Former CEO trades Esquire magazine for a Dance with Buddhism
In his first book since stepping down as Editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine, Phillip Moffitt likens the ups and downs of life to “life dancing” with us. He breaks down each movement of the dance with life and encourages us to co-choreograph a dance of our own.
Interview with Diana deRegnier
June 07, 2008
Diana: It seems like one of the differences between you and some of the other new age practitioners is that you’re saying that the dance is leading, life is leading, and you react to it. You respond to it. You go with the dance.
Phillip: Right. I say that based on what the Buddha said, which I found to be true in my
own life experience and observation now of thousands of people that I’ve worked with. There is this suffering, this stress. This unreliability is interwoven into all experience. It’s not that all life is suffering; it’s just that suffering is part of the deal. It’s the ticket to ride. The price to get on the bus, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said. He said something like that. And that is life dancing.
So how are you going to respond? The practical core of my teaching is that if you don’t pay attention, what you do is you live in reactive mind. So if something pleasant comes up, you try to get it. You wanna get that; or if you’ve got it you try to keep it; or if it’s unpleasant you try to get rid of it or you try to avoid it. You’re like a puppet on these two strings. You’re danced around by the pleasant and unpleasant of your wanting or your not wanting of it, and on and on and on. Just this little puppet.
That’s the reactive mind, and is that really what we want? Did we go through all of the struggles of our lives to be little Pavlovian rats on a tread wheel responding to the reinforcement of the pleasant or the shock of the unpleasant? I don’t think so, at least not the people that I’ve encountered. They do want something more, and what’s something more? It’s being able to respond to life. So moving from reactivity to response.
So response involves choice. So something unpleasant happens. It’s certainly unpleasant, but rather than reacting when something unpleasant happens, you go: ‘This is unpleasant, but it doesn’t have to do with me, one way or the other. Yes, I wish my back wasn’t hurting right now, but I’m not going to let it ruin my day. Yes, I wish this person in the office was not so difficult, but I’m not going to get all upset because they’re bein’ mean to me or bein’ unfair or causing me a delay in getting my work done. I’m not going to be reactive to them and get in a bad mood and take it out on other people. I’m just not going to be pulled by that string. Instead, I’m coming from my values, which is that I’m a caring person and I want to get my work done, and I want to have this kindness toward myself and others as I’m doing this.’
And, that’s response. So when you’re in a responsive modality to life, there is this sense of choice and it is a genuine relationship. When you’re the puppet at the end of those strings and just in reactive mind state, I don’t call that a genuine relationship. ‘Cuz to me relationship is two ways. It is in this responsiveness that you get to co-create your life.
So, let’s say somebody you’re really close to, you perceive having said something that was really mean to you and hurts your feelings and makes you mad. So in a reactive mind state, you say something mad or you’re mean right back because you’re not going to let them do that to you. But in a responsive mind state you go, ‘Wow, that hurts.’ You feel it in your body. You know, ‘This doesn’t feel good at all. This is upsetting me.’
So, instead of speaking some bad thoughts, you might have some bad thought about that person but you don’t speak it. And, then, as of course it turns out, either you find a time later on where this gets worked out or it doesn’t, but you don’t get defined by it. You’re not caught in it. You’re not contracted into those bad feelings. It doesn’t ruin your day; it was just a bad moment.
And then many times we find out they really weren’t saying what we thought they were saying. Or yes they said that to us, but what really happened was that something terrible had happened to them that day and they were just mad and they were just spouting off. So you actually co-created in that moment, by not responding, you changed the course of your life.
Another example would be, instead of responding, you say, ‘Wow, you seem really upset. Is there something going on?’ That’s creativity. It’s just like writing an article or writing a book or doing a piece of music. You’re being co-creative with life in that moment. Your caring response, your non-reactive response changes what life is in that moment. You co-created a moment of harmony, of peace, of inquiry, of possibility. Whereas before there was no possibility. Everybody was just reacting to the little strings of pleasant and unpleasant. So that’s dancing with life.
A component of New Age thought is that we draw these experiences to us. That we meditate and bring in everything positive and everything good, or that anything negative that happens to us we have somehow drawn that to us.
Phillip: Oh, well there’s so many different variations of that kind of thinking. From the Eastern religions point of view there is this term of karma, that is, there are causes and conditions in one moment that seek future moments. So there is that sense.
Diana: In the same lifetime?
Phillip: In the same lifetime or then in many lifetimes. It’s taught both ways. But the idea that you’re drawing, because you are co-creating life … so if you get in a bad mood and start treating people badly, you are going to get bad things coming back at you eventually. So that’s accurate enough, but the idea that you’re at fault or you’re to blame is from my point of view a misperception.
Because it is inevitable in the human life that you’re going to have these discomforting things occur. It’s part of the way it’s organized. It’s not personal to you. It’s impersonal. You then have a personal experience and a personal history, a stream of experience around this.
But you’re experiencing these universal things. We all know what it’s like to have our feelings hurt. We all know what it’s like to be afraid. We all know what it’s like to be cold or hungry. Hungry and cold and fear and disappointment and longing and excitement they are universal. They are universal; it’s impersonal.
But then we each get this personal experience of it and how we respond to that personal experience of it in this moment. Rather than worrying about, ‘Oh, well I brought this on me,’ that’s beside the point. That kind of thinking doesn’t have a proactiveness, doesn’t have an empowerment to it.
Rather than, Ok, here, this moment in my life is like this. I’m out of a job, or I’m worried about losing my job, in this moment. So, what do I do right now? How do I not get trapped in a way that leads to more suffering, right now?
So the emphasis in Buddha dharma is in the nowness, the sacred nowness of this moment. Knowing what’s true right now and knowing how to respond in a way that’s skillful, in the moment, and also beneficial for the future.
Diana: When this moment is so unbearable, what is the best thing to do in that moment?
Phillip: Well, the Buddha taught, in his primary teachings on meditation, what we refer to as the four foundations, that is the four aspects of life. He sort of divided all of life into four aspects, And the first of these was awareness of the body. So when things are really uncomfortable, so often, if you ground yourself in the body, so you acknowledge what’s present, and as well as you can, you relax into it.
Then you inquire in terms of the body: ‘So this is what’s going on? This is what’s going on in this moment.’
‘So having lost my mother or my brother or sister to some horrible sickness feels like this.’ There’s a genuine acknowledgement of what’s true. Once you’ve fully acknowledged it, you’re not making it worse by trying to push it away.
It doesn’t mean that you go on and on holding onto it that way. But you just acknowledge that. And then you notice that there’s this pain, like maybe your heart feels like its breaking. Maybe your stomach’s in knots or your whole nervous system feels like it can’t stand another moment. And then you notice, you look around to find something that has a more neutral feeling in the body. So maybe it’s your hands or the bottoms of the feet. So that you’re not in this contraction into what was so hard, so unbearable.
And then you bring in, from this acknowledgement of how tough this is, you acknowledge to yourself, ‘Wow, this really hurts.’ You develop this compassionate feeling for yourself.
We have two different practices, one of compassion, one of loving kindness. In each instance, people who are learning this are so surprised being compassionate toward themselves makes them feel better. It really surprises them.
Many people get confused about feeling sorry for themselves or feeling like a victim or feeling [life’s] unfair. That’s not compassion. Compassion is the kind of thing like a little child. A little girl gets hurt, she scraped her knee, she comes running to you for comfort. You hold her. You don’t make the scraped knee go away, but that holding her with caring makes the trauma go away. It´s just a hurt knee. There’s some reassurance to the caring presence. That’s what we cultivate within ourselves to be with these really difficult moments.
Diana: Do you have a place in the process for anger?
Phillip: Yes, anger comes as part of life. So we feel anger in the body and then we notice the form the anger is taking. Is it an inner voice? Who’s voice is it? Are there inner images? What is the nature of those inner images? Again, how does it feel in the body? And then we go, so within this anger, the way we’re holding it, is this causing suffering to me or not? That’s the way we tend to it. That’s the mindfulness.
And then, staying with it, this kind of inquiry, we may see there’s an injustice here that I wanna speak to. But my anger is my reactivity. I’m not responding to the injustice. First of all, I had this injustice happen to me. Now I’m making myself miserable a second time by my anger. So, we lose the anger. But from that process we have this clear scene, this clear wisdom, this clarity about this is unjust and I will speak to it.
Diana: You spoke a moment ago about how Buddha’s first idea is to look into the body. I hadn’t realized that is part of Buddhist teaching.
Phillip: Yes, [with] the Sutta that teaches how to do this mindfulness meditation. He asks you to be aware of the body and gives you different practices to be aware of the body: which includes the breath; but also the body standing up, lying down, sitting, walking, the body doing various tasks, the parts of the body, the elements that make up the body. These different kinds of practices. He then asks that you be aware of them in you, of your body, but also in another person’s body.
So, for instance, I will ask my students, after they’ve been practicing breath for a while, I will ask them in their telephone conversations during the week, to be aware of the breath of the other person when they’re talking on the phone. And, it is remarkable what happens, because suddenly, they are much more open. They are aware of many more things. And if they’re getting caught in a conversation where they’re disagreeing with that person, once they start listening to the breath of that person, the amount of disagreement and tension goes away because they’re starting to make a connection. Even though it’s just breath.
You can try it for yourself this week and see what happens.
Diana: I will, definitely.
Phillip: Someone like maybe a friend that’s also difficult, or a brother or sister that’s a little difficult. You could just do it. Or some situation where you’re doing your job and you get tense. Then, find your own breath. Here you are doing your job and you’re feeling tense and find your breath. And then, always finding yours first, then you find the breath of the other person. And the third thing is to find the breath of you and the other person.
Diana: It sounds like it takes you into loving kindness for the other person.
Phillip: Well, it takes you into an awareness, and if you cultivate it, a kindness attitude, or if you start cultivating, it invites that. Some people have such a habit of a judging mind and they’re so stuck in their story-making. And, it’s so sad to see people being a slave to their story-making and not recognize it’s just story-making.
So they have this judgment about themselves, they’re no good or this happens to them, or they have this judgment about other people. It’s really a kind of hel_l-rim to be constantly living.
Diana: Could you explain the story-making?
Phillip: So the story-making, we want to take our events and put them in the frame of our ego, being in control in some way. So, say you’re dealing with your brother or sister and there’s some difficulty there. Then you want to look for fault. So, she didn’t have to say that, we were getting along perfectly fine before she said that. ‘You see how she causes problems.’ Or you go, ‘Oh no, I did it wrong again.’ And you repeat that story over and over, and you add story to it. And then you remember the past and you build up this huge story.
In contrast, you go, ‘Here I’m talking to my sister and it’s difficult. I love my sister and it’s difficult.’ But, it’s just difficult and since I love my sister, I will continue to talk with her and I won’t get reactive to these difficult feelings coming up. Then you’re free of the story-making. It doesn’t mean that you give up your discernment.
This is one of the big confusions between judgment. Judgment which is making ‘bad.’ There’s a person who is bad or good. Whereas discernment, this is skillful, this is unskillful. It keeps it on a much more impersonal level. ‘Wow, you know, the way she is interacting with me about my child is very unskillful.’ But it doesn’t make her a bad person. It’s just unskillful. And it changes the orientation. You can maybe feel why it would.
Phillip: Quite profound. And, that this guy figured this out 2500 years ago is just amazing. Just amazing how we in the West are catching up with that. And, of course, it’s been lost many times.
Diana: In the body, mind idea, I noticed there are several places where you talk about the mind, body interaction. I’m guessing then that they express where in their body they feel what’s happening to them. How is that different from psychosomatic illness.
Phillip: Well, it turns out that all of our emotions are felt in our body. That’s something that therapists have discovered. And many times we can gain more clarity about what we’re emotionally feeling by noticing what we’re experiencing in our body because our minds are too fuzzy around the emotions. So, ‘Oh, my stomach’s tight. I know that this means that I’m feeling a kind of uncertainty and anger. I’ve felt this before in my stomach. I’ve examined it afterwards for what happened, and I know what I’m feeling, even though my head’s not sayin’ that to me yet. I know this is what’s goin’ on.’
So, we calm down, or we know how to take care of ourselves. We pull back from the conversation or we restate what we’re doing. We find ways that are skillful to deal with it.
So, it’s using the body to know what’s true. Psychosomatic is like when we’re having body pains that are coming from emotion. Our emotions affect our body in all sorts of ways. And, our body affects our emotions, so it’s a two-way street. And that’s why I encourage people to have some sort of movement practice. Because the more you move in your body in that way, it will affect your emotional states.
Diana: On page 67, under the subhead, inspiration for stepping into the fire. You say, ‘You don’t have to first become a new and improved version of yourself.’ What a relief I felt
Phillip: This to me, if there’s one single bit of good news, it’s that you can dance with life far more skillfully in your imperfect, disgruntled self just as it is. That this idea that … and it’s so surprising how many people think that they’ve got to get better in order to be better. The problem with that is that would be like trying to get off that couch by lifting yourself off the chair over there. You’re not over there, so you’re not ever going to get standing if you’re going to try to get up from the chair when you’re sitting on the couch.
So in that same way, people think they’re not good enough the way they are. But they’re innate nature is what’s being called on here. We all have our particular difficulties or distortions. We reflect our history. But even with your history, just as you are, you can start being kinder to yourself and kinder to others. Right away you can start being more aware.
Certain change takes a long time, but it doesn’t mean that you have to be somebody different for that change to occur. If you just persist the change occurs, and now you do become someone different, but you didn’t become someone different to change. By practicing, by being aware of who you were and staying with who you were, you’ve brought about the desired change.
Which is much more practical and much more likely to happen than this ‘Oh, I’ll just go to the gym and I’ll lose this weight and I’ll just go do this. I need to get some therapy and all these things.’ No, just start right now, just as you are.
But you’ve got to have a practice. You have to have some sort of practice. I’m not saying it has to be a Buddhist practice but some sort of practice that involves awareness and intention.
What is called right or wise intention is this axial point in inner development. It’s an axial point. You can have all the understanding in the world, and you can have these great aspirations, but in this very moment you’re acting one way or the other and remembering.
First of all, having clarity as to what is your intention in this very act of speaking or taking a step or making a decision. Not your goal but your intention. Right now, what is my intention as I’m making this intention, as I’m going toward this goal. Well, I intend to be present, I intend to be mindful of what is happening to me. I intend to come from my deeper values. I intend to be kind to myself and another in this moment. Right now.
So, I may be trying to be a more aware person in the long term. That’s my goal. I’m goin’ to be a person who’s really aware. I’m going to be a wise person. I’m going to be a person who’s no longer so controlled by their fear, no longer controlled by their anger. That’s your goal.
Those are wonderful goals. You need goals. Goals give you direction in life. They tell you how to allocate your resources. They also add the spice of life. How am I doin’? Am I getting there? Am I not getting there?
But intention is in this moment, am I doing anything whether it’s anger or un-thoughtfulness that is not living up to my values? Right now. It’s so dramatic, the difference in orientation, rather than this big concept in time or some future – about being something in the future. ‘Cuz you can be something right now. Right now is when you get to dance with life. See, when you’re caught in the future, you’re not really present to dance with life ‘cuz life is right now. All your life is right this moment. In this moment. In this moment.
Check it out for yourself. There’s not any other moment you’re alive, than this moment. You can’t find yourself in any other moment. You have a memory that there was someone five minutes ago, but she’s not here. You think that you’re most likely gonna be alive in another ten minutes, but she’s not here right now. Maybe she won’t be, and you have no idea exactly what she’s going to be thinking or what she’s about. But you do know right this moment that you’re here. This is what you’re about. This is how you’re responding to my words to my presence, and how you’re feelin’ me respond to your words and your presence. And this is where you dance. You dance right now. Externally you dance with me, internally you dance with yourself. Right now. Right now.
Diana: The last question I have is, at the Tiburon Library when you spoke, you said that one of the joys you especially experienced was to chose the cover for your magazine. So how did you chose this cover and what does it mean?
Phillip: It was a collaboration. All credit to the designer, but they were kind enough to let me participate in it.
Diana: Is their another cover that you would have chosen?
Phillip: Oh, no, no. This was a collaborative effort, but all credit to the design. To me it’s symbolic of the Boddhi tree. The tree that the Buddha sat under when he achieved enlightenment. The tree of life is one of our most ancient symbols for life. So we see a tree as symbolizing life, because it’s rooted and it’s going up into the heavens. So there’s this combination of that, and somewhere in our human psyche we just naturally know that all these different cultures have created their versions of the tree as a symbol of life.
Diana: Thank you so very much [for these teachings].