Talk about conflicted!
Jeffrey Rubin has been a friend for a decade. Long before he started writing his new book -- The Art of Flourishing: A New East-West Approach to Staying Sane and Finding Love in an Insane World -- I heard him talk through some of the ideas. I read his book in manuscript and, because I was born that way, I marked passages I loved and passages I loved a little less. A company I co-founded is helping him promote the book online. Yes, I'd call that conflicted.
I can't, in good conscience, review the book -- though I think I'm allowed to say it provoked some brain flares for me and nudged me toward what feels like a better path -- but I can, legitimately, tell you about its author. As a kid, Jeffrey was one of those annoying brainiacs who has, even more annoyingly, a killer jump shot. He burned through Princeton and graduate school, and then, fully credentialed, set out to heal the world.
A funny thing happened along the way. He discovered that Western psychoanalytic theory could get him -- and his patients -- only so far. But he was also a meditator and a seeker, and in Buddhist practice, he found tools that seemed extremely useful. He started to combine West and East and discovered he was on to something. Others agreed. Eventually one of his patients included a Zen master. [That relationship is chronicled in a fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine.]
Jeffrey is still a brainiac -- I doubt Dr. Phil will be saying anything as simple and profound as this:
In meditative psychotherapy, meditation and yogic breathing are used to quiet and focus the mind. Meanwhile, psychotherapeutic insights about unconscious motivations illuminate the meaning of what arises during one's spiritual practice. And the therapeutic relationship -- conceived of in a freer and more empathic way -- is the arena in which new ways of living are explored and actualized.
You need not be a patient of Dr. Rubin's to get the benefit of his work. There's his book, written by a smart grown-up for smart grown-ups, which can, he says, help you "flourish." [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.] What's that? I asked that question, and some follow-ups, on your behalf.
Jesse Kornbluth: So, Doctor Rubin, what is "flourishing?"
Jeffrey Rubin: Here's the short answer: Flourishing is cultivating better relationships by enriching one's self-care and self-awareness.
Now I'll give you the longer version. For me, flourishing begins with resisting the frenetic pace and the bombardment of information and expanding inner space. Meditation and yoga, reading and music help me access inner space. You might get there by walking in nature, writing in a journal or cooking a meal.
I thrive when I appreciate beauty, so I try to remain alert to three areas -- physical beauty, the virtuosity of artists, athletes, and performers and admirable deeds and virtuous character.
We are what we care about. Another important aspect of flourishing for me is living my highest values. And when there is a gap between my ideals and my behavior -- which there sometimes is -- I try to lessen it. These gaps signal what I need to work on.
Balancing my physical needs with my intellectual ones, staying healthy even though I sit a lot in my work, is another aspect of flourishing. My goal is to work towards peak physical health. I happen to be addicted to playing basketball, so staying in shape makes it possible to remain in the game.
Flourishing also involves responding to the challenges I confront. Flourishing is not the same as happiness -- it doesn't always feel good. Sometimes flourishing is knowing I did the best I could.
Living authentically is also a crucial aspect of flourishing. I try to make my life my own, not a stale copy of someone else's style, or a replica of what society encourages me do, but what I, Jeffrey, believe is sane and wise.
The last stage of self-care and the final aspect of flourishing is maintaining and deepening my relationships; being a better partner, a better friend, working through conflict where possible, giving time to the needs of the people I love and care deeply about.
JK: As I read your book, it seems like you're saying we may flourish more in hard times than in boom years. True? Why?
JR: Yes. When all is going well, personally, and culturally, we feel good. And we continue to do what works. But success is a barrier to creativity. We often coast during those times. And as a result, we don't learn anything new, and we don't grow.
Crisis, which is often scary, and does not feel good, can lead to opportunity as well as challenge. Crisis forces us to wake up, to leave the comfort of coasting, to take the wheel and steer -- or crash.
JK: In the book, you write that cultivating beauty is a "cornerstone of a life well lived." Agreed. So let's explore your greatest hits list. Most beautiful music?
JR: Mozart (Symphony 40 in G Minor and Eine kleine Nachtmusik), Beethoven's 5th, Chopin's waltz op. 64, No. 2, Tchaikovsky (especially Swan Lake & Nutcracker), Charlie Parker (Laura), John Coltrane (Crescent), and Motown. Some of my fondest memories as a teenager were playing basketball outside during the summer with friends with Motown as our soundtrack. You would have thought us New Yorkers were living in Detroit.
JK: Most beautiful book?
JR: I'd break out in hives if I had to select one. Greek and Shakespearean tragedy; Great Expectations & Anna Karenina, which got me through an especially tough time; Aristotle's Ethics; And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran; and Centering: Poetry, Pottery and the Person by M. C. Richards. If you ask me this in a week or a month I might have a wholly different list...
JK: Favorite artist?
Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Ivan Aivozovsky's The Ninth Wave, 1850, which is a staggering painting of a small raft at sea. Monet and Renoir, Thomas Cole of the Hudson River school, and Richard Diebenkorn.
JK: I happen to know you like action movies, especially if they star Steven Seagall. Dare you to put one on your list of most beautiful movies.
JR: I love Bruce Lee more than Seagall. Steven might have his hands full with the Little Dragon. Films like The Visitor, The Straight Story, Smoke, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Winter's Bone are on my must-see-again list. And two childhood favorites again: To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride of the Yankees... I couldn't stop laughing during Best in Show.
JK: You tell a great story about winning a high school basketball game with a last-second shot that took place outside of time. Have you had that "Rubin! At the buzzer!" feeling since?
JR: Yes. Playing hoops at night by myself in a gym in East Meadow, NY in 1983. The hoop seemed as big as the ocean and the ball felt attached to my hand like a yo-yo. Time felt like it expanded and I was in a zone of joy and flow. The game felt so easy it was unfair, causing me to laugh out loud while I was playing. I've also had wondrous experiences meditating.
JK: All these people I see multi-tasking -- being in a conversation while texting or Tweeting -- strike me as missing the point completely. Or are they, in their own way, flourishing?
JR: I think it's tricky to measure other peoples' states of mind from the outside. That's the psychoanalyst in me. The Buddhist would say I'm not going to flourish by judging others. That said, what I've personally discovered, and what many of us have been reading about in the recent past, is that multitasking seems to insure that we attend less well to each task and that we feel more scattered, hyper-stimulated, and un-centered, all at once. And this state does tend to get in the way of focusing on doing what is authentically good for us and starves the people around us who need and deserve our complete attention.
JK: I've got 10 minutes. What can I do to enrich my life? What won't work?
JR: One of the deepest lessons I've learned from the yoga tradition is that we become whatever we are connected to. Assuming you're at home, engage in a conversation or activity that you find stimulating or meaningful. Listen to your favorite music, read an engrossing book, or look at a beautiful work of art that moves you. If you're in the doctor's office, take 12 relaxed and gentle breaths, paying attention to any places of restfulness in your body, and savor it. Try to avoid running ahead of yourself, assuming you have a bad diagnosis.
What won't work is worrying about all you have to do, judging yourself, comparing yourself to other people, surfing the web, eating out of boredom, buying something you do not need, denying what you're feeling in favor of assuming a positive attitude, willing yourself into a better mood.
JK: Reassure us that you still have miles to go. To make your life flourish more, what's the next challenge for you?
JR: We are all works-in-progress. Human growth hormone, the body's repair elixir, is produced 24 hours a day in children. You know when it's produced in adults? When we sleep. I wonder if dreams are human psychological growth hormones, our way of repairing ourselves emotionally. My next big challenge: putting into practice what I've written about in the book. One of my Buddhist teachers used to say, "Begin again, and again and again and again," because human beings slip and fall and fail. The trick is to face our humanness with patience and compassion and get up and begin again.
Cross-posted from HeadButler.com