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“A warm, profound and cleareyed memoir. . . this wise and sympathetic book’s lingering effect is as a reminder that a deeper and more companionable way of life lurks behind our self-serious stories."—Oliver Burkeman, New York Times Book Review
A remarkable exploration of the therapeutic relationship, Dr. Mark Epstein reflects on one year’s worth of therapy sessions with his patients to observe how his training in Western psychotherapy and his equally long investigation into Buddhism, in tandem, led to greater awareness—for his patients, and for himself
For years, Dr. Mark Epstein kept his beliefs as a Buddhist separate from his work as a psychiatrist. Content to use his training in mindfulness as a private resource, he trusted that the Buddhist influence could, and should, remain invisible. But as he became more forthcoming with his patients about his personal spiritual leanings, he was surprised to learn how many were eager to learn more. The divisions between the psychological, emotional, and the spiritual, he soon realized, were not as distinct as one might think.
In The Zen of Therapy, Dr. Epstein reflects on a year’s worth of selected sessions with his patients and observes how, in the incidental details of a given hour, his Buddhist background influences the way he works. Meditation and psychotherapy each encourage a willingness to face life's difficulties with courage that can be hard to otherwise muster, and in this cross-section of life in his office, he emphasizes how therapy, an element of Western medicine, can in fact be considered a two-person meditation. Mindfulness, too, much like a good therapist, can “hold” our awareness for us—and allow us to come to our senses and find inner peace.
Throughout this deeply personal inquiry, one which weaves together the wisdom of two worlds, Dr. Epstein illuminates the therapy relationship as spiritual friendship, and reveals how a therapist can help patients cultivate the 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 our selves, when we stop clinging to our falsely conceived constructs, when we touch the ground of being, we come home.
Psychiatrist Epstein (Advice Not Given) explains in this thought-provoking account how and why he integrates his Buddhist beliefs into his psychotherapy practice, sharing vignettes about his patients and connecting the dots between Buddhism, Winnicott's theories, and Freudian psychoanalysis. As he writes, "I believe in the power of awareness to heal. I want my patients to see how and when and where their egos, or superegos, are getting the best of them." This gets explored in stories of such patients as Jack, a child of Holocaust survivors, who "wants to know if he will ever be healed," and April, an anxious executive "longing... to be known, to be reached, and to be seen." Moving through a year's worth of sessions, Epstein demonstrates how Buddhist thought allows him to connect to patients and can be a tool to help them manage their suffering. Indeed, he writes of having seen patients' attachments toward themselves shift, with Buddhism as the primary vector for change. Epstein's voice is compassionate (though sometimes his own ego is on more prominent display) and he helpfully employs a variety of therapeutic theories, as well as Buddhist poems, metaphors, and imagery. Both clients and practitioners of therapy will appreciate Epstein's take on the complex interplay of spiritual and psychological teachings.