Phillip Moffitt’s Mindfulness

At age 40, at the peak of his career, Phillip Moffitt, CEO and editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine, did something many of us long to do. He traded in his worldly aspirations to explore the inner life. Moffitt left his New York City lifestyle and immersed himself in studying mindfulness meditation, Theravada Buddhism, Jungian psychology, aikido, yoga and various mind-body healing techniques. Subsequently, he developed a process for managing one’s life, which he calls Life Balance work, and, in 1991, he founded the Life Balance Institute to help others find more meaning and a greater sense of well-being in their lives. He integrates his knowledge of Western psychology with his own mindfulness-meditation experience to provide training in skillful living to individuals and therapists. And he combines his expertise in both business and inner development to provide training in sustainable leadership to executives.

Moffitt leads meditation retreats at Spirit Rock and at other Buddhist centers around the United States and Canada and teaches a weekly meditation class in Marin County, California. He has written about mindfulness for Yoga Journal, Body and Soul and Shambhala Sun and is the author of Dancing with Life and co-author of The Power to Heal and Medicine’s Great Journey. Moffitt’s newest book, Emotional Chaos to Clarity (2012) was the subject of a recent conversation.

Brain World: How are you able to combine your inner and outer lives so successfully?
Phillip Moffit: I can do it because I am deeply, passionately involved in both the inner and the external world. I’m able to engage both in the external world without getting caught in it now in the way that I once would have. I can also go into this more subtle, mysterious, inner life that we all have, be intensely investigative in that world and yet come back out of it. I don’t get lost in that world, either. Because I am involved in both worlds, I am very useful to many people. I have thousands of meditation students and then business leaders and people in change and transition, because I know the inner world in a way that’s different than a psychotherapist. I call Life Balance work “strategic analysis.” I will say to a client or a group, “You must understand I am not a therapist; I am an interventionist.” I create plans coming from this very slow and deep examination of what really matters to them. That’s why it really works. Because a lot of times there will be something I’ll say to them which they’ll start to challenge, saying, “You don’t understand,” and then they’ll stop because they realize, “Oh, he really does understand, because he’s been there and done it.” Therefore I have a level of credibility that’s pretty unique.

BW: Does our resistance come from not living according to our core values?
I feel as though we spend much of the time not connected to ourselves. There’s always so many things to get done, and so many things you’re not getting done. There’s an amount of stress and worry around it, and many times it’s this lower-brain kind of worry, rather than a higher frontal cortex thing that sees this. People think they’ve got to be more rational. But actually that’s not necessarily the way to get there. The more that you’re connected with your heart and use your brain for clarity of assessment, those two working together in that way allows you not to get thrown off by all of the disturbances of life. And there are going to be disturbances. As we start getting connected to our deeper sense of our selves, we end up placing less importance about whether conditions are pleasant or unpleasant. That’s where the freedom starts to come in. The brain is so plastic in that way that it can be retrained pretty easily.

BW: How can it be retrained to see unpleasant things as not unpleasant?
We learn not to identify with the unpleasant and have to reject it. We don’t make a whole big story up about it. It’s just unpleasant. There’s a big difference between “It’s unpleasant and that’s awful,” which is a judgment, or, “It’s more unpleasant for me than it is for my brother or sister or friend,” which is a comparison, or, “Oh it’s unpleasant, this is unacceptable,” which is demanding that this moment be other than it is. For example, if the conditions in my life are unpleasant—I’m in a meeting and it’s not going well, or I didn’t get the job, or I’ve got all this pressure on me—this is unpleasant, but I don’t become so identified with it that it occupies my whole range of experience. With mindfulness and intention, your intention stays large so that even though what’s unpleasant you’d prefer not to be unpleasant, it’s just that, unpleasant. Ironically, when I first say this, people don’t believe me. Over time, as you learn to just be with pleasant and unpleasant, what’s pleasant actually becomes more pleasant. Because ordinarily, something that’s pleasant, you start thinking, “Oh I want more of this, I need to get this more often.” Therefore, we go to the unpleasant aspect of what’s pleasant. It’s mind-boggling that the brain does this, but, from the survival aspect, that’s what the lower brain’s supposed to do. And it’s served us really well. But as we mature, the task for the brain is to learn to differentiate through perception in a very different way.

BW: Would you say that meditation is the way to retrain the brain?
That’s one way. Through mindfulness meditation, you watch the brain. You’re not trying to numb yourself or hide out from your emotions. You start to really learn to be with your emotions and watch your thinking patterns and see what’s skillful or unskillful. Just seeing it over and over again changes it. You watch yourself and you develop this mindfulness of what’s true right now. “Am I pushing away what’s true right now rather than willing to be with it?” Now, you may want to change what’s true right now, but first accept it as true right now. If you don’t really let it in, you’re not going to have as much perspective on it, and you’re also going to get all tense. Say you don’t like working with this person. You say, “I don’t like working with this person. I wonder if this can change. If it can’t change, I should find another job,” versus, “I can’t stand working with this person,” and then the rest of your day is all in tension and you’re nasty to people because you have a difficult person that you work with. The brain gets conditioned moment to moment.

BW: How do you become more intuitive?
Mindfulness of the body is the place to start. The more you are body-aware, really living in the body, the more you actually feel those subtle signals flash through you. This staying embodied means mindfully embodied—that is, you feel the experience of your body in the body. We tend to get out of the body when we get nervous, or we’re unhappy, or we feel something emotionally, or we’re unhappy because the body has a little discomfort, or a lot of discomfort. It’s the wrong thing to do, ironically. But from the brain’s perspective, that lower brain, it’s kind of like numbing yourself. You leave your body to get done what’s got to be done. So in a fight-or-flight way it’s not wrong, but in terms of wisdom, of well-being in your life, that’s not the system you’d want to be using.

BW: It sounds like you’re teaching people to be patient and endure.
Patience and persistence are the two words I use. It’s really retraining the brain. And you’re not trying to be perfect or create a perfect brain. You’re aligning your brain, retraining it to be with your values, so you can have an experience of well-being under all circumstances. You’re already trying to control your circumstances as best you can, so this isn’t trying to make you more effective in controlling your circumstances—although it will help you do that, to a certain degree. Rather, when you have well-being in all circumstances, that’s when you are alive and empowered.

BW: What do you mean by “skillful living”?
Skillful living to me is that you are able to meet the challenges of life without being thrown off by the difficulty of it. So you get knocked off, but you come back to center. You don’t get stuck over where you got knocked off. You’re going to have a lot of untoward things happen in your life. Disappointments, setbacks both of your own, your family, society, country. It’s the nature of this realm. One way I talk about it is I say we’re retraining the mind, the brain, from a reactive mind-state pattern to a responsive mind-state pattern. When we’re in reactive states, it’s as though we’re a puppet on a string, and if it’s pleasant we dance one way, and if it’s unpleasant we dance the other. This could be about the future—we’re at work [and thinking], “Oh I really want to get that,”or “Oh I don’t want that to happen to me.” Or it could be about the present moment, or the past where I repeatedly remember this disappointment or that defeat and I get all “poor me” because it’s so unpleasant. That’s hard on the nervous system. Reactivity is based on the immediate stimulation as projected on the pleasant and unpleasant. A responsive mind is based on your values, on your intention.

BW: I guess breathing would really help this.
It gives you something to do. You’re sitting there at a meeting, anxious about presenting, and someone else is taking too much time so you’re not going to have enough time. One thing you can do is go to your breath and breathe a little. That calms you down and takes your mind off your grasping anxiety. You’ve moved your brain from its circuit of worry to a circuit of functioning, and that creates a whole different chemistry in the brain. In addition to the brain, you can feel your hands, feel your butt in the chair, feel your legs, and that can help, too. You’re switching the brain. The more you do it, the more skilled you get. You develop new skillful habits of mind.

BW: What were some of the hurdles you had to jump over that led you to write these wonderful books and help so many people?
I grew up in an environment where learning was not particularly encouraged. There wasn’t much of a sense of possibility. My parents were high school dropouts. This was in the Appalachian mountain area. It was only when I went to college, which was a huge step, that I realized the possibilities that were there for me. From that, I discovered without a sense of possibility we’re always locked into doubt. We doubt our worth, whether there are opportunities for us, if there were opportunities whether we could actually fulfill them. And this can become a lifelong pattern in the brain, as to how the brain is interpreting what it’s receiving. You may think that if you can’t do something right away then “I can’t do it.” But in any area of your life, in any situation of your life, there comes a moment’s time where the possible becomes very real to you. I call that the “imaginative possible.” It’s when you realize, “Maybe I can do this.” It’s not guaranteed, but there’s a real chance. I call that a crossover point, in terms of accomplishing something in terms of your own development.

Let’s suppose you have a difficult sibling, and over and over again the two of you get into this unproductive, not-nice pattern of conversation. And there’s this frustration or hurt feeling over and over again. There comes a moment when you realize, “You know, I don’t have to participate in this, this way. I really know that I am capable of doing this differently. And if I’m different, then the situation is different. I may not be able to pull it off, but I have the possibility of it.” You are then empowered to stick through the frustration and go through the vulnerability. When you’re more present there’s more feeling of the discomfort, but because you have this sense of the imaginative possible, it allows you to push through the resistance to change your lifelong habit of mind and emotions with this person. Every chance I get, I tell people of the imaginative possible.

When I did aikido, the sensei used to say whenever you get frustrated doing a particular throw, get off the mat. Bow to your partner and just get off the mat. Because you’re no longer training the technique. You’re training the frustration. So what we’re really doing is reinforcing our bad-attitude habit-performance. It’s a subtle but relatively direct retraining of the brain.

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