Chronic ails in midlife forced Sunada to reevaluate the path she was on. She found Buddhism, gave up her high tech career, and dedicated her life to helping others.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born in Tokyo in 1957, the youngest of three children. We emigrated to the US when I was three, as my father had accepted a job here.
I come from a family of ultra high achievers. Every male member of my extended family attended Tokyo University (Japan’s equivalent of Harvard). My mother went to the best high school for girls in the country (girls in her generation didn’t go to college). I come from a family of doctors, executives, and Ph.Ds. While growing up, I didn’t experience pressure to achieve; my parents simply expected it and took it for granted. And I, of course, never even thought to question it.
So it follows that I became an A student, went to the best schools, and graduated with honors. It didn’t come easily, but it never occurred to me that I could do otherwise. This worldview was the ever-present but unacknowledged backdrop to the entire first half of my life.
My drive wasn’t only around academics. It extended to everything, including hobbies. I started studying piano when I was eight years old, and pursued it with the same zeal as my schoolwork. No matter what I did, I had to be really REALLY good at it. After all, my parents expected it.
By my mid-30s, I had gotten married and gone to business school. David and I had settled in Cambridge, MA. I had a prestigious, successful career in high tech. I had “arrived.”
It was an exhilarating time. I was working with a team of smart, high achieving people and we were accomplishing great things by working really hard. I had kept up my piano as well. So I worked on computers by day, and played Bach and Chopin by night. I felt like I had it all: exciting career, professional recognition, financial security, a great marriage, and a wonderful sideline with my classical piano. Life was grand. Or so I thought.
Looking back at it now, I can see that this house of cards was doomed to come crashing down. And when it did, the crash was ugly. During a particularly high-pressure new product launch, I developed severe tendonitis in both wrists. The pain quickly grew so bad I couldn’t even pick up a book or a coffee mug. Typing on a computer was out of the question; so was playing the piano. Doctors couldn’t do anything but tell me to rest my hands. I lived this way for two years — unable to use my hands. Given that everything I identified with involved my hands, this was a devastating blow.
Along with this came depression, chronic fatigue, insomnia, and all sorts of unexplainable pains and ailments. During that time, some BIG questions floated to the surface — what the heck am I doing? Do I really want to continue down this path of self-destruction? Is this really how I want to live out my life?
So what did you do?
For several years, I was confused and directionless. I had no idea what to do. If all I had worked for was somehow wrong, then what? I was truly lost.
My first step, at age 40, was to leave my salaried corporate position and go out on my own as a consultant. But I found it too hard to market myself in the competitive high-tech world when my heart wasn’t in it. I also tried doing some web development work, especially for small businesses, but with limited success or personal satisfaction. Besides, my wrists weren’t up for all that computer work.
Another foray was into the music world. I’d always loved music and had once considered it as a profession, so it seemed a reasonable choice. I took a series of small, part-time, ridiculously low-paying jobs in music administration. That path ultimately led me to a promotion to General Manager of the Boston Cecilia, one of Boston’s premier choral groups—do you sense that high-achiever thing at play again? It was fun for a while, but I quickly realized that managing a small, cash-strapped arts group was just as stressful and thankless as working in high tech. Clearly, this was the same old wine in a different bottle. Another dead end.
Now what? After five years of all that, I had exhausted every possible option I could think of. I had nothing left to try.
In describing how I felt, I remember telling some friends about my metaphor of the trapeze artist. I felt like I had just let go of the swing behind me. And there I was, suspended in mid-air, not yet able to see, let alone grab, the swing in front of me. I didn’t want to look down because I knew there was no safety net under me. It was terrifying. But something told me I had no choice. I had to keep looking ahead — i.e. NOT go running back to my old devil-you-know life in high tech (as tempting as it was). I had to trust that my momentum would carry me FORWARD to a safe landing. I had to have faith, because I had nothing else to go on.
It was during this time that I also started getting more involved with a Buddhist group I had joined soon after my injury, a few years earlier. When I found them, it felt like a homecoming.
What is it about Buddhism that felt so right? Were you raised Buddhist?
I was raised as a nominal Buddhist. Being Japanese, it’s part of my culture. My parents were both fairly serious about their Buddhist beliefs, though I wouldn’t say they were actively practicing. My mother in particular instilled a lot of Buddhist values in me from a very young age. I was always a very spiritual person, even as a child.
I found the Triratna Buddhist Community purely by accident. I was out on one of my long walks and saw a poster for meditation classes offered in Harvard Square. I had always been interested in going deeper into Buddhism, but hadn’t found the opportunity or time before. I figured I’d give it a try, and got hooked from the very beginning.
There are so many things about Buddhism that resonate for me. I guess the main one is that the Buddha himself said that we should never take anything on faith or because some authority said it was so (not even the Buddha himself!). He taught that we should test everything against our own experience and build up our own confidence in the truth of his teachings. And this is in fact what happens as we practice his teachings. They just make so much sense. For example, when you do good in the world, good things come back to you. When you do selfish things, it comes back to you in kind. All of our actions have consequences in this deeply interconnected world. When we live by this simple principle, we become the drivers of our destiny.
I decided to seek ordination, which I received some 5 years later, at 47. And with it, I took a vow to dedicate my life and practice to helping others.
Why did you choose to become ordained and what did the process involve?
My ordination signifies my lifelong commitment to living according to the teachings of the Buddha — it’s more about my personal commitment, and has nothing to do with my lifestyle, being a teacher, officiating ceremonies, or leading a “congregation” (though we can certainly do so if we choose, and I do).
Becoming ordained means there is no distinction between my practice and my life. They are one and the same. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “My life is my message,” and I feel the same. In my tradition, we are invited to ordination when we reach a point when our entire life – every breath we breathe, every step we take, every word we speak – is an expression of our commitment to awakening. And that commitment is not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of all beings. It’s a tall order, but one I’ve taken on joyfully.
Preparation for ordination is a rigorous, multi-year process. First of all, it requires a significant amount of “self-study,” for example, building enough self-awareness to resolve inner conflicts or doubts that can hold us back in life. It also requires us to build trust and harmony with other order members — necessitating a honing of interpersonal communication skills. This is needed because the work we do is not as individuals, but as part of a community of spiritual practitioners. And of course, we need to be knowledgeable about the Buddha’s teachings, which in itself is quite a lot to tackle. Not just to understand it intellectually, but to embody it in our own lives.
This training is all done through retreats, study, and individual mentoring. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and also the most rewarding.
How did your parents react to your ordination as a Buddhist Minister?
My father passed away right around the time I started going to Triratna meetings, so he never saw it. My mother, who is deeply spiritual, was very pleased. She saw how important this was to me, and supported what I was doing. I think by that time, she had gone through a personal shift herself. She was in her 70s and had just moved back to Japan after some 35 years in a foreign country that she never felt comfortable in. She was honoring her own needs for the first time in her life and going “home.”
You mention studying meditation…
Everything about the Buddha’s teachings comes back to the mind; it is the genesis of everything. If we train ourselves to live with a pure mind and heart, we create a world around us that reflects these qualities. Meditation sharpens our mental muscles so that we are able to shape our thoughts and actions and live according to these principles. I find meditation to be enormously practical, helpful, and ultimately liberating.
Has meditation helped your physical ails as well?
Yes and no. Meditation in itself doesn’t directly address physical ails. To the extent that stress and/or poor choices created self-inflicted conditions, meditation definitely has been instrumental in helping me to see where I’m creating my own problems, and hence reduce or eliminate those. But on the other hand, I have many other conditions that have nothing to do with stress or self-inflicted choices – such as hyper-mobile joints that are injury prone (e.g. my wrists), or the fact that depression runs in my family.
Meditation has been tremendously helpful in bringing me to a positive relationship with things I cannot change. Rather than struggling against them or wishing they would go away — the mental anguish of which becomes its own self-inflicted stress – meditation has taught me how to be at peace with what is, and manage the conditions in a constructive way. That’s really been huge.
Paradoxically, it’s my being at peace with these conditions that are ultimately turning them around for me. That’s especially true for the depression. And I find that’s true for a lot of things in life. When we stop struggling against something, it changes the whole relationship in a way that we can get through to the other side.
How did you figure out what to do with your work life?
Out of complete desperation, I grabbed the one thing that was in front of me. A fellow Buddhist order member was running an online meditation resource, Wildmind, and was looking for someone to teach classes online. The pay was meager, but the work felt right. I jumped for it.
It took several more years of meandering but, one small step at a time, I rebuilt my life. I found that I had a talent for teaching meditation and coaching/mentoring others. It was deeply satisfying as well. Not knowing what else to do, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, even though I had no idea where it was taking me. Each step seemed right in its own way.
As I kept stepping forward, getting trained in coaching seemed like a good thing to do. So, at age 50, I went to iPEC for life coaching training. A few years after that, the whole mindfulness wave started to gather momentum — and here I was, perfectly positioned to ride that wave. So, at 53, I got training to become a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher. This is the program started by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 as a secular course in meditation for patients dealing with chronic pain. Though the course stands essentially unchanged since then, it now appeals to a far broader audience dealing with just about any personal challenge, not just medical issues.
It seemed like the universe started coming to meet me, in response to the tentative but heartfelt intentions I had put out there. And when that momentum kept building, that’s when I knew I was in the right place.
What is your next act?
All of my work centers around mindfulness, specifically, helping people wake up to who they really are and reconnect with their inner strengths and wisdom. I teach meditation through my MBSR classes, offer corporate mindfulness training, and coach individuals to build meaningful lives for themselves. I also teach within my Buddhist community, and mentor women working toward ordination.
I love my work. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing people’s eyes light up or hear their voices energize when they “get it.” By that I mean just seeing how simple yet powerful it is to relax into simply being who you are.
This is not only my work, it’s my whole life, very much connected to my Buddhist vision. The way to end human suffering is to begin with ourselves — not through outward achievement, but by finding one’s peace and strength within. And when we find that, we can’t help but radiate our light of goodness out into the world. I feel like I’m working to spark lights out there, one at a time.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I thought about throwing in the towel more times than I can count. When I was deep in my crisis and earning no money, I desperately wanted to run back to the high-tech world, tail between my legs. Regular paychecks — what a luxury! But nothing ever seemed to pan out.
There was the time a friend who was a senior executive offered to help me get a job at his software company. He was open to everything I asked for, including working part time. And their location would have been a 30-minute walk from home. It sounded perfect. Even with that offer on a proverbial silver platter, I couldn’t bring myself to pursue it. And that’s when I knew that I had closed the door to my past. If the perfect job couldn’t lure me back, then nothing would.
My husband, bless him, has stood by me and given me his 100% support every step along the way — even when I was earning no money at all. And of course, my Buddhist friends were cheering me along as well. They saw how integral this was to my personal growth as a spiritual being — it wasn’t just about my career or money. It makes such a difference to have the support of people you love when doing this kind of work!
What range of issues have you helped people address through your coaching?
I am most drawn to working with women in midlife who are at a turning point. On the surface, clients bring to me issues like seeking more meaningful work, wanting to cultivate their creativity, dealing with loss (children leaving home, divorce, or death) or a serious medical condition, or just wanting to cut through the unrelenting minutiae of daily living.
But the key driver behind all of these issues is a deeper, intuitive knowing that there is more to life — both in terms of what they have to give, and how happy they can be in themselves. And they feel ready to take ownership of that search. I walk beside them on their journey of turning inward and finding their spiritual roots. Paradoxically, doing this work fosters their capacity and confidence to give more outwardly and joyfully. And it starts a lovely virtuous circle.
One theme that comes up often is simply feeling scattered. Knowing that life is much more than to do lists, clients come to me asking how can they focus their energies and live in a way that feels more meaningful. Whether it’s more time with the family or energy for artistic pursuits, I work with clients to figure out how to sustainably do what has to get done but also create space to open and move toward what is truly important.
Other clients come seeking more meaningful work — whether paid or otherwise. One wanted to switch out of a career in corporate marketing communications. But she had no clue what she wanted instead. This search involved digging deep to draw out a holistic picture of the kind of life that would make her feel fulfilled. One session, the idea of becoming a therapist popped out — out of a realization that she had a talent and love for connecting with and helping people one-on-one. It wasn’t long before she knew this was where she was going. She has since gotten trained and is working happily in her new career.
Others come with troubling medical conditions that have no immediate prospect of improving. One client’s condition left her exhausted and bedridden for most of the day. No doctor had been able to diagnose, let alone treat, her illness. We slowly rebuilt her life based on what was possible, and especially worked on the self-defeating thoughts that kept holding her back. Remarkably, she began to regain her strength and is now starting a small web-based retail business selling vintage items. It’s something she can do from home, on her own time. And she loves dabbling with vintage goods, so it’s something fun, too.
What advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
When facing big personal transitions, I too often see women paralyzed by not knowing what to do. There’s the fear: fear of failure; fear of change; fear of not having enough, since this kind of change often means leaving a dependable source of income, security, or both. I was there too. I remember what that felt like.
And then there’s that huge myth around the idea of “following your passion.” The thing is, most of us have no clue what our passion is. At least not to start. All these unknowns and unknowables! We can get overwhelmed by them all. And so it’s so much easier to fall back into our default mode — bumping along, same as it ever was.
I think what saved me during my crisis was to keep reflecting on the distinction between what’s actually in front of me vs. my thoughts about what’s in front of me. What am I seeing, hearing, sensing? And where am I crossing over into unhelpful stories and interpretations about them? Not that there’s anything wrong with stories and interpretations, but it’s important to recognize them for what they are. They aren’t facts, and I don’t need to believe everything I think.
My mantra was to come back to the present moment and ask, “What’s possible now?” In any given moment, I can only take one step. Based on what’s actually in front of me, how do I choose to respond? No one is asking me to take flying leaps off of cliffs, or slay entire dragons at once. Just take one step. And then from that new place, take one step again. Repeat over and over. After some years had passed, I was amazed at how far I’d come.
What’s important is finding something that interests you and draws you in — and that can be quite different for each person. If you’re starting out, try different things and see what inspires you. It’s that spark of inspiration that counts.
At the same time, don’t pick and choose ONLY the things that are fun, interesting, and make you feel good. Inner transformation isn’t about feeling good. It’s about shaking things up at your core, breaking out of old ways of being that keep you stuck. Be willing to go out on a limb a bit and be uncomfortable. Going through change isn’t easy, but given the alternative, I found it a price worth paying.
So I’d encourage you to pick a certain path and go deeper. Whether it’s yoga or a spiritual discipline, find a particular style or school and really study it. Delve into its deeper meanings. Ask questions. Make it a part of your daily life.
After a while, I feel it’s necessary to move beyond books and programs, and find a real live teacher or mentor who can help guide you to go deeper. Everyone’s life is unique. And how you work with your unique circumstances IS your spiritual path. Going deeper is hard to do on our own. It’s hard to see beyond our own blind spots and vulnerabilities. It really helps to have someone who can guide you through.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
If you’re feeling inspired to pursue a path of helping others through personal/spiritual transformation, please don’t ever stop being a student. Don’t ever stop learning and growing, with humility, from your own life. Your life is your best teacher, and the work is never complete. It’s a process that only grows deeper and more beautiful over the years.
As we in turn reach out a hand to others, I think our best offering is not so much our words or advice, but our living example and authenticity — including our failings. We all experience struggles. And people around us see how we work with them — whether we want them to or not. Besides, struggles aren’t anything to be ashamed of. People understand and connect more easily to someone who is “real.” Don’t be afraid to be real.
Do you have resources you recommend?
For anyone interested in pursuing a spiritual path, there are so many excellent books and resources out there. Here are some of my personal favorites related to Buddhism and meditation:
Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzburg
Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body by Reginald A. Ray
While I don’t teach beginning meditation lessons as part of my coaching, if you live in the Boston area, you can take my Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class.
What’s next for you?
I don’t see myself ever jumping off this path I’m on. This has become my life’s mission and I’ll continue doing it in one form or another until my last breath. It’s not about a career — it’s my life. And, like my life, it always changes and evolves, and I learn and grow from each turn. And that’s what makes it a fascinating and wonderful journey.
Contact Sunada Takagi at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-539-6409
Mindful Purpose Coaching: Inspiring change from the inside out
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