Sylvia Boorstein, Psychology

Photograph of Sylvia Boorstein

Sylvia Boorstein

Psychology 1974

"I'd like to think that I'm an 'edge' person," says Sylvia Boorstein, "a person who crosses boundaries." That's an apt self-assessment from a person who has never shied away from untested ideas. Boorstein taught one of the first women's studies courses in the country in the early 1970s. She also began practicing and teaching yoga in the 1960s, long before it became popular in the United States.

And along the way, she earned one of the first doctorates ever awarded by Saybrook. "I think I was the sixth or seventh," says Boorstein, who at 71 is a best-selling author of books about meditation and a teacher of Buddhism at the world-renowned Spirit Rock Meditation Center. "I was at Saybrook before the school was even accredited. But that wasn't important to me. The 1970s were a time of exploration of consciousness, and here was this group doing nontraditional things."

Boorstein was a nontraditional student and an avid explorer of consciousness --- perfect fit. She had studied chemistry and math as an undergraduate at Barnard College in New York, then earned a master's in social work at Berkeley. At the time she started thinking about a doctorate, she was a practicing social worker, a part-time faculty member at the College of Marin, and a yoga instructor. She also was a political activist who marched for women's rights and against the Vietnam War. And she was an observant Jew who happened to be devoted to the teachings of the Buddha.

"There weren't many doctoral programs who would be willing to have me as a student," laughs Boorstein. "But Saybrook had a loose structure, and I was spurred on by that."

The place wasn't even known as Saybrook in the early 1970s, when Boorstein arrived; it was called The Humanistic Psychology Institute. She sought her Ph.D. after being turned down for a full-time faculty position. The person who did get the job had a doctorate from Berkeley, and Boorstein feared her career would stall out if she didn't acquire some better credentials. Her advisor at Saybrook was Eleanor Criswell, one of the university's founders and a pioneering teacher of yoga, meditation, and humanistic psychology.

"I made my own program, as we did in the early days," she says. "I wrote my dissertation on yoga as a gentle psychiatric tool. I had three categories of students: adults, senior citizens, and children --- even very young ones. So I devised a research document, a survey for my students about their experience, and that became the centerpiece of my dissertation."

Boorstein received her Ph.D. in 1974. After leaving Saybrook she continued to teach at the College of Marin while increasing her focus on the practice of meditation. She studied with Jack Kornfeld, whom she met at Saybrook, and began attending periodic retreats with a group of colleagues in Northern California. In the 1990s that group evolved into the acclaimed Spirit Rock Meditation Center, where the Dalai Lama himself paid a visit a few years ago.

Boorstein also began writing prolifically. Her first, It's Easier than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness, appeared in 1995 to critical acclaim; she followed it up the following year with Don't Just Do Something --- Sit There. Both books covered the ins and outs of meditation, Buddhism, and mindfulness, which Boorstein referred to in one interview as "a Sabbath of the mind" and, in another, as "the balanced recognition of the truth of the moment."

"Anyone can practice mindfulness," she says. "You don't have to be a Buddhist scholar, you don't have to take courses. This is something that comes to us naturally; it's just a question of slowing down and deciding to do it."

Her third book, That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist (1997), addressed her unusual dual religious view. Boorstein was born Jewish and has never left the faith; she has always considered herself a practicing Jew. Yet she has made the Buddha's teachings her life's study and has been spreading them for 40 years. Does Boorstein wrestle with her identity as a result?

"Never," she says. "I'm a person who crosses boundaries, and I also believe that not all the boundaries we draw are meaningful. I was raised Jewish and am still connected to Judaism; I'm a member of a congregation. I also am someone who is inspired by Buddhism. It has changed me as person."

She looks back on Saybrook the same way, as a turning point --- a life-changing episode that coincided with a transformative era in society. "The 1960s were a time of experimentation," she says. "Saybrook grew out of that, and that spirit was still very present when I attended. It was a perfect place for me to be at that time in my life."