Dharma Dues

Former Knoxville business luminary Phillip Moffitt returns to town as a Buddhist teacher

When you see Phillip Moffitt, you may want to hug him. Maybe it's the distinct twinkle in his eye, his easy manner, or his appealingly reedy voice with its hint of a laid-back drawl. Or maybe it's the fact that he looks a little—just a little—like a teddy bear. With his round features, wide smile, and curly mop of hair, he's like a lovable Buddha. You want to rub his belly for luck.

You'd do better, though, to sit quietly and listen mindfully as he delivers a talk next week on the subject of the way life is. The former Knoxville business big-wig will be on hand to read from his new book, Dancing with Life. (No, it's not about how to make money in a down market.) Since leaving Knoxville and the New York media world over 20 years ago, Moffitt has transformed himself into a teacher of the Dharma—a lay priest in the Buddhist tradition. And he'll be on hand to talk about nothing less than life's biggest question: How can you find meaning and joy in the face of so much suffering? And there's not much warm and fuzzy about that.

Knoxville Memories

Moffitt, a native of Kingsport, is remembered around here as a leader at the University of Tennessee, where he was both student body president and assistant dean of students in the late '60s and early '70s, and for founding—along with Chris Whittle, David White, and Brient Mayfield—the 13-30 Corporation, a wildly successful Knoxville-based custom publishing company. In the world at large, he's known as the man who walked away from a noteworthy career as CEO and editor in chief of Esquire magazine to take on an even bigger project: himself.

"I loved living in Knoxville, and I loved the people there," he remembers. "And I loved working at 13-30. The people I worked with there were so talented, so dedicated, so laid-back. Growing that company was a wonderful time in my life."

Phillip served as CEO in those days, and remembers himself as the fiscally conservative one. "It's always said that you need capital to grow a business, and that you need more and more and more of it—that's part of the problem we see in the economy now," he says. "But they were able to structure our pricing so that we were able to grow without getting into massive debt—the bigger we got, the less cash we needed. It was difficult for the first couple of years, but once we got it up and running we were able to grow the company by 20 percent, year after year."

Moffitt had fun wheeling and dealing, feeling blessed. When 13-30 scored a big investment from the Swedish company Bonnier Group in the mid-'70s, it was Moffitt who sealed the deal.

"I flew to Stockholm, and Lukas Bonnier picked me up at the airport and took me to breakfast," he remembers. "We did the deal on the back of a napkin, then I put the napkin in my pocket and got back on the plane to Knoxville. When it came time for his lawyers to write up the contract, he simply told them, ‘Do what's on the napkin.' Neither of us tried to get an advantage. It was the most honorable transaction, and it spoiled me, made me naïve. Later on, I had to discover that others in business didn't operate that way."

To celebrate, the entire company got on a plane to Stockholm for a big party—an event still fondly remembered around town by those who went as a wild time (based on the memories they can piece together). Still, despite his successes, Moffitt himself was unable to fully enjoy them. "I had started practicing raja yoga in my early 20s," he says. "Around age 28, I started to have a strong intuition to leave the media world, the business world altogether. I told Chris Whittle as early as 1975 that I needed to leave. But I had a failure of imagination—I couldn't figure out what life would look like, or what I would do with myself, even if I had all the money in the world."

So he stayed, and turned his attention to finding a bigger, better, and more exciting worldly challenge. He found it in a troubled Esquire magazine. "It was one of the two magazines I most admired in the world," Moffitt says. "It had gotten into trouble, lost direction, and was floundering. When it came up for sale, I was so excited! I had never done a paid publication before, so I didn't understand how badly it was broken. When I showed the numbers to Lukas Bonnier, he said, ‘This is already dead! It cannot be resuscitated.' But when I told him that we didn't need to do it if he didn't want to, he just sighed and looked at me, and said, ‘Phillip, in your heart you have already committed. How could I say no?'"

And so, in 1979, the deal was done (in Paris on the Ile Saint Louis with the bells of Notre Dame clanging in the background, no less); Moffitt was installed as the CEO and editor in chief, the captain of a sinking ship. It was, perhaps, the happiest time in his life. "What I really liked as a media person was the lifeboat mentality—when the undertaking was so huge that we all had to row together to stay afloat," he remembers.

And row they did—working around the clock, flying a crew of 13-30's best to New York on a weekly basis, importing a crew of New York media types to Knoxville to see the commitment and teamwork in the way things were done here. They turned Esquire around, quite famously—Moffitt was, for a while, the toast of the town (New York, that is). Still, it wasn't enough.

"I liked being able to do things my way," he says. "But I just didn't care about the glory of it. I was happy in my creative life, but just wasn't motivated by more fame or more money. I didn't like living by the tyranny of the marketplace. My heart had a higher priority."

To Infinity and Beyond

Moffitt kept up his yoga practice throughout his business career, remembering that during the toughest times at Esquire, he would "sometimes nod off in a headstand I was doing at midnight." He credits the practice with keeping him sane during the tough times. "I kept up my yoga, breathwork, and meditation, no matter what else was going on," he remembers. "And slept like a baby, in the middle of all this pressure."

He worked hard, there's no question, and reaped ample rewards in terms of both money and prestige. But, still, the call to attend to his own spiritual life nagged at him. And so in 1986—three years after the successful 50th anniversary issue of Esquire—he disentangled himself from his business interests, from Chris Whittle, and cashed out. Having been introduced during his time as a businessman to Theravada Buddhism, he set out to explore the teachings and practice of mindfulness meditation, a path that would lead him to become a Buddhist lay priest.

"People said I was crazy to do this—and in some ways, they were right," he says, looking back. "But it was not a worldly choice. It could have gone wrong for me. And the first few years were very rough—they were my time in the desert. I didn't know what I was doing; I was waiting."

And he was wandering. He kept his South Knoxville cabin (which he still visits; he'll stay there when he's in town), but had already moved on from Knoxville to New York as his primary residence. But the Big Apple felt like dangerous territory in his post-career life. "I couldn't stay there; I knew I would start over, since people were making me wonderful offers," he remembers. "I could still get very excited about things in the world—I don't reject the world, but it was no longer for me in that way."

Moffitt moved through Connecticut, Florida, and London before settling down in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he occupies his current home in Marin County. There, he began to teach Buddhist philosophy in earnest, penning a regular philosophy column for Yoga Journal magazine, joining the Teachers Council at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center (spiritrock.org), and founding the Life Balance Institute (lifebalance.org), a nonprofit organization designed to help leaders in business and industry develop a spiritual, values-based lifestyle in the midst of all the wheeling and dealing. People, in other words, just like him: successful, well-to-do, and yet still struggling to find happiness in the face of all their worldly acumen.

"I am trying to pass on what I have learned," he notes. "The people I work with are entrepreneurs and heads of companies, architects, lawyers, psychologists… very successful people who are unhappy because they feel their lives aren't working. The one thing I want them to know is that they actually have a choice about whether they will have more joy and meaning in their life. That's the truth—I'm sharing how life is after having lived it so intensely all these years."

His wisdom is grounded in experience ("I made all the mistakes," he says) and Buddhist philosophy, though Moffitt is careful to note that he's not out to create more Buddhists. "I tell people they need to have some sort of contemplative practice in their lives, and some sort of movement practice—these things are necessary if you're really interested in sustainable leadership," he explains. "But I don't promote Buddhism—we're not an evangelical tradition, we don't have a mission."

Moffitt is careful to stress that you also don't have to believe anything in order to work with the Buddhist principles he shares. "Buddhism is not an ontology; it doesn't talk about why we exist or where we came from," he explains. "You can be a Jew and do this, or a Hindu, or an atheist, or a Christian. It's not a book about challenging beliefs. It's about meeting life in the moment with grace and compassion. You can make a huge difference in your own experience."

He uses the basic tenets—or Noble Truths—of Buddhism to help people analyze their own behaviors to ferret out their unique sources of suffering (see sidebar below). In the process, he says, they come to really understand what their values are, and can work to align themselves with what they really want. Now, with his book, that same help is available to everyone who might want to try this approach for himself. It's accessible self help—or, more accurately, capital-S Self help.

"The book is designed to teach you how to be with the difficulty in your life and have a new relationship to it so that you can be dancing with life, rather than being jerked around by it, or collapsing under it, or driven by it," he says. "Every life has suffering and difficulty and stress—that's he way life is. Buddhism teaches that through suffering you can realize your true nature in a way that will allow you to have peace and joy in every moment, even the difficult ones."

It's not the warmest, huggiest, most comfy-cozy path, but it's one that will ring true for many of us—no matter how far from teddy-bear happy we are. "You can do it right now—you don't have to be some kind of new, improved version of yourself," Moffitt promises. "Who you already are is perfect for doing this work."

Sidebar:

The Noble Truths

Phillip Moffitt's book, Dancing with Life, is based on the four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which are:

1.The truth of suffering: All lives are marked by suffering.

2.The truth of the causes of suffering: Suffering is caused by attachment and desire.

3.The truth of cessation of suffering: It is possible to find an end to suffering.

4.The truth of the path of the cessation of suffering: There is a well-walked eight-fold path toward freedom from suffering, which includes right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

These truths are, to most Westerners, foreign concepts, and they can seem esoteric, complicated, and nearly impregnable. But in Moffitt's hands, they are rendered utterly practical. He speaks in accessible language, and shared practices that make Buddhist wisdom seem not only simple, but inevitable. Consider this passage, in which he shares the key to cessation:

"A daily life practice that I have found valuable in learning cessation involves applying more subtle mindfulness when you are engaged in daily activities. In this method, you automatically note the arising and passing of pleasant and unpleasant feelings in whatever task you are doing. This may seem daunting at first, but you can train your mind so that for many moments of your day you will, without much effort, register whether what is happening has a pleasant or unpleasant tone. Next, you start to become aware of how the pleasant- or unpleasant-feeling tone in the moment is affecting your mind and body. Then you note that each of these pleasant or unpleasant feelings also disappears. Eventually, you have the realization that like a puppet on a string your mind reacts to pleasant and unpleasant feelings, even though they quickly cease to be! You directly know that being reactive to such feelings is a waste of time."

To learn more about the book, visit dancingwithlife.org.