“Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind”—it was these words that inspired Sylvia Boorstein to follow the Buddhist path. Steve Silberman talks with her about the challenges of life, from a rough childhood to a post-partum depression, that helped her become such a beloved teacher—and example—of Buddhist virtues.
Sylvia Boorstein’s writing room—a solarium at the back of the wooden house in Northern California’s Sonoma County that she shares with her husband, Seymour—looks out on a landscape that hasn’t changed much since the Gold Rush days. A canopy of oaks filters the sunlight shining through the glass ceiling, and turkey vultures swoop and glide over the amber hills below. The town a couple of miles down the road, Geyserville, still looks like a stagecoach stop from the Old West.
While the view from Boorstein’s refuge is timeless and spacious, the walls and shelves inside are cluttered with evidence of a life lived in passionate engagement with the people and teachings that inspire her writing and dharma talks. Hebrew prayer books reside comfortably next to collections of discourses by the Buddha, and the Boorsteins’ children and grandchildren smile from photographs all over the room. Two years ago, the author and her husband celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in this house. She is clearly a doting mother, but she’s just as clearly a skillful dharma teacher—a Jewish-American embodiment of the compassion Dogen-zenji called robai-shin, “grandmother mind.” She has written four popular books that deliver traditional teachings in a cozy and contemporary style, has taught a weekly meditation class for the past fifteen years, and regularly leads retreats by herself and in collaboration with other teachers from a variety of traditions. Spirit Rock, the thriving meditation center that Boorstein helped launch with her teacher Jack Kornfield and others, is an hour-and-a-half drive south of her home.
I didn’t become a Buddhist because I wanted to be a good meditator,” Boorstein says. “I wanted to suffer less.”
Among the little reminders taped to Boorstein’s computer monitor is a poem written by Sariputra’s sister, Cala, after taking vows in the Buddha’s order 2,500 years ago:
I, a nun, trained and self-composed, established mindfulness and entered peace like an arrow. The elements of mind and body became still and I entered happiness.
Boorstein certainly seems happier than most people, with a salty laugh inherited from her mother. She kvells with delight over the smallest felicitous turn of events, as when we discover a package of edible marigolds to sprinkle on our salad while we spend an afternoon talking about her life. But when I ask her outright if she considers herself happy, she describes herself as a “cheerful melancholic” who is often given to worry and rumination about her family and friends.
“I didn’t become a Buddhist because I wanted to be a good meditator,” she says. “I wanted to suffer less.” The theme of her well-known book, Happiness is an Inside Job: Buddhist Teachings for a Modern Life, is that the key to suffering less is maintaining warm bonds of emotional connection with others, which can restore the mind to its natural state of clarity and insight, particularly in tough times.
Helping others face the realities of old age, sickness, and death has become her vocation, but Boorstein is not immobilized by the pain of that knowledge, as she once was.
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Boorstein grew up speaking both English and Yiddish in the house where she was raised by her parents and her grandmother Leah. Her father, Harry Schor, taught math in high school, and her mother, Gladys, worked as a typist in a city hospital.
While Boorstein’s parents went off to work, her grandmother would sing, braid her hair, and tell her stories. On Saturday mornings, they walked together to a neighborhood shul, a storefront temple. “My grandmother wasn’t worried if I was in a sulky mood about something,” says Boorstein. “If I complained, ‘but I’m not haappy,’ she would tell me, ‘Where is it written that you’re supposed to be happy all the time?'”
Her mother, an independent woman for her time, was an avid reader of newspapers and novels, and impressed upon her daughter the importance of social justice. “I grew up singing union songs and knowing I should never cross a picket line,” Boorstein recalls. “My family behaved as if voting was a religious act. Just as we went to shul together on holy days, my grandparents, my parents, and I would all walk to the polls together. I would go into the voting booth to watch my mother pull the levers.”
Not all of her childhood memories, however, are happy ones. Growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, she was teased so often for being Jewish that her mother demanded that the school superintendent transfer her to another district in fourth grade. As Gladys got older, her health became fragile. By the time Boorstein was a teenager, her mother could no longer climb the stairs to her hospital job; her heart had been damaged by a youthful bout with rheumatic fever. The sound of her coughing at night filled her daughter’s heart with fear.
Like many city kids, Boorstein was packed off to the Catskill Mountains in the summer. At Camp Kinderwelt—run by a group called the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance—she was able to hike, swim, and socialize with other Jewish children. Photographs from the era show hundreds of campers sitting by the pool, eating in the barn-sized dining hall, and filling the lawn for lectures by luminaries like Golda Meir—along with a precocious fifteen-year-old Sylvia Schor in shorts, looking unabashedly at the camera.
One July afternoon in 1952, she decided to make conversation with the camp’s chief lifeguard, a shy, wavy-haired boy four years older than she was. He was already smitten, having seen her take charge of a group of five-year-olds like a natural mother. “You have beautiful eyes,” he blurted out. “Are you busy tonight?”
Three nights later, on a bench beside a lake, Seymour asked Sylvia to marry him. “I have no idea why I said yes. It just seemed like the right answer,” she says with a smile. “I like to think it was supposed to happen.”
Her parents approved of the marriage, but Gladys told her daughter that her primary hope—as someone who had to drop out of college to support her own family—was that Boorstein would get into a good school, travel, and widen her worldview. She enrolled at Barnard College in Manhattan, graduating at the tender age of nineteen with a degree in chemistry and math. Meanwhile, her fiancé was working his way through med school. A year after they were married, Seymour earned a residency in psychiatry at the illustrious Menninger Clinic in Kansas.
The first time Boorstein tried a weekend retreat herself, her legs ached and her head throbbed from caffeine deprivation. Still, her attention was caught by an inscription she spotted on a redwood burl in the retreat house: Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind?
The newlyweds stacked their pots, books, and a sewing machine in a U-Haul and drove to Topeka. For six months, Boorstein was employed writing ads at a local radio station, but soon discovered that she loved teaching. During the week, she taught quantitative reasoning at Washburn University to veterans returning from Korea. On Saturdays, she tutored nursing students in chemistry; on Sundays, she taught at a local temple. Her first child, Michael, was born in 1956, followed by a daughter, Elizabeth, two years later.
Then Seymour’s student deferments ran out and he was ordered by the Army to report for basic training in Texas. In the interim, he was offered a temporary job at Sonoma State Hospital in California. As they drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, says Boorstein, “The sky was blue from one horizon to another. We had never seen anything like it.” They vowed to live in the Bay Area someday. But just as they got to Houston, sad news arrived from back home: Gladys was dead.
At first, Boorstein’s grief went underground. It was a busy time for her family; after basic training, they had to establish a new life near Fort Benning in Georgia, where they had another son, Peter. When her sadness finally pushed through to the surface, it precipitated a crisis that would be a powerful spur to her practice.
In 1961, the family packed up the car again and moved to Sonoma County, where their second daughter, Emily, was born. Boorstein had always enjoyed being pregnant and having kids, but this time she was overwhelmed by postpartum depression.
“I was more confused than I had ever been. It was the darkest time of my life,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine why people continued to go on living given the fact that we are finite and lose people who are dear to us. How can we just go about our business? But I had four young children, so I got up in the morning and put on my clothes anyway.”
She decided to see a psychoanalyst, who helped her get through the worst of it just by being present and listening non-judgmentally. “The best thing he did for me was that he didn’t say much at all about those feelings. He just held the space for me to become as distraught and overwrought as I needed to be, long enough for my mind to deconstruct itself and put itself together again.”
As the crisis abated, Boorstein decided to go to graduate school so she could be of similar service to others. She got a master’s degree in social welfare and found a job identifying teenagers at risk for delinquency before they got into trouble. Eventually, she got a doctorate in psychology and went into private practice. But her work of helping others with their pain didn’t lead where she might have predicted.
Boorstein joked that while her husband was trying to understand life, she was just trying to stand it: “I always felt like something terrible was about to happen. I was perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
One day, a friend invited her to a yoga class at the local Jewish community center. The teacher, Magaña Baptiste, pioneered yoga teaching in the West with her husband, Walt, a former Mr. America whose uncle was a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. “There was something about Magaña I was really drawn to,” says Boorstein. “If I could have articulated it, I would have said that she had something I needed. Doing the practice I really began to feel my body for the first time.”
Soon Boorstein was coaxing her own students through the asanas. In 1974, she recorded an album with a flute player called Yoga in a Twilight Mood. Seymour was also on a quest for self-discovery. He would go off to workshops in Mind Dynamics, Transcendental Meditation, or Silva Mind Control and come home saying, “Syl, this is it.” She joked that while her husband was trying to understand life, she was just trying to stand it: “I always felt like something terrible was about to happen. I was perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Boorstein got a potent first taste of buddhadharma from Jakusho Bill Kwong, a teacher in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage who taught a course in Zen at Sonoma State. Too many people showed up on the first day, but Boorstein wouldn’t take no for an answer. “At the next class Bill said, listen, please don’t come back, because there’s not enough room for everyone to sit zazen,” she recalls. “Then he added, ‘Keep in mind, being in the class is the same as not being in the class.’ I thought to myself, ‘What? Being in the class, you learn how to sit, you listen to Bill, you get six credits—it’s not the same as not being in the class.'”
She convinced Kwong to let her take the course. But later in the semester, after reading Suzuki Roshi’s seminal book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, she says, “I was sitting, and it occurred to me that being in the class was the same as not being in the class. I can’t explain it, but that’s how it was.”
As the Boorsteins made the rounds of the human-potential circuit, a very old practice lineage was taking root in America.
Kwong-roshi made an even deeper impression on her years later during a mindfulness retreat. One of the meditators heard that he had been diagnosed with cancer and asked him what that was like. “Bill said, ‘It was terrible,'” says Boorstein. “I thought of all the other things he might have said—’These things happen, I rose above it, everything arises and passes away,’ all these dharma answers. But he just said, ‘It was terrible.’ I loved him for that.”
While the Boorsteins were making the rounds of the human-potential circuit, a very old practice lineage was taking root in America. Imported from Southeast Asia by two former Peace Corps volunteers named Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, mindfulness meditation offered a simple and direct path for waking up in the present moment—one breath, one footstep at a time.
In 1976, Seymour came back from a two-week Vipassana retreat with Goldstein and told his wife, “Syl, this is it.” But the first time she tried a weekend retreat herself, it didn’t seem like it. Her legs ached and her head throbbed from caffeine deprivation. Still, her attention was caught by an inscription she spotted on a redwood burl in the retreat house: Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind? “I thought to myself, if that’s what they’re teaching in this shul, I need to come back,” she says.
A couple of months later, she did a full two-week retreat. Calling home on the last night, she discovered that her father—who seemed healthy—had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Hearing about his illness was “like a stab in the heart,” she says, but after all of those hours in meditation, she didn’t feel destroyed by the bad news. “There was something about the mind that heard it that was different from my previous experience. That was a pivotal moment for me.” She kept coming back—retreat after retreat, year after year. Though she’s naturally gregarious, she felt at home in the silences, eating simple food with others, and working with her mind.
For a time in her early practice, she was gripped by a series of extraordinary states of consciousness running the gamut from blissful to hellish. Goldstein cautioned her not to get attached to unusual mind-states. She eventually sought the advice of Chagdud Tulku, a Nyingmapa lama, who asked her, “How much compassion practice do you do every day? You ought to go out into the street every day and look around to see how much suffering there is.”
Studying metta with Sharon Salzberg at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, she learned how to send out concentric waves of well-wishing starting with herself, her family and friends, and finally extending to all beings—even people regarded as enemies. The practice sharpened both her ability to recognize suffering and her readiness to act with compassion. “If you look around on a bus, everybody’s going somewhere,” she says. “Some people will find out they have cancer today, and some are on their way to chemotherapy. Some people’s mothers are sick, and some will discover that their pregnancy is holding—or didn’t hold. Everyone is having their day, and one way or another, they’re all sitting upright on a bus. So you think, ‘May you get there safe; may you be all right.’ That’s metta. I love how the scriptures say it—’the heart quivers in response.'”
In the early 1980s, Kornfield moved to California and asked Boorstein to join a small group of vipassana teachers in training. “Sylvia had very deep understanding. Her meditation was quite profound,” he told me. “She’s naturally at ease with people, and whatever she does, she ends up teaching. She tunes into who is there and brings out the stories and understandings that serve that circumstance.” As the West Coast sangha grew, she helped launch Spirit Rock, which now hosts dozens of retreats a year, as well as interfaith workshops on topics like dharma and science or Buddhism and recovery.
After hearing one of her talks there, a literary agent asked Boorstein if she ever thought about writing a book. It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness became a bestseller, and other books followed. At the same time, she and her husband continued to do psychotherapy. Seymour still sees couples for relationship counseling several times a week; Boorstein stopped taking clients about five years ago, but now leads workshops for therapists on incorporating mindfulness and metta into their work.
Boorstein has also publicly embraced her Judaism while remaining a Buddhist, seeing each path as nurturing the other.
She ended up living out her mother’s dream of her becoming a world traveler; in addition to trips all over with Seymour, she flew to Dharamsala in 1995 with twenty-seven Western Buddhist teachers to visit the Dalai Lama. She also maintains a connection to her mother’s spirit by staying committed to social awareness. A peace activist since the days of the Vietnam war, she was arrested for blocking the entrance of the Federal Building in San Francisco on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2003, along with Kornfield and dozens of other clergy. “I was glad my family was watching on TV. I want to provide a good role model for my grandchildren,” she says. One of her courses at Spirit Rock is called Informed Citizenship as Spiritual Practice.
In recent years, she has also publicly embraced her Judaism while remaining a Buddhist, seeing each path as nurturing the other. She maintains the sanctity of the Sabbath, gives Torah readings at a temple in Santa Rosa on High Holy Days, and keeps a kosher home. “I am a prayerful, devout Jew because I am a Buddhist,” she declared in That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist. “As the meditation practice that I learned from my Buddhist teachers allowed me to fall in love with life, I discovered that the prayer language of ‘thank-you’ that I knew from my childhood returned, spontaneously and to my great delight.”
When she began writing Happiness is an Inside Job, she composed a new prayer to tape to her computer: “May the writing of this book be my practice. May the faith I have that loving is my only refuge sustain my energy. May I not get caught in fear-driven overwork… May the book teach me, so I learn its lesson more deeply. May this book serve.”
As it turned out, she would need the extra help. While working on the manuscript, her best friend, Martha Ley, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Boorstein typed away in the sunny room at the back of her house for a year, but felt that what was coming out was a bad parody of her own style. She lamented the irony: she was supposed to be teaching people how to maintain a connection to happiness in the midst of pain, but she had lost the connection to her own heart. She called her agent and asked him to buy back the contract.
When she visited her editor in New York to thank her for being so gracious, however, they ended up talking for a long time. “I have an idea,” the editor told her. “No one can write when they’re depressed. Why don’t we wait?” Even before leaving the office, Boorstein felt liberated by her editor’s kindness. She started writing the book again from the beginning, and dedicated it to Ley, who died before it was finished.
In the book, after telling the story of giving a dharma talk at a retirement home, Boorstein suggests adding a line to the classic parable of the woman who carries the body of her son to the Buddha and begs him to bring him back to life. He agrees to do it only if she is able to collect a mustard seed from every household in the village that has never been touched by death. She comes back empty-handed and becomes one of the Buddha’s disciples. The line that Boorstein proposes to add is, “And then the Buddha and the woman sat together for a while and cried.”
Before driving me to Santa Rosa at the end of our day, she asks Seymour to pack a bag of peaches and plums from their trees outside for me to take home. On the way to the bus station, I tell her about my own difficulties, particularly my mother’s depression in the wake of my father’s sudden death nearly four years ago.
Saying goodbye, we have a perfect moment of Jewish/Buddhist slapstick. In the same moment that I bow to her in the Zen style, she says to me in Yiddish, “Zay gesunt“—stay well. It could be the voice of her grandmother Leah, or my grandmother Tillie, or Dogen-zenji himself.
Two weeks later, my phone rings. “I’ve been thinking about your mother,” Boorstein says. “How is she doing?”