Phillip Moffitt on Finding Joy Amidst Your Suffering

Phillip Moffitt

I have long admired Phillip Moffitt, who at the age of forty, to the astonishment of the New York publishing community, honored his intuitive guidance by abandoning his professional identity as CEO and editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine to seek greater joy, meaning, and authenticity. As his path unfolded, Moffitt found peace and purpose as a Buddhist meditation teacher and as founder of Life Balance Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping people lead more balanced, meaningful lives.

The following story is from the Introduction to Phillip’s 2008 book, Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering. I found it very insightful and inspiring. I know there are many people who can relate to Sarah’s circumstances and I hope that her journey from suffering to joy will help them get to a better place as well.

Sarah had an adult autistic son who had been violent all his life. She had suffered greatly because of this child, whom she loved dearly, and was heartbroken over his condition. I listened to her story with tremendous sympathy, for is there anything worse than caring for a child whose suffering you cannot relieve? And yet at the same time, I pushed her to consider a different perspective: She—not her son—was responsible for her misery. Therefore she could choose to do something about it. By viewing her life circumstances in a different light, she could free herself from the bonds of suffering.

Over the course of the two-week retreat, Sarah and I discussed the nature of her suffering in depth. Eventually, she came to a startling realization: For 20 years, she had denied herself joy because she felt that it was somehow not right for her to be happy when her son was ill. She kept trying to help him get better, all the while waiting for her time to come. But as the years and then decades passed, she became resigned to a life without sparkle.

Slowly, I confronted Sarah’s assumptions. In what way did her not being happy serve her child’s well-being? Didn’t her unhappiness in fact hinder her efforts by draining away her energy? Could she conceive of her child wanting her to be unhappy because of his difficulties? Anyway, what right did she have to be living out his struggles? His life was tormented in many ways, but it was the only life he had, and it was his to live, not hers. Just as the glory of a child who achieves great success belongs to the child and not the parent, doesn’t the same hold true of an affliction? She could honor him most by acknowledging that this was the nature of his life—difficult thought it was—and celebrating him just as he was.

The longer Sarah stayed at the retreat practicing mindfulness and compassion, the more the story of her suffering broker apart. This is what makes meditation retreats so powerful. You are there alone on the cushion with yourself day after day, and so you have a precious opportunity to directly know the truth of your own life. The teacher is only there to inspire, clarify, and hold out the possibility of your realizing your own true nature until you can feel that possibility for yourself.

One day, Sarah came into the interview room and announced, “I’m ready to allow myself joy, right now.” She was smiling and crying. “I don’t know why I so strongly held onto the idea that my son had to be happy before I could ever be. Maybe I will figure that out with therapy. But regardless, I am through holding on to it.” I was excited for her. Sarah had had her very first taste of freedom. She had collapsed under her suffering. Now she was ready to bear it and open to the joy of her own life.

You can find this freedom for yourself. It will expose you to an entirely new way of being. It was Sarah’s willingness to open to life’s gifts in spite of her trial—not her long-suffering sacrifice—that was truly heroic. Do you see this distinction and how it might apply to your own life?

Phillip offers a free e-mail “Teaching of the Week” from Dancing with Life. Click here to sign up for this free weekly lesson.

I’ve written about Phillip’s remarkable life journey in a previous post.

Click here to view all my posts about Ibrahim Jaffe.


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2 Responses to “Phillip Moffitt on Finding Joy Amidst Your Suffering”

  1. jopet Says:

    Thanks Phil for this article and all the other articles you’ve written in your blog. i read them all even if i don’t leave a comment. i appreciate what you write as i get inspiration and wisdom for my daily living. finally had the chance to write a little note to you. do continue inspiring our world and i hope to read more of your insights and wise words from wise people…

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thank you for the kind words, jopet. I appreciate your appreciation!

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