Cover Image: The Zen of Therapy

The Zen of Therapy

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Member Reviews

This is a reflective, charming book and its value is hard to summarize by a simple description of its topic—the relationship between Zen Buddhism / mindfulness practice and therapeutic practice. Specifically, author Mark Epstein set out to document some of his therapy sessions as an exercising in observing how his mindful practices in the Zen tradition inform the support he provides as a therapist or “spiritual friend.” I’m not sure I would’ve cared much, admittedly, to know the answer to that question, but I found this volume surprisingly insightful and thought-provoking!

Epstein first offers some of his own background and philosophy, including some fascinating anecdotes from encounters with such notables as Ram Dass and the Dalai Lama. He then spends the bulk of the book exploring selected client notes over the course of a year—notably 2019, the last year of pre-COVID life. While we don’t get any one client’s full story, the writing is very accessible and Epstein does an admirable job of providing just enough to get a sense of the person’s struggle, their personality, and his approach in the session. Themes emerge through each season of the year, and as the session notes are interspersed with explanation and further reflection, Epstein builds on how his approach is inspired by Zen Buddhist thought. 

The reader has ample opportunity to consider the therapist’s role, the goal of therapy, and the best way to achieve that goal. But it’s not just a therapy book—you’ll also be introduced to foundational concepts and takes from different sources that might inform everyday life and your view of yourself, your struggles, and your happiness or fulfillment. 

What I found most striking and relevant to my own practice was the comparison Epstein draws between a mindful approach and a more analytical one, challenging the common therapeutic focus on investigation and interpretation of a client’s experience. Perhaps this is because I’ve already been working a lot around my tendency to “do” vs. “be,” and starting to question my search for the deepest possible self-understanding. This book helped me to go deeper and really ask myself “do I need to understand why?” Rather than focusing on self-knowledge, Epstein often helps his clients to see that “self” is an illusion, and coaches them in approaching life with a little more lightness and humor. 

As a writer, he has a knack for explaining concepts through repetition and unfolding an idea over the course of many examples. I appreciated the way the case studies offered a window into how some of these concepts might land or present differently for different people, and I think most readers will see themselves in at least some of the clients featured. A few key sources are introduced and then brought back again and again: the music of John Cage, for example, or Donald Winicott’s takes on child development. The Buddha’s own story is central, as is modern and historical practice of Buddhism. Zen haikus, koans, and stories of vipassana meditation anchor the philosophical concepts. On the therapy side, psychoanalysis is the main tradition considered (as far as I can tell from my limited knowledge of therapeutic methods!) with an emphasis on child development. The beauty, I think, is in the mélange: the way these ideas and sources are in conversation with each other.

Ultimately, there is an echo between form and content. The book’s form has a dual nature, blending Epstein’s personal search for an understanding of his own approach with an exploration of more universally resonant themes. The content echoes this dual nature in one of its refrains, “innocence after experience.” The experience of the separate self has relevance, with individual clients requiring specific and sometimes contrasting approaches. Hardship and challenge also feature in the poems and stories referenced from the Zen tradition. But at the same time, central elements of mindfulness and of Zen Buddhism specifically focus not on interrogating the details of experience but on recognizing and accessing oneness. Longing, for example, is not pathologized but presented as a common element of human experience. Beauty and joy are presented as inherent to our nature, not something to strive for, available to us even the midst of tremendous pain—innocence after experience. Rather than focusing on building up or correcting the narrative of self, this is a therapeutic approach that exposes self as ultimately false—not in the name of self-abandonment, but in the sense of illuminating the fractal nature of life.  

I would recommend the book to anyone who is open to a bit of a reframe on living life to the fullest, understanding the self, or navigating personal challenge. Therapists and others in healing professions are likely to specifically benefit, as well, from Epstein’s reflections on his own role as a healer. It’s an easy read, and it will undoubtedly lead you to reflect on your own assumptions.
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Mark Epstein transformed his therapy with his practise of Buddhism, which makes his counselling spiritual, rather than secular. This is a profound and interesting book in which he discusses how Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation help him look after his patients, and how this ultimately is distilled into kindness. He concludes that  anger is the cause of his patient's trauma, and he helps them overcome this, so that they can find peace.

I really enjoyed the discussion of the tenets of Buddhism, Freud's theories, and other elements of his therapy at first, but started to find it a bit heavy in the end. His case studies were enlightening, but could be upsetting to read, and there are a lot of them. However, this book was certainly helpful for anyone considering therapy, or just wanting to read about it.

I received this free ebook from NetGalley in return for an honest review.
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In The Zen of Therapy, Psychiatrist Dr. Mark Epstein elucidates how Buddhism and meditation have informed his psychotherapy practice. It’s a very personal story, and I would classify it more as memoir than anything else. Dr. Epstein describes some of his relevant academic experience and influences, then the bulk of the book is him sharing notes on some of his therapy sessions with patients. The emphasis is on his evolving thoughts about how his Buddhism affects his therapeutic relationships. He frequently references Buddhist teaching stories, Zen koans, poetry, music, and art.

I found the book interesting, although I wish the discussion of therapy sessions was either shorter or more detailed. I felt like some of the discussion was going over my head. I loved the author’s explanation of mindfulness and different types of meditation and his comments on gurus. I enjoyed some of the poems he shared. My favorite parts were when Dr. Epstein discusses his interactions with Ram Dass. Those sections were much easier for me to understand and relate to, and some of that imagery is likely to stick with me. Also, I appreciated the emphasis on kindness and how transformative noninterfering attentiveness can be.

If you are interested in Buddhism and psychotherapy, and you think you might enjoy a somewhat meandering exploration of how one psychiatrist is integrating the two, then I would recommend this book.

Thanks to Penguin Press for providing me with an unproofed ARC through NetGalley, which I volunteered to review.
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This was not exactly what I was expecting, but I still enjoyed the read and I'm glad I had a chance to check it out!

Thanks to NetGalley for an ARC!
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I’ve read Mark Epstein’s books and listened to his interviews for years. His thinking has fascinated me and been helpful not only in my practice as a therapist, but also in my private life.

In The Zen of Therapy he explains how became interested in Buddhism, psychiatry, and then blended the two into his therapeutic approach. 

For years he made a point to avoid using Buddhism openly with his patients. However, when they started inquiring about it while in therapy, he made a choice to openly discuss it with them. 

I really enjoyed his session notes, the deep dives into the process, and how applicable it is not only to the therapeutic process, but also to real life.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Press for an ARC of this book.
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I found the first half of the book informative and inspiring but the second half was a bit dense and dragged. I have been in and out of therapy for almost twenty years and wouldn't be the same person I am without it. I have also had an interest in Buddhism for my adult life, which is why I chose this book. I was hoping it would be a bit more instructional than anecdotal.
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Thie Zen of Therapy is an uneven read.  The book didn't hang together well, and by the end you learn that the relationship between Zen Buddhism and psychotherapy is really quite simple, and did not really justify all that had gone before.  There are moments where I found Dr. Epstein to be quite insightful -- particularly when discussing patient sessions involving anger/aggression and mindfulness.  However, at other times I felt as if I was reading a book written in the nineteenth century by Freud or Jung or any of their other white male acolytes.  For example, there are undoubtedly examples of "injured innocence" that are rooted in feelings of inadequacy caused by parental failings, and both meditation and psychotherapy can help the patient work through that process.  However, what about the many examples of "injured innocence" rooted in socioeconomic circumstances where women and people of color feel inadequate because they are paid significantly less than white men and are in fact demeaned and told that they are worth less?  This is a political injustice that creates a felt experience of inequality, and not a personal problem to resolve/detach from in therapy.  I was equally shocked by Dr. Epstein's sincere discussion of "male" and "female" elements within each person that simply mimic tired stereotypes of female passivity in order to justify gender inequality. Ironically, the most enlightening portions of the book involve the often-cryptic quotes from Ram Dass -- such as "we are all walking each other home" -- which linger beyond the pages, A begrudging 3.5 out of 5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Books for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.   

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Dr. Epstein has written several books about therapy, mindfulness, Buddhism, and the potential role of spirituality in psychotherapy.  In his early work as a psychiatrist, he started exploring the use of meditation with patients/clients along with Dr. Herbert Benson.  Both were very careful to make a distinction between meditation and religious practice.  Dr. Benson became famous in the 1970's and on for his popularizing of Transcendental Meditation which was clearly a secular practice. Dr.Epstein uses case studies in this book for the first time, altering the patients' names and identifying details.  He took notes during each session (not a habit previously) and afterwards, examined his interventions during the session to see if his Buddhist beliefs had been a part of how he worked with the patient. (He concluded it was not.)  Dr. Epstein's work has always been characterized by kindness and this book is lit by his caring.  Highly recommended.
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All Exists Within

Thank you Penguin Press for the opportunity to read this book prior to publication. I did enjoy the first part of the book - mindfulness is definitely my bag. Unfortunately I didn't get to finish it before access was removed.

I highlighted lots of passages and will sing row, row, row your boat toward my inner peace. Life is but a dream!
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This book is about the combination of using Spiritual,  Emotional and Buddhist practices in psychotherapy sessions. I liked the authors background history of bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM) from the Beatles and a Guru into medical practice.
Examples of using Buddhist philosophy within counseling were very well done and therapists will like being able to go back and look in this book for scenarios 
I am grateful to NetGalley, the Publisher and the author for the opportunity to read and review this book. It will be one that becomes well used. It published on 1/11/2022
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It’s nice to read a new book on how to be present,  I was so impressed when he spoke with Ram Dass,  enlightened people have so much to share with us. I was moved.
I was given a copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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I came across Dr Mark Epstein’s name in the book ‘10% Happier’ by Dan Harris on how he uses aspects of mindfulness as part of his medical practice as a psychotherapist. Dr Epstein has authored several books, and I had the fear that reading his most recent book might be a little out of turn. That turned out to be an unfounded fear, as this book is self-contained and entirely cohesive by itself. The book is beautiful and is strongly recommended if you have an interest in mindfulness – though it should probably not be the first book you read in the genre. 

The book starts with Dr Epstein working with Dr Herbert Benson in exploring the impact of meditation on wellness. It was risky, as it was many years before, when the scientific community looked on meditation with disdain. Transcendental Meditation pioneered by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was gaining popularity among the general public though (later popularized further by the Beatles), and there was also interest in Buddhist meditation practices. Dr Benson decided to put meditation to a scientific test and suggested this to the Dalai Lama on one of his visits. After momentary hesitation, the Dalai Lama agreed, and a team including Dr Benson and Dr Epstein takes off to India. The approach here between the two of them gets divergent, and in some form, ruptures their partnership in future. Dr Benson’s view was that as part of the scientific community they should stick to measuring body parameters such as temperature, pressure etc while Dr Epstein was keen to speak to the monks and understand the underlying spiritual underpinnings of their practice. This initial section is extremely well written and raises many important questions. Dr Epstein’s view is that while it is ok to modify & package practices for broader appeal – they still need to stay connected to the underlying broad principles & ethos. If you break the linkage, meditation ends up as a relaxation technique rather than the holistic lifestyle & behaviour change mechanism that it can be (my view as well). 

After a beautiful introductory section, the subsequent material has notes of Dr Epstein’s sessions with his patients (names changed) and how his understanding of mindfulness, meditation & Buddhism helps in his practice. There are beautiful mentally simulating koans (eg: “What is the sound of one hand?”), myths, stories & experiences all of which make for delightful reading. The last section covers his meeting with Ram Dass at his home, and has some concluding summary. Ram Dass has been an iconic figure in mindfulness circles since many years till his recent passing. I have not read his books but his presence is overpowering in forums & discussions. And, he has given us the most memorable & oft repeated phrases ‘Be Here Now’ and ‘We are all just walking each other home’. The meeting of minds between Dr Epstein and Ram Dass also illustrates how mature (enlightened) people interact with each other – though they follow different traditions (Buddhist vs Advaita Vedanta).

This is a beautiful book, though the mid-section has too many session details – though they do cover very different scenarios and learnings. This is a great book but I suggest some introductory reading first. 

My rating: 4.5 / 5.
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I found Epstein’s book to provide new insights and perspectives in an area in which I have done some work and reading. When an author can help you rethink something you think you know, that is always of value.
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Thanks to NetGalley for the advance reader’s copy. 

Although I found much of this material interesting, I found the writing style a challenge.
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