Life & Love


In this age of unbridled braggadocio and deep anxiety, it’s easy to wonder who we really are. But that’s why Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself (Penguin Press), by the psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein, MD, a longtime scholar of Buddhism and author of the best-seller Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, feels like a godsend. Weaving insights from psychology together with Buddhist philosophy, Epstein shows us in this warm and riveting book how following the Eightfold Path—eight clear steps of meditative practice designed to deepen self-reflection, behavior, and action—can reduce stress; reboot our natural human empathy; and help curb our egos’ gnawing desire to make ourselves “bigger, better, smarter, stronger.”

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You write that our human egos can be very tricky and persistent, making us feel arrogant and entitled, or embittered and less than, depending on the day or even the moment. But you also say we can slip free of our egos’ grip by taking what’s known in Buddhism as “the backward step.” Please explain.

Mark Epstein: I think a good interpretation of the backward step is understanding your troubling thoughts, not trying to make them go away, and, in the process, letting yourself back down. If you’re criticized or called out for something, the ego’s first impulse is to protect itself—and often we respond by acting defensively or by pushing away. A therapist listening to you describe your experience can help you put your finger on it. But once you realize “Oh, that’s the ego,” you don’t have to totally identify with that response. Even in people who are very advanced in meditation or therapy, I don’t think it ever goes away—like, if someone honks at you when you’re driving, the impulse to immediately honk back is still there. But you’re freed up just a little bit, and that ends up feeling good.

This reminds me of Bruce Springsteen’s remarkable ability, which you describe in the book, to forgive his verbally abusive father and look forward, choosing to honor what was good about his dad and not dwell on the scars he caused.

Yes! I heard Springsteen saying this years ago on the radio. He was taking what’s good and leaving the rest—and I loved that. This was before Springsteen wrote his [autobiography], but he seemed to be thinking about what he was going to write, and clearly it was the evolution of a long process of coming to terms with his imperfect father. But he was not getting stuck. As therapists, we know that people often hold on tightly to their resentments—it’s a certain type of clinging. And the feeling of liberation that comes when you step away from them is analogous to the feeling of liberation that the Buddha talked about, when you step away from overidentification with your own ego.

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You say it’s good to be generous toward others, to err on the side of forgiveness. But letting go of resentment is also a way to be generous toward ourselves. How can we learn to be more forgiving?

One major piece of advice in this book, if I were to distill it, is to not take yourself so seriously. It is tricky, because a lot of people everywhere—certainly a lot of people in our culture now—don’t really take themselves seriously enough. They’re putting themselves down all the time, and they don’t think well enough of themselves. But there’s also a strong clinging to the self in all of that—a kind of overpreoccupation with the self, even in someone who doesn’t have a healthy enough ego. They’re better than they’re thinking they are, and they could find more liberation by learning how to let go of all that negativity. The same advice to not take yourself so seriously holds for a person who has an overinflated ego: She would be much better off if she could let go of her own self-preoccupation. On both sides—[having too much or too little ego]—there’s too much self-preoccupation, and that turns into anxiety.

The third principle of the Eightfold Path—Right Speech—also seems especially important right now. How can those of us who’ve kept quiet in the face of sexual harassment and abuse learn to speak truth to power?

It’s hard to be a person: We all feel very separate and isolated. Even when we’ve been raised in a loving family, we all have weird experiences, strange encounters with people, that we rush to explain away or paper over—and the ego talks to us about them in ways that turn out not to be true [and often are very self-critical]. Right Speech is about not only how we speak to each other, but how we speak to ourselves. I think we’re seeing women now who’ve had all kinds of weird [sexual] experiences, some worse than others, beginning to speak to one another and realizing that how they’ve been speaking to themselves—totally privately, and often very untruthfully—is also, in some ways, a universal experience. Sharing these stories publicly might actually have an effect on changing consciousness, moving us in a positive direction.

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Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself (Penguin Press); amazon.com PRE-ORDER THE BOOK

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Springsteen had to reckon with his dad. Yet you note in the book that while forgiving one’s mother “does not show up in the [Buddhists’] traditional list of liberating insights,” if the list were being compiled now, it would “be near the top.” Why so? Has modern psychology made us too quick to blame our moms for everything that goes wrong in our lives?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Freud and his followers shed light on how important those early years are, how those early relationships condition us and form the nucleus of our identities. No one ever bothered thinking that way before. But we all now subscribe to that point of view, even if we have rejected Freud and even if psychoanalysis has long passed its prime. We are also living in a time of nuclear families rather than large extended families, so perhaps the emphasis on the mother (and father) is not so out of place. But this does not have to be the only prism we look at ourselves through, and it can be tremendously liberating to question the resentments we harbor.

Describing Right Concentration, the final step of the Eightfold Path, you write that by sitting in deep concentration, we observe the “incessant…repetitive, and self-serving thoughts” churning in our minds and often find balance by recognizing the impermanence of everything, including our thoughts. But getting people to home in on anything besides their phones is a big ask these days. How do you help people pay attention to their inner lives?

Well, the phones are here to stay, and we have to deal with them. Sometimes when I teach meditation to big groups, like in a yoga studio, I ask everybody to take out their phones and turn them on so they’ll beep if they get a text or a call. The room becomes filled with random sounds, like a John Cage symphony, and we make these the object of meditation.

That’s funny! I imagine that hearing the abstract jumble of sounds reduces the allure of your own phone’s individual ping and points out the absurdity of our high regard for these devices.

Exactly. Phones can become our entire world. But that’s why it’s helpful and important now to know there are other places you can go that are just as, if not more, interesting. Meditation is like the secret ingredient: They knew about it in India thousands of years ago. And Right Concentration—available at the tips of our noses, as we breathe in and out—shows us there’s a whole internal world available through the portal of deep attention.

Why do you think therapy and meditation work especially well together to help people change?

The great gift that I was given by coming to Buddhism and meditation before I came to psychotherapy was that I had a real faith that everything that happens in life is workable—and that even the most painful stuff that happens can be used for growth. Freud’s final paper was titled “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.” And [in psychotherapy], there’s always been this stoic, ironic idea that “Well, we’ll do the best we can, but we don’t quite know how it will go.” But from Buddhism, I knew that balance and liberation from clinging is conceivable. That was so encouraging for me, and I could bring it to therapy as the operating vision: the idea that our essential nature is concern for others, and once you get over yourself enough—stop taking yourself so seriously—empathy emerges and makes you a happier and more fulfilled person. It’s a completion of a kind. And it’s profound.

This article originally appears in the January 2018 issue of ELLE.

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