Author confronts everyday trauma
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein leads off the Berkeley Arts & Letters fall author series at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 27 at the Hillside Club with a discussion of his book "The Trauma of Everyday Life," a work that illuminates life's dark corners.
Epstein's previous books, perhaps the most-recognized being "Thoughts without a Thinker," investigate and establish connections between Buddhism and the psychotherapy he practices in New York City.
"The Trauma of Everyday Life" (The Penguin Press, 2013) is a melding of his experiences as a patient, a psychotherapist and as a human being trying to understand Buddhism, trauma and ultimately, himself. Over the course of seven years, writing one day a week, he set out to write a psychobiography of the Buddha.
Tracing the trail of Eastern philosophy while steeped in his Western psychotherapeutic ancestry, Epstein found a common, interweaving thread: everyday trauma. And like a metaphor lying in plain site and suddenly seen, his book gained purpose and poignancy while he was researching the death of the Buddha's mother just seven days after her son's birth.
The resulting developmental trauma, Epstein suggests, led the Buddha along a varied, familiar-to-some path characterized by periods of scourging physical self-deprivation, intense mental suffering, and finally, although not easily, enlightenment.
Extending the Buddha's biological loss to parallel life events that he and his patients seek to manage, the book blends Epstein's personal accounts, patients' stories and references to historical traditions and philosophies.
The paradoxes he presents are multiple: Even therapists have a fear of fear; the problem isn't pleasure, it's attachment; a good attachment is necessary for us to be alone and unafraid; "feeling our way into the ruptures in our lives" is the only way to escape trauma's grip; the best way out is found by going in.
In an interview a few weeks before his appearance in Berkeley, Epstein said his main message is that our self-protective instinct to look away from trauma is counterproductive. Instead, "staring it in the face" releases the buried -- and not so buried -- anxieties that inevitably surface and scar our intimate relationships.
Coping strategies like excessive care-taking or outright aggression exaggerate interpersonal connections. Blame-finding leads to a cloverleaf of looping denial and avoidance. Only facing and moving closer to trauma while accepting it as a logical, often unavoidable occurrence, leads to the admittedly unsteady peace he calls everyday life.
"I told my mother, who was saying she felt she should be over my father's death, which happened four years ago, that there is no formula for relief. Some trauma goes on and on," Epstein said. "Grief doesn't follow a stage model."
And release from trauma isn't found along one particular path, he's quick to caution. "In my practice, it would be inappropriate to be using Buddhist language or pushing it."
Epstein kept the book's language simple, believing psychoanalytical authorship had, in the past, gotten "too big for its britches."
He found that Buddhism's lyrical clarity reinvigorated his writing and made his subject universally understandable. Still, achieving balance between personal and professional anecdotes required effort and rewrites.
"I was reluctant to write about my patients, because I didn't want to be listening (to them) with a secondary purpose," Epstein said. He shares those sections with patients before publishing and, to his delight, they have told him reading the accounts have sometimes helped their awareness as much as their office interactions.
Epstein's patients tend to be mature, creative people who appreciate the idea of "letting go," but he has discovered younger patients also have a hunger for alternatives to an accumulative mindset. "In order to make anything original happen, you have to surrender," he said. "They are looking to help their minds. The human mind is the big mystery and the breakthroughs come from every angle. Usually from a given individual probing into the darkness."