The Shrink Who Combines Freud and Buddha

Renowned psychologist Mark Epstein sat down with ABC's Dan Harris '10% Happier'

ByABC News
June 22, 2016, 2:06 PM

— -- Buddhist psychiatrist and author Dr. Mark Epstein has for years written about the overlap between Western psychotherapy and Eastern Buddhist philosophies.

As a therapist practicing in New York City, Epstein talks with patients about how Mindfulness meditation can help separate their emotions and what’s going on in their minds from uncomfortable and traumatic experiences.

Epstein sat down with ABC News’ Dan Harris for his podcast, “10% Happier,” in which he talked about the impact meditation can have on the mind, both positive and negative, for those looking for an escape from suffering. He also went deep into the Buddhist concept of the “no-self” – or the belief that living things have no soul – and whether Enlightenment can be reached, and what it might look or feel like. He has written numerous books on these topics, his most recent being, “The Trauma of Everyday Life.”

“When people are bringing emotional experience to me that they’re uncomfortable with, that there’s a way we can be with emotional experience and as well as the stories we’re telling ourselves as well as the physical sensation of just being in a body,” Epstein said. “There’s a way to be with all of that … where it’s all a part of us. It’s not like they’re different parts. We’re only one person, but it’s all happening and in meditation we can sort of fall back and experience things that way, but it’s possible in therapy and in life as well.”

Watch the full interview in the video player and download the "10% Happier" podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music and TuneIn.

Epstein said people can obtain a “sense of freedom” when they separate themselves from emotional experiences for a moment instead of instantly reacting, whether it’s dealing with an issue at work with the boss or at home with the kids.

“I think the freedom is when your boss is giving you a hard time, or your daughter is making you feel bad or you’re having a fight with someone close to you, that you don’t have to respond the way you normally do,” Epstein said. “You start to see other people locked into their various conceptions of who they are, what they’re capable of, what they’re angry about, what’s holding them back, what they’re ashamed of, and you can see everyone way burdened in a way that maybe they don’t need to be.”

But he cautioned that meditation isn’t for everyone, and won’t work for those looking for a “quick fix” to dealing with their issues.

“Psychotherapy is not a quick fix. Meditation is not a quick fix,” he said. “It might not even be the right thing for people to see that they are struggling with their minds.”

Epstein first discovered meditation in college and one of the "breakthroughs" he said that made the practice click for him happened while he was learning to juggle. Epstein said he was attending a Buddhist summer camp in the '70s and roomed with twin brothers whose parents owned a fruit store.

“One of them was already a good juggler, so I would practices with the oranges on the couch in between classes,” Epstein said. “And once I got the three oranges in the air, my mind had to relax in order to keep it going and I understood, ‘Oh yeah, this is what they’re trying to teach me in mediation,’ so that helped.”

Before he found meditation, Epstein said he was a very anxious person who worried all the time. Now after practicing meditation for more than 40 years, Epstein said he wouldn’t know what he would be without it.

“It’s given me inspiration in my life that hasn’t gone away,” he said. “I think that idea of refuge, like a refuge inside of myself. It’s less what I get out of, than that it gives me a place to go. So it’s nice to have a place to go.”

Over the years, Epstein said he stopped "being religious" about how often he meditates, and just does it when he finds the time. “I just sit until I’m ready to get up, and I watch my breath,” he said.

“I’ve seen very clearly over the years is that meditation is a real thing. It’s not a fake thing. If you really do it, stuff happens,” he said. “Meditation has a momentum that brings you places, shows you things.”