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Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness Paperback – June 1, 1999

4.3 out of 5 stars 133 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In the era of self-empowerment and the relentless glorification of self-esteem, Mark Epstein is questioning whether we have it all backward. As a psychiatrist and practicing Buddhist for 25 years, Epstein has come to believe that the self-help movement has encouraged us to spend enormous amounts of time, money, and mental energy on patching up our egos, rather than pursuing true self-awareness. Instead, Epstein suggests we carefully shatter the ego, as if it were a fat piggy bank, to see what's inside--a scary prospect for those who spend their lives in fear of falling apart. But fear not. Epstein artfully shows readers how to patch the pieces together again into a far richer and more meaningful mosaic. --Gail Hudson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

In the introduction to his book, psychiatrist Mark Epstein recounts the story of a smart and eager professor who sought wisdom from an old Zen master. The master offered him tea and, on the professor's acceptance, poured the tea into a cup. To the professor's dismay, however, the master kept pouring the tea into an overflowing cup, even as the tea spread across the floor.

"A mind that is full cannot take in anything new," the master explained. "Like this cup, you are full of opinions and preconceptions." Wisdom and happiness are to be found only by emptying one's cup.

With this story, Epstein illustrates what he believes is an important problem for modern Western culture. Trained to approach life in the same way as the professor in the parable, Westerners tend to fill their lives with things and knowledge the way the master filled the cup with tea. In the psychological arena, this gives rise to a sort of psychological acquisitiveness, whereby we attempt to beef ourselves up with self-esteem, self-confidence, self-expression, or self-control. The message of Buddhism, Epstein argues, is that this Western tendency to build and strengthen the ego toward the ideal of a strong, individuated self will not work. We come to wisdom and peace of mind only by acknowledging the difficulties that are created by the ego's blind need to control and by allowing emptiness to be present as an inevitable and often valuable state.

Beginning with his own sense of emptiness as a boy in high school and then presenting a variety of Buddhist parables, clinical anecdotes, and personal examples, Epstein recounts what he has learned so far in his lifelong journey to understand the mind. Observations of his undergraduate classmates at Harvard, his contacts with the Dalai Lama, his deepening ability to understand and live in both Eastern and Western worlds during medical school and residency, and his subsequent contact with several schools of psychoanalysis, Gestalt therapy, and especially the writings of Winnicott -- this very personal journey reflects Epstein's growing conviction that the Western psychological notion of what it means to have a self is flawed.

Western thought tends to pathologize what is understood in Buddhism as a universally human starting point for wisdom and self-understanding. The "deficiencies" of childhood and the "errors" of adult life often do not represent darkness or void, as they initially seem to, but rather, are occasions that create the possibility of life and freedom. Human urges and conflicts are not necessarily pathologic; instead, they reflect the movement of life as it attempts to become manifest within us. The point is to allow the conflicts to surface and become visible.

In response to the Western proclivity for knowledge, Epstein offers wisdom from the ancient texts of Buddhism; in response to the Western bias toward individuation, he offers connection; in response to the emphasis on rational mind, he offers mind-in-the-heart. In response to the warring of our cultural dualisms, whether between mind and body, individual and community, or men and women, he offers unity and reciprocity. All of this becomes possible through a "middle way" of nonjudgmental awareness that avoids either "attachment" or "aversion" to any of these polarities and, in so doing, transforms experience. Then, says Epstein, one can live in the lion's den of life with honesty and authenticity.

In sizing up the possible relevance of Eastern mysticism to Western postindustrial cultures, it is important to understand that both Western science and Christianity were born in what we now call the East and that many modern problems revolve around ways in which intellectual categories have been reshaped since then. In the emergence of the intellectual basis of Western culture, science and values developed in reaction to each other and, in so doing, became somewhat falsified and alienated from the way in which people actually lived their lives. The most extreme separation occurred in Descartes's sharp isolation of the worlds of mind and matter. Since then, medicine has come to view the body as a machine with parts that could be manipulated. Personhood came to be understood as an increasingly large and fragmented number of components and functions, and academic inquiry was cordoned off into disciplinary ghettos. It is only with growing recognition of the limits of the Cartesian-Newtonian framework for solving human problems, the development of quantum mechanics, general-systems theory, and brain science, and the increasing contact between the West and the East that these old separations are breaking down.

In general, Epstein's discussion is balanced, and he is aware of the paradoxical nature of his topic. In his efforts to explicate the Buddhist worldview, however, he occasionally parodies Western psychology and its notion of the self. Self-esteem, self-confidence, the building of a strong self -- these are not the problem, although some of his statements could lead readers to believe otherwise. Instead, the problem arises when selfhood becomes the only goal. To become oneself, one must also lose oneself. In the expression of an idea so dialectical, one statement immediately implies its opposite. The sweetness of the "middle way" is not learned easily or quickly, and fictions abound on both sides of the discussion.

Plato's Socrates once wondered whether he should be a politician or a physician -- that is, whether he should try to serve the existing tastes and interests of his fellow citizens or continually work to improve their minds and souls. Going to Pieces without Falling Apart will appeal to physicians, therapists, and patients who, like Socrates, opt for the latter.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Rediger, M.D., M.Div. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony; Reprint edition (June 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767902351
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767902359
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (133 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,541 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I have finally found a way, through this book, to stop negative thoughts from constantly bombarding my mind. This book is invaluable to those of us who suffer from "excessive thinking" as the author would put it. If you suffer from depression and negative thinking (depressive thoughts, angry thoughts, constant obsessive thinking about bad people and unpleasant situations), then try this book. Its techniques, if followed, will be a great relief. I cried when I read certain sections, because I finally understood the root of my negative thoughts and how to deal with them. Thank you, Dr. Epstein.
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Format: Paperback
Having spent years suffering high levels of emotional pain, Buddhism was naturally a possible solution. But the typical Western summary of its path as `giving up desire' put me off: to give up desire struck me as to give up being human. A couple of years ago, I bought at a country newsagent Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness by psychiatrist Mark Epstein. The book is simply about buddhism-as-psychology - as far as I can see, what it has to say is compatible with any religious tradition. I read it, and then re-read it. Thinking about what it had to say changed my perspective and effectively banished my pain. I was suffering an emptiness that I did not see as emptiness but as lack - in my case, a lack of intimate love and the deeper fear that lack was just. This book enabled me to see what I was suffering was emptiness, to embrace that emptiness and to have it no longer cause me pain. I came to feel whole; I feel more human not less.

I am also much calmer, far fewer things irritate me, I laugh more. Situations of stress are much easier to handle. I have a pervasive feeling of triumph and a confidence that there is much more to discover.

Reading Epstein's book meant that Gurdjieff's notion of the need to fight against sleep, the sleep of what the mind can do but normally doesn't, makes much more sense to me nowadays. Though it seems to me Gurdieff was fumbling towards much that was already in the Buddhist tradition.

This book is clearly written. The Freudian content is higher than I am comfortable with, but has the advantage of being based on Freud's original writings, Freud being a more complex and subtle thinker than his disciples (as is so often the way with founders of schools of thought). What it has to say is very perceptive and useful even for someone who does not accept Freudian ideas. Highly recommended.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I came to this book with some experience in meditation, after reading Dan Harris' 10% Happier (which I highly recommend). I was looking for a book that would offer additional insight into the practice and explain how best to merge it with Western psychology. On the whole, there were only a couple passages that actually resonated with me.

First, I was disappointed with the book was its wishy-washy nature. I am not a Buddhist; I'm just someone who practices meditation in the hope that it will make my life better. To me, this book's description seemed to say the book would reconcile ancient Buddhist theory with modern psychology and the scientific method. What the book mostly did was introduce a concept in Buddhism, make a claim that the concept was reflected in some passage by some psychological theorist, and then tell a brief story of one of Dr. Epstein's patients. I found most of these claims to be tenuous -- they were rarely, if ever, supported in any scientific way. It felt as if Dr. Epstein was trying to squeeze modern psychology into a Buddhist mold into which it doesn't quite fit, rather than reconcile the two.

Furthermore, the book did not have many redeeming aspects for what it lacked in argument. Since the book was not scientifically rigorous, I would have preferred prose that was either simply entertaining or insightful on a gut level. The entertainment value was slim; I found the writing to be flat, lacking warmth and personality. In terms of insight, the book didn't tell me much about meditation that I didn't already know.
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Mark Epstein is remarkable in that his writing has a distinctly spiritual note, even while he is talking in scientific terms and refraining from engaging in a discourse of religion. "Going to pieces without falling apart" is an apt name for this book because it talks about the paradoxical nature of Buddhist meditation i.e. through the disintegration of the self and the ego you integrate yourself with all that is living. There is a simple poem that is quoted in this book that describes this process of falling apart and then coming together through an analogy about how a meditator sees mountains and rivers before nirvana and then all is changed during nirvana and then he sees mountains and rivers again. Epstein writes about how Buddhist meditation principles can be used in psychotherapy. In fact many principles are already being used, but without acknowledgement of the resemblance. He describes how Freud instructs therapists to listen to the patient in a careful non- judgmental way, very much like what Buddhist meditation ideally is - i.e. non-judgmental observation of all your thoughts and actions. Buddhism, however, goes beyond traditional therapy by working with the feeling of isolation we all have to actually finding a more satisfying answer than merely learning to cope. In conclusion, highly recommended for its focus on Buddhist meditation practices and links to psychology but if you are looking for the religious aspects of Buddhism this is not for you.
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