Right Advice, ADVICE NOT GIVEN: A GUIDE TO GETTING OVER YOURSELF BY MARK EPSTEIN
This hermit had been meditating in silence for four years. Villagers occasionally brought him food. But aside from these brief encounters, he had little contact with anyone during the long years of his solitude. The hermit had, after all this time alone, mastered the ability to quiet his mind and calm anxiety. Now he emerged from his isolation to ask Tibetan Buddhism’s most highly regarded spiritual leader for advice on what to do next.
The Dalai Lama had a bracing suggestion.
“Get a life.”
In relating this story, Epstein points out that many people “believe that shutting down the ego, and the thinking mind, is the ultimate purpose of meditation.”
To the Dalai Lama this “is a grave misunderstanding.”
The idea, Epstein’s book suggests, is not to silence the ego, but to investigate it. To use the force of human intelligence to observe and then break free of our selfish habits and concepts. The subtitle of Epstein’s new book is “A Guide to Getting Over Yourself”—a pop-inflected homage to the 13th century Zen priest Dōgen, who taught that to study the self is to forget the self. And over the next 192 pages, Epstein offers a wise and humane blend of classic Buddhist thought and modern psychoanalytic technique designed to help us nudge ourselves out of the way.
If not quite the spiritual materialist Chögyam Trungpa warned against, I am nevertheless a kind of spiritual book glutton, an insatiable worm of wise tomes. In times of stress, I’m likely to indulge books and other fantasies of escape. I am a kind of hermit-light, retreating to my book-lined cave in order to silence the world. Right after Donald Trump’s election, the first thing I did was turn to my battered translation of the Odes of Horace. The next thing I did was start plotting a move back to Europe.
In the year since — still living in Miami — still reading for comfort – I feel no wiser or settled. Too often, I’ve been tempted to succumb to spiritual and emotional fatigue. How many outrages can one be witness to? How many fruitless appeals to Resistbot, before this self I’m attached to gives up, tunes out, falls through a trapdoor of indifference? Through it all, through this wretched Trump year, I’ve felt, in addition to everything else, personally offended and aggrieved. And it’s not until I picked up Epstein’s book, that I began to suspect that the narcissist-in-chief had infected us all — including his most enthusiastic critics — with a poisonous dose of ME.
Epstein has too much grace to allude to the Donald directly (even if Wade Davis, in a blurb, dives right in with “In times of strife, with a nation divided…”). And at a reading I attended at Books & Books recently, no one asked him about politics — I suspect that if someone had, Epstein would have politely deflected the question. He seems way too wise to bluntly hijack a political moment in order to make a spiritual point. But, lacking Epstein’s grace and wisdom, I am not ashamed to say that for me, the strain of malignant self-absorption championed by this presidency and inadvertently adopted by its critics, hangs over almost every lesson in Advice Not Given.
Epstein studied Buddhism before becoming a psychiatrist. And his previous books, including The Trauma of Everyday Life and Thoughts without a Thinker, examine the intersection of Buddhism and psychoanalysis. In this new book, psychoanalysis is invoked to elaborate classic Buddhist principles.
“The bottom line is this: The ego needs all the help it can get,” he writes.
Epstein has organized his chapters according to the Buddhist eight-fold path: Right View, Right Motivation, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Each lesson skillfully interrogates Buddhism in light of modern psychoanalysis, and Epstein often illustrates important points with anecdotes, many of them personal.
Meditation and, especially, mindfulness has entered the mainstream. Epstein notes that the practice has found audiences everywhere, from the boardroom to the basketball court. While not exactly critical of Buddhism’s cultural moment, Epstein gently seeks to correct the record, pointing out that in the traditional teachings, mindfulness is an “entry-level practice whose purpose is to open doors to insight.”
Mindfulness, to invoke the classic metaphor, is a raft that gets one to the other shore. It is not a hammock. And early Buddhist texts warn of the danger posed by an ego that tries to “co-opt the process” in search of succor.
“The trick to Right Mindfulness,” writes Epstein, “is not to turn it into another method of self-improvement.”
By way of illustration, Epstein offers the anecdote about a friend who had perfected mindfulness during his awkward dinners with his wife, but still hadn’t managed to alleviate the tension between them.
Epstein offered some sensible advice: “I pointed out that he would do better to engage her in conversation rather than hiding behind mindfulness as if it were the newspaper.”
Reading this I was reminded of a friend of my own who went on a silent retreat right after the 2016 election and returned in a chill haze, unwilling to engage base political talk. Some of us drink, some of us read. And some of us cower just as desperately under a cloak of mindfulness.
“Clinging takes many forms,” Epstein writes, “and the desire for inner peace can sometimes be just as neurotic as other, more obvious addictions.”
In this context, Advice Not Given is a sly manifesto: an advice book about how to stop craving advice. As such, it represents not only the best of its genre, but a pleasurable little mind-trick, delighting the reader with the realization that the ultimate goal of a book of this sort is to make us question a continual consumption of books of this sort.
The “advice not given” of the title refers to Epstein’s reluctance as a psychiatrist to foist Buddhism on his patients. At his Books & Books reading in the Bal Harbour Shops, he also told the story of how he overcame his misgivings in time to offer his own father, also a doctor, some spiritual advice as he approached death.
Epstein elaborated on that conversation in a recent New York Times profile: “You know that place in yourself that hasn’t really changed subjectively from when you were a young man, or 20, 40, 60, 80?” Epstein remembered telling his father, who was dying of brain cancer. “You still sort of feel the same to yourself inside, but if you try to find that place you can’t really put your finger on it?” Epstein suggested that, when the time came, he could relax into that space “where you are who you’ve always been.”
His father listened good-naturedly and then responded, “Okay, darling, I’ll try.”
After finishing the book, I cannot think of a more sublime response. And I get the feeling that the Buddhist Epstein treasures it deeply. Life is suffering, do the best you can. What more can one say to this beyond, Okay, my darling, I’ll try.
Advice Not Given is a slim book, simple without being simplistic. And a reminder that often the pared-down lesson is the most effective.
The hermit from Nepal was forever changed by the Dalai Lama’s direct and uncomplicated response. Epstein writes that the hermit’s sister had vanished into the sex trade. After the Dalai Lama’s admonition, the hermit rejoined the world, working to provide education and health care for the village’s women.
Told about this later, the Dalai Lama smiled. “Oh yes. I told him, ‘Get a life.’”
In 1998, I also had the good fortune of meeting the Dalai Lama. I was living in New Delhi then, occasionally freelancing some writing and photography, but mostly just sequestered in my insecure self. I’d traveled to Jaipur in the middle of winter to meet the Dalai Lama and take some photos. I wasn’t there as a reporter, but I couldn’t resist asking a few questions of my own.
“What are you most afraid of?” I asked, doing my best Barbara Walters impression. The Dalai Lama thought about it for a moment and then his face lit up.
“Flying!” he said, as if delighted with himself, “I get so afraid that my knuckles go white!”
It was not the answer I was expecting. And I was too young and stupid to get his playful wisdom. So I followed up, trying to nudge him in the direction of a Great Abstraction.
“But,” I insisted, “do you worry about the future? Do you worry about what will happen to the Tibetan cause after you’re gone?”
The Dalai Lama fixed me with a warm smile and a look of exaggerated surprise.
“When I’m dead? What do I care about what happens after I’m dead? After I’m dead, it will be someone else’s problem!”
It’s taken me twenty years to understand that the Dalai Lama’s unadorned language sheltered a profound wisdom. It was the paradox of the Dalai Lama’s own life: How to work tirelessly for a cause without pinning it to one’s finite self.
The world is warming, the oceans are polluted with plastic, and the despots are full of energy. As the Buddha has been saying since his enlightenment 2,500 years ago: “Everything is burning.”
Epstein’s generous book gives us the wherewithal to confront this timeless truth, while reminding us that there is nowhere to hide.
Ana Menéndez has published four books of fiction and is an editor at large for The Miami Rail.