Aug 27

“The Trauma of Everyday Life” By Mark Epstein

…(T)rauma, if it doesn’t destroy us, wakes us up to both our minds’ own capacity and to the suffering of others. It makes us more human, caring, and wise. It can be our greatest teacher, our freedom itself, and it is available to all of us. Publisher of The Trauma of Everyday Life

Last month was the release of psychiatrist and Buddhist Mark Epstein‘s The Trauma of Everyday Life, which acknowledges not only that we are all affected by trauma but also that going through the pain is an important part of growth.

What’s also important, though, is how the author defines trauma. Micah Toub, The Globe and Mail: “…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.'”

And actual loss also hovers. As Epstein told his own mother, who was feeling guilty at some point for still grieving the death of her spouse, “Trauma never goes away completely. It changes perhaps, softens some with time, but never completely goes away” (The New York Times, 2013).

According to various book descriptions, The Trauma of Everyday Life combines Buddhist thought and stories with the work of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971).

QUOTES ON DEALING WITH TRAUMA (from the above NYT article):

  • Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence.
  • I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.
  • In resisting trauma and in defending ourselves from feeling its full impact, we deprive ourselves of its truth.
  • When disasters strike we may have an immediate empathic response, but underneath we are often conditioned to believe that “normal” is where we all should be.
  • Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not always go away. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay. The reflexive rush to normal is counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this is most of us) feels estranged.
  • The willingness to face traumas — be they large, small, primitive or fresh — is the key to healing from them. They may never disappear in the way we think they should, but maybe they don’t need to. Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.

Kirkus Reviews: “Although the Buddhist wisdom he imparts isn’t always necessarily layman-friendly, the connections he makes mostly steer clear of spiritualist mumbo jumbo or, for that matter, clinical psychobabble. However, some readers may get the sense that his main thesis—which could probably be summed up in the line, ‘If one can treat trauma as a fact and not a failing, one has the chance to learn from the inevitable slings and arrows that come one’s way’—is stretched a bit too far and isn’t quite enough to effectively carry an entire book.”

Mar 20

“10% Happier”: Author Dan Harris Advocates Meditation

Initially I wanted to call this book “The Voice in My Head Is an A—–e.” However, that title was deemed inappropriate for a man whose day job requires him to abide by FCC decency standards. Dan Harris, 10% Happier

That “voice” to which TV news correspondent Dan Harris refers above and in his new book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, is the internal chatter we all have to some degree. Internal chatter that for Harris was getting out of control.

A major catalyst for Harris seeking change in his life? His on-air panic attack in 2004—he was on Good Morning America when it happened. As he states, it was “the single most humiliating moment of my life.”

In the recent ABC News video below, Harris shows a clip of that attack:

Harris embarked on a specific quest. From the official description of 10% Happier:

A lifelong nonbeliever, he found himself on a bizarre adventure, involving a disgraced pastor, a mysterious self-help guru, and a gaggle of brain scientists. Eventually, Harris realized that the source of his problems was the very thing he always thought was his greatest asset: the incessant, insatiable voice in his head, which had both propelled him through the ranks of a hyper-competitive business and also led him to make the profoundly stupid decisions that provoked his on-air freak-out.

What did he eventually find that helped? MeditationKirkus Reviews recounts some of his process toward this realization:

Though Harris’ journalistic assignments would bring him face to face with influential self-help spiritualists Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, neither dispensed the precise amalgam of assurance and credibility necessary to truly diffuse his afflictions. After his wife Bianca’s success with books by sage psychiatrist Mark Epstein, Harris found himself connecting with the good doctor’s Buddhist leanings, befriending him and swiftly embracing the art of meditation, instead of debunking it as the hokey ‘exclusive province of bearded swamis, unwashed hippies, and fans of John Tesh music.’

From Harris’s Preface to 10% Happier, in which the book title is explained:

Meditation suffers from a towering PR problem, largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.

At first it was only five minutes a day that he meditated. But the three benefits he found immediately, he says, were:

  1.  Increased focus
  2.  A greater sense of calm
  3.  A vastly improved ability to jolt myself out of rumination and fantasies about the past or the future, and back to whatever was happening right in front of my face

Now Harris has been practicing meditation for about four years, 35 minutes per day. Another important benefit he’s been able to find? It has to do with that “voice”:

I created a different relationship to the voice in my head. You know the voice I’m talking about. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, checking our e-mail while we’re in conversation with other people, and losing our temper only to regret it later. The ability to see what’s going on in your head at any given moment without reacting to it blindly—often called ‘mindfulness’—is a superpower. I’m certainly not arguing that meditation is a panacea. I still do tons of stupid stuff – as my wife will attest. But the practice has definitely made me happier, calmer, and nicer.

Things he still struggles with are decreasing his multitasking attempts and his mindless and compulsive eating. Habits he’s broken are his use of self-medicating drugs (cocaine and ecstasy) which he’s now learned had led to brain changes (too much adrenaline) that likely contributed to his panic.