In the mid-1980s, Phillip Moffitt was sitting pretty. He’d recently pulled off one the great turnaround stories of the decade, transforming the languishing Esquire magazine into the envy of the New York media world. But then, to the surprise of his friends and colleagues, he sold the magazine, moved to California, and devoted himself, as he put it, “to finding more joy and meaning in my life.”
That led to a new career as a nationally recognized teacher of mindfulness meditation. Along the way, inspired by the work he’d done as an advisor to business leaders, Moffitt founded what’s now called the Institute of Change and Transition, where he and his team train individuals and groups how to tap into their personal values and make major transformations in their lives. I met up with Moffitt recently at his office in Belvedere, California, to discuss the art of reinventing your life from the inside out.
Hugh Delehanty: You’ve written a lot about the importance of aligning your inner life and your outer life. Where does that come from?
Phillip Moffitt: My nature is internally oriented, being mindful of internal experience and seeing how that manifests itself in the world. It’s about unity and wholeness. I’m not impressed with people who can sit on a cushion and have all kinds of bliss states, then go home and kick their dog.
I’m not impressed with people who can sit on a cushion and have all kinds of bliss states, then go home and kick their dog.
When I started at Esquire, I had a yoga practice, and if I had to make a hard decision, I’d coach myself internally. “This is yoga. Don’t get caught up in the narrative. Treat it as a posture. What are the inner values here?” It was very cool.
So when you started practicing mindfulness meditation, what captured your imagination?
It’s mindfulness and intention together that’s the thing. Mindfulness allows you to be present and to see what is. Intention is about the basic values by which you are living your life. The mind that’s mindful and does not have intention will be controlled by the pleasant and the unpleasant. It will go after whatever’s pleasant and avoid anything that’s unpleasant. That’s not much quality of life.
The mind that’s mindful and does not have intention will be controlled by the pleasant and the unpleasant. It will go after whatever’s pleasant and avoid anything that’s unpleasant. That’s not much quality of life.
Mindfulness allows you to be present, but it also has this remembering aspect. It’s not just remembering to be present, as is sometimes taught. It’s remembering to be present in a certain way. Remembering that this is what matters.
I had a friend who was really smart in the media world and very wealthy. But his intentions were different from mine. He thought that success and recognition were essential. I don’t feel that way. To me, success is having a mind that is not at war with itself and a sense of well-being that’s not based on having all the conditions right. Then you’re free to pursue whatever you want.
What role does compassion play in all this?
Without compassion, you have to do a lot of self-justifying. You have to make up stories about [less fortunate] people or go into active denial.
We’re seeing a lot of that these days, big time.
Yes, mindfulness is being usurped by the ego. But you can’t pull that off for long because true mindfulness sees things as they are. Being lonely is like this. Wanting attention is like this. Wanting to share is like this. Mindfulness doesn’t discriminate. It’s interested in what is by its very nature. That’s how the mind finds contentment. But when we layer on all these other things, then mindfulness becomes something else.
Rationalizing behavior, being caught in jealousy or anger, trying to make everything OK, rather than just being mindful. If we really see things as they are, the wisdom comes from the clear seeing, as long as there’s mindful intention. This is not a theory. It’s the way things work, and when you know that for yourself, life is better. It may mean that you don’t get certain things that you could have gotten by rationalizing, but your sense of well-being grows. We don’t get to choose a lot of things that come up in our lives, but, with practice, we get to choose how we relate to them. And what’s the practice? Mindful intention infused with compassion.
What have you learned working with entrepreneurs?
For one thing, we never talk about winning. We talk about what really matters to them. There’s a [business] strategy that’s appropriate for what matters to you and that includes whatever your goals may be. We start with values because, in the long run, if you’re true to yourself, you’ll have more clarity of mind. You’ll also get more access to your intuition and not be so uptight about what you’re trying to do.
I just went through this with a guy in his 40s who was selling his company and couldn’t sleep at night. It was clear to me right away that he wasn’t lined up.
What do you mean “lined up”?
Being aligned with your values. He was being too narrow. Too driven by fear. So we went through and reimagined what he was doing and he was able to sell his company. The way he described it, everything changed because he reimagined the whole thing. He got to feel his own deepest values at play and that affected not just him, but his employees and his wife, as well.
What do you focus on in your workshops?
Do you find that a lot of people are fearful of change?
That’s in the pre-stage. You know something is wrong, but you don’t address it. Sometimes it hits you with a two-by-four. But a lot of times, people just feel ambivalent about change. They’ll say, “I’ll change if I’m guaranteed that I’ll be happier and that it’s going to work out.” They’re trying to bargain. That’s often the first opening.
A lot of times, people just feel ambivalent about change. They’ll say, “I’ll change if I’m guaranteed that I’ll be happier and that it’s going to work out.” They’re trying to bargain. That’s often the first opening.
What comes next?
We help them clarify the change they’ve imagined and put it in the context of their whole life. It’s not just change in one area. If you change your job or your partner, that affects everything else.
Then we give them a chance to “live” that change in the workshop. Once you’ve made the change, you need to bring the values associated with it to the wholeness of your life. You don’t just say “I’m going to switch professions.” You say, “This is what I care about.” It has to show up everywhere else in your life 24/7.
What’s your big learning from doing this?
That not only can you make a successful change in your circumstances, but you can actually change your experience of those circumstances.
Successful people are supposed to control the conditions of their lives. That’s the narrative, and you’re a failure if you don’t have the right circumstances in your family life, your work life, whatever. But we can never ultimately control conditions. Otherwise nobody would ever get old and die.
What we can do is have some degree of choice about how we relate to the conditions. And that choice makes us more able to maneuver and realize what we want to achieve in life.
This Q&A provides additional information related to a feature article titled, “Is Your Life Designed for You?”, which appeared in the February 2018 issue of Mindful magazine.