LONG VERSION (Skip to CURRICULUM VITAE VERSION)
Who on earth spends twelve years writing a book? There are several factors in my biography that explain what drove me to do exactly that with A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life. Moreover, by now, I have researched the subject of happiness and spirituality for twenty-four years, with no end in sight. Happiness is my passion, and it is so for very good reasons:
I was born in Mönchengladbach, Germany in 1965. Both of my parents had suffered as children the terrors of war and its aftermath in refugee camps. For this and other reasons, the home I grew up in was not a happy one. While my mother was warm and loving, she could neither protect herself nor her six children from my abusive father. Hoping to find a way out of the resulting suffering for myself and others, I decided to become a psychologist at age sixteen.
At the same time, I yearned for true happiness, for living openly and uninhibitedly, asking myself over and over, if I and people like me can be happy. The question became my Zen koan, a riddle that cannot be answered rationally, but must be felt spontaneously. Unfortunately my psychological suffering worsened, but I stayed afloat, catching glimpses of light via my spirituality, nature, art, and music. At age fifteen, I had the good fortune to learn how to meditate. Filled with an intense longing to see the light and transcend suffering, I also spent time in a convent, where I considered the path of a nun.
At age nineteen, I began a one and a half years long internship with epileptics who suffered from psychosis and other mental disorders in Bielefeld, Bethel. During that time I read books on the power of psychological pain, and that spirituality alone may not suffice to let go of suffering. I still believe that unless we tend to our unhappiness, some of us are too unhappy to be happy.
After this internship, I was accepted at the Freie Universität Berlin, a major university in Germany. To be part of its clinical psychology program was a dream come true. My thesis for the undergraduate program was The Creative Mind, but neither this nor my own creative writing, nor my silent prayers, nor my walking meditations, alleviated sufficiently the symptoms of post traumatic stress. In my desperation, I left to undergo psychotherapy for two years with Vivian Janov, at the Primal Institute in Los Angeles, California.
When I could accept myself and relaxed my personal effort, I developed more trust in the world. I returned to Berlin. Relieved that my inner changes held up, I completed my MA degree in clinical psychology.
I was trained in the Facial Action Coding System (by Ekman and Friesen) and used the method for my own research on nonverbal behavior. Examining the smiles of severely depressed people frame by frame, I found that their smiles were accompanied and/or followed by antagonistic movements of the mouth, such as lip presses and puckers. Of all the subjects I could have chosen in the clinical field, I was drawn to the smile. How telling this was, I could only understand in hind side.
Smiling had become easier for me, at people and at life itself. Stillness, to which I had access since childhood, had grown large. I was very busy working, but my mind felt peaceful. And then, on an ordinary day—while climbing the stairs of the subway station of the Malplaquet Straße in Berlin–I filled myself with the Zen question that had been with me for as long as I could think, “Can I be happy?” The answer hit me as if from far, causing me to stand still exactly where I was. I was happy right then and realized, “This is it.”
For the first time of my life, everything made sense; every part of my experience worked together in harmony. It was not a pretty picture that spread out in my mind—shriek noises and rubbery smells of the subway still existed—but it was a perfect picture, a picture of which I was a part just like everything and everyone else. Even though this awakening experience changed me profoundly, I never told anybody about it. It immediately felt normal to me.
After this moment, I had the energy to devote my life to happiness ever more. I continued my studies, graduated, and was trained in many different domains, from psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapies to Ericksonian mind-body work and Buddhist-oriented therapies. The proclaimed rigid differences between the approaches made little sense to me. No one theory or practice held all the answers. After having worked as a psychologist with families and children in various districts of Berlin, I returned to the United States in 1994 to be trained by Vivian Janov.
Upon arrival in Los Angeles, I also enrolled in Ryokan College, named after the Japanese Zen monk. Thankfully it was a more practice-oriented college than my academic Alma Mater. Still the college allowed me to write an empirical doctorial thesis: Leaving the Circle: The Phenomenon of Emigration. It examined why immigrants leave their country of origin while others, under equal circumstances, choose to stay. My own life as an immigrant widened, more boundaries fell away, and more categories ceased to make sense. In 2001 I became, once more, a psychologist.
Because of the one-sidedness of any existing therapy in general as well as of Janov’s rejection of my passion for happiness and spirituality specifically, I left the institute in 1999, the same year that I began writing A Unified Theory of Happiness.I felt increasingly drawn to Eastern religions and philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism and Taoism, which became a big part of my life.
Eventually, in 2004, I started to study Zen Buddhism with Bernard Kakushin Silvers, a dharma heir of Maezumi Roshi. Bernie had been president of the Zen Center of Los Angeles for many years. Since his departure from the center in 1984, he practices and teaches Zen compassionately and openly, a style that did not feel restrictive or categorical. I began to feel as if Zen could become my spiritual home.
In 2010 I developed a second passion, namely for theoretical physics and the lives of Mileva Maric and Albert Einstein. My investigative research included a visit to Serbia and Switzerland which culminated with a life television appearance on Serbia’s main channel. I am currently working on a historical novel.
In 2012, A Unified Theory of Happiness was finally ready for publication (Sounds True). It won A Best Spiritual Book award. In that year I also founded the Los Angeles Center for Zen Psychology as well as Zen Psychology (ZP) and Zen Psychology Therapy (ZPT). I consider Zen Psychology a new form of Zen, a way of living a wide-open life. It is the natural outcome of the first truly unifying synthesis of Eastern and Western thought.
It took another two years to formalize the therapy that I was practicing in the Los Angeles Center for Zen Psychology. It was introduced on numerous radio and internet TV shows, in public talks, and in the prestigious CAMFT magazine. Highlights were presentations at Antioch University; Biola University (APA Division 36; 12th Annual Mid-Year Conference on Religion and Spirituality); and at the World Congress of Psychotherapy (IFP) in Shanghai, where I was also chair. It was particularly meaningful to me to present in the home of Taoism and Zen Buddhism that is China, where ZPT was surprisingly well received. I have been blogging for Psychology Today since 2012, hoping to spread ideas about happiness as “full life participation” to a wider audience.
The book was translated into German by Manjughosha Publishing in 2014, followed by lectures on January 10, 2015 about “Zen Psychology and Zen Psychology Therapy” in Frankfurt for the German-Chinese Academy for Psychotherapy; and on January 11, 2015 about “Auf Zwei Flügeln zum Glück. Die Verschmelzung östlicher und westlicher Denkweisen in der Villa Sponte, Bremen. For current events, please click for the Calender.
As far as my private life goes, I have found and been found by the love of my life, Steven Polard, with whom I have three children. We live in the quiet mountains of Topanga, CA.