For decades, Western psychology has promised fulfillment through building and strengthening the ego. We are taught that the ideal is a strong, individuated self, constructed and reinforced over a lifetime. But Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein has found a different way.
Going to Pieces without Falling Apart shows us that happiness doesn’t come from any kind of acquisitiveness, be it material or psychological. Happiness comes from letting go. Weaving together the accumulated wisdom of his two worlds–Buddhism and Western psychotherapy–Epstein shows how “the happiness that we seek depends on our ability to balance the ego’s need to do with our inherent capacity to be.” He encourages us to relax the ever-vigilant mind in order to experience the freedom that comes only from relinquishing control.
Emptiness is vast and astonishing, the Buddhist approach insists, it does not have to be toxic. When we grasp the emptiness of our false selves, we are touching a little bit of truth. If we can relax into that truth, we can discover ourselves in a new way. But without a method of looking into emptiness, most of us are at risk of becoming overwhelmed by fear.
People are afraid to face the old sadness that lurk in their bodies and psyches and that date from failures in the past. They are afraid to face them, but they are plagued by a sense of falseness if they do not, and so they feel stuck. It is part of our drive for wholeness that we need to connect up with the agonies of the past. The emphasis in Buddhism on acceptance and meditation rather than talking and analyzing is something that Western therapy can learn from.
The traditional view of therapy as building up the ego simply does not do justice to what people’s need actually are. Most of us have developed our egos enough, what we suffer from is the accumulated tension of that development. We have trouble surroundering ourselves as I was momentarily able to do while juggling.
One of the most important tasks of adulhood is to discover, or rediscover, the ability to lose oneself. To do this we must understand the difference between unintegration and disintegration. The Chinese expression for orgasm, ‘having a high tide,’ describes this difference quite effectively.
In a hight tide everything is floating, the self is submerged or dissolved, there is no longer any foothold or point of reference, but it is not chaos. When we are afraid to relax the mind’s vigilance, however, we tend to equate this floating with drowning and we start to founder. In this fear, we destroy our capacity to discover ourselves in a new way. We doom ourselves to a perpetual hardening of character, which we imagine in sanity but which comes to imprison us. Our shoulders get more and more tense.