From Peak Publisher to Inner Explorer: An Interview With Phillip Moffitt

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: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering” and co-author of “The Power to Heal” and “Medicine’s Great Journey.” Moffitt’s book, “Emotional Chaos to Clarity: Move from the Chaos of the Reactive Mind to the Clarity of the Responsive Mind 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 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?

PM: 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?

PM: 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.

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