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book review

Mark Epstein

When self-help books come to mind, most readers do not imagine a guide that will teach us how to suffer. But if the title The Trauma of Everyday Life doesn't make it clear enough, this is not the kind of tome that encourages readers to find happiness by focusing on the optimistic and the good. There is a positive message here that we can help ourselves, but to arrive at happiness, the author suggests, counterintuitively, we have to think negative first.

Mark Epstein, an author of several books that combine his journeys into Buddhist meditation with his practice as a psychotherapist, wants readers to face up to the suffering of life. In case you think you don't suffer, Epstein begs to differ: Trauma in this book means both serious events such as losing a job or a loved one, but also small disappointments, failures, and that old intangible existential angst that bog us down on a daily basis. Even if all seems okay, he encourages us to remember: "The spectre of loss is always hovering."

Employing a mishmash of personal stories, historical analysis and psychotherapeutic insight, Epstein warns us in as many ways as he can that we should not avoid our sorrows. The Buddha's story takes centre stage here, and although it is 2,500 years old, it comes across as more relevant than ever.

Legend has it that when the baby Buddha's mother died a week after his birth, his father's response was to hide his son away in an isolated estate, where he would be protected from experiencing anything troubling ever again. The Buddha came into contact with old age, sickness and death only at the age of 29, when he finally fled home.

While extreme, this coming-of-age story may not be unfamiliar to many contemporary readers. Growing up in a bubble-wrapped culture, monitored by helicopter parents, kids are increasingly protected from enduring even the slightest deprivation. Death is most often only confronted in movies. Meanwhile, if we do go through hard times, we're often advised to focus on the positive and move on.

The consequence of a "get over it" culture, Epstein suggests, is that it ensures the exact opposite – that nobody is getting over anything. Plagued by unacknowledged discontent and mortality, we lose compassion for the weakness and loss in other people's lives, as well as in our own. This Buddhist refrain, familiar to anyone who has read the likes of Pema Chödrön or Jack Kornfield – one of Epstein's mentors – is worth hearing again.

However, fans of popular Buddhist literature should also be warned that there is much psychotherapeutic material in this book – a good chunk of it, maybe even half – that is denser and more academic in nature. Much of the book, in fact, utilizes the theories of D.W. Winnicott, a developmental psychoanalyst who rose to prominence in the 1940s, to explain how mindfulness and meditation function like a substitute mother.

Winnicott's theory, we're told, explains how a "good-enough mother" uses physical touch and play to make an afraid child feel safe. Epstein explains that when a meditating Buddhist considers his emotions with curiosity, but with enough distance to allow him to not take them too seriously, it mimics that same kind of unconditional caring: "The Buddha's method was to do something out of the ordinary," Epstein writes. "To make his mind like that of a mother: the most taken-for-granted person in our world but the missing ingredient in his."

Certainly no one will dispute the pre-eminent position of the breast in human development, but Winnicott's overemphasis on mothers – giving them all the credit, but also all the blame – feels out-of-date in the age of dual parenting. Fathering, not mentioned in this discussion, was less important in Winnicott's time, but Epstein's decision to not pipe in from a more modern psychoanalytic point of view is a missed opportunity. Along these same lines, in a book where the trauma of the Buddha losing his mother as an infant plays such a large role, it's surprising how little attention is paid to the Buddha abandoning his own child in order to go on his spiritual quest.

There is solace in the fact that Epstein at least addresses fathering on a personal level. In one section, he describes watching an old video of himself frightening his infant child with a toy that is meant to soothe him. The latter-day Epstein is horrified as he can only conclude that he is venting his own childhood trauma onto his kid – a modern-day samsara. He's able to analyze his own shortcomings with bold honesty, and this acceptance of weakness serves to show that he doesn't just talk the talk. You get the sense that while his kid has no doubt been traumatized by a parent, as we all are destined to be, he's also lucky to have a dad who will not just tell him to get over it.

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.

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