having success is how much you're able to give, and how much you can support causes that are dear to you. How do you personally choose what you would like to contribute to and to fund?
Sukey: I wish I could say that my husband and I are really thoughtful. We lay things out, we research. We're really emotional, instinctual, and pretty spot‑on because of it. We do things we care about. Things find us and then it works that way in a beautiful way.
Debbie: What I find so interesting about your success is that you both come from middle class families. Therefore, you are completely self‑made. Do you think that in some ways you see the world differently than people that are born into wealth?
Sukey: That's hard to say. We're grateful, and I think a lot of times we're pinching ourselves as well, but it doesn't define us. We're this big extended family, and many don't have that kind of...Often, they're just as exciting, and interested, and interesting, and so it keeps everything very balanced.
Debbie: Let's talk a little bit about the new book that you wrote with your sister‑in‑law ‑‑ speaking of family ‑‑ Elizabeth Novogratz. The book is called Just Sit ‑‑ A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don't. What made you decide to write this book? I wanted to say, "What made you decide to write this book for me?" but I didn't, although I just did, but in any case.
Sukey: [laughs] On the journey of all this, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I thought, "Oh, I'll write this for Mike, my husband. You know, he really needs this," when, in fact, it's also for me, too.
Debbie: I knew I would like him for a reason.
Sukey: Yeah, and, in fact, he was the one who brought me to my first meditation retreat, and he's been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal." It's like being this big meditator or what have you.
My friends would be like, "Does that, like, upset you? You know, that your husband's like Mr. Meditator, but, like, you're the meditator." I'm like, "You know? Honestly, if he gets people to the cushion to sit, I am applauding all the way."
Debbie: You've written that you developed your practice of mindfulness in a quest for better health, and originally to lose 50 postpartum pounds, and that changed the way you and your family live. What are some of those changes? How did that impact your life?
Sukey: At the time I didn't realize that I was gaining all that weight because I had all kinds of endocrine problems or what have you. [laughs] At the Continuing Health and Healing Center there was this wonderful doctor that I was seeing.
My mother was diagnosed with early‑onset Alzheimer's, and so she said, "Well, you should live as if you do also have it." This before the 23andMe. You could get DNA testing then, but it was very expensive and very hard in 2000.
She told me something very interesting. She's like, "Look. You know, if you have a great diet and you exercise all the time, it's fabulous, but, if you don't sit and detox your brain, you might as well just sit on the couch and like eat cheeseburgers because your mind can create so much toxicity." That's what got me thinking about meditation.
Debbie: I'm not a meditator, nor have I ever been a meditator. How do you actually meditate?
Sukey: I like to tell people that if you breathe, you're halfway there. The other part of it is paying attention to your breath. When you start to sit, your mind is going to go bonkers because that's what mind does. Mind is a thought production, and our number one addiction is to our thoughts.
It's not about getting rid of those thoughts. It's about focusing, and acknowledging them, and noticing them, see them on the playground, those are your thoughts. That gives you that moment to release yourself from the bondage, even if it's just for a moment.
Debbie: What is the first step you would recommend for anybody that is intrigued by what they're hearing, that thinks that they should be doing this for lots and lots of reasons, but are afraid or just apprehensive about what it would entail? How would you advise somebody to start?
Sukey: For training wheels sake, guided meditations are really helpful because you're not alone. For me, that's how I started ‑‑ Deepak. Deepak and I go way back, and I listen to him religiously. One day I was on my nano back then, and it just stopped working, and I had this moment of panic. I'm like, "Deepak! You got my back? Where'd you go? [laughs] I need you."
Then, I just kept on breathing, and I'm like, "Oh, look. I can fly. I can do this." Guided is really great to start because that gives you the support, and it can make you feel very relaxed and get you ready for when you don't have a voice there, when you're just there alone with your breath. Sometimes that's the baby steps to get there.
Debbie: If somebody were approaching meditation for the very first time, and sitting down and saying, "OK, I'm gonna give this a try. I know I've read your book, so I know I'm going to be sitting in my chair and feet on the ground," what would be the next step for somebody that was tentatively sticking their toe into the meditation pool and saying, "I'm gonna hope this doesn't destroy me"?
Sukey: I do some deep belly breaths, and, like how my father gave to me the sense of security, it's really nice to start just with your two hands on your belly and taking four deep belly breaths. That instantly puts the stops on your fight or flight, to bring you into your parasympathetic nervous system to have it calm down. Then you're in your body.
Debbie: Then just breathe.
Sukey: Just breathe and follow your breath. You may do it for three seconds. Then you won't even realize that thoughts have come in, that you're like the two [indecipherable 31:38] happy and you're, "Oh. OK, back to the breath."
Debbie: How does this help? I know that you advocate 20 minutes a day of meditation, but you also say that any amount of time is good, too. Can mindfulness really be achieved in these small doses? How does that happen?
Sukey: We like to say any amount of time because it does build up. Then, if that's all you have...I remember in the beginning when I was really trying to focus on my practice. If my day got away from me, even if I just sat in posture before I went to bed, I just didn't want to break that link. You're like, "OK, what does that do for you?" It shows my commitment to myself.
Ultimately, if you can fulfill that commitment, you start getting little benefits. Then you're like, "Whoa, I didn't beat myself up when the boss didn't like my email or whatever." You start leaning on it, because it gives so much back.
Debbie: You did a lot of research to be able to write this book. You studied with many renowned teachers ‑‑ Sharon Salzberg, Krishna Das, Ram Dass, Amma, the monks at the One World Academy in India.
I want to ask you if we can talk about some of the benefits that you outlined in Just Sit. You say that the big non‑secret with meditation is that it can and usually does feel stupid, pointless, and counterproductive in the beginning. Check, check, check.
Starting something new and unknown can suck. It can make you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. It could bring up all sorts of insecurities you'd just rather not deal with, which is why, as adults, when try something new, we so often quit before we give it a real chance.
I talk about this all the time with my students, how you can expect to be good at something you've never done before. By the time you get to middle‑age, you feel embarrassed not being good at something.
That was a really interesting thing. I have just let go of the fact that I'm going to be good at this thing. I like to be good at anything I do, so it's...
Sukey: I'm sure you are, Debbie.
Debbie: ...it's really hard. It's really hard. [laughs] You say that you'll notice that the mind can be similar to an unruly little kid who doesn't want to eat his dinner. I love the tone of your book. It's so relatable. It's so non‑preachy. How do you deal with what you call the moment of no?
Sukey: Oh, I know it so well. It still happens.
Debbie: Really? It still happens?
Debbie: That gives me hope.
Sukey: It's human. It's our ego that takes over. You just have to show who's boss. It's like, "No, I'm going to do my sitting. I'm going to go and observe thoughts and be cool to myself."
Debbie: You say that meditation is a direct line to your voice of reason. How does that work?
Sukey: Oftentimes, we're in conflict because someone disappointed us here or you had to confront someone about that. You can never make a great decision when you're in conflict. You just can't. For me, meditation brings you to that place so I can resolve that, so I can come more from a grounded perspective.
Debbie: You also show in the book how studies show that brand‑new meditators can grow more gray matter in their brain in as little as 20 minutes a day for eight weeks. That alone, for me, is the reason to start, to think that I can get a better brain. My brain can be sharper. That you begin to see changes in memory, empathy, and stress levels. How does meditation do that?
Sukey: Who knows? It's magical, but the studies have shown that your prefrontal cortex will grow. That's how you organize everything, but then that's also correlated to your amygdala, which then shrinks, which is where all the stress and fear, fear, fear lives. As one grows, the other shrinks. That's fabulous. How does that work? I have no idea.
Debbie: I don't know if I have the pronunciation of this nerve correctly, the vagus?
Sukey: The vagus.
Debbie: It sounds dirty.
Sukey: I know. I know.
Debbie: Tell us about the vagus. To me, this blew my mind.
Sukey: It's very funny. Beth, who wrote the book with me, she's just like, "Oh, my God. Let go of the vagus." I was stunned. I said, "Wait, we've got this like nerve that literally is a way of stopping ourselves to create more peace in our lives. We've never talked about this. Ooh, where'd this come from?"
Debbie: It's the longest nerve in the body. You're right, how it runs from deep within the brain through the heart and into the gut. This is revelatory. It's also been called the connector, the wanderer, the vagabond, or the compassion nerve. I know I learned all these things. It's incredible.
It controls breathing, digestion, heart rate, as well as our reactions and responses, and can act as a brake pedal for the fight or flight. Can you talk about ways that either meditation or this type of mindfulness can simulate the vagus? Say it correctly.
Sukey: Dancing, being in flow. There's this little thing that my husband used to always do to stay awake for a party, which would be like a tea party ‑‑ you put your face in cold water. Who knew that also stimulates the vagus?
Being kind ‑‑ giving someone your umbrella, things like that will activate it. Your vagal nerve pretty much shows you how compassionate you are as a human. [laughs]
Debbie: You also say that meditation teaches you to self‑soothe. That is incredible. Give me an example. If something happens and you want to work to self‑soothe, would you use some type of meditation practice or a technique?
Sukey: Getting back to your breath, I think I shared this before. A couple of weeks ago, my daughter got a flat tire on the road. She's texting me, "Mom, mom. Flat tire. Do we have AAA?"
I'm like, "AAA?" I hadn't had a flat since the '90s. I know it'll probably still pay the bills, but I'm like, "AAA? I don't know." Then I go to beating myself up. I was like, "OK, when I went on the road, my father made me show that I could change a tire not once, not twice, but three times. I let my daughter go out in the world to drive without even the AAA number. What was I doing?"
Here I am beating myself up, and she's texting like, "Mom, mom." Then I'm like, "What am I doing? I'm not in any service to her or myself." I get back to my breath. I was able to calm everything down. I'm just like, "You know? Sometimes life happens." I found the AAA, and he came in 45 minutes.
In that moment where I just got hijacked by my thoughts, even worse than beating myself up, going back to whatever when I first let her have the car, not helpful. What she really wanted was a safe voice that was calm because she was nervous and scared. I could be available and hold that space for her.
Debbie: I wanted to ask you about the book's design. As I said, it's very plainspoken. You don't sugarcoat anything. It's not woo‑woo at all, which is why I like it so much. It's very, very straightforward, a little bit intellectual, but also very playful. It's also really wonderfully illustrated.
Talk about how you found your illustrator and how you went about the design of the book because it's so lovely.
Sukey: Niege is a miracle honestly. We found her on Craigslist.
Debbie: What is her full name?
Sukey: Niege Borges. She is from Brazil. We had lots of people send us their stuff and nothing really resonated for us. Then we saw her portfolio, and we're like, "She seems sorta cool." We just really bonded. Even though there was a lot of translation going on or not, somehow she was able to understand us.
My best directions were not always so direct. We'd be like, "Well, we really like a fox that was sort of like the mean girl in middle school." She had to capture that. Somehow, she got it and she understood us.
Debbie: That's one of the things I like so much about the book. The illustrations are extremely emotionally present, if that makes any sense. The gestures in her lines are very evocative and really bring you into the book in a wonderful way.
What's next? Are you going to have meditation classes? Are you going to start your own way of teaching people? I think that there's something so much bigger and powerful out there that you can do with this type of work.
Sukey: For Beth and me, we never saw ourselves as experts. We went out to explore. We have led meditations and we've enjoyed that. We'll see what happens next. We're open.
Debbie: One of the last things that I wrote about notes that I took from the book you wrote, "Meditation shines a light on fears and allows us to sit with them. Fear of memories. Fear of who we are, who we might become of being well, of losing crutches, of sitting with the self.
"Fear of the mystery of our own darkness, of what we put down in our own basements, attics, of lurking thoughts and repressed memories. For that, somehow, if we go there, we might fall apart, that we might unravel, that we might turn into someone else. Fear of who that person is might be fear of change, because there is a huge safety in not changing even if we feel terrible."
It seems to me that you took that most frightful part of your experience and turned it into the most powerful and the most generous. I really want to thank you for sharing that with us.
Sukey: Thank you, Debbie.
Debbie: I have one last funny question for you.
Debbie: You have an amazingly eclectic extended family. Your brother‑in‑law, Chris Anderson, is the curator of TED. Your sister‑in‑law, Jacqueline, is the founder of the nonprofit Acumen, which utilizes innovation to try to end poverty.
Your other in‑laws are Robert and Cortney Novogratz, designers who've had their own shows on Bravo and HGTV, where their seven kids have also been featured. This is my question. What are your family get‑togethers like?
Sukey: They're amazing. Just to give you a clue. Beth, not this year but a few years back, she was like, "I think my New Year's resolution is to spend less time with family." We spend a lot of time with each other. We like each other.
It doesn't mean that there isn't family dysfunction because all families have that, but there's a lot of love and we show up. We show up for each other in life. It's been such an amazing gift for all of us and the next generation.
Debbie: Thank you, Sukey. Sukey Novogratz's book, which she wrote with her sister‑in‑law, Elizabeth Novogratz, is called Just Sit ‑‑ A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don't.
Thank you, Sukey, for being on the show today, and thank you for doing everything that you do to make the world a better place.
Sukey: Thank you, Debbie.
Debbie: This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.