In this episode we share how to “get over yourself” and stop taking things so seriously, we discuss the important relationship between confusion and clarity, and we explore the art of letting go of the need for safety, security and control in your everyday life so that you can relax into who you’ve always been with our guest Dr. Mark Epstein.
Dr. Mark Epstein is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including his most recent books The Trauma of Everyday Life and Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. He is currently Clinical Assistant Professor in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University and his work has been featured in Psychology Today, The New York TImes, and more!
How do we move from addiction/anxiety/depression/worry to love/relief/understanding?
Being in a place of addiction, anxiety, and worry is the day to day experience for most people
What’s the prescription for solving anxiety and worry?
The prescriptions from the ancient texts of Buddhism are still highly relevant in solving many of today’s problems with the human condition
“Training your mind”
Realizing that the mind is trainable is the beginning of your journey towards relief and understanding
You are not just a victim of your thoughts
The untrained mind is a wild thing - one of the challenges of adulthood is to get a handle on your own mind
Get a handle on your own addictions, cravings, and tendencies towards violence
Inner peace is not just about calming or centering yourself
How do we start to be honest with ourselves and confront our own mental addictions and negative thoughts?
Anything that promotes self reflection is the way to begin confronting your thoughts
You don’t have to overcome your fears - you just have to be willing to examine them
The hardest thing is often just being willing to take the first step
You can’t force someone into meditation - someone has to reach a critical point of personal suffering and to make their own decision
How his father’s battle with brain cancer transformed Dr. Epstein’s relationship with helping others
How do you handle your own mind when facing death or dying?
How do you look for the “feeling of being yourself”
What does it mean to “relax into who you’ve always been?"
“The craft of meditation” - the practice and technique of what to do and how to meditate - is only one part of the puzzle
The “art of meditation” - beyond just the physical technique - is a rich field of exploration
Ancient buddhist texts offer some deep insights into modern psychotherapy - but the language of ancient buddhism is couched in the understand of thousands of years ago and needs some interpretation
Why people “expect too much from meditation” and what that means
Meditation is a much more subtle than people think
Meditation is ultimately something that you have to teach yourself
In the west especially - we want the science to “do it for us” - but we have to do it ourselves
There’s an important relationship between confusion and clarity
The clarity that one seeks only comes from sitting and staring at your confusion
The fundamental power of meditation and mindfulness comes from really staring and facing the difficult
Swim in the sea of confusion and learn to float with it
Creating a "therapeutic split in the ego"
It’s possible to be both the observer and that which is being observed in your own stream of consciousness
What is the Ego?
“The ego doesn’t really exist” - the ego has to meditate between inner impulses and outer requirements
The ego cognitively develops around the age of 3 or 4 when the child first realizes that he or she is a separate person and has to think about their own actions
The ego - as we think about it in western society is all about self preservation and self control - it’s looking for safety, security, and control
How do you “get over yourself” and stop taking yourself so seriously
You are not an isolated entity in isolation and competition with the rest of humanity. You are an integral part of the world as a whole.
We can’t jump right into enlightenment - its about the JOURNEY and the everyday work, practice, and moments of honest reckoning with ourselves
How to create humility and graciousness in your life
Homework: Read a book, or go to an art museum. Go outside, close the door, stand there and listen. Trust yourself.
People can find their own way, there are so many paths out there.
Thank you so much for listening!
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
Article directory for Big Think
[Article] New York Times - “When a Therapist Puts Buddhism Into Practice” by John Williams
[Article] Psychology Today - “Buddhism and Psychotherapy: An interview with Dr. Mark Epstein” by Jonathan Kaplan
[Article] Heal Your Life - “What Is Real Mindfulness?” by Dr. Mark Epstein
[Podcast] Big Think - Mark Epstein, MD – I, Me, Mine – Think Again - a Big Think Podcast #130
[Podcast] ShrinkRapRadio - #252 – A Buddhist Perspective on Psychotherapy with Mark Epstein, MD
[Podcast] Lifehacker - How to Get Over Yourself, With Buddhist Psychiatrist Mark Epstein
[Podcast] Metta Hour - Ep. 56: Real Love Series with Dr. Mark Epstein
Family Action Network - Mark Epstein, MD - "Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself" (01/22/18)
WGBH Forum - Mark Epstein: The Trauma of Everyday Life
Rubin Museum - Psychic Medium Laura Lynne Jackson + Dr. Mark Epstein
Humanistic Psychology Lecture Series - The Interface of Psychology and Buddhism
[Amazon Author Page] Mark Epstein
[Book] Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself By Mark Epstein
[Book] Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness By Mark Epstein
[Book] The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein
[Book] Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein
[Book] Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught by Mark Epstein
[Book] Going on Being: Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and Psychotherapy by Mark Epstein
[Book] Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective by Mark Epstein
[Book] Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy by Mark Epstein
[Book] Fast Track to A 5 Preparing for the AP United States History Examination by Mark Epstein
[Wiki Article] Alan Watts
[Website] Alan Watts
[SoS Episode] Embracing Discomfort
[SoS Episode] Your Secret Weapon to Becoming Fearless with Jia Jiang
[SoS Episode] How To Demolish What’s Holding You Back & Leave Your Comfort Zone with Andy Molinsky
[SoS Episode] The Skeptics Guide To Meditation With Dan Harris
[SoS Episode] Unleash The Power of Meditation
[SoS Episode] The Simple 20 Minute Exercise That Rewires Your Brain For Happiness with Dr. Dan Siegel
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than three million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we share how to get over yourself and stop taking things so seriously. We discuss the important relationship between confusion and clarity and we explore the art of letting go of the need for safety, security and control in your everyday life, so that you can relax into who you’ve always been with our guest, Dr. Mark Epstein.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how to boost your energy, focus and happiness in five minutes or less using a dead-simple strategy that anyone can apply right away. We explored the power of self-knowledge and why it's one of the cornerstones of success in any area of life. We uncovered several powerfully uncomfortable questions that you can ask yourself to be happier, healthier and more productive with our previous guest, Gretchen Rubin. If you want to find a near-instant hack for getting focus and energy, listen to our previous episode.
Now for our interview with Mark.
[0:03:03.0] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Dr. Mark Epstein. Mark is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including his most recent books The Trauma of Everyday Life and Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself.
He is currently a clinical assistant professor in the post-doctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis at NYU and his works have been featured in Psychology Today, the New York Times and much more. Mark, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:35.7] ME: Hey, thank you Matt. I'm glad to be here.
[0:03:37.9] MB: Well, we're very excited to have you on the show today. To start out, I'd love to come in at a high-level and look at this fundamental theme that you've written and spoken about, how do we think about and this is going to unpack a lot of things, I know this is a big question, but how did we think about moving from this state that we’re in so frequently today of addiction, anxiety, stress, etc., to a place of as you call love, relief and understanding?
[0:04:07.2] ME: Well, I don't think we are just in that place today. Although, this is a heightened moment where everyone is very conscious of their anxiety and addiction and depression and worry. I think that's actually a place that people have been in for generations, millennia, going all the way back to the time of the Buddha and before. That was something that initially attracted me to the psychology of Buddhism when I was just a student in college before I really knew very much about anything.
I read the Buddha's words in an early religion class I was taking, where he was talking about the day-to-day mind of an average person as flapping like a fish on dry ground, trembling all the time. I immediately related and wanted to know what the prescription was in ancient times for that anxiety. I found that that prescription was still relevant for me 40, 50 years ago and now for many of my patients, that the world that we're in is always a difficult place. It's always changing. Our egos want certainty.
That's rare that we can find it. We tend to fasten on to our pleasures and try to make them last longer than they can and then box ourselves in to a feeling of deprivation, or inadequacy. The Buddhist prescription for training one's own mind is something that I took to heart and have tried to use to the best of my ability in my personal life and in my profession as a therapist.
[0:05:57.0] MB: Is training your mind one of the cornerstone pieces of beginning that journey from a place of anxiety and worry, to a place of relief and understanding?
[0:06:07.5] ME: Well, I think realizing that the mind is trainable is the beginning, even before you actually try to do it. For me, at least it was a revelation that I wasn't just a victim of my thoughts, but that it was possible actually to exert some control over the way I related to my experience, the way I related to the world and the way I related also to the stories that I was telling myself about myself.
[0:06:36.2] MB: Tell me more about this idea that the mind is trainable.
[0:06:39.6] ME: Well, that's the basic idea of all the eastern approaches to yoga and meditation. Yoga really means yoking; the way you would yoke an animal. The idea is that the untrained mind is a wild thing. One of the challenges of development of adulthood, of maturity is to get a handle on one's own mind, which means getting a handle on one's own addictions, on one's own cravings and also on one's own tendency toward violence.
The Dalai Lama always talks about inner peace. When I first heard him talking about inner peace, I thought he was talking about the relaxation response, or just calming oneself. I've come to realize that the inner peace actually means non-violence. The way to find that peace of mind is to actually be willing to confront one's own tendency toward violence, or hostility, aggression, anger, rage, etc. It means being honest with oneself and in that honesty, one can learn how to bring oneself under some modicum of control.
[0:07:53.7] MB: How do we start to be honest with ourselves and to confront our own thoughts, our own addictions, our own mental cravings?
[0:08:01.7] ME: Well, there are any number of ways. I mean, in the west we have the tradition of psychotherapy, which hasn't yet gone completely away. As far as addiction goes, the 12-step approach to admitting that one is helpless over one's own cravings is very close to what the eastern approach to meditation is. Now even in our world, we have all the eastern techniques of yoga and meditation. All of those and we could include Christian, Jewish prayer, etc., or atheistic walks in the countryside, anything that promotes self-reflection is really the way in.
Then once you are able to honestly be with the contents of one's own emotional experience, then that's the beginning. That's the beginning of taking stock of where one is at. Once one's willing to do that, then you can start to apply some of the techniques.
[0:09:09.7] MB: It's funny, this idea of self-reflection, self-awareness is such a prominent theme across people we interview from a huge array of backgrounds and disciplines.
[0:09:21.3] ME: Oh, well it's definitely the happening thing.
[0:09:23.8] MB: How do you begin to for someone who's not familiar with this who hasn't started on this journey yet, or even for someone who's just beginning their journey, how do we start to create that self-reflection in our lives? How do we overcome the inertia around, or the fear around really looking and peering at our own thinking?
[0:09:42.1] ME: Well, I don't think you have to overcome the fear. You just have to be willing to examine it, and the same with inertia. I mean, many people are interested in meditation for instance, or even in psychotherapy. The hardest thing is just taking that first step, being willing to sit down on the meditation cushion, being willing to make the appointment and come in and talk to a therapist honestly. To think that you have to wait until you have no fear, or until there's no tendency towards inertia is I think a misplaced idea. The whole idea is to be able to look at all the obstacles, all the defenses and to turn those into a grist for the meditation mill, or the therapy mill for that matter.
[0:10:33.0] MB: I think that's a really important point, this idea that we often make it too difficult for ourselves, or think that it has to be perfect before we take the first step and begin practicing, but the reality is the sooner you get started, the sooner you take that first step as you said, the better it is. You have to begin that journey somewhere.
[0:10:51.7] ME: I think you have to be ready. If you try to force somebody into therapy, or try to force somebody to meditate, that doesn't work. The defense is just we are up and there they're too strong. I think people know when they reach a critical point of personal suffering. That's different for different people comes at different times. If it’s happening to you, you know it. Then it's really worth taking the step, because there is help available and many qualified, really motivated people who are wanting to help.
[0:11:27.6] MB: You touched on that and in many ways and correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that shaped the story or the narrative around Advice Not Given is this idea that how did you handle that balance of trying to help people understand this with the fact that maybe it wasn't something that they had asked for originally?
[0:11:43.2] ME: Well, that latest book that you're referring to Advice Not Given, one of the things that happened that led to me writing that book was that my father who was a fairly well-known academic physician, a scientist and he was actually chairman of the Department of Medicine at one of the Harvard hospitals, he came down with a inoperable brain tumor; that was in the silent part of his brain. Cognitively, he was fine and he was still working, but he got lost one day driving home the same 15-minute drive that he'd taken for 30 years and they realized there was this thing growing in the non-dominant side of his brain.
By the time they discovered it, it was too late to do anything from the medical side. He knew that he didn't have that long to live and I knew that too. My father while very supportive of my writing and so on was definitely not interested in any of the Buddhist side of things, or the meditation. It was not scientific enough for him. We hardly ever talked about it. He would ask about my books, or about my practice, but we never got into the substance of it.
When the diagnosis was clear, I was sitting in my own office and I realized I've never talked to my father about any of this. In the Buddhist world, there's actually a lot of advice about how to handle one's own mind when facing death and in fact, what to do with one's mind when actually dying. I realized, I have all this advice I haven't been giving even to my own father.
I with some trepidation called him on the telephone from my office and said something to him like, I don't know if you want to know about any of this, but there actually is all this information that may or may not be true, but it's supposed to be helpful. He was very nice. He’s like, “Oh, sure. Go ahead. Tell me whatever you want.” I said something to him about how there's a feeling a subjective feeling inside that really doesn't change very much from when you're 20-years-old, or 40, or 60, or even 80, he was 84, where inside you feel much the same to yourself as you always have.
If you try to find that feeling, to really look for it, it disappears on you. It's a transparent feeling. I said what the Buddhists seem to say is that if you learn to relax your mind into that transparent feeling, you can ride that feeling out as the body falls apart and that feeling of relaxing into who you've always been is something analogous to what you learn in meditation. He was like, “Okay darling, I'll try.” That was the last conversation that I had with him. I felt he really heard me and at least, I was able to get that much out.
That actually was one of the big motivations for the book, or for the title of the book, because I realized that even with my psychotherapy patients, I was always very careful not to try to lay a Buddhist trip on them if they weren't ready to hear the spiritual language that I wanted to function, the way western therapists function, which is to try to stay out of the way as much as possible in order to let people's real reasons for coming to therapy rise to the surface. Then try to help them as much as I could. I wasn't overtly giving meditation instruction or anything. Then I thought, “Oh, well. Maybe it's time after 40 years of doing this, to be a little more explicit the way I was with my dad for people.” I tried to put a lot of that into the book.
[0:15:45.7] MB: I want to get into more concretely the relationship between Buddhism and your psychotherapy practice. Before we do, tell me about – explain and go a little bit deeper into this idea of relaxing into who you've always been. I find that to be really fascinating.
[0:16:01.1] ME: Well, there are different ways to talk about what we do in meditation. The most common way that I've found is from the outside in, where the technique, or the strategy, or what I sometimes call the craft of meditation is handed down almost in a behavioral way, or in a cognitive therapy way, like focus your mind on the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. When your mind wanders from the direct physical sensation of the breath and you notice that your mind has wandered, bring it back the way you might teach a young child to gently, but firmly direct the attention back to the sensation of the breath.
If thoughts come, note that the mind is thinking but try not to get caught in the content of the thoughts. Try to watch the thought as it rises and falls, as it appears and then disappears; the same with feelings, with emotions, with memories, with sounds and disturbances from the outside. Those are the formal instructions, the technique that one learns if one goes to a meditation class, or a meditation teacher.
I've been increasingly interested in trying to talk about more the art of meditation, rather than the craft what we're really doing when we meditate. That's where I think my own personal experience both as a meditator and as a therapist and as a person in therapy has come into play, because whenever you're sitting alone with your own thoughts and feelings you're actually processing a lot of what we and our culture have come to think about as our personality, going all the way back to who we were when we were a child.
There's a lot of psychological, a lot of emotional material that the ancient Buddhist texts didn't really have the language for. There was no Freud in the time of the Buddha. People didn't pay attention to their childhoods, or to their dreams, or to their relationships in the same way that we do now. All of that material; early traumas, early difficulties in our family life, in school, in our love relationships, all of that stuff is actually filtering through our minds also as we try to meditate. We need to have a way of relating to all of that material too.
I'm thinking of that approach more as the art of meditation. That's what I was also trying to convey to my father, that about behind all of that is this subjective feeling of who we are, who we used to be, who we might be, who we don't quite understand, what we don't quite understand, more the mystery of what it is to be a person with a mind and a body. We tap into that in meditation, as well as all of the psychological stuff that I was mentioning before.
[0:19:16.7] MB: You once said that people expect too much of meditation. What did you mean by that?
[0:19:20.8] ME: Well, a lot of people these days come to meditation hoping for something similar to what they might expect from Prozac, if they're anxious or depressed, that it's going to be the pill, the thing that is going to make them happy. I think that it doesn't really work like that. To hope for too much from meditation is to just get disappointed. It's a much more subtle intervention, even than Prozac. Prozac doesn't always work either.
[0:19:52.7] MB: Tell me more about the art side of meditation. I understand and we've done a number of episodes in the past in the show about this craft and the physical technique and practice of it, but I want to understand more deeply this side around the art of it as you called it.
[0:20:08.3] ME: Well, I think meditation ultimately is something that you have to teach yourself. The Buddha at the time of his death, his last words to his faithful student and attendant Anand were, “Be an island to yourself. Take refuge in yourself.” You can learn the technique, you can learn the craft of meditation, but a lot of us – I don't know if this is only in the west, or if this is more long-standing, but a lot of us want the experts to in some sense do it for us. We want the scientist to lay out what neural pathways meditation is working on and what neurotransmitters are being stimulated by the practice.
It's easier to focus on that than it is to really wrestle with the depth of one's own confusion. That's where the art of meditation law is being willing to be honest in an ongoing way with what one's deepest inner struggles actually are. To find that place of balance inside of oneself, where one can sit as if under a giant tree with all the successes and failures and praise and criticism and pleasure and pain that life throws at us. That's really the art of meditation, being willing to be with all of that with some equanimity.
[0:21:49.0] MB: I think you make another really good point, which is this idea that we have to put in the work and sit in our own confusion and really work through these things, that it's not a quick fix like taking a pill, but it's still something that's really richly rewarding at the end of the day.
[0:22:03.8] ME: Well, there's some important relationship between confusion and clarity, just as there is between anger and love. I think what we've learned from therapy is that it's so much harder to love if you haven't faced the anger that you're actually harboring, even for the person who you need the most. I think it's similar with confusion and clarity that the clarity that one seeks from meditation really emerges out of being willing to sit in the midst of one's own confusion. It's only by staring it in the face, the Zen meditators stare at the wall, they sit and stare at the wall for however long they can stand it. I think that's some metaphor for sitting and staring at your own confusion.
The very word that the Buddha used when he gave his first psychological teachings of the Four Noble Truths, he said, “The first noble truth is the truth of dukkha,” which is generally translated as suffering. The actual word dukkha, kha means face and du is something like it's difficult. The word actually means it's difficult to face. There's something in our experience, something that permeates life that's difficult to face, the same way the wall is difficult to face where does in meditators.
What is that that's difficult to face? It's ourselves, it's the way we fight with experience, it's our own anxiety, our fears, our confusion, our inertia as you mentioned before. There's an awful lot in any given individual’s experience that's difficult to face. The Buddha was saying meditation is a way of actually doing this. If you face what's difficult to face, you start to find that it becomes more workable. It's not an immediate transition to happiness, but it becomes more workable. It's a therapy in its own right. The mind itself becomes more workable. It becomes less rigid, more pliant, more open, more accepting. I think eventually more able to love.
[0:24:18.5] MB: This theme of this ideas as you call it facing the difficult, we've had a number of previous episodes where we talk about the idea of embracing discomfort. Whether you're talking to literally in the case of some of the people we've interview in the past in the show, astronauts to perform, and psychologists at the highest possible level, to neuroscientists, this idea of embracing discomfort is another theme that's really recurrent across a huge number of fields. Again, I feel today so many people shy away from discomfort, or move away from it, or flinch and try to run the other way when they encounter things that are uncomfortable.
[0:24:53.8] ME: Well, that's very natural. Of course, you turn away from whatever is uncomfortable. I think to phrase it to strongly as embracing discomfort is maybe to overdo it in that way that we were talking before about forcing meditation on people might be counterproductive, or going too far towards the discomfort as if it's a good thing.
What the Buddha I think is saying and what a lot of our best psychotherapists are pointing to also is that there isn't just an element of discomfort that is inevitable. If we don't make room for it, I don't know that we have to embrace it, we certainly don't have to like it. If we can't make room for it, then we start erecting these defenses against it that back us into a corner and tend to rigidify our own minds and our own experience such that we become slightly paranoid and afraid, because there's always more discomfort to come. The Buddha is suggesting there's a way of swimming in the sea of it, not necessarily enjoying it all the time, but at least learning how to float.
[0:26:17.1] MB: Earlier, you mentioned love. Tell me a little bit about how you think about love and then how it might be different from the western traditional conception of it.
[0:26:25.7] ME: Well, I try not to think about love too much. Allowing love to emerge when it does, not to be scared of love and to realize that that's really what we're here for. It's available everywhere, so even in family life. Then the psychotherapy office and that were – and people you only know a little bit, we're all wired for it. Not closing ourselves off to it when it wants to reveal itself.
[0:27:00.4] MB: I'm guessing you listen to this podcast, because you want to improve yourself in some way. That's why I'm so excited to have our amazing sponsor, Skillshare, back to sponsor us once again. Skillshare is an online learning community for creators with more than 25,000 classes in design, business and more.
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[0:28:56.0] MB: I want to zoom out and come back to something we touched on earlier, as a psychotherapist how did you begin to integrate, or think about Buddhism as a tool, or as a resource?
[0:29:08.4] ME: Well, I actually came to the Buddhism first. I was in an unusual position in our culture. I think I mentioned before, I found Buddhism when I was still in college, before I had taken any courses in psychology, before I read Freud, before I knew I was going to go to medical school to become a therapist. Buddhism somehow found me. I began to meditate. I met now very well-known meditation teachers like Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein and the Dalai Lama. I met them all when I was young and practiced as much meditation as I could, given the confines of still being at college and so on.
It was only after immersing myself as much as I was able in that world that I decided to really studied to become a therapist and psychiatrist to go to medical school, to become a physician and so on. A lot of my training in western psychotherapy I did after learning about Buddhism. I took it in through a Buddhist lens. I was always interested in the beginning in how do these two worlds line up. Are they saying the same thing, or different things?
The Buddhist way of working with the mind didn't seem that different from the western psychoanalytic way of working with the mind. Both involved setting up what the therapist called a therapeutic split in the ego, where you were both the subject and the object of your own experience. You were observing yourselves in this reflective way that we were talking about before. Meditation was much the same.
The best way of learning how to be a therapist is of course to be in therapy. There's a lot of training in how to be a therapist, but that's similar to the training and meditations. You can get the basic instruction from the outside, but you have to figure out how to do it from the inside. I learned how to be a therapist by being a therapist. I learned how to integrate meditation in Buddhism with my therapy by trying to integrate it with my therapy, in working with my patients over many years. I would say I'm still at the beginning of being able to do that, or being able to talk about how I do that. It's been an ongoing effort.
[0:31:37.9] MB: Tell me more about this idea of creating a therapeutic split in the ego.
[0:31:41.5] ME: Well, that's the basis for most of the psychological development that Buddhism and psychoanalysis is both striving for, that we were talking about at the beginning. That it's actually possible and it's a very strange thing. It's actually possible to simultaneously be both the observer and that which is being observed in one's own stream of consciousness. That's a capacity that somehow we as humans have evolved. There's some evidence that some of the other higher primates and other mammals also have that self-reflective capacity, elephant said octopuses. I'm not sure, it's probably some of the baboons and so on seem to also have bits of that ability, but we really have it.
In the Buddhist way of thinking, the human realm that we're all part of is the optimal place for psychological development, because we can either completely surrender to our thoughts, cravings, addictions, feelings and so on, or we can become the observer of them. In becoming the observer of them, we change how we relate to any of them, so that we don't have to be the helpless victim anymore. We can actually interpose space between the impulse and the action. That's a lot of what kids cultivated in both traditions, eastern ways.
[0:33:24.3] MB: What is the ego?
[0:33:26.6] ME: Aha. Well, that's a very good question. The ego doesn't really exist. The ego is a word that we now put on the aspect of our experience that has to mediate between inner impulses and outer requirements of family, school, friends, the world as we experience it from the outside. The ego is something that cognitively develops at around the age of three, or four when the child first realizes that he or she is a separate person and has to be careful about how he, or she acts.
The ego as we think about it in western psychology is that which is all about self-preservation and self-control. The ego is always looking for some safety, some control, some security. If we didn't have the ego, we would be at the mercy of our most primitive impulses the way – I don't know if you've ever been around someone with schizophrenia, but in schizophrenia something happens to the ego and the person is no longer able to regulate themselves. They're no longer able to mediate their most primitive thoughts, which just come pouring out of their mouths in a disjointed fashion.
The ego is a very important aspect of psychological development. From a Buddhist point of view, it tends to be over-developed and boxes us into that corner I was talking about before, where in the attempt to find security and safety and to exert control, it has to make us more rigid than we need to be, because we live in a world where even though we found amazing ability to achieve some security, it's impossible in a complete way.
[0:35:54.0] MB: One of the most interesting things, I really found the subtitle of Advice Not Given to be a little bit provocative even, which is A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. Tell me a little bit about that and how that relates to the ego.
[0:36:07.1] ME: Well, the subtitle came to me later. The book was going to have a different subtitle, which I can't even remember anymore. Suddenly, I realized Advice Not Given, I had the book structured around the Buddha's Eightfold Path, which is his fourth noble truth, which was the Buddhist prescription for how to deal with suffering or trauma. The prescription goes from right thought, right understanding, right speech, right action, right livelihood, to right concentration and right mindfulness.
The central idea in Buddhist psychology is that we all take ourselves too seriously. That in our attempts to optimize our own personal experience, we end up competing against the other billion or so people in the world and we are inevitably going to come out on the short end of the stick. In order to live a better life, we have to come to the understanding that we are not an isolated entity the way we think of ourselves in competition with, or in opposition to the rest of humanity. We are in fact an integral part of the world as a whole. We can't take ourselves out of it the way we imagine we ought to be able to.
That's the thought behind getting over oneself. It's getting over the way we tend to privilege our own position within the recesses of our own minds. In so doing, we experience ourselves as a relational being, not as an isolated entity. That's what it means to get over yourself in my limited view.
[0:37:53.1] MB: It's such an interesting idea and something that I think about a lot, this idea that we can't possibly be separated from everything else. I think originally came to that from reading Alan Watts, was one of my favorite old school thinkers bridging that gap between Buddhist thinking and Eastern thinking and Western thinking.
[0:38:10.8] ME: Yeah. Well, Alan Watts is one of the first great talkers who – translators, who could make all of this really come alive. Most of us do really think of ourselves as separate from the rest of the world and secretly in the privacy of our own minds, we're scheming about how to keep ourselves safe, or garner enough to secure our retirement. That's our most personal thinking.
[0:38:41.1] MB: The interesting thing about this idea of being one with everything is that from a hard science standpoint, if you look at the physics of it, if you look at the biology of it, it’s something that truly scientifically speaking, we really are inseparable from the rest of reality.
[0:38:57.5] ME: Well, the scientists are probing reality non-stop. What they find is that they can't even separate themselves as the prober from the reality that they're probing. That's the great mystery of relativity. The Buddhists were there in a certain way long ago. This idea even of the therapeutic split in the ego that I was trying to tell my father about, even if you relax your mind into that subjective sense of who you always were, you can't totally pull yourselves out of that greater reality that you are part of.
[0:39:36.8] MB: What are some of the other themes, or commonalities that you've uncovered between Buddhism and psychotherapy?
[0:39:46.0] ME: Well, that idea of non-violence that I was talking about earlier is the one I'm thinking about the most now, because I think the western psychoanalytic traditions especially, were the most fearless at confronting the underlying violence that conditions all of our minds. That when you even look at the psychology of very young children, infants with their mothers and so on, you can see that it's a tendency that we all come in with.
In the eastern traditions and in a lot of those in our culture who are drawn to the eastern traditions, there can be a tendency to try to leapfrog over some of the more raw and primitive instinctual, all kinds of impulses that are driving us, as if we could just jump right into the enlightened states that we read about. I don't really think that's possible. That's the spiritual bypassing, that some of the first generations of people to look at the eastern psychology have been prone towards.
I've been much more interested in what happens if we again take that just very honest reckoning with ourselves and allow ourselves to be humbled by what we see; that seems to yield a humility and graciousness that seems to be good for people.
[0:41:27.0] MB: That's a great turn of phrase; we can't jump right into enlightenment. I think it's a really succinct way of describing the importance of this journey, in this everyday practice of moments of honest reckoning with ourselves.
[0:41:39.1] ME: Yes. Well, it's hard to really know what enlightenment means, since most of us myself included, haven't experienced it. People should be aware of the gurus who are presenting themselves as already there, because it's pretty likely that most of them aren't.
[0:41:59.9] MB: For listeners who want to concretely implement some of the ideas that we've talked about today, what would be one piece of homework or an action item that you would give them to begin on their own personal journey?
[0:42:11.7] ME: Oh, I would just say read a book, or go to an art museum. I was teaching once in Oklahoma and this therapist came up to me afterwards and said, “In Oklahoma, we can't even talk about meditation or mindfulness.” When I'm working with a new person I just tell them, “Go outside. Close the door. Stand there and listen.” I think to be too prescriptive for people is to make the wrong move. That's where that Advice Not Given, that's the other sentiment that was going into the title.
People can find their own way. There are so many paths out there and it's so much better when you find your own way, than when you're just swallowing somebody else's pill that they're giving you. Trust yourself.
[0:43:05.0] MB: For listeners who want to find you and your work online, what's the best place for them to do that?
[0:43:10.7] ME: I have a website that lists all my books and has a couple of links to this or that article or interview. They can go there. I also have a Facebook page, that is Mark Epstein, MD., that has a list of upcoming talks, or lectures, or whatever.
[0:43:32.0] MB: Well, we'll make sure to include links to all of those in the show notes at successpodcast.com. Mark, thank you so much for coming on the show for sharing all this wisdom and knowledge.
[0:43:41.8] ME: Thanks a lot Matt. It's been great.
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