Commencement Address: Nina Smiley (May 19, 2019)

Nina Smiley delivers the Commencement Address, Sunday, May 19, 2019, at SUNY New Paltz

It’s an honor to be here to celebrate with all of you today. Graduates… families and friends… faculty.

Most importantly, I want to say, “Congratulations, graduates!” because this is your moment!

And to make it even more your moment – graduates, please take a full, deep breath right now… and take this in. Feel the energy of Commencement. All around you. Inside you. Truly be present right here and right now – so that years in the future you can recall and experience again the exhilarating satisfaction of this accomplishment, and also perhaps a sense of poignancy as you mark the end of this phase of your life.

My words from this day will most likely be lost in a blur, and that’s fine. What I want to offer are some concepts that can serve as a touchstone throughout your life.

When I was in college, I was fortunate to hear a talk by Margaret Mead, a remarkable anthropologist who had studied different cultures worldwide. She said that her research led her to understand something very basic. That “the most important thing you can learn is how to build your nest in a storm.” Think about it… the most important thing you can learn is how to build your nest in a storm.

What I understood from her simple phrase is that resilience is not only important in life, it’s an essential part of wellbeing.

Life is rarely a straight path. As much as we’d like it to be a process of connecting the dots in a line, it’s too rich and full and messy – perhaps gloriously messy – and unpredictable to fall into place so easily. And it’s the times when things shift away from our plans that may be the most valuable experiences of all.

I’ve seen this in my own life.

As a graduating senior in college, I was ready to move in with my then-boyfriend and probably get engaged. We’d been dating for a while and it seemed like a straight-line progression.

Then I met Bert. And life became gloriously messy and unpredictable. I parted ways with my college boyfriend. Bert and I happily lived together for a year and then decided to go to graduate school. We both went to Princeton where I got a doctorate in psychology and he got one in economics. We moved to Washington, DC, and got jobs in our fields.

Working in DC for ten years, we enjoyed our careers, and it seemed again like our path was linear.

And then Mohonk Mountain House brought us back to New Paltz.

Mohonk Mountain House was founded in 1869 by Bert’s great-grand Uncle, also Albert Smiley. I’m happy to say that Mohonk is celebrating its 150th Anniversary this year and is thriving.

30 years ago when we came back to join the family business, it was a different story.

Bert and I left our careers in Washington to put our joint energy into saving Mohonk, which was not doing well at that time. He became President / CEO and I became Director of Marketing. It was a non-linear, completely unexpected move that changed our lives forever.

As we faced the challenges of building the business, strengthening the infrastructure, bringing Mohonk into the 21st century and nurturing a staff of more than 700, we sometimes said to ourselves, “What have we done?!”

And we learned some life lessons along the way. About connection, communication, and compassion… about relationships and resilience.

I’d like to share some of this with you.

At the heart of what we learned is that each moment is a choice.

Although this may seem obvious on the surface, it can have profound implications for living your happiest, most satisfying life.

“Each Moment is a Choice” is based on mindfulness. Mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness of what is – simply being present one moment at a time, in a gentle non-judgmental way. The non-judgmental part is important because minds are often judging: I like this… I don’t like that… This is good… This is bad… This is great… That’s ridiculous… and when minds are busy judging, it’s difficult to listen deeply and fully.

What if you could learn to be truly present and listen deeply to better take in another person’s perspective… seeking to connect, instead of closing down? Seeking to communicate, with compassion for yourself and others… Seeking to nurture relationships and resilience at home and at work… Seeking to foster a happier, more satisfying life.

Each moment that you choose to be mindfully present – simply aware of What Is without judging – you are changing the structure of your brain. This is called “neuroplasticity.” When you do something repeatedly, neurons connect in a new way in your brain to support the new habit.

So, how do you begin to explore this mindful way of being present in the moment?

Turns out it’s only a breath away.

You begin to breathe gently and fully. You focus awareness on the breath. You let go of thoughts, let go of fear, let go of expectations. You clear the mind and calm the body. Again and again.

As you do this, you create a new neural path in the brain. Each moment that you choose clarity and calmness instead of stress, you’re increasing your ability to do so again.

You’re increasing your ability to live with resilience, which increases your ability to connect with others, to communicate, to nurture relationships… to be happy.

Understanding that each moment is a choice gives you an endless opportunity to grow and change.

Each morning, Bert and I would set our intention for the day, saying, “May we live with compassion, with grace, with insight, with integrity, with love.” Understanding that each moment is a choice has allowed us to build our nest in a storm as often as needed. Again and again. One moment at a time.

As you move on in your life – remember to breathe. And know that each moment is a choice.

Today at Commencement, my wish for each of you is the gift of resilience. May you live with compassion, with grace, with insight, with integrity, with love… whatever it is you choose to do.

Thank you and congratulations.