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Straddling science and spirituality

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2018 - Winter


Anna Yusim, M.D. ’06, a psychiatrist in New York City, has spent much of the last decade meditating on the often-invisible intersection of science and spirituality—that ethereal sense of connection to something greater than oneself. Yusim herself took to science seamlessly, but to spirituality slowly. Now, she’s demonstrating—in her practice and her writing—how the two are far from mutually exclusive.

“Science is the study of the objective, measurable, quantifiable, testable, repeatable,” Yusim said, “and spirituality, by definition, is the opposite: It’s transcendent, personal, immanent, subjective, difficult to measure quantifiably.” But opposites need not be in conflict, Yusim maintains. Indeed, their reconciliation is where she found her own fulfillment—and now invites readers to find theirs in her debut book, Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life.

Until her residency at New York University in 2006, “living spiritually wasn’t a part of who I was,” Yusim said. It was, however, a significant part of how her mother saw the world during Yusim’s childhood in Moscow. Despite the difficulty of finding religious and spiritual texts in the Soviet Union, Yusim’s mother avidly pursued books on Judaism, Hare Krishna, and Buddhism, among others. Yusim’s grandfather, Yefim, asked his deceased wife to intercede when Yusim’s family was awaiting visas to immigrate to the United States in 1981. The visas came two weeks later. At the age of 5, Yusim arrived in Chicago with her family. She took more after her physics professor father, however, who saw his Judaism as a cultural rather than a spiritual identity. The same scientific mindset carried Yusim into her time at the Yale School of Medicine.

“Science was the currency of knowledge and of exchange,” Yusim said. “What led me to pursue medicine was that I had always been so interested in the mind and how the mind works.” But then came residency. On paper, Yusim’s life looked mapped out, tidy, fulfilled: trudging valiantly through the most rigorous step of her medical education, in a relationship with a kind man, with a future in a field she loved.

“Here I was, training to be a psychiatrist and to help people lift depression and anxiety from their lives,” Yusim said. “So why was I feeling kind of depressed and anxious myself? … I was ready for my spiritual education to begin.”

While maintaining her natural skepticism and a physician’s analytic mindset, Yusim took her first tentative steps into where and how the “world of spirit interacts with the world of science.” She describes her decade-long quest to unite the two sides of human experience as a key component of her life’s purpose (alongside helping her patients and nurturing her marriage)—and the impetus for writing Fulfilled. Having found and defined that life purpose, Yusim set out, through her psychiatric practice and the stories of herself and her patients, to help others—patients and readers—do the same.

“There’s no cookie-cutter approach,” Yusim said. Psychiatric and spiritual guidance is a relationship, she said. “It’s really working with individuals to help them connect to the soul in the most essential and real way to them.” Integrating medicine and spiritual practices like meditation has helped Yusim identify goals for finding a fulfilled life. “All of us face critical decision points where we can choose to be authentic or not … to align with our true selves or with who we think we have to be,” Yusim writes. “I know that I am not alone in having lived much of my life out of alignment with who I really am.” Her realization of this misalignment came early in her psychiatry residency. Yusim acknowledged the veneer of perfection she’d built around the emptiness she felt inside, and set her sights on abandoning that perfectionism to address that root emptiness.

In Yusim’s experience, the point of connection between science and spirituality is everywhere. Literally. Spirituality sees the world as more complicated and connected than people perceive with their senses—quantum physics says the same. “According to quantum physics, at a level of reality that is invisible to the human eye, everything and everybody is interconnected with one another and to all living organisms,” Yusim writes.

“My hope is that people will get a sense of how to integrate more traditional medical training with the slightly less conventional spiritual approach,” Yusim said. “They’re actually not incompatible—you can tap in and utilize many spiritual principles and ideas in the service of healing.”