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Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live

A review of the new book by Anna Yusim, MD.

Grand Central
Source: Grand Central

We arranged to meet for breakfast in midtown Manhattan, not far from my office, yet a bit of a hike from hers on the Upper East Side. The restaurant is a step up from a diner, which I prefer, but there was none to be found in Herald Square. It is quiet enough to have a conversation, and the coffee is good. One of my regular places.

I was lost in my Blackberry when a woman with dark, wavy hair, looking like a New York professional, came towards my table. She had an open smile framed by high cheekbones and oval brown eyes. She radiated curiosity and poise, but I know that writers naturally live with doubt. Her speech was quick, paced even faster than a prototypical New Yorker, though she grew up in the mid-West. She sat down and so began our conversation about her new book, writing, psychiatry, spirituality and what can be the unnerving search for meaning and purpose.

Anna Yusim is a psychiatrist practicing in the City. She had sent me a copy of her recently published book, Fulfilled, through a mutual acquaintance. There was a note inside saying she had read and enjoyed one of my recent books, and mentioned meeting. I was first surprised by her book, which I read with fascination on a long plane ride, and then privileged to meet the doctor who authored it.

Fulfilled takes us into Yusim’s consulting room. She tells us stories in warm and clear prose from her clinical practice and her own life. Many of her patients came with similar troubles and complaints: They were ill at ease with their lives, unhappy for no clear reason, and struggling to find satisfaction in their relationships and work. Some were dependent on drugs and alcohol, or the pursuit of power, or both. She knew about tumult from her own experiences over the years, during which she searched around the globe and within herself. What makes this book both unique and courageous is that Yusim reveals not only what her patients discovered and did, but the work and transformation she herself undertook.

Her conceptual roots derive from classical psychodynamic, Jungian, and family therapy theory; existential and ancient philosophy; neuroscience and quantum physics; mind-body practices (like meditation, slow breathing and mindfulness); and what is often called spirituality. Her work with patients and herself draws from all these sources. She punctuates her clinical examples with ample references to literature, science, philosophy, and religion, since all are part of the process of finding fulfillment. Throughout the book the reader is guided by simple, do-able, exercises that open paths to what we feel, think and value. The exercises are meant to help us reveal what we have yet to see, what we each might be missing and need. She also explores the realms of synchronicity, extra-sensory perception and telepathy, spirits, the power of dreams, and more – drawing upon her knowledge as a scientist, physician and student of Eastern views and methods. Her breadth is a bit breathtaking, which is part of what makes this book so surprising and engaging.

The exercises she outlines take the reader, for example, through short, stream of consciousness writing to identify how we criticize ourselves, and can learn that we are not as dark as we imagine, while discovering how to be more giving. Another exercise, aided by meditation, examines the anger and blame that may be eating at our core and eating away at our lives, while structuring a path to forgiveness of others, and of course ourselves. Yusim teaches how to use bedtime to visualize the day ahead to help make it more of what we seek. We read about how to use imagination to realize healthy boundaries with others or better align how we live with what gives us purpose. Or to better seize the power of the present moment, or to better experience gratitude — essential to a life fulfilled by relationships and well-being. These are but a sampling, as she addresses the myriad of psychic (and physical) pains that she has seen, felt, studied and cared for.

As we talked in the restaurant, I got to know the person, not only the author. Anna Yusim was born in Moscow. Her family emigrated to Chicago when she was five; I could not detect a hint of an accent. Her mother was a searcher, and acquired black market books (in the former USSR) on Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism; she practiced yoga. At 15, her mother was, as well, a champion swimmer in Moscow and a math student at the country’s best university. Her father was a biomedical engineer and physics professor, though not as disposed to the worlds of the mystical and religious. Clearly, some fine DNA on both the X and Y chromosomes for Yusim.

Yusim was an athlete and a member of her high school math team. In other words, strong on both the physical and the cerebral, each raising her level of play. She won acceptance to Stanford, went to medical school at Yale, and took her psychiatric residency at NYU, which brought her to New York, where she decided to stay. At Stanford, she studied philosophy and was a neuroscience research assistant. During her extended years of graduate education she traveled internationally: She lived on an ashram in India, learned Buddhist meditation in Thailand, studied with shamans in South America, and researched post-traumatic stress disorder in genocide survivors in Rwanda. No straight road to medicine for her; instead, one full of exploration and discoveries that we can share by reading Fulfilled. She is still on her journey, seeking adventure, but now principally from the chair in her office and her inward-facing wanderings in search of the wonder that surrounds us.

You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual, or to hunger for a more fulfilled life. But it takes some work to move past the trappings of everyday life, of our insistent preoccupations, self-absorption and ambitions. I don’t know anyone who gets there with an epiphany, like a bolt of lightning. The work, the process of gaining some measure of enlightenment, self-acceptance and, yes, fulfillment, needs structure, guidance and repetition, as does every form of mastery. You know the joke where a passerby seeking directions in front of the Julliard School of Music asks a student, "How do you get to Julliard?" The answer: "Practice, practice, practice."

Fulfilled is a remarkable achievement for a doctor and writer. Yusim’s day on earth is still young. Her trajectory seems unlimited. So, she asserts, can yours be — and she aims to help you get there.

Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist and public health doctor. The opinions offered here are entirely his own. His next book, The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs, will be published by Scribner (Simon & Schuster) in May, 2018.