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.
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