What Unites Buddhism and Psychotherapy? One Therapist Has the Answer.
THE ZEN OF THERAPY
Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life
By Mark Epstein
Despite often being lumped together these days in what gratingly gets called the “wellness sector,” psychotherapy and Buddhist meditation might be seen as almost opposite approaches to the search for peace of mind. Show up on the couch of a traditional American shrink, and you’ll be encouraged to delve deep into your personal history and emotional life — to ask how your parents’ anxieties imprinted themselves on your childhood, say, or why the way your spouse loads the dishwasher makes you so disproportionately angry. Show up at a meditation center, by contrast, and you’ll be encouraged to see all those thoughts and emotions as mere passing emotional weather, and the self to which they’re happening as an illusion.
These differences also help explain the characteristic ways in which each approach goes wrong — as in the case of the lifelong therapy patient who’s fascinated by his own problems, yet still as neurotic as ever; or the moony meditator engaged in what’s been termed “spiritual bypassing,” attempting to transcend all earthly concerns so that she needn’t look too closely at her own pain.
Attempts to bridge the two philosophies are liable to devolve into mere intellectual exercises, or else to peter out in the banal advice that therapy sessions ought to begin with a period of concentrating on the breath. (For anyone who’s ever paid out of pocket for a therapeutic “hour,” the idea of using valuable minutes that way may evoke strong feelings.) But in “The Zen of Therapy,” a warm, profound and cleareyed memoir of a year in his consulting room prior to the pandemic, the psychiatrist and author — and practicing Buddhist — Mark Epstein aims at something meatier. He seeks to uncover the fundamental wisdom both worldviews share, and to show, as a practical matter, how it might help us wriggle free from the places we get stuck on the road to fulfillment.
Epstein, whose earlier books on related themes include “Advice Not Given” and “Thoughts Without a Thinker,” is adamant that psychotherapy is right to emphasize the importance of our personal stories — the history and texture of what it feels like to be, uniquely, ourselves — as against the meditator’s tendency to disdain the realm of emotions, seeing them “as indulgent at best and as an impediment at worst.” It’s clear from early in the book that Epstein won’t be romanticizing the ascetic life when he describes a pivotal moment in the story of the historical Buddha, in which he walked out on his wife and child to seek spiritual enlightenment, not as an act of courage, but as a rather obvious case of emotional avoidance.
Buddhism’s critical insight, though, is that those personal stories are just stories, as opposed to nonnegotiable, objective reality; that the selves to which they occur are much less substantial than we tend to assume — and that freedom lies ultimately not in understanding what happened to us, but in loosening our grip on it all, so that “things that feel fixed, set, permanent and unchanging” can start to shift. The goal, in a refreshing counterpoint to the excesses of a certain way of thinking about therapy, isn’t to reach the state of feeling glowingly positive about yourself and your life. It’s to become less entangled with that whole question, so that you get to spend your time on more meaningful things instead.
Much of the appeal of therapists’ memoirs lies, naturally enough, in the opportunity for readers to satisfy their prurient interest in other people’s problems — and in the relief of learning that they’re at least as screwed up as we are. So it’s fitting that Epstein devotes only a relatively short introductory section to setting the stage, chronicling his growing frustration with Western scientists’ attempts to isolate the “active ingredient” in meditation, rather than embracing its spiritual depths. (Recalling his role as an assistant on a narrowly conceived research trip to northern India, he laments: “I had an unparalleled opportunity to probe these monks’ minds, not just their rectal temperatures.”)
Most of the book is spent, instead, in the company of his (pseudonymous) patients, such as Debby, the humanitarian volunteer who finds it easy to appreciate the shining souls of the dispossessed people among whom she works, but has a harder time when it comes to her grouchy and withdrawing husband; and Jack, the son of Holocaust survivors, who “remembers the unbearable and unreachable sadness of his parents. ‘Was I a good boy today?’ he would ask them repeatedly, as if his behavior were the cause of the suffering he intuited but could never reach.” There’s more benefit, for the patients and for the reader, in simply allowing such stories to be told than in attempting to derive generic life lessons from them, and Epstein by and large leaves space for that to happen.
The mantra of the Buddhism-inclined therapist, he writes, is to “find the clinging” — to detect where a patient is holding tightly to certain stories or feelings on which they’ve come to believe their happiness depends (or, alternatively, those they seek at all costs to keep at bay — since aversion, for a Buddhist, is just an inverted kind of clinging). The point isn’t to stop feeling or thinking them, but to change one’s relationship to them. The “ultimate Buddhist therapeutic maneuver,” he explains, is “not to ignore the emotion but to leave it alone, allowing it to appear in its own way, appreciating it for what it seems to be without getting taken in by it.” Talking with one patient, a stepmother bitter about her stepchildren’s lack of appreciation, he makes the fine distinction that her expectations are “valid” but “not realistic.” It’s perfectly OK to have expectations; just don’t make your happiness dependent on their ever being fulfilled.
The unifying stance Epstein identifies in Buddhism and in therapy at its best — such as in the work of the British child analyst D. W. Winnicott, champion of the “good-enough mother” — is the willingness to pay attention, while letting people and feelings be as they are. He finds it, too, in the creative approach of another of his heroes, the composer John Cage, who sought to “let the sounds be themselves.” “Kindness is the thread that runs through the work of Winnicott, Cage and the Buddha,” Epstein writes, “each of whom discovered that noninterfering attentiveness — in a mother, an artist, a meditator or a therapist — is, by its very nature, transformative.”
This is where a certain kind of Buddhism-inspired advice book typically comes adrift, vaguely exhorting the reader to cultivate an all-purpose compassionate attitude that’s as impossible to practice (for me, at least) as it is irritating to read about. Mercifully, what Epstein means by kindness includes a large component of humor. Developing the capacity to laugh at ourselves — especially at the self-important, righteously indignant facades we construct as a matter of emotional self-defense — is a sublime expression of non-clinging, an act of inner-directed kindness that soon spreads outward too. One of his patients, a financial executive, starts off full of wounded pride, but his growing capacity to laugh at that trait is heartwarming: “The only change he wanted me to make in my account,” Epstein writes, “was to describe him as bearing a striking resemblance to the young Antonio Banderas.”
The effort to straddle Buddhism and therapy leads Epstein sometimes to lapse into the technical jargon of both, with discussions of the “object-mother,” “mind objects,” the “punitive superego” and the like; while references to his own spiritual journey have the I-guess-you-had-to-be-there quality that often afflicts such accounts. But this wise and sympathetic book’s lingering effect is as a reminder that a deeper and more companionable way of life lurks behind our self-serious stories. “What is your method, anyway?” one patient asks Epstein, in an affectionate dig. “It’s like ‘friendly conversation’ with occasional moments of illumination, is that it?” He’s obliged to concede that she’s right. It doesn’t sound like much. But then again, since neither therapy nor meditation is going to solve the human predicament — none of us are getting out of this alive — perhaps nothing could possibly be worth more.