Charles Mayer/Penguin
Source: Charles Mayer/Penguin

Remember the last time you gave someone advice and regretted it? You’ve probably also had the experience of deciding not to say something that would have been helpful—and regretted that too. We could argue both of these are pretty egocentric: to think we have some important advice to give to someone and have to tell them no matter what, and to decide that however useful our advice might be they’re simply not ready to handle this tidbit of truth—so we don’t give it.

In Advice Not Given, Mark Epstein, M.D., combines his knowledge of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, his clinical and personal experiences, and his longtime practice of Buddhism to help us get over ourselves—our egos, that is—and the inflated sense of importance we can have for just about everything.

As a psychiatrist and Buddhist practitioner, he’s uniquely situated to offer us the best of both worlds. Though he’s been reluctant to do so, (hence one meaning of the title), because he doesn’t want to push an ideology onto his patients. Yet the growing popularity of meditation and its purported benefits are hard to ignore. So, what happens from the time we start sitting on the meditation cushion to when we begin to experience the stress-reduction benefits?

When we first start to meditate, we often become more aware of the critical voices and uncomfortable thoughts in our own heads. Meditation teachers may tell us to focus our attention back on our breath or to simply label these thoughts as “thinking.” This is often not very satisfying. Psychotherapy can help us make sense of these thoughts and feelings, often by relating them back to our developmental history. Some forms of psychotherapy, particularly psychoanalysis, assume that we’re all basically neurotic to the core—which isn’t very appealing if we’re trying to feel better about ourselves. Buddhism, on the other hand, offers the notion of basic goodness, that underneath it all we’re inherently good, and shows us a path to enlightenment. Though it doesn’t have much to say about our developmental history—or how to really make sense of these pesky thoughts in our head that keep getting in the way of us becoming enlightened. By combining the two approaches, we can make space for those thoughts and feelings to arise and learn some tools to deal with them with greater awareness, understanding, and acceptance.

Epstein structures the book around the Eight Fold Path of Buddhism: Right View, Right Motivation, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. If you’re having a reaction to the word “right,” that’s OK.  It’s one of the themes of the book too: There’s an irony to this notion of “rightness”—so the advice given is not what’s typically expected. Each chapter has a surprising twist: what our ego thinks is “right” might not always be the case. For instance, Right Speech usually has to do with not gossiping or speaking disparagingly about others. Yet, Epstein points out that how we talk to ourselves is also an example of Right Speech (or lack thereof). Through poignant examples from his own and his patients’ life experiences, he offers a truly refreshing take on the Eight Fold Path and how to put it into practice in everyday life.

Epstein writes with lightness and reverence. There’s a sense of equanimity and deep trust in the experience of life that’s palpable. If you’ve always wanted to develop a relationship with a kind and reassuring psychiatrist, one who knows your every thought and still accepts you, Advice Not Given will give you a taste of that sort of relationship. You’ll feel a sense of ease and an acceptance of yourself, and for what did and didn’t happen—and for what was and wasn’t said.

Copyright 2018, Tara Well

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