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A Subversive View of Happiness

How to flourish in challenging times

Walking through the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, several years ago, I was immediately drawn to the canvasses of Thomas Cole, a key figure in the Hudson River school, America's first native school of landscape painting. His lush, richly colored depictions of pastoral river valleys, spiritually luminous clouds and light, and vast reaches of mountains and forests were quite different in style, content, and emotional resonance from the Impressionistic and Abstract Expressionist artists who usually inspire me.

Cole painted an almost mystical Eden, a time just before the encroaching 'civilization' of factories and congested streets, pollution and stripped land. His work evoked in me wonder, dread and a sense of the sacred—many of the same things I encounter on a daily basis (sometimes even within the same session!) as a psychoanalyst and long-term meditator. Cole was able to depict a variety of moods and themes such as beauty and foreboding, exploitation and spirituality in harmonious—and breathtaking—coexistence. It's a high bar, but when practiced with artistry and discernment, psychotherapy and meditation can resolve the conflict of opposing forces and help us create more harmonious lives.

Psychoanalysis and meditation have been an endless source of enlightenment and inspiration to me for the past three decades. Encountering them in my twenties was undoubtedly one of the most auspicious and formative experiences of my life. They have both transformed me by opening up vast and subtle vistas on human motivation, relationships, and healing that I doubt I would ever have discovered in any other way. My life's work—what they call in Taoism one's Big Tao—has been to integrate them.

Meditative psychotherapy—a synthesis of the most powerful elements of Eastern and Western wisdom—is the result of that synthesis. What I found, in over thirty years of professional practice and personal exploration is that integrating the best aspects of Western psychotherapy and Eastern meditative disciplines is profoundly more effective than practicing either alone.

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.

Meditative psychotherapy is central to the art of flourishing. It enables us to engage our lives wholeheartedly and thrive; live well and completely; lead meaningful and rewarding lives.

Does flourishing come from outside of us? From "having it all," removing external constraints, and feeling good or happy? Or does it reside solely within—when we maximize our potential to achieve inner peace?

Neither.

Flourishing takes us in a new direction—a focus on internal emotional awareness, insight, and transformation, and on better relationships. We realize the best within ourselves and enrich the lives of those people we are close to. Because flourishing focuses both on changing ourselves and getting along better with other people, it is richer than either endeavor by itself.

While flourishing may seem difficult to attain, it is eminently within our reach, once we understand what it is and how to achieve it.

We flourish when we cultivate clarity and equanimity in the face of the speed and confusion that surrounds us; when we access the untapped creativity within and appreciate the beauty we often fail to see in the world outside ourselves. Flourishing involves imaginatively addressing the challenges that confront us and discovering our passions and purposes.

My approach to flourishing is non-traditional. Flourishing doesn't always feel good. Sometimes we must confront painful options or make difficult choices. On occasion, flourishing is doing the best we can given imperfect and even undesirable circumstances such as a troubled marriage, credit card debt, a lost job, illness, or elderly parents.

We flourish when we take great care of ourselves, connect with spirituality, cultivate ethical accountability, and live authentically.

Once we have expanded our own capacity to flourish—and are more authentic and contented—we are better able to maintain infinitely healthier interactions and stronger bonds with those we cherish.

"There is another world and it is in this one," the French surrealist poet Paul Eluard reminds us. I hope that exploring the art of flourishing with you will help you discover the aliveness and ecstasy of this other world within our own that makes life worth living.

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