Author and philanthropist Sukey Novogratz discusses how meditation has changed her life and helped her not only survive a brutal assault, but thrive in the wake of it—and how anyone can easily take up a practice of mindfulness to improve their life.

Wheat Field

Sukey Novogratz

PHILANTHROPIST / AUTHOR / SWAMI MAMI

2018

MEDITATION / AUTHOR / SURVIVOR / JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION / PHILANTHROPY

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Broken. Sukey starts school at Princeton the next month.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.” 

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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.

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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.

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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.

Zachary Petit


By Sukey Novogratz:

Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don't
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman