You are not who you think you are.” – Ram Dass
Psychotherapy and Buddhist thought have long been considered separate worlds – psychotherapy is about optimizing the mind and minimizing the impact of emotional trauma, while Buddhist practice emphasizes letting go, acceptance, and finding peace. But what do Western psychotherapy and Buddhism have in common? They are both ways of seeking happiness and fulfillment in life.
On today’s episode, Dr. Mark Epstein, psychotherapist, and bestselling author, made the case for how the two approaches compliment, and even amplify one another. His study under luminaries in both Eastern and Western thought, including Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Timothy Leary, the Dalai Lama, and many others super-charged his ability to serve patients over the years. Dr. Epstein’s newest work, “The Zen of therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life,” infuses his personal mental health story with experiences from his therapy practice.
Together, Western psychotherapy and Buddhist practices can be used as tools to improve your life- or at least how you feel about it.
What does mindfulness and Buddhist thought offer that can help people experience greater fulfillment and joy?
Humans are ego-driven, which is both beneficial and detrimental to our health.The ego emerges around age four or five when external demands and expectations increase – for example, sharing with others, mastering self-reliance skills, and obeying rules.
The ego is critical to navigate and interact with the world around us – it is the “internal manager” for dealing with the external environment.
But the ego has a dark side. Feelings of insecurity that simply will not go away. Self-worth tied to achievement. A “never enough” mentality… uncontrolled ego is a recipe for disaster.
You might be asking, “How do I shut my ego up?” Spoiler alert, you can’t. You can only quiet it down through awareness and intention.
The point isn’t to “kill the ego.” Rather, it is to develop a fluid approach to ego that allows you to effectively navigate the physical world, without allowing the ruminative aspects of the ego to take over.
Is the ability to “get over yourself” learnable?
There are many approaches that offer the ability to develop this fluid ego state. Meditation, mindfulness practice, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, and many more all have the potential to provide substantial benefits. In many cases, the benefits of combining these modalities can be exponential.
One of the core facets of these approaches is examining the mental and emotional structures at play. By coming face to face with the ego, we begin to understand, forgive, and change the behaviors that have led us to our current point of suffering.
The word “Duhkha” (Sanskrit) is often translated as “pain” or “suffering.” A closer approximation, though, is “difficult to face.”
We cannot escape that which is difficult to face – old age, illness, death, misfortune – but by practicing kindness toward the part of you that is suffering, you can face these inevitabilities without giving up the experience of “now” in the process.
Visualizing success, but letting go of the outcome
This is a common problem for Westerners grappling with Buddhist thought, and mindfulness practices in general.
The idea of internally visualizing the success of an action – as a golfer would do before a swing, for example – is well-entrenched in Western thought. Mindfulness, conversely, emphasizes the concept of letting go of the outcome – that is, performing the action with no emotional investment regarding the results.
The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, though. The same sense of fluidity Dr. Epstein described when discussing the ego applies to pre-performance preparation as well.
Where the balance point exists is different for each person. The intersecting approaches of psychotherapy and Buddhist thought, though, hold enormous potential for helping individuals find their own balance points and experience less suffering.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Whether you’re working on improving your mental fitness or you are interested in how you can augment your current practices, try taking a completely different approach. If you’re familiar with talk therapy, try a yoga class. If you are an avid runner, maybe it’s time to set up a counseling session. Bring your current practices into these new realms and see for yourself how they coalescence.
Listen to the Podcast
Chase Jarvis: Hey everybody, what's up? This is Chase Jarvis. Welcome to an episode of The Chase Jarvis LIVE Show here on CreativeLive. This is a show where I sit down with the world's most incredible humans. I unpack their brain with the goal of helping you live your dreams. Today's guest is Dr. Mark Epstein.
Dr. Epstein is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and the author of a number of books that help us understand and reconcile eastern wisdom with western medicine and western science generally. This is an incredible conversation. We talk about cultivating a healthy relationship with our ego, why ego is both good and bad, how it's the thing that keeps us alive, it has biological functions, but it also undermines so much of what we want to do in this life that we have this one precious life.
In this episode, we talk about the difference between doing which Western culture is obsessed with and being, how does one be content, whether or not we're succeeding, whether or not we're being recognized for our pursuits on a day-to-day business. There is more to life than that. Importantly, we talk about how meditation and therapy, the combination of those two things specifically, can train the mind to deal with the unpredictable world that we all live in.
This is a super powerful episode. I'm very excited about both the tradition that Mark come from and the work that he's done in the western world to unite this in what I think is a super profound way. Enjoy this episode, yours truly, with Dr. Mark Epstein. We love you.
Dr. Mark Epstein, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for being here.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Thank you, Chase. It's a pleasure, of course.
Chase Jarvis: I shared with you before we started recording that my wife and I are big fans. My wife is a longtime Zen practitioner. Of course, your work is this amazing commingling between sort of western and eastern but rather than me trying to explain you and your work, you've been talking about it for your entire life. For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, give us an introduction, a little bit of a background on who you are and where you'd like to focus your energy and attention.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Sure, well, I'm a western trained psychiatrist, which means I went to medical school in order to become a therapist, which is a kind of roundabout way of becoming a therapist, but it turned out to have been a good path. The unusual thing about my background was that before I went to medical school with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist, I was deeply immersed in the study and the practice of Buddhism, in particular, mindfulness meditation.
I discovered that early on, like when I was 18, 19 years old when I first got to college, and I was lucky enough to meet a number of the first western translators and practitioners of Buddhist thought and practice. I studied with them, became friends with them, traveled in Asia with them and did long, long meaning two-week retreats with them.
For six or seven years before deciding, I had to figure out what to do with my life and that's when I went back and took all the science courses to go to medical school, went to Harvard Medical School. I was one of only, I think, two people in my class of a hundred or so who wanted to be a psychiatrist. Then, I got good training in western psychotherapy, but I was always looking at it through the prism of what I had already learned about Buddhist thought.
Despite all of that good training in western psychiatry and whatnot, they don't really teach you how to be a therapist. They follow the medical model, where one day you're the psychiatrist and they give you a patient and you close the door, and you're there with the patient and you have to function. I was always drawing from the very beginning on what I have learned from meditation, deciding that I have learned how to look at my own mind. What if I tried to apply that to looking at somebody else's mind and heart, looking at their emotional life.
Gradually, I realized that I was at this nexus between the two worlds and that I would try to start writing about how Buddhist thought was actually applicable or how it complimented western psychotherapy and trying to write about it forced me to think about it, and to consolidate my ideas about it and that launched me on what I used to think about as a kind of translation of Buddhist thought into the language of western psychotherapy. Now, I've written a lot and now I have a new book about that, that maybe we can talk about some.
Chase Jarvis: Yes, I will drop the title here. That the new book is the Zen of Therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life. It is exquisite. I want to say congratulations but before we go too much into the book, there was a lot in that intro...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah, [crosstalk].
Chase Jarvis: ... which I find... No. No. First of all, this is long form. This is exactly what we want. Second of all, a lot means that I find, as I endeavor to do with guests on the show, the background is myriad, your interests are different than the mainstream and that is what makes you, you. That is the reason you're on this show.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah.
Chase Jarvis: First, you mentioned studying with some of the folks who were original in transit, in translating, I think you used the word...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah.
Chase Jarvis: ... some of that western thought into or sorry eastern thought into a western mindset. I'm wondering if you can name drop, so that we can orient some folks may be aware of some of these folks or us. Who are some of the folks you studied with early on, and what was the sort of the timeframe that that was emerging?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah, no, I'd be happy to because I'm completely indebted to all of these people who really were there for me when I was trying to figure myself out and both of these worlds out. I lucked into all of these people. I'm very grateful to all of them. I got to college, to Harvard in 1971. 1971 and Cambridge was sort of like still the '60s or it was the end of the '60s and I knew I wanted to focus on psychology. Somehow I had the idea even then of being a therapist, that it was work, but it wasn't real work, sitting and talking with people. I knew that was something I could do.
The Department of Psychology at Harvard in those days had been roiled, there had been a big uproar before I got there. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, the avatars of LSD, had been there in the '60s in this very department that I was wanting to study in. The professor, the tenured professor, who had both hired Leary and Alpert and then had to fire them, was still there and was one of my professors.
A year or two into my time there, I found out that this professor, who was a very austere figure, that we were all kind of afraid of, that he and his wife, who was a painter, lived in the highest house on the highest hill in Cambridge, and that he was still in touch with Richard Alpert, who had gone to India and become Ram Dass. This professor of mine, David McClellan, was still in touch with Ram Dass and had kind of turned his house into a commune of sorts for all of the people around, the hippies around Ram Dass, who were back and forth from India.
Once I discovered that, I was over there as much as I was in school. I got to know Ram Dass very early on, who took an interest in me because there I was at Harvard, studying psychology, but I was a generation behind him. I didn't need to embrace the counterculture with the same 100% devotion. I could straddle the middle and stay in school, et cetera, but still study all of the stuff on the side. Ram Dass was a big influence from the beginning.
Then, there was a graduate student teaching fellow in one of the first psychology classes that I took, whose name was Daniel Goleman. He went on to become the psychology writer for the New York Times. Then, he wrote a bestseller called Emotional Intelligence that many people have read and has affected the business world...
Chase Jarvis: Oh yes.
Dr. Mark Epstein: ... and so on.
Chase Jarvis: Yes.
Dr. Mark Epstein: But in those days, he was a graduate student at Harvard in psychology, and I walked into the section, the way the classes worked was that there would be a big lecture and then it was broken up into smaller groups that were run by graduate students. He was my graduate student. I walked in and there was this guy with long frizzy hair and he was wearing purple bell bottom pants and I knew basically from the pants that he knew something that I wanted to know.
I made friends with him, gravitated towards him. It turned out that he had already been in India with Ram Dass, had come back to Harvard and was interested in, not just mental illness but mental health, trying to describe, trying to talk about what these exceptional, spiritually, evolved people that he had met in India already, like what made them special, but there was no support for that at Harvard. The professors there all thought that he was off on the wrong track but I made friends with him.
I said, "Where do you learn? How can I learn what you know?" He said, "Well, if you want to pursue that, you should go out to Boulder, Colorado this summer to this place called Naropa Institute, because all these friends of mine are going to be teaching there." I listened to him and went. Naropa Institute in 1974 was sort of like the last vestiges of the counterculture.
The faculty, it was run by a renegade Tibetan Lama, who had named Chogyam Trungpa, an alcoholic Tibetan Lama, but brilliant, who had been educated at Cambridge or Oxford to then come to America. He got Ram Dass to come and teach there. Gregory Bateson was there. John Cage was there. The whole New York art world of which I was ignorant of famous modern dancers, psychologists, hippies, musicians, it was like heaven.
I went out there and I was sort of frightened of the Tibetan lama because the alcoholism was poking through but there were three mindfulness teachers just back from Asia, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, and they were all like, Sharon was my age, which was like 21, 20, 21. Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield were like 30 already, and they had been in the Peace Corps, and then stayed on in Asia and studied, Joseph for seven years, Jack in a Thai monastery for several years. They studied with these Asian teachers and they were just back in America. They had been recruited to come to Naropa to teach.
I took all of their classes and made friends with them. They seemed the most intelligent and together people that I found there. They started teaching retreats together, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg and I went on all their first retreats. I was like the young acolyte and they seemed like all grown up, but they were like 30 years old. I followed them around. I was still in college, but I took independent studies and did the retreats. Then, I wrote my senior thesis on Buddhist psychology and then I went to Asia with them.
I traveled with them after I graduated from college and we went to Bodh Gaya, the village in India, where the Buddha was enlightened. I met Joseph's teacher. We went to Burma and I met Joseph's teacher's teacher who was Mahasi Sayadaw. We met up with Ram Dass and went to Thailand and went to the monastery on the Lao border where Jack Kornfield had studied with a teacher named Ajahn Chah. I went to Dharamsala and met the Dalai Lama for the first time. Then, I came back and went to medical school and started my medical training. That's the background.
Chase Jarvis: Well, for those who may be new to that world, what you just got from Dr. Mark there was a tour of all of the most influential people in that space. You just literally named every person that I could ever name and that you'd worked directly with them, for them.
Dr. Mark Epstein: The nice thing about all that in addition to like, I received a big download of information, but I got to know all these people as friends. Any motivation that I might have had to idealize them, like these are realized beings or something, that they were just people. They were just all struggling with their relationships, with what it meant to be a teacher, with being in America, with being human. That was such a relief to me because it led me, it showed me that I just had to be myself. I wasn't so sure I wanted to be myself. I would rather be somebody else but that was the greatest teaching of all that you could be pursuing all of this stuff but you had to do it from a true place, not from a pretend place.
Chase Jarvis: Yeah. Again, speaking to those watchers and listeners right now, if this podcast as it unfolds, and you're interested, obviously, I'm having Mark on the show because of the profound impact that he's had on culture and his work. Also, all the names that he's dropped there, basically a life of study just reading the works of those people. It's interesting how so much of this does come back to Ram Dass, my wife, and I went to his funeral in...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Oh, did you really?
Chase Jarvis: ... Maui. My wife studied under him and Jack Kornfield as well. To have had a relationship with those folks is incredible.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah. Ram Dass, the thing about Ram Dass was that he would, for many years, he was always pretending to be the person that he was wanting today, and then struggling on the side, but I went to visit him the year before he died. I hadn't seen him in 20 years, and stayed in this house for a couple of days and spent time with him. He had really become the person that he was always a spot. He really had. The impact that he's having now after passing away on the culture is pretty interesting to see because he had faded out. He had faded out in terms of, but now he's coming back. It's interesting.
Chase Jarvis: It is. It is. Clearly, you've studied with, I don't know, what you would call first generation Buddhists coming back to the western culture. Part of what, a very common thread on the show, my goal, as I mentioned, is hosting a huge array of people from all kinds of different backgrounds, artists to athletes, to spiritualists, to scientists, and everything in between, one extremely common thread of what I call some of the most interesting and top performing people in the world in each of their fields, is some practice of meditation or mindfulness and awareness and time spent on being, if you will.
My hope to start this conversation out is, why is that so? Why is there this, there's something magical in that water that helps people become the biggest, best, most interesting, unique, perhaps versions of themselves? I'm putting western words on an eastern concept here. Feel free to slap it around a little bit. But what is it and why should anyone, who's listening, be attracted to this process of meditation, mindfulness, awareness practice?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Well, I think I could answer it in a couple of different ways, but the first way that comes to my mind is that, for most of us, brought up, I don't think it's a western thing. I think it's just as true in the east, but for most of us brought up in the world as like human beings who were trying to exist in the world, we're driven by our egos and we're living sort of on the surface of ourselves like we're just trying to cope with being a person and getting along in the world and getting through school or family, whatever it is. We need our egos, which are both helping us cope, but also imprisoning us in sort of the day-to-day, ruminating, worrying anxieties of our own minds. All of us were much deeper than that. There's much more going on inside all of us than the superficial layers that we're mostly existing in.
I remember in early psychiatry rotation, I had a teacher who asked me, it was a one-on-one dialogue with him, meeting him for the first time, he's like, he was testing, he's like, "What's the unconscious?" I was like, oh, what's the unconscious? I pulled sort of from my meditation, from my retreat experience, and I was like, "The unconscious is like the repository of mystery." I remember that was my answer to him, the repository of mystery. This guy, western psyche, he loved that answer from then on.
I think that there's so much inside of us that we don't know. The mindfulness practices, the meditation practices of whatever form, whether they're from a religious tradition or whether someone just discovers them from out walking in nature, they clue us into something beyond the ego or underneath the ego or they allow the unconscious, whatever that means to someone too, that they allow us to inhabit ourselves more fully, is what I would say. That's the gift of it. That can be very inspired. One can find inspiration in inhabiting oneself more fully.
Chase Jarvis: The idea of ego, I like to trot that out a little bit because for those who may not be trained in the traditions, that ego is the, how would you describe ego rather so that people, is it the voice in your head, is the thing that's telling you to sit up straight and to suck in your gut, and to be good at stuff? How would you describe the ego for those people so that we can realize that it basically is in all of us and it is, as you said, it's important but it's also potentially one of our biggest enemies?
Dr. Mark Epstein: I think it's both. It's our greatest friend in a certain way, and our biggest enemy, in that we all, like around age three, four, five, that's when in terms of psychological development, the ego starts to come into play because the demands on a young child start to increase. The ego is, it's like that aspect of our minds that that's mediating, if that word makes sense between the inner demands, the inner drives, like your emotional life, and the external demands like society, school, your parents, your siblings. You have to learn how to get along in the world and be a person, and you have to manage everything that's going on inside of you, which is like your sexuality and your anger. You have to learn how to go to the bathroom properly and how to read.
The ego is like the internal manager. It plugs into your thinking. In order to plan for tomorrow and to deal with the frustrations that one has your, the way that you're thinking about everything is really important. Your ego and your thinking mind they're connected for sure, if they're not exactly the same thing. The sense of self, like who am I, how do I convey what's my identity, how do I convey myself in the world, that's all the job of the ego.
You can see how important that is, but also how restricting that can become, because the ego tends to see itself as both the most important thing in the world like I have to take care of myself but also it's like me against little me against this whole big world out there. It's inherently dualistic. It sets up this insecurity. The egos inherently insecure because there's only one little me and there's all of you. How am I going to cope? That's the egos job is coping, I would say.
One can become tyrannized by that ego. That's a big burden. The perfectionistic striving or the feeling terribly insecure, those are two things or two aspects, two sides of one coin. There can be a big drive to how can I shut this voice up? How can I get and that's where alcoholism or drug use, like, "Ah, finally, I can be relieved for a few moments of that voice in my head or that perfectionistic striving," et cetera. That's the double bind of the ego.
Chase Jarvis: Then, if I go back to my question just a moment ago, it's like, why is there this thread from top performers? Would you then, if you connect to what you just had to say about the ego, would it be somehow this thread of people who either appear enlightened or more connected, more balanced, understood whatever the attributes that we would say, and folks that we appreciate and admire?
What is the relationship that you would say they have with their ego because it's not a control, it's not a manage. What is it about these high performers and the thread, as I suggested that it just seemed, it's very common that the people that I've had on this show, there is a mindfulness and awareness, some sort of meditation or prayer that is a, I would say, that 88th percentile going through the show of these world's top performers have this. What is the relationship that they have with their ego?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah, well, I wrote a book once, about 20 years ago now, that was called Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, which is I think, my best title.
Chase Jarvis: It's incredible.
Dr. Mark Epstein: But I still [crosstalk] else. This idea of going to pieces without falling apart, comes out of a British psychoanalyst who studied mothers and young children. What he found was that in the kids, in the young children, and in the parents who totally emphasized just performance, just ego, that those kids developed what he called a kind of false self, a caretaker self, like the ego was too strong. The kids went too early to their thinking minds to try to manage everything that in a more benign environment, the parents knew how to give the kids enough space where they didn't feel abandoned by the mother or by the parents now, we would say. They didn't feel abandoned, but they didn't feel intruded upon so that they could actually play in the next room, knowing that the parents were there but not bothering them all the time.
This idea of play, that's the going to pieces, because when a child plays or when a musician plays or when an actor performs or when a writer writes or when a basketball player plays, that this idea of play extends from infancy, young childhood, all the way into adulthood, and that in order to tap into the imagination or into the unconscious, whatever words you want to put on it, in order to play in the greatest sense or to create, to make art, we have to be able to have fluidity with the ego. That's the going to pieces without falling apart.
The ego is important but it doesn't have to rule us. It doesn't have to become rigid and over defining. It can be flexible. It's this the flexibility of the ego so that there can be periods of letting go, periods of relaxation, but not just physical relaxation, like emotional, mental, imaginative relaxation. I think that's how I would describe what you're asking about. I think it's not just in like the great artists, but I think everyone has that capacity, and they experienced it in different ways.
Chase Jarvis: Well, again, just a couple of the book titles for those folks, you mentioned Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness, which was a 1998 book, if I'm not mistaken. Another one going on being Buddhism in the way of change, another trauma of every day of the 2013 title...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Everyday life.
Chase Jarvis: ... I advise not.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Trauma of Everyday Life.
Chase Jarvis: Yeah. Oh, sorry. Yeah, sorry, Trauma of Everyday Life, Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. If we can pull on this, that was a 2018 title.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah, the themes are consistent.
Chase Jarvis: Yes. This is why I'm trotting out the idea of the ego because... Let's talk about this, the Guide to Getting Over Yourself, is it true then that these folks, you said everyone has access to this.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah.
Chase Jarvis: I'm using it as a thread of top performers and is it then that this interplay with the ego it's there just enough but you can give it up when need be flow states? It is the ability to get over yourself trainable?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Oh, yeah.
Chase Jarvis: I read a Harvard Gazette piece that opens with that question, right? It's like, the subtitle of your book seems to suggest the impossible. You're here. You've written about it at length. The master question then, how do we have this relationship with our ego that you have just helped us identify is the right relationship or a healthy relationship to be in with the ego? Clearly, if we could just make a list, please and we could all just check the boxes, that would be great. I know, you've been studying it for your whole life but where does one begin?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Well, I think one can begin in any number of places but I think that both meditation and psychotherapy, amongst many other practices and traditions, that are all about training the mind, training the self to get over the self, training the mind to tap into its deeper potential, training attention, it starts with training attention. It starts with examining the concepts, the concepts, the mental structures that are ruling us unconsciously, that we, I'm the kind of person who, I'm good at this, I'm not good at that. All the ways we have identified ourselves to ourselves.
One of the things that Ram Dass, he always used to say when he would start a lecture or whatever, "You're not who you think you are." Just that, you're not who you think you are. Oh, really? I'm not who I thought I was? What a relief. People are always asking me, how do you bring the mindfulness? How do you bring Buddhist psychology into your work as a therapist?
I was always actually very resistant to answering that question, because I didn't want to be just teaching my patients how to meditate. It doesn't really work. If you impose it on people. They have to discover it for themselves because it's hard work actually, working with your own mind but I wanted to use being a therapist in a slightly more insidious way to use the relationship, to use the trust that's established in the relationship to help people examine where they were holding themselves back and then to release it.
How to do that definitely, in conversation, I never really wanted to define that too much because I didn't really know how I was doing it. I was having to make it up on the spot but in writing this latest book, I tried to actually write. I took a year's worth of psychotherapy sessions where I thought something of that was happening. I tried to write them down as literally as possible. Then, to open it up to try to see, "Oh, where was the Buddhist influence? What am I doing?" I think therapy is just as powerful a tool as meditation can be and that the two together when they're influencing each other, might be making something even something new that could help people.
Chase Jarvis: That's what I found profound about your most recent work, the exploration of the therapeutic relationship, the relationship that one has with one therapist with the therapy itself.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah.
Chase Jarvis: What inspired you to pull on that thread because there's sort of a metacognition at work here? What inspired you to study the study of the therapeutic relationship? What did you find when you pulled on that thread?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Well, that's mostly what I'm doing. All the writing I've done has been on the side, like I set one day a week aside to write and the rest of the time I've just been seeing patients. I think of myself more as just as a therapist, and then the writing has surprised me when it's happened but because that question is always arising as to really how are you integrating these things? Because really, I have been just making it up, as I've been going along and I didn't want to write the same book over again, which is what tends to happen, even though it changes because I'm changing but I wanted to approach my writing time a little bit differently. I didn't quite know if I had anything left to say.
I decided, "Okay, why don't you just focus on what you're doing anyway." I made myself write down these singles, pick one session a week and write down what happened. I was sort of, I don't take a lot of notes normally in my therapy work, only if I'm prescribing a medicine or if someone tells me something that I know, I better try to remember this because, but I don't take a lot of notes. For this, I decided actually, as soon as the session ended, I would write it down as much as I could remember accurately and then over the weekend, I would type it up. I did that for a year just one or two sessions a week, basically as a project, not knowing that it would be a book just like, "Okay, this is what I can do with my writing time."
I didn't even look at this. I didn't read it over until the year was up. Then, I read it over and I saw, "Oh, there's something, I think there's something here. I think I'm maybe I could tease out some of what I'm actually doing." I showed what I had to my editor, who I've worked with over for a couple of books, who I really trust. She said, "Yeah, I think there's something here but I think the only through line, because you're picking different patients every time, the only through line really is you." What we need is for you to go through it and write a reflection or a commentary about like, we need to see what you're thinking in order, not just what you're doing, but what's the background.
I did that in the first year of COVID. That was a whole project. That's really how the book emerged. I learned something, I feel like I learned a lot in doing that. What did I learn? I tried to say in the book what I learned that my effort is always in disrupting the systems that people are operating with about themselves. How can I disrupt? How am I disrupting them in different ways? Sometimes with humor, sometimes by pointing out how it just doesn't make sense, sometimes by just being surprising in what I'm saying, talking about the mundane instead of trying to be a therapist is finding the original trauma that made someone who they are, just showing them that their own minds are capable of releasing that thought.
That's what you learn from meditation that a thought is nothing. A thought it's so evanesce. A thought is just a thought. Why do we torture ourselves with them? I think it's possible in therapy to give people that revelation and then they can take it and run with it.
Chase Jarvis: I want to go back to thoughts and trauma. I'm going to put those on our little pinboard here but before I do that, to close the loop on this current little journey that we're on, I want to read something to you and then ask you a question based on my own experience. I'm reading some of the materials written about your most recent book and again, the title for those listening is the Zen of Therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life.
I'm going to read about the writing is, this reveals how a therapist can help patients cultivate a sense that there is something magical, something wonderful, and something to trust running through our lives, no matter how fraught they have been or might become, for when we realize how readily we have misinterpreted ourselves, when we stop clinging to our falsely conceived constructs. When we touch the ground of being, we come home. Hold on to that thought for a second.
Now, I'm going to juxtapose some of this with my own experience here, which is prior to going into this universe, this universe of thought and meditation and mindfulness and awareness, I believed and I told myself the story that part of why I had achieved anything in my life that I was willing to cheer about or that I got accolades for or fist bumps or good job kid from my parents or teachers or career counselors, was because of grit and because of grinding and hard work, I was resistant early on to having a relationship with myself that felt anything like magic or felt anything like a coming home.
I believe that there are a lot of people in our western world and a lot of people that I talked to in my universe that have told themselves a similar story. This is so different than what I just read about magic and trust and joy and connection despite how afraid these things may have become. Using my own experience of...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah, I'd love to.
Chase Jarvis: ... I didn't trust this stuff, what would you prescribe to me?
Dr. Mark Epstein: First of all... First of all-
Chase Jarvis: I've come through this a little bit but-
Dr. Mark Epstein: No, first of all, there's already magic in the grip. The fact that you using you, what you just said, the fact that you had that drive and could devote yourself with that kind of energy, with that kind of effort already inspired by something going for something. That's already wonderful. I see a lot... A lot of people who come to me for therapy, have similar experiences where they have already worked through a lot of adversity or achieved something that they're really proud of but you know we're never satisfied. As far as you, you get to one level and okay, how come I'm still not happy? What's missing? What's missing now?
You might never come to a therapist. It might be enough that you had already achieved what you'd achieved. Now, it's like, okay, I'm happy. In that case, fine but if there still was some kind of, okay, what's missing, I always like to think like, doing and being. Doing and being are like the two sides of what we're capable of and many of us are so pushed on the doing side like, we just think it's all about doing like achieving, accumulating, et cetera, that we neglect the being side.
What's the being side about? Well, it's about love. It's about relationship. It's about inspiration. It's about creativity. It's about being. It's about being okay with this, with a transience, with temporariness, with what we cannot control, with chaos that is, unfortunately, all around us. That aspect of things is often neglected and I think is one of the reasons that otherwise high achieving and successful people still seek out either therapy or spirituals, some kind of spiritual life. They know, deep down you know something's missing. How do you find that? How do you get there? What's the path?
Chase Jarvis: Now, that you just put it that way, that seems to me to be thread. There's this interrelationship between higher performers realizing, getting to the top of the mountain and realizing that there's nothing there and having to look for another thing, and at some point, recognizing that the doing is there's a big absence there and it's the being part. I don't know if it's the therapy that helps the achievement or it's the achievement that conduces us to therapy.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah, it can work either way and it's not that there's nothing there. There's so much there. There's so much there to be grateful for and proud of, but there's still a sense of, okay, what else? In a way that the thing that's been driving us the whole time, that same grit is still looking for the next thing, but you know you've realized, okay, it's not how many accolades, how much money like, what else could it be? The Dalai Lama always said, it's a selfish thing that propels us but you end up finding often that it's in the giving to others in some way that that's the most selfish thing because actually that makes you feel better than anything.
Often, even people who come to meditation and do a lot of inner work, then the resolution of all that inner work is to come back out into the world and figure out how to give back because it's not just all about your own little ego, we're actually all also connected that it matters what each individual does.
Chase Jarvis: I had a guest on the show, Cheri Huber and one of her colleagues, Ashwini. They are monks in the Buddhist tradition. My wife has studied with that monastery for some time and when my wife is getting into this early, I struggled as just me in my own flesh with my own traumas and experiences in life. This is a question I asked them and I've asked my wife a lot, and I'm curious your answer, how does one both be driven and be okay with being because being, there's not a lot, one may say, whatever, you may judge this, but one may say, being is the absence of doing. How does one both have goals and strive and still find peace with whatever outcome? How are we not attached to the outcome? How do those two coexist?
Dr. Mark Epstein: I think being and doing do coexist. They complement each other. It's not so much that being is the absence of doing. It's that being gives context to doing and doing gives context to being. I think it's the ability to hold both, to be both, like even in sexual relations, to bring it down to that level, if it's only about doing, it's like, okay, you did it, but where were you? Where was the commingling? What's the spiritual or the soul aspect or the heart aspect or of the sexual relation? Where does that come? One has to learn to relax into the beingness that's there, even in sexual relations, because we're all so focused on, at least the men, are so focused on performance.
Then, in the Buddhists, in the esoteric Buddhist world, they use that example, like they say, the closest you can come in regular life to the liberation, the liberative quality of being that comes from meditation is in sexual relations and they talk about the four stages of Highest Yoga Tantra as like falling in love, looking by when you make eye contact, looking, smiling, embracing an orgasm, those are the nicknames for the four highest levels of realization, but I think we can all understand that from down here.
Chase Jarvis: Yeah. Is it something of a preference route really? How do we not become attached to an outcome? I recognize that at different times in my experience, and as I've asked others around their journey to achieve something, whether it's a gold medalist or a business person or something, I have heard two different experiences.
I've heard the experience of visualizing that you're going to win and knowing you're going to do it and this sort of obsession on the outcome and then I've also experienced myself and heard from others that there is a detachment they were successful because they were detached from the outcome when they were in the moment. I'm sure in your work, you've seen the conflation of these two things. I'm wondering is one right? Are they both real? How do we reconcile this?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Those might be wrong. I think you have to assume that both might be wrong also. I think either can work and both can mess up. I have a patient who's a very good golfer and I don't play golf but he talks about it a lot. He talks about how there's a, both in golf and in poker, he talks about it, that there's an expression that I think it's with poker about being on tilt, that you can be on tilt when you're overinvolved, too anxious, trying to too hard to win back the losses in poker or to hit the good shot in golf.
In poker, like the other players know, when you're on tilt and they'll take advantage of it, so that the obsessive need to achieve can be the downfall because it gets you ahead of yourself and that we know there are all those books about the inner game of golf and the inner game of tennis or the flow state in basketball, that when you're able to put your mind in that going to pieces without falling apart place where you're just in the flow and you're just like hitting the ball, but you're not thinking about winning, that your inherent intelligence that's in your body that knows the sport can just do the thing, sync the Steph Curry or whoever you're trying to be or a dancer but I think that that thing of visualizing, that's the kind of meditation, the visualizing of, I'm going to win the gold medal and seeing the whole thing, that can be a powerful yoking of the mind to the intent.
That's another form of meditation. That's the thing about meditation. The eastern psychologists this is what they studied. They didn't know anything. They didn't, not they didn't know anything, they didn't study the external world the way the western science did, but they really studied the internal world. There's like a thousand kinds of meditation.
You can visualize for achievement, that's meditation. You can learn to relax the mind into the awareness that's already present, that underlies all of our experience. That's a different kind of meditation. The effortful or non-effortful manipulation of attention, that's meditation. Learning what's going to work in any given situation, that's experimenting and that's improvisation. It's going to be different for everybody, I think bottom line.
Chase Jarvis: One of the things I appreciate about your work in preparing for our conversation today is this allowance is sort of like a lack of rigidity and allowance for so many things that you've described with meditation being visualization. It's not like, "Nope, visualization is attachment to the outcome. You got to not be attached."
Dr. Mark Epstein: I think that's from being a therapist. I think that, no, really. I think that that's what makes a therapist, a therapist is that sense of allowance because everybody, people are so ashamed or guilty or afraid or uptight or angry or frustrated. The first step, I mean, I think I learned this from meditation with myself but the first step is making room for whatever it is. When the Buddha taught, the Buddha's famous psychological teaching is the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is always translated as life is suffering, which is like such a downer but that isn't really what he said. He used the word dukkha that's always translated as suffering but dukkha means, if you take the word apart, dukkha, kha is face and du is like it's difficult or hard, it's hard to face.
The Buddha, his first noble truth is that there's an aspect to life no matter how successful you are, how much you've achieved. There's an aspect to life that's hard to face and we don't want to face it, old age, illness, death, COVID, disappointment, separation, loss, illness, to repeat myself. The whole teaching is, how do you learn to face what we don't want to face? That doing that, allowing it to surface, allowing it to come into awareness is liberating. That's what's liberating. The material liberates itself. It liberates, it floats into awareness and then it's like, "Oh, okay, that's all it was."
As a therapist, I think that even if you're not trained in Buddhist thought, that's what a good therapist is conveying or that's why the therapist is being and it gets communicated.
Chase Jarvis: This beautiful marriage that you have cultivated between western therapy, eastern Buddhist tradition, let's say that this is a stretch, but I want you to try this with me here.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Okay.
Chase Jarvis: It's almost if we play fill in the blank, the most common challenge that you see when you see patients is fill in the blank. The prescription that you give, using all of your faculties, eastern and western, for that condition or that disposition or whatever the fill in the blank was, the advice that you give and you've written a book about how to give advice without giving advice, I realize there's some meta stuff going on here but the most common challenge that your patients that you're aware of is X and what Dr. Mark Epstein...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Sure.
Chase Jarvis: ... would prescribe is Y? What's the X and the Y?
Dr. Mark Epstein: The most common challenge, first, I thought you were asking for the most common challenge for me as a therapist, but I won't answer that question but the most common challenge for the patients, I would say is judgment, some kind of judgment. The prescription for that is kindness, having [crosstalk].
Chase Jarvis: Kindness to oneself, kindness externally or just kindness?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah, kindness to, well, the therapist function, I think, is kindness but that's not what I'm saying in answering your question. The internal prescription is like kindness, which I prefer that word to compassion, but we could use compassion if we wanted to, kindness for the person that you think you are, more kindness for the child in you that suffered, or for the woman in you that suffered or whatever.
Kindness towards the self that you imagine yourself to be or that you actually have been because we have that meta, you've used that meta word a couple of times, as human beings, we have that meta capacity to be both subject and object to ourselves. We can be the suffering, cranky, frustrated, person in pain, but we also can turn our minds on ourselves or open our hearts to ourselves, is another way of saying the same thing. That capacity of, it's a kind of forgiveness to oneself or about oneself, I think. That capacity is inherent and can be learned.
Chase Jarvis: Does the practice of learning that, is it sort of like meditation, you're just returning to the breath every time, it's the process of bringing back, it's the process of just directing awareness? Is it a similar experience is the training [crosstalk]?
Dr. Mark Epstein: I think the, what you're describing the watching the breath and the bringing the mind back when it wanders, that's sort of the technology, the technology of the sacred in a way, but behind that, you can do that technology in a rigid, obsessive, judging way, like, "Oh, my mind wandered and I can never really feel the breath and what's wrong with me," and you're thinking again.
Chase Jarvis: Are you in my mind, Dr. Mark because I have some thoughts about it.
Dr. Mark Epstein: I'm in everybody's mind. This is my mind but we're all the same is the thing. We're all the same. To learn, seeing that, once you see, "Oh, I'm doing it that way," obviously, that's wrong. The attitude behind that is really more important, I think and they feed each other. Doing that repetitively, you learn how to be kind to yourself, because it's hopeless, otherwise, because your mind is impossible. It doesn't quiet down because you tell it to.
Chase Jarvis: I was intrigued by the subtitle. Now, we've stumbled here on kindness, which is to me a big unlock. Again, the Zen of Therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life. Why is our kindness hidden?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Because its origin is in our early life that we can't remember. Its origin is in the, I would call it the maternal capacity, but it doesn't just have to come from the mother but inherently, when we have a baby, we're kind to it, whoever we are. Very, very rare that one isn't. Immediately, this infant is pulling us out of ourselves and it's pulling on this quality and we learn. It's there in the baby. The baby and the parent connect, their eyes connect, their bodies connect, even their orifices connect?
It's a latent capacity. It's there in the parent. It emerges. Where does it come from? It's just evoked by the baby but it's there already in the baby. There are these Tibetan Buddhist practices, where you imagine all beings as your mother or you imagine yourself as being mother to all beings and that's a way of pulling on this hidden, but also latent, but also inherent quality, that's about being human. It's part of being a mammal but it can infuse our minds. It's like there. It's really there in us. It wants to come out.
Chase Jarvis: Is the training of kindness, specifically the kindness that we were talking about a moment ago, I said the most important words in the world are the ones we say to ourselves, I remind...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yes.
Chase Jarvis: ... myself of that phrase and those listeners, or the listeners of the show often, is that a place to start this practice, this kindness practice? How do we recognize it? Yeah.
Dr. Mark Epstein: The place to start is seeing the judgments like you were asking, the X and the Y. The place to start is just seeing how judgmental are you. If your mind is like my mind, how judgmental, how anxious, how afraid, fear, is just to recognize those tendencies and how restrictive those, what a drag that is and how we would like to be free from that. That's the place to start. Then, to apply kindness to those inherently unpleasant feelings, rather than judging them, rather than judging the judging, et cetera, that's the place to start, I would say.
Chase Jarvis: All right, I promised that we would revisit this ominous term on the pinboard here that I stuck up in a while ago, which is trauma. We all have it from all kinds of aspects of our childhood. I'm wondering, right now, there's someone, there's some of us who are aware of trauma or there are traumas in our life rather that we are aware of, there are traumas in our lives that we are not aware of. It's not uncommon for me when I'm thinking about this, and having a conversation with someone that a person will say like, "Oh, I don't have," fill in the blank. I'm like, "Wouldn't that be awesome to not have this aspect of childhood trauma."
But for people who may be averse to the term or be disconnected from it, think that it doesn't apply, how could you, can you shine a flashlight on that for us, and help people understand your view on trauma that we all have it or we don't or whatever your view is, and...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Sure.
Chase Jarvis: ... how it manifests and...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Yeah.
Chase Jarvis: ... presumably that's what your work is about remedying some of these things?
Dr. Mark Epstein: Being a therapist, it's about that because people are coming either, for one reason or another, but you could usually trace it back to something involving trauma, if we want to use that word. They didn't have that word trauma in the Buddha's time. He used that word I was talking about before, which was dukkha, which is there's something, there's always something that's hard to face.
The people who write about trauma in our world, they talk about big T trauma and little T trauma. The big T trauma is what we read about in the news, and the tornadoes or the hurricanes or the tsunamis, or the fires, or murders or car accidents, or COVID even could be, but so we all sort of have an understanding of the big T trauma and it's very possible to get through a life where you're not directly affected by what's called big T trauma. If you're only going to talk about trauma that way, not everyone experiences it and we're all kind of scared that we will and hoping that we won't and doing obsessive rituals to try to prevent it from hitting us from our own selfish points of view. Then, hoping that people who are affected by the big T trauma, the shootings or whatever, that they'll get back to normal as quickly as possible so we don't have to think about it that much.
The little T trauma is also sometimes talked about as developmental trauma or relational trauma. That's more of the kind of trauma that you were referring to that could happen in childhood, where there can be trauma of something bad happening, like a parent who's depressed or alcoholic or dies or there's trauma where nothing happened when something should have, where there's too much neglect, even in a middle class household where there's enough food and money and so on, but the parents are distracted because they're so busy achieving, and they haven't bothered to play with the kids or put them to bed or you're just left alone too much, or you're having to perform for your supper instead of just being, seeing for who you are that kind of business. I would class all of that as a kind of trauma.
When I was writing about this from the Buddhist perspective, I made a big deal out of the fact that in the history, the life history of the Buddha, his mother dies when he's a week old, which isn't always talked about. She gives birth to him and then she's there for a week, and then she dies. I think that was an early trauma for the Buddha, that he lost his connection to the mother. That's what led him to leave his own wife and child after his child was born and that he was in some way, trying to rediscover this maternal capacity that had been taken away from him. That's what meditation was all about.
That was a kind of reductionistic view from a psychoanalytic perspective, talking about how there's this kind of relational or developmental or little T trauma, even in the Buddha's story, but I think a lot of us are suffering from that. That brings some people to therapy because they have a feeling of absence or emptiness or what's wrong with me and that both therapy and meditation can be very healing for that.
There's the big T trauma, the little T trauma, and then just the inevitable traumas of aging and illness and death, that even if we find love, that one of us is usually destined to see the other one die and our parents are going to die or parents lose their children. As proficient as we are scientifically and as developed as our egos are, we can't avert everything that we can't predict. That's the kind of trauma.
Both meditation and therapy are useful for training our minds to be able to go with the flow of the unpredictable, and to be able to rest in uncertainty when we have to, not that we don't try as hard as we can to solve the problems and live a good life, but that we're destined to come up against uncertainty, and we can struggle against it or we can learn how to be with it.
Chase Jarvis: Thank you so much for so eloquently, weaving together the wisdom of these two worlds. I've long looked for something that was able to hold true, many of the experiences that those of us who've grown up in the west, have been raised with that makes sense to us and have this infusion of the east that was I have practiced and felt and to so eloquently weave the wisdom of those two together in your work, and to then write about your process as a therapist of doing it, congratulations on the new book. It's profound.
Again, for those listening, the Zen of Therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life. Of course, I shared a bunch of other titles that you've written, incredibly prolific. I want to say thank you so much for doing the work. Is there anywhere else in the world you would steer that and this community is great at helping authors whose books are launching. We're going to time the launch of the show here around the publication of your new book in January.
Is there anyone else you would steer us aside from your new work knowing that this community is full of creators and entrepreneurs, people who aspire to be the best versions of themselves? Where would you steer this community in your world?
Dr. Mark Epstein: I was very touched that a friend of mine named Dan Harris.
Chase Jarvis: Oh yeah.
Dr. Mark Epstein: He was a newscaster on ABC but he got in a little bit through my influence. He got into this whole mindfulness world. He has an app and a podcast, all this. He wrote a book called 10% Happier, that was about his discovery but he got Joseph Goldstein, who I owe a lot to, who I think is a great meditation teacher. He got Joseph into the studio and got Joseph to record his meditation instruction, that he then is repurposing on his 10% app. Not to suggest a competing thing. I don't want to be but that's opened the doors to a lot of people. That's one good platform that I would say people could look to.
Chase Jarvis: Excellent. We'll put that in the show notes. Of course, this community will purchase your latest book. Congratulations. Thank you so much for sharing the last 75 minutes with us. Grateful for your time and...
Dr. Mark Epstein: Thanks for listening to me
Chase Jarvis: ... your wisdom. Our paths will cross again, I'm sure.
Dr. Mark Epstein: Okay, yeah.
Chase Jarvis: Thanks so much for being on the show.
Dr. Mark Epstein: It's been a pleasure.
Chase Jarvis: Again, Dr. Mark Epstein, thank you so much. For everyone out there in the world, we bid you adieu, until next time.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
This podcast is brought to you by CreativeLive. CreativeLive is the world’s largest hub for online creative education in photo/video, art/design, music/audio, craft/maker, money/life and the ability to make a living in any of those disciplines. They are high quality, highly curated classes taught by the world’s top experts — Pulitzer, Oscar, Grammy Award winners, New York Times best selling authors and the best entrepreneurs of our times.