Bringing Buddhism to the therapist’s couch

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Psychiatrist and psychologist Mark Epstein says modern psychotherapy has stepped into the void left by the abandonment of religious rituals. Photo by Shutterstock.

Mindfulness and meditation have been used for centuries by Buddhist leaders to achieve a sense of calm and acceptance amidst the uncertainties and challenges of life. Those rituals of Buddhist practitioners are also mirrored in elements of the Western medicine of psychotherapy — the idea, for example, that therapy brings a sense of peace and a deeper understanding, and that a skilled therapist is able to “hold” his patients awareness in a two-person meditation.

As a student, renowned author and psychotherapist Mark Epstein was profoundly influenced by Buddhist practices and teachings. He attended several Buddhist retreats before electing to train in Western medicine, psychiatry, and psychotherapy. Epstein has gone on to write numerous books on the intersection of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including  “Advice Not Given” and “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart.”  

Jonathan Bastian speaks with Epstein about his most recent book, “The Zen Of Therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life,” in which Epstein shares emotional stories from patients and anecdotes from influential practitioners like British pediatrician Donald Winnicott, psychotherapist Adam Philips, and the Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah. Epstein sheds light on how his own Buddhist practice has helped him sit with uncertainty and confront loss and suffering. 

He explains why, in his mid-60s, he still finds joy in his work, and why he’s better able to find common ground with his patients by sharing personal stories of struggle. The therapist, he says, is like a “good massage person” who is able to feel where “muscle tension and constriction is and works around the edge of it to loosen it.”  

Book cover for the “Zen of Therapy: Uncovering a Hidden Kindness in Life”. Mark Epstein. Photo by Larry Bercow.




Andrea Brody