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Interview

Religion and Spirituality

Going to Pieces with Mark Epstein

Mark Epstein Revolutionary psychotherapist Mark Epstein proffers a Buddhist perspective on wholeness. His bestselling book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart melds psychotherapy and meditation into a truly original stew of Eastern and Western thought. In an interview with Amazon.com's Brian Bruya, Mark Epstein discusses his initial attraction to Buddhism, the true nature of the self, and the convoluted concept of emptiness.

Question: How was it that you as a Westerner got involved in Buddhism?

Mark Epstein: I got involved with Buddhism early in my education. I was an undergraduate at Harvard studying psychology, and I was already dissatisfied with the notion I was being taught that separation and individuation were the ultimate psychological goals of human development. I already felt separate and individual and sort of empty and isolated. So I was looking not for more separation but for some path to connection.

I was lucky enough that there were actually people around me at that time who were already knowledgeable about various kinds of Eastern spirituality. A graduate student in one of my psychology courses actually had just come back from India, where he had been studying various forms of Eastern meditation, and he directed me to Boulder, Colorado, where there was a summer institute called Naropa Institute. It was like a Buddhist summer camp, and I met a number of teachers who have been important to me to this day.

Question: Were these Western teachers of Buddhism?

Epstein: Yes, there were all kinds of teachers there, but the ones who really attracted me were Western teachers who had already been studying Buddhism, so that they were already the second generation of translators, people who were maybe 10 years older than myself at that time, people who had been in the Peace Corps in Asia and stayed on to study Buddhism: Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, in particular.

Question: Were they able to answer this question of emptiness?

Epstein: They were able to address it in a different way. I had been feeling, as I said, this sense of my own emptiness, the emptiness that comes out of isolation and out of too much separateness, and I had actually made one foray into psychotherapy before going out there, which I was dissatisfied with, and I went and learned the basics of meditation, and I felt like this is something I can relate to. What they basically taught me was how to be with myself in a nonjudgmental way. They were giving me this great gift in a way, which was myself. Instead of pushing various aspects of myself away, I learned how to open to whatever was happening within me, to all the difficult feelings, and that gave me another way of dealing with my own sense of emptiness.

Question: Does that mean accepting your neuroses or something like that?

Epstein: Something like that, yes. I think it meant accepting who you were thoroughly and not rushing to try to change anything, but instead strengthening the powers of observation or awareness, which in psychological language would be what is called the "holding environment." That allowed me first to get to know myself, and then my neuroses, and then to become more generous or more tolerant within that.

Question: And what is Buddhism's part in this transformation?

Epstein: Well, this is all through Buddhism. I think Buddhism is very smart in the way that it, or the Buddha, was able to lay out the psychology in which the Buddha said that the origin of our suffering is our inability to let go; it's our clinging. Joseph Goldstein, one of my teachers, uses the example of a monkey trap that is widely used in India, where a small bamboo cage is built with bars that are just narrow enough that the monkey can slip his hand into the cage. Inside the cage is put some kind of attractive food, some kind of sweetmeat or something, and the monkey clamps down on the food, and therefore can't pull his hand out of the cage. So he is stuck there, and the hunters can come and take him away. But he is trapped only by his own craving. All he has to do is let go of the food, and he would be free again. That's the psychology of Buddhism--that we're all trapped by our own craving, and we have to learn how to let go.

Question: Do we let go into simplicity and nonmaterialism?

Epstein: Sometimes. We're all afflicted with a kind of psychological materialism, which is the idea that we have to keep building up a bigger and better self, that psychotherapy will help us do that or that self-development will help us do that or Eastern spirituality will help us do that, but I think that the route that Buddhism counsels is not about psychological materialism. It's not about any kind of materialism. It's about learning another way, which has to do with this idea of being able to relax into the true nature of the self, which can be simplicity, yes.

Question: The true nature of the self--does that involve the traditional psychological notion of the ego?

Epstein: I think the ego arises and disappears thousands of times during the day, within that true nature of the self. So I think it's a mistake to see the ego as the embodiment of the true nature, but it's also a mistake to see the ego as not existing at all. We all need egos in order to carry out our business, but what Buddhism says, and what I think is true, is that we're all much too identified with those egos, and we're trying to keep them pumped up all the time, instead of realizing that the ego, like everything else, is arising and passing away moment to moment, and it has no inherent reality.

Question: How does this concept of emptiness affect our day-to-day lives and our relationships with our loved ones?

Epstein: The Western kind of emptiness, the kind that I was suffering from at the beginning of my investigation of Buddhism, is tinged with so much negativity, fear, and self-loathing that it affects all of our relationships. It gets in the way; it obscures or clouds our ability to love. It's a kind of poison that wraps around the heart and makes our own heart inaccessible to ourselves, and it tends to situate for us in our own minds this idea that help has to come from the outside, that another person has to take our pain away, that our lover has to do that for us or that we have to go back and get our parents to do that for us. What Buddhism teaches is that the connection, the ability to find intimacy or connection, is inherent within us, and that if we can just surrender back into that capacity for love, that is all of our birthrights--all babies are born with that; they instinctively love their caretakers. So if we can find that again, then our relationships will take care of themselves.

Question: Are there any practices that Buddhism offers to help realize these goals?

Epstein: Many, many, many practices. Buddhism has a huge repertoire of practices, ranging from simple watching of the breath to what's called "choiceless awareness"--where you take no stance at all but just allow phenomena to unfold--to something that in the Tibetan tradition is called tonglen, which is the exchange of self for others, to practices in other kinds of Buddhism that have to do with cultivating generosity or tolerance or compassion. There are a million practices, all of which help in this process.

Question: Do you think Buddhism is one tool among many for psychotherapists or that it might itself transform psychotherapy?

Epstein: I think that because Buddhism has been able to articulate a kind of central truth, which is that we all tend to be estranged from ourselves and from our own experience of the present moment, and because it has articulated that truth and the way to correct that, that it is actually a central and very helpful theme or message that is very relevant to psychotherapy. I think it is exactly what psychotherapy has been struggling to find. So, I don't think it is just one technique among many or another cognitive or behavioral technique to be swallowed up by psychotherapy. I think it is actually answering a basic question that psychotherapy has struggled over the past 100 years to answer, which is how to help people be more present, more tolerant, more generous, and more loving in their lives, and that there is a method that the Buddha articulated that psychotherapy can learn how to blend in its own way.

Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart : A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness
by Mark. Epstein, Janet Goldstein (Editor)


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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