I was the kind of Catholic school kid who annoyed many a nun with my incessant questions, most of which were variations on a single one: How can you prove that? I never became a devout Catholic, not even close, but over the years something strange happened. I do not go to church and do not subscribe to any religion, but I do have faith. I no longer require evidence. I am okay with believing what I cannot prove.
Anna Yusim likes to mix some science with her faith. Yusim is a board-certified psychiatrist with a private practice in New York City’s Upper East Side. In her quest to find what she felt was missing—from her life, from her medical training–she traveled to more than 50 countries, soaking up lessons from Kabbalah and Buddhism and working with South American shamans and Indian gurus.
In Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live A Happier, More Meaningful Life, she takes us on a journey through spiritual and scientific ideas to help us develop our own connection to our souls. Here is part of our chat about her own path and her spiritual practices.
What prompted you to write Fulfilled?
In much of medicine, there is a long-standing, unfortunate split between science and spirituality. Sigmund Freud described belief in God as delusional and religion as a “universal obsessional neurosis.” Although Freud wrote about “the oceanic feeling,” the unspeakable wholeness, limitlessness, and awesome feeling when we’re aware of a connection to something greater than themselves, he admitted he never experienced this feeling personally.
In contrast, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung acknowledged the spiritual connection as the central core of human experience. He believed that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals, which entails discovering and fulfilling our deep innate potential.
Albert Einstein may have best reconciled Freud and Jung’s opposing viewpoints when he wrote, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”
More so than ever, the role of spirituality in healing from mental and physical illness is being recognized and studied by the medical and scientific community. In order to scientifically legitimize spirituality’s role in healing, it must be understood and studied in a scientific way. The intent of my book was to contribute to this discourse by reviewing some of the medical literature on the science of spirituality, and providing vivid and relatable clinical case examples from my psychiatry practice. It also provides concrete tools readers can use to reconnect with their soul, cultivate authenticity, understand and align with their soul corrections, and connect to something greater than oneself.
Can you give us your short definition of fulfillment?
Fulfillment entails living authentically, identifying and living according to your soul correction, and connecting to something greater than oneself.
What was your religious upbringing, and how has that affected your journey as an adult?
I was born in Moscow and was raised in a secular Jewish household. Religion and spirituality were not particularly poignant parts of my identity until I was about 30-years-old. During a “dark night of the soul” precipitated by a series of crises in my personal and professional life, I reconnected with my Jewish roots.
I sought out healing tools beyond those offered through my medical training at Stanford, Yale and NYU. I spent time at ashrams in India, worked with South African and South American shaman, learned Buddhist meditation in Thailand and discovered Kabbalah. The practices I learned through these spiritual and esoteric traditions enabled me to finally rise out of my own darkness, and have been instrumental to my work with patients.
How do you practice spirituality in your own life?
To me, spirituality entails an individual’s internal sense of connection to something beyond oneself, which could be perceived as a Higher Power or God or the Universe, but could also be a more general sense of the sacred, consciousness, a shared global purpose, or interconnectedness to all life.
Over the course of my life, I’ve engaged in various spiritual practices from different traditions. My current practice is connecting to God (or the Universe, which to me is synonymous) in every aspect of my life. The times I feel most connected are actually when I am seeing patients. Together in a room, we are two souls joined in a mission to grow, learn and transform. That’s when I feel most connected to myself, my soul, and my spiritual purpose in this world.
Every morning and before I go to sleep, I pray–both Hebrew prayers and personal prayers. In the morning, my prayers are followed by five yoga postures that I learned during my stay at an ashram in India. Throughout the day, I do various breathing practices that help center and ground me. About once per week, I will do a 20-minute sitting meditation during which I focus on love and gratitude.
On Friday nights, I light Shabbat candles and my husband and I either go to or host a Shabbat dinner. We regularly go together to meditation workshops, yoga classes, writing retreats and the like in order to stay grounded, grateful, and connected. To me, fulfillment is a not a momentary state but a disciplined spiritual practice involving routine and ritual.
I’ve been meditating for decades, though how much time I devote to it varies. Do you think times like these will encourage more people to start?
People are becoming more aware of the importance of looking within for answers to many of life’s most difficult questions. Meditation offers a way to do this. Our present day life is often so “loud,” literally and figuratively, that meditation offers some solace and quiet amidst the noise.
More and more people also are experiencing obsessive thoughts that they feel unable to control. Meditation offers people a different way of relating to their thoughts: being able to experience a thought without attaching to it; letting thoughts move through your mind rather than sticking. This underscores the important point that just because you think it does not make it true. Thoughts are not facts.
Scientific and medical research is beginning to legitimize the benefits of meditation for various health conditions, both mental and physical. Meditation also offers people a way to engage in a spiritual practice without having to endorse any particular belief or join a religion, and it can offer community to those looking for one. It offers a valuable antidote to burnout and a way of deal with anxiety and obsessions without medication.
At the same time, I rarely hear people talking about prayer. I think that’s because many people associate it with religious upbringings that they have moved away from.
Yes. But I pray regularly, on my own, with my husband, with friends, with my spiritual community, and with my patients when they are open to it. With my patients, we always ask God, the Light, the Universe, or whatever my patients connect to as “part of something greater than oneself,” for “the greatest good of all involved.” I ask the Universe to help my patients to manifest their dreams, wishes and desires but always add the caveats “for the greatest good of all involved” and “or a better outcome than what we are requesting.” Sometimes those things we most desire are actually not in the service of our greatest good. We may not know that, but the Universe does.