by Dr Mark Epstein.
Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart is a truly excellent book on some of the most significant differences between Buddhist and Western psychology. Dr Mark Epstein is a psychiatrist in private practice and a long term meditator and student of Buddhadharma. From his depth knowledge and direct experience, he has brilliantly woven together the wisdom of two worlds: Buddhism and Western psychotherapy.
In particular, Epstein contrasts the Western emphasis on individuation, separation and the necessity of building a strong ego with the Buddhist teachings on how the construction of separate, inherent, independent selves is the prime source of human suffering. He gives one of the best explanations I have heard on how we can work simultaneously with Buddhist absolute and relative truths in this tricky but all-important area of understanding who we are and want to be in the world.
Essentially, he brings together the ‘truth’ of impermanence, interdependence and no intrinsic separate selves or entities and the seemingly opposing relative understanding of separate, socially constructed identities and a strong, evaluating ego. He clarifies that it is not so much a question of having ‘to be somebody before we can be nobody’, as a question of seeing the interdependence of being ‘somebody and nobody’. These two understandings of ourselves feed off each other, rather than one succeeding the other. It is as though we need to see around the edge of our learned view of a separate identity to a larger view of interdependence, constant change and insubstantiality. He shows how happiness doesn’t come from the solid and strong sense of self traditionally encouraged in Western psychotherapy.
Throughout this precious, humorous and earthy book, Epstein’s compassion and love of the fellow humans he seeks to understand and help as a psychiatrist shines through. To illustrate his understanding of when to separate and when to blend key Western psychotherapeutic concepts and Buddhist concepts, he draws on case histories and his own direct experience from childhood, through his early twenties, when he first discovered Buddhist teachings and practices, to the present day. For example, he contests the Western psychoanalytic idea of ‘primary fusion’, or merging, of mother and infant and points out how this widely held idea, and its associated message of the dangers of regression back to this presumed original state, has prevented us seeing and valuing the ego’s “remarkable ability to dissolve itself” (drop its separating boundaries) in creative work, play, absorption in the senses, or in love and sex.
His discussions of our needs for intimacy and connection are skillfully and compassionately blended with reflections on the benefits of letting go of our controlling tendencies and over-reliance on the thinking mind and reactive behaviours. Because he is drawing so much from his personal experience and insights, he is able to transform difficult concepts into a language that can be understood and applied in one’s own life and practice.
For example, he shares with us how, during a retreat, he worked with the strong sense of disappointment that arose in reaction to perceived imperfections of the retreat’s facilities. He noted this feeling was exaggerated and had become an habitualised and consequently very familiar sense of sadness. He then contemplated the infant’s requirement for a safe holding space, usually provided by the mother’s unconditional supporting presence in which to contain hurt and disappointment, and saw how he lacked this developmental achievement. With the support of the teacher taking the retreat, he shared how he learned that a similar safe holding space was now being provided by meditation and he was able to use this space to fully accept and see the impermanent nature of the sadness he was experiencing. Consequently, he learned “what Buddhism teaches over and over again: Uncovering difficult feelings does not make them go away but does enable us to practice tolerance and understanding with the entirety of our being … it is not just the mother that has to be released from perfection. It is everything.”.
His writing style is warm and down to earth, filled with stories and palpable love. This gives us the confidence to believe that we, too, can increase our happiness by ‘going to pieces without falling apart’.
I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in using Buddhist concepts to enhance their life as well as being an excellent guide for psychotherapists interested in understanding and incorporating Buddhist concepts into their therapeutic work.