“Advice Not Given” and author Mark Epstein. Cover via Penguin Press, photo by Larry Bercow

A Buddhist psychiatrist’s advice on facing trauma, troubles and Trump: Let it go

(RNS) — Psychiatrist and Buddhist scholar Mark Epstein marries his religion and his therapeutic practice in a new book that may be particularly fitting for these fraught social and political times: It’s about the ego, which he calls the main ingredient of identity.

In the book, “Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself,” Esptein writes about how Buddhism and psychiatry, which both deal with the ego, can help people find equanimity between their inner and outer lives. He elaborates on the therapeutic potential in Buddhist practices in facing the indignities, traumas and fears threaded through everyday life.

Psychiatry, he says, helps people “make sense of their internal conflicts and unconscious motivations, to relax against the ego’s perfectionism.” And Buddhist meditations teach people “to watch their own minds without necessarily believing everything they think.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Why focus on the ego now? Is this the most ego-driven public square ever?

Probably not although it certainly seems that way. It is one of those times when the underside of the ego — insecurity, self-judgment, and narcissism — is on full display. But ego is essential to us. If we didn’t have an ego, we’d be psychotic. The ego is the main ingredient of our identity — how we think about ourselves. It is our executive function. It’s about managing or controlling things, how we mediate between what is inside us and the demands of the outside world.

President Trump, reacting to critical comments on his state of mind in Michael Wolff’s new book, "Fire & Fury," describes himself as a “stable genius.” What do you think of another book in which 27 mental health experts assessed him as a "dangerous case"?

I agree with one of my former professors, Allen Frances, who says it is risky to diagnose from afar. But I disagree with someone who said Trump has “a kind of emotional intelligence." That is a misunderstanding of the term. “Emotional intelligence” is the ability to check your ego at the door so you can relate to the inner experience of another. It’s the opposite of narcissism where you are propping yourself up all the time. Watching the president is watching the insecure ego racing to destroy any kind of criticism and prop itself up.

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Don’t we all do that, to a certain degree? Is meditation the escape route from those reactions?

"Getting over yourself" means not completely identifying with self-judgment. The ego judges others and judges one's self. It doesn’t go away. But we cannot buy into it every time. We can have a sense of humor. We can take a backwards step. Meditation is a way to do that.

Why do you call Buddhism a religion, when some people call it a philosophy, and describe meditation as a "spiritual" act?

Buddhism has been called the most psychological of the world’s religions and the most spiritual of the world’s psychologies. “Spiritual” to me is anything that takes your own personality, out of your own ego, that puts you in touch with an element of mystery in the lives we lead.

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Would this conflict with being Jewish or Christian? (Epstein describes himself as culturally Jewish.)

I don’t see conflict between Buddhism and the idea of letting go of yourself and letting God or Christ into your heart. The inner, subjective maneuver is very similar. Instead of identifying wholeheartedly with your own little ego, you are able to put it aside and make room for another energy, call it God or Christ, to take over. I know from my patients in 12-step programs how powerful that little maneuver can be. But it’s not a one-time action. It’s always up to us to work diligently, patiently, nonjudgmentally with ourselves over time.

After decades as a Buddhist, you describe yourself as cold, cranky and aloof at times and yet cheerful and hopeful as well. What do you have hopes for?

For Oprah after the Golden Globes, for the world, for the planet, for my family, for my own little thread of consciousness. I’m always looking for the balance between faith and despair. And I have faith in the psychological way of faith — that even our most destructive impulses don’t have to take us down and can be used in some kind of way productively. I’m basically an optimistic person even in the midst of so much fear.

Comments

  1. “I don’t see conflict between Buddhism and the idea of letting go of yourself and letting God or Christ into your heart.”

    The sentence does not speak of Satan. The notion of Satan and Buddhism are indeed in conflict.

    (Aside: The same Satan is present in Islam as well. Hence, the Rohingya crisis could be at the doctrinal level.)

  2. Jesus was tempted by Satan.
    Siddhartha was tempted by Mara.

  3. The two sentences you wrote give rise to the following analogies:
    Jesus = Siddhartha
    Satan = Mara
    In reality, Mara doesn’t have the same force or the same consequences as Satan.

    Perhaps an example will help.

    Followers of the Dalai Lama do read the writings of Ramana Maharshi. At the time of reading Ramana, they don’t say, “Ramana is Mara’s minion. Ramana will lead the public astray. We should read Ramana only with a view to deconstructing his lessons.”

    With Christians it’s different. Christians think “Ramana is Satan’s minions. Ramana will lead he public astray. We should read Ramana only with a view to deconstructing his lessons.”

    So Mara doesn’t have the same force or the same consequences as Satan.

  4. Interesting article. People tend to argue, fight, destroy what they don’t respect. What they respect they might disagree with but they disagree in a way that will preserve. That’s external, internally, a internal agent that is respected is what allows us to respect ourselves as we disagree but preserve ourselves on the inside. Really good interview done very well. Made me think.

  5. “I don’t see conflict between Buddhism and the idea of letting go of yourself and letting God or Christ into your heart.“

    Let’s see. Buddhism is about radical detachment and Christianity is about radical commitment to divine love. I’d say there are rather obvious conflicts.

  6. Good read, but an utter impossibility, this! – “Instead of identifying wholeheartedly with your own little ego, you are able to put it aside and make room for another energy, call it God or Christ, to take over”?! No, “you are [NOT] able”! PERIOD. Because, like the man said, whether while in or out of the meditative state or mode, “If [you] didn’t have an ego, [you]’d be PSYCHOTIC.” And so, even if & when “you are able to put it aside”, this “ego”, and via this “meditation” stuff, what’ll happen to you? You end up … wait for it … “PSYCHOTIC”!

    AW SNAP.

    Funny that brother Mark Epstein mentions “Christ” at all. For if only our good “culturally Jewish … psychiatrist and Buddhist scholar” would care to remember what said “Christ” once taught His Jewish disciples:

    “If anyone desires [thelei] to come after Me, he must disown [aparneesasthoh] himself, and take up his crucifixion-stake [stavron] and follow Me in company [akoloutheitoh]. For whoever desires to save [sohsai] one’s life will destroy [apolesei] it; but whoever destroys one’s life for My sake will discover [heureesei] it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

    Meditate that!

  7. “Radical commitment to divine love” – but without “radical detachment” – is impossible and delusional, foredoomed and meaningless, however. Ain’t a-happenin’.

  8. Obviously you read the article while Ohm-ing. But stupid me, I read your comment simply, i.e. not knowing nor ever desiring to meditate trance-like. There’s the disconnect, I think. In short, you make no sense, but that’s understandable.

  9. The atheistic insult you were looking for, I believe (non-atheistically), is, Pabl-ohm. As in the anti-scientific version of the scientific unit of measurement, ohm. Get with it, dude!

    And now, this word from your sponsor, Daniel Fincke, an atheist himself (cf. “Why I Criticize My Fellow Atheists”, Camels with Hammers, June 17, 2013):

    Atheists are “just looking for flaws in theism or religious people’s behavior out of some animus … prejudice or malice. … Some atheists really do seem to have gotten into this movement to indulge in their feelings of superiority to those they pitilessly disparage as ‘stupid’ or wicked. … They are just in this to throw rocks at the ‘retards’. I have no sympathies with such people and am ashamed that they’re associated with me.”

  10. Anyone who equates these two religions does not adequately understand either of them.

  11. Paradox was, indeed, to characterize the life and thought of Henri Le Saux, who spent twenty years as a Benedictine monk in his native France, and the rest of his life in India as a Hindu-inspired sannyasi, hermit, traveler, writer — and Catholic priest.
    ….
    At Arunachala were many caves where hermits and holy men dwelt for extended periods. The experience of Ramana’s presence, followed by eager reading of Ramana’s teachings on advaita or non-dualism, silence, and solitude of self, were nearly overwhelming. Henri Le Saux took up the name of Abhishiktananda and then, for three years, became a wandering sadhu among the caves of Arunachala.

  12. Thanks for the clear feedback, you made yourself very understandable, if you know what I mean. Oops, there’s that disconnect again.

  13. Thanks for the example of Henri Le Saux / Abhishiktananda. By any chance, do you know what his views were on the following cluster of concepts:

    Satan; false religion; idolatry; freedom of conscience

    At the beginning, he was a Catholic, so he probably learnt the standard Catholic understanding of that cluster of concepts. But as got more and more influenced by Ramana, perhaps his views changed on that cluster of concepts?

    Thanks in advance for any info you can share.

  14. Jews, including Epstein, could not care less what “Christ” taught.

  15. “Instead of identifying wholeheartedly with your own little ego, you are able to put it aside and make room for another energy, call it God or Christ, to take over.”
    – Mark Epstein

    Oh I think “Epstein could”!

  16. Sum it for us, then, in 3 steps, how “meditat[ion has helped you when you’re] a little angry”.

    You have 24 hours. GO!

  17. Yah, but you chicken out there from defending your statement that “Buddhism is about radical detachment and Christianity is about radical commitment to divine love.” You’re the person around here who “does not adequately understand either of them”.

  18. Meditation has helped me not write e-mails with numerous exclamation points.

    Sorry you only get one reason.

  19. I didn’t chicken out from defending my statement. I decided not to respond to a poorly worded, unclear criticism of my statement.

    If you are really saying that you actually think that the “no self” of Asian religions is in any way equivalent to, or necessary for, taking up ones cross and embracing Christ, all I can tell you is you have a lot of theology work to do.

    Comparative religions is a messy business. If I were you I’d steer clear of the Eckard Tolle and read some Jacques Dupuis. Then get back to me.

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