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When a therapist puts Buddhism into practice

Mark Epstein, a psychotherapist and author, in New York, Jan. 6, 2018. Epstein wrote a slew of popular books on the intersection of Western and Eastern thought, but kept his work with patients separate. Then came his father’s illness, and a new book: “Advice Not Given.” Nathan Bajar/The New York Times
Mark Epstein, a psychotherapist and author, in New York, Jan. 6, 2018. Epstein wrote a slew of popular books on the intersection of Western and Eastern thought, but kept his work with patients separate. Then came his father’s illness, and a new book: “Advice Not Given.” Nathan Bajar/The New York Times

When a therapist puts Buddhism into practice

by John Williams

Psychotherapist Mark Epstein is known for lucidly mapping the ways in which Buddhism can enrich Western approaches to psychology. In his books, starting with the publication of Thoughts Without a Thinker in 1995, the philosophies and practices of those worlds are in fruitful conversation.

In his private practice, until recently, Epstein consciously kept the two apart.

“I always felt that it would be a real mistake to lay any kind of ideology on my patients, even one that I believed in,” he said of his Buddhism. “I didn’t want to be pushing anybody toward something that they didn’t want.”

As Epstein’s books gained him visibility, some new patients would come to him specifically looking for some of that Buddhist ideology, but still he remained wary of providing it. If anything, he enjoyed puncturing people’s preconceptions about the Eastern tradition. “No one really understands emptiness or ‘no-self’ the way they might,” he said. “I can’t say I do either. But it’s fun to try to find where people are misunderstanding and then tweak it a little bit.”

Epstein’s latest book, Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, was published this week. It is concerned with the “untrammelled ego,” which Freud and the Buddha both identified as “the limiting factor in our well-being,” Epstein writes.

While it’s in keeping with his previous work, tonally and substantively, it holds a distinct place in the author’s mind. It was inspired, in part, by the 2008 death of his father, Franklin H. Epstein, an academic physician, from brain cancer at 84.

In the weeks after his father’s disease had been diagnosed, Epstein said, “I realised that I had never had a direct conversation with him about any of what I had learned from Buddhism. He was proud of me as a doctor and liked my books, but he wasn’t drawn to it. But then I thought, ‘Oh no, he’s going to die and I’ve never even really tried to convey what’s helped me about anticipating death from meditation, from Buddhism.'”

That worry drove Epstein to pick up the phone and call his father. It was also the first germ for the contents and the title of Advice Not Given, in which he offers counsel that he might previously have kept to himself. “This stuff has helped me so much, I don’t want to be withholding it” from patients “out of some sense of not being too pushy,” he said.

Epstein, 64, lives in New York City with his wife, sculptor Arlene Shechet, and he sees patients in the same building, in the unassuming basement office in which we spoke on a frigid afternoon in late December. The office’s walls, a pale blue, are unadorned. Epstein’s desk and the books that surround it are tucked away from the uncluttered space in which he sits with patients.

Epstein, who has had his private practice since 1986, was in his teens when he first felt drawn to the spiritual and professional paths he would pursue.

Some young men join rock bands to meet young women. Epstein took an introduction to world religions class. His romantic interest in one particular classmate at Harvard didn’t last, but he fell for some lines in a book of Buddhist scripture called the Dhammapada. “There was a verse, something like: ‘Look to your mind, wise man — it is subtle, invisible, treacherous,'” he said.

There were “little bits of Buddhism floating around” at Harvard in those days, Epstein said, as the age of psychedelia gave way to the age of consciousness studies. He befriended fellow travellers, including Daniel Goleman, later a science writer for The New York Times who was then a graduate student and teaching fellow. Goleman had visited India to study meditation. “I knew he knew something that I wanted to know,” Epstein said. “Mostly, he was wearing these purple bell-bottom pants that I thought were really cool.”

Epstein flashes a sense of humour with some frequency in person, one that mischievously cuts against the soberly reflective presence you might expect from the books (and that you also get). He has the wiry frame of a regular yoga practitioner and an enviable thicket of grey hair. You might feel torn, sitting across from him, between asking for advice on how to cope with the transient nature of reality and for advice on high-quality conditioning products.

“In person he is gentle and insightful in a quiet and humorous way,” said Robert Thurman, an expert on Tibetan Buddhism and a professor at Columbia University, in an email interview. Thurman is a longtime friend of Epstein and has taught and lectured alongside him. “People are automatically drawn to him, wishing they had a shrink like that. Other shrinks also seek him out in personal workshops, and I think tend to emulate him.”

Despite his gentle disposition, Epstein is tough-minded. “People expect too much from meditation,” he said. He doesn’t peddle a version of Buddhist insight for Westerners eager to utilise it for quick-acting self-help or self-actualisation. As he wrote in Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart (1998): “What I had learned from Buddhism was that I did not have to know myself analytically as much as I had to tolerate not knowing.”

The problem with the ego, according to Epstein, is that it wants so badly to know. “The ego comes into being when we’re 2 or 3 or 4 years old,” he said, “just feeling our own separateness and how difficult it is to navigate the external pressures from parents and teachers, and the internal pressures of one’s biology, one’s drives and so on. The ego wants security and stability and coherence. It’s rooted in the intellect, so it tells stories. It fastens on to the first stories that start to make sense, both positive and negative.”

We then incessantly repeat these stories to ourselves “under our breath,” as Epstein writes in the new book. The classic stubborn story dealt with in therapy, he said, can be summarised in four words: “The problem is me.” And the low self-esteem reinforced by such stories “is as much ego as the puffed-up, ‘I’m the best,’ competitive, American way we ordinarily think of the ego.”

Despite his good shape (and his good genes; his mother, Sherrie Epstein, is 93), Epstein, in the middle of his seventh decade, is not far from the phase of life about which he counselled his father. Asked how he feels about the prospect of his own ultimate impermanence — death, to the rest of us — Epstein said with a laugh: “I feel frightened about ultimate impermanence. But with a little bit of a sense of humour, somehow. There’s something a little bit exciting, even within all the fear, about literally not knowing what’s going to come next.”

And what did he tell his father about what comes next?

“'I don’t know if you want to hear this or not, but I don’t want to keep it from you either,'” Epstein recalls saying. “'You know that place in yourself that hasn’t really changed subjectively from when you were a young man, or 20, 40, 60, 80? You still sort of feel the same to yourself inside, but if you try to find that place you can’t really put your finger on it?'” He then told his father what he believed he had learned about how to relax the mind into that “invisible space where you are who you’ve always been” as the body fades away. “He was very nice. He said, ‘OK, darling. I’ll try.'”

Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself
By Mark Epstein
204 pages. Penguin Press. $26.

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