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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
The ‘Good Enough’ Interview
Mark Epstein is a practicing psychiatrist and noted writer on Buddhist meditation practice. With Sounds True, Mark has created What the Buddha Felt: A Buddhist Psychiatrist Points the Way to Uncommon Happiness, an audio program concerning the merging of Western psychotherapy and ancient meditation practices. In this episode of Insights at the Edge Tami Simon speaks with Mark about the often paradoxical benefits of Buddhism’s emphasis on non-identification. They also talk about the early childhood traumas experienced by Siddhartha and how they shaped his journey towards becoming the Buddha. Finally, Tami and Mark discuss what can be learned from the Buddha as a realist. (60 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Mark Epstein. Mark Epstein is a psychiatrist in private practice and a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He has been a student of Buddhist meditation for the past 25 years. Mark Epstein is the author of Thoughts Without a Thinker, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, and his latest book, The Trauma of Everyday Life.
With Sounds True, Mark has created an audio program called What the Buddha Felt: A Buddhist Psychiatrist Points the Way to Uncommon Happiness, a program in which he uncovers a “quiet revolution” occurring in the West today—the merging of modern psychotherapy and ancient Buddhist meditation techniques to help us face even the most challenging emotional obstacles.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Mark and I spoke about the paradox of how his immersion in meditation and the Buddhist teachings of no-self have actually given rise to more confidence in his subjective sense of being and the uniqueness of individual expression. We also talked about key insights from the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s work, including the idea of being “good enough” and the importance of the early holding environment. We talked about the Buddha’s early trauma and what it meant for his life and teaching. And finally, we considered what we could learn from the Buddha as a realist. Here’s my conversation with Mark Epstein:
To begin with, Mark, I just want to say that I’m so happy to have this chance to talk with you and to have you as a guest on Insights at the Edge. You write and speak about some of the ideas that I care the most about, and that I’m the most passionate about. So, to have this chance to have a conversation with you is a treat for me. So, thank you.
Mark Epstein: You’re very, very welcome.
TS: OK. So, let’s get right at it. In thinking about your books and the program that you made with Sounds True on What the Buddha Felt, one of the things that occurred to me is that, woven throughout all of your writing and teaching, it seems to me—and I’m curious what you think about this—that there is a central question that you keep coming back to again and again. The way I would state that question is, “What is the Self?”
First of all, I’d be curious to know if you agree that that’s a central question that weaves itself through your work.
ME: I think it comes very close to what I might say is a central question that preoccupies my work. I think it’s a little more personal than what you’re saying. You’re being very nice and discreet in framing it in terms of, “What is the Self?” I think, for me, it’s always been much more, “What is this Self? Who am I?”
I think that what I keep finding myself doing in my writing, anyway, is using myself as my primary case study—I think because I was always reluctant to write too much about my patients. I didn’t want to be listening with a third ear while they were talking, trying to steal what was happening for my writing. So, I always used myself primarily.
But I think that’s also because it’s a mystery. You know? I’m still trying to figure myself out.
TS: Let’s get right to it, then, in terms of what is your self, if not the Self. I’d be curious to know your latest and greatest experience, viewpoint, framework for understanding the Self, yourself—however you want to talk about that.
ME: Well, I think I’m getting more relaxed about the whole question, so that instead of feeling like I have to have an answer, I’m more comfortable in the not knowing. One of the things I’ve always loved about Buddhism is its teaching of anatta, which is sometimes translated as “no-self,” “non-self,” or “no-soul.”
But my experience of Buddhist practice is and always has been that there’s been a kind of replenishment of myself through the practice. My sense of who I am emotionally and spiritually and so on has been deepened by my meditation practice and by my exposure to Buddhism.
So, I actually feel like I’ve gained a self—whatever that might mean. But I was coming much more from a place of emptiness—a kind of psychological emptiness—a place of paucity, a place of confusion. Now, I just feel clearer.
TS: So, this paradox is what I want you to help me try to understand, if you can. When you reflect on [whether there is] anything in you that is continuous or anything deathless in you that you could experience throughout your life, where does that reflection take you?
ME: Well I think, for people who have too much exposure to Buddhist thought, they sometimes start to question the whole notion of Self too much—as if they don’t have a sense of something continuous in them. We all have a sense of something continuous in us—unless we’re totally psychotic.
That sense of continuity—I wrote a book once called Going on Being, a phrase that I took from a famous British psychoanalyst named Donald Winnicott. [He] talked about how important it is to have that sense of continuity—that feeling of something that goes on being. That’s how we know that who we were when we were young and who we are now that we’re whatever age that we are [is] the same person. There’s some almost invisible sense of “the Self” or of “a soul” that of course we all have.
My friend Robert Thurman always tells a good story about talking to his first teacher, who was a Mongolian lama in New Jersey. [He] said to him—in talking about the Buddhist doctrine of no-self—”Of course you have a Self. We all have a Self. Your Self is real,” he said. “But your problem is that you think that your Self is really real.” And it’s that sense of “really real” that’s giving it too much meaning that the whole Buddhist approach is trying to carve away.
But a lot of people try to take it too far, and they feel kind of guilty if they still have a secret sense that they might have a soul.
TS: Now, one of the things that’s really curious to me is to try to understand human uniqueness in the midst of teachings on no-self. What’s that thing in people that’s that sort of unique thing that you know you’ll miss when they’re not around or when they’re dead? It’s like no one else will have that thing that that person has—that tone of voice or smell or sense of humor. Something like that.
How do you understand that within the Buddhist teachings on no-self?
ME: Well, the Buddhist teachings on no-self are really about grasping. They’re really about clinging or craving, which the Buddha articulated as the source of dukkha—the source of unsatisfactory-ness, the source of what we sometimes translate as “suffering.” He did that, and when he elucidated the Four Noble Truths, the Second Noble Truth is that the source of this dukkha—of this unsatisfactory-ness, is clinging or craving or grasping.
So, the teaching of no-self was meant to be a way of helping us let go—a way of helping us release a kind of instinctive tendency that we have to make the self—or anything else—to give it more ultimate reality than it might actually have. But that doesn’t mean that it has no reality. I think it’s very important to understand that one of the primary ways of understanding the Buddhist approach to no-self is to see the Self as primarily relational.
The tendency to make it a fixed thing that we have to protect, takes us out of a relational Self and makes us feel as if there’s some atom—some object—that’s inside of us that has to be protected like in a fortress or something. That sense of protection—of building walls around ourselves—that’s what the Buddha was talking about when he talked about grasping or clinging or craving.
So, when we release that, we release ourselves into relationality. We realize that, as people, we are inherently related to other people—starting from when we were infants and we couldn’t survive without our parents.
TS: Now, within the framework of your work as a psychotherapist—I mean, I know you wrote a book called Psychotherapy Without the Self—how does the teachings of Buddhism about no-self (the way you’re describing them) mesh for you with the psychotherapeutic frameworks in which you’ve been trained? How have you been able to make sense of that?
ME: Coming at it from the Buddhist side, in order to understand what the teachings of no-self really are, you first have to find the Self as it actually appears in your experience. So, you can’t just leapfrog into no-self. You have to admit or acknowledge or express where your own personal grasping, clinging, or craving is. It’s only by acknowledging the deepest, most intimate feelings of selfhood that you have that you then have a chance of releasing into what the Buddhists understand as no-self.
So, psychotherapy is a wonderful theater for that. It’s a wonderful forum for that because people—if they feel safe enough—will actually confide what those deepest feelings of Self are. That experience of talking about that which we care most deeply about allows for a kind of release that we don’t really expect. The Buddha understood that there was a release that was hiding behind the fear of acknowledging truth. But most people—when they come to psychotherapy—aren’t really expecting that kind of release. But it’s there, waiting. If the therapist is attuned to that, I think he or she can make that a living possibility.
TS: I read that one of the ways you work with clients is to see them as “already free.” I wonder if you could explain that.
ME: Well, that came from Ram Dass—not originally from me. It came when I was paying Ram Dass—who was an old teacher of mine when I was young. He wasn’t that old at that point. But I was visiting him, I forget, 10 or 20 years after I had last seen him. He had had a stroke and was recovering from the stroke. He was sort of amused by me, because he knew me when I was young and I had become a psychiatrist who had written about Buddhism.
He was giving me a little bit of a hard time. He’s like, “Oh, so you’re a Buddhist shrink now, are you?” Then he looked at me kind of seriously and said, “Do you see them,” (meaning, do I see my patients), “do you see them as already free?”
I didn’t quite know what he meant at first. Then, I let it kind of percolate into me and I thought I realized what he was talking about—that from the spiritual point of view, people are lost in their ignorance and they don’t feel free. They feel stuck. But if the therapist understands that the suffering that people are locking themselves into is self-made a lot of the time—that beneath that grasping, that clinging, that dukkha is a being who, at his or her deepest place, is already free—then it doesn’t have to be depressing. To work with people who are suffering, there’s a sense of impending liberation that’s there with everyone.
I think Ram Dass was tapping into that when he was talking to me. I felt temporarily free in the midst of that conversation.
TS: It’s interesting to me—the way you’re zeroing in on this “clinging” quality that we have in our [lives]. I’m curious: when you find yourself clinging in any kind of situation or even just internally as you’re working with yourself—”Oh, that’s a place of clinging”—how do you respond to that?
ME: In myself, how do I respond to it?
TS: Yes. Yes.
ME: Well, I’m hopeless when I’m clinging. I’m just a mess. [I’m] angry and sad and frustrated and anxious. I do my best to try to find why I care so much and to zero in—if I have the time and the space and the opportunity—on that feeling of Self that is holding on so tightly to whatever it is that’s offending me. That kind of secondary effort in the back of my mind while I’m busy being a mess sometimes is a little bit helpful.
TS: I’m curious if you could take us through an example, since you seem willing here to talk about your own experience in this kind of very transparent way. An example of a time in the last couple years, whatever, where you were just like, “Wow, I was really stuck in some kind of self-clinging state,” and how you were able to work with yourself even through the difficulties. Just a specific example.
ME: What comes to mind most clearly is actually in my office, when I’m working as a therapist [and] when someone becomes unexpectedly upset or angry with me. That happens periodically in therapy—sometimes because I make a mistake and sometimes because people’s sensitivities are so acute that they read some kind of meaning into a gesture, a word, a phrase, or a way that I’ve responded to them. On occasion, someone will be very upset with me and I will feel immediately like, “I did nothing wrong. What’s wrong with you?” and want to push them away.
But because it’s my therapy life and not my personal life, I think I’m much more careful in my therapy life not to let my own needs interfere. So, in that environment, I have to very clearly put my immediate reactions aside. If I don’t do that, then the treatment is really lost.
I try to be very transparent in my work as a therapist. I don’t keep myself aloof. But this is one occasion where I have to be very careful to actually put my personal reactions aside right at the beginning. My meditation training has been very useful in my ability to do that, so I really get out of the way—rather than responding [to] whatever the attack is that’s coming from the other side, as if people are actually attacking me personally.
TS: OK. So, then you get out of the way during the therapy session. Afterwards, if you take this example, are you hanging out and thinking, “God, you know, this person! What the hell’s wrong with them?” Blah blah blah. How then do you move out and shift out of that state?
ME: Well, that action of getting myself out of the way in the moment usually allows for a deeper kind of communication with the person. So, by the end of the session, it’s usually gone. There’s good teaching in that for me, personally, because there’s usually not too much of a hangover from an encounter like that.
TS: You know, it’s interesting Mark: in asking you about where in your life might you notice this clinging to self and you brought up when someone is coming at you with criticism—at one point, I hosted a 25-part series (something like that) called The Self-Acceptance Project. It was all about how difficult it is for people—even people who have spent a long time meditating—to work with really severe self-criticism when it comes up. [It was also about] how people can find themselves really getting lost in self-loathing of all kinds.
I’m curious: as someone who has worked so much with people in the therapy office who are challenged by a lack of self-acceptance, what [have you] been able to come up with that’s helpful for people who find that that’s a pattern that they suffer from?
ME: I usually talk in some way about a paper of Winnicott’s that I loved when I was studying to become a psychiatrist and that I’ve come back to many time over the years. [In it], he talks about—I think there are 15 ways or some number of ways that mothers hate their babies. It’s a totally funny, brilliantly humorous—and yet deeply serious—paper that he wrote. He details all these tiny little things that go on between—he’s talking about mothers, [but] it could be any kind of parent—mothers and their infants. Just how difficult it is and how annoying it is.
And yet, he says, the amazing thing about a good-enough mother is that she doesn’t hold any of this against the baby. She manages to find a way of making it humorous to herself. Then he talks about how the nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-bye-baby on the treetop; when the [wind blows], the cradle will rock; when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall; down will come baby, cradle and all,” and how in that nursery rhyme is the mother’s aggression against the baby. But it’s made into a song.
So, there’s something in that about the lightening, bringing a humorous take on those aspects of loathing, be they self-loathing or for loathing the person who one is closest to that we feel terrible about. That, I think, is all about self-acceptance.
When he phrases it in a way that all mothers are like this—the thing that people who suffer from self-loathing believe is that they’re the worst in. They’re worse than anyone. No one is as bad as them. But to have a sense that everyone actually—one way or another—is full of these kinds of feelings, that humanizes it and lightens it and then lets us laugh at it.
TS: You mentioned this British psychoanalyst Winnicott [twice now] in our conversation. I know he’s someone whose work you really respect and that you quote him a lot. What I’d love to know is if you were to summarize for me some of the key ideas from his work that have really meant the most to you. I would love to know that.
ME: I think there are probably two or three things. One I mentioned already—about the good-enough mother. That comes from Winnicott, and I think we can expand that to a good-enough meditator or a good-enough therapist or a good-enough lover. Whatever realm we want to put it in.
But the big thing, I think that—
TS: Before you go on, tell me what you mean about that, because I want to be a good-enough lover and a good-enough meditator and a good-enough publisher—all those things I’m not sure I am.
ME: A good-enough interviewer.
TS: Yes! I’d like to be a good-enough interviewer. How do I make sure I’m “good enough?” What does that mean? Where is the line?
ME: You just are. If you’re doing your job, you just are. Just try your best.
TS: Is that what “good enough” means? I’m trying my best? That’s good enough?
ME: Yes, yes. That’s what “good enough” means. It’s like Ram Dass saying that the person is already free, or the Buddha saying that that buddha nature is there within. Or Winnicott saying that a mother, by her very nature—if she lets herself—if she gets out of her own way. That’s really what he’s talking about. If she gets out of her own way—if her mind is not judging all the time [and] trying to be perfect. That drive for perfection actually inhibits us.
When I wrote a book called Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, that also a phrase that was taken from Winnicott. When we relax into ourselves, our natural states usually are good enough.
So, that’s a very important aspect, I think, of psychotherapy also, because people are nervous when they come to psychotherapy. They prepare all kinds of explanations for what’s going on with them. But the real fruit of good psychotherapy is that people get to relax with the therapist, and then two people can improvise together. That’s very nourishing.
TS: I love it. OK—I think we’re going to call this “The Good-Enough Interview.” But let’s go on to the second point about Winnicott that you wanted to bring forward.
ME: The second thing about Winnicott is that young children in the first few years of life have very rich and strong emotional experiences which their minds are not equipped to understand. They don’t have the cognitive capacity to put language on their feelings yet. So, they’re totally dependent on their caregivers, their parents, whoever is around them to identify and hold—in the larger sense of the word “hold”—those feelings for them.
So, the environment—the relational environment—is of supreme importance for the emotional development of the person. When there’s not a good-enough environment, then the child is left holding the bag, so to speak. They’re left with emotional experiences that they are not equipped to understand and that feel overwhelming. The infant in those kinds of circumstances—with a parent, say, who is lost in alcoholism, preoccupied by their own ambition, depressed, or just too busy—the child in those circumstances feels like they’re being “infinitely dropped,” to use one of Winnicott’s phrases. Or there’s a sense of overwhelming emptiness.
Psychoanalysts [and] psychotherapists these days talk about that as a kind of trauma. Not a big trauma—like happens with rape, war, or a sudden accident—but a kind of littler trauma. A “little-t” trauma. A relational trauma, where the interpersonal environment is inadequate.
That’s been enormously useful—that way of conceptualizing things has been enormously useful for me both personally and as a psychotherapist—and in my attempts to interpret Buddhism in psychological language. I think a lot of what happens in meditation, for instance, is that people come up against the remnants of these early emotional experiences that were not adequately held by the parental environments. The mind has to learn—has to find a way—of holding those experiences and putting language on those experiences and understanding those experiences in adulthood. That’s a function of both therapy and meditation that I think has been relatively unexplored.
TS: Now, do you feel that you were raised in a good-enough holding environment, or was it a relationally traumatic situation for you?
ME: I think in my attempts to understand myself, I’ve rubbed against my own imagined childhood traumas. The thing about this is that it’s really a story we’re making up to explain things that otherwise we can’t explain about ourselves.
So, I think over the years I’ve come up with plausible stories about how I felt deprived. In order to be able do that, I think I must have been raised in a good-enough environment, because I survived to tell the tale. But I think even in those environments, we all have our individual struggles. I certainly have had my share.
TS: Well, hold on a second. There’s lots of people who have survived to tell the tale, but would be very convinced that the holding environment of their childhood was terrible, absolutely terrible.
TS: And yet they’ve survived to tell the tale.
ME: Yes. Well, the survival is very important. There are people who don’t survive.
So, the people who don’t survive—you could say their holding environment was really not good enough. The people who do survive—even if there were difficulties—I think, ultimately, you have to give credit back to the parents for at least trying. I think the Buddhist practices of thanking your mother and relating to all beings as if they had been your mother are speaking to that.
TS: I guess I’m finding “survival” to be a pretty low bar here—is the response I’m having as I’m listening to you. I mean, maybe I’m clinging to my complaints, but . . .
ME: No, I think one should be glad for surviving and grateful. Grateful for surviving. So many people don’t.
Ultimately, once you find the Self, then you can move through whatever traumatic remnants of Self you are able to find. It’s by acknowledging them and accepting them and then allowing yourself to go through them that you come to a place of being able to forgive and accept.
TS: Now, you talked about both therapy and meditation as providing a holding environment or a healing space to work [with]. So, I think most listeners will have an intuitive sense of how therapy can provide that. I mean, there’s another person sitting there helping me do this investigation. Help me understand how meditation can provide that kind of environment.
ME: Well, the thing about meditation—particularly mindfulness meditation—is that you’re initially creating for yourself a replica of the holding environment that we’ve been talking about, [which] exists naturally between parent and child. You’re making what in therapeutic language is called a “therapeutic split in the ego.” One part of you is watching your experience while another part of you is having your experience. That’s hard for someone who hasn’t meditated to understand, but once you’ve tried it for a little bit, it makes total sense.
So, the awareness or the mindfulness—which is watching or feeling . . . I think the “watching” makes it sound a little bit too distant. But there is an observing quality which is dispassionate in its observation. That’s analogous to the mother, who is able to see the child being upset but not overreact. Not under-react by ignoring it, but not overreact by getting totally anxious when a child is in distress. Something very similar is happening in the mind of the meditator when you’re seeing yourself sitting there, freaking out at having to sit there and full of all kinds of difficult emotional experiences.
But because you’ve been given good meditation instruction in how to be mindful, you’re able to sit there with it, noting your reactions but not acting out about your reactions. Very few people—once they learn mindfulness—are getting up and hitting the pillow, screaming, and so on. They’re able to sit there on the cushion even in the midst of very intense emotional experience.
But the observing capacity is strengthened by the practice. That’s analogous to bringing back this kind of parental environment that we all need and all actually have still within us.
TS: What you’re saying reminds me of a quote that appears near the end of your new book, The Trauma of Everyday Life. Here’s the quote: “The Buddha’s most fundamental discovery was that the human mind is, in itself, the relational home that is needed to process trauma.”
ME: Yes. I said it much better in the book. But that was all coming out of having the sudden realization—even though I already knew it in the back of my mind—that the Buddha’s mother had died when he was five days old—or seven days old. I can’t even remember exactly now. Yes, a week old, I think. The Buddha’s mother passes on.
And no one has ever made much of that. Why does the Buddha’s mother have to die? I realized that there must be some kind of hidden teaching in that. So, one of the threads of that book—The Trauma of Everyday Life—is trying to ascertain what the meaning of that might be in our psychotherapeutic age.
TS: One of the things I thought was curious was that before reading The Trauma of Everyday Life, I didn’t know that the Buddha’s mother died when he was a week old. I always heard the legend: Here’s a young prince, had everything he wanted, very privileged life. Et cetera, et cetera. I never heard the story told. Let’s begin—
ME: Really? You never knew the story?
TS: I never knew that!
ME: He goes to Heaven—where his mother is—after he’s enlightened and teaches her his psychology. [He] teaches her the Abidhamma, which is the Buddhist psychology. Then he comes down on a golden ladder with Indra and Brahma on either side of him. It’s a famous part of the teaching.
She has a dream of a white elephant nuzzling her when she’s pregnant, and that’s how she knows that she’s going to have a baby. Then she has him standing, with one arm above holding onto the bough of a tree. Then a wise man comes and visits the child, and says he’s either going to be a great king or he’s going to be a great spiritual leader. Then she dies.
That’s why the father wants to lock him up and keep him safe from ever seeing death, illness, or old age. The father vows to protect him from any further suffering. He marries the wife’s sister and they have more children, and so on. It’s part of the whole story.
TS: I totally believe you. It shows—
ME: [Laughs.] I know you do, Tami!
TS: No—my lack of familiarity. But what I thought was interesting was here, it’s a Buddhist psychiatrist that really wants to bring out this point, emphasize it, and really look at, “Well, what might this mean, that his mother died seven days after he was born?” This was the first book I read where that became a really central point worth investigating. It makes sense in your talking about Winnicott’s work and how important this holding environment is to you in your sense of how people develop—that you would really want to dig in on this point.
So, I guess my question is: Having done that—having really put this under a magnifying glass—what does that tell you about the Buddha’s life and teaching? What did you come up with, looking at this through this psychological lens, as you say?
ME: Well, that sentence that you quoted already was pretty much the summation of what I came up with. There’s a hidden psychology lying dormant just out of view within Buddhism. In a way, [it] was waiting for psychoanalysis to give it language. Now that we have the language of psychoanalysis, we can look back at the Buddha’s story and that hidden dimension—which is a psychological, relational dimension that really there wasn’t language for in the Buddha’s time. It’s there as a story, but the theory of it is not elaborated. We now have the language to talk about it.
I was teaching with Thurman when I first started writing this book. He quoted from a 18th-century Mongolian lama’s enlightenment poem. He was making a point about the Buddhist concept of void-ness or emptiness. But he quoted this enlightenment poem that began, “I was like a mad child long lost my old mother. Never could find her, though she was with me always.”
It was after hearing that verse that I started thinking about the Buddha’s mother, because I related so immediately to the Mongolian lama being like a mad child long lost his old mother—even though my mother is about to turn 90 and I’m close to her. But still, there was something inside of me that felt some kind of neglect. The second part: “Never could find her, though she was with [me] always.” That’s what I was seeing in that sentence that you liked [and] quoted. That relational home that we’re seeking is there inside of us all of the time. That’s what the Mongolian lama found—that he was already free. He thought that his freedom—that concept of emptiness and so on—was outside of him, and he had to find it elsewhere. But it was already there inside of him.
I think that the Buddha’s loss of his mother at such an early age is like a template for all of the suffering that we have endured. Because we’re psychologically minded, we look back and say, “Oh, that suffering must be there in my early experience that I can’t really remember. There must be some kind of lack there.” We like those stories, and there’s truth in those stories. But that may not be the ultimate truth. The ultimate truth may be that part of our incarnation as humans is that there’s a felt sense of lack. We have something to discover in ourselves that we need to discover in order to dispel that feeling. That’s what the spiritual search is really all about.
TS: Now, let’s talk a little bit more about this “relational home” that people can find in the human mind [and] that’s needed to process trauma. So, I can imagine someone saying, “Yes, when I’m meditating, I find that when I’m dealing with things that are—let’s say on a one to ten—at a three or four or five level of challenge. That’s how difficult they are. That’s how challenging it might be. I can create a relationship to a certain amount of physical or emotional pain.
“But when I’m really upset, there is no relational home. I’m just really upset. Come on. How am I going to do it then?” That’s the question.
ME: Well, I’d like to say that if we’re not suffering from post-traumatic stress, we’re suffering from pre-traumatic stress, because the potential for trauma is there in all of us always. We’re all going to face difficult feelings and ultimately old age, illness, and death. It’s not just in our own individual experience, it’s there for everyone.
When we’re not taking our own suffering so seriously, but can see that everyone has to deal with that, then it makes it a little easier to tolerate the level of one’s own distress. So, we’re all up against what you’re talking about—that when it hits us really hard, we lose it. But that relational capacity that really is stronger than any pain that we can experience [and] that can meet it and hold it the way the mother holds the pain of her baby. That really is there in all of us and it will get us through everything that we have to go through.
TS: Now, I’m sure that this is something that you’ve been questioned on when people have talked to you about your book, The Trauma of Everyday Life. A certain kind of response to this use of the word “trauma”—when you’re talking about, “There’s going to be a trauma today, tomorrow, the next day. We all experience it.” You could be referring to all kinds of minor traumas—the minor trauma of putting the letter in the wrong envelope. Whatever. All kinds of little things. Missing breakfast. Et cetera. Go on and on.
And I’m imagining people who have had major traumas in their life—maybe they’ve participated in a war, or the trauma of sexual abuse—being a little bit like, “Fuck you, Mark! Excuse me, but you’re using the word ‘trauma’ to talk about everyday little things that people experience? You’re discounting my intense experience of trauma here.”
So, I’m curious what your response is to that.
ME: Have you read, by any chance, the book that just won the National Book Award called Redeployment by Phil Klay? It’s a book of stories by an Iraq veteran. It’s an amazing book about what it was like to be a soldier and the traumas that came with that in Iraq.
But he wrote a very good piece—an op-ed piece in the Times—right when that book was coming out, where he talked about how difficult it was to be a soldier coming back to a civilian environment and have people talk to him as if they couldn’t relate to the traumas that he had been through in Iraq. As if his experience was somehow so far removed from basic human experience that it was “Other.”
The point that he was making—which is very important for people who have suffered major trauma—is that we all have an understanding of what it is to be traumatized either because we’ve experienced major things or even because we’ve experienced so-called minor things. We all have lost people who we’re close to. We all are facing mortality. We all have similar reactions to sensations of mortality, in that we don’t want to look at them or feel them. We jump away to what we hope will be a safe place, but that just isolates us.
What he—Phil Klay, the returning Iraq veteran—was saying was that when he came back and people were able to talk to him about their traumas, it helped him talk about his. But if people made it such that his were off the charts, there was nowhere that he could go with his experience.
That’s part of what I mean by the healing, relational environment that’s necessary. It’s not just within our own minds, it’s also with each other. People—in order to heal from whatever major or minor traumas they’ve experienced—have to be able to talk to other people who can relate to what they’ve experienced from their own experience. That’s how trauma is healed.
TS: As I’m listening to you talk about the holding environment, this relational home of our own mind, being like a mother with a child when I’m really, really, really upset, what I’m thinking of is how that could really apply in so many situations. Kind of like what you’re saying here. Meaning, just talking to a friend [creates] a holding environment potentially for their experience, just in the way that we’re listening. There’s just so many possibilities in how we interact with each other for this.
I’m curious what you have to say about that. I’m starting to see it everywhere—this idea of “the mother and child metaphor,” if you will—in so many moments throughout the day.
ME: Yes. Well, I was talking to my own mother not long ago, after my father had died. I wrote about this a little bit after my book came out. [I think] it was four years after my father had died. She was saying that she really ought to be over it now. She should have worked through the Five Stages—Elizabeth Kübler-Ross—of grief. She was feeling bad about herself that she was still grieving my father.
My response to my own mother was coming from this place that we’re talking about—about self-acceptance, not striving for perfection, and not judging one’s feelings but letting them alone. My response was that grief doesn’t have a timetable, and it can go on and on. It might ease up. It might lighten a little bit as time went on, but there’s no timetable for it.
She found that incredibly useful, and then said, “You know, thinking about what you’re saying—when my first husband died, it took me about 10 years before I wasn’t thinking about him all the time.” When I was growing up, I hadn’t known that she had a first husband. So, that was at that level of trying to keep that reality away. I didn’t discover it until we were playing Scrabble one day and I reached for the dictionary. [I] saw her name written in the front of the dictionary with a different last name—but it was her handwriting. It was at that point that she was able to tell me for the first time that she even had that kind of secret in her past.
TS: Now, Mark, one of the things that you said just in passing actually, as part of this conversation, is that part of your work has been interpreting Buddhism in psychological language. I’m curious to know more about that. Do you find yourself criticized by scholars for doing that? Do you think that that’s what’s needed in our time—is a willingness to do that? How do you see that?
ME: I haven’t found myself criticized for it, no. But I do feel that it’s one of the opportunities of this particular time and place. Historically, [I think] Buddhism has always moved not by force of conquering army but by the force of its own ideas. Whatever culture it’s moved into, it’s had to adopt the language and the conceptual frame of that culture. So, when it went to China, it took on the nature imagery of Taoism. When it went to Japan, it became another thing.
Now that it’s come here, the dominant ideology—at least as far as talking about the mind for the past 100 years—really has come from Freud—even amongst people who reject Freud and reject psychoanalysis. That language of ego, instinct, and so on really has permeated. It’s really in all of us—including looking back to childhood experience to try to figure out what we’re made of psychologically.
So, I think that’s one of the challenges that Buddhism faces in making a home in the West—how is it going to integrate itself into that way of thinking? It’s certainly been important for me, as I’ve tried to figure out what I understand both of Buddhism and of the psychotherapy world. A lot of my efforts have gone into explaining one in terms of the other.
TS: OK, Mark, just two final questions for you. Here’s the first one: You start off The Trauma of Everyday Life by talking about the Buddha as a realist—someone who saw realistically what’s happening. I’m curious to know, what do you think are the most important “realist” observations, if you will, that many of us in our culture are ignoring or are not paying attention to? What’s your version of “Buddha’s Reality Therapy” for today?
ME: When we talk about Buddha as a realist, I think the traditional way of looking at that is that he’s pointing to what he called the Three Marks or the Three Characteristics of Existence, which are anicca, annatta, and dukkha. Impermanence, is anicca. A lack of solidity, of certainty, is annatta. And dukkha is this pervasive sense of unsatisfactory-ness that is there even underneath pleasant experience, because pleasant experience is itself impermanent.
So, that’s kind of the negative way of looking at reality, if you will. It’s emphasizing what we don’t have—the kind of permanence and certainty and pleasure and solidity and control that instinctively we desire.
I think the other way that he’s a realist—which became stressed more as Buddhism developed over time into the Mahayana and so on—is that underlying our sense of individuality, subjectivity, and personal existential dread, there’s a capacity for joy, love, and connection that we don’t ordinarily cultivate except in our relational lives. So, the Buddha as a realist is pointing to those aspects of our experience that are what we remember when we’re facing death. It’s the love, it’s the connection, it’s the relationality that ultimately we can relax into totally. That’s the deepest reality from the Buddha’s point of view.
TS: And finally, Mark: This program that I host [is] called Insights at the Edge. This is our good-enough interview on Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious to know what someone’s edge is in their life. Kind of your personal growth edge, if you would. What, if you told the truth, [is] the thing that you’re really working on inside yourself right now?
ME: Well, for me, the surprising thing in my life has been in my writing because I never saw myself as a writer. I was happy to be a therapist. That was enough of an achievement. But there was something in me that needed to put words on things.
So, that continues to be an edge that I push against. There’s a big thing in me that would rather not be writing because it’s difficult—and then something else that finds it quite gratifying in the aftermath, and sometimes even in the doing. Having finished that last book—for me, the best part of writing is when something’s done. So, I was happy to be in that phase of things and now it’s gotten inside of me a little bit again. I’m pushing against that.
TS: Well, even if it wasn’t how you imagined yourself, I have to say, you are a gosh-darn good writer, Mark. You really are.
ME: Thanks, Tami.
TS: I’ve been talking with Mark Epstein. His latest book is called The Trauma of Everyday Life. He is also the author of the book Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. With Sounds True, Mark has created an audio program called What the Buddha Felt: A Buddhist Psychiatrist Points the Way to Uncommon Happiness.
Mark, I haven’t talked to you in a long time, and I’m just so grateful that we had the chance here on Insights at the Edge.
ME: I hope it was good enough.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.