Opening the Doors of Perception:
Buddhism and the Mind:
An Interview with Mark Epstein
Psychotherapist and Buddhist writer Mark Epstein talks about the Buddhist view of mind, the power of meditation, and the processes of healing in both Buddhism and psychotherapy, in this exclusive interview.
by Kate Prendergast
Mark Epstein is one of those rare people schooled in the traditions of both East and West. A classically trained psychiatrist from Harvard Medical School, Epstein is a psychotherapist in private practice and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University. Epstein has also studied in the Buddhist tradition and practiced meditation for over 20 years. He has written two thought-provoking and influential books on the relationship between Western psychotherapy and Buddhist practice: Thoughts Without a Thinker, and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. He is also a consulting editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Here, Mark Epstein talks to Science & Spirit about the Buddhist view of mind, the power of meditation, and the processes of healing in both Buddhism and psychotherapy.
Science & Spirit: Buddhists talk a lot about "the mind." What is the mind in Buddhism, and how is it different or similar to the Western notion of mind?
Mark Epstein: Mind can be many different things in Buddhism, the way Eskimos supposedly have 49 words for different kinds of snow. Mind can be the thinking mind, the way we in the West think of the word, or it can be consciousness, or it can be the Buddha Mind, which is the awakened mind, that which realizes its own true nature. This awakened mind has certain qualities in abundance, qualities like tolerance, patience and equanimity. We tend to think of mind as involved with thinking, or as intelligence. In Buddhism, mind has a greater scope and potential, especially in its awakened state.
S&S: You describe Buddhism as a "depth psychology." Why?
Epstein: In general, psychoanalysis and its derivatives are considered "depth psychologies" because they go beneath the surface of the psyche, into the hidden conflicts that drive behavior. In its own way, Buddhist psychology also seeks to go beneath the surface of things. Its primary tool, like psychoanalysis, is awareness. Buddhism stresses that much of our lives are lived unawares, and that by bringing attention into the present, we can learn to release ourselves from selfish preoccupations. Like psychoanalysis, Buddhism believes that it is essential to bring the attention to everything there is to observe, without judging the material. This would include feelings of anger, rage, shame, etc., that are traditionally considered to be the stuff of depth psychology.
S&S: What is the "mandala of the neurotic mind" in Buddhism?
Epstein: In Buddhism, the most popular "mandala" is that of the Wheel of Life, a visual representation of the Six Realms of Existence, traditionally the six realms into which a sentient being can reincarnate in its endless succession of lives. The Six Realms are the Human, Animal, Hell, Heaven, Hungry Ghost and Jealous God Realms. While some people take these realms literally, it is also possible to work with them metaphorically, as metaphors for the different states of mind through which we all pass in a given day. Hell realms are times of emotional torment; Heaven realms are times of happiness. Hungry Ghost realms are times of yearning or craving in which we feel like we can never be satisfied. The trick, from a Buddhist perspective, is to learn how to be in each realm without holding on and without pushing away, accepting things just as they are. This is best learned in the Human realm, where we have the intelligence and the will to attempt such things.
S&S: The idea of the "self" is also central to Buddhism. What is the relationship between the mind and the self?
Epstein: Self is central in Buddhism because the Buddha's main insight was into the transparency of the self. Mind is capable of understanding the self's transparency. In Buddhism, that is one of mind's chief functions. In Buddhism, "self" refers to the belief in an inherently existing "I," the sense that we hold, deep down, of our own separateness. It is this fundamental belief in an inherently existing self that is the cause, in the Buddha's view, of so much attachment and suffering.
S&S: What did the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan mean when he talked about the belief in a unique personal individuality as "the mother of all illusions"?
Epstein: Harry Stack Sullivan was the founder of what became known in America as the interpersonal school of psychotherapy. He believed in the existence of relationships, but not of individuals. The British child analyst D.W. Winnicott expressed much the same thing when he said that babies don't exist, only baby-mother dyads. We exist in relationships, Sullivan realized, not as individuals.
S&S: The Buddha advocated meditation as a way of realization: a method that "permits us to traverse the waters of mind." What happens in meditation to allow this?
Epstein: In meditation, after first learning how to concentrate the mind and conquer the distractions of thought, greed, doubt and anxiety, the attention is directed to the felt sense of "I." This belief in an inherently existing self becomes the object of meditation. We have to find the self as it appears to us, personally. In trying to locate this self, we start to appreciate its transparency. One of the best times to find this sense of self is when someone has disappointed or insulted us, which in Tibetan Buddhism is referred to as times of "injured innocence," when we think to ourselves, "How could they do that to me?" That "me" is the self that does not exist, but in order to understand that it does not exist we first have to find our belief in it. Meditation is ultimately a confrontation with that belief.
S&S: What do Buddhists mean by "taming the mind"?
Epstein: Taming the mind means not being run by our reactions to events. It means not acting, or reacting, impulsively. It means learning to tolerate, or accept, the whole range of feelings. In the famous collection of Buddhist verse called the Dhammapada, there is one stanza that reads: "Anger gallops like a wild chariot. Hold it firm, steady it! Be the true charioteer." This is the taming of the mind. But this same collection also says not to use force, only to use "clear seeing" - "Force is not Dhamma, who uses it not righteous. Only he is wise who sees clearly before acting."
S&S: What is the relationship between the mind and body in Buddhism?
Epstein: In Buddhist psychology and in the medical texts of Buddhist culture, mind and body are not separate. Mind extends into body and body extends into mind. We can calm one by calming the other. Much of meditation involves "coming to the senses," bringing the attention out of the head and into the rest of the body, where it more naturally resides.
S&S: What are the problems associated with such transcendental concepts as "universal mind"?
Epstein: What does universal mind mean? The problem with the concept of a transcendental reality is that it sets up a duality in which we are always other. This leads to a feeling of inferiority and a tendency to disparage one aspect or another of our experience. Buddhists prefer the idea of "no mind" to that of a universal one.
S&S: As a practising psychotherapist and Buddhist, what is the value of therapy, and of Buddhism? Are they related?
Epstein: Both therapy and meditation use awareness as a healing force. Psychotherapy also makes exquisite use of the interpersonal relationship to reveal how a person holds himself back from the "here and now." In this way, therapy can be like a two-person meditation, in which the therapist's attention exposes the gaps in the patient's awareness.
S&S: What difficulties are there for Westerners in seeking to practice Buddhism?
Epstein: Some Westerners, like Carl Jung for example, thought that Westerners could never shed enough of their cultural baggage to understand Buddhism. He thought that Westerners should work only within their own spiritual systems. I never found this kind of a problem with Buddhism; it made sense to me from the beginning. I have found that some Westerners have difficulty practicing meditation because they are, in some way, trying to do therapy on themselves while meditating. They try to go deeply into their problems, searching for cathartic experiences or childhood memories, rather than simply noting their experience as meditation counsels. Such people are better off in a traditional psychotherapy on the side.
S&S: Buddhist practitioners talk about the states of terror and delight in advanced stages of meditation. What are these states? Do they too, eventually pass?
Epstein: As meditation progresses and deepens, the emotional states get subtler and yet more intense. States of bliss or joy, traditionally known as states of "delight," become more available and more pronounced. But states of terror, in which the self that was taken to be so real suddenly appears empty, also become strong. For a time, the meditator may feel more stressed, like the bottom is falling out. These states, like all things, eventually pass, but they require the meditator to stay present without pushing away and without holding on. They yield to a profound tranquility and equanimity.
S&S: What are the doors that Buddhism is seeking to open?
Epstein: Aldous Huxley coined the phrase "the doors of perception." These are the doors that Buddhism is seeking to open: the five sense doors and also the mind door, making us more alive to our own reality. The hardest door to open is the "personality" door. We think we know who we are, even if deep down we are not so sure. Buddhism keeps pressing on this belief, pushing us more and more into the unknown, into a state where we are not defined by who we think we are. There is the idea here of opening into a new reality, instead of being conditioned by an old one. Psychotherapy has tended to dwell on the past, on how this has conditioned who we are, while Buddhism seeks to free us from that conditioning by orienting us more towards becoming.
Kate Prendergast is Senior Writer for Science & Spirit.